Historical Ruins, Cultural Landscapes, and Desert Adventures
Jordan, my friends, is not just a second fiddle to Israel, some footnote for tourists who traipse over to Petra on day excursions. No, Jordan’s a fierce solo act, a main stage attraction. From the spectral ruins of its ancient cities, worn by centuries, to the enigmatic melodies of Bedouin songs whispering stories of old, it’s a place that’s more than the sum of its dusty parts.
Petra’s alright, but she’s just one jewel in a treasure chest. Byzantine mosaics lay scattered like puzzle pieces, mysterious and intricate, while ruins of ancient temples stand tall, whispers of an epoch long lost. Throw in the martian landscape of Wadi Rum, the raw, ragged beauty of its gorges, and the therapeutic serenade of its hot springs, and you’ve got a cocktail that’s pure, undiluted Jordan.You see, Jordan is an old soul. Its story stretches back to ancient days. Nabatean merchants once roamed its earth, Roman legionnaires marched its sand-swept paths, Muslim conquerors and Crusader knights etched their tales into its history. These lands bear the imprint of many feet, a tapestry of human endeavour. The ghosts of World War I still echo here, where the victorious states carved up the defeated, handing the baton to Britain to oversee Palestine, and in turn, present-day Jordan. But it was Churchill, with a few strokes of his pen in 1922, who sketched the emirate of Transjordan onto the canvas of history. By 1946, this gem in the desert shrugged off its British chaperone and stood proud, independent.Jordan today is not your stereotypical Middle Eastern enclave. It’s a place where the minarets meet the modern, a secular state that opens its arms to the world. Sure, Islam is the tune to which it dances, but it’s a country that doesn’t mind if you don’t know the steps. Here, you won’t find a morality police scrutinizing your attire or counting your drinks at the bar.And tourism? It’s got that down to a fine art. From Hilton to Kempinski to Mövenpick, the big hitters are all here, lining up to pamper you. And trust me, this isn’t your typical chaotic, horn-blasting traffic frenzy. Here, the highways are as smooth as a Sinatra song, with cushy buses replacing the cacophony of minibuses and battered cabs (though they do add a certain charm).There’s always someone who speaks your language, and not just linguistically. Whether it’s your first dalliance with a Muslim nation or your hundredth, Jordan wraps you in its warm, welcoming embrace.
What to do & see in Jordan
Jordan’s charms lie predominantly in the west, like a constellation stretching between the celestial bodies of Amman and Aqaba. The best mode of transport in this mystical landscape? A car. With a week on your hands and a wanderlust spirit, you can coast from north to south, pausing at gems scattered across this enchanting realm.
Amman – Antiquities, clubbing, and Friday prayers
Amman, home to 1.8 million souls, is a city that refuses to be typecast. The largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country, Amman struts its own catwalk where modern sensibilities share the spotlight with deep-rooted tradition. Here, girls in cocktail dresses sip martinis in sleek bars and dance the night away to pulsating beats in the clubs. Yet, beneath the city’s vibrant nightlife beats the heart of a deeply devout Muslim city, where every Friday, the faithful pour into the streets to answer the call to prayer.Jabal al-Qala’a, one of the seven hills that give Amman its topography, holds the city’s crown jewel. This historic park perched atop the hill is a slice of history – one of the oldest continually inhabited spots in the world, dating back to the 1800s BC. Neolithic artifacts whisper of those who came and left their mark on this hallowed ground.
As you tread the grounds of the citadel at the summit of Jabal al-Qala’a, your eyes will dance across the vestiges of three mighty empires. Behold the Herculean temple, the echoes of a Byzantine sanctuary, and the palace from the dawn of the 8th century AD, each a testament to the passage of time.
The citadel is a palimpsest, carrying the marks of the Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad empires in its stony folds. There’s the stoic Temple of Hercules, the remains of a Byzantine place of worship, and the shadow of an early 8th century AD palace. For those who find a certain romance in the dust of the past, the Archaeological Museum is a stone’s throw away, offering a deeper dive into Jordan’s historical narrative. But if history isn’t your thing, the top of the citadel offers a view of Amman that can steal your breath away.
In December 2019, Coldplay recorded a concert in support of its latest album at the Amman Citadel.
There’s another showstopper in Amman, a scene that even the most jaded traveler can’t ignore: the 2nd-century Roman amphitheater. This relic from Rome’s glory days, seating a solid 6,000, has managed to stand the test of time. And the best part? It’s no museum piece. For just a dinar ($1.41), you get to step into a slice of history. As the evening folds in, locals take over, turning ancient stone into a living room of sorts, sharing stories, savoring shawarma, or smoking hookah.
In the evenings, on the steps of the 2nd century Roman amphitheater, Ammanis gather to chat, eat shawarma, or smoke hookah.
King Al-Hussein Street is the throbbing heart of the city. This is where Amman comes alive, from the early morning rustle to the midnight hum. It’s a symphony of commerce, a tapestry of bakeries, cafes, exchange offices, and stores peddling souvenirs that dance under the neon lights.The Duke’s Diwan, a jewel in Amman’s crown, is more than just a mansion with a historic heartbeat. It’s a place where you can sip coffee, take a bite out of Jordanian delicacies, and let your eyes feast on the lavish interiors. The first floor is a treasure trove for the coin and stamp enthusiast, a numismatic and philatelic store that’s a trip down memory lane.
