A popular pilgrimage place for Christians, Nazareth is more than meets the eye. I must admit it took me a few trips to actually appreciate its charm, but once I did I kept going back for more! Known as Nazerat in Hebrew, and En-Nasra in Arabic, this is the largest Arabic town in the country, with a large community of both Muslim and Christian Arabs, and only a few Jews.
With such an important role in the history of Christendom, most things to do in Nazareth are actually linked to religious sites – with the Church of the Annunciation; and Cana of Galilee, the village where Jesus is thought to have performed his first miracle, to name a few. Other than that, however, you will find a nice market with lots of small souvenir shops; and a quaint atmosphere that is hard to beat.
Curious to discover the unmissable things to do in Nazareth? Continue reading, but first – let me sum up its history!
A Brief History Of Nazareth
You’ve probably heard of Nazareth. That’s because it’s the childhood home of Jesus Christ – or so the Bible says. Today Nazareth is famed for this early connection to Jesus, and is majorly important to Christianity as a result. It’s a pilgrimage spot for many Christians, who come to trace the footsteps – almost literally – of Jesus Christ himself.
As important as it is to world religion, Nazareth has a long history outside of the Christ connection, with remains found here dating to around 9,000 years ago. The settlement is thought to have been founded in 2200 BC, however.
During the Roman period of occupation, Nazareth was mainly a Jewish settlement. Christianity began to take hold, Persians invaded, Byzantines expelled them – and the Jewish population – and then it was fought over by Crusaders and Mamluks. Later the Ottoman Empire ruled it, before the British governed the territory for a while. And then it became Israel again.
Today, however, Nazareth remains as the largest Arab city in the country. Despite that, it is littered with Christian sights, shrines, churches and grottoes, important for various denominations of Christians, while the modern city is a regional market and trading hub.
The Best Things To Do In Nazareth, Israel
With all of that history, figuring out where to start on your trip to Nazareth is enough to make your head spin. With that in mind, here are the top things to do in Nazareth to help your trip run smoothly.
Explore the Old City
Like all good ancient destinations, Nazareth has a spell-binding Old City for you to explore. This is the most famous district, complete with an old souk (marketplace) where you can see fresh produce, spices and various other items being sold and bargained for.
Wandering around this part of town is one of the unmissable things to do in Nazareth; and it is all about discovering winding stone-paved streets filled with centuries-old Ottoman mansions. It’s easy to feel the history of Nazareth as you walk around the Old City. Recently it’s had a bit of a facelift, too, as the city tries to appeal to tourists beyond die-hard pilgrims.
There are numerous important Christian sites spread around this area, but as you explore further off the beaten track, you can find a whole host of interesting historic gems – El Babour Spice Mill, for example, where people have been coming to mill their spices for over 120 years (more on that later!). There’s also Fahoum, the oldest coffee roastery in the city, and Abu Salem – the oldest coffee shop in town – where you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back through time.
Other sites to watch out for include the Nazareth Nuns Convent, a surprising archaeological site where catacombs, mosaics and an ancient church altar were uncovered in the late 19th century; and the Synagogue Church (said to be where Jesus once prayed).
For a guided walking tour of Nazareth, click here.
Stay at Fauzi Azar
If you’re not just in Nazareth for a day trip, or if you just feel like sticking around for longer than an afternoon, then you may want to stay the night. While there are a number of hotels in Nazareth, none is more famous than Fauzi Azar. It’s my go-to place any time I am in town!
This historic hotel, located in the heart of the Old City, is situated in what was once the home of the Azars, a wealthy local family. Built in 1830, the house was converted into a guesthouse in 2005 as a stop-off for tourists and travelers. It’s especially good for those who are on the “Jesus Trail” – the pilgrimage route that begins in Nazareth.
The building itself consists of three storeys, and boasts beautiful Turkish marble floors, gorgeous hand-painted ceilings, and impressive limestone arches. Staying in this 190-year-old mansion really means being able to soak up the old world atmosphere on your trip to Nazareth.
What’s more, you can even opt for various different room types, from dorms to private rooms – some of which come with their own views to the courtyard. If that wasn’t good enough, the hotel also offers free city tours, breakfast and even homemade cakes!
To book your stay at Fauzi Azar, click here.
Visit El Babour
As I mentioned earlier, El Babour is the oldest spice mill in Nazareth. It’s an amazing 250 years old place, and was built for people to grind and store their spices; it was used by farmers, villagers and local residents who arrived carrying their grains and spices on their camels, horses and donkeys.
Then it became a spice shop. When the British arrived, the site was leased to Jarjoura Kanazze, who further developed the mill, importing modern machinery from Europe. Today the mill is run by his grandchildren.
Located just along from the very popular Mary’s Well, in Al-Bishara Street, visiting El Babour is a treat for the senses – and a must for anybody who likes to cook. There are over 1,000 different herbs and spices, teas and coffees, cereals and dried fruits on offer, making it a veritable Aladdin’s cave of goods. On top of that there are authentic kitchenwares – grinders, coffee pots, that sort of thing – on sale at El Babour, too.
Take a Freekeh cooking class
Freekeh is well known throughout Israel, and you may even know it yourself. This cereal-based dish is made from green durum wheat that is first roasted and then rubbed to create its telltale texture, and rich, smoky flavour.
This is a historic food for the region. It was first mentioned as “farikiyya” in an early 13th-century Baghdad cookbook, and has long been consumed throughout the Levant.
So what better place to learn how to cook with this local grain than in Nazareth itself? Luckily for any budding chefs or cooks, there are plenty of places where you can take a cooking class in the city – I took one myself at Fauzi Azar.
