Located between Haifa and Tel Aviv on the beautiful Mediterranean coast, Caesarea National Park is a huge archaeological site showcasing Roman ruins, Byzantine era buildings, and Arab medieval fortifications. We’ve visited Roman ruins in Italy before, but these ruins were much more extensive and intact- it was like walking in a giant open air museum! To reach the national park, we took the first Caesarea exit and parked near the eastern gate of the Crusader city. From there, we bought tickets and entered through a church, then walked along a path to a restaurant and shopping area. Because of the terrain and amount of stairs, we opted to not bring the stroller and just wear baby Owen in the backpack. It was the right call!
After reaching the restaurant and shopping area, one of our first stops was to the Discovery center to learn more about the site. A 15-minute informational film gave us a glimpse into what life was like in Caesarea when it was a Roman port town. Make sure to ask for the English film, as the video plays in Hebrew and other languages more frequently. We learned that before the Romans, Caesarea was a small Phoenician village, and Herod built it up to be a great port city by first creating an artificial bay. He planned it carefully to include many of the typical Roman amusements, including bath houses, a hippodrome, amphitheater and a large palace for himself of course. The story of Caesarea did not end with the Romans, though. Arabs took over the city in 640 A.D., and the city became deserted. People settled the area again, before it was taken over by the Crusaders in the 1101. It was conquered by the Mamelukes and left deserted for the last time in 1265. Excavations began in 1873, and restorations and excavations continue to this day. The video was a great overview of the site and was engaging for my whole family! Also in the discovery center were hologram stations where we could interact with citizens that lived in the city during different periods of Caesarea’s history. The touch screen displayed questions that we could choose from, and then the character came to life on the screen answering the question. It was really cool!
I was taken by surprise by all the pieces of columns and other ancient carved stone scattered along the sides of the walkway. Near the restaurants were several sarcophagi that were all significant in some way. This one, below, has an interesting saying carved into it, saying basically that everyone dies, and that’s life. Others were more elaborately carved, but we learned that at certain times it was in style or popular to have your coffin look plain or unfinished.
Also in the discovery center were a few exhibits with smaller artifacts found at the site and others around Israel. Landon was especially impressed by the oil lamps display, because we had just received one a week earlier during our tour at Nazareth Village. He was pleased to see all the different shapes, and made sure to figure out which real lamp looked the most like the one we received.
After watching the movie, we headed out to see Herod’s artificial reef. We saw quite a few divers exploring the reef from underwater, but we opted to stay dry today. There is a dive club near the end of the spit of land for anyone who would like to dive a little deeper into that aspect of Caesarea. It’s amazing the engineering feats used to build Herod’s artificial breakwater. It entailed sinking barges filled with concrete and making underwater concrete. I’m not sure how they were able to pull it off, but they did!
After spending some time by the port, we headed into the ruins of the city proper. I was surprised that we were allowed to walk and climb among the ruins themselves, instead of just looking at them from behind a rope. Landon loved exploring all the nooks and crannies of the ancient homes. Since the mosaics were created using different colored stones, many of them were still intact and helped us see some of the decorative elements of the homes.
One thing I should have anticipated, but did not, was that there was very little shade and no trees in the ruins area. We visited in March and it seemed sweltering hot with the sun beating down on us, even though it was not that warm. Bring lots of water, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen! You’re going to want them! At one point during our wandering around the ruins, Landon disappeared through a small crevice in the rock. I was wearing Owen and did not fit in the crevice, so Austin followed him and they ended up on the roof of the houses!
After the individual homes, we came upon the public bath area. It was huge! The columns were marble imported from Italy, and some of them were still standing. Some of this area was an active excavation site, so it was roped off. This part of the ruins was up on a bluff overlooking the circus and the sea. It would have been a really nice view to look out over the sea while bathing!
The circus was where the Romans held chariot and horse races. We found it to be a great place to have a footrace! It was a VERY long, flat track with stadium seats looking out over the sea. It was easy to imagine chariot races taking place here!
Our last stop before heading to the amphitheater was Herod’s palace. Currently, half of it is underwater, or partially underwater, while the other half was up the hill. As far as Biblical history goes, Paul was imprisoned here at Herod’s palace for a time, and in Acts 24-26, Paul is brought before King Agrippa and “almost persuadest (him) to be a Christian.” Also near Herod’s palace is a replica of a stone that proves that Pontius Pilate was a real person, because his name is engraved on it, saying that he visited Caesarea at some point. We were reading the sign by the stone, and a guy came up and talked to Austin for awhile about it- he came all the way to Caesarea just to photograph the stone. I guess the original stone is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
From the palace, we walked up the hill to the amphitheater, where plays were performed. It is still used as a concert venue today! From the amphitheater seats, the view out over the sea is awesome! With the ruins in such good shape, and built up over the years since Roman times, it is really easy to imagine people walking around town- visiting the bath house, catching a horse race at the circus or a play at the amphitheater.
Due to Austin’s work schedule, we had to visit Caesarea on a very sunny afternoon. We loved our visit, but I can imagine in warmer months, it would have been unbearably hot and exposed! I would recommend visiting in the morning, as soon as it opens, and bringing hats, plenty of water, and sunscreen. We ended our visit with some delicious (but expensive) gelato and enjoyed it outside while the boys ran around.
Caesarea is an awesome historical site to visit with kids. For a short visit of the highlights, there are stroller accessible areas, but to really experience it, I would recommend a baby carrier or backpack for infants and young toddlers. Our adventurous 4-year-old walked a long way without complaint because there was so much to see and discover here! He learned a lot about the history of the area and how people lived in Roman times. I think older kids would get even more out of it. Be sure to visit a Discovery center (one is located near the restaurants/shops entrance, and another near the amphitheater entrance) to learn more. We did not have time/energy/cooperative children to visit the aqueducts which are a short drive from the rest of the national park, but this could also be included in a visit to the area.