Two days in Tsfat (Safed)

This is an article to spend your time in Tsfat, but instead of visiting this town for a couple of hours (like with most of the organized tours do), you spend two days at this ethereal place. Here I describe why and how. Here I talk about all the sights, neighborhoods, hotels, restaurants, prices, tips, entertainment, history, everything to make it possible to have your own tour without a guide. This is guide inside information shared with you. 

Print out this article or at least print the (embedded) maps. If you need more maps, click here for the maps about Tsfat.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

The mountaintop city of Tsfat is an ethereal place to get lost for a day or two. A center of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) since the 16th century, it’s home to an otherworldly mixture of Hasidic Jews, artists and devout-but-mellow former hippies, a surprising number of them American immigrants.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

In the old city’s labyrinth of cobbled alleys and steep stone stairways, you’ll come across ancient synagogues, crumbling stone houses with turquoise doorways, art galleries, artists’  studios and Yiddish-speaking little boys in black kaftans and bowler hats.

Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter
Tzfat Old City & Artist Quarter

Parts of Tsfat look like a shtetl (ghetto) built of Jerusalem stone, but the presence of so many mystics and spiritual seekers creates a distinctly bohemian atmosphere.

On Shabbat (Friday night and Saturday until sundown), commerce completely shuts down. While this may be inconvenient if you’re looking for a bite to eat, the lack of traffic creates a meditative, spiritual atmosphere through which joyful Hasidic tunes waft from hidden synagogues and unseen dining rooms. Do not photograph observant Jews on Shabbat and holidays.

In July and August and during the Passover and Sukkot holidays, Tsfat is packed with tourists –both Israeli and foreign – and the city’s restaurants and cafes buzz until late at night. Winter, on the other hand, is very quiet, giving the city’s many artists a chance to get some work done.

Small History
Founded in the Roman period, Tsfat was fortified by Yosef ben Matityahu (later known as Josephus Flavius), commander of Jewish forces in the Galilee in the early years of the Great Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE). According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Tsfat was the site of one of the hilltop fire beacons used to convey news of the sighting of the new moon in Jerusalem.

The Crusaders, led by King Fulk of Anjou, built a vast citadel here to control the highway to Damascus. It was later captured by Saladin (1188), dismantled by the Ayyubids (1220), rebuilt by the Knights Templar (1240) and expanded by the Mamluk Sultan Beybars (after 1266).

During the late 15th and 16th centuries, Tsfat’s Jewish community increased in size and importance thanks to an influx of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Among the new arrivals were some of the Jewish world’s pre-eminent Kabbalists. During this period, Tsfat was an important stop on the trade route from Akko to Damascus and was known for its production of textiles. A Hebrew printing press – the first such device anywhere in the Middle East – was set up in Tsfat in 1577.

In the late 1700s, Tsfat welcomed an influx of Hasidim from Russia. Tsfat was decimated by the plague in 1742, 1812 and 1847, and devastated by earthquakes in 1759 and 1837. The latter disaster killed thousands and caused all but a handful of buildings to crumble.

In 1948 the departing British handed the town’s strategic assets over to Arab forces, but after a pitched battle Jewish forces prevailed and the Arab population fled – among them, 13-year-old Mahmoud Abbas, now president of the Palestinian Authority. These days, Tsfat’s residents include more than a few American Jews who turned to mysticism in a 1960s-inspired search for spirituality and transcendental meaning.

Map of Tsfat
Map of Tsfat
  1. Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue – Najara St; h9.30am-about 7pm Sun-Thu, 9.30am-1pm Fri, closed during prayers.
    Founded in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews from Greece, this synagogue was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake and rebuilt in the 1850s. It stands on the site where the great Kabbalist Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; 1534–72; often known by the name Ari) used to greet the Sabbath. In the 18th century it came to serve Tsfat’s Ashkenazi Hasidic community, hence the synagogue’s name (the Jerusalem-born Ari had a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father). High atop the 19th-century holy ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept), carved and elaborately painted according to the traditions of Galicia (Poland), the lion has a human-like face that worshippers speculate may be that of the Ari (the Hebrew word ari means ‘lion’). In 1948, the synagogue was packed with worshippers when an Arab mortar round slammed into the courtyard, sending shrapnel crashing into the side of the bimah (central platform) facing the door (the hole is still there). It was a miracle, say locals, that there were no casualties.

    Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
    Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue
  2. Caro Synagogue. 04-692 3284, Eyal 050 855 0462; Beit Yosef St; 9am-5.30pm Sun-Thu, 9am-3pm or 4pm in winter, 9am-noon Fri).
    Named (like the street it’s on) in honour of the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the most authoritative codification of Jewish law), Toledo-born Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), this synagogue was founded as a house of study in the 1500s but rebuilt after the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837 – and again in 1903. To the right as you face the ark, hanging in one of the windows, you can see the twisted remains of a Katyusha rocket from Lebanon that landed just outside in 2006. In the 16th century, Caro, the head of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, was the most respected  rabbinical authority not only in Palestine but in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora as well. According to tradition, an angel revealed the secrets of Kabbalah to Caro in the house below the synagogue.

