Jordan is home to one of the world’s most impressive archaeological sites, the lost city of Petra. With the city’s ancient temples, monuments and tombs carved into the valley’s pink sandstone cliffs, Petra is also known as the “Rose City,” and it alone makes this Arab nation a destination not to be missed.
If you’ve never been to Jordan, travel writer Adventurous Kate recommends it highly: “Because of its safety, its tourism infrastructure, and its welcoming nature, Jordan is the perfect destination for first-time visitors to the Middle East.”
In addition to the friendliness and hospitality you’ll encounter throughout the tiny country, Kate says the wonders of Jordan include “the great expanse of Wadi Rum, the ruins at Jerash, the old forts, the incredible beauty and history of Petra.”
And if you’re worried about touring a Middle Eastern country because of the so-called Islamic State and recent events in Syria, travel blogger Linda Johannesson says don’t.
“Now is the time to go,” she writes. “Sites like Petra, normally packed with tourists, are empty and open for exploration. That, and the country is pretty much on sale — prices are down and you can enjoy a five-star trip at half the cost. As locals in the country like to say, ‘We can’t help it — we live in a rough neighborhood, but our block is fine.'”
We’ve drawn up a list of must-sees, adventure tours, trips and activities all over Jordan. From its capital city of Amman, where dramatic Roman ruins are a part of everyday life, to the dunes of the aforementioned Wadi Rum, once described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like,” adventurous travelers will find something they love here.
The hilltop Citadel should be your first stop in Amman, a modern city that dates back to at least the 13th Century B.C. While the one-kilometer hike (0.62 miles) isn’t long, it is steep, so you may want to get a cab on the way up. However you get there, the historical ruins and panoramic views of the old city — including the Hashemite Square and Roman Amphitheater, the Raghadan Palace and bustling souqs — make it more than worth your while.
The history of the area is showcased with its excellent Roman and Byzantine ruins, like the Temple of Hercules and remnants of a water management system, and in its small onsite archaeological museum full of ancient artifacts.
While there’s plenty of signage and information at the Citadel, if you want to really delve into the history of the place, you can hire a guide who will explain what you’re seeing. With the right guide, you’ll certainly learn much more than if you wander around on your own, even with a guidebook in hand.
Arabian Horseback Riding
A 20-minute downhill walk brings you to back to the city, where you can indulge in activities ranging from indoor rock climbing to paintballing to cooling off at a waterpark. You can also take the opportunity to go Arabian horseback riding at the Arabian Horse Club in Amman. Kiersten Rich, who blogs as the Blonde Abroad, did and said riding the the prized horses of the native desert Bedouin people of Jordan was “pretty special.”
If a quick canter isn’t enough, you can arrange for a trek of several days duration on your Arabian steed. You will at early Islamic castles and caravan stations along the way. One trip retraces a part of the ancient silk trade route that goes through Amman, and another follows sections of the original King’s Highway, a 5,000-year-old network of trade and caravan routes connecting Syria and Egypt.
The Roman Theater
A tour of the Roman Amphitheater located in the heart of the Old City is not to be missed. Tourists find it amazing that the massive structure is still used to this day, usually on weekends for concerts, and that the acoustics are impeccable.
In fact, you probably shouldn’t tell secrets while you’re there: If you talk at normal volume while standing in the center of the theater, you’ll be easily heard by everyone. The venue, which looks majestic when lit at night, includes a smaller theater to one side as well as a museum with an outstanding jewelry collection.
Another aspect about Amman to be enjoyed is the food. To Audrey at That Backpacker, Amman “was a foodie destination.”
“Everything I ate there was great,” she explains, “but if there’s one establishment that stands out in my mind, it’s Hashem Restaurant. Hashem is a humble little spot that you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for it, but inside it’s always packed. Popular with foreigners and locals alike (even the Jordanian King and Queen have been known to drop by to get their fix!), this restaurant serves up some delicious hummus, falafel and pita. Add a few cups of sweet mint tea, and it’s easy to see why people are willing to stand in line to get a table.”
