The Sea of Galilee — aka Lake Galilee, Lake Tiberias, Kineret, and Lake of Gennesaret — is part of the Jordan Valley just like the Dead Sea and as such is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth (about 210 m).
The area is a favorite spot for vacations all year round — in the summer, the lake offers plenty of water fun. In the winter, the mild weather offers a welcome escape from the cold and rain in other parts of the country.
Tiberias — Largest City at the Sea of Galilee
The best base for your stay at the Sea of Galilee is Tiberias: National buses stop in the center of town, and local public transport makes it easy to explore the area.
Bypassing the numerous resort hotels in town, I checked into the Tiberias Hostel, a large but lovingly managed hostel in the old part of the city, only a few steps from the shores of the lake.
Tiberias itself is a sleepy town consisting of tow parts: right on the banks of the Sea of Galilee the old town hosts mainly resorts, shopping, and some history; the new part of the city with its high-rise apartment blocks is creeping up the mountains rising from the lake.
Established 20 AD by King Herod’s son Herod Antipas, the city displays remains of her history here and there, but nowhere spectacularly:
- There are a few remains of the old city walls.
- A fort/crusader castle can only be visited from the outside.
- Some of the hotels reside in 19th-century buildings left behind be the British.
- The vast Jewish century underlines the importance of Tiberias as Jewish spiritual center with several graves of venerated Rabbis that have become pilgrimage sites.
- The Tomb of Maimonides (Rambam), a 13th-century Jewish scholar, is adorned with an attractive late 20-century sculpture.
- The old mosque sits inside a tired looking mall.
- The leaning tower (part of a Greek Orthodox monastery) barely leans.
So, after exploring Tiberias with what felt like more than sufficient depth, I quickly looked beyond the city. Instead of selling tours, the Tiberias Hostel has prepared a free binder full of ideas for excursions around Lake Tiberias and into the Golan Heights, including info on public transport options.
Tiberias has mild daytime temperatures around 20°C in winter and hot Mediterranean summers. So my January visit was the perfect time to explore the shores of the Sea of Galilee in a few day hikes: First, the ruins of a city called Hippos (Sussita) near Ein Gev Kibbutz caught my attention. Secondly, I wanted to find out more about the Christian story of the region, which is so prominently featured in the Bible.
Sussita (aka Susita aka Hippos)
At almost noon, I catch bus #57 (other options: #51, #147) from Tiberias Central Station, only 5 minutes up the road from the hostel. The fare is NIS10.50 (€2.50). The journey the other side of the lake takes 45 minutes.
I get out at the Ein Gev Kibbutz. The driver points up the hill to our right. “Sussita.”
Fortunately, the old Roman town is on a hill. Because in the orchards of the kibbutz it’s hard to find the right track. Twice I end up at a wire fence and have to turn back.
Just as I’ve finished the first serpentine, an elderly gentleman comes toward me. We smile at each other and exchange pleasantries. Before he moves on, he looks at me in earnest: “Do you have a hat? You need a hat! Do you have enough water? It takes a while to go up there, and there is no shade.”
I smile politely and confirm: Yes, I have a hat. Yes, I have plenty of water.
Satisfied, he leaves me behind.
The truth is: I didn’t bring my dreadful hat, and I have 1 l of water.
But I’m only mildly concerned. I let the hostel know my plans for the day and I cannot imagine that there would be no help so close to a kibbutz.
So I walk on.
The climb takes me grueling 45 minutes. Not too long. But the old man was right: the path is not the best and serpentine after serpentine in the midday sun takes longer than the view from the road had me expect.
The first sign of the ruins is an overgrown hill marked as “Archeological Excavation — Do Not Enter!”
Of course, I enter — carefully, so not to disturb the ground.
Upon careful examination, I discover piles of stones under the weeds. Later, I will find out that Hippos was a thriving Greco-Roman city that was abandoned after the 749 earthquake that also destroyed Jerash in today’s Jordan. Just like Jerash, Hippos was a Decapolis — one of the ten most important Roman cities in the region.