    Caro Synagogue
    Caro Synagogue
  3. Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry. 692 3880; http://www.hjm.org.il; HaAzma’ut Sq; admission 20NIS, incl tour 35NIS; h9am-2pm Sun-Thu, 9am-1pm Fri).
    Evocative artefacts, photographs and documents do a masterful job of evoking the lost world of pre-WWII Hungarian-speaking Jewry. A 17-minute film provides context. If you’re interested, museum co-founder (along with her husband) Chava Lustig will tell you about the Budapest ghetto, which she survived as a 14-year-old. The museum has extensive archives for those interested in doing family research. Signs are in Hebrew, Hungarian and English.

    Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry
    Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry
  4. Abuhav Synagogue. 04-692 3885; Abuhav St; husually 9am-5pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri).
    Named after the 15th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, this synagogue was founded in the 16th century but moved to its present location after the 1759 earthquake. The ornately carved courtyard, restored in the late 20th century, is often used for weddings. Inside, the four central pillars represent the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) that, according to Kabbalists (and ancient Greeks such as Aristotle), make up all of creation. The oval dome has 10 windows, one for each of the Ten Commandments; representations of the 12 Tribes of Israel; illustrations of musical instruments used in the Temple; pomegranates (said to  have the same number of seeds as there are Jewish commandments, 613); and the Dome of the Rock, a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem.

    Abuhav Synagogue
    Abuhav Synagogue
  5. Ari’s Mikveh. South of the southern end of Ha’Ari St; 24hr.
    A boldface Hebrew sign on the gate reads ‘entry for men only’. The reason is not gynophobia but the fact that inside there are naked men taking a quick, ritually purifying dip in the icy waters of a natural spring. Once used by the Ari, the site is run by the Breslov (Bratzlav) Hassidic movement.

    Ari’s Mikveh
    Ari’s Mikveh
  6. Canaan Gallery. 04-697 4449; http://www.canaan-gallery.com; Fig Tree Courtyard, 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; 9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2.30pm Fri).
    Continuing Tsfat’s centuries-old textile tradition, begun by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Orna and Yair Moore’s studio produces richly textured tapestries, wall hangings and Jewish ritual objects (talitot, kippot, challah covers) made from cotton and chenille. You can see weavers at work at their upstairs studio.
  7. Citadel Park. Gan HaMetsuda; Chativat Yiftach St; 24hr.
    The highest point in central Tsfat (834m), now a breeze-cooled park, was once part of the largest Crusader fortress in the Middle East (its outer walls followed the line now marked by Jerusalem St). Near the park’s southern tip, the ruins of one of the inner walls can be seen along Chativat Yiftach St. From there, a path leads up the slope and under an old water pipe to a dark, flat, 30m-long tunnel that takes you into an ancient stone cistern. Stand in the middle and see what happens when you clap. Other footpaths lead up to the ridge line, which affords panoramic views in all directions.

    Citadel Park
    Citadel Park
  8. Citadel ruins. See the Citadel Park (7).
  9. Davidka Memorial. Jerusalem St.
    About 50m south of City Hall, the Davidka Memorial recalls the role played by the home-made, notoriously inaccurate Davidka mortar in sowing panic among the Arab population, possibly because of rumors that its incredibly loud 40kg warhead was an atomic bomb. About 3km to the left, a free audio guide tells the dramatic tale of the battle for Tsfat in 1947 and 1948 – from the Israeli perspective, of course.

    Davidka Memorial
    Davidka Memorial
  10. Fig Tree Courtyard. 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am- 5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri.
    Set around a centenarian fig tree and a 9m-deep cistern (visible through a glass floor panel), this collection of galleries and silversmiths’ ateliers is one of Tsfat’s classiest. From the rooftop patio you can see half the Galilee, from Mt Meron all the way south to Mt Tabor, with the cliffs of Amud Stream (Nahal Amud) in the depths below. Restrooms available.

    Fig Tree Courtyard
    Fig Tree Courtyard
  11. Former British police station. Jerusalem St. 
    Across the Jerusalem street is the former British police station, riddled with bullet holes from 1948, which is now used by the Tsfat Academic College.
  12. General Safed Exhibition. 04-692 0087; 2 Arlozoroff St; 10am-5pm Sun-Thu, 10am-2pm Fri & Sat.
    Opened in 1952, this group gallery – housed in the white-domed, Ottoman-era Market Mosque –displays, sells and ships works by about 50 painters and 10 sculptors, including some very talented immigrants from the former Soviet Union. If you find yourself intrigued by a particular work, ask for directions to the artist’s studio.
  13. HaMeiri Dairy. Yaniv 052 372 1609; http://www.hameiri-cheese.co.il; Keren HaYesod St; 9am-3pm Sun-Thu, 9am-1.30pm Fri.
    Run by the same family for six generations, this small dairy takes about 50,000L of sheep’s milk a year and turns it into delicious cheeses, including soft, creamy Bulgarian cheese (aged for a full year) and a variety of gvina Tzfatit (Tsfat-style cheese; aged for six months) that’s harder, saltier and sheepier than the supermarket variety – both can be purchased at the tiny deli counter. To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase, turn right and walk 50m. There are 45-minute tours (adult/child 20/15NIS, in Hebrew) at noon on Friday; a cafe is planned. Cheeses are made each Thursday.