Amman is the largest (1.8 million inhabitants) and most modern city in Jordan, but it still looks authentic because of the peculiarities of local buildings: high-rise buildings, the upper floors of which are often completed, are very crowded.
Rainbow Street, a cacophony of color and life, is a symphony of souvenir shops and cafes. Mlabbas stands as a titan among the trinket stores, a testament to originality and authenticity. Urdon Shop and Ali & Rama’s Gallery bring a dash of Jordanian zest to your souvenir hunt.
Al-Ba’ouniyah Street and Kulliyat Al-Shari’ah Street offer a soothing lullaby amidst Jordan’s rhythmic bustle. Quiet and quaint, they’re dressed in cool mansions, historic temples, and picturesque, abandoned relics. If you’re looking to sink roots in Amman, these streets make for an idyllic choice. Paris Square serves up a blend of history and gastronomy with its vintage lanterns, intriguing sculptures, and a smorgasbord of fast food joints.
The Grand Husseini Mosque, the city’s largest, is a magnet for the faithful. On Fridays, the city’s pulse slows down around the mosque, as streets and sidewalks transform into a sea of worshippers gathering for Juma Namaz, the week’s most important prayer. It’s an awe-inspiring sight. The King Abdullah I Mosque and the duo of Orthodox churches – Coptic and Greek – nearby are also worth a visit.
On Friday afternoon, traffic is paralyzed for many blocks around the Grand Husseini Mosque, and all sidewalks and roads are occupied by worshippers who gather for the most important prayer of the week.
Amman’s modernist and post-modernist marvels are equally mesmerizing. Al Iskan Bank and the towering Al Burj skyscraper, both born in 1982, and the Ministry of Finance serve as architectural milestones. The Le Royal Hotel, a post-modernist pearl from 2003, offers a luxurious night’s stay.
The modernist 291-meter skyscraper Al Burj Al and the postmodernist Le Royal Hotel
The Al Nada City Market is a bustling heart in the city center, a marketplace that offers everything from toothpicks and fruits to soccer shirts and wholesale cookies. If you’re looking for an authentic culinary experience, the cafes that dot the market are unpretentious, vibrant, and possibly the cheapest eats in town.Adjacent to the main mosque lies the fruit and vegetable market, a haven for bargain hunters. And for the treasure seekers, there’s a flea market. Don’t hold out for antique gems, but who knows, you might unearth a unique keepsake.
Al Nada City Market is the main selling point in the city center. You’ll find everything from toothpicks and fruit to fake soccer jerseys and wholesale cookies
Darat al Funun-The Khalid Shoman Foundation isn’t your run-of-the-mill gallery. This art sanctuary occupies three lovingly restored 1920s buildings, creating an oasis of creativity complete with a quiet courtyard, a tranquil library perfect for productivity, and a café.
Street Art on the Streets of Amman
There’s more art to be savored at Al-Hussein Cultural Center, Ras Al-Ain, Nabad, and Dar Al-Anda galleries. Each one offers a unique slice of Jordan’s cultural tapestry, hosting workshops, selling paintings, and displaying sculptures in the great outdoors. The Jordan Museum is the custodian of Jordanian heritage, where exhibits range from traditional costumes to amphorae shards.
Jadal, the rebel child of Amman’s café scene, is an anti-café and cultural center that occasionally moonlights as an event venue. The rates are more than reasonable: two dinars ($2.82) for the first hour, and a mere half dinar ($0.70) for every hour after that. Depending on the season, you could lounge in the cool, shady courtyard or huddle by the fireplace on the first floor. If you’re in need of a workspace or a hangout spot, the unnamed co-working space and Kopie have you covered.
Jadal is an anti-café and cultural center that sometimes hosts events. In the warm season it’s cool to sit in the shady courtyard, and in the cold it’s cool to gather in the room on the first floor by the fireplace.
Food in Amman
Food. It’s a universal language, a binding thread of culture and connection. In Amman, the culinary scene offers a tasty blend of tradition and innovation.
- Sharazad isn’t your average eatery. They play a narrow but delicious game, perfecting three dishes: tray kofta with tomatoes or tehina, a flavorful flatbread with minced meat and tomato, and mouthwatering kebabs. And let me tell you, the word is out. Expect a crowd.
- Shawerma Reem. Night owls will appreciate Shawerma Reem, an iconic joint serving delectable shawermas well into the early hours (until 2 am)
- Zghairon is a non-profit cafe. They sell food without any markup. Pay more than your bill, and you’re effectively ‘suspending‘ a dish for someone less fortunate.
- Jameeda Khanum, a quaint café with a dash of history on the second floor..
- Oliva. For a taste of Italy in the heart of Jordan, make a beeline for Oliva. They serve up pasta for around five dinars ($7.05), and pizzas range from seven ($9.87) to ten ($14.10).