The Dead Sea
Situated about halfway between Amman and Petra, the Dead Sea (which is actually a hypersaline lake) is a leading attraction in Jordan, warm and soothing and about 10 times saltier than ocean water.
In fact, it’s so salty that the Jordan Tourism Board has a tip for those of you who are planning a trip to the Dead Sea after some diving in the Red Sea: do the Dead Sea first, and then go to Aqaba. “If you do it the other way around, the small cuts or grazes you may pick up from the coral reefs will soon let you know why this is the better option.”
The saline water allows you to float effortlessly while you soak up minerals such as chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium and bromine, the Jordan Tourism Board writes. Also, people come from all over to luxuriate in the Dead Sea’s rich and stimulating mud, which is said to ease rheumatic pain.
Jeff Johns concurs in his post for the Travel Channel. “The Dead Sea has arguably the most mineral-rich mud on Earth — health and cosmetic products made from it sell for hundreds of dollars — so dig your fingers in, cover yourself with mud, and take one of the healthiest baths you will ever have.” No spa required. Wallow away!
About a 35-minute drive north of Amman lies the ancient Roman city of Jerash, second only to the famed city of Petra in terms of tourist popularity. Outside of Italy, there is no larger site of Roman architecture in the world, and these include two temples (one to Zeus and one to Artemis), public squares, baths, plazas, a hippodrome (or theater), fountains, city walls and colonnaded streets.
Bring lots of water and comfortable shoes for all the walking you’ll do, and don’t leave without pushing on the pillars at Athena’s temple (they rock when you push them — the pillars were built on lead bearings to survive earthquakes). If you’d like to take in the view from the top of the Temple of Zeus, there’s a one-person viewing area perched atop a tiny one-person stairwell.
Jenny Freedman at a Taste of Travel visited the Roman ruins in 2013 and reports that chariot races are held for the tourists at the hippodrome, but says that for her, the forum was one of the highlights of Jerash:
“The oval shaped plaza is surrounded by 56 columns, each made from four blocks of stone. Limestone slabs pave the plaza, increasing in size from the centre. Lying between the Temple of Zeus and the main thoroughfare, Cardo Maximus, it is easy to see why it was the centre of the social and political life.”
Dana Biosphere Reserve
The country’s largest nature reserve, dubbed an eco-tourism oasis in the desert,the Dana Biosphere Reserve is an immense tract of wilderness in the Wadi Dana, with an approximate area of 300 sq kilometres (or 120 sq miles). It includes mountains and wadis (valleys and riverbeds) with a rise in elevation of more than 1600 meters (or nearly a mile).
The reserve is a spectacular place to go hiking. Most tourists start at Dana village, which overlooks the reserve. There are both self-guided tours and tours that must be booked.
One walk that can be done either alone or with a guide is the Wadi Dana Trail, which at 14 km (8.5 miles) should take between 5–6 hours. It’s an easy walk through increasingly desolate terrain that ends at Feynan, where you can rest easy at the Feynan Ecolodge. Travellers Simon Fairbairn and Erin McNeaney of The Never Ending Voyage were there, and say the solar-powered retreat “manages to be eco friendly without sacrificing comfort.”
Wadi Mujib Reserve
Before you leave the area, grab a taxi and get to the Wadi Mujib gorge — it’s a day trip that shouldn’t be missed. The trek takes you through the lowest nature reserve in the world, surrounded by spectacular cliffs.
Goats on the Road bloggers Nick & Dariece toured the valley, which is also known as the “Grand Canyon of Jordan.” Donning lifejackets, they headed out and describe their adventure as follows:
“We walked along a crystal clear, warm, rushing river most of the way, getting completely drenched. We were right in the gorge and had amazing views of the canyon walls around us during the hike. After walking for awhile in the river, it came to a small waterfall with some ropes…time to hike up the boulders and through the rushing water!
“Everything was so wet that it was hard to get a grip on the ropes but we all did it no problem. There were 3 different waterfalls to climb up and the rest of the time was spent hiking through the rushing river, quite a workout for the quads. At the end of the 2km hike was a massive waterfall, we were able to go in behind it as well. That one wasn’t for climbing up though, just for hanging out at and enjoying the scenery.
