How I spent 24 hours in Haifa
With the clock ticking, my one-day adventure showcased a lot of what this northern Israeli city had to offer – despite tricky scheduling.
I'm sitting in the back of a taxi listening to the driver talk politics with an elderly woman sitting in the front passenger's seat. He's trying to tell her who to vote for in the upcoming election. I guess whoever said don't talk politics with strangers has never been inside an Israeli taxi.
I had hailed the taxi on my own and hopped in. But a minute later the driver saw the woman standing by the side of the road, rolled down his window and asked where she needed to go. Next thing I know, he was offering her a complimentary ride. So now it was the three of us on the journey, riding along like we were lifelong friends, talking politics and picking up strangers on street corners. Welcome to Haifa, where everybody is family.
I've been to Israel half a dozen times, traversing the usual places like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I even spent a week in the southern part of the country in the city of Be'ersheva, hiked the Ramon Crater and swam in the Dead Sea. But on all these trips, I never visited Haifa in the north. I just never had the opportunity. So on my latest trip, I made sure to include it in my itinerary. The caveat was that I only had 24 hours to spend there.
The first thing I'll say is Haifa is remarkably easy to get to. I was in Jerusalem recording an episode of the "Our Friend from Israel" podcast and, when I was done, headed to Jerusalem's central bus station. Walk up to the top floor and you can purchase a ticket to Haifa for under $10; buses leave at least once an hour.
I had just enough time to run to the bus station food court and grab some dinner for the ride. Skip the sushi place and the burger joint and head straight over to the Holy Bagel shop. Here's a pro-tip: you can order stuff that's not on the menu. I had them toast an everything bagel and slap cream cheese on one side and fresh guacamole on the other. They added onions (both grilled and regular), tomatoes and lettuce. The pièce de résistance was a hard-boiled egg they chopped up into thin slices and stuffed into the bagel before closing it up. It was divine, and I can't recommend it enough.
Anyway, so you get that and then take it with you on the bus to Haifa. It's a charter bus with comfortable seats and free Wi-Fi. Eat the bagel, watch some Netflix and in about two hours, you'll arrive in Haifa.
Finding a place to stay in Haifa is no problem, as tens of thousands of tourists flock here each year. I booked a room at the boutique Bay Club Hotel, a four-star restored art deco landmark from 1912. On the bed in my room was a box of chocolates and a Barkan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz. A few sips later and I was at the concierge's desk getting advice on where to take a nighttime stroll.
The town is rich with cultural activities – from the symphony orchestra to dozens of museums. Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow have performed concerts here. The concierge pointed me a few blocks west to the Germany Colony, the epicenter of Haifa nightlife. Ben-Gurion Boulevard is home to more than a dozen cafes and restaurants. At the top of the street is the Bahai Gardens and, even though it's nighttime, still a sight to behold.
I stopped in an ice cream shop for a late-night snack and sat at a table outside to enjoy my Rocky Road gelato. In one direction, I'm staring at the Bahai Gardens. In the other is the Mediterranean Sea. I would imagine there are worse ways to spend a Tuesday night.
I'm not a big hotel guy. Give me a choice between my bed at home and a villa in the Bahamas ... and I'd likely still choose the creature comforts of West Virginia. But when in Rome – or Haifa, as the case may be – the Bay Club did the trick just fine. I will say this: the best part about sleeping in a hotel are the shades that cover the windows blocking out all the light. I'm not sure why more people don't have these at home. And the second best thing? The complimentary Mediterranean breakfast that the hotel serves each morning on the garden patio. It's a feast for the eyes.
I quickly ran back to the room to finish getting ready for my big day in Haifa and flipped on the TV. Sure, I could turn on CNN and get the latest news. But the best part about traveling internationally is watching what's on local TV. I remember being in a Japanese hotel room and being mesmerized by their wacky game shows.
Haifa is basically built on one big hill – Mount Carmel to be exact. The city is currently constructing a cable car that will take people up and down and where they need to go. Kind of a fun way to commute to work each day. At the bottom is where the beach is, the downtown area and the hotel where I was staying. About halfway up the hill is my first stop of the day – the Technion Institute, a school that's been around for nearly a century.
Nicknamed the MIT of the Mediterranean, it's produced multiple Nobel Prize winners and is where several high-tech inventions were created – including the ReWalk exoskeleton, which allows paralyzed people to walk again. The visitor's center has an exhibit of some of those inventions, plus a theater featuring a 360-degree movie about the school. (Warning: To avoid dizziness, you may want to sit down while watching.)
Wearing good walking shoes is a must and, if you can help it, don't shlep around a book bag and a suitcase full of podcast equipment. It'll tire you out pretty quickly. Thankfully, I found a nice overlook where I could relax for a bit.
An American graduate student from Boston was assigned to be my guide. She's studying to become a rocket scientist (I thought those only existed in Bond movies). As if her IQ wasn't high enough, the native English speaker told me she's taking most of her science and math classes in Hebrew. Understanding concepts like "ballistic coefficient" and "burn out velocity" is hard enough without having to translate them into an entirely new language.
She was more than capable enough to give me a two-hour tour through the campus and introduced me to some fellow students.
If there's such a thing as college rivals in this town, it would be between the Technion Institute and the University of Haifa. Which is where I was headed next. The campus, which sits high atop Mount Carmel, offers breathtaking views of the entire city.
While the Technion focuses mostly on the sciences, the University of Haifa is more of an arts and humanities school. I met up with my friend, Professor Jonathan Cohen, who studies everything from why we love certain sitcom characters to what's so addicting about reality TV. He gave me a tour of the campus and, afterwards, we grabbed some falafel in one of the school's many restaurants.
My next stop was hands down, the must-visit place in all of Haifa: the Bahai Gardens. Tourists from all across the globe flock here each year to take in the magnificent scenery. Built on the side of a mountain, the gardens extend almost a mile up Mount Carmel, covering more than 2 million square feet of land. The gardens are linked by a set of stairs flanked by twin streams of running water cascading down the mountainside through the steps and terrace bridges.
But here's my advice: Don't come on a Wednesday. Which I, sadly, learned the hard way. While you can walk around the top area of the gardens, the majority of it is closed on Wednesdays. I traveled more than 6,000 miles from my home in the U.S. to Haifa to see one of the most magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites ... and I didn't bother to check if they were even open on the day I was visiting.
But I did know that my final stop before heading out of Haifa would certainly be open. The miles of coastline in Haifa are a great way to experience the Mediterranean Sea. I've been to the beach in Tel Aviv, but it's always so crowded and busy. In Haifa, you have the water all to yourself.
Speaking of Tel Aviv, that's where I was headed next on my whirlwind tour of Israel. So I was off to one of the many train stations in Haifa to catch a rush hour shuttle there before dark.
There was plenty I didn't get to during this ever-so quick visit. I didn't get a chance to hike inside Israel's largest national park – which includes nearly 25,000 acres of forest. Nor did I get a chance to visit the childhood home of actress Odeya Rush, whom I have had the pleasure of interviewing. But I had enough of a good experience here in Haifa that I do know one thing for certain: I'll be back.
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