- Mueajinat Zahrat Hayi Alarmin is a gem of a pizzeria where you can watch them bake pizza on an open flame, with prices starting from just one dinar.
- Samawer (9:00-19:00) serves up a slice of history along with Circassian and Caucasian cuisine. This unique spot is a testament to the Circassians who found a new home in Jordan after the revolution in the Russian Empire.
- Hashem is offering its addictive falafel and sandwiches. And let’s not forget Al Quds Falafel, where they’ve been perfecting the art of frying falafel since 1966. Now that’s commitment.
Jordan is located at the crossroads of trade routes from India and Egypt and therefore has absorbed different traditions from neighboring countries. First of all, this is evident in the local cuisine. All dishes can be classified into two categories: Arabic and Bedouin.
Tea, Coffee & Sweets
- Habiba Sweets is an institution in Amman. In operation since 1951, they’ve perfected the art of making knaffe and other desserts. Don’t be deterred by the line – it moves quickly, and the reward is well worth the wait.
- The Good Bookshop is a sanctuary for bibliophiles that doubles as a coffee shop. Need a quiet spot to work? This is it.
- Roamers isn’t just a coffee shop. It’s a spot where wanderers and locals cross paths over a cup of well-brewed coffee.
- Zayzafoun offers more than just coffee. It’s an artsy haven where you can bask in the warmth of a fireplace with a cup of coffee in hand.
- Dimitri’s Coffee takes its brewing seriously. They’re local roasters and masters of alternative brewing methods. If you love your coffee, you’ll love Dimitri’s.
- Rumi. Serving up tea, coffee, and desserts, it’s a beloved hangout for expats in the city. When in Amman, do as the expats do.
Coffee in Amman is not only brewed in specialized coffee shops – you can get a mug of freshly brewed coffee in a bucket right on the street
Getting around Amman
24/7, a bus runs from the airport to the Tabarbour interchange, aka The Northern station. A ticket will set you back three and a half dinars. From there, grab a shared cab or a regular one to get downtown.Shared cabs are the lifeblood of Amman’s transportation scene. Known as “servicees”, these are ordinary cars, each with their own parking spots and routes, that hit the road as soon as they’re full. Look up Organic Maps – it highlights the most convenient cab stands for travelers in the city center.
Amman’s main transportation is shared cabs. These are ordinary passenger cars with their own designated parking lots and routes, which depart as they are filled
Next in popularity are the minibuses. These follow set routes, so ask the driver or fellow passengers if you’re unsure. You’ll pay the driver directly, in cash.Some regular buses still operate in the city, but they require a transport card for payment. These cards can be a challenge to find and even harder to top up. Note that cash or bank cards aren’t accepted on these buses.When in doubt, refer to the map of city bus routes.
Jerash: An Immaculate Showcase of Antiquity
Jerash, a 50-kilometer hop from Amman, is an ancient gem like no other. It ranks as one of the best-preserved examples of Roman city-states, or polities, anywhere on Earth. Here, Roman influence echoes in the grooves of old chariot tracks worn into stone pathways. The arch, commissioned to celebrate Emperor Hadrian’s visit in 129 BC, still proudly marks the entrance to the city.
In an ironic twist of fate, Jerash owes its incredible preservation to a devastating earthquake in 747 AD. The frozen lava preserved this antique metropolis until the 19th century when Ulrich Setzen led a team of archaeologists to uncover these historical marvels.
The good state of preservation of Jerash is a consequence of the earthquake of 747 A.D.: frozen lava preserved the ancient buildings, which were discovered by archaeologists in the 19th century
Jerash is a live architectural blueprint of ancient urban design. You’ll find a sprawling forum, the heart of social gatherings, several temples, and a hippodrome. The line of standing columns paints a vivid picture of what the main thoroughfare once looked like. But, perhaps the most awe-inspiring of all, is the amphitheater, a spectacle of grandeur and acoustics that sometimes still resonates with the melodies of bagpipers in traditional garb. Allocate at least four hours for a leisurely exploration of this ancient polis.
The Jerash can be used to visualize how ancient cities were structured. There is a huge forum, a place of meetings and gatherings, several temples and a hippodrome.
Azraq: A Blend of Desert Fortresses and Chechen Culture
Tucked near the borders of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria lies Azraq, a small town steeped in rich history. En route, the road signs become a jarring reality check, bearing names like Damascus and Baghdad—cities we’ve recently associated with news bulletins.
The main difference between Al-Azraq fortress and other Jordanian fortresses is that Al-Azraq is built mainly of black basalt stones
Azraq is a multicultural tapestry, in part founded by Chechens, who despite their deep integration, still retain a distinct neighborhood, known as Azraq Al Shishan (‘Shishan’ translating to ‘Chechen’ in Arabic).One of the city’s main attractions is the robust Al-Azraq Fortress and a nearby oasis, offering a lush contrast to the desert surroundings. Keep in mind, upon entering Al-Zarqa governorate, home to Azraq, there might be a police checkpoint requiring passport verification.A sobering 25 kilometers from Azraq, you’ll find the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, housing around 35,000 inhabitants (as of 2019). Although access inside the camp isn’t granted, one can approach the gate and fence for a perspective on this important humanitarian issue.A separate journey, along road number 40, leads to the 8th-century marvel, Qusayr Amr. What’s left of the fortress is mostly a bathhouse adorned with Umayyad frescoes, a rare surviving exemplar from that period. This stunning artwork earned Qusayr Amra a rightful place as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A mere 15 kilometers away stands another desert gem, Kusayr Kharana, waiting to be explored.