“Made our way back to the start which was much more fun than the way there. Instead of climbing up the smooth rocks and waterfalls, we were able to slide down them! It was so much fun that [all of us] climbed back up the waterfall 3 times just for the slide down. It was one of the most exciting things we’ve ever done.”
Petra, The Lost City
One of the New Seven Wonders of the World sits at the edge of the Arabian Desert. Petra, a city half carved into rock sometime in the 6th Century B.C., this World Heritage site was once the capital of the Nabataean empire and renowned for its complex water systems, complete with tunnels and water chambers.
An important stop on the silk trade route to the Far East, it was abandoned sometime during the 12th Century. Now, the only people allowed to reside there are Bedouins, some of whom live in the nearby caves.
Petra hit the big screen in 1989, when Hollywood used it as a film location for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The film made The Treasury the most famous building at Petra, as it was where the Grail was residing. You’ll likely find local vendors hawking reproductions of the hat and bullwhip made famous by actor Harrison Ford.
While The Treasury may be the most celebrated, Dave and Deb of The Planet D say the Monastery is the most impressive building of the entire complex:
“Reaching 50 metres into the air, it is also the largest in all of Petra. Dating back to the 1st Century B.C., it is worth the 45-minute hike [850 steps] to the top. Not only will you be treated to this majestic structure, you will also view magnificent panoramic views of the valleys and rocky landscape of the area of Wadi Araba.
“Don’t waste time upon your arrival. You will be tempted to wander around the ruins after witnessing the first and most famous building The Treasury. Instead, head directly to the Monastery right after the Treasury. You will want to get there early before the tour groups arrive.”
One way to reach the archaeological site is by hiking the Petra Trail, which starts at Amman and leads you through Jerash and then the Dana Nature Reserve. You’ll encounter deserts, canyons and mountains along your way as well as Bedouin camps, ancients stairways and facades until you reach the gem of Jordan, the lost city of Petra.
If you’re looking for the magical desert of Lawrence of Arabia where you can sleep under the stars in Bedouin tents and join a camel train under the blazing sun, this UNESCO World Heritage protected desert is a dream come true.
Located 60 km (37 miles) northeast of the coastal city of Aqaba, Wadi Rum is a major feature within the Hisma Desert with such unusual terrain that you’ll be forgiven for thinking you may have just landed on Mars.
For climbers, there are granite cliffs to scale, and you might just find 5,000-year-old inscriptions by those who came before you. A number of other activities are available in the area, from hot air ballooning to admiring the natural rock formations of Wadi Rum from a helicopter, glider or private plane.
Groups travel in 4x4s or caravans of camels or donkeys. The latter methods lets you retrace “the journeys of Lawrence of Arabia in the central highlands and eastern deserts of Jordan, spending a week en route and camping in a different place every night,” VisitJordan.com writes.
“Parts of these itineraries can be done along the edge of the desert in steam-powered World War I vintage trains, the same as those that were attacked by the forces of the Great Arab Revolt and Lawrence nearly a century ago.”
Just try not to fall off your camel like Liz Carlson, the Young Adventuress, did.
Jordan’s only coastal city, Aqaba is close enough to both Petra and the Dana Biosphere Reserve to serve as a sort of base camp. You can kick back in Aqaba, too. Its renowned beaches and the Red Sea which offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.
Dalene and Pete Heck of Hecktic Travels arrived at Aqaba by way Wadi Rum, and said the port city “carries the vibe of an energized resort town and has all the amenities to match, with the star attraction being the brilliant blue of the open sea.” They added a point of interest, saying that Aqaba is situated so that “across from the port you can see Israel and Egypt, and Saudi Arabia is only a few minutes drive further south.”
There is so much to do in Aqaba: night diving, viewing marine life in glass-bottomed boats, Turkish baths, deep-sea fishing or even a little shopping downtown. Also worth noting: Aqaba is a duty-free zone, meaning it’s cheaper to shop here than anywhere else in Jordan.