JAFFA — Feel like a weekend pick-me-up or a “staycation” that’s reminiscent of an exodus to a tiny Greek island? Come to Jaffa’s old city — a world apart that’s romantic, small, and easy to get to. The narrow alleyways and ancient stories, juxtaposed by the crystal-blue waves and gentle breeze from the port, have a distinct, soothing effect.
The name Jaffa (Yafo in Hebrew, Yaffa in Arabic), mentioned in early Egyptian writings, may have originated from the biblical tale in which Noah’s son, Japheth, built the city after the Great Flood — while some claim the name stems from the old Hebrew word for beauty, “yofi.” It is from here that Jonah was said to have departed in his flight from God before being engulfed by a whale (Jonah 1:3), and it was along these shores that Andromeda was chained to a rock as divine punishment by Poseidon and ultimately saved by Perseus, her husband-to-be, according to Greek mythology.
The old city of Jaffa emerges from the seashore like a tiny pearl of tranquility. In less than one mile, you can cover an ancient port city that brings to life centuries of war and harmony and tales of conquerors that were brought to its shores. This ancient port is also considered the only one in the world that has remained inhabited, without interruption, for over 4,000 years.
Come by bike or by car, and enter a world that was home to the Canaanites, the Crusaders, and the Ottomans, and many others in between. Tour the galleries, try the desserts, and walk along the shiny cobblestone roads that glisten under the midday sun. Get lost in the alleyways filled with designer jewelry shops and retro poster stores before looping south to the fisherman’s port, where history and nature effortlessly collide.
Here are five fun things to try when visiting Jaffa’s old city:
1. The grandiose, peach-colored landmark along Roslan Street in Kedumim Square is Saint Peter’s Church. Housing a basilica and a hospice, Saint Peter’s Church was built by Franciscan monks in the late 1800s on the remainders of a Crusader fortress. Napoleon was said to have stopped here when he visited the Holy Land. Its Baroque façade, adorned with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, provides a brief, solemn refuge from the outside world. Visitors are welcome to peek inside and join the followers of the Roman Catholic Church, who still pray here daily.
In addition to Mass, the church is open to visitors from 8-11:45 a.m. and 3-5 p.m.
2. The Visitor’s Center offers daily tours (30 NIS) of one of the old city’s most interesting sites: Simon the Tanner’s house. According to the Christian faith, the house — now privately owned by a wealthy Armenian Christian family, the Zakarians, who also run the lighthouse above it — belonged to Saint Peter’s friend, Simon, who worked as a tanner by the sea (Acts 10:5-47). It was at this home that Peter received his divine dream — in the form of a sheet filled with clean and unclean animals — symbolizing the Lord’s wish to include non-believers (who eat “unclean” animals) in the newly founded church. Peter’s revelation forever changed the face of Christianity, solidifying its split from Judaism and its transition to a non-exclusive religion.
The Visitor’s Center, located at 6 Kedumim Square, also offers underground, multi-sensory archaeological tours included in the 30 NIS fee. Tours include audio guides, which visitors can borrow while independently navigating the old city.
3. A quaint, understated café at the bottom of Segev Street is Israeli chef Nir Zuk’s Napoleon Patisserie. Featuring delicious cakes with halva cream or decadent chocolate mousse, the eatery is tucked away from most tourists’ eyes in an alcove. Its outdoor seating area overlooks the steps leading up to the Jaffa old city and captures the vacation feel of the area. Once you sit in one of the yellow chairs adorning the café, you may not want to leave — which is okay because there are plenty of other simple options, like sandwiches and tasty breads, for visitors and locals to try while staying awhile.
4. Next to the Napoleon Patisserie is the Jewish Yemenite Art and Cultural Center, a gallery and workshop of Israel’s leading filigree — delicate metalwork jewelry that’s threaded and then soldered together — by artist Ben Zion David, the eighth generation in a line of Yemenite silversmiths. David’s parents walked across Yemen with their jewelry-making tools for two years escorted by Saudi Arabian soldiers until they reached Sana’a where they saw, for the first time in their lives, a car and an airplane, and from where they came to Israel. David still uses traditional Yemenite techniques of melting metals and threading silver in this workshop to create magnificent crafts.
Ben Zion David’s studio is located at 3 Mazal Dagim Street.
5. One of Old Jaffa’s most famous landmarks is undoubtedly the Ilana Goor Museum — a stunning building from the 18th century that is a piece of art in its own right. The museum has over 500 pieces from Goor and other Israeli and international artists on display in a home that’s airy and offers breathtaking views of the shore. The building was the area’s first Jewish inn for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem in the 1700s and was converted into an olive oil-based soap and perfume factory in the 19th century. Together with the home’s nooks and crannies, the museum’s sculptures and statues seem to whisper tales of Old Jaffa’s eminent history.
The entrance to the Ilana Goor Museum is from Louis Pasteur Street or from the Mazal Dagim alleyway.