Haifa is the most boring city in the Middle East. So that we misunderstand each other correctly: First of all, this is meant as a compliment. In a region of the world where there is a war, massacre or riot every few years (sometimes all at once) and where every bus ride can turn into a life-threatening adventure (suicide bombers, bombs) – in such a region of the world, boredom means one increase in quality of life.
Second, boredom is relative. Certainly, Haifa can't compete with Tel Aviv when it comes to wild midnight parties. And in its center the city does not contain a four-fold historical jewel case like Jerusalem with its Jewish-Christian-Armenian-Muslim old town.
Haifa is not fashionable, Haifa is not big (a little over 285,000 inhabitants). The Israelis say: "Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv celebrates, but Haifa slaves away."
There's some truth to that. Haifa was a working-class city from the beginning, the people who lived here toiled either in the port or for the railway company or the oil refinery. There is a nasty rumor that the mayor of Haifa goes through the streets every night at eight o'clock to make sure everyone is in their beds, so they can get up early the next morning and go to work.
“Red Haifa” has retained the charm of a working-class town to this day. But it has charm - even without the superlatives of the two larger cities in the country. For example, if you go to Beautiful View Street (Rehov Jefe Nof) and look down northeast from there, you'll immediately understand that Haifa's genius loci surpasses that of any other place in Israel.
Because Haifa is Mount Carmel - a mountain hump that slopes down to the sea. The whole city is on one of its slopes. And Rehov Jefe Street on the top of Mount Carmel is like a balcony.
The tourist presses against the railing while his gaze wanders down to the harbor with its red cranes, behind which lies the outrageously blue Mediterranean Sea. In the distance on the right you can see the old crusader city of Akko. On the left, container ships lying at anchor. Complicated waves foam onto the beach, and a huge sky arches above it all. Friedrich Hölderlin inevitably comes to mind here and his verse of longing: “The winds blow cool from the sea to warm shores.”
The refreshing winds are another plus point of Haifa. The greatest attraction, however, are Haifa's Baha'i Gardens — they slope down to the sea below the street balcony in verdant terraces: neatly shaved lawns, flowerbeds, marble fountains, bushes and trees fanatically trimmed to geometry.
In the middle of the green rises a white kitsch gem with a golden dome, which looks like a mosque below and a church with Gothic windows above. This is the shrine of the Bab, who occupies roughly the same position in the Baha'i religion as John the Baptist does in Christianity: He prepared the way for the actual founder of the religion, a prophet named Baha'ullah.
The Baha'i are the consistent do-gooders among the monotheists, they believe in science, in the unity of the human race, in equality between men and women, in education and tolerance, in a revelation that never ends.
In gratitude, these do-gooders were bloodily persecuted from the start in Persia, where their religion originated; to this day they fear for their lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran. But in Israel the gentle Bahai are left in peace. And her terraced garden looks like a fairy tale from the Arabian Nights: a Walt Disney-esque dream through which hundreds of white steps lead. Even people who do not belong to their religion are allowed to romp around here. Only eating, smoking and chewing gum are strictly forbidden in the Baha'i gardens.
So that's one of the special features of the city of Haifa: it's on the mountain and on the sea at the same time — and an oriental idyll flourishes in its midst. The other peculiarity comes from history: in Haifa, during the 1948 War of Independence, most Arabs listened to their Jewish neighbors. Stay there, these neighbors said. Don't run away, we won't hurt you.
And so today Haifa is a very mixed city, where one hears both Arabic and Hebrew when shopping, on the bus, on the playground; a city where the young people drink their beer in the open Arabic bars on the Sabbath, when the Jewish shops and restaurants are closed.
Haifa used to be pretty German too. Founded in 1912, the Technion — one of the top technical universities in the world, whose campus is on the north-eastern outskirts of the city — initially taught in the language of Einstein and Carl Friedrich Gauss.