The practice of making this dish has been preserved throughout the centuries, so it’s great to learn the tradition for yourself, spend a relaxing time cooking, chatting with other people, and learning about other elements of Nazarene cuisine. And then you get to eat your creation!
To book your cooking class in Nazareth, click here.
Make your way to Mary’s Well…
Mary’s Well is arguably one of the most important religious sites in Nazareth. The well itself is built over a spring that has been a watering hole for local Palestinians for centuries, but it’s what happened here that’s most important.
It’s here that Mary is said to have been visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who told her that she would bear the Son of God. This pivotal event is known as the Annunciation.
The watering hole is incredibly mentioned in the Bible itself, and even in the Quran, too.
Needless to say, this is an important site for Christian pilgrims and tourists alike. What you’ll see isn’t the original well, but more of a symbolic representation of how it may have looked in years gone by. There are still ancient parts of the site still visible if you peer into the well itself.
It’s easy to pass by, but don’t forget to stop off here. If there aren’t crowds of people, it’s quite a peaceful place that’s laden with history. There are also many places to eat and drink nearby if you need a refresher or a place to reflect after visiting.
… And check out St. Gabriel’s Church
Just 100 yards behind Mary’s Well is another important religious site: St. Gabriel’s Church. This Greek Orthodox church, dedicated to the Annunciation, was completed in 1759 but is estimated to be much older. It is actually thought to date back to the Byzantine era (around the 4th century) and lasted until the Ottoman Empire took over.
The church itself is located over another spring. This is the location in Greek Orthodox beliefs where the Virgin Mary is said to have been visited by the Angel Gabriel as she was drawing water from the spring.
Water still runs here, in fact. Head down seven steps to the subterranean chapel – a cave-like medieval structure with Armenian tiles decorating the walls. There, below an altar, you’ll find the spring trickling by. Apparently it’s ok to drink, and has a sweet-ish taste.
Go to the Basilica of the Annunciation
Another purported location of the Annunciation is the Basilica of the Annunciation. The Catholic claim that this is the place of Mary’s heavenly conversation with Gabriel is more modern, but the site itself has long been occupied by religious buildings.
Established in the late Byzantine era, the original is long gone; in fact, there have been numerous iterations of the church including one built by Crusaders, and another during the Ottoman rule.
According to Catholic tradition, the location of this church is not only where the Annunciation is said to have occurred, but also where Mary lived. At the lower level of the church you’ll find the Grotto of the Annunciation, which is thought to be the remains of Mary’s childhood home.
The modern church visitors see today is a sizeable, striking building that was the largest Christian church when it was completed in 1969. The cupola is topped by a large lantern that can be seen from afar. The architect was Giovanni Muzio, who designed the building in a style often dubbed “Italian Brutalism” – but it seems more Romanesque than that.
Visit St. Joseph’s Church
Yet another of Nazareth’s churches that are built upon the remains of much older religious sites, the present-day St. Joseph’s Church was built in 1914. You’ll find this Franciscan Roman Catholic church, built in Romanesque Revival style, is situated close to the Basilica of the Annunciation.
It is here (according to tradition) that Joseph had his carpentry shop, and where Mary and Jesus lived with him. There’s no evidence that this was actually Joseph’s workshop, or where the family lived, but it’s still a fascinating place to visit.
The site was first mentioned in the 17th century by Italian writer and Orientalist, Franciscus Quaresmius, describing it in his work as “the house and workshop of Joseph.” Inside the church, visitors can descend a stairway down to a crypt where you can peer through a grill in the floor into the caverns below.
It’s also believed that there was once a pre-Constantinian Christian baptistry here. Beside the baptismal basin there is another flight of stairs that descends further still underground, into a chamber with water cisterns, and where evidence of early dwellings have been found. It’s a lovely spot.
Walk up the Salesian Church of Jesus the Adolescent
The gleaming Gothic style Salesian Church of Jesus the Adolescent was built between 1906 and 1923. It’s at this spot that Jesus is said to have spent his youth.
The location of this sight, overlooking the city on a hill called Mount of the Start, makes it a great place to get some amazing views of the Old City of Nazareth. This church also happens to be on the Jesus Trail, making this a popular stop-off for pilgrims.
It’s also possible to walk here from the center of the city (though I shall warn you: you have to walk up a flight of some 400 steps!), so if you’re a keen hiker or just feel like stretching your legs, it’s around a two-hour trek from the center of town uphill, and a bit shorter if you take the stairs. It’s worth the hike just for the view.
Go on a day trip to Cana
After you’ve been in town for a few days, one of the best things to do in Nazareth is to get out! Indeed, you might fancy seeing a few other Holy Land sites further afield. That’s where Cana (Kfar Kanna in Hebrew) comes in.
This ancient town is believed to be where Jesus first performed a miracle. It’s not just any miracle, either, being one of his more famous ones – namely, turning water into wine (at a wedding celebration).
Because of the connection with weddings, people like to get married at Cana, or renew their vows. Specifically, this happens at the town’s beautiful 19th-century Franciscan church.
Visit nearby Zippori National Park
This archaeological site, situated in central Galilee (3.5 miles north of Nazareth), was once known by its Ancient Greek name: Sepphoris. This former village is home to a diverse array of archaeological remains, pointing back to the diverse population that has called this region home over the centuries.
Architecture here includes Hellenestic, Ancient Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arab, and Ottoman. It’s also believed to be the birthplace of Mary.
In the national park you’ll also find two early Christian churches, a Roman theatre, and even a Crusader fort, as well as a Byzantine-era synagogue with incredible mosaics. In fact, the mosaics are a big draw. No matter how many times you see them in photos, seeing something created over 1,000 years ago in front of your eyes is always astonishing.
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