Jordan, a small country that offers so many different attractions from the desert of Wadi Rum to the diving in the Red Sea to the spectacular historic sights of Petra and Jerash. Unlike a lot of Arab countries Jordan is well used to tourists and every town caters for them. When visiting Jordan it shows you the spectacular attractions, the Arab culture, wailing mosques, Bedouin towns and camps in sweeping deserts along with camel rides and searing heat.
Despite what people may think, Jordan is small with only 330km between the capital Amman and the most southerly town of Aqaba. That is only a 4hr drive! Much of the eastern part of the country is desert so all the main sightseeing attractions are on the west side. Because of this hiring a car is a good idea if there is a few of you as it is possible to do all the attractions on the way south and take the scenic roads which are mainly in the mountains and then take the boring (straight and fast) desert road on the way back. Bingo bango!
Time to Do: To do all the sites mentioned in this post takes approximately about 7-8 days including one day in Amman and one day in Aqaba.
I will start with the capital Amman and its surroundings (Jerash) before working my way south via the Kings Highway (scenic and mountainous) and finishing in Aqaba. Most of the sites especially around Mt. Nebo, Madaba, Bethany beyond the Jordan (baptism site) and Dead Sea are all close together and less than 30min drive from each other.
With almost half of the population of Jordan living in Amman it is no surprise that this city is a bit chaotic and is the heart of Jordan. Amman has a reputation for not having much to offer tourists and although not entirely correct there is definitely truth in it. Amman is a good place to base yourself for excursions to other cities and attractions so it’s not all bad. The city is full of white house’s as by law they must be finished with local white stone but this contrasts starkly with the breakneck pace of modern construction of new roads and buildings. If you want luxurious hotels and shopping malls then it has plenty but as most visitors want some history and culture there are a few but not many spots to go to. If you have time then 2 days is plenty to see what Amman has to offer but if you only have a week and want to see all the sights in the rest of the country then I would recommend that you skip Amman as you don’t miss out on too much.
Places to go and things to do in Amman:
- Roman Amphitheatre: Built almost 1900years ago into the side of a hill, I think this is one of the best sights in Amman. Built in 3 separate tiers so the elite didn’t have to sit with the peasants. Seats an impressive 6000
- Drink tea with the locals: Call into any local establishment, the older and the stranger the looks you get the better, and drink shy. It is black tea with a load of sugar so it tastes refreshing and will give you plenty of energy afterwards.
- Citadel (Jebel Al Qalaa): Is an archaeologist dream with so many cultures and artefacts up inside the fortress walls on the highest point of the city. With bronze age, iron age, Byzantium and Roman rulers all using the site, as well as the resting place of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls the draw is obvious. It has churches, palaces and the National Archaeological Museum. A superb place to watch the sunset with great views of the city. Just make sure to get there before the ticket office closes. Open: Sat-Thurs, Apr-Sept 08:00-19:00, Fri 10:00-16:00. Sat-Thurs, Oct-March 08:00-16:00, Fri 10:00-16:00. Admission JD2
- Temple of Hercules: Not much of a temple these days as only the podium and columns remain but its location is not far from the Citadel and used to be connected to the Roman Forum. The only access is from Al-Malek Ali bin al-Hussein St. There is a great view point of the city near the temple.
- King Abdullah Mosque: This impressive modern mosque is worth a visit if you haven’t been to one before. Built by King Hussein as a tribute to his father the blue mosque fits 10,000 people and is the only mosque in Amman where non-Muslims can enter.
Only 50km north of Amman is one of the best kept Roman sites in the Middle East and maybe even the world in Jerash. This is not just a few columns, walls and broken arches but is a full blown town. It is big even today and still looks spectacular so 1800years ago when everything was spic and span then it must have been awe inspiring for the locals. The site contains temples, theatres, amphitheatres, arches, streets lined with hundreds of columns, baths, plaza’s and even a hippodrome that is still used today. Although started by the Greeks in the 3rd century BC it reached its peak under the Romans before the Byzantines and Muslims ruled before the crusaders finished it in the 12th century. The ruins are to the west of the main town of Jerash and are not massive so can be covered in a few hours to half a day depending on how much exploring and posing you do.
Need to Know
There is a small visitors centre located at the ruins and is open May-Sep 08:00-19:00, Oct-Apr 08:00-16:00). Admission is JD8. From Amman there are frequent buses to Jerash from the Tabarbour Bus Station. The bus costs less than JD1. The Tabarbour Bus Station is on the #6 Serviis Taxi line and can be got from Raghadan Al Seyaha which is only a short walk from the Roman Theatre. A taxi one way is approx JD9-10 but is about JD40 if you want the taxi to wait for you for the day. Always agree the price beforehand.
Madaba and Mount Nebo
Around 40km south of Amman is Madaba and depending on your route south is not a bad stopping point. If you do not intend to go to Amman then it is perfect as a first night as it 30km from the airport and on the same side of the city. Although Madaba has no show stoppers it does have a 6th century mosaic on the floor of the Basilica of St.George. The mosaic discovered by accident in 1896 is very well preserved and tell an easy to follow story with all the biblical landmarks. There are also Roman ruins in the town to wander through.
