Old Jaffa is one of the best places to visit in Tel Aviv. Today, it is part of Tel Aviv, but it was once an independent city. The Jewish people of Jaffa were the ones who established Tel Aviv in 1909. There are many things you can do in Old Jaffa. You can walk around charming alleys, view beautiful sea and city views, learn some history, and check out the Flea Market. In this post, I’ll give you a short overview of Jaffa’s history and suggest a short route you can take through the main sites of Old Jaffa.
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A brief history of Jaffa
Jaffa (or Yafo in Hebrew) has a long history. The earliest evidence of settlement in the area is from the Bronze Age, the 18th century BCE. It was an important Egyptian city because of its proximity to the coastline. They used it as a port city for transporting their merchandise.
Jaffa is one of the most ancient port cities in the world. Many Biblical stories are connected to Jaffa’s port. The most famous is the story of Jonah, the prophet who tried to escape God’s mission, got on a boat in Jaffa Port, and sailed away. His ship got caught in a storm, and he was swallowed by a “big fish,” probably a whale. After 3 days, he got out of it alive to tell the tale.
Another story mentioned in the Bible tells us about King Solomon, who imported the Cedars of Lebanon through Jaffa Port. Those cedars were used to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Later, the Hasmoneans conquered Jaffa and turned it into a mixed settlement of Jews and non-Jews. Later, the Romans came during the First Jewish–Roman War and slaughtered its Jewish dwellers. When Jerusalem fell into Roman hands in 70 CE, Jaffa also fell in importance because its port was no longer used.
Many years later, Jaffa was destroyed by the Mamluks sometime in the 13th century. Afterward, in the Ottoman period, the city was built again. Zahir al-Umar, the autonomous Arab ruler of Northern Palestine, built a wall around it. Then, Napoleon came in 1799 and destroyed the city again. It was rebuilt in the early 19th century by the Ottoman governor of Jaffa, “Abu Nabbut.” This time, it remained standing until today.
Recommended walking tour in Old Jaffa
Everything in Old Jaffa is within walking distance. Old Jaffa is located next to the shoreline, so if you’re close to the Jaffa-Tel Aviv Promenade, you can walk south on the promenade until you reach Old Jaffa.
Now, I want to give you a recommended walking tour that you can do on your own. If you prefer a guided tour, you can contact me and request a private tour. While my base is in Jerusalem, I guide in Jaffa quite often.
Station #1: Clock Square
I always like to start my visit in Old Jaffa at the Clock Square (in Hebrew: “Kikar HaSha’on,” “כיכר השעון”). The clocktower (1) is one of the symbols of Old Jaffa. It was built around 1903-4 in honor of Abdul Hamid II, who celebrated 25 years of reign over the Ottoman Empire in 1900. This clock tower was one of over 100 built for this special occasion. Six clock towers were built in the Land of Israel, in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Acre, Haifa, Nablus, and Safed.
You can see a beautiful detached white facade to the east of Clock Square. This is the restoration of the Turkish governor’s building, which was destroyed in 1938 by the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Lehi.
To the west of the square is the Qishle, the Ottoman jail, which turned after 1948 into the regional headquarters of the Israeli police. Today, it is a boutique hotel called The Setai.
Station #2: Mahmoudiya Mosque
From the square, proceed south and turn right (west) onto Mifrats Shlomo Promenade (טיילת מפרץ שלמה). You’re supposed to see a mosque to your right (2). This mosque was built by the Ottoman governor, Abu Nabbut, in the early 19th century. It is called Mahmoudiya Mosque and is the largest mosque in Jaffa. You can’t enter if you aren’t Muslim, but you can still take a look from the outside.
Next to the mosque is a beautiful sabil, a public fountain built by Nabbut at the entrance to the city. Opposite the sabil, on the other side of the road, you can spot the arch that was part of the gateway into Old Jaffa. Now, after the old city walls are already demolished, it’s hard to spot it.
Fun fact: “Abu Nabbut” is only a nickname. His real name was Mohammed Aga. But everyone called him “Abu Nabbut,” which means “the father of the bat,” because that legend tells that he would walk around with a bat and hit whoever made him mad.
Station #3: The Church of St. Peter
Continue up the promenade towards the Church of St. Peter. On the way, you can see a beautiful view to your right. The whole Tel Avivian shoreline is spread before you.
After enjoying the view, continue up the promenade until you reach the reddish Church of St. Peter (3). This is a significant church because it commemorates the time when Peter began spreading Christianity abroad, beyond the sea. Here in Jaffa, Peter had his vision of a sheet with animals, including non-Kosher animals, taken down from the Heavens. A divine voice told him that he should eat the animals, and at first, he refused, saying that they were “unclean.” The voice replied that if GOD determined Peter could eat those animals, he must do it. And then, Peter understood that there was no more need to observe Kosher. This made it much easier to spread the word of Jesus throughout the world, to people who had not wanted to listen due to the strict religious laws which have been until that point.
