8 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Nazareth
Nazareth (in Hebrew, Nazerat; in Arabic, En-Nasra) is the largest Arab town in Israel with a mixed population of Christian and Muslim Arabs. This city of churches is a place of pilgrimage for the world's Christians, who believe it to be the site of the Annunciation - when the Archangel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. It's also thought to be where Jesus spent his adolescence and, in the nearby village of Cana, he's believed to have performed the first of his miracles. The city's main sightseeing attraction is the Church of the Annunciation, which every pilgrim and tourist makes a beeline for on arrival. Afterwards, take a wander through the old city market district. This lively, noisy, bustling place makes a fine contrast after visiting all the grand churches.
1 Church of the Annunciation
Regarded as one of the most important churches of modern times in Israel, the present Church of the Annunciation was built in 1969, but archaeological evidence shows that a church has sat on this site since at least the 3rd century AD. During the 4th century, the Empress Helena (mother to Constantine the Great, who ruled over the Byzantine world from his capital in modern-day Istanbul) had a second church constructed here, which was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD. The Crusaders later built a three-aisled basilica. It was again razed, this time by Sultan Baibars. The site then lay empty until 1730 when the Franciscans gained permission to build a new church, which was pulled down in the 1950s to make way for the church you see today, designed by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio.
Constructed to depict the history of all the churches which have stood here, the plan of today's Church of the Annunciation is based on the Crusader church, while the side walls are built on top of the surviving fragments of older walls with the east-end apses of the Crusader church incorporated into the design. In the floor of the church is a large octagonal opening with a view of the lower level and the older structures below - the Grotto of the Annunciation and the remains of the earliest churches on the site. Over this area, which can also be seen from the upper church, is the dome.
Hours: Open daily 8am-6pm
Location: Annunciation Street, Town Centre
2 St. Joseph's Church
Next door to the Church of the Annunciation is St. Joseph's Church, built in 1914. The site it stands on is traditionally held by believers to be where Joseph once had his workshop. The church contains the remains of a cistern and storage pits, which date from the early 1st century AD when Christ was thought to have lived.
Hours: Open daily 7am-6pm
Location: Annunciation Street, Town Centre
3 Salesian Monastery & Church of Jesus the Adolescent
Just north of the town center, a path zigzags up to this commandingly situated monastery and school run by the Catholic Salesian order. The Church of Jesus the Adolescent, built in 1918, is within the grounds. Even if you're feeling a little churched-out from all the basilica finery on display in Nazareth, it's worth coming up here for the views alone. Inside the church, over the high altar, is a figure of young Jesus.
Hours: Open Sat 8am-6pm; Sun-Fri 2pm-6pm
Location: Salesian Street
4 Synagogue Church
Snuggled away in Nazareth's market district is the Synagogue Church, which belongs to the Greek Catholic Melkite community. To the left of the doorway is a door leading down into the synagogue, which Jesus is said to have attended as an adolescent. Despite this traditional belief, archaeological evidence points to the synagogue probably dating from the 6th century AD, at the earliest. The church itself was built in 1887 and has a rather grand dome sided by two bell towers.
Hours: Synagogue open daily 8am-4pm, Church open Sun (for service)
Location: Market district, Town Centre
5 St. Gabriel's Church and Mary's Well
St. Gabriel's Church (also known as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation) is one of the two sites in Nazareth claimed to be where the Annunciation took place. It was built over the village spring where, in Greek Orthodox tradition, the Archangel Gabriel first appeared to Mary. In the crypt below the church, the spring still flows. The upper church itself has some superb frescoes that are well worth visiting. If you want to visit the other contender for the title of Mary's well, head south across Church Square to the aptly-named Mary's Well Square, which followers of the Eastern Orthodox church believe to be the true site.
Hours: Open daily 7am-noon & 1pm-6pm
Location: Church Square, Town Centre
6 Mensa Christi Church
The Franciscan Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) Church contains a slab of stone 3.6 m long and 3 m wide that the risen Christ is believed to have eaten at with his disciples The church is usually kept locked, but the guardian is normally around and you can gain entry by asking for the key.
Location: Town Centre
7 Cana (Kafr Kanna)
Cana is one of two sites (the other is in southern Lebanon) that contend for the title of being the place where Jesus performed his first miracle - the changing of water into wine. It's an attractive town for a half-day trip from Nazareth, with three churches that commemorate the miracle that may - or may not - have occurred here. In Cana town center is a Franciscan church consecrated in 1883. Local tradition holds that the church is built over the site where the miracle happened. Visitors can usually see an old jar here that is claimed to be one of the six pots in which the water was changed. Opposite the Franciscan church is the rather dilapidated Greek Orthodox Church, built in 1556 over the site of an earlier mosque. Here, too, you'll be shown two stone jars, which are said to have been involved in the miracle (though they are probably no more than 300 years old). At the north end of Cana is the Nathanael Chapel, which also belongs to the Franciscans. It was built at the end of the 19th century in honour of Nathanael of Cana who was initially prejudiced against Jesus ("Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?") but then worshipped him as the Son of God (John 1,46-49) and was also present when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21,2).
Location: 8 km northeast of Nazareth
The remains of ancient Zippori (Sepphoris) are an excellent day trip from Nazareth. Excavations here, by American archaeologists, have brought to light findings from the Roman period when the town was known as Diocaesarea, through to the era of the Crusades. The Crusaders built a castle and church dedicated to St. Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary) here and the Crusading army assembled at Zippori on July 2, 1187 before their march to Hittim, where they suffered an annihilating defeat at the hands of Saladin. Walking through the site, you get a real feel for the layers of settlement here with the Byzantine church, a Roman theater, and the remains of the Crusader castle the top attractions. To the west are the dilapidated remnants of the old water conduit and the large cisterns known as the 'Caverns of Hell'. If you walk up to the Ottoman era fort on the hill, you'll get fine panoramic views across the entire site.
Location: 7 km northwest of Nazareth
Excavations from 1955 onwards show that the hill on which the Church of the Annunciation and St. Joseph's Church stand was inhabited from the time of the patriarchs (2nd millennium BC). The little houses of the village were built on top of tombs of the 2nd millennium and underground chambers hewn from the local tufa, which had been used in the first half of the 1st millennium BC as store-rooms.
The name of Nazareth first appears in the New Testament in the account of the Annunciation (Luke 1,26-33) and Jesus is said to have lived here until after his baptism by John (Luke 3,21). In the early Christian period, the Grotto of the Annunciation became a much venerated place of pilgrimage and the present church is the fifth built on the site. An early place of Christian settlement, Nazareth was taken in 614 AD by the Persians, who, in conjunction with the Jews, destroyed it. Thereafter the Christian population declined. In 629 AD, however, Nazareth was recovered by the Byzantines, who took their revenge by destroying the houses of the Jewish population. The place was not rebuilt until the time of Tancred, the Norman Crusader who took Nazareth in 1099 and ruled as Prince of Galilee.
Nazareth suffered further destruction in 1263 at the hands of Baibars and his Mamelukes. Thereafter no Christians were allowed to live in the town until the Druze ruler Fakhr ed-Din revoked the ban in 1620. The town developed in the 19th and 20th centuries under Ottoman, and later, British rule. In 1948 Nazareth became part of Israel, and the new Jewish settlement of Nazerat Illit (Upper Nazareth), with its own administration, grew up on the hills above the town.