“Can anything good come from Nazareth?,” Nathanael asks Philip (John 1:46). The answer for tourists must be a resounding yes.
But be cautioned: pilgrims searching for a pastoral mountain village such as Nazareth was 2,000 years ago when Jesus grew up here may be sorely disappointed. Today’s sprawling city of 75,000 is the thriving regional capital of Israel’s Lower Galilee. Apart from the occasional donkey plying traffic-clogged Paulus VI Street, there’s little that evokes the Bible in today’s contemporary metropolis – the largest Arab city in Israel.
The scene is hardly quieter on Friday, the holy day for Muslims, who make up two-thirds of Nazareth’s population. It calms down somewhat on Wednesday afternoon, however, when many businesses close for a midweek sabbatical, and on Sunday, the day of rest for the Christians who make up the other third of the city, it’s positively placid.
If you’re out for local color (and traffic jams), come on Saturday, when Arab villagers from the surrounding area come to the big city to sell produce and buy goods, and Jewish families from Tel Aviv and Haifa come looking for bargains in the souk (old city market).
Getting to and around Nazareth
If you’re driving from Beit She’arim or Haifa on Route 75, Route 77 breaks off to the north – to Zippori, the Golani Junction, and Tiberias. Route 75 continues to skirt the north side of the picturesque Jezreel Valley as it climbs into the hills toward Nazareth; at the crest of the hill, it’s joined by Route 60 from Afula. A turn to the left takes you down to Paulus VI, Nazareth’s main drag. If you pick up Route 77 from the opposite side, from Tiberias and points north, a left turn onto Route 764 takes you through a number of villages and directly into Nazareth’s Paulus VI Street. Nazareth’s Central Bus Station is located downtown on Paulus VI Street not far from the Basilica of the Annunciation.
While Route 60 was blasted through the mountains as a bypass road in 2008, Nazareth itself remains mired in a perpetual traffic jam. The historic and religious sites are all close together, so it’s best to park and walk.
Alternatively one can hire a taxi to tour the city and the surrounding sites. Theoretically cab drivers are supposed to operate their meters outside cities as well, but it is quite acceptable to negotiate a fare beforehand.
Rent a Guide operates one-day tours three times a week that take in Nazareth, Capernaum, Tabgha, the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias, and the Jordan River. Current prices are US$60 from Tel Aviv, $64 from Jerusalem.
Nazareth’s major attraction is undoubtedly the Basilica of the Annunciation on Casa Nova Street. The huge Roman Catholic shrine, the largest church in the Middle East, marks where the home of Mary. Here the angel Gabriel appeared to her and announced (hence “Annunciation”) that she would conceive “and bear a son” and “call his name Jesus” (Luke 1).
Today’s church, consecrated in 1969, enshrines a small ancient cave dwelling or grotto said to be where Mary lived. Ruins of the Byzantine and Crusader-era churches that stood here bear witness to the antiquity of the tradition. The grotto is in the so-called “lower church.” Look up through the “well” or opening over the grotto that connects with the “upper church” to the grand cupola, soaring 195 feet above you.
A spiral staircase leads to the vast upper church (some 70 yards long and 30 yards wide), the parish church of Nazareth’s Roman Catholic community. Beautiful Italian ceramic reliefs on the huge concrete pillars represent the 14 Stations of the Cross, captioned in the Arabic vernacular. You now have a closer view of the cupola, its ribs representing the petals of an upside-down lily—a symbol of Mary’s purity – rooted in heaven. It is repeatedly inscribed with the letter M for her name. The huge mosaic behind the altar shows Jesus and Peter at the center and an enthroned Mary behind them, flanked by figures of the hierarchical church (to your right) and the charismatic church (to your left).
The artwork of the site, donated by Catholic communities around the world, is eclectic in the extreme but the more interesting for it. The portico around the courtyard just inside the main gate is decorated with striking contemporary mosaics, many depicting the Madonna and Child in styles and with facial features reflecting the donor nation. The massive main doors leading to the lower church relate in bronze relief the central events of Jesus’ life. The dim lighting of the lower church is brilliantly counterpointed by abstract stained-glass windows. The large panels on the walls of the upper church, again on the theme of mother and child, include a vivid offering from the United States, a fine Canadian terra-cotta, and mosaics from England and Australia. Particularly interesting are the gifts from Japan (with gold leaf and real pearls), Venezuela (a carved-wood statue), and Cameroon (a stylized painting in black, white, and brick red).
In the exit courtyard, a glass-enclosed baptistery is built over what is thought to have been an ancient mikvah, a Jewish ritual purification bath. The adjacent small Church of St. Joseph, just past Terra Sancta College, is built over a complex of rock-hewn chambers traditionally identified as the workshop of Joseph the Carpenter. Be warned that finding parking here is almost considered a miracle; try Paulus VI Street or the side streets below it. While admission is free, make sure to time your visit correctly. From April to September the church is open Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sunday from 2 to 6; from October to March it closes an hour earlier on Sundays.
Also of interest is the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel, about 1 km (2/3 mile) northeast of the junction of Paulus VI and Casa Nova streets. The church is built over Nazareth’s only natural water source, a spring dubbed Mary’s Well. The Greek Orthodox, citing the non-canonical Gospel of St. James, believe it to be the place where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce the coming birth of Jesus. (On Paulus VI Street, at the bottom of the short approach to the church, is a round, white, stone structure called Mary’s Well but this is merely a modern outlet.)