On top of the church, you’ll see a small cross stuck in a rock. The rock symbolizes Peter, as he was dubbed “the rock,” “the foundation of the community” by Jesus in Caesarea Phillipi.
The church is open Monday to Friday from 8 AM to 11:45 AM and from 3 PM to 5 PM, Saturday from 9 AM to 11:45 AM and from 3 PM to 6:30 PM, and Sunday from 9 AM to 11:45 AM and from 3 PM to 7 PM.
Station #4: The Zodiac Bridge
More or less opposite the church is a path leading up towards Ha’Pisga Park (“The Peak Park”). A few steps up the route, you’ll see a bridge to your right (4). This is the Zodiac Bridge (officially called the “Wishing Bridge”). There are zodiac signs all along the bridge. According to the local legend, if you place your hand on your zodiac sign, look towards the beautiful sea, and make a wish – your wish will come true! It’s worth a try!
Station #5: Ha’Pisga Park
After making a wish, continue up the hill to Ha’Pisga Park (5), “the Peak Park.” The most ancient findings of Jaffa, some dating back over 4,000 years, were found on this hill. Today, there is an interesting statue on top of the hill, made by Daniel Kafri. It’s called “The Gateway to Faith” and shows scenes from the Bible. Kafri chose to put it in Jaffa because Jaffa was, for many years, the gateway to the Holy Land.
There are also beautiful views of the surroundings.
Station #6: Ramesses Gate
From the hill, climb down to its southwestern slopes. There, you’ll find the Ramesses Gate (6). The ancient Egyptians were here as well, and Ramesses II built a magnificent gateway that led to a fortress built here about 3,300 years ago. The gate is just a restoration, but worth a quick look.
Station #7: The Suspended Orange Tree
From the ancient gate, enter the old alleys of the city. Many of the alleyways are named after the different zodiacs. Walking through them is an enchanting experience. Try to find the Suspended Orange Tree, an exciting sculpture by Ran Morin made of a real orange tree. In the past, Jaffa oranges were one of the city’s symbols, and people from all over the world wanted to purchase them. Today, Ran Morin’s orange tree is probably one of the last remaining orange trees in the area because the orange orchards were replaced by skyscrapers.
Station #8: Jaffa Port
Make your way through the artists’ alleys and then turn towards the sea to Jaffa Port (7). This was one of the most important ports of the Land of Israel throughout the ages. As I’ve already mentioned, this might have been the port from which Jonah fled from his mission, and King Solomon got the wood pieces for the Holy Temple.
In modern days, big ships have never docked next to the shore because of the many boulders near the shoreline. The ships would set anchor beyond the boulders, and the people of Jaffa would come to pick up the passengers or merchandise by smaller boats.
Many Jewish immigrants arrived through Jaffa’s port. There is a point along the Jaffa promenade where you can see the stairs that the new Jewish immigrants used to ascend ashore. When they reached the top of the stairs, they fell down to kiss the land.
The port of Jaffa became less and less important during the British mandate. The Brits established a more significant port in Haifa, and the largest ships sailed there. Furthermore, the Arabs closed Jaffa Port during the Great Arab Revolt in 1936, which made the Jewish people establish the Tel Aviv Port not far from Jaffa’s location. These led to the downfall of Jaffa Port.
More things to do in Jaffa Port
- “Keif” boat ride – If you want to see Tel Aviv’s skyline from the sea, you can take a 30-minute boat ride from Jaffa Port. The boat is called the Keif Boat (כייף), and it docks at Jaffa Port in front of the restaurants. It costs 25 ILS for the ride. Just note that the music might be loud. But the view is beautiful!
- Andromeda Rock – Near the port, you can spot a rock in the sea with an Israeli flag on it. This rock is connected to the Greek mythological tale about Andromeda, who was tied to this rock as a sacrifice to the sea monster sent by Poseidon. Perseus, who just happened to pass by, saw beautiful Andromeda, paralyzed the monster using the head of Meduza, untied Andromeda, and saved her.
More things to do in Jaffa
If you have time, you can also visit the Jaffa Flea Market near the clock tower. There are also two fascinating museums in Old Jaffa. One is the Visitor Center at Kdumim Square (the wide square next to St. Peter’s Church), where you can learn about Jaffa’s history and archeology. The other is the Ilana Goor Museum, a nice art museum with artworks of Ilana Goor. At the entrance to the Ilana Goor Museum is a sculpture of a cute whale that connects us to the story of Jonah. Both of the museums have an entry fee. The rest of Jaffa’s attractions are free.
Old Jaffa is one of the most interesting parts of Tel Aviv. There are many things to do in Old Jaffa – walk the pleasant alleys, visit the art galleries, sit in front of the view, and more. I hope you’ll use my recommended route and have fun in this part of the city.
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