330km (205 miles) N of Jerusalem; 116km (72 miles) E of Haifa
From Haifa, the favorite road to Tiberias (Teverya in Hebrew) is the one from Nazareth, if only for that dip in the road and that sudden unfolding of the mountains when the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) is suddenly spread down below you -- an incredibly beautiful azure lake set like a jewel in a pastoral valley.
The ancient city of Tiberias, built in A.D. 18 by Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great), was named in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberias. With its hot springs and mild, far-below-sea-level climate (warm in winter; brutally hot in summer), it became one of the most elegant winter resorts in this part of the ancient world. Classical writers describe a city adorned with colonnaded streets, impressive Roman baths and temples made of imported white marble, and broad marble steps leading into the waters of the lake. For more than a century, rabbis condemned Tiberias as a place of pagan cults and immoral activities; worse yet, it was built on a cemetery, making it forbidden to Jews as a place to live. But the healing powers of the hot springs caused the rabbinical prohibition to be rescinded, and by the late Roman era, many of the rabbinical leaders themselves were enjoying the restorative powers of the baths and hot springs.
A century and a half after The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, Tiberias became the great center for Jewish learning. It was here that the Mishnah was completed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., at the direction of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi, "Judah the Prince." Here the Jerusalem Talmud was compiled in the 4th century A.D, and the standardized rules for vowel and punctuation grammar were introduced into the Hebrew language by the scribes of Tiberias. Mystics, academicians, and men believed to have magic powers have been drawn to Tiberias throughout its history.
Both the town and the towering scholarship declined after the 5th century A.D., due to the many wars fought here by the Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks. A medieval Arab historian named Al MuQadassi recorded that the residents of the town led a life of decadence -- dancing, feasting, playing the flute, running around naked in the summer heat, and swatting green flies, the eternal plague of the region until modern times.
Tiberias today is a mildly honky-tonk tourist town, packed during school holidays and rather dead during the winter, but it's the liveliest place to spend the night in the area, and the main tourist base for the Galilee and Golan regions. Although the waterfront at Tiberias has large, modern hotels, Tiberias also offers a scattering of old, charming houses and the arabesque domes of Ottoman-Turkish mineral water bathhouses as well as a scattering of archaeological digs and the tombs of the great rabbinical sages. There's also a gem of an Ottoman-era mosque, near the waterfront promenade, in a state of semi-ruin, but there are plans to restore it. The beaches in town are mostly small and ugly, but welcome on a hot summer day. Two blocks inland from the lakefront, Ha Galil Street, with its black native basalt buildings, is filled with shops and brings to mind an old-fashioned, small-town American main street. For centuries, what little industry existed in Tiberias was built around pilgrimage and veneration of ancient tombs, some with very dubious traditions. All this has been overwhelmed by Tiberias's new incarnation as a center for discos, party boats, fish restaurants, and international tour groups. The pubs and restaurants along the Waterfront Promenade pound with disco and heavy metal on summer evenings. Little of the town's splendid history is immediately visible.
Because Tiberias is so far below sea level, the climate is mild in the fall, winter, and spring, but torrid when Tiberias is busiest in July and August. In winter, visitors may be able to ski on Mount Hermon (1 1/2-hr. drive, 2,700m/8,858 ft. above sea level) in the morning and (on warm days) do an afternoon water-ski on the Sea of Galilee (210m/689 ft. below sea level). In the evening, you can eat a NIS 16 ($4/£2) falafel packed with every salad or condiment imaginable at the pedestrian mall, or a NIS 160 ($40/£20) supper at one of Israel's most acclaimed restaurants and go dancing on one of the Sea of Galilee's evening party boats afterward. In less than an hour you can drive from Tiberias to the Golan Heights, the Lebanese border, Safed, Nazareth, the Yizreel Valley, or down through the Jordan Valley to the south, as well as to any place on the Sea of Galilee.
Tiberias lies on one of the earth's major geological fault lines, the Syrian/African Rift, and in 1837 the city was virtually destroyed by an earthquake. A few portions of the city's black basalt medieval walls survived that catastrophe, but almost nothing else of medieval or ancient Tiberias can be seen today outside of the archaeological sites open to the public.
The entire area, geologically speaking, is known as the "Great Rift." The fault line begins in southern Turkey and northern Syria, extends southward through Israel down to Eilat, goes under the Red Sea, and all the way to Lake Victoria in Malawi, Africa.
It is this rift that has given shape to the mountains and valleys, and it is the reason why you can stand at the Sea of Galilee, 210m (689 ft.) below sea level, and look up toward the north and see Mount Hermon towering 2,700m (8,858 ft.) above sea level. It's also the reason for the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions over the eons, as well as the mineral hot springs around the shores of Lake Kinneret and The Dead Sea. The town's older buildings, and Tiberias's Old City Wall, are composed of volcanic rock, called black basalt.
Another interesting feature of the low-lying Syrian/African Rift is that it forms an incredible highway for bird migration between Europe and Africa. Two of Israel's major wildlife reserves -- Hula Valley in the north, Hai Bar in the south -- serve as stopping-off points for the birds on their long journey, and are popular with bird-watchers and nature lovers.