A private tour of Jewish heritage sites in Europe is a wonderful way to connect with your Jewish roots and see the old Jewish quarters where our ancestors lived, worked and prayed.
An estimated 90-95% of American Jews are of European or Russian origin. Even if you’re descended from the first Jews who arrived in the American colonies in the 1600’s or 1700’s, the chances are that they also came from one of Europe’s Jewish communities. In many cases, Jewish emigrants from Europe were fleeing pogroms, prejudice or poverty. Others were simply seeking better lives, or crossed the Atlantic in search of adventure and new horizons.
For US Jews, Europe is rarely the ‘Old Country’ in the way that it sometimes is for Irish Americans or Italian Americans, but there can still be a powerful connection to the places where our ancestors lived. Names like Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, Toledo, Rome and Amsterdam can trigger family memories and a deep curiosity – as well as a desire to visit and explore the old Jewish quarters or ghettos.
There may be little sentimentality involved, but the attraction is often intense. The desire to see where our ancestors lived, and how they lived, is one that most humans share. It can be a powerful experience to walk on the same cobbles, and see the great synagogues, commercial districts and houses that were home to previous generations of your family. Luxury Jewish heritage tours, organized by an experienced Jewish travel agency can take you to the heart of Europe’s Jewish history (and present-day communities) with expert guides and flexible itineraries.
The Top 5 Destinations for Jewish Heritage Tours in Europe
Anybody who is really fascinated by European Jewish heritage could easily spend an entire year exploring all the historical and cultural sites across the continent. Most American Jews can only manage a short vacation, so careful planning is essential if you want to make the most of your time and gain a life-changing insight into how our European Jewish ancestors lived. There are hundreds of places to visit, but we’re featuring the 5 most popular destinations for private tours of Jewish heritage sites.
Luxury Jewish heritage tours to Amsterdam, Holland
There’s been a Jewish community in Amsterdam for over 500 years. The first community was largely Sephardic Jewish refugees, expelled from Spain and Portugal. They hoped to establish a new life in the thriving port city of Amsterdam. Their ranks were swelled by Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews who fled persecution in Poland. The Holocaust cut a swathe through Amsterdam’s Jewish community and over 80% were murdered. Today, there are an estimated 15,000 Jews in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a wonderful destination for luxury Jewish heritage tours. The city is flat and easy to get around and much of it can be explored on foot. A guided tour of the old Jewish quarter will reveal some architectural gems, hidden away among the modern buildings. The Anne Frank House and Hollandsche Schouwburg are important excursions that will hit home for anybody who has read Anne Frank’s diaries.
Other interesting sites include the Esnoga Synagogue, the Jewish Historical Museum and the Tuschinski Theatre. There are also some amazing kosher restaurants and delis in Amsterdam. Your tour guide will take you to the best local eateries, but the Restaurant Ha-Carmel and Sandwichshop Sal-Meijer are always good!
Private Jewish heritage tour to Kraków, Poland
Kraków is arguably Poland’s most beautiful city and was once home to a prosperous and sophisticated Jewish community. Any heritage tour to Kraków will inevitably be tinged with sadness, but it is still a wonderful destination. Jewish history in Kraków dates back at least 800 years and the city was a center of learning during the Golden Age of Polish Jewry. The city of Kraków and its superb architecture mostly survived World War Two intact. Kraków’s Jews did not. An estimated 200,000 from the wider Kraków district were deported and murdered.
The Jewish quarter of Kraków, known as the Kazimierz is nestled in a bend of the Wisla River. Even today, the district (where Stephen Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List) has a unique atmosphere and feel. A leisurely walk through the small streets and squares of the Kazimierz is enough to give you a glimpse of how the Jewish quarter must have appeared a century ago. A private tour with an expert guide will give you a profound insight into the cultural richness of Jewish life in Kraków.
The Old Synagogue (Alta Shul) was possibly built as early as 1407. It’s possible that at least 20 generations of worshipers prayed there and it was meticulously restored after wartime vandalism. A walk around Szeroka Street, New Square and the Ghetto Heroes Square is another step back in time. It’s definitely worth going with a professional guide (who can also show you around the dozens of restaurants, cafes and bars – and find some appetizing kosher food).
A Jewish luxury tour to Budapest, Hungary
Nobody is quite sure when the Jews first settled in Hungary. Some accounts suggest that they were there during the Roman period. The medieval and Ottoman period was a difficult and turbulent time for Hungarian Jews and their lives only really improved in the 19th century. The periods of emancipation and integration were all too brief. Admiral Horthy, Hungary’s dictator, introduced anti-semitic legislation in 1938, paving the way for future German persecution. The holocaust claimed between half and two thirds of Hungary’s Jews.