    HaMeiri Dairy
    HaMeiri Dairy
  14. HaMeiri Museum. 04-697 1307; http://www.bhm.org.il; 158 Keren Ha-Yesod St; adult/child 6-18yr 20/13NIS; h8.30am-2.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.30am-1.30pm Fri.
    Housed in a 150-year-old building that once served as the seat of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, this museum illustrates Jewish life in Tsfat during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Exhibits include unique household and Jewish ritual objects made by local tinsmiths using empty kerosene cans (some even incorporate the Shell logo into the design). To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase and turn right. Upstairs is a re-creation of a one-room apartment inhabited by a family with six children. The mother got to sleep in the one bed, and the shower consisted of a hanging bucket made of reused tin with a showerhead welded to the bottom. Visitors are asked to check in their backpacks so they don’t knock anything over. Signs are in English.
  15. Kabbalah Art. 04-697 2702; http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com; 38 Bar Yochai St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2hrs before sundown Fri.
    Denver-born David Friedman uses the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet, Kabbalistic symbols such as the Tree of Life, and the universal language of color and geometry to create striking visual representations of Kabbalah, and is happy to give visitors a short introduction to Kabbalah. Situated about 100m northwest of HaMaginim Sq.
  16. Kadosh Dairy. Kadosh Cheese; 04-692 0326; 34 Yud Alef St; 8am-8pm Sun-Thu, 8am-1hr before sundown Fri.
    Run by the Kadosh family for seven generations, this microdairy produces minuscule quantities of deliciously sharp, salty gvina Tzfatit as well as a variety of other cheeses, including blue cheese, kashkaval (a semihard yellow sheep’s milk cheese) and pecorino. You can usually watch cheese being made on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8am to 3pm. To get there from the Synagogue Quarter, follow the signs down the hill to ‘Safed Cheeze’ or ‘Zefat Cheeze’. The dairy sells cheeses, as well as halva made with honey, stuffed grape leaves and local wines. A sampler plate with about 10 cheeses and bread – enough for a meal – costs 40NIS.

    Kadosh Dairy
    Kadosh Dairy
  17. Safed Candles. Najara St, Synagogue Quarter; 9.15am-6.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.15am-12.30pm Fri, 9.15am-1.45pm Fri in summer.
    If you’ve ever wondered how Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah candles are braided and decorated, drop by this emporium to watch an expert candlemaker at work – she’s often here from noon to 4pm Sunday to Thursday. Other waxy highlights include the world’s largest braided Havdalah candle (it’s got 180 strands) and a gloriously gory mini-diorama showing David holding aloft the severed head of Goliath – a masterwork of kitsch! Situated 50m down an alley from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.
  18. Safed Craft Pottery. 054 434 5206; http://www.haaripottery.blogspot.com; 63 Yud Alef St, Artists’ Quarter; h10am-6pm Sun-Thu, 10am-3hrs before sundown Fri.
    UK-born potter Daniel Flatauer works in the English studio pottery tradition, producing tableware, kitchenware and Judaica that is both functional and extraordinarily beautiful. He has the only salt kiln in Israel – if you’re not sure what that means, ask him!

    Safed Craft Pottery
    Safed Craft Pottery
  19. Sephardic Ari Synagogue. Synagogue Ha’Ary Sefaradi; Ha’Ari St; 1-7pm Sun-Wed, 1-5pm Thu in summer, shorter hrs rest of yr.
    Tsfat’s oldest synagogue – it’s mentioned in documents from as far back as 1522 – was frequented by the Ari, who found inspiration in the panoramic views of Mt Meron and the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. To the left of the raised bimah (platform) is the small room, glowing with candles, where he is said to have studied mystical texts with the prophet Elijah. The present structure is partly the result of rebuilding after the earthquake of 1837.
  20. Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery. 058 714 7640; http://www.shevachaya.com; 7 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; 9am-6pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri.
    Kabbalistic concepts and women’s themes in Judaism are represented in the art of Denver-born painter and glass-blower Sheva Chaya Shaiman. She does glassblowing demonstrations on most days in July and August, and often the rest of the year. Situated across the street from the General Safed Exhibition.