There was a time in Haifa when anyone who crossed the street on a red light was insulted by shaking their fingers. Those wagging their fingers were Jews from Düsseldorf or Leipzig who had been expelled by Hitler and spoke Hebrew with a hard German accent.
But the time of the Jeckes, the German Jews who could never fully get used to life in the Middle East, is unfortunately over. Jewish Russians and their non-Jewish spouses have long since taken their place – you don't just hear it in Haifa, you see it too: in the Russian shop signs, the daring, fake blonde women's hairstyles and the wide range of vodka in every grocery store.
Now Jews and Arabs (and Russians) also live in Jerusalem, but they live side by side there while they live together in Haifa. The atmosphere here is much more relaxed. This is probably because the city's only visible sanctuary, the Shrine of the Bab, is of no concern to Jews and Muslims alike.
Perhaps there is a division still at work beneath the surface in today's Israel that dates back to biblical times: In the northern kingdom, pure doctrine was never taken too seriously, and Haifa clearly belongs to the north.
Roughly speaking, the city has three centers. One center is on top of Mount Carmel, left and right of Sderot Moriah, a busy road that winds steeply up the mountain. Life takes place on the sidewalk: street cafes, musicians, children and cats; the zoo worth seeing is not far.
The second city center is found just below the Bahai Gardens: it is the Moschawa HaGermanit, where the Templars used to live. These were staunch German Protestants who founded tiny colonies in what was then Palestine in the 19th century. After 1933, most of them became Nazis (yes, Haifa once flew swastika flags); after the outbreak of World War II many were interned by the British and shipped to Australia. A few of them were exchanged for Jews who were in German concentration camps. In 1950 the last Templar Germans had to leave Israel.
But their houses are still there and have been beautifully restored, complete with engraved sayings above the front door such as "The Lord has saved so far". Tourists can now stroll along Sderot Ben Gurion, a boulevard that connects to the Baha'i Gardens in a broad central perspective; On the left and right of the street, restaurants have nested in the former Templar houses and in the shady arcades in front of them.
Haifa's third city center is down by the port, specifically on Rehov Natanson and HaNamal. In these streets, the tables and chairs are so close together that you don't even know where one restaurant begins and another ends.
Anyone who strolls through here at night, while an Arabian crescent moon stands in the Jewish sky, will see the old next to the young, the crazy next to the sensible, smokers next to non-smokers, men next to women, the veiled next to the unveiled - in view of this happily munching crowd of people the idea that ever a people could wage war against another.
And yet it is only 16 years since Hezbollah's rockets landed in Haifa. And the head of that terrorist group, a Shiite with a beard and a black turban, promises that he will soon turn Haifa into a sea of flames.
The three city centers are connected by the Carmelit, the only subway in the Middle East. The Carmelit is a freezer drawn by steel cables that climbs steeply underground; externally it is reminiscent of an oversized silver accordion that was laid diagonally on the tracks.
The Carmelit is a kind of freezer because its air conditioning is constantly hissing at full blast. The bottom station of that subway is at Paris Square, a small square where the Rehov Natanson flows. From the next station called Hadar it is only a few meters to the Moschawa HaGermanit, i.e. to the old Templar quarter. From the mountain station, Merkas HaCarmel, you have a dream panorama down and you can stroll to the next café in three minutes.
In Haifa, however, one should not only enjoy the view of the sea, but also pay a visit to it. Just between us: The beach in Haifa is much nicer than the one in Tel Aviv – the sand is finer, there are fewer braggarts in skimpy swimming trunks, and there is always freshly squeezed orange juice.
However, one should find out whether jellyfish from the Indian Ocean are currently in transit through the Mediterranean before venturing into the water. For the reckless, amazing advice is afterwards provided about the fluids to use to treat the painful but not life-threatening jellyfish kiss: salt water (lifeguard on duty), no, fresh water (nice older couple), no, urine (young tattooed New Age couple), no, vodka (Russian taxi driver). We preferred to try aloe vera; it didn't help that much.