The medieval Jewish quarter in Buda was destroyed in 1686. In the late 1700s, Hungarian Jews began settling in the area enclosed by Király Street, Erzsébet körút, Dohány Street, Károly körút. Today, visitors can see the Dohany street synagogue with its distinctive Moorish style minarets and eclectic mix of Gothic, Byzantine and Romantic influences. The quarter also contains the Jewish Museum and the house where Herzl was born.
Private tours of Jewish heritage sites are the best way to experience the Jewish quarter of Budapest. You can easily spend a whole day exploring if you add the Orthodox synagogue in Kazinczy street, the Jewish Garden, the Temple of Heroes, the Tree of Life Holocaust memorial and the Jewish cemetery to your itinerary. The spectacular Castle District also has a strong connection to Jewish history and there is a small medieval synagogue that is worth a visit,
Prague great location for Jewish heritage luxury tour, Czech Republic
As with many European cities, it’s difficult to be precise about when Jews first arrived in Prague. They have been there for at least a thousand years and made a significant contribution to the city’s rich cultural heritage. The Jews of Prague experienced mixed fortunes. They were expelled on a number of occasions, but always returned to flourish. The Edict of Toleration in the late 1700s allowed the Jews to participate in Prague’s cultural and economic life. By WW2, Czech Jews accounted for 92,000 people, 20% of the city’s population. Over 80,000 were murdered in the holocaust.
Much of the Josefov (Jewish quarter) was systematically demolished over a century ago as part of a citywide modernization program. What remains, is definitely worth including in a Jewish heritage tour of Europe. There are six important synagogues left in the Josefov, including four from the 16th century. The oddly named Old New Synagogue (Altneuschul) was founded in the 12th century and is Europe’s oldest active synagogue.
If you have Czech ancestry, it’s entirely possible that your family once prayed in one of the six synagogues.
Book lovers will be keen to visit the birthplace of Franz Kafka, one of the Czech Republic’s most famous writers. Another interesting site is the old Jewish Town Hall. It’s a splendid example of Renaissance-style architecture dating back to 1586 and was central to Jewish life in the Josefov. Prague is an amazing city, with a vibrant cultural life and some of Europe’s best restaurants and bars. If you need to observe kashrut, a private tour guide is a big help.
Take a private Jewish heritage tour to Berlin
Berlin is a thriving modern city and the capital of reunified Germany. It’s a major tourist destination and a center of European culture. Formerly the heart of the Third Reich, it’s a city that provokes mixed emotions in Jews. In 1933 there were 160,000 Jews in Berlin. By the end of the war, around 1,200 remained alive from a community that had existed since the 13th century and produced the Reform movement, the Haskalah and a major contribution to Berlin’s cultural and economic life.
Berlin suffered massive devastation in WW2, but much of value either remains or was carefully rebuilt, including the stunning dome of Berlin’s New Synagogue. Much of Jewish Berlin was in the Soviet sector during the Cold War, but it has opened up and been rediscovered. If you’re a member of a Reform shul, you’ll be fascinated to see the Hackesche courtyards where the movement really began. Another important site is the grave of Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin’s old Jewish cemetery.
Berlin can be a complicated city for Jews. Private tours with Jewish heritage experts allow you to decide how much of your trip you want to devote to holocaust memorials and historical sites relating to those terrible years. The city is full of monuments such as the Wall of Flames, the Cattle Car monument, the Jewish Museum in Kreuzburg and the Wannsee House. Most visitors prefer to divide their time between sites of Jewish interest and Berlin’s dozens of other museums, cultural treasures and parks.
Consider a Private River Tour
On the banks of the Danube, is a particularly poignant place called the Shoes Memorial. It’s a stark and minimalist work of art, displaying a line of 60 pairs of iron shoes on the edge of the river. The shoes commemorate 3,500 people (including 800 Jews) who were shot into the river by the fascist Arrow Cross militia in WW2. The Danube is one of Europe’s most beautiful rivers with a magical view of Budapest. Luxury Jewish heritage tours can also include a Danube river cruise, or a luxury boat trip along the Rhine, Elbe, or other major rivers that flow through cities with a Jewish connection.
Check out our recent blog post on luxury Jewish River Cruises
The Advantage of Custom Jewish Heritage Tours in Europe
It’s perfectly possible to tour the old Jewish quarters and sites in Europe independently. Many backpackers and budget travelers have an amazing time doing just that. The problem is that you’ll miss out on a lot of the details and expert commentary that makes a Jewish tour in Europe really special. You may also find that using public transport eats into your day and reduces the time you have to explore some seriously fascinating sites.
Private or luxury tours let you travel in comfort – and with the companions of your choice – and see the sites that you actually want to see. Nothing beats local knowledge when it comes to eating out and shopping, especially if you need kosher food or want to observe Shabbat and attend a service in a local Synagogue. There are Jewish heritage sites across the entire continent of Europe. If you want to visit a particular site, including those that are off the beaten track, it’s usually possible to arrange a private tour with a tailored itinerary.