Free things to do Tel Aviv

A Visit to Old Jaffa: What to See?

If you’re planning to visit Tel Aviv anytime soon, I highly recommend you visit Old Jaffa. Old Jaffa is today part of Tel Aviv, but a long-long time ago was an independant city. Actually, from Jaffa came the people who established Tel Aviv in 1909.

In this post I’ll give you a short overview of Jaffa’s history and also suggest you a short route you can take through the main things to see in Old Jaffa.

Let’s start with some history…

Jaffa (or Yafo in Hebrew) started expanding as a city in the Bronze Age. Because it is situated on the coastline, it was an important city of the Egyptians, who used it as a port city for transporting their merchandise.

Many Biblical stories are connected to Jaffa’s port. The most famous of them is the story of Jonah, the prophet who wanted to escape God’s mission, got on a boat in Jaffa’s port and starting sailing away. His boat got caught into a storm and he was swallowed by a whale (or “a big fish”, according to the Bible). After 3 days, he got out of it whole. Another story mentioned in the Bible tells us about King Solomon, who imports Cedars of Lebanon through Jaffa Port. Those cedars were intended for the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Later, the Hasmoneans conquered Jaffa and made it a mixed settlement with Jews and non-Jews. When the Romans come to Jaffa during the First Jewish–Roman War, they slaughter its Jewish dwellers. When Jerusalem falls to the Romans’ hands in 70 CE, Jaffa also falls in its importance, because its port is no longer useful.

Many years pass, Jaffa goes up and down in its importance, until it is destructed by the Mamluks sometime in the 13th century. Afterwards, in the Ottoman period, the city is built again and Zahir al-Umar, the autonomous Arab ruler of Northern Palestine, builds a wall around it. Then comes Napoleon in 1799 and destroys the city again. 

At the end, in the early 19th century, the Ottoman governor of Jaffa, dubbed “Abu Nabbut”, builds the city again. This time, it remains built until today.

Walking 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 along it to the south until you reach Old Jaffa.

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 had celebrated 25 years of reign over the Land of Israel in 1900. This clocktower was one of over 100, which were build for this special occasion. 6 clocktowers were built in the Land of Israel: in Jaffa, in Jerusalem, in Acre, in Haifa, in Nablus and in Safed.

The clocktower and the restored facade

To the east of the Clock Square you can see a beautiful white facade, connected to nothing really. This is the restoration of the Turkish governor’s building, which was destroyed by the Jewish paramilitary organization, Lehi.

To the west of the square is the Qishle, the Ottoman jail, which turned after 1948 to the regional headquarters of the Israeli police. Maybe sometime soon it will become a hotel.

Now we’ll start walking…

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 Abu Nabbut (remember him?) in the early 19th century and called Mahmoudiya Mosque. It is the largest mosque in Jaffa. Although you can’t enter if you aren’t a Muslim, but you can take a look at its beautiful outer building. Next to the mosque is a beautiful sabil, a public fountain, which was also built by Nabbut at the entrance to the city. Opposite to the sabil, at the other side of the road, you might be able to spot the arch, that was part of the gateway into Old Jaffa, before its walls were demolished.

The Sabil of Abu Nabbut

Continue up the promenade until you see a beautiful view to your right. If nothing has changed, then you’ll see a huge square that the municipality had put here to signal a good photogrpahic opportunity. You can see Tel Aviv’s shoreline from here. 

A picture perfect view

After enjoying the view, you can continue up the promenade until you reach the reddish Church of St. Peter (3).  This is a very important church, because it commemorates the time when Peter began spreading the Christianity abroad, beyond the sea. On top of the church, you’ll be able to see a small cross stuck in a rock. The rock is a symbol of Peter, as he was called “the rock”, “the foundation” of the community by Jesus in Caesarea Phillipi. If the church is open, you might also want to enter to appreciate the interior.

Saint Peter’s Church (to see the cross in the rock, you’ll need to come here)

More or less opposite the church is a road leading up towards Ha’Pisga Park (The Peak Park). There is a sign pointing towards the place. Go up the road and within a few steps 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 put your hand on your zodiac sign, look towards the beautiful sea and make a wish – your wish will come true!

Check out Zahi Shaked’s (Israeli  tour guide) video:

After making a wish, you can keep on going to Ha’Pisga Park, which is situated on the top of Jaffa Hill (5). On this hill were found the most ancient findings of Jaffa, some dating back over 4,000 years. Today, there is an interesting statue on top of the hill and wonderful views of the surroundings.

From the hill, climb down to its southwestern slopes. There, you might be able to find the Ramesses Gate (6). The ancient Egyptians were here as well, and Ramesses II built a nice gateway, that led to a magnificent fortress built here about 3,300 years ago. The gate is just a restoration, but it is worth a quick look.

The Egyptian Gate from Beyond the Bushes

From the ancient gate, you can go on and enter the ancient alleys of the city. The different alleys are named after the different zodiacs and a few other things. It is an enchanting experience, wandering through them. Try finding the Floating Orange Tree, an interesting sculpture by Ran Morin, that consists of a real orange tree. In the past, Jaffa’s oranges were one of the city’s symbols and people from all over the world wanted to purchase Jaffa Oranges. Today, Ran Morin’s orange tree is maybe the last one in the area.

Ran Morin’s Floating Orange Tree

Make your way through the artists’ alley and then turn towards the sea, to Jaffa’s 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 passangers or merchandise by smaller boats.

Many of the Aliyah waves have arrived through Jaffa’s port. There is a point along the Jaffa promenade, where you can see the stairs, from which the new Jewish immigrants ascended ashore and then fell down to kiss the Land. 

The port of Jaffa became less and less important during the British mandate. The British established a larger port in Haifa, and the largest ships sailed there. Furthermore, the Arabs closed the Port of Jaffa during the Great Arab Revolt in 1936, what made the Jewish people establish the Tel Aviv Port not far from Jaffa’s location. These led to the downfall of the Port of Jaffa.

Jaffa’s Promenade

You can keep on exploring the port area, return to the clocktower area or start making your way along the promenade towards the modern part of Tel Aviv.

If you want, you can take a short 30 minutes boat ride into the sea to see the skyline of Tel Aviv. I went on the Keif Boat (כייף), which docks at the Jaffa Port in front of the restaurants. It costs just 25 ILS for the ride.

Near the port, in the sea, you might be able to spot a rock with an Israeli flag on it. This is Andromeda Rock. This rock is connected to the Greek mythology, that tells a story about Andromeda, who was tied to this rock as a sacrifice to sate the sea monster that was sent by Poseidon. Perseus, who just happened to pass by, saw beautiful Andromeda, untied her and saved her from the monster.

If you have time, you can also visit the Jaffa Flea Market, that’s near the clocktower. There are also two interesting 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 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 admission fee. The rest of Jaffa’s attractions are free.

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Hope you’ll enjoy your time in Old Jaffa! Have anything else to add or something to correct? Let me know!

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