What is worth going to see is Mount Nebo which is only 9km from Madaba. On top of Mount Nebo is a little church built on the site of a much older 4th century church and is of great religious significance to Christians as the mountain is supposedly where Moses is buried and where he looked over the Holy Land. The little church and view point provide great views into the valley of the River Jordan, Jericho and Jerusalem (on a clear day). The site gets very busy with tour buses after 10am.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan
Being in vicinity of the River Jordan and the Dead Sea there are always going to be lots biblical and religious references and Bethany Beyond the Jordan is one of them. This is the site where Jesus was baptised by St. John just upstream from where the River Jordan flows into the Dead Sea. Although I was not particularly impressed by the tour it is one of them things that is of such historical significance that you feel you should go. From that point of view it was worth going and it only takes 3hrs in total to complete and I was glad I did it afterwards. The tour includes John the Baptist Church, the baptism site and spring. In the UNESCO World Heritage Site there are also the caves where John the Baptist lived, Elijah’s Hill and the site of St. Mary the Egyptian. The highlight and why popes and royalty come to the site is the baptism area close to the John the Baptist Church where Jesus got baptised. This famous site is an unremarkable pool at the end of a few rocky steps a few feet beneath the brown earth of ground level. There is no pretentious marble steps and pristine water but is probably similar to what it was 2000years ago.
The River Jordan is no more that a dirty stream these days due to the irrigation of land upstream and both sides of the river are paraded by Jordanian and Israeli soldiers as with a good run and a jump you could make it across. On the opposite bank in Israel there is an identical visitor centre and people also flock to this side of the bank. To be honest I wasn’t impressed with the tour as unless you are lucky you will have to wait 15-20min for a shuttle bus and the ‘guide’ doesn’t do any informing. All the information I got was from the headset which at least were good. Just remember that the headsets are in several languages and can be changed. A person (English speaking) in front of me got informed by a stranger after several minutes that it wasn’t English they were listening to!! Their excuse was they couldn’t hear it properly!
The site is well signposted from Highway 65 just to the north of the Dead Sea and is just off the road after taking a turn onto Highway 40. To visit the site you must park in the car park and get a guided tour after a shuttle bus ride around the site. This is included in the admission fee as well as an audio guide. Open: 08:00-18:00 Apr-Oct, 08:00-16:00 Nov-Mar. Admission: Non Arab countries JD12. www.baptismsite.com
The Dead Sea
Its dead, its salty, its low, its hot, its mountainous. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth at -395mtrs which sits cosily in-between bare mountains and is an extension of the Rift Valley and Red Sea. Over 1.2million people come sightseeing to the Dead Sea each year for its therapeutic qualities and like me for its floating and messing around qualities. The ‘sea’ is a lake which is fed by the River Jordan mentioned above which is now no more than a trickle and that means that the level of the lake is rapidly decreasing, by over 1mtr per year. It is almost 9times saltier than the sea so this allows those photos of reading a magazine while almost sitting on the water. It is well worth a visit just for its novelty if nothing else.
To swim in the Dead Sea will cost you JD 16 on Amman Beach which is a public beach. This beach has changing rooms, showers, lockers and a restaurant. The beach is very stony so if you have old runners or flip flops it is a good idea. They will definitely float if they come off! There is no problem for women wearing bikinis here. (I am saying that for women as it is an Arab country, not for men looking for women wearing bikinis!). For an extra dollar or two you can cover yourself in black mud which is taken from the Dead Sea floor which is supposedly good for your skin. It is a good laugh and maybe even get to change your ethnicity for a few minutes! Any hotels on the coast will also have beach fronts but if you are not a guest this will cost approximately JD 50 although the facilities will be much nicer. Having said that the water is the same no matter where you are. There is a free beach about 10km further south which you will notice by the small stalls on the side of the road but it is quite muddy and dirty and has no facilities although there is a small waterfall to be able to wash the sand off. It is an option if you are really on a shoestring. The rest of the coast is a steep cliff to the lake so it is not an option going somewhere on your own.
From being in the lake up close to an attraction that is far away. I would highly recommend heading to the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex (08:00-17:00) which is on top of the mountains on the east side of the lake. This modern complex provides breathtaking views of the lake and Israel as you stand at sea level gazing down at the views hundreds of meters below. This quite attraction has a restaurant and museum to brush up on your knowledge of the geology and wildlife of the area. There is no public transport so a rental car or taxi is the only way there. The cost is JD2 which you pay to a very bored security guard. To get there then if you are on the Dead Sea coast and approx 10km south of all the hotels (they are clustered near the north end on the Jordan side) then it is the first left turn and the Panoramic Complex is signposted straight up the mountain. The road is new but has lots of bends.
Need to Know
A word of warning: the salinity of the water makes swimming a bit different to normal and while trying to keep your head out of the water some people lose balance and go under. A friend of mine did this and ended up swallowing some water and then vomited! Lovely! Avoid at all circumstances getting water in your eyes or even touching your eyes with your fingers. It is very painful. It is even recommended that you don’t shave before you go, that is for both women and men. Although I had done this unwittingly and there wasn’t much of a problem.
