A weekend in Haifa

View of Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens

“I can’t believe there is NO CORKSCREW in this place!”

Ah, the perils of booking an Airbnb. I make a note to self: always travel with screw-top wine.

We are in a small apartment on Haifa’s Hillel Street, just a walk away from the city’s main attraction (the Baha’i Gardens). On one side of the street, the elevated properties tower above us. On the other, it’s as if they’ve slipped down the hillside. We had to descend the steps to go back up again, inside.

We’re on the first floor and our flat rocks a 1970s vibe. The fridge is surely older than me and I am pretty sure someone’s gran was living here until recently.

But there’s a CD player! Our three-year-old has no concept of what this machine does and is thrilled when we give it a whirl. We head bang in the kitchen to a slightly scratched version of Smells Like Teen Spirit; a great way to start any holiday.

Steps from Hillel Street in Haifa
Steps between streets in Haifa

Haifa would be a great place to visit without kids. Bohemian cafes, a sprawling flea market and the beautiful Baha’i Gardens; a manicured, cascading, horticultural spectacle of 19 terraces and hundreds and hundreds of steps, spilling down the side of Mount Carmel.

This is not a city for strollers. Haifa is on a hillside, and unless you’re happy to go the extra mile(s) and walk the endless switchbacks, it’s all about the steps. Stepped alleyways join the streets, running between the tower blocks that tower up the hillside.

Given the corkscrew incident, or lack of, our priorities for day one have changed; number one: buy corkscrew; number two: do everything else.

We head to Wadi Nisnas market – a short parade of shops selling everything from kitchenware (thankfully) to fruit and veg. Watermelons are piled high; there are endless punnets of okra, ready-cored courgettes and aubergines; and huge bunches of mallow lining the pavement.

I buy an overpriced, low-quality corkscrew and hope it will do the trick for one bottle at least.

But the diversion is worth it when we come across a tiny kitchen where two women are busy preparing vegetables. Outside, on two large tables that extend well beyond the frontage, are pots and pans and foil-covered baking trays hot with take-away dishes. This, is lunch.

There is too much to choose from; roasted cauliflower, stuffed vine leaves, chickpea stew, stewed okra, mujadara, little pastry parcels stuffed with vegetables. We come away with a selection box for the equivalent of less than £10.

It’s summer, it’s blazing hot, and so the gardens will have to wait until tomorrow; there’s a beach, and a cable car, to keep us busy in the afternoon.  

Home cooking at Wadi Nisnas market
Bat Galim Beach, Haifa

Mount Carmel Cable Car in Haifa
Mount Carmel Cable Car in Haifa

Up early the next day, we’re first in to see the Shrine of the Bab – the middle entrance to the Baha’i Gardens is just around the corner from our apartment. It’s the only part you can walk through without a guide (but with strict guidelines; no smoking, no eating and only water to drink).

We wander through the pristine planting, on a clearly marked pathway, to see the gold-capped shrine. There are immaculately trimmed hedges, grand old palm trees, brightly coloured, perfectly coiffed flower beds and faultless gravel borders.

Shrine of the Bab, Baha'i Gardens
Shrine of the Bab, Baha’i Gardens

Outside the Shrine, from behind the big, black, wrought-iron gates, is the view of Haifa. We can see out to the port and a huge container ship.

View from outside the Shrine of the Bab

Inside the shrine is simple; carpets, candles and flowers. But the rule of silence is a difficult one when you’re three.

Next, it’s up to the top entrance by car, to join the tour-bus tourists for a look through another set of iron gates. There’s only a small part of the garden that’s accessible here, but there’s a great view of the perfectly symmetrical terraces running down the hillside to the shrine, and then beyond across Haifa and out to the Mediterranean Sea.

Finally, it’s down to the lower entrance, with its gurgling marble fountains and a view up to the golden dome and the blue sky above.

View from the bottom of the Baha’i Gardens

At the bottom we’re perfectly placed for a spot of lunch in German Colony. We opt for Fattoush, where lanterns and glass baubles hang from the trees and the service is relaxed and friendly.

More info on our stay…

The Baha’i Gardens are open daily from 9am – 5pm, but the Shrine of the Bab closes at midday. Entry is free and guided tours run daily except Wednesday. Check the website for times www.ganbahai.org.il/en/

We stayed in a three-bedroom Airbnb apartment on Hillel Street, which cost approximately £100 per night.

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