Israel’s third city,
Haifa, a sun-splashed metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea, is rarely thought of
as a tourist destination. Until recently its best known landmark was the Dagon
Grain Silo, while its rusting port was filled with smoky bars where
salt-caked longshoremen would drink strong liquor before returning to the
forward to the present and Haifa is one of the most picturesque cities in the
Middle East. Its downtown is a wholly different place, with chic Middle Eastern
restaurants along Ben Gurion Avenue, freshly planted palm trees in Paris Square
and throngs of tourists skipping off cruise ships in the renovated port. The
longshoremen have been joined by groups of students and artists who stay in eco-friendly
These changes are
government initiatives, created to transform Haifa’s blue-collar, industrial
image into something more hip and welcoming. But the real catalyst for change
has been Haifa’s vibrant student population and its unique assembly of Arab and
Jewish residents living in mixed neighbourhoods.
The full Haifa
alternative experience starts with a subway ride from Paris Square to Masada
Street, located halfway up Mount Carmel, upon which Haifa is built. Tucked into
a narrow bend on this leafy road stands a half dozen miniature cafes where
poets, activists and writers socialise over strong cups of Arabic coffee and
bowlfuls of hummus. The best known is Café Masada (16 Masada Street;
052-657-3937), where the chatter is politically-charged, heated and
philosophical. Left-wing points of view are typically the dominating theme in
this liberal corner of the city.
The culture trail
continues in nearby Wadi Nisnas, where narrow lanes are squeezed between sandstone
buildings that date back more than a century. This is the old Arab quarter, and
despite its ramshackle appearance (or perhaps because of it) Wadi Nisas has
gained a popular following for anyone seeking a traditional Middle Eastern
meal. After a falafel snack at 50-year-old eatery Felafel Hazkenim (Wadi Nisnas
Road; 04-851-4959), wander the back alleys and discover a zany collection of
colourful street art.
Further up the mountain
looms Carmel Center, a leafy, well-to-do neighbourhood that is always a few
degrees cooler than the port area below. Hipness in Carmel Center comes in the
form of trendy coffee shops, including local favourites Greg Coffee and Mandarin, where students come to sip lattes and schmooze. The Carmel Centre is
also home to the Cinematheque, a classy movie theatre that screens Israeli
films and independent foreign flicks.
Brave creative types may
prefer to meet up with local painter Shahar Sivan, an eccentric young artist
who opens his studio every Monday at 8 pm (Nemala Studio, HaNamal 35; 052-567-0505) for an evening of drinks
and nude portrait drawing. Shahar mixes cocktails, sets up easels and helps his
students perfect the difficult art of drawing the exposed human form. It may
sound a little off the wall, but Haifa likes to embrace its weird side.
The energetic vibe of the
city is best felt on Tuesday nights in the port area, when popular restaurant
Mayan Habira, meaning “Fountains of Beer” (4 Nathanson Street) hosts an weekly
outrageous rhythm and blues revival that gets folks dancing on the tables.
Rocking out to the blaring guitar riffs, wailing harmonica and gut-rattling
drum rolls by house band Kostiza is a great way to kick off a night of bar hopping.
nearby watering holes include pocket-sized and mellow Jack and the Beanstalk (44
Jaffa Road; 04-853-5668), the larger and louder Barki (84 Hatzmaut Street;
054-425-8904), Eli’s Bar (35 Jaffa Road; 054-635-4696), which is good for live
music and La Bira (21 HaNe’emanim Street), renowned for its house-brewed beer.
For dancing, try nearby Syncopa (5 Khayat Street; 050-918-8899), which keeps
the port rocking until the small hours.
Another strictly Haifa experience
is spending a late night at Tichon
in the Hadar neighbourhood. This hipster hangout hosts an eclectic mix of live
music acts ranging from avant-garde to Arabic hip-hop and Hebrew folk
ensembles. The owners, Suzan and Yoni, form a unique Arab-Jewish partnership,
but the cross-cultural business arrangement does not seem out of place in
Haifa, a mixed city where Arabs and Jews mingle freely, seemingly unaware of
the ethnic tensions simmering in other parts of Israel and the Palestinian territories.
The Haifa tourist office
has yet to adopt “Hip Haifa” as a slogan for the city, perhaps because the
city’s funky side remains a largely underground phenomenon beyond the grasp of
government officials. But most Haifans like it that way. It is a low-key place,
far removed from uber-cool Tel Aviv and religious Jerusalem. Here locals are
carving a unique niche as a place where young Jews and Arabs coexist and
collaborate on their progressive ideas.
For visitors looking for
something different, Haifa’s hip spots are experiential and unique on every
visit – bring your sketchbook, open mind and blue-collar shirt, and get set for
The article 'Hip Haifa, Israel’s third city' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.