The coast of Galilee is where cultures meet and history echoes through the stone streets of Arab Acre (Akka) and the chic cafes of Haifa
Even on a cool spring dusk, the evening sun falling on the warm stone of Acre's harbour buildings turns everything to a gentle golden glow. Out on the stone sea-wall, local men catch fish, while even at this Mediterranean port, pied kingfishers hover over the lagoon, diving for small crabs. Along the street fronting on to the sea, the lights start to go on in the lively fish restaurants.
Situated on the coast of the fertile Galilee region, the mainly Palestinian city of Acre (now known as Akko or Akka) makes it onto few tourist itineraries. But this picturesque, slightly shabby small city has 3,000 years of history, great architecture and excellent local food to make it worth a trip up the coast from Haifa or cross-country from Jerusalem.
Most visitors will arrive in Acre via the train or bus stations, both of which are around 15 minutes' walk from the historic centre. Walking through the Old City gates, a square bordered by cafes and souvenir shops draws the visitor into the courtyard of the 18th-century al-Jazzar mosque, a pastel confection of many-coloured marble, with olive and lemon trees waving in the sea breeze.
Further into Acre, the narrow streets become those of the traditional Arab souk. Here, a lively market still sells everything from shoes to spices, while the local cats crouch under fish stalls hoping that a stray offcut will be thrown to them.
Although Acre is now a small provincial city, its market catering mainly to the everyday needs of its inhabitants, its great khans bear witness to a more prosperous and cosmopolitan past. Huge courtyards surrounded by tiers of stables and hostelry rooms, these were once important points on trade routes that connected China, Central Asia, Arabia and Europe. Merchants' caravans stopped here, bringing textiles to French and Italian buyers who took supplies back to the markets of Europe. Names like the al-Franj Khan (Khan of the French) and Pisa Square are all that's left of Acre's wealthy European communities. Many of the khans themselves are accessible to visitors to wander around, but are derelict and rarely used.
One of the few of Acre's attractions that has been modernised and preserved (and properly marked to make it easier to find) is the Templar Tunnel, built to allow Christian troops from the city's 12th-century Crusader fortress to make a quick escape to the harbour. It was discovered in 1994, and wooden walkways have been installed to allow visitors to walk its echoing, spooky 350-metre length. Other parts of the buried medieval city, including echoing rooms and the courtyard of a Crusader hospice, are accessible via the citadel building in the square outside al-Jazzar mosque.
Acre isn't a city to drop in, sightsee and leave. Its slow pace, labyrinthine streets and lack of any tourist signs or directions demand that the visitor take some time, breaking off to drink thick, black Arabic coffee in a cafe or linger over a meal in one of the fish restaurants on the atmospheric seafront or (more cheaply) in the market on Saladin Street. It's possible to see many of Acre's sites in a day trip from the busier Haifa, but it's worth taking a night in the Akko Gate Hostel or Akkotel and letting yourself appreciate this strange, melancholy destination.
After Acre, Haifa seems like a terrifically bustling city, with its chic Arabic restaurants in the old stone workshops and houses of the German Colony area, the busy street market and falafel shops in the city's Palestinian quarter, and the long sandy golden beaches that stretch south along the coast. Wadi Nisnas, the centre of the city's modern Palestinian community, is also well worth a visit for its murals, depicting Haifa's Arab history and artistic and literary figures.
Off the beaten track there are also the cosmopolitan coffee-shops of the Hadar neighbourhood, half-way up Mount Carmel and a short uphill walk from the busy city centre. On one or two little streets, made colourful by bougainvillea vines, antique shops nestle cheek-by-jowl with places like Cafe Katan, Cafe Elika and Cafe Beneinu, where Haifa's Palestinian literati and Jewish left come to read magazines, play chess or watch the news on big TV screens, while sipping tall hot chocolates and eating generous salads. In a city held up for its Arab-Jewish co-existence, Hadar's diverse cafes are welcoming places to experience its many traditions.
Where to stay
Akko Gate Hostel: a well-located, clean, friendly and affordable hotel in Acre's Old City.
Haddad Guesthouse: a family-run hostel in the trendy German Colony area of Haifa.
Akkotel: new boutique hotel in the old city of Akka, in a beautifully renovated 18th century Ottoman building.
Where to eat
Abu Christo: one of Acre's famous seafood restaurants, with spectacular views of the harbour where the fish are landed.
Fattoush: the first and best of a series of Arabic restaurants in the German Colony area of Haifa, with cushioned sofas, exotic décor and friendly service.
BMI and Thomson offer the best-value direct flights from the UK (Heathrow or Manchester) to Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, an hour and half by train from Haifa and Acre.