Tiberias: Israel’s diamond in the rough

The Israel Hotel Association has taken action to rejuvenate hotels in Tiberias, and the city is turning into a tourist gem.

The serene Hamat National Park. (photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
The serene Hamat National Park.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
The Kinneret is one of the most beautiful spots in the country, and yet for some reason, most places surrounding the lake are under-visited and suffer from stigmas.
One such place is Tiberias, which some view as a backward city where time stands still. If you walk around the city, that might seem to be true – unless you know where to go.
In fact, last year, the Israel Hotel Association took action to rejuvenate hotels in Tiberias, and the city is turning into a tourist gem. Its proximity to Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), its multiple historical and religious sites, and its charming open-air markets are enough to fill up your day quickly. A number of hotels in the city also have amazing stories.
One of those is the luxurious Scots Hotel, which attracts visitors from around the world. The hotel is located on the remains of a Scottish hospital founded by Dr. David Watt Torrance in the 19th century. It was the first hospital in Tiberias and functioned in later years as a birthing hospital until 1959, when it was turned into a guest house. In 1999, the Scottish Church decided to convert it into a boutique hotel. The old stone buildings were modernized and fit in nicely with the newer rooms. There are 66 rooms in total, 16 of which are in the authentic stone buildings.
There’s also a wine cellar, a gourmet restaurant, a luxurious spa, a Scottish pub and great hiking trails that pass by a number of archeological findings.
Although the hotel is wonderful, I suggest leaving it for a few hours to walk through the city. If you walk down Hayarden Street, you’ll pass by the Herodian Center. Founded by a local businessman, the center features displays that describe the city’s history and heritage. It is divided into three parts: The first room focuses on midrashic legends and is also an art gallery; in the second room, visitors can watch a video that tells about the city from its inception; and the third room houses temporary art exhibits.
The Herodian Center is open Sundays through Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
From there, you can walk down to the open plaza next to al-Omri mosque. Built by Daher el-Omar in 1743, the now-deserted and neglected mosque was once an example of the fantastic relations between the Jewish and Muslim populations that lived in the city at the time, since many Jewish families donated funds for its construction. Unfortunately the building is no longer open to visitors, but you can gaze upon it from outside.
Our next stop is the Tiberias promenade, just a few minutes’ walk away. But don’t get carried away by all the bazaar owners hawking their wares and the restaurant hosts vying for your patronage; there are a few more places to visit.
Located in an alley at the southern tip of the promenade, Saint Jonah Greek Orthodox Church was built in the 1890s and now functions as a church and monastery, run by a single monk. The Shelah Hakadosh synagogue had stood on this spot for 800 years, but at one point, the Jewish community became so poor that it could no longer maintain the building and was forced to sell it to the church. According to legend, the sale contract included a clause that said as soon as the Jewish community could come up with the sum for which it had sold the synagogue, it would be allowed to purchase it back. But as luck would have it, this document has never been located. Apparently the monk who manages the monastery does not allow people to enter often, but you might as well try ringing the bell and see if he lets you in.
To the left of the monastery lies another structure of interest: a Russian Orthodox hostel built on the remains of a Crusader hostel. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the building six months ago. There are plans to have it rebuilt, but for now, you can look at what’s left of the beautiful building from the outside.
FROM HERE, I recommend going to what is in my opinion the city’s most important site: Hamat Tiberias National Park. Although it’s the country’s smallest national park, you can find a whole world inside it.
In the third century, the city became one of the most important centers for Jewish life, since the Romans had taken over Jerusalem and any holy relics had been whisked away for safekeeping in Tiberias. Much of the Talmud was compiled in Tiberias, in the school of Yohanan bar Nafha, and the Sanhedrin was situated in the city for many years. There are countless artifacts in the Hamat park that attest to the flowering Jewish community that existed in the city for generations.
The most important finding, of course, is the Hamat Tiberias synagogue. A mosaic floor depicting the signs of the zodiac was found there, with the image of a Greek god smack in the middle.
This seems like a strange thing to find in a Jewish house of worship, but it is proof of the city’s diverse population and multiculturalism.
Residents of Hamat and Tiberias used the synagogue, and in the ruins, you can see how one layer was built on top of another as communities rebuilt the structure over the years.
There’s also a Turkish bath and wading pools filled by natural springs that bubble up from underneath the ground.
The park is open every day from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. During the summer, hours are extended until 10 p.m. each day. There is an entrance fee of NIS 7-NIS 15.
Of course, the most important decision of your day in Tiberias will be where to eat dinner. Not surprisingly, the city is considered home to some of the best fish restaurants, and the Villa Harte Hermitage is your safest bet. A veteran gourmet restaurant that originally opened on the promenade, the Villa Harte Hermitage is currently in a building that was constructed in 1845 but was recently renovated to house the restaurant. It sits underneath the YMCA hostel on the banks of the Kinneret. The Lebanese-style menu is based on local ingredients and includes a variety of salads, meat, fish and seafood.
However you end up spending your time in Tiberias, I strongly recommend visiting the Berenice Winery before heading back home. The city’s only boutique winery, Berenice was founded by Gidi Badt, an architect and wine lover who lives in Herzliya and comes to Tiberias on the weekends. He constructed the winery in the basement of a building that his wife’s grandfather once owned, and named it after first-century Princess Berenice, whose palace ruins are visible from the winery’s courtyard.
Badt picks grapes for his wines on Moshav Dalton and Kidmat Zvi, and he is currently bottling Malbec, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc and Port. The winery produces 3,000 to 4,000 bottles a year, with prices ranging from NIS 50 to NIS 70. Berenice Winery offers guided tours and tastings on the weekends and during the week by appointment. More information is available on the winery’s Facebook page.
To register for a wine tasting, you can call 050-760-5129. The price is NIS 15-NIS 30. 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.