If you want to understand Haifa, you should visit the Museum of Clandestine Immigration and Navy. Because of course the port city is a naval base. Strolling around Haifa, you will not only see soldiers in the army's olive-green uniform, but also many young women and men in light beige serving on an Israeli warship.
In the museum you can climb through the steel belly of an Israeli submarine or admire a terrorist speedboat that was captured by the Israelis off the coast.
Most impressive, however, is the small ship that was used to smuggle Jewish immigrants into the country. It picked her up in the south of France and in Italy, Greece and Turkey. Many had lost everything over there in Europe: their husbands, their wives, their children, their parents; most of them only owned what they carried with them in suitcases and bundles. The Israeli Navy, as this museum makes clear, was born during those clandestine voyages across the sea that brought Jews to their new homeland against the will of the British Mandate power.
When the War of Independence broke out in 1948, the smugglers patched up old vessels that were rotting off the coast and put together Israel's first fleet.
What do people eat in Haifa when they have graduated from the museum? Hummus, of course. The best hummus is at Abu Shaker on Sderot HaMeginim.
"Abu Shaker" looks exactly what a top-notch hummus restaurant should look like: nothing at all. Formica, worn-out chairs, bare walls. But the chickpea porridge they serve here is to die for. It is freshly prepared and is therefore still warm. Surprisingly, it tastes a bit sweet and is served with raw onions, pickles, olives and bulgur without you having to ask.
And just when you think hummus can't get any better, you discover the Bardichev restaurant on Sderot Wedgewood on Mount Carmel. There the hummus is actually a bit more refined. The garlic and lemon juice sauce that they put on the table is wonderful. And the fresh pita! And the salads!
Afterwards you can get drunk in the "Ma'ajan HaBira", the source of the beer, in the Rehov Natanson. Beers from all over the world are served there, along with hearty Jewish beers from Eastern Europe, guaranteed to be non-kosher. Then it's off to the "Fattoush Bar" at HaNamal - the bar is a converted factory building, where the crowd downs decadent cocktails.
Anyone who still does not feel the urgent desire to settle in Haifa, the most beautiful of the cities in Israel, is beyond help here on earth.
how to get there
Flight to Tel Aviv, then preferably by train. From Ben Gurion Airport, the journey takes around 75 minutes. But there are also regular trains to Haifa from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (rail.co.il). Alternatively, there are buses, for example line 960 from Jerusalem (travel time two and a half hours) and line 910 from Tel Aviv (two hours). If you rent a car, take the No. 2 highway from Tel Aviv north along the coast.
Where is a good place to live?
Small and noble in a historic Templar house: "Carmella Boutique Hotel" on Mount Carmel near the zoo, double rooms from 200 euros, en.carmella-hotel.co.il.
Large and elegant: "Dan Panorama Haifa", also located on Mount Carmel - with a great view over the city, double rooms from 170 euros, danhotel.com.
Small and familiar: "Eden Hotel" in the Hadar district, double rooms from 72 euros, edenhaifa.com.
"Garden Restaurant" on Ben-Gurion-Boulevard in the German Colony, Arabic cuisine, so-so, but the seating is very nice (gardenrest.co.il/en/). Abu Shaker in the Wadi Nisnas district serves the best hummus in Haifa (Sderot HaMeginim 29, no website). For the very best hummus, though, head to Bardichev Kosher at Mount Carmel (1 Sderot Wedgewood).
In Wadi Nisnas, the "Ma'ayan HaBira" is worthwhile for its non-kosher smut and beer from all over the world. The "Fattoush Bar" in the waterfront serves good cocktails in a factory building with a retro look, young crowd (Ha-Namal Street 6).
Madatech, Museum of Science and Technology, also recommended for families with children; in the forecourt stands the palm tree that Albert Einstein planted on his only visit to Israel, madatech.org.il. The Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum is run by the army, exhibits weapons and ships and tells the story of illegal immigration by the Jews, open Sunday to Thursday 10am to 4pm (204 Allenby Road).