In the still-standing baths of the Qusayr Amr fortress are frescoes from the Umayyad period: this is the only example of preserved frescoes from this period in the world
Madaba: The City of Byzantine Mosaics
Madaba, often referred to as the “city of mosaics,” is a treasure trove of historical and cultural gems. A testament to its Byzantine past, the city houses several hundred mosaics, the majority of which can be found in the city’s Archaeological Museum. However, if pressed for time, one key attraction should not be missed: the 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land located in the temple of St. George.
On the mosaic map, which was supposedly 25×5 meters in size, you can see the outlines of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Mount Sinai, and other holy places
This ancient piece was unearthed during the construction of the Church of St. George, with its remnants now adorning the temple floor. The map, originally believed to span an impressive 25×5 meters, reveals the intricate layouts of holy locations such as Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and Mount Sinai. Additionally, visitors can explore the temple’s catacombs that are open to tourists. The entrance fee for this historic landmark is one dinar.
Other must-visit sites include the Church of the Holy Martyrs, known for its mosaics, the Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist with its catacombs, the ruins of a fortress adorned with mosaics, and of course, the Madaba Museum.
Madaba is called the “City of Mosaics”: several hundred of them have survived since Byzantine times.
Mount Nebo and the Place of Christ’s Baptism
Two of Jordan’s most venerated locations are Mount Nebo, the reputed burial site of the Prophet Moses, and Al-Maghtas, the believed location of Jesus Christ’s baptism. Given their close proximity, these sacred sites can be conveniently explored in a single day.
Mount Nebo, according to biblical accounts, is where Prophet Moses glimpsed the Promised Land. After living for 120 years, it is here that he is believed to have been laid to rest. Each year, thousands of devout pilgrims journey to this holy mountain. At its peak, visitors can find a stone memorial dedicated to Moses and explore an ancient Byzantine church. Spectacular views encompassing the red-brown hills, the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea provide a serene backdrop.
The summit of Mount Nebo overlooks the surrounding red-brown hills, the Jordan Valley, and the Dead Sea. Photo: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin / Wikimedia.org
Situated around 30 kilometers from Mount Nebo is Al-Maghtas, the purported site of Christ’s baptism. The location of this significant event has been a topic of contention between Jordan and neighboring Israel. However, Jordanian authorities point to a small pond, usually dry during the summer season, surrounded by the ruins of Byzantine structures. These remnants, according to local archaeologists, suggest that the site has been venerated since ancient times and could very well be the location of Christ’s baptism.
Further exploration leads to the Jordan River, where visitors can perform the rite of ablution. Serving as a natural boundary between Jordan and Israel, the river is no more than five meters wide. However, be aware that you’ll be in view of border guards from both sides while bathing in these holy waters. Upon entry, you’ll be asked for identification. If you’re not accompanied by a guide, you’ll need to wait for a group of five or more people before being allowed to proceed with an assigned escort.
The Jordanians believe that Christ was baptized in a small body of water with the ruins of Byzantine buildings on Jordanian territory. During the dry season the pool dries up. Photo: Jean Housen / Wikimedia.org
Dead Sea. Yes! You really won’t drown in it
The Dead Sea is a remarkable body of water with a salt concentration ten times higher than that of the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Located just an hour away from Amman, it’s a popular weekend destination for residents of the capital city.Several high-profile hotel chains, including Hilton, Kempinski, and Marriott, operate along the coast, with each resort offering a range of spa treatments and wellness activities. The waters and mud of the Dead Sea are renowned for their therapeutic properties, reputedly aiding in treating skin and joint ailments, reducing fatigue, and enhancing blood circulation and immune function.Most of these resorts possess their own private beaches. For those not lodging at the hotels, there’s a public beach equipped with swimming pools, changing rooms, and showers for a fee of 34 dinars ($47.93). Free, wild spots along the coast are favored by locals, although these areas tend to offer the most basic of amenities.It is advised to take a dip in the Dead Sea either early in the morning, before 9:00, or in the evening, after 17:00, to avoid the intense heat of the sun. Given the high salt concentration, it’s recommended not to stay in the water for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. After your swim, you can treat yourself to a therapeutic mud bath. Not only is the Dead Sea the planet’s lowest point, but the surrounding desert landscapes also offer a stunning backdrop, adding to the overall allure of this unique location.
It is recommended to bathe in the Dead Sea early in the morning, before 9:00, or in the evening, after 5 pm, when there is no more scorching sun, but because of the high salt concentration, doctors advise not to lie in the water more than 15 minutes.