Back on the path from the piles of rubble, the surface turns from dirt into large smooth stone slabs. I have found the road that has been leading into the city for 2,000 years.
Up on top of the hill, I discover a small amphitheater, outlines of temples, baths, and churches and a row of massive marble pillars that is still lying in the same position into which the earthquake had felled them. Because the city is on top of a hill, it was never buried deep by rubble falling onto it. Just layers of undergrowth that turned into soil need removing to reveal ancient grandeur.
The Sea of Galilee is the southern tip of the Golan Heights and as such contested territory between Israel and Jordan. When I get to the Eastern side of the city, barbed wire and yellow signs warn visitors to stray off the path lest they step on landmines buried in the ground.
Also on the other side of the city, is another access route. A black tar road snakes between the lush green land to a small parking lot about 200 m below the Roman ruins. From there, a straight path takes visitors up the easy route.
Being still in excavation means that you can visit Sussita/Hippos for free and you get a glimpse of how much work goes into presenting “a realistic picture” in ancient sites.
After a little less than two hours, I head back down to Ein Gev, suddenly acutely aware of the limited number of afternoon buses. The sunset from Sussita/Hippos must be marvelous. But that’ll have to wait until I have my own car to take me back to town.
My hunch was right: there are only two more buses today, and the first one shows up 40 minutes before it’s scheduled. Fortunately, I’m on board and enjoy the sunset over Tiberias from my window seat.
Biblical Sea of Galilee — Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, and Tabgha
My second excursion takes me on the Gospel Trail. As a non-religious person, following such routes is how I learn about the stories in the big book.
I take bus #59 (other options: #450, 541, 840) to the Mount of Beatitudes Junction. The driver doesn’t know where that is. But I’ve come prepared: In Hebrew, the place is known as Mount HaOsher. Even though the journey is much shorter than yesterday, it’s more expensive: NIS14.50.
From the main road, the Beatitudes church/monastery is about 10 minutes on foot along a small road. When I get to the gate — it’s quarter to twelve — a man bids me into his car: “I’ll take you there. But you have to hurry!”
I have to admit that I don’t actually know what Beatitudes is about. But I get into the man’s car; we pass the gate and race to a parking lot. He points me past a group of Orthodox pilgrims. I follow his order and end in front of an unremarkable 19th-century church. Decoration along the way and a sign have me put the story together: Mount of Beatitudes is where, according to the Bible, Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, one of the core elements of Christian faith. “Beatitudes” translates to “happiness” and lists groups of seemingly unfortunate people (the poor, the mourning, etc.) that according to Jesus are, in fact, blessed by God.
Since I was told to hurry, I snap a few pictures and head back to the car. My driver gives me a thumbs-up and takes me back to the gate.
I walk around the outside of the compound looking for a path down towards the lake. My hosts had told me of a small cave along the part that was worth visiting.
But markings aren’t as clear as I would have wished. So I get lost in a large citrus tree orchard. The fruits are inedible.
Finally, I find a hole in the fence and make for what I think is the path to the cave.
And it is. Just, the cave is not much more than a rock sticking out of the landscape forming a slight overhang. There is a bench inviting me to have lunch and remains of candles pointing to the site’s usage as a place of prayer.
After lunch, I cross the road along the lake and follow a wide footpath all the way to Capernaum. Markers name it “The Gospel Trail” and I assume that it connects the different biblical sites around the Northern end of the Sea of Galilee.
After 3 km, I have reached the entrance to Kfar Nahum National Park, a mix of a nature reserve and a biblical site.
It was in Capernaum — the Hebrew name is Kfar Nahum (“Village Nahum”) — that, according to the story, Jesus spent most of his life after his baptism. Hence, Capernaum is also known as “Jesus’ own city.”