The ornate church was built in 1750 and contains a carved-wood pulpit and iconostasis (chancel screen), with painted New Testament scenes and silver-haloed saints. The walls are adorned with frescoes of figures from the Bible and the Greek Orthodox hagiography. A tiny “well” stands over the running water, and a modern aluminum cup gives a satisfying plop as it drops in. (The water is clean; the cup is more suspect.) The church is open Monday to Saturday 8 to 5, and Sunday after services until 5 p.m. It is customary to make a donation.
Christianity speaks with many voices in Nazareth. The Baptist Church (also on Paulus VI Street a few hundred yards north of the Church of St. Gabriel, tel 04.657.6946 or 04.657.4370, is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States. Call to arrange a visit.
Nazareth Village, which opened in 1999, offers a reconstruction of Jewish rural community life in the Galilee as Jesus would have known it 2,000 years ago. Guided tours include both the indoor visual aids and outdoor replicas of buildings, crafts and artifacts. Like many places here, the Nazareth Village is located on a street with a number rather than a name – Street 5105. Better to ask for the YMCA. Tel 04. 645.6042. www.nazarethvillage.com, admission NIS 50, open daily Monday to Saturday 9-5. Best to make a reservation for a large group.
In recent years a number of hiking and biking trails have opened that begin or pass through Nazareth. The Jesus Trail is a 65 km (40 mile) hiking and pilgrimage route that traces the route Jesus may have walked, connecting many sites from his life and ministry. Beginning in Nazareth, the trail links Sepphoris, Cana, the Horns of Hattin, Mount Arbel and its dramatic cliffs, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Tabgha, and the Mount of Beatitudes. An alternate return route passes by Tiberias, the Jordan River and the Yardenit baptism site, Mount Tabor and Mount Precipice.
The brand-new Gospel Trail , developed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, offers a parallel route that begins at Mount Precipice. As the route becomes better known, facilities are planned including accommodations ranging from cabins to B&Bs.
Hiking the first leg of either route, from Nazareth to the Zippori National Park, offers solitude and scenery sure to allow for meditation and Bible reading.
Need a Break?
Try the unbeatable Arab pastries at Mahroum (Casa Nova and Paulus VI sts, tel 04.656.0214. This famous confectionery offers clean bathrooms, and serves wonderful bourma (cylindrical pastry filled with whole pistachio nuts), cashew baklava, and the best halvah you’re likely to find anywhere.
Coffee lovers won’t want to miss Fahom in the Old City souq. Tel 04.645.6056. This traditional coffee and spice roaster offers Arabic coffee with cardamom. Don’t miss the opportunity to taste the Sada, a concentrated essence with a unique tartness that is brewed for at least five days.
Where to Stay and Eat in Nazareth?
After a full day of touring Nazareth’s shrines, the city offers a number of rewarding places for slaking less spiritual appetites. These include a clutch of little Arab restaurants along Paulus VI Street, frequented mostly by locals. Dinner here means hummus, shish kebab, baklava, Arabic coffee, and the like. Decor is incidental, atmosphere a function of the clientele of the moment, and dinnertime early. Needless to say, reservations are not necessary, and dress is casual.
Diana, which the Haaretz newspaper has ranked as the best Arab restaurant in the country, recently opened another branch in the city. Owner Duhul Safadi is famous for his kebabs and lamb chops. But the organ meats, oven-baked dishes, fish and seafood are all equally wonderful.
51 Paulus VI Street, Grand New Hotel, Al Mutran tel 04.657.2919.
Also highly recommended is the Ar-Rida café restaurant operated by Dahar Zidani, located in a magnificent 19th-century mansion whose 1,001 nights atmosphere matches its excellent Arab cuisine. Above the restaurant is a guest house. Hidden on the top floor is a charming guest suite with large windows overlooking the dome of the Basilica of the Annunciation.
23 Al Bishara St, tel 04.608.4404.
Nearby is Tishreen at 56, El-Bishara Street, tel 04.608.4666. Kitchens in Arab Galilee homes are always filled with the aroma of seasonal vegetables – mloukhiyeh (mallow leaves, a kind of mint), grape leaves and freekeh (grains of immature, roasted durum wheat) in the summer; za’atar (wild thyme) and khoubazi (a leafy mountain plant) in the spring; and peas and fava beans in the winter. Be adventurous and try the Galilee’s traditional seasonal foods. Tishreen, meaning September in Arabic, is a restaurant in tune with the Galilee’s changing seasons.
The Plaza is Nazareth’s finest hotel, offering amenities including a swimming pool, gym and air-conditioning. Located on a hill, many of the rooms enjoy a spectacular view of Old Nazareth.2 Hermon Street,Upper Nazareth, tel 04.602.8200.
Not quite as fancy but closer to the historic center is Rimonim Nazareth. Paulus VI Street, tel 04.650-0000, www.rimonim.com.
My personal favorite hotel is St. Gabriel. Sitting high on the ridge that overlooks Nazareth from the west, this hotel began life as a convent—hence the charming neo-Gothic church still in use today. Renovations extended the nuns’ old cells, and half the rooms enjoy some of the city’s greatest views. 2 Salesian Street, tel 04.657.2133
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Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based tour guide, journalist and regularly blogs on Travelujah. He may be reached at GilZohar@rogers.com.