To tour the Sea of Galilee, head north, starting a circle that will bring you back to Tiberias before heading into the Upper Galilee region. As of this writing there is no regular bus route that completely circles the lake, so you’ll have to depend on a tour bus, rental car, bicycle, or boat.
Just more than 3km (1 3/4 miles) north of Tiberias along the lakeside road, you’ll come to the newly excavated ruin of the New Testament village of Magdala, the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. This is one of the most active archeological digs in Israel. Fresh discoveries are being made almost daily amid the lovely scenery. The town stretched right down by the water’s edge. On the hill just to the south of old Magdala, along the far (west) side of the highway, you can still see the sarcophagi (stone coffins) carved out of the rocks in the place that was Magdala’s cemetery. The modern town of Migdal, founded in the 20th century, is about 1.6km (1 mile) to the north of the site of ancient Magdala.
The GINOSAR Valley
A little farther on, about 10km (6 1/4 miles) north of Tiberias, you’ll find yourself in a lush valley with many banana trees. These are part of the agriculture of Kibbutz Nof Ginosar, one of the larger kibbutzim, with a vast and busy kibbutz hotel. In the kibbutz, you’ll find the multimedia Yigal Alon Museum of the Galilee (tel. 04/672-7700; www.jesusboatmuseum.com). More a learning experience about the area than a museum, it offers only one genuine antiquity, a Galilee fishing boat from approximately the a.d. 1st century, preserved in the muddy sediment of the lake floor and revealed in the 1980s when, because of drought, the lake receded to record-low levels. The boat is touted by some guides as “the Jesus boat.” Although it may be typical of fishing boats from the time of Jesus, there is, of course, no evidence that ties it to any specific persons. Still, it’s an amazing discovery, and of special interest to pilgrim groups. The wooden frame of the boat is preserved in a climate-controlled boathouse structure. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday 8:30am to 5:30pm, Friday from 8:30am to 3:30pm; closed Saturdays.
14km (8 2/3 miles) N of Tiberias.
To reach Tabgha, where Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fishes, proceed northward along the shoreline from Migdal, passing Minya, a 7th-century Arabian palace that is one of the most ancient and holy Muslim prayer sites. It’s open daily from 8am to 4pm.
At Tabgha, you’ll find the beautifully restored Benedictine monastery and the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (tel. 04/672-1061). When the ancient church ruins, hidden for 1,300 years, were excavated, the mosaic basilica floor of a Byzantine-era church that once stood on this site was found. The floor is one of the most lyrical and skillfully made ever discovered in Israel. The section of the floor in front of the ancient altar is starkly unadorned, rather primitive, and interesting mainly for what it depicts: two fish and a humble basket filled with loaves of bread. In contrast, the main section of the mosaic is a skillfully executed, colorful tapestry of all the birds that once thrived in this area: swans, cranes, ducks, wild geese, and storks. The mosaic artist has captured the liveliness, humor, and grace of these creatures with a style rarely seen in this art form. The Nilometer, used to measure the flood levels of the Nile and famous throughout the ancient world, is also represented, leading some to speculate that the talented mosaic designer might have been Egyptian.
Be sure to read the history of this church posted just inside the entrance, in the church’s courtyard. The early Judeo-Christians of nearby Capernaum (Kfar Nahum) venerated a large rock, upon which Jesus is said to have placed the bread and fish when he fed the 5,000. The rock, a natural dolmen, is believed by historians to have been a sacred place since prehistoric times, and was used as the altar in a Byzantine church erected over the spot in about a.d. 350. The church is open Monday to Saturday from 8:30am to 5pm and on Sunday only for Mass; modest dress required. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. There’s a bookstore and souvenir shop on site..
Just east of the Multiplication Church is the Heptapegon (“Seven Springs” in Greek), also called the Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter, or Mensa Christi. It was here on the shores of Galilee that Jesus is believed to have appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion and resurrection. Peter and the others were in a boat on the lake, fishing, but with no luck. When Jesus appeared, he told them to cast their nets again. They did, and couldn’t haul in the nets because they were so heavy with fish. As the disciples sat with their master having dinner, Jesus is said to have conferred the leadership of the movement on Peter. The theory of Peter’s primacy, and the tradition of that primacy’s being passed from one generation of disciples to the next, is the basis for the legitimacy of the Roman pontiff as leader of Christendom.