Petra: Jordan’s Premier Attraction and a World Wonder
Petra, the ancient city and capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, is the foremost reason tourists visit Jordan. Renowned as one of the seven new wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it stands as Jordan’s most recognized attraction.
The typical visitor’s route meanders through the Siq Gorge, leading to the mausoleum temple of El Khazneh. This iconic edifice featured prominently in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. A vigorous climb of around 800 steps takes you to Ad Deir, the monastery, after which you can explore ancient tombs, witness sites of ritual sacrifice, and make your way to an observation deck that offers an unparalleled view of El Khazneh.
Petra, an ancient city and former capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Given the extensive walking involved, comfortable shoes are a must, and it’s recommended to carry a sufficient supply of water. Along the way, you’ll encounter local Bedouins, some of whom still reside in cliffside dwellings. They often offer their services as guides or propose donkey rides as a restful alternative to walking. Whether you choose to engage their services is entirely up to you, but it’s worth noting that haggling is a common practice. However, the persistent nature of Bedouin sales tactics can occasionally mar the overall experience, as even the most remote corners of Petra are seldom devoid of locals inviting you for tea or offering souvenirs for sale.
To fully appreciate the grandeur of Petra, it’s suggested to spread your visit over a couple of days and consider accommodations in the nearby town of Wadi Musa. This town boasts all the tourist amenities you might need, including currency exchange bureaus, a variety of hotels, and bus services.
To get to Ad Deir Monastery you have to climb the 800 steps. In the monastery you can look into the ancient tombs, see the places of ritual sacrifice, and then walk to the observation deck in front of El Khazneh, where you have the best view of it
Then you can see the ancient city at night and the Petra by Night performance, which takes place three times a week: on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. The ticket costs 17 dinars. Visitors first walk in the light of 1,000 candles through the Siq Gorge, then reach El Khazneh, illuminated by floodlights, and then sit on the square and enjoy the sounds of bagpipes and flute played by Bedouins.A one-day ticket to Petra for accomodated visitors costs 50 dinars ($70.48), a two-day ticket costs 55 ($77.53), and a three-day ticket costs 60 ($84.58). Non-accommodated visitor pay 90 dinars ($126.87).
Official website: visitpetra.jo
Tourists usually take the standard route to the El Khazneh mausoleum temple through the Sik Gorge
Wadi Rum: Cosmic Vistas on an Earthly Desert
Ever since Matt Damon cultivated his space potatoes in The Martian, the dunes of Wadi Rum have assumed an otherworldly reputation – a corner of the Red Planet in our own humble world. This is a landscape dressed in tones of red and orange, where sand and stone merge to create scenes of such alien beauty that it feels as if you’re on a sci-fi movie set – and in fact, you are. The haunting backdrops of “Transformers,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Prometheus” all found their roots in these lands.
Now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum isn’t a desert to be tamed by any visiting motorist. Instead, the domain is left to the local Bedouins, as it’s been for generations. They’re the only ones entrusted to pilot tourists through the seemingly infinite sea of dunes. To hire their experienced services and a rugged jeep, be prepared to part with 70 dinars, and a further five for entry into the protected area.
Sure, you can attempt to conquer Wadi Rum in a single day, but that’s not the Bourdain way. To truly grasp the soul of this desert, you need to let its rhythms dictate your own. Spend a night in one of the camps, savor a traditional Bedouin meal of lamb slow-cooked in the desert sands, and as night falls, let the blanket of stars be your television. As for the sunrise? Well, it might just redefine your definition of breathtaking.
The accommodations range from the expected tented abodes to the rather more novel bubble-hotels – a cluster of giant, transparent orbs scattered across the sand like a Martian settlement. Depending on your taste for adventure, or romance under the stars, expect a starting price of 15 dinars ($21.14).
After the release of the movie “The Martian,” the Wadi Rum desert has been called “a branch of Mars on Earth. The red-orange sands and barchans, rocks, stone bridges and wells really make it look like a distant planet. Photo: Vladimir Varfolomeev / Flickr.com
Aqaba – The Gateway to the Red Sea and Beyond
Aqaba, perched on the edge of the Red Sea, is Jordan’s premier aquatic playground, drawing a steady stream of sun-seekers, snorkelers, and divers. Those seeking the quintessential beach experience often make a beeline for the nearby town of Tala Bay, just 15 kilometers away, where they can indulge in a more serene coastal getaway.
Here, in the waters of Aqaba, an abundance of diving companies are ready to guide you to the underwater realms where over 200 species of coral play host to a vibrant array of marine life including rays, sea turtles, clown fish, and, if you’re lucky, playful dolphins. Diving excursions can be bagged for as low as 40 dinars ($56.39). Those less inclined to take the plunge can opt for a three-hour boat trip, which includes pit stops for snorkeling, for just 35 dinars ($49.34). As you skim over the water’s surface, the shores of Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia form an intriguing panorama on the horizon.
