Perhaps you recognize this city by the English name of Acre. A name you might have heard about in history class or one you know of only as a measurement of property size.
Settled on Israel’s North coast lies Akko, the 5,000 year old port city. With busy markets that wind through alleyways, crossing paths with historical sites at every glance. This Israeli treasure has palpable history in every step. It is like a time machine, taking you back all the way to the Phoenicians. It was the Crusaders who left the greatest mark on this mediterranean gem, with underground tunnels, fortifications, the cobblestone streets, and the stone walls that protect the once prominent link to the west. The Greeks, Romans and Ottomans also had stints as Akko’s rulers. All settling here and writing the history of what we see today. They all feel so present, not at all like they have been gone for hundreds of years.
Today, Akko is an UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of the remains of the Crusader village that have been discovered and preserved for us to see. It is known for its religious and cultural diversity, as one of the only cities in the world that contains Ottoman walls, an abundance of mosques, khans and baths, Christian churches, citadels, as well as Bahai and Druze holy sites all encapsulated in one ancient city.
A day trip to the beautiful city of Akko is a day well spent, even if you are not a history buff. Engineers (or as I sometimes call Josh, enginerds) can find their excitement in the ancient architecture that rivals todays modern technology, artists can find joy in the beautiful contrast of colors, and foodies can certainly find their fair share of incredible fare. Although Akko is no longer a prominent port city connecting the Middle East to Europe, it is still quite prominent. This hidden gem has emerged as a culinary force, claiming to have some of the best hummus and seafood on the Mediterranean. That I can certainly attest to!
A quick 30km trip from Haifa, we arrived in Akko before the hustle and bustle of the city began. After a quick sea glass search at Horses Beach, we entered on foot through the “Land Gate” on the southern end of the old city, a sizable tunnel entrance that was built on a curve so that rival forces would have to slow down before attempting to enter. “Pretty brilliant,” were the words from my enginerd travel partner. From there we winded through the alleyways, walking in circles around the maze of cobblestone. The only sounds came from local early birds at their favorite coffee joints, fishermen docking, and store owners hosing down their storefronts. I have learned that arriving to destinations early is the best way to see the town from a locals perspective. The quietness, the serenity, and the reality of what life looks like through a local’s lens. That and parking is always easier.
With a long list of historical sites on our agenda we began with The Templar’s Tunnels. An incredibly complex tunnel built by the Crusaders as an escape route that led from the inside of the fortress to the port on the outer edge. A piece of incredible architecture and ingenuity. Not for the claustrophobics, but certainly a sight worth seeing.
Escaping from the tunnel, we were shot out at the Akko lighthouse, a small lighthouse surrounded by the beautiful blue of the Mediterranean and the unique stone wall of Akko. At the top of the lighthouse you can walk along the fortress walls and feel as though you are a Crusader looking out across the waters for oncoming enemies. Or you can witness the jet boats as they carry screaming tourists back and forth. Along the fortress walls we made our way to the port, a small little marina in comparison to Haifa. It has a special charm that is a combination of rich history and local business, as the fishermen unload their daily catches, locals try to get tourists to take a trip on their boats, restaurants carry in the produce from the market, and the waves calmly hit the dock.
With no real direction of order of events, we again wandered through the city, finding ourselves in colorful alleyways and dead ends. The charm of the old city shines in its colors, the tan stone with the turquoise doors, the bright blue Mediterranean, and the beautiful pink and yellow flowers. Sights that successfully fill up my photo storage and kill the battery in my phone.
From there we entered the Knights Halls. Massive underground vaults build by the hospitallers 800 years ago. In these vaults we were not only given one of the most engaging history lessons, but again we were able to feel as though we were medieval knights who patrolled, dined, and prayed here.
Akko boasts two incredible markets. The Turkish Baazar, lined with art galleries and casual dining spots that smell incredible, and the Old City Market. The Old City Market is one of my favorite shuks in Israel. It winds through the cobblestone alleyways, where you can watch Arab pastries being crafted, fish being brought in from the boats, and locals picking out the most vibrant spices and produce. As a coffee aficionado, I made sure to stop at the local coffee roaster in the center of this market. Here I was able to meet the owner, Deeb Bader, and learn about the different types of coffee offered in Israel. The most intriguing was “white coffee” which was a mix of half roasted coffee beans, cinnamon, and cardamon. Deeb kindly let me smell all of the different types of coffee beans and even suggested a mixture to make the best cup of medium roast coffee at home. He threw this mixture into his coffee grinder, handed me the bag of warm freshly ground beans, and I was off on my way. Deeb is a master, his mixture was genius.
Two other great destinations on the food tour of Akko include Hummus Said, located in the center of the shuk, and Hummus Al-Abed Abu-Hamid, underneath the Akko lighthouse. Both great establishments with tried and true hummus recipes. Ones you can soon read about in my blog dedicated to this gem of Israeli cuisine. To sum up our experience at these authentic hummus joints all I can say is that our stomachs were full and incredibly happy.
To walk off all of the hummus we consumed in this city famous for it, we circled the walls of the fortress and took in the sights of the beautiful city one last time. We came upon the massive Al-Jazzar Mosque that perfectly clashed green and bright white to create a stunning piece of architecture. We unfortunately couldn’t go inside because we conveniently found ourselves there during prayer time.
Another site I regret not getting to on this trip was the Bahá’í Gardens. Before coming to Israel I was unaware of the the Bahá’í Faith, and have learned that it is a monotheistic religion born in the nineteenth century that sees itself as the continuation of the world’s great religions with a new message for the modern age. The Bab (prophet) forbade violence and holy war (jihad), recognized the equality of women and encouraged science and education. A message I appreciate. Luckily Akko is a short trip from Haifa and I would love another excuse to try more of their famous hummus.
As the day strolled on and the tourist buses began to arrive, we continued to purposely loose ourselves among the puzzling alleyways and climb up stairs to the fortress walls. Reveling in the history that surrounded us and the shades of blue that perfectly contrasted the tans of the stone and the vibrant pinks of the flowers. We got stuck at dead ends, forced to retrace our steps. We were left with amazement over the dramatic history that this city has lived through, and a new appreciation for this incredible ancient city.