There are buses from Mujaharin bus station in Amman to Sweimeh (Swaymah) at the Dead Sea. The last bus back is at 4pm so don’t miss it as there is no budget accommodation at the Dead Sea. The route take 1hr 45min. There is also a bus from Madaba to Sweimeh changing at Shunieh. This only takes about 1hr.
This cave contains a very strange and dirty biblical story. I won’t go too much into it as this is a family website but it involves Lot and his two daughters fleeing to a cave to escape persecution and the daughters get pregnant. With Jews, Christians and Muslims all seeing Lot as a good man there is more to the story than meets the eye. Head south on the coastal road from the Dead Sea until you reach the village of Safi and follow the signs to the left.
Dana Nature Reserve
The largest nature reserve in Jordan and it is a bit of a hidden gem. With the range of altitude (1500mtrs to -50mtrs) there is plenty of wildlife and also there is plenty of historical sites. The starting point for most people is the dainty stone village of Dana on the edge of a 1500mtr cliff giving stupendous views of the valley below. This is the where the visitor centre is located in the Dana guesthouse at the end of this dead end road. This is the best spot to get maps of the trails etc.
There are walks that can be done without a guide such as the Rummana Campground and Mountain Trail (2-2.5hrs) or the Wadi Dana Trail (6hrs). There are trails that need guides also such as the Waterfall Trail (2.5hrs) or the hard Palm Trees Wadi Tour (6-8hrs). Guides cost approx. JD20 for 2hrs and JD90 for a full day. The best time to visit the park is in the spring or autumn so you don’t get too cold or too hot.
The crown jewel of Jordan and of the Indiana Jones film, this new wonder of the world is worth all the hype. It is an ancient Nabataean town cut into the sides of cliffs and is so much more than just the one building (The Treasury) that gets all the international coverage. It may be packed with tourists on camels and donkeys and you have to queue for ages to go to the toilet before you actually start walking in but when you eventually get near the end of the colourful sandstone Siq (very narrow gorge) and you get your first peak of The Treasury of Petra then you realise what all the hype is about. After spending ages fustering with your camera in the Siq trying to get the contrast right and eventually step out into the open to see it fully, one would wonder how people in any age were able to carve something so beautiful and ornate straight out of the rocks. How people in 600BC were able to imagine and construct a temple that size is a testament to human ingenuity and persistence. The size of it (43mtrs high) would blow you away. After you eventually drag yourself away from it and get your picture taken with the local camels in front you continue on to discover that there are another hundred buildings (in the rocks) that may not be as big but are just as good. The Romans took over Petra in 100AD and there are several places such as the amphitheatre and the forum where they left their mark.
The area is vast and 2 days is standard if you are not an archaeological specialist. If you are stuck for time then a long day is enough to see all the main sights. Most of the action is carved into the sides of cliffs but it is also possible to head to the top of the cliffs to get great panoramic views of all the attractions and to see the shrines at the top. The High Place of Sacrifice is a 20min walk up the cliffs for great views of the Petra area and also the largest monument, which is not the Treasury but is actually the Monastery which is at the end of 500 steps and a total of 50min uphill walk from the Treasury.
Need to Know
The only way to see Petra is with 2 or 4 feet, no vehicles are allowed. From the ticket office it is about a 20m-25min walk to the stunning Treasury building. Half of this is in the Siq which is 80mtr high walls of a pinky red colour sandstone only meters apart and hence is completely in the shade. The horses and donkeys are not well treated and some you can easily see are suffering so if you can at all you shouldn’t use them. With the narrowness of the Siq at times you would be almost as quick walking anyway.
JETT have buses leaving at 06:30am (3hrs) from their offices at Abdali (only JETT operate from Abdali) in Amman and leave Petra at 16:00 each evening for JD19. Alternatively you can go by public minibus which is much cheaper but they only operate on a go when full basis. From Mujamaaa Janobi station in Amman the minibuses leave from 09:00-16:00 and return from 06:00-13:00. They leave from Wadi Musa to Maan and then to Aqaba (Approx 2hrs) excluding Fridays. Having said this from both Amman and Aqaba there are plenty of tour operators that will do tours to Petra. A taxi from Amman return including the waiting costs approx JD 75 and approx JD 50 from Aqaba. This rate obviously depends on you haggling skills.
A bus leaves from Wadi Musa station via the hotels in town to Wadi Rum every morning at 06:00am. A bus also leaves the Miriam Hotel in Madaba at 10am and goes via the Kings Highway and Wadi Mujib and Karak Castle before arriving into Wadi Musa at 15:30. Cost JD20.
Open: 06:00-18:00 during the summer months and 06:00-16:00 during winter months. Admission: JD 50 for 1 day and JD 60 for 3 days. JD 90 for day-visitors to Jordan only so bring your passport just in case.
For people looking for something a little different on the sightseeing tour then you could break out and try some Bedouin camps just a few kilometres outside Petra in the desert that give a good experience of what accommodation outside a hotel is like. The camps