Want to see what an ancient Roman city looked like (which then later got overrun by the Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottoman empire)? Well, this is Caesarea in Israel – a real-life archaeological wonderland and modern tourist attraction of note.
Caesarea is simply loaded with history! Just a few of the historical sites located here:
Caesarea (Maritima) lies on the Mediterranean coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, next to Kibbutz Sdot Yam. You can get there by renting a car and taking Kvish or “road” 2, Israel’s main coastal highway.
Many tourists opt for a private or group tour to Caesarea where you can avoid the hassle of driving and get a personalized experience of the area. Tours to Caesarea usually embark from either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Most of Caesarea’s top attractions are located within the Caesarea National Park, which you can see below.
The entrance fee for the park is 40 NIS (as of March 2016) and is well worth the money spent. Be sure to ask for an English map (and other literature) when you pay at the entrance.
Be advised that there is a lot to see at the park, so plan for either a half day or full day touring the area (depending on which sites below interest you and how much time you want to spend there).
The park has three entrances. I recommend entering through the southern entrance (1) by the Roman theater (2), as this is where some of the best sites are located, which you definitely don’t want to miss:
• The Roman theater (2)
• One of two Time Trek museums (3)
• The Coral Palace (also known as the promontory palace) (4)
• Hippodrome (5)
• Herodian amphitheater (6) and
• Bathhouse complex (7)
This amazing structure is the oldest theater found in Israel (it was built in Herod’s time, around 2,000 years ago). The Roman theater was in use for hundreds of years after its construction and had a capacity of around 4,000 spectators.
Today it has been fully restored and, amongst other things, is now used for local and international concerts. The open-air Caesarea theater, with its stone seating, gorgeous seaside view and great sound is one of our favorite places in the world due to this unique atmosphere and setting.
Not far from the Roman theater is the first of 2 Caesarea museums called “Time Trek” or “Travel through Time” (the 2nd museum is located at the harbor (9) ). The museums feature a great 10-minute HD cinematic film that shows the city’s rich history.
In the museums you can see a model of Herod’s original “Sebastos” citadel harbor (9) and numerous artefacts, such as Islamic treasure coins discovered off the Caesarea coast in 2015.
The Time Trek museum also has a room with holographic machines, where famous Caesarean residents of the past come to life and explain who they were and what was going on at the time.
The cast of characters range from Herod the Great to Pontius Pilate, Rabbi Akiva, the Sultan of the Mamelukes and the modern financier of the town, Baron De Rothschild.
The nearby Promontory Palace or “Coral Palace,” dates back to the Roman and Byzantine periods and has been identified as King Herod’s palace (as well as that of subsequent Roman governors).
The palace’s pool is believed by archaeologists to have once served as the city’s fish market. Whatever you believe, the seaside ruins and view are spectacular and not to be missed.
A hippodrome might sound like a cross between a hippopotamus and a spaceship, but don’t let the name fool you – it’s actually the name for an ancient horse- and chariot-racing arena.
Don’t be surprised if you start to feel like you’re on the set of Ben-Hur, especially if you catch one of the re-enactments of racing here. ;-)
Dating from Roman times, the hippodrome was probably a very popular site, housing as many as 10,000 spectators. It was referred to as an amphitheatre during Herod’s time and may be the “stadium” that the famous Jewish philosopher Josephus described in his book “Jewish War.” Whatever you want to call it, the bottom line is that there are few ancient hippodromes still standing around the world so it’s definitely worth checking out.
Check out the bath house complex (7) with its elaborate mosaic floor designs. The bath houses are apparently from the Byzantine period (324-638 CE).
Continue further on to the harbor area. On your way there you’ll find the first of two Crusader gates as well as a central open lawn space where you can picnic or simply play around with the kids.
Ongoing excavations are still happening at the park (as at March 2016) around the temple platform (8), right opposite the central lawn.
The temple platform is where Herod built a temple here in his time, which was subsequently replaced by a Byzantine church, a Moslem mosque and a Crusader cathedral. The area is not open to the public now but by the time you read this and/or visit there may be more archaeology to feast your eyes on.
There’s plenty of delicious restaurants all along the harbor (9), where you can grab a bite to eat alfresco or indoors. I had a great schnitzel and Israeli salad at Port Café when I visited, but there are also a number of other great options such as the Crusaders restaurant or the Limani bistro.
One experience worth mentioning is the Caesarea Diving Center (10), where you can scuba dive to the depths of the ancient port.
Diving and seeing the ancient “underwater archaeological park” is a unique experience and highly, highly recommended.
You can check out the Caesarea Diving Center website or call them on 04-626-5898 to arrange a dive.
Use the northern entrance (11) to exit the park. There you’ll find a variety of architecture from the Crusader period – a cross-vaulted Crusader gate along with the medieval castle walls and surrounding moat.
For more history check out the Statues Square (12) located about 5-10 minutes’ walk outside and east of the northern entrance to the national park. This square contains the Byzantine cardo (main road) and is adorned with statues of two Caesars.
Herod and his engineers created an amazing city with an artificial harbor and breakwater, palaces, a temple, public amenities, streets and housing. But the coastal city was not built next to fresh water, and this was a major problem to solve for his city’s residents.
His solution can still be found nearby, outside and to the north of the Caesarea National Park. The Caesarea aqueduct (13) is hard to miss, stretching out for a few hundred meters along the beach. This marvel of ancient engineering was used to bring water from the Shuni springs – about 7.5 km north-east of Caesarea.
If you’re feeling a little brave, walk over to the northern edge, where you can actually climb right on top of the structure and traverse the top of it from side to side.
Otherwise just enjoy the Caesarea beach and the great view… This beach is actually rated as one of the top beaches in Israel and on weekends in summer you’ll see many people flocking to its waters. There is no lifeguard on duty but still, what a great place to catch some sun and surf!
Those are our recommendations of what to see when visiting Caesarea in Israel.
What are yours? Send us comments or questions below…
Written by Michael Celender
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