A Day Trip to Tzfat
Tzfat, a small town in the hills above the Sea of Galilee, is mostly known to be a centre of Kabbalah. Not so much the Western esoteric type practiced by well-known celebrities, but more Jewish mysticism that emerged from the 15th Century onwards in Ottoman Palestine. I am not a follower of either, but somehow the combination pretty hill town, a bit of mysticism and an artist colony intrigued me. Everyone goes to Jerusalem, but Tzfat?
Disclosure: The entire trip was organised and paid by yours truly. So I share with you my 100% honest, unbiased opinion. All links in this post are non-affiliate.
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Tzfat is an easy day trip form Haifa
I wanted to visit Haifa and Akko anyway, and turns out that Haifa was an excellent base to visit both these towns in a leisurely day trip. “You want to come with me and change at Junction Seven” a friendly bus driver explained when I had finally located the Nazareth Bus Company Coach Platforms. He seemed trustworthy, so I got on the bus. An hour later, we were here. Would you change buses in the middle of nowhere on a highway?
Only in Israel! I crossed the highway (there was a pedestrian crossing) and rightly, on, the road uphill was another bus stop, and amazingly, ten minutes later, another coach turned up. I had seen people getting on the bus seemingly in the middle of the highway before, now I was joining them! Half an hour of adventurous hairpin-bend driving later, the bus pulled into the small bus station of Tzfat but apart from the fresh air, I was less than impressed.
It looked pleasant enough but not exactly bursting with mystical energy.
Having diligently climbed up form the bus station to pretty much the top of the hill, I spotted these stairs leading down again. Hurray, more exercise! And there was a huge coach park. But hurray, only one or two coaches. One full of Germans, the other with French tourists. These steps lead to the Old Town of Tzfat. A left turn will lead to the artist colony and some galleries, a right turn to the old centre with its synagogues, a covered shopping arcade and the Kabbalah Centre.
The Old City
And then, the magic happened.
The town is one of the four holy cities in Judaism (the others being Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias) and has been inhabitated by members of the Old Yishuv, Jewish communities in Ottoman-occupied Southern Levant, for centuries. It has been a centre for Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages, and boasts a large number of synagogues for a small town. Since the mid-20th Century, artist galleries have opened in the Old Town, adding to the attraction of this pretty place.
Tzfat appears to be a very popular place to have your Bar Mitzvah. The AbuHav Synagogue was occupied by a private party. Thankfully, others decided to celebrate more openly in public! Apart form the odd party, there weren’t that many people around in the Old Town! Only two coachloads of tourists.
Synagogues of Tzfat
Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue before the French Group. It is sweet and simple yet is said to be the oldest synagogue in Israel that is still used today. In the 1948 Israel-Arab War, a bomb fell into the courtyard of the synagogue, which was packed with people seeking shelter. No one was hurt, and it is said to be one of the more recent miracles attributed to this synagogue.
It is also known for its elaborate Torah Ark. And if you have a contemplative moment alone there, enjoy it! Because it is also the most popular place to visit, and it is really small and tends to get quite busy! This one also seemed to be kept open most of the time, whereas with the other synagogues, it’s more a matter of luck.
Strolling through the eerily quiet back streets of Safed after checking out the shopping arcade. If you are into colourful naturalistic art, you might find some souvenir or two there. Of course, being a Holy City, the shops were also great for all kinds of Judaica: the hamsa (hand), which is both a Muslim and a Jewish symbol, and a Kabbalah one to boot, is the top seller, and you get one from tiny pendants to huge wall ornaments. I also liked the mezuzah cases, which you find everywhere on door posts, but given their religious significance, I steered well clear of purchasing one, because I am not Jewish.
After walking most of the picturesque Old Town, I came back to the Josef Caro Synagogue, close to the coach park, and to my great delight found it open. I wasn’t alone here either, but enjoyed listening to a very academic talk the Germans were given. Rabbi Yosef Caro, a Sephardic refugee from Spain, taught in this synagogue and served as the towns chief Rabbi, besides writing his magnum opus, the Beit Yosef, a work of discussion on Jewish religious law, which took him 32 years! An abbreviated version, the Shulchan Aruch, is nowadays considered one of the most important works of Orthodox Jewish Law to this day.