    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
  21. Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art. 04-692 3051; http://www.kabbalahart.com; 35 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; Usually (call before) 9am-4pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri.
    Avraham Loewenthal, who hails from Detroit, is happy to explain the symbolism of his colorful, abstract works, which are based on Kabbalistic concepts. Call ahead  for a private viewing. Situated across the street from HaMa’ayan HaRadum Sq.

    Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art
    Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art
  22. Yehezkel HaMeiri Viewpoint. Ma’alot Olei HaGardom. Opened in 2014, affords views of the Kabbalists’ tombs and Mt Meron.

    Yehezkel HaMeiri House
    Yehezkel HaMeiri House

Sights

Central Tsfat’s main thoroughfare, lined with shops and eateries, is north–south Yerushalayim St (Jerusalem St). West of here, a broad staircase called Ma’alot Olei HaGardom divides the Synagogue Quarter (to the north) from the Artists’ Quarter (to the south). The main alley in the Synagogue Quarter, famous for its many art galleries, is called Alkabetz St and Beit Yosef St (Yosef Caro St). The Kabbalists’ tombs are further down the slope. Most of Tsfat’s sights are in the Synagogue Quarter and the adjacent Artists’ Quarter.

Tsfat’s Galleries

A retreat and inspiration for Israeli artists since the 1950s, Tsfat is home to one of Israel’s largest collections of artists’ studios and art galleries, making it the best place in the country (along with Jerusalem) to shop for Judaica (Jewish ritual objects).

You’ll find jaw-dropping original art, commercial semi-kitsch and everything in between, and almost all the works – menorahs, mezuzahs, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, jewellery, glass work, sinuous modern sculpture, paintings – are imaginative and upliftingly colorful.

Most, in the mystical Hasidic tradition, are also joyous. In the Synagogue Quarter, dozens of galleries can be found along Alkabetz St, a stone-paved alleyway that stretches south from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue; further south it is known as Beit Yosef St (Yosef Caro St). More galleries, as well as artists’ studios, are hidden away in the Artists’ Quarter along the alleys around the General Exhibition, including Tet-Vav St.

This list of galleries are located from the north to the south:

  • Kabbalah Art 04-697 2702; http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com; 38 Bar Yochai St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2hrs before sundown Fri. Denver-born David Friedman uses the mysteries of the Hebrew alphabet, Kabbalistic symbols such as the Tree of Life, and the universal language of color and geometry to create striking visual representations of Kabbalah, and is happy to give visitors a short introduction to Kabbalah. Situated about 100m northwest of HaMaginim Sq.

    Kabbalah Art
    Kabbalah Art
  • Safed Candles Najara St, Synagogue Quarter; h9.15am-6.30pm Sun-Thu, 9.15am-12.30pm Fri, 9.15am-1.45pm Fri in summer) If you’ve ever wondered how Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah candles are braided and decorated, drop by this emporium to watch an expert candlemaker at work – she’s often here from noon to 4pm Sunday to Thursday. Other waxy highlights include the world’s largest braided Havdalah candle (it’s got 180 strands) and a gloriously gory mini-diorama showing David holding aloft the severed head of Goliath – a masterwork of kitsch! Situated 50m down an alley from the Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue.

    Safed Candles
    Safed Candles
  • Fig Tree Courtyard 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri. Set around a centenarian fig tree and a 9m-deep cistern (visible through a glass floor panel), this collection of galleries and silversmiths’ ateliers is one of Tsfat’s classiest. From the rooftop patio you can see half the Galilee, from Mt Meron all the way south to Mt Tabor, with the cliffs of Amud Stream (Nahal Amud) in the depths below. Restrooms available.
  • Canaan Gallery 04-697 4449; http://www.canaan-gallery.com; Fig Tree Courtyard, 28 Alkabetz St, Synagogue Quarter; h9am-7pm Sun-Thu Apr-Oct, 9am-5pm Sun-Thu Nov-Mar, 9am-2.30pm Fri. Continuing Tsfat’s centuries-old textile tradition, begun by Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Orna and Yair Moore’s studio produces richly textured tapestries, wall hangings and Jewish ritual objects (talitot, kippot, challah covers) made from cotton and chenille. You can see weavers at work at their upstairs studio.

    Canaan Gallery
    Canaan Gallery
  • Safed Craft Pottery 054 434 5206; http://www.haaripottery.blogspot.com; 63 Yud Alef St, Artists’ Quarter; h10am-6pm Sun-Thu, 10am-3hrs before sundown Fri. UK-born potter Daniel Flatauer works in the English studio pottery tradition, producing tableware, kitchenware and Judaica that is both functional and extraordinarily beautiful. He has the only salt kiln in Israel – if you’re not sure what that means, ask him!

    Safed Craft Pottery
    Safed Craft Pottery
  • Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery 058 714 7640; http://www.shevachaya.com; 7 Tet Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; h9am-6pm Sun-Thu, 9am-2pm or 3pm Fri. Kabbalistic concepts and women’s themes in Judaism are represented in the art of Denver-born painter and glass-blower Sheva Chaya Shaiman. She does glassblowing demonstrations on most days in July and August, and often the rest of the year. Situated across the street from the General Safed Exhibition.

