Caesarea Is Israel’s Most Popular Tourist Destination. What’s Its Secret?

Caesarea Is Israel’s Most Popular Tourist Destination. What’s Its Secret?

The ancient city, built by Herod the great, drew some 200,000 international tourists last year, and about half a million Israelis. But what sets it apart?

March 01st, 13PM March 01st, 13PM

Out of all of Israel’s tourist sites that charge for admission, Caesarea is the most popular. According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, 670,000 people visited Caesarea National Park in 2022 – a 76 percent increase over the previous year. Some 200,000 international tourists visited Caesarea last year, as well as nearly half a million Israelis.

A visit to the ancient city, which was built by Herod the Great two millennia ago, shows that its immensity, impressiveness and complexity is indeed on a global scale. But it also makes you wonder why, exactly, the ancient port city is so popular.

After all, people are not making the trek just to have a picnic or take a dip in the water (as they are in Tel Ashkelon, the site in second place on the Parks Authority’s list). Does Israel really have such a large community of archaeology buffs?

Caesarea is massive. There is a full kilometer and a half (about a mile) between the Roman theater at the southern edge of the site and the ancient synagogue that has been discovered at the northern edge.

You can enter, as I did, through the southern gate, near the theater, and trudge a kilometer or so to the port. First, you pass by a garden of archaeological finds and the ruins of the outer courtyard of Herod’s palace.

From there, you continue through the 300-meter-long (1,000 foot) hippodrome stadium, and then walk along the seafront promenade that connects the palace to the Crusader gate, which was built by King Louis IX of France about 800 years ago.

The port compound is the heart of Caesarea. There are 20 or so cafes, restaurants, art galleries and souvenir shops. Its newest and most prominent building is a vaulted structure that once served as a warehouse for the port, and was rebuilt three years ago. It now serves as the visitor center, and hosts an impressive display.

There is an observatory on the building’s rooftop that looks out over the beach and the remnants of the platforms of the temples to Rome and Augustus, built by Herod in the 1st century BCE. The massive stone domes stand alongside what once served as an internal port, and was later covered with earth and grass.

Most of the structures in which the coffee shops and restaurants operate are the homes of the Arab village of Qisarya, whose residents lived at the ancient coastal site until 1948. The village’s residents were expelled in February of that year, and most of their homes were demolished.

So what is Caesarea’s secret? It is a rare place where archaeological sites and entertainment venues sit side-by-side.

The developers of the Caesarea site, where the development is generously supported by Baroness Ariane de Rothschild, finally feel like they can relax a bit. They took a freer hand than usual when it comes to national parks, and managed to combine history and fun.

The data seems to prove that they have more than succeeded in linking together an impressive ancient site of international significance and a cup of good espresso.

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