Touring Safed (Tzfat) – Where to Start?
Safed known as Tzfat in Hebrew is one of Israel’s four Jewish holy cities that also include Jerusalem, Tiberias and Hebron. Located in the northern Galilee region it is known for its fresh mountain air. It has a fascinating Old City and is famous for its Artists’ Quarter. It is not far from Tiberias and should be included in any tour of the Galilee.
This guide is designed to prepare you for a self-guided walking tour of Tsfat (Safed). If you prefer, of course, quality tour guides are available. All across the central area of Safed you will find signs with historical commentary, so with the help of a map and this guide, you’re well on your way to getting the most from your Safed experience.
Our tour concentrates mainly around the Old City (reconstructed Jewish Quarter) and commercial center of Safed. A circular road, Jerusalem Street, is a helpful base when it comes to navigating Safed. In the center of the circle, from many points you will see the Metzuda Park, also known as Citadel Park, a historic park overlooking the Old City.
Safed as Living History
Typical of many archaeological and historical sites in Israel, Safed offers the visitor a time tunnel into the past, since many centuries of different civilizations lived on the same land.
1948 War of Independence
If you wish to make the climb to Metzuda Park, turn onto Hativat Yiftach Street from Jerusalem Street. From the historic park at the hill’s summit, you can descend to the opposite side of Jerusalem Street via steps. Turn left onto Jerusalem Street, and Bar Yochai Street at the first fork takes you into the Old City. Bar Yochai Street opens up into Kikar Hameginim (Defenders’ Square), the main square of the Jewish Quarter. A sign points to the two-story house that served as the command post of the Jewish defenders in the 1948 War of Independence. The Jewish fighters were called the “Palmach” – hence the street name.
Poised on a stone mount down Jerusalem Street is a Davidka (“little David”) cannon. Like its sister in Jerusalem, this was one of those homemade Jewish mortars that, though not too accurate nor particularly damaging, made a terrific noise and intimidated the Arab adversaries. Also in this area stands the old British police station, with bullet holes still visible in its façade.
Jewish Quarter and Artists’ Quarter
Before the War of Independence, the houses in the Artists’ Quarter formed the old Arab Quarter. By 1948, the city was home to around 1,700 Jews, mostly religious and elderly, as well as some 12,000 Arabs. To visit alleyways housing the many tourist stores and the famous synagogues of Safed, descend the stairway as far as Beit Yosef Street.
Tzaddikim From the 16th Century “Golden Age of Safed”
Down below the Old City of Safed, past the Chassidic community of Kiryat Breslov towards the base of the mountain, lies the famous ancient cemetery of Safed. According to Jewish tradition, the influence of tzaddikim, holy Jewish people, remains with us and their contribution to the world continues forever. The Safed ancient cemetery which contains many famous tzaddikim, particularly from the golden age of Safed, the 16th century, is truly “living history.” Its peaceful location invites quiet contemplation.
Close to the landmark stone overpass where HaPalmach Street crosses Jerusalem Street is the Cave of Shem and Ever, the son and grandson of Noah, respectively.
Mameluke Conquest of Safed
Turning into Tet Zayin Street from Hanassi Street, you can find the Caravanserai, a relic of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century conquests of the Mamelukes, a people of Egyptian origin. It was once used as a mosque. Above the carved wooden doors of the entrance you can still see the original inscription in the stonework. The building has a sister Mameluke relic in Safed called the Red Khan. A short stroll away up the hill is the Saraya. What’s that? Read on!
To get a feel for more recent history, follow HaPalmach Street until Kikar HaAtzma’ut (Independence Square), adjacent to which is the imposing mid-eighteenth century Turkish governor’s palace known as the Saraya. At the front of the Saraya building stands a magnificent clock. Today, the Saraya building also includes a tourist information center.
Touring Safed: Did You Know?
Just outside the highway entrance to Safed is a Keren Kayemet Le-Israel (Jewish National Fund) Tree Planting Center. At this site, during the British Mandate, Palmach soldiers built a fortress, which the British destroyed, only to have it built again. The restored fortress contains an exhibition of documents, press clippings and photographs relating to the site.