And then, it was time for a coffee and a doughnut and a bus back to Akko. It was somewhat bothersome trying to figure out the Hebrew-only timetables, but the 361 is the direct Tzfat-Haifa bus.
Best time to Visit
Even in out-of-season November, many touristic sites in Jerusalem get mobbed with tourists. I think, however, out of season (January-March, October to December except Christmas) are the best times to visit – there are always seats on buses, the weather is pleasant for sightseeing and wandering around, and hotels are lightly booked.
How to get to Israel
I flew Ryanair form Berlin SXF to Tel Aviv. The flight cost about 70 EURO in November 2017. It was originally a flight to Ovda which got changed to Tel Aviv due to building works in the airport. However, most international flights will operate to Tel Aviv, while low cost carriers started using Ovda. It can be tricky to get form Ovda to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – you’ll need a private transfer to Eilat first, then Egged runs buses to both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but I got the impression they must be pre-booked and take over three hours. Unless you want to go tot eh REd Sea or Jordan, it is better to fly to Tel Aviv.
The easiest city to get to Tzfat to is Haifa. From Haifa, there are almost hourly buses to Tzfat but you may need to change on the motorway as I did! Haifa is connected by bus and train with Tel Aviv and by bus with Jerusalem. The traffic on the highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa/Jerusalem can be terrible to buses get often delayed.
Bear in mind if you do get an RavKav Electronic Card that the bus company serving Tzfat is the Nazareth Travel and Tourism Company where the Rav Kav may not work. Don’t fill your RavKAv with credit for a singular bus company unless you know you will use them a lot. Similarly, different bus companies operate in different cities. In Jerusalem and Haifa, it’s mostly Egged. In Tel Aviv, it’s mostly Dan and Egged.
Compared to Europe, hotels in Israel are really pricey. I stayed in AirBnB private rooms (and one apartment) and paid 25-50 EURO per night. There are loads of hostels, but I like my privacy! In Haifa, I stayed in a modernist block in Bat Galim, 1min walk form the beach, and 5min from Bat Galim Train station. The listing is here, and I can highly recommend this host.There are regular fast buses shuttling between HofCarmel Bus Station and Merkazit Hamifrats Bus Stations which can be reached from Bat Galim as well. Other nice areas to stay include the German Colony and Wadi Niswas. BEar in mind that Haifa is really, really hilly, so the further away from the sea you are, the more you’ll have to climb.
Getting to Tzfat and back
Please note that the Sabbath is not a great day to visit a very traditional place like Tzfat unless you like things really, really quiet and bring enough food for a day. A good place to spend Sabbath would be Haifa, as it has a mixed population of Christian, Jewish and Muslim citizens, with many services open during Sabbath and even some public transport running. Also, Tel Aviv os a nice place to spend Sabbath – the streets may be empty, but many cafes and restaurants are open, and it is a great place for walking, as there is so little traffic.
Buses to Tzfat leave from Merkazit Hamifrats Bus Station, one of the two main Intercity Bus Stations. It looks somewhat chaotic – you can get a city bus 1 and 3 there (probably many more), and you’ll need to find the Inter-City Bus Stations. Unlike in HofCarmel, there are few signs in Latin script. Look out for the white and orange buses of the Nazareth Travel and Tourism Company. Also, Google Maps does an excellent job in Israel finding public transport connections – I just used it to find bus times, pitched up a few minutes early at the bus station and asked for the correct platform. Bus 361 goes directly from Haifa to Tzfat but goes through lots of villages along Highway 85 and takes a long time. Better to take Bus 380 to Kallanit/Tzalmon Prison (yup) and change in Rama Junction, a town along the highway, or just on the highway intersection (Hananya Junction). Most drivers will speak some English and point you to the right platform.
The bus station in Tzfat is tiny so it’s easy to keep an eye on all buses and ask someone. You usually buy tickets on the bus, even in the big city bus stations. From Tzfat, I took the “slow bus” to Haifa and got off in Akko, then walked about 15min to the old town, then picked up another bus to Merkazit Hamifrats. Akko, though small, has several bus stations and a train station,which is somewhat confusing, but there are always some buses going to Haifa.