In Aqaba, there are many companies that offer tourists diving. The Red Sea is home to over 200 species of corals, stingrays, sea turtles, clown fish and even dolphins. Photo: Reiseuhu.de / Unsplash.com
But let’s not forget Aqaba itself. While its charms may be subtler, they’re worth a lazy wander. Take a stroll to the harbor, meander through a few main streets, and embrace the hustle of market haggling. Treat your taste buds to the fresh catch at a local seafood joint and take time to marvel at the nation’s largest flag fluttering in the breeze, and the history-soaked Mameluk fort standing proudly along the waterfront. All this can be comfortably covered in a few hours.
If the notion of stepping into another country sparks your interest, the Israeli border is just a stone’s throw away from town. And, for those with an appetite for further adventure, ferries are available from Aqaba to the Egyptian destinations of Nuweiba and Taba. See the ‘How to get there’ section for more details.
What else to see in Jordan
Wadi Mujib. It’s a ruggedly beautiful canyon, carved by the Mujib River, that can only be experienced via one of two trekking routes that must be pre-booked with a guide. Trekking costs start from 17 dinars ($23.96). The trails snake along the riverbed, hemmed in by towering cliffs, and occasionally, you’ll find yourself wading through water that reaches your chest.
Trekking the Mujib River canyon is really dangerous, so you can pass it only with a guide. Photo: AliAbuRas / Wikimedia.org
Just half an hour from the Dead Sea, Hammamat Ma’in, a natural hot spring, offers a rejuvenating detour. Here, hot water cascades create natural jacuzzis as they fill up the pools. Open to all, the main complex has an entry fee of 15 dinars ($21.14). For a more serene experience, plan your visit on a weekday, as weekends tend to be crowded with residents from Amman seeking their own slice of paradise.
El Kerak is a relic from the times of crusaders, a fortress steeped in history and constructed in the 12th century. It was duly noted in the travel logs of Ibn Battuta. While the archaeological museum within its stone walls has its own charm, the real enchantment lies in navigating the fortress’s narrow passages, delving into its dimly lit halls, and soaking in the panoramic views from ancient loopholes. Admission to this time capsule costs two dinars, with doors closing at 4 p.m.
The fortress of El Kerak was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century. Photo: Berthold Werner / Wikimedia.org
As-Salt, another stop on the UNESCO World Heritage circuit, is a one-of-a-kind Jordanian city where historical edifices have been preserved en masse. The cityscape boasts roughly 650 buildings exuding historical charm and art nouveau elegance. Credit for the city’s founding is shared by the Circassians, who continue to hold sway in public life. The cultural center offers a glimpse of ongoing exhibitions and provides guidance on city sightseeing. Navigating the city is fairly straightforward – simply stroll along the main artery, Prince Hamza Street, and its parallel lanes that spread out over the rolling hills.
As-Salt is the only city in Jordan where the historic buildings have been preserved in a comprehensive way. There are about 650 historical and modern buildings in total
Straddling the crossroads of trade routes from India and Egypt, Jordan is a melting pot of varied traditions, most notably witnessed in its rich and diverse cuisine. Broadly, Jordan’s gastronomy can be divided into two distinct styles: Arabic and Bedouin.
Arabic cuisine, which bears striking similarities across Middle Eastern nations, finds its cornerstone in Jordan in the form of khobz, a hot flatbread that is sometimes referred to as aish – “life” in Arabic, underlining its vital role in the local culinary scene. Breakfasts typically see khobz sprinkled with a blend of salt, sesame, and sumac—a spice derived from ground sumac berries, dipped in the creamy yogurt-based cheese labanah (labneh). Come lunch or dinner, khobz is the perfect sidekick to robust meat and vegetable dishes. And if you’re looking for a quick snack, khobz takes the shape of a convenient wrap housing flavorful falafel.
The mainstay of Arab cuisine in Jordan is khobz, the hot flatbread. The second name of the flatbread is aish (“life” in Arabic), which emphasizes the importance of bread in the local cuisine
Maqluba, a hearty pilaf concoction of rice, braised meat, and vegetables, is another staple in Jordanian kitchens. Usual suspects in the vegetable lineup are eggplant, potatoes, and tomatoes. Prepared in a large pot, maqluba is dressed up with generous chunks of onion, almonds, and fresh herbs before being served.
A classic Jordanian meal or a leisurely feast invariably commences with a meze — a selection of appetizers that can easily stand as a meal on their own. Though the lineup may vary, a typical meze spread would include hummus, eggplant paste mutabal, fresh olives, and tahini — a luscious sesame paste. This is followed by salads such as fatouche or tabbouleh, paving the way for the hot main courses: fried chicken or kebab. Interestingly, pigeon also frequently graces the Jordanian dinner table.
Dessert time presents a nod to the classics: the sweet, flaky baklava, sesame halva, phyllo dough pastries bursting with a myriad of fillings, and knafés.
For dessert in Jordan, they serve oriental classics like baklava, sesame halva, filo cookies with different fillings, and knafés
The Bedouin cuisine, on the other hand, hinges on the use of camel milk, goat cheese, dried dates, and lamb. Their signature dish, mansaf, is lamb simmered in yogurt made from goat or sheep milk. This slow-cooked delight is then served on a large tray with rice and pine nuts, signifying communal feasting.