    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
    Sheva Chaya Glassblowing Gallery
  • Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art 04-692 3051; http://www.kabbalahart.com; 35 Tet Vav St, Artists’Quarter; usually 9am-4pm Sun-Thu, 9am-noon Fri. Avraham Loewenthal, who hails from Detroit, is happy to explain the symbolism of his colorful, abstract works, which are based on Kabbalistic concepts. Call ahead for a private viewing. Situated across the street from HaMa’ayan HaRadum Sq.

Synagogue Quarter

Tsfat’s long-time Jewish neighborhood spills down the hillside from HaMaginim Sq (Kikar HaMaginim; Defenders’ Sq), which dates from 1777; all of Tsfat’s historic Kabbalist synagogues are a quick (if often confusing) walk from here. If you’re short on time, the two to visit are the Ashkenazi Ari and Caro synagogues. Galleries filled with exuberant art line the main alleyway, known as Alkabetz St and Beit Yosef St.

Synagogue hours tend to be irregular, especially in winter, and unannounced closings (eg for Monday and Thursday morning bar mitzvahs) are common. Visitors should wear modest clothing (no shorts or bare shoulders); kippas/yarmulkes are provided for men (or you can wear any hat). Caretakers appreciate a small donation (5NIS). Synagogues are closed to tourists on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Ancient Jewish CemeteryThe weed-covered, rock-strewn jumble of sun-baked graves below the Synagogue Quarter doesn’t look like much, but for followers of Jewish mysticism, the spirits of the great 16th-century Kabbalists buried here make this hillside an exceptional place to connect with the divine spark through prayer and meditation. A wander through the area is a bit otherworldly at any time, but it’s particularly magical in the early evening, when you can walk in the flickering glow of memorial candles, often to the haunting echoes of chanted prayers and psalms.

Ashkenazi Ari Synagogue – Founded in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews from Greece, this synagogue was destroyed in the 1837 earthquake and rebuilt in the 1850s. It stands on the site where the great Kabbalist Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; 1534–72; often known by the name Ari) used to greet the Sabbath. In the 18th century it came to serve Tsfat’s Ashkenazi Hasidic community, hence the synagogue’s name (the Jerusalem-born Ari had a Sephardic mother and an Ashkenazi father). High atop the 19th-century holy ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept), carved and elaborately painted according to the traditions of Galicia (Poland), the lion has a human-like face that worshipers speculate may be that of  the Ari (the Hebrew word ari means ‘lion’). In 1948, the synagogue was packed with worshipers when an Arab mortar round slammed into the courtyard, sending shrapnel crashing into the side of the bimah (central platform) facing the door (the hole is still there). It was a miracle, say locals, that there were no casualties.

Caro SynagogueNamed (like the street it’s on) in honour of the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the most authoritative codification of Jewish law), Toledo-born Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488–1575), this synagogue was founded as a house of study in the 1500s but rebuilt after the earthquakes of 1759 and 1837 – and again in 1903. To the right as you face the ark, hanging in one of the windows, you can see the twisted remains of a Katyusha rocket from Lebanon that landed just outside in 2006. In the 16th century, Caro, the head of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, was the most respected rabbinical authority not only in Palestine but in many parts of the Jewish Diaspora as well. According to tradition, an angel revealed the secrets of Kabbalah to Caro in the house below the synagogue.

Abuhav SynagogueNamed after the 15th-century Spanish scholar Rabbi Yitzhak Abuhav, this synagogue was founded in the 16th century but moved to its present location after the 1759 earthquake. The ornately carved courtyard, restored in the late 20th century, is often used for weddings. Inside, the four central pillars represent the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) that, according to Kabbalists (and ancient Greeks such as Aristotle), make up all of creation. The oval dome has 10 windows, one for each of the Ten Commandments; representations of the 12 Tribes of Israel; illustrations of musical instruments used in the Temple; pomegranates (said to have the same number of seeds as there are Jewish commandments, 613); and the Dome of the Rock, a reminder of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Sephardic Ari SynagogueTsfat’s oldest synagogue – it’s mentioned in documents from as far back as 1522 – was frequented by the Ari, who found inspiration in the panoramic views of Mt Meron and the tomb of Shimon bar Yochai. To the left of the raised bimah (platform) is the small room, glowing with candles, where he is said to have studied mystical texts with the prophet Elijah. The present structure is partly the result of rebuilding after the earthquake of 1837.

HaMeiri MuseumHoused in a 150-year-old building that once served as the seat of Tsfat’s rabbinical court, this museum illustrates Jewish life in Tsfat during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Exhibits include unique household and Jewish ritual objects made by local tinsmiths using empty kerosene cans (some even incorporate the Shell logo into the design). To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase and turn right. Upstairs is a re-creation of a one-room apartment inhabited by a family with six children. The mother got to sleep in the one bed, and the shower consisted of a hanging bucket made of reused tin with a shower head welded to the bottom. Visitors are asked to check in their backpacks so they don’t knock anything over. Signs are in English.

