The Best Gardens in Israel
When people think about Israel, they don’t typically imagine gardens — usually there’s more of an association with a hot middle eastern climate and multiform geopolitical issues. These assumptions are common, but when I think about Israel, I think about the desert, the mountains, the ocean, and the beach. For such a small country, Israel (which is just a bit larger than New Jersey) boasts a surprising variety of natural landscapes. Even more surprisingly, many of these landscapes include wonderful gardens, and over the years I’ve discovered some lovely gems.
The most-visited garden in Israel is likely the Bahai Garden in Haifa: it’s impossible to miss. The garden cuts a huge swath from high up Carmel Mountain down to the city center, and both times I went I was on a strictly controlled guided tour. This is partially because the garden is a holy place, and thus taken very seriously. Like most locales in Israel, it has a completely unique vibe as most of the gardens have some historical religious overtone, which sounds serious and weird, but it is not. At Bahai Garden, religion is just a historical framework: the garden itself is perfectly maintained, with beautiful flowers, raked sand that frames cacti and expertly-pruned trees. The beauty is inherent to its location and layout — the best time to go is when the citrus trees are in bloom. That’s when it feels like a magical kingdom, a fairy garden that smells like oranges and lemon peel, with a magnificent view looking out over the port and bay.
Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens
Recently, I traveled the back roads to get to the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens — another amazing Israeli find. The road lined with greenhouses growing bananas, tomatoes, and beans brought back fond memories for me. (The landscape reminded me of my family’s yearly trip through the farmland of California’s central valley, en route to Yosemite.) As a native Californian, I constantly feel a strong parallel between California and Israel, particularly in the agricultural valleys — two different continents, but a similar context for plants.
Ramat Hanadiv is lovely experience — another spectacular location on a hill with views to the Mediterranean, and the objet of Baron Rothschild, whose exquisitely-simple tomb is carved into a hill on site. The garden is spread out as a historical memorial that somehow manages to feel cozy. Today the garden is completely green, emphasizing the sustainable, local, and native. Its home to an advanced water purifying system and an incredible composting project. The last time I visited, my taxi driver was so excited he actually parked and walked around with me, which is a really moving homage to the way in which gardens can touch people in ways you might not expect. Shiny white local stone leads you in different directions, through rose gardens with multiple pools. There are fountains everywhere, my favorite one modeled after a man’s hand, and always, you can see through the pines to the sea. The tomb around which the garden centers is welcoming but stately, built into a hill and covered in mossy grass.
Neot Kedium Biblical Reserve
Of the many gardens one might visit in Israel, my favorite is Neot Kedium. It’s a little off-the-beaten path (unless you know about it) because it isn’t technically a garden but a biblical reserve. If you have read any of the books you know it means that it isn’t the ideal destination on a hot day. The reserve is a great place for children and people wanting to understand the bible through the landscape. You can walk through the stories to understand the landscape spatially, really seeing how things might have happened in the biblical epoch. Every time I’ve been it feels different: I’ve been on guided tours and I’ve been by myself. The history persists in memory. And there’s something magical about watching kids run through the paths, learning to understand where they live a little bit better.
The Neighborhood of Neve Tzedek
In Tel Aviv, the beautifully-renovated neighborhood of Neve Tzedek has many tiny private gardens hidden above, in, and behind walls. If you’re lucky, a few gates will be open and you can take a peak of the citrus trees and bougainvillea vines that hang over walls into the street. I love the streets in this area, which are full charming shops. Two favorites of mine are The Ceramic Cooperative and Neroli health food store, which makes the world’s best green juices. In the gardens behind them, bikes, surfboards, and hot tubs are squeezed in next to potted herbs and succulents.
GC Travel Tip: You’ll find the world’s best green juice at Neroli Health Food Store, Lilinblum 3; Open 8:30 to 8 PM Sun-Thurs and 8:30 to 4 PM on Friday[addtoany]
In this neighborhood, gardens fill in the cracks. I visited a charming secret garden tucked between the famed Dallal Restaurant and their very cool bakery with an open-air bar and picnic tables for enjoying coffee and croissants. There’s garden behind a blue door lies a funky table with mismatched chairs inside a vine-covered greenhouse. There’s a traditional lion fountain surrounded by potted plants, private seating areas, crystal chandelier hanging in a tree. It feels like a movie set that you can stumble into and out of at whim. It’s amazing what you can find when you open up a few doors.
In Neve Tzedek I always make sure to stop by the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre; they have amazing ice cream and an amazing ancient irrigation system seen in the ground rills that connect to and surround the orange trees in the plaza. I love that this old technique is positioned within the space that GAGA, an ultra-modern dance company, performs. It’s a unique blend of modern and old-fashioned, just like the country itself.
The Mythic Chocolate Iris (iris atrofusca) and Mt. Scopus Botanical Garden at Hebrew University, Jerusalem
On My latest trip I had a delightful tour of The Mt. Scopus Botanical garden at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. A botanical garden dedicated to preserving authentic Israeli species, Mt. Scopus allows plants to thrive in their natural environment — each significant ecological region is represented, and soil from the said regions was brought to the garden from their respective corners of the earth. Inside the garden there are ancient burial caves from the second temple period, knowledge that adds richness to the visit. (Again, history is woven into every experience.) The plants here tell their story with their form– like a fig treewhose roots have grown so deep into the caves that they covered the walls and look liked sea fans. I was lucky enough to see the chocolate-colored irises in full bloom (check out those images in the slideshow) and there’s nothing more spectacular than that.
I first saw a chocolate-colored iris a few years ago while walking in Golan Heights, and was completely floored that Iris’s were native to Israel. I just never thought about it. My guide was so excited to prove to me that they existed that we went down a “No Entry” sign dirt road and climbed up some rock to see the Iris growing out of its crevice.
Jaffa (In a Jiffy)
One must also take a quick visit to Jaffa to find the tiny courtyard that has one of my all time favorite garden features — a huge pot with a tree in it hanging in the center of the courtyard.
The aforementioned gardens are true destinations for anyone visiting Israel for the first time, but in all actuality, all of Tel Aviv feels like a garden to me. Israel is delineated through tree-lined boulevards. Along the way there are tiny gazebo coffee stands with tables and benches to sit and relax. On Saturdays, you can see people with table clothes and picnics really using these lush boulevards like a garden — their own personal outdoor restaurants. Vines frame all the graffiti. An entire city exists outside. Even the metal recycled bottle bins on the street are festooned with fun colorful flowers, so really, the best advice I can give is just to go out an explore it. Grab an ice cream cone and get walking.