The black basalt church rests on the foundations of earlier churches. Within is a flat rock called Mensa Christi, or “Christ’s Table,” where Jesus dined that evening with his disciples. Outside the church, you can still see the stone steps said to be the place where Jesus stood when he appeared, calling out to the disciples; on the beach are seven large stones, which may once have supported a little fishing wharf.
To reach Heptapegon, you must leave the Multiplication Church, return to the highway, turn right, and climb the hill to a separate entrance. This Greek Orthodox church is open daily from 8:30am to 4:45pm; admission is free.
If it’s not too hot, you can easily walk to nearby Capernaum (3km/1 3/4 miles) and even to the Mount of the Beatitudes.
Mount of the Beatitudes
8km (5 miles) N of Ginosar; 3km (1 3/4 miles) N of Capernaum
Just beyond Tabgha, on a high hill, is the famous Mount of the Beatitudes, now the site of an Italian convent. Here Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount—the site, though beautiful in itself, bears a special feeling of spirituality. As you stand on the hill, the acoustics often seem crystal-clear; you can imagine the listening crowds and the words of Jesus reverberating over the countryside. There are many good views of the Sea of Galilee and its surroundings, but the vista from this place is among the most magnificent. One odd fact about this church is the inscription on the sanctuary, which informs you that the entire project was built by Mussolini in 1937.
The domed church building itself is open daily from 8:30am to noon and 2:30 to 5pm. Admission is free, but the fee per car is NIS 10. If you go by bus from Tiberius, ask the driver to let you off at the closest stop, which is 1km ( 2/3 mile) from the church. There are benches along the way to rest on as you make the climb.
Capernaum (Kfar Nahum)
Known in biblical times as the village of Nahum, this is a lakeside town where Jesus preached and his disciples Peter and Andrew made their homes. During the lifetime of Jesus, in the a.d. 1st century, Kfar Nahum was a prosperous fishing community, port, and way station on the main trade route from Israel’s Mediterranean coast to Damascus. It even had its own Customs House and was probably the most cosmopolitan of the lakeside towns until the founding of Tiberias, in the mid–1st century. The town was abandoned around a.d. 700 and never reconstituted.
Today, you’ll find a modern Franciscan monastery, which was built on the abandoned site in 1894, as well as ancient excavations spanning 6 centuries. Among the most impressive are the ruins of a 3rd- or 4th-century synagogue built on the site of an even earlier synagogue—perhaps one that Jesus would have prayed in (Peter’s house was nearby). It’s built of imported white limestone rather than native black basalt. The ruins include tall columns, marble steps, shattered statuary, a doorway facing south to Jerusalem, and many ancient Jewish symbols: carved seven-branched menorahs, palm branches, and rams’ horns. Again, this structure is not the actual synagogue in which Jesus taught, since it dates from several centuries after his time, but it clearly stands on the traditional location of the town’s main synagogue. It is interesting to speculate on what the proximity of Saint Peter’s house to the synagogue might tell us about the position of his family in Capernaum’s Jewish community. The excavations of basalt stone in the garden lead toward the sea, where you can still glimpse the remains of a small-boat basin with steps leading to the water. Admission is NIS 5. The site is open daily from 8:30am to 4:15pm.
Nearby are several houses of the period and the excavated remains of a 5th-century octagonal church built over the ruins of the traditional site of Saint Peter’s house, in which Jesus would have stayed. Byzantine architects frequently built domed octagonal structures over places of special veneration (the octagonal Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built by early Muslim rulers in a.d. 691, but designed by Byzantine architects, is an example of this type of structure). Other finds include an ancient olive press and a 2nd-century marble milestone on the Via Maris (Coastal Rd.), the Roman route from Egypt to Lebanon (an inland fork of the Via Maris passed through this district en route to Damascus). It was in Kfar Nahum that Jesus began to gather his disciples around him, saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
For a thousand years, the ruins of this village lay hidden under an ocean of impassable thistles until the land was cleared in the late 20th century. It’s a hauntingly evocative site that gives the visitor a feeling for what a Jewish community in the Galilee was like 1,500 years ago. According to the New Testament, Korazim was one of the towns chastised by Jesus.
The centerpiece of this village is a large a.d. 4th- to 5th-century synagogue made of local black basalt, heavily ornamented with carved grapevines, birds, animals, and images of people harvesting the bounty of the land. You can also visit lightly reconstructed streets, houses, and a ritual bath attached to the synagogue, which was apparently destroyed either by earthquake or during civil unrest in the 7th century. A ceremonial chair carved from basalt, which served as the seat of honor for the synagogue, is especially interesting.