HaMeiri Dairy – Run by the same family for six generations, this small dairy takes about 50,000 liter of sheep’s milk a year and turns it into delicious cheeses, including soft, creamy Bulgarian cheese (aged for a full year) and a variety of gvina Tzfatit  (Tsfat-style cheese; aged for six months) that’s harder, saltier and sheepier than the supermarket variety – both can be purchased at the tiny deli counter. To get there, go all the way to the bottom of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom staircase, turn right and walk 50m. There are 45-minute tours (adult/child 20/15NIS, in Hebrew) at noon on Friday; a cafe is planned. Cheeses are made each Thursday.

Kadosh DairyRun by the Kadosh family for seven generations, this microdairy produces minuscule quantities ofdeliciously sharp, salty gvina Tzfatit as well as a variety of other cheeses, including blue cheese,  kashkaval (a semihard yellow sheep’s milk cheese) and pecorino. You can usually watch cheese being made on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday from 8am to 3pm. To get there from the Synagogue Quarter, follow the signs down the hill to ‘Safed Cheeze’ or ‘Zefat Cheeze’. The dairy sells cheeses, as well as halva made with honey, stuffed grape leaves and local wines. A sampler plate with about 10 cheeses and bread – enough for a meal – costs 40NIS.


Artists’ Quarter

Artist Quarter
Artist Quarter

The neighborhood south of the Ma’alot Olei HaGardom stairway used to be Tsfat’s Arab quarter, as you can see from the minarets, but after the 1948 war the area was developed as an Israeli artists’ colony. To help things along, the government declared that any artist who was willing to live in Tsfat for at least 180 days a year would be given a free house and gallery.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, some of the country’s most celebrated painters (Moshe Castel, Yitzhak Frenkel, Simcha Holtzman, Arieh Merzer and Menahem Shemi), inspired by Tsfat’s stunning landscapes and mystical traditions, opened studios and held exhibitions in the town.

Art-lovers escaped the heat of Tel Aviv and spent their summers holidaying in the city’s two dozen hotels. Most of the galleries and studios around the quarter are open to visitors, with many artists happy to talk about their work and even happier to make a sale.

General Safed ExhibitionOpened in 1952, this group gallery – housed in the white-domed, Ottoman-era Market Mosque –displays, sells and ships works by about 50 painters and 10 sculptors, including some very talented immigrants from the former Soviet Union. If you find yourself intrigued by a particular work, ask for directions to the artist’s studio.

Ancient Jewish CemeteryThe weed-covered, rock-strewn jumble of sun-baked graves below the Synagogue Quarter doesn’t look like much, but for followers of Jewish mysticism, the spirits of the great 16th-century Kabbalists buried here make this hillside an exceptional place to connect with the divine spark through prayer and meditation. A wander through the area is a bit otherworldly at any time, but it’s particularly magical in the early evening, when you can walk in the flickering glow of memorial candles, often to the haunting echoes of chanted prayers and psalms. Anyone who was remotely famous has had their stones painted ‘Tsfat blue’, a light hue that reminds passers-by that the Kabbalists’ spiritual role is to connect the heavens and the earth. To avoid impure thoughts among the pious men who come to pray in Tsfat’s ancient Jewish cemetery, Hebrew signs direct women to separate walkways and platforms. But it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to go, and even strictly Orthodox people often ignore the contradictory signage, which is part of a growing trend among some ultra-Orthodox groups to separate the sexes to a degree unprecedented in Jewish history. If you can’t read Hebrew, all you need to know to keep the signs straight is that the word for ‘women’ (nashim, written) includes the letter Shin, which looks like a three-branched candelabra. As at any holy site, visitors should dress modestly.

Ancient Jewish Cemetery
Ancient Jewish Cemetery

Ari’s MikvehA boldface Hebrew sign on the gate reads ‘entry for men only’. The reason is not gynophobia but the fact that inside there are naked men taking a quick, ritually purifying dip in the icy waters of a natural spring. Once used by the Ari, the site is run by the Breslov (Bratzlav) Hassidic movement.

Tombs of the KabbalistsThe graves of many of Tsfat’s greatest sages and Kabbalists are about one-third of the way down the slope, just below a solitary pine tree in an area where the converging double walkways are covered with transparent roofing. If you can’t read Hebrew, ask passers-by for help in finding the tombs of Yitzhak Luria (Isaac Luria; born in Jerusalem in 1534, died in Tsfat in 1572), aka HaAri, the father of modern Jewish mysticism (Lurianic Kabbalah). Near the tomb of Luria is that of Shlomo Alkabetz (born in Thessalonika c 1500, died in Tsfat in 1580), best known for composing the hymn ‘Lecha Dodi’. Yosef Caro (born in Toledo in 1488, died in Tsfat in 1575), the most important codifier of Jewish law, is buried about 100m further down the hill.

