There are very few places that offer spirituality, history and culture but Safed, a small town in Northern Israel, is one such site. Safed is known as the "City of Kabbalah" because this is the region in which the study of Jewish mysticism evolved in the Middle Ages. Today visitors can walk through the town and enjoy a wide range of experiences which include visits to ancient historical sites, Kabbalah study and a thriving artist community that offers a wide range of Judaica and Galilee-inspired artwork.
Safed was first mentioned in Josephus's "War of the Jews" which he wrote after having led the Jewish batallions against the Romans in the 1st century C.E. The Talmud mentions a city of Sepheth as one of the cities that absorbed the priestly families during the early years of the 1st millenium when they fled the Roman seige of Jerusalem.
There is little written evidence of settlement in Safed until the Crusaders built their fortress on the city's mountaintop in the 12th century. In addition to their writings the Crusaders left behind physical evidence of their citadel which, it is believed, is the largest Crusader fortress built in the entire Middle East.
Safed remained a small village until the late 1400s when Spain expelled its entire Jewish population. Many of the era's great Kabbalistic rabbis fled to northern Israel where, legend relates, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai studied and taught Kabbalah through Divine Inspiration in the 2nd century C.E. These rabbis and their families settled in Safed and ushered in the Golden Age of Safed. During the 16th century upwards of 15,000 Jews made their home in Safed, engaging in trade, weaving and silk-making and studying Jewish law and mysticism.
Today visitors can walk through the Old Jewish Quarter of the city and see the ancient synagogues where some of Judaism's greatest scholarly works were written. Jewish customs which are today observed throughout the observant Jewish world -- Kabbalat Shabbat (the welcoming of the Sabbath), cutting a boy's hair for the first time at age 3, the Lag B'Omer pilgrimage to Mt. Meron, welcoming the ushpizin into the succa during the succot holiday and staying up all night to study Torah on Shavouth began with the Kabbalists of Safed.
There are four central synagogues open in Safed's Old Jewish Quarter -- the ARI Ashkanazi, the ARI Sepharadi, the Joseph Caro and the Abuhav synagogues. In addition, many visitors trek down to the ancient cemetery to pray at the graves of the great rabbis to ask them to intervene for them in heaven for health and a good living.
Visitors who want to study Kabbalah can spend time at the Ascent institute, which offers free classes and a library, or at the International Center of Tzfat Kabbalah which presents tours and other Kabbalah-related activities.
There are numerous galleries in Safed of paintings, ceramics, statues and other arts and crafts which feature options for all budgets.