The national park office here (tel. 04/693-4982) is open from 5am to 4pm; in summer to 5pm. Admission to the site is NIS 20 for adults and NIS 9 for children.
At the Korazim-Almagor crossroad between Tiberias and Rosh Pinna is the beautiful guest farm and dude ranch Vered HaGalil Guest Farm (see “Where to Stay Around the Sea of Galilee,”).
17km (11 miles) from Tiberias; 7km (4 1/3 miles) N of Ein Gev
Kursi is on the eastern shore; according to the gospels, it is the “country of the Gergesenes” (or Gadarenes), where Jesus cast the demons out of a man who was possessed and into a herd of swine, which then plunged into the lake and drowned. For many years, speculation existed about the exact location of Kursi (also called Gergasa) and about what kind of religious structure might have been built here in commemoration of the casting out of the demons. After the Six-Day War, a bulldozer clearing the way for a new road happened to uncover the ruins of a Byzantine church complex, complete with a monastery (perhaps the largest ever built in the Holy Land), dating from the 5th to the 7th centuries. The monastery apparently contained hostel facilities for the thousands of pilgrims who came to the Galilee during Byzantine times.
Over the decades since 1967, a large basilica with an intricate mosaic floor has been uncovered, as well as a cave chapel that may have marked the place (according to the Gospel of Mark, a tomb) where Jesus encountered the possessed man. Most remarkable among the discoveries is the underground crypt where more than 30 skeletons were found, all of middle-aged men, except for one child. There is a place to buy votive candles and a snack counter.
The national park at Kursi (tel. 04/673-1983) is open daily from 8am to 4pm (until 5pm in summer); admission is NIS 13 for adults and NIS 7 for children.
Kibbutz Ein Gev
12km (7 1/2 miles) N of Tzemach Junction; 7km (4 1/3 miles) S of Kursi
About two-thirds of the way south along the lake’s eastern shore brings you to Kibbutz Ein Gev, one of the loveliest places in Israel. Nestled between the hills of Golan and the lakefront, Ein Gev was founded in 1937 by German, Austrian, and Czechoslovakian refugees. (It was former Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek’s kibbutz.)
These days Ein Gev has a 5,000-seat auditorium, which has presented some of the world’s greatest musicians at its annual music festival. A free mini-train tour of the kibbutz is available for visitors (ask at the office next to the Ein Gev restaurant). On the hillsides are tiers of vineyards, and elsewhere on the grounds are a banana plantation and date groves. Fishing is another big industry here; Ein Gev is home to the country’s largest restaurant, serving Saint Peter’s fish straight from the Sea of Galilee. The kibbutz also offers accommodations at Ein Gev Resort Village (see “Where to Stay Around the Sea of Galilee,”).
Not far from the auditorium, in a garden, is a bronze statue by the Israeli sculptress Hanna Orloff, depicting a woman holding a child aloft, in memory of a young mother-to-be from the kibbutz who was killed in the 1948 battle for Ein Gev. This settlement bore the brunt of heavy attacks in the 1948 war, and its position at the foot of the Golan Heights, below heavy Syrian military emplacements, made it a perennial target. From 1949 to 1967, Ein Gev kibbutz members depended on an endless maze of slit trenches throughout the grounds, as well as concrete underground shelters.
You can get to Ein Gev from Tiberias by bus no. 22. Farther south along the lake is a campsite, at Kibbutz Ha-On, with its ostrich farm and moderately priced Holiday Village and bed-and-breakfast accommodations; continue south along the shoreline and you’ll come to Ma’agan, with its Holiday Village. Ma’agan is very near the junction for the road to the hot-spring resort of Hammat Gader. (Ask at the Tiberias Tourist Information Office or at the Tzemach Junction for information on other campsites around the lake and in the vicinity.)
The hot springs of Hammat Gader (tel. 04/665-9999), east of the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, are a favorite Israeli spa and day trip for visitors to the Galilee. Nestled in the valley of the Yarmuk River, this dramatic site has been inhabited for almost 4,500 years.
The Roman city here was first constructed in the a.d. 3rd century, restored and beautified in the 7th century, and destroyed by an earthquake around 900. The ruins of the Roman spa city are extensive and significant, and several important parts (the baths, the theater) have been excavated and beautifully restored. The still-apparent elegance of the Oval Hall, the Hall of Fountains, and the Hall of Pillars in the Spring Area point to the magnificence of this Roman resort in ancient times. Don’t miss the wonderful lions on the mosaic synagogue floor (5th c. a.d.). The ruins are set up as a self-guided tour (ask at the park office about guided tours of the park).