Tombs of the Kabbalists
Tombs of the Kabbalists

Elsewhere

Citadel Park – The highest point in central Tsfat (834m), now a breeze-cooled park, was once part of the largest Crusader fortress in the Middle East (its outer walls followed the line now marked by Jerusalem St). Near the park’s southern tip, the ruins of one of the inner walls can be seen along Chativat Yiftach St. From there, a path leads up the slope and under an old water pipe to a dark, flat, 30m-long tunnel that takes you into an ancient stone cistern. Stand in the middle and see what happens when you clap. Other footpaths lead up to the ridge line, which affords panoramic views in all directions.

Yerushalayim StreetAbout 50m south of City Hall, the Davidka Memorial recalls the role played by the home-made, notoriously inaccurate Davidka mortar in sowing panic among the Arab population, possibly because of rumors that its incredibly loud 40kg warhead was an atomic bomb. About 3km to the left, a free audio guide tells the dramatic tale of the battle for Tsfat in 1947 and 1948 – from the Israeli perspective, of course. Across the street is the former British police station, riddled with bullet holes from 1948, which is now used by the Tsfat Academic College.

Yerushalayim Street
Yerushalayim Street

Museum of Hungarian Speaking JewryEvocative artifacts, photographs and documents do a masterful job of evoking the lost world of pre-WWII Hungarian-speaking Jewry. A 17-minute film provides context. If you’re interested, museum co-founder (along with her husband) Chava Lustig will tell you about the Budapest ghetto, which she survived as a 14-year-old. The museum has extensive archives for those interested in doing family research. Signs are in Hebrew, Hungarian and English.

Tours

While it’s easy to float around Tsfat on your own little trip, it’s a town where stories and secrets run deep.

  • Baruch Emanuel Erdstein (052 251 5134; http://www.safedexperience.com; per hr 180NIS)
    Offers spiritual walking tours, generally of three to five hours. Baruch, a storyteller and musician who grew up near Detroit, describes Tsfat as having a ‘tremendous gift’ to offer, that it’s a place that ‘opens people up to themselves, to their potential and to beginning to understand the meaning of their lives and of creation’.
  • Path of the Heart (B’Shvil HaLev, Tzfat Experience; 050 750 5695, 04-682 6489; http://www.shvilhalev.co.il; 7 Tet-Vav St, Artists’ Quarter; 2hr tour up to 8 people 350NIS)
    Runs experiential walking tours of the old city accompanied by Hasidic guitar melodies, tales of the Kabbalists and an exploration of their spiritual message.

    Path of the Heart
    Path of the Heart

Sleeping

Tsfat has lots of B&Bs and holiday apartments, some rented out by artists. Because most places keep Shabbat, some B&Bs have a two-night weekend minimum; it’s not usually possible to check-in on Saturday until after sundown.

Room prices rise precipitously during the Tsfat Klezmer Festival (mid-August) and around the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer (33 days after Passover); at these times, reserve many months ahead.

Back before air-conditioning, 950m-high Mt Canaan (Har Kna’an) – now a neighborhood of Tsfat – offered a welcome ‘hill station’ escape from the summer heat. The area is about 4.5km northeast of the city center.

  • Adler Apartments – 052 344 7766; adler1.4u@gmail.com; office in Adler’s Change, 88 Yerushalayim St; d without breakfast 300NIS, Fri night & all day Sat 350NIS, additional bed 100NIS. Has 10 clean, practical, simply furnished apartments with kitchenette, in or near the center of town. If you’re arriving on Saturday, easy-going Baruch can arrange key pickup.
  • Safed Inn – Ruckenstein B&B; %04-697 1007; http://www.safedinn.com; 1 Merom Kna’an St; dm/s/d/q without breakfast US$29/100/129/158, cheaper Sun-Wed, additional person US$29; reception 8am-8pm. Opened in 1936, this garden guesthouse has comfortable rooms ‘untouched by interior design theories‘, a sauna, an outdoor hot tub (open 8pm to 11pm) and washing machines (15NIS). Riki and Dov get rave reviews for their local knowledge and tasty Continental/Israeli breakfasts (30/60NIS). Call ahead if you’ll be arriving after 8pm. To get there, turn off Rte 8900 onto HaGdud HaShlishi St 250m towards Rosh Pina from the Tsfat police station (in a Tegart Fort built by the British in the late 1930s). Served by local bus 3 (4.80NIS, 22 minutes, twice an hour until 9pm Sunday to Thursday and to 2.30pm Friday) from the central bus station, or you can take a taxi (25NIS during the day).

