The Shortest Day of the Year in Historical Acre, Israel
It was a partly cloudy December day in Israel and that usually means the equivalent of a record setting summer day in Ireland, where I currently reside. It was actually the shortest day of the year, December 21 2014. My good friend, Oded and myself, were looking for a cool place to spend the day. We were in search of a place that combines history, Mediterranean scenery and above all, great food. We found exactly this place in Acre, or Akko as it is locally known (actually, it was Oded’s idea so I must give him credit for that). What is there to do in Acre and why does it make for a great day trip from Tel Aviv? Let’s find out.
Acre is only 90 minutes away from Tel Aviv and the drive along the Mediterranean coast can be very rewarding, with long stretches of the emerald blue sea just off the coastal highway. If you’re in a rush and want to bypass Haifa (which is worthy of its own exploration), you can actually drive pretty much under it through the tolled Carmel Tunnels, quite a feat of engineering. Before you know it, you arrive in Acre.
A Tiny Bit of History
But before we start exploring Acre, a tiny bit of history. This is Israel after all and no matter where your next step takes you, you’re bound to be stepping into history.
Acre (Akko) is one of the oldest settlements in the area and has been mentioned since the 15th century BC (that’s a long time ago!). It’s conveniently situated in northern Israel, making its port a strategic jewel in the crowns of many ancient folks. It’s certainly been around the block, having played host to the ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans and even the Brits. Today, Acre is a mixed town, home to both Jews and Muslims. Influenced by so many cultures, its walled ancient city guards many secrets and the best way to explore is by foot – so let’s begin.
We headed straight to the old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first stop right as you enter is The Hospitaller Fortress. The Hospitallers were a monastic military order whose mission was to take care of the sick. Following the Third Crusade by King Richard the Lionheart, Acre’s importance grew and a larger Hospitaller headquarter was needed. The result was a large compound and today, we can only visit a portion of that called The Knights Halls, as some sections were destroyed and some still buried deep underground. We were quite marveled at the restoration this place undertook. Highlights included walking along the ancient walls and heading into the many halls where much of the region’s history happened.
Just outside the fortress is another Acre highlight, the al-Jazzar Mosque. It’s actually the largest mosque in Israel aside from Jerusalem mosques and was the largest built during the Ottoman rule (built in the 18th century). Sadly, there was a funeral taking place in the mosque on the day we visited so it was not possible to step inside. But not to worry, we’ll catch a unique view of this impressive structure later on.
In Search of the Best Hummus in Israel
All this sightseeing was making us hungry and our timing couldn’t be better. We headed through the covered market towards ‘the holy grail’ of the Middle East’s most famous dish. This region certainly has its fair share of political debates but one that you won’t hear about in the media is a debate over which every Israeli has an opinion on – where’s the best hummus in Israel? The covered market in Old Acre is home to Humus Said (pronounced Sa-id), one of the best places to have hummus in Israel and that’s exactly where we were headed.
The walk through the market is a delight for every market lover, and who doesn’t love a market, especially an oriental market? Calls for prayer from the mosque’s loudspeaker mixed with the sounds of savvy shopkeepers and merchants. Exploring the market on an empty stomach is not the best idea so we queued up for lunch with everyone else who heard about Said’s hummus.
Right from the start, you can see this place is super popular. It’s only open until around 2 pm so get there early and expect to queue for up to 20 minutes but it’s totally worth it. It’s pretty ‘orderly chaotic’ inside during the peak lunchtime period, as staff scientifically seat people and ensure the queue is moving. They say you know a restaurant is a good one when locals eat there and if that saying is true, then Said’s hummus is one of the best. The staff and the locals know each other by name and they didn’t seem to even order anything, just getting ‘the usual’.
Speaking of ordering food, it’s not that challenging here. You come here for hummus so why complicate things? Choose from three types of hummus, for 15 Shekels a plate (about $4), made fresh – just look behind you at the open kitchen. Before you know it, the humus arrives along with amazingly soft pitas and pickles. If you like to live on the wild side, ask for a shot of olive oil. It’s amazing and apparently good for your health. I dared Oded to down a shot in exchange for picking up the tab – and he didn’t even think twice! Here’s a quick look inside Said’s Hummus.
Now we were finally ready to explore the market but that doesn’t mean we were done with our culinary experience, on the contrary.
Exploring the Market in Old Acre
The market in Acre is very colorful, with interesting sites, delicious bites and of course the hustle and bustle you would expect. Have a look at what it feels like to explore the market.
