Thousands of Romans used to pack the stands at the seaside amphitheater for the races, the most coveted seats being at the turns, where the bloodiest collisions happened. The deep, three-basined harbor, the largest in the eastern Mediterranean, provided a safe stopover for large ships sailing from Rome to Alexandria.
Caesarea Maritima — Caesarea by the Sea — dedicated to Emperor Augustus Caesar, was the jewel in King Herod the Great’s crown, a grandiose Roman harbor and city that took hundreds of builders and divers more than a decade to construct.
More than a thousand years later, on top of what the Romans had built, Caesarea became a fortified Crusader city ringed by thick medieval stone walls, moats and gatehouses.
Today, peeling back the layers of time in this Mediterranean town just a little more than 30 miles north of Tel Aviv makes for an interesting day trip on a visit to Israel. It’s a short hop from Tel Aviv or Haifa, and an easy drive from Jerusalem. And if you’re visiting during Israel’s six warm months, you can combine history with a bit of sun-worshiping and swimming in the Med.
My husband and I decide to make Caesarea a two-day trip from Jerusalem, our new home town. Take the long way, spend the night somewhere and discover more of Israel as we go.
As always with this complicated, beautiful country, we’re not disappointed.
Although you can easily get to Caesarea from Jerusalem by taking the main highway to Tel Aviv and then the coastal road north, we decide on a route that we haven’t yet driven — north from Jerusalem, through the majority-Arab West Bank on old highway 60 and then across to the coast just south of the Palestinian town of Nablus.
As we make our way north out of Jerusalem, big Bedouin tents perched in the desert quickly give way to the hardscrabble terraces that make up the hills of the West Bank. The tall concrete wall around the area that Israel began building in 2000 snakes through the countryside. The rows of identical red-roofed houses that make up the Israeli settlements are dotted through the landscape, as are the tall, thin mosques, the classic symbols of an Arab town.
Just before Nablus, we turn left and take the road to the coastal town of Netanya, heading for the beach. Just like the Romans and the Crusaders before us, we yearn to be by the sea in Caesarea.
Surprisingly, we find that there’s no place to stay along the Med here, even though Caesarea has become an upmarket area of luxurious homes for wealthy Israelis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a summer home here.
Modern Caesarea consists of a stunning seaside national park, worth every shekel of the admission price, built around the Roman and Crusader ruins and surrounded by a new, expanding planned development of gated communities, shopping malls, a country club and a golf course. The one hotel, the Dan Caesarea, part of the upscale Israeli Dan hotel chain, is luxurious and expensive, but inland.
We’re looking for what attracted the Romans — that unique position on the Med. So we head back the short distance to Netanya to find a hotel by the sea for the night, leaving the next day to explore Caesarea.
Netanya, named after Nathan Strauss, a prominent early 20th-century Jewish American merchant and philanthropist who co-owned Macy’s department store, is spread over more than eight miles of sandy beach and is less than 20 miles north of Tel Aviv. But it couldn’t have seemed farther from its freewheeling secular neighbor just to the south. Netanya is the Israeli coast’s quieter, more religious, more conservative alternative to Tel Aviv.
To look for a hotel, we head for Netanya’s HaRishonim Promenade, the picturesque cliff above the beach, and quickly find the King Solomon. Billed as Netanya’s best, it sits right above the promenade, its small, brightly colored orange balconies all facing the sea. Yep, they have a room with a balcony; it’s dated, but in a kind of funky way. And unbelievably, we can park our car right out front for the night.
When we get to our sixth-floor room and go out to our balcony, a sea of religious Jews dressed in long skirts, headscarves and hats, as well as lots of children, are arriving for an open-air classical concert below us on the promenade, just as a brilliant sun is setting over the sea. We sit on our balcony and listen to some quite good classical music as we watch the sky turn a blazing orange.
For dinner, we walk along the promenade to the center of Netanya, where all the signs are in Russian and French as well as Hebrew. Netanya has a retro, 1970s feel about it, like some Black Sea resort that time forgot. It’s fun for an evening, though, when you’re discovering Israel, and far cheaper than Tel Aviv. We have a good meal. The promenade is lively and full of families.
The next morning, we head out to Caesarea early, to roam the ruins before the sun gets too hot.
Caesarea’s remains are spread along an almost two-mile stretch of the coast, extending from the Roman theater to the south to the Crusader city in the north.
Among the ruins from the Roman period, we’re particularly struck by the Herodian Amphitheater, the huge, U-shaped entertainment venue used for chariot racing, sporting events and other shows. Smack dab on the Mediterranean, it’s more than 820 feet long and 165 feet wide, with places for about 10,000 spectators.
Herod’s royal harbor, known as Sebastos, is largely gone, but archaeologists believe that it included three basins, a huge breakwater hundreds of feet from the shore and a gigantic tower, possibly a lighthouse to guide visitors into the protected harbor. It’s not hard to see why King Herod picked this majestic site to honor his imperial Roman patron.
Walking through the Roman ruins, you reach the Crusader city; after capturing Caesarea in 1251, King Louis IX of France added most of the fortifications visible today. A quaint area of shops, restaurants and cafes — all dramatically lit at night — has been built into the Crusader ruins. It’s a perfect rest stop for coffee, lunch or dinner after a day, morning or afternoon of sightseeing.
A 10-minute movie in the Crusader city and an interactive display explain how Caesarea developed over time. And also how it was destroyed by earthquakes and tsunamis.
After all that history, the Med beckons. And the Caesarea Beach Club — right there on a narrow but beautiful sliver of beach — fits the bill nicely for the remainder of the afternoon.
First, a late lunch on the white wicker sofas overlooking the site of Herod’s harbor. And then the late afternoon in the sun, lolling in the warm water in the small bay.
And lots of educational reading in the guidebooks about the Romans and the Crusaders, too, of course.
Deane, a former Washington Post reporter, is a freelance writer in Israel.