    Safed inn
    Safed inn
  • Carmel Hotel – 050 242 1092, 04-692 0053; 8 Ha’Ari St, ie 8 Ya’avetz St; s/d/q without breakfast US$75/100/150. Thanks to owner Shlomo – who is likely to insist that you try his limon cello – staying here is like having the run of a big, old family house. Some of the 12, simply furnished rooms are romantic and some aren’t but they’re all clean and practical and some have fantastic views.

    Carmel Hotel
    Carmel Hotel
  • Artist Quarter Guest House – 054 776 4877, 077-524 0235; http://www.artistquarterguesthouse.com; 43 Yud Zayin Alley, Artists’ Quarter;  600-750NIS, additional person 100NIS. Northern Californians Joy and Evan warmly welcome guests to their two spacious, Ottoman-era rooms, both with high, vaulted stone ceilings and Moroccan-style furnishings. Swedish massage available for women.

    Artist Quarter Guest House
    Artist Quarter Guest House
  • Beit Yosef Suites – 04-692 2515; http://www.beityosef.co.il; 650NIS, additional person 175NIS. Rents out nine one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, with cosy, eclectic decor, in old stone buildings in the Artists’ Quarter. The same family, originally from Los Angeles, runs a cafe, which is where breakfast is served. Reserve by phone or online; when you arrive, Sharon will meet you with the key.

    Beit Yosef Suites
    Beit Yosef Suites
  • Ruth Rimonim – 04-699 4666, reservations 03-675 4591; http://www.rimonim.com; Tet-Zayin St, Artists’ Quarter; 700-800NIS. Housed in part in a one-time Ottoman-era post house, this veteran hotel has stone-walled common areas with wrought iron furnishings and fresh-cut flowers, expansive gardens, a spa and 76 elegant, modern rooms with sparkling marble bathrooms. Wi-fi costs 10/40NIS per two/24 hours.

    Ruth Rimonim
    Ruth Rimonim

Eating

Places selling pizza, felafel and shwarma can be found along Yerushalayim St and on the edge of the Synagogue Quarter, at HaMaginim Sq. All of central Tsfat’s restaurants close on Shabbat. If you decide not to drive to nearby settlements such as Rosh Pina, Jish and Amirim to dine, you can order ready-made food from several places on Yerushalayim St, with pick-up on Friday in the early afternoon – ask your B&B for details.

Coöp Shop Supermarket
Coöp Shop Supermarket

Another option is to self-cater at Coöp Shop Supermarket, 102 Arlozoroff St; 7.30am- 9pm Sun-Wed, 7.30am-10pm Thu, 7.30am-1pm or 2pm Fri. At Ruth Rimonim Hotel, a kosher buffet lunch or dinner on Shabbat costs 140NIS; reserve and pay in advance.

Entertainment

Back in the 1970s Tsfat had half-a-dozen nightclubs, but these days the increasingly Haredi city goes to bed fairly early, except in summer when tourists keep the old city’s streets and cafes lively until late. Almost everything is closed on Shabbat – except, of course, for the synagogues, some of which sing their prayers, such as Shlomo Carlebach (054 804 8602; http://carlebach.intzfat.info), or hold Hassidic farbrengen (joyous community gatherings).

Khan of the White Donkey
Khan of the White Donkey

Khan of the White Donkey – 077-234 5719, Maxim 054 449 4521; http://www.thekhan.org; 5 Tzvi Levanon Alley, Artists’ Quarter; h9am-4pm Sun-Thu. This pluralistic cultural center hosts a variety of cultural, environmental and health-oriented community activities, including concerts (50NIS to 70NIS), open-mic jam sessions (20NIS, on some Thursdays at 9pm) and a low-cost holistic medicine clinic (Sunday from 8am to 4pm). The alternative vibe attracts a mix of hippies, backpackers and strictly observant Jews. The center occupies a 700- year-old khan (caravanserai), beautifully restored with all-natural materials. Rents out three B&B rooms.

Getting there

The central bus station (www.bus.co.il; HaAtzma’ut St), situated about 700m west of the Synagogue Quarter, has services linked to the following destinations:

  1. Tiberias (Afikim bus 450; 16.50NIS, 40 minutes, hourly Sunday to Friday afternoon, one Saturday night)
  2. Jerusalem (Nateev Express bus 982; 40NIS, 3¼ hours, eight daily Sunday to Thursday, five Friday, at least three Saturday night)
  3. Haifa-Mercazit HaMifratz (Nateev Express bus 361; 1¾ hours, twice an hour) Goes via Akko (one hour).
  4. Kiryat Shmona (Nateev Express bus 511; 20.70NIS, one hour, hourly) Goes via Rosh Pina (10.20NIS, five minutes) and the Hula Valley.
  5. You need to know that there are a lot more direct buses to the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak than to Tel Aviv itself (Egged bus 846; 49.50NIS, 3½ hours, one or two daily Sunday to Friday). In fact, to get to Tel Aviv it’s faster to take Egged bus 361 to Akko and then hop on a train.

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