You can pretty much find anything here and it’s all fresh. Fancy some freshly caught fish from the Mediterranean? Or what about some spices? Do you need to replace that old Shisha back home (water pipe)? Let’s not forget the amazing fruits and vegetables you’ll find in Israel. Their taste is so different than what you’ll come across in northern Europe.
Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth
You may have been wondering if we forgot about dessert back at Hummus Said. Well, we didn’t. The place to satisfy your sweet tooth is at the Kashash Brothers pastry shop. It’s been making delicious Arabic pastries for generations so they know a thing or two about this. You may have heard of Baklava, which you’ll find plenty of here but be sure to also try Knafeh, a sweet pastry usually made with goat cheese and topped with hot sugar syrup. This isn’t the place for calorie counting so we sampled a few pastries along with strong Turkish coffee. You usually don’t leave this place empty-handed and you’re bound to grab a box and fill it up with your favorites Baklavas – to go.
Next up was stocking up on some fresh coffee. We asked around and were told that the best place to buy coffee from is right in the market. Where exactly, we asked? ‘Just look for the huge bags of coffee beans outside the shops’. Those were the directions. It only took a few minutes to spot the shop and yes, there were huge bags filled with coffee beans greeting us at the entrance. After a few qualification questions by the owner, we were matched with the right beans and had them ground on the spot. We ended up with a few hundred grams of warm, freshly ground coffee that would accompany us in sealed plastic bags for the next few hours and would turn many passing heads towards us as the scent is so strong, and so good!
Our last stop in the market was at Kurdi and Berit, a place that’s been making and mixing spices for four generations! Step inside the shop and step back in time. You’ll likely be treated to deliciously strong Turkish coffee served in tiny cups as you open and close the dozens of containers that hide the aromatic treasures, from hot tandoori mix for your chicken to some lovely curry or perhaps even the ‘house mix’, which is pretty much good for anything. Fill up your bags and have them weighed the old-fashioned way on a proper scale.
Going Underground With the Templars
Now ready for a bit more sightseeing, we headed through the market towards the Templar Tunnel. The Templars were a military order that guarded Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades. When Jerusalem was taken over by the Ottomans, the Templars relocated to Acre and built their fortress there. The tunnel was a strategic link between the fortress and the port, extending 350 meters underground and partially carved through the natural rock. Following the footsteps of the Templars through the tunnel is a short but cool experience. At times, you have to duck down to clear the entrance and you also notice a small stream flowing right beside you. You are pretty close to the sea after all.
The tunnel’s exit is conveniently positioned at a lovely viewpoint on the old city walls and close to a highly regarded seafood restaurant called Uri Buri. Stepping out of the darkness of the underground tunnel and into the pampering Mediterranean sun, we ventured out for a walk along the walls, passing the lighthouse and towards the marina.
The Marina in Acre looked like the perfect place to take a break, catch some sun and watch the fishing boats come to port with their bounty. You also get a great view of the old city walls, right on the water’s edge. If you look closely down towards the water, you might also find a few old relics of ancient city walls that have long given way to the sea, or to some catapult shot centuries ago – who knows?
Getting Lost in Old Acre is Part of the Fun
From the marina, was started to head back towards the car but the day was not over yet. Getting lost in the old city of Acre is part of the fun and before we knew it, we found ourselves in the Khan el-Umdan, an Ottoman version of an Italian piazza where back in the day, this is where business was conducted. It’s easy to picture the goods that changed hands here, centuries ago.
From khan to khan, we quickly found ourselves walking into Khan el-Franj. This khan is a bit older and actually built by the Frenchies back in the 16th century. Unlike Khan el-Umdan, this place is still functioning today and we couldn’t resist ending the day was some more Turkish coffee and sweet baklava.
The day was almost coming to an end. On the way back to the car, we walked through the Turkish Bazaar, a very cool covered street with mostly tiny artsy shops and cozy bars. Quite a contrast to the oriental market just down the road.
A Great End to a Short Day
One of the many advantages of visiting Israel’s Mediterranean coast is the wonderful sunsets that you’re almost guaranteed to see. As we neared the car, we walked along the eastern walls and were treated to a great view of the old city at sunset. The ride home wasn’t too bad either as the sun dropped into the sea like a ball of fire.
So the shortest day of the year turned out to be one of the best days of the year. Acre certainly deserves more time and there are lots to see in this part of Israel but we had an amazing time in this ancient city with a taste of history and great tasting food!