The spa was known as El-Hamma to the Arabs and Turks, and the site is dominated by the minaret of a mosque that has fallen into disuse and been disfigured by graffiti.
For present-day hot-springs fans, there are modern swimming pools, hot pools, hot sulfur springs, and baths for medical therapy and beauty treatments. Just to keep you tranquil as you relax in the baths, there is also an alligator farm in a jungle setting with elevated walkways. For the kids, the park has trampolines and water slides. You will also find showers, changing rooms, a bar, and a Thai restaurant. Admission Sunday to Thursday NIS 75; Friday, Saturday, and holidays NIS 80; daily admission after 6pm NIS 45. Bring your own towel and bathing suit. Residents of the area as well as visitors come in droves (especially after work), often bringing picnics. The many clay oil lamps found here may indicate the ancient inhabitants of the area enjoyed night bathing after a long day of work.
The springs can be reached by bus from Tiberias. Bus schedules vary according to season, so check with the bus station for a morning departure and afternoon returns. Hammat Gader is 22km (14 miles) southeast of Tiberias. If you’re driving, it’s on Rte. 98 about 8.5km (5 1/4 miles) east of the Tzemach Junction with Rte. 92 that skirts the eastern side of the lake. As you wind down the steep road into the Yarmuk Valley, you’ll pass several sentry and guard posts. The steep hillside on the other side of the valley is Jordan; you are also very close to the Syrian border.
You’ll find Hammat Gader’s pools open Sunday to Tuesday 7am to 4pm; Wednesday to Friday 7am to 9pm; and Saturday 7am to 9pm. Hours are constantly subject to change. Antiquities and children’s activities close at 4pm. As if the ruins, hot springs, and alligator farm were not enough, a good Thai restaurant, the Siam (tel. 04/665-9922), housed in a Thai-style building, has also been set up on the premises (if you dine at the restaurant, your admission to Hammat Gader is free). In 1993, there were rumors that alligators, either accidentally or as a result of a deliberate act of sabotage, had escaped into the Sea of Galilee; no sightings or hunting parties have led to anything more concrete than the Loch Ness Monster!
Located at the very southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, Degania is the country’s very first kibbutz, founded in 1909 by young Russian Jewish pioneers. Without any real experience in farming, this handful of self-made peasants left city jobs to fight malarial swamps and Bedouin and local marauders. Much of the philosophical basis of kibbutz life was first formulated in this Jordan Valley settlement by its leader, A. D. Gordon. Gordon believed that a return to the soil and the honesty of manual work were the necessary ingredients for creating a new spirit in people. Although never a member of the kibbutz, he farmed until his death at age 74. A natural history museum on Degania’s grounds, Bet Gordon (tel. 04/675-0040), contains a library and exhibition of the area’s archaeology, flora, and fauna.
Degania grew so quickly that its citizens soon branched out to other settlements. The father of Moshe Dayan, the famous commander (with the eye patch) of the Sinai Campaign, left Degania to help establish Nahalal, Israel’s largest moshav (cooperative settlement). Eventually, some of the Degania members split with the original Degania over political and philosophical issues (especially about the nature of the Stalinist-era USSR). They broke away from Degania, establishing their own kibbutz right next door, and called it simply Degania B. The older Degania is now called Degania A.
Outside the entrance to Degania, there’s a small tank—a reminder of the battle the inhabitants of Degania waged against Syrian tanks in 1948 (the members fought them off with Molotov cocktails). Today, both Degania A and B are thriving.
River Jordan Baptisms
Kibbutz Kinneret, just west of Degania, has established a spot where Christian pilgrims can immerse themselves in the waters of Jordan in safety and tranquility. The baptismal spot, called Yardenit (tel. 04/675-9111), is 180m (591 ft.) west of the lakeshore highway (follow the signs). The river seems to flow peacefully, but its currents can be dangerous, so no swimming is allowed. The area set aside for baptisms is sheltered, and there are guide railings leading into the water. Snack and souvenir stands provide refreshment and sustenance (no charge for the baptismal dip). A special lift has been installed to enable visitors with disabilities to enter the water with a minimum amount of difficulty. It’s open Saturday to Thursday 8am to 6pm and Friday 8am to 5pm; the last baptismal is 1 hour before closing.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.