Spending a day in Haifa

A visit to Stella Maris offers beautiful views, an impressive church, historical sites and a joyful ride on the cable car.

The view from the monastery. (photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
The view from the monastery.
(photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
There are many cities in Israel which remain an enigma for me, and Haifa is one of them.
On the one hand, Haifa is a port city that manages to incorporate many different cultures and keep its residents happy. And yet, despite its unique location and natural advantages, the city has not succeeded in developing a successful tourism industry.
Of course, spending one day in Haifa is not long enough to truly get a feel for the city’s personality, but it was on my list of places that I felt I absolutely must visit. During the day I spent there, the site that I found the most interesting was the Stella Maris Monastery, a Discalced Carmelite monastery located atop Mount Carmel.
This historic area is one of the most colorful places in the city.
Stella Maris, which is Latin for star of the sea, comprises an ancient church and monastery that were built in the 19th century and are owned by the Carmelite Order. This is also a great starting point for a nice family walk, at the end of which you can return by cable car.
The route begins near the upper station of the cable car. Park your car near the observation station or in the monastery’s open parking lot, then spend a few minutes admiring the spectacular view of the Haifa Bay – even on days when visibility is low. The tour will start at the church, which was constructed above a cave.
According to the tradition of the Carmelite Order, the Prophet Elijah lived in this cave, whereas Jewish legend places his home at the foot of the mountain.
The order was founded in Haifa by monks who lived in caves. These monks arrived in the 12th century during the Third Crusade, which was an attempt by European powers to reconquer the Holy Land from Saladin.
The Christians were subsequently expelled from the region by the Mamelukes, at which point they spread out in Europe. Some of them never gave up yearning for their home in Haifa, and did return. During the Ottoman reign, the sultan allowed the Carmelites to return to Haifa.
This gave them some political backing, which helped them fight off Muslims who tried to force the Carmelite monks to leave.
The Carmelites’ historic connection with Haifa is very strong, and Stella Maris serves as the world center of Carmelite spirituality. The church is built in the shape of a cross, the walls are covered with bright and vividly patterned Italian marble, and the ceiling was painted by Brother Luigi Poggi a little over a century ago. The paintings depict episodes from the Old and New Testaments, the most dramatic of which is the scene where Elijah is swept up in a chariot of fire. There is also a statue of the Virgin Mary carved from cedar of Lebanon in the center of the church, and the cave below the altar, which you can walk down into, is believed by Christians to have been inhabited by Elijah.
Outside the church sits a monument in commemoration of Napoleon’s soldiers who fell during the great siege on Acre.
It’s necessary to make an advance reservation to visit the church, so be sure to call ahead.
Now we will continue our tour and walk toward the lighthouse on the other side of the road. Pass alongside the building on the dirt road (it’s not marked, but is comfortable to walk on), which leads to benches where you can sit and admire the fantastic view of the Haifa coast, or have a short picnic.
When you’re ready to move on, continue until you reach a unique, round building that was originally built as a flour mill; for some unknown reason, the Sacred Heart Chapel was built there instead.
It is currently used as a place of solitude, prayer and communion for the monks.
Just after the chapel, you will find two balconies from which you will have yet another great view of the coast. Nearby are the remains of a few buildings that were built by the British. Continue descending on the dirt path and then on stone stairs, until you reach the cave of the Prophet Elijah.
The cave is not open on Saturdays, so it’s best to come on a weekday. Inside, there is a chair that is believed to have been sat in by Elijah himself, with a partition between the women and men’s sections.
When you come out of the cave, continue walking down toward the main road, which you can cross over by taking the bridge that leads to the beach and the boardwalk. There you will find restaurants and the cable car, which you can ride back up the mountain. It takes the cable car only a few minutes to bring you up to Stella Maris and the parking area where you left your car.
Location: Haifa Type of hike: Circular or linear path Level of difficulty: Easy, appropriate for families with children Length: 2 hours
Directions: Drive to Haifa and then follow signs that will lead you to Stella Maris
Translated by Hannah Hochner.