Starting at the shores of the lake, I visit the Greek Orthodox Church with its picturesque pink domes and stunning golden-red murals inside as well as the ruins of the old village; towards Tabgha, the path leads through a light forest. I watch hundreds of Cormorants as they take flight, one group after the other like a meticulously planned maneuver. I watch a dozen pelicans, unimpressed by the Cormorant army.
Suddenly, stretched out on a big rock, a furry thing, looking a mix of hamster and groundhog stares at me with button eyes. Another one next to it takes flight without giving me the benefit of the doubt.
I am finally getting a good look at a rock hyrax. When I was in Ein Gedi, the furry friends had never stopped long enough for me to fid out what they look like.
Giddy with joy about my luck, I walk on. Just to find around the next corner…
…dozens of button eyes staring at me. On a group of rocks, a whole family of rock hyraxes is lounging in the afternoon sun. I later read, that the rock hyrax, a relative of the elephant, isn’t very good at controlling its body temperature. So they soak up the heat to keep from freezing at night. Understandably so.
Under they’re watchful eyes, I do my best to steer well clear of the rocks and the hyraxes.
To get to my final stop, Tabgha, I have to go back up to the road. A small waterfall and beyond it a big fence are blocking my path.
Tabgha (also Ein Sheva) is, according to the story, the spot where Jesus managed to feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Today, the place is marked by a tiny church and a German Catholic monastery. Several spots for baptisms bear witness to the recent reduction in lake water: They all were built right onto the water but are now several meters from it.
Getting back to Tiberias turns out a little more difficult: I have learned from my Hippos trip and have come prepared with departure times for the bus right outside the Tabgha Monastery entrance. I am there 30 minutes before departure. Alas, the bus doesn’t come.
So I walk up to the much bigger Route 90, which connects Tiberias to the Golan Heights. Here, I find a Spanish couple and a young Frenchman waiting for a bus. They’ve also been here for a while. Eventually, a cab stops and offers to take us for NIS70. We do a quick calculation for the price of 4 bus tickets into town and offer him NIS40. It’s win-win — he’d otherwise do the tour empty making NIS0.
Other things to do around the Sea of Galilee
- Hot springs: The hot springs in Southern Tiberias right by the Sea of Galilee are ancient (at their base– the bath is a modern 20th-century building)
- Secret hot springs: Early-sleeper me never quite made because it happens between 8 pm (or later) and midnight: Whenever they feel like it the staff at the Tiberias Hostel gets a minibus to hot springs on the border with Jordan. Free seats are sold to hostel guests on a first-come basis. It adventurous part of this is that those springs are actually off limits but the locals know how to bypass security…
- Boats: Boat tours between Tiberias, Capernaum, Ein Gev and Maagan are offered year-round. However, outside summer the boats don’t run on a regular schedule but rather as charters (mainly for school groups) and you have to find out whether you can nab a spot (easiest by asking reception at your hostel/hotel)
- Beaches: The nicest beaches for swimming are along the East Coast of the lake.
- Jordan River: Both, the inflow in the North, just East of Capernaum, and the outlet in the South near Kinneret have been landscaped as parks with walking paths and picknick facilities.
- Golan Heights: There are numerous sights from Druse villages to nature hikes with waterfalls and snowy Mount Hermon to millennia-old Nirmod Castle. However, outside the towns, Golan Heights is only recommended as a day tripping destination if you have your own means of transport as buses run scarcely.
Practical Info & Links
- Getting there by bus: Click here for current schedules and prices for national Egged buses to/from Tiberias. Direct connections from Jerusalem (961 is going along the western West Bank passing through Beet She’an/962 is going along Route 6) and Tel-Aviv (Rout #836) are available.
- Getting around locally: The best source for up-to-date bus schedule around the Sea of Galilee is found on bus.co.il
- Hippos: For more info on Sussita/Hippos check the official excavation website hippos.haifa.ac.il
- Capernaum/Mount of Beatitudes/Tabgha:
- Accommodation: Here’s a link to the recommendable Tiberias Hostel