In the desert, don’t miss the chance to try zarb, a unique dish cooked in the sand. It begins with a layer of rice on a colossal metal tray, topped with mutton and vegetables, then sealed with foil and carpet layers, and finally buried in a pit of hot coals and sand. After stewing in its own juices for hours, the meal is then spectacularly unearthed in front of awestruck tourists, adding a theatrical flourish to an already extraordinary culinary experience.
Where to Stay
Accommodation options in Jordan are aplenty, particularly if you’re looking to stay within the main cities or close to major points of interest. The likes of the Dead Sea coast, Amman, Aqaba, and Petra are dotted with hotels from most international chains, ensuring you find something that matches your comfort and budget.
In recent years, Airbnb has been making significant inroads in the country. You could score a charming apartment with a commanding view of Petra for as low as $40. Additionally, Airbnb also lets you book a Bedouin tent in the vast expanses of the Wadi Rum desert, with prices starting at a modest $10 per night. Sure, the bathroom facilities are communal, and you’ll be sharing a tent for breakfasts and dinners. However, the irresistible charm of these accommodations is the chance to spend the night right in the heart of the desert, witnessing a magical desert sunset, a sky ablaze with a million stars, and perhaps the most memorable sunrise of your life.
Staying in a Bedouin tent in the Wadi Rum Desert is a great way to spend the night in the desert and see the sunset, millions of stars in the sky, and the sunrise. Photo: Desert Sky Camp & Tours
How to travel in Jordan
By Car. Traversing Jordan by car is arguably the best way to fully immerse yourself in the country’s sweeping landscapes. The country has well-maintained roads, right-hand traffic, and a generally peaceful driving atmosphere.
Rental cars typically come with green number plates, signaling locals that the driver is a foreigner. This often leads to locals being patient, helpful, and forgiving of any minor on-road mishaps. An excursion along the King’s Highway is a journey into the past. This ancient route, stretching from Africa to Syria, cuts through modern-day Jordan, now known as Route 35 and Route 15. It takes you across several breathtakingly beautiful valleys in the south. Another scenic route is the Jordan Valley Highway, running the length of the country from Aqaba in the south to Irbid in the north.
Car rentals are most conveniently accessed at Amman’s airport or within the city itself, where you’ll find offices of leading car rental companies. A lesser but decent selection of these services can also be found in Aqaba. Expect to pay around 50 dinars ($70.48) per day for renting a sedan. You’ll require an international driver’s license and a credit card to freeze a deposit of roughly 400 dinars ($563.86). In some cases, however, you might be able to negotiate paying the deposit in cash.
The best way to travel around Jordan is by car. The roads in the country are good, the traffic is right-handed and relatively quiet
Bus. JETT, the company running high-quality, air-conditioned buses with internet connectivity, services key routes between Amman, Aqaba, and Petra. A ticket from Aqaba to Petra will set you back 11 dinars ($15.51). JETT also offers tourist routes to some of the major attractions. For instance, an 18-dinar ($25.37) day trip from Aqaba to the Wadi Rum desert and back, or a 15-dinar ($21.14) trip from Amman to Madaba and Mount Nebo.
Shuttle Bus. Smaller minibuses shuttle between cities, originating from the central bus stations. These buses operate on a fill-and-go basis, departing once they’re packed full. The driver doubles as a ticket vendor, and locals signal for stops with a simple tap of a coin on the glass. A true testament to the spontaneous spirit of Jordanian travel.
There are minibuses between Jordanian cities – they leave from the main stations and run without a schedule, as they fill up
By Air. For those in a rush or simply craving a bird’s-eye view, flights are available from Amman to Aqaba courtesy of Royal Jordanian Airlines. Despite the distance being just a tad over 300 kilometers, the duration of a car journey often rivals the combined time spent on the flight and pre-flight procedures, especially when traffic is a factor. A ticket will cost you around $100.
By Cab. In the urban sprawls, you’ll notice two varieties of taxis: yellow and white. The yellow cabs operate with meters, denoting prices in fils (there are 1,000 fils in a dinar), and you’re likely to encounter English-speaking drivers. On the other hand, white cabs follow preset routes, serving as quasi-buses by picking up passengers along their course. A full day’s hire can be negotiated, allowing a haggling dance as old as time itself. For the tech-savvy, Uber and its local equivalent, Careem, are at your service in Jordan.
There are two types of cabs in the cities: yellow and white. Yellow taxis are metered, with prices in fils (one dinar is 1,000 fils), and the drivers usually speak English. White cabs follow a specific route and can pick up hitchhikers on the way
When to visit
The ideal season for your Jordanian journey is from March through May. The days are bathed in warmth, yet the nights retain a comfortable chill. The absence of blistering heat sets the stage for leisurely strolls and explorations. However, bear in mind that spring heralds the peak season with its characteristic bustle, leading to inflated prices for accommodations, tours, meals, and crowded popular sights.
As the leaves start to change, autumn ushers in the high season for vacations along the Red Sea, carrying on into winter – Aqaba and its surroundings come alive during these months. Caution is advised if you plan on exploring the desert, as unexpected rains can lead to road closures. Don’t be shocked to see a dusting of snow in places like Amman or Petra during winter.
As for the searing summer months, it’s wise to steer clear, when temperatures can skyrocket to a sweltering 50 degrees Celsius. Many lodgings close their doors for the season, with the rest offering reduced rates. If you possess an endurance for heat, this could be your chance to save a bundle on your journey. But be forewarned, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Jordan Pass: Your Golden Ticket
Picture the Jordan Pass as your all-access pass to a treasure trove of over 40 attractions strewn across this desert kingdom. This pass even moonlights as your visa waiver, provided your journey through the kingdom spans three nights or more. The catch? You must secure the pass before your Jordanian odyssey begins. The cost ranges from 70 ($98.67) to 80 dinars ($112.77), the variance hinging on the number of days you plan to soak up the mysteries of Petra. Interestingly, the pass could end up saving you a few dinars even if Petra is the sole highlight of your itinerary. Why, you ask? A standalone ticket to Petra will set you back a hefty 50 to 60 dinars.
Bear in mind, a final parting fee of ten dinars is levied upon your exit from the country, if you are leaving by land borders or sailing off on the ferry, regardless of your visa status or that seemingly magical Jordan Pass.
Official website: jordanpass.jo
Currency and money
Jordan’s currency, the dinar, holds sway here. You’ll find that credit cards are accepted in most lodgings, eateries, and museums. And ATMs are about as common as sand dunes, scattered even in the tiniest of hamlets. When the impulse to haggle tugs at your inner merchant, heed its call. While the likelihood of securing substantial savings is slim, the art of bargaining is often less about the end deal and more about the dance of conversation, the charm of a shared laugh.
In terms of physical currency exchange, you’ll have better luck in Aqaba and Amman.
Jordan is a nation of secular governance, but it remains firmly rooted in Islamic traditions. Here, the stringent dress code regulations enforced in nations like Iran — requiring tourists to wear hijabs or cover hands and ankles — don’t apply. However, it’s a mark of respect to adopt modest clothing norms. While scantily clad attire is permissible in resort areas, it might be met with disapproval elsewhere. Feel free to bask under the sun or indulge in a swim in your regular swimsuits. That said, do note that local women often opt for the burkini—a swimsuit designed for Muslim women—that offers protection not only from curious eyes but also from the harsh sun.When using public transport, don’t be surprised if an invisible line of propriety exists between seats occupied by unrelated men and women. Should you find yourself in close quarters with someone of the opposite sex, don’t be taken aback if you’re asked to switch seats with another passenger.Alcohol consumption isn’t a taboo here and is readily available for purchase. However, this liberal norm pauses during the holy month of Ramadan when the majority of the populace fasts. During this period, drinking in public is frowned upon. Always remember that being mindful and respectful of local customs can significantly enhance your travel experience.
Jordan Visa Policy
Jordan has a relatively straightforward and accommodating visa policy. The process varies depending on the nationality of the traveler, but for many, the visa can be obtained upon arrival in the country.
Visa on Arrival
Citizens from a number of countries, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and most of the EU member states, can get a single-entry visa on arrival at most major ports of entry. The visa costs approximately 40 Jordanian Dinars ($56.39) and is generally valid for one month. It’s important to note that you must have a passport valid for at least six months beyond your period of stay.
Another option is the Jordan Pass which includes the cost of the visa and entry to over 40 attractions across Jordan, including Petra, Wadi Rum, and Jerash among others. This pass must be purchased prior to arrival and is particularly beneficial if you intend to visit multiple sites within the country. The pass also waives the visa fee if you stay in the country for three nights or more.For US Citizens
US citizens can obtain a visa on arrival at the airport and most international border crossings. They need to have a passport that’s valid for at least six months beyond their period of stay.For EU Citizen
EU citizens, similar to US citizens, can also get a visa on arrival in Jordan. The passport validity requirement remains the same, i.e., at least six months beyond the period of stay.For UK Citizens
UK citizens can also obtain a visa on arrival in Jordan. They must have a passport valid for a minimum of six months beyond the length of their intended stay.For Canadians and Australians
Canadians and Aussies are eligible to get a visa on arrival in Jordan. The passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the length of their intended stay.
It’s recommended to check the latest information with the Jordanian Embassy or Consulate in your home country before travel, as visa policies can change. Lastly, when planning to enter Jordan multiple times or for an extended stay, a different visa may be required.
Free entry through Aqaba
Aqaba, situated in the south of Jordan, has a special status due to its strategic location and economic significance. Aqaba falls within the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ), which has a different visa policy from the rest of the country.Under this policy, most nationalities, including citizens of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada, and Australia, can enter Aqaba visa-free for up to 30 days. The visa-free entry is applicable only if you arrive at Aqaba’s King Hussein International Airport or at the port if you’re coming by ferry.It’s important to note that while you can enter and leave Jordan via Aqaba without a visa, you’re required to remain within the Aqaba Special Economic Zone. If you plan to travel outside Aqaba, you will need a visa.
Contributors: Michael Mityukov, Daria Petryagina.
Photo: Michael Mityukov