Nazareth is an important city to both religious Christians and Arabs, and its main draw for visitors is religious sites. Built up the side of a mountain, Nazareth’s streets become increasingly steep and narrow the higher up you go, and it is an incredibly difficult city to navigate. With a predominately Arab population, Nazareth is also home to good Middle Eastern restaurants, an Arab shuk (outdoor market), and an old city region.
Sights in Nazareth
The Old City Market
In the course of visiting sites in Nazareth, you’ll find yourself in the Old City, which includes a market (04/601-1072, email@example.com, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri., 9am-2pm Sat.) and a grouping of about 100 very impressive Ottoman period homes. You also might come upon the 18th-century Saraya or Government House (top of Aliyah Bet St.), built by a famous governor of the Galilee in 1740 as his summer home and currently undergoing renovations to become the Museum of Nazareth.
A careful recreation of life in Nazareth during biblical times, Nazareth Village (5079 St. in the Old City, opposite the French Hospital, 04/645-6042, 9am-5pm Mon.-Sat., last tour at 3pm, adult NIS50, child NIS22, senior NIS34) is something similar to a living and breathing museum with guides in period dress who lead you through what life was like 2,000 years ago in Nazareth.
Basilica of the Annunciation
The Basilica of the Annunciation (southwestern corner of the Old City, 04/657-2501, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat. Oct.-Mar., 8am-6pm daily Apr.-Sept., modest dress, free) is one of the largest churches in the Middle East. It is a bit difficult to find it on your own, as it’s located about halfway up the mountainside of very steep and narrow roads. It’s best to reach it with a tour group or via a taxi.
The Catholic church was established in 1969, and built on the site of what is believed to be the Virgin Mary’s original home. The cavernous, two-story church engulfs a cave and the remains of previous churches, including a stone wall behind the cave from a 12th-century Crusader church. There are two stories to the church, with the upper level overlooking the main worship area.
One of the most engaging and dynamic features in the church, on the walls and throughout the massive courtyard surrounding the building, is an extensive collection of mosaic paintings from all over the world, each depicting scenes of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.
St. Gabriel’s Church
One of the loveliest among the many churches in town, the Greek Orthodox St. Gabriel’s Church (Paulus VI St., 04/656-8488, 8am-noon and 2pm-5pm Mon.-Sat., free) is just at the entrance to the city as you are coming from the north. This is the spot where, according to the Greek Orthodox tradition, Gabriel announced the future birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. The church has a high, arched ceiling, and between the colonnades the ceiling is painted with religious images against a blue backdrop.
Church of Saint Joseph
The Church of Saint Joseph (northwestern corner of the Old City near the Basilica of the Annunciation, 04/657-2501, 8am-5pm Mon.-Sat. Oct.-Mar., 8am-6pm Mon.-Sat. Apr.-Sept., free) is said to be built over the carpentry workshop of Joseph, Jesus’s father. The Franciscan church now on the site was established in 1914 over the ruins of older churches and the lower level has an ancient water pit, mosaics, caves, and barns from ancient Nazareth of the 1st and 2nd centuries BC.
The beginnings of the Cactus souvenir shop in 1993 brought with it the discovery of the Roman Bathhouse (Mary’s Well Square under the Cactus souvenir shop, 04/657-8539, 9am-7pm Mon.-Sat., NIS120 for private tours of up to four people), a 2,000-year-old bathhouse under the shop. Excavations have revealed underground heating tunnels, a hot room, and furnace. The tour fee includes refreshments.
Megiddo National Park
One of Israel’s several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Megiddo National Park (Megiddo and Yokne‘am Junctions on Rte. 66, 04/659-0316, 8am-5pm daily Apr.-Sept., 8am-4pm daily Oct.-Mar., last entry one hour before closing, NIS27) surrounds the ancient ruins of the biblical town Megiddo. A historically strategically important city that went from ruler to ruler throughout the ages, it is today a national park that makes for a relatively easy hike. Abandoned after the Persian period, Megiddo is identified with Armageddon, the scene of the battle of the End of Days according to Revelation 16:14-21. The park includes a souvenir shop, a museum with an audiovisual presentation, and guided tours by reservation. The site is good for visits year round and it takes about one to two hours to tour it.
Just about 1.5 miles outside of Nazareth is Mount Precipice (second exit off Rte. 60 south out of Nazareth), also known as the Mount of the Leap of the Lord, one of the city’s highest points. Mount Precipice is where the people of Nazareth took Jesus to be thrown off the cliff. There is a viewing platform to see the landscape below, and at the same spot is the Cave of the Leap, a 50,000-year-old cave that has the remains of 13 human skeletons and over 15,000 artifacts from the Stone Age.
Zippori National Park
About three miles west of Nazareth is the well-laid out Zippori National Park (2.5 miles east of Hamovil junction on Rte. 79 between Hamovil junction and Nazareth, 04/656-8272, 8am-5pm daily Apr.-Sept., 8am-4pm daily Oct.-Mar., last entry one hour before closing, adult NIS27, child NIS14), which is home to the ruins of a Crusader castle, foundations of a Byzantine church, and an excavated 4,500-seat Roman amphitheater. It is also home to several mosaic floorings, including the Mona Lisa of the Galilee, a remarkable depiction of a woman made from mosaic tiling. There is a visitor’s center at the entrance. As you leave the park you can explore the water channel and cistern.
Getting To and Around Nazareth
Nazareth is located just under two hours north of Jerusalem by car. Most of the drive is along Highway 6, which skirts the West Bank. It is about an hour and 20 minutes from Tel Aviv, also mostly along Highway 6.
Driving within Nazareth is an incomparable nightmare, unless you are accustomed to extremely steep, narrow streets that are sometimes not clearly marked as one-way. Using a GPS in Nazareth to navigate can make matters worse because certain parts of the city are so tightly packed. Nazareth Illit, or Upper Nazareth, and the Old City area have many of the more troublesome streets but also many of the major sights. If you must drive to Nazareth, park near the entrance to the city and take taxi cabs to your destinations.
Getting to the center of Nazareth, near the Basilica of the Annunciation, from Jerusalem by Egged bus (bus 955, NIS42 one-way) is just under 2.5 hours. From Tel Aviv, it takes three hours (bus 702, NIS37.5 one-way).
Once in Nazareth, you can take city buses to get around. But it is always best to ask for specific information at the front desk of any hotel in town.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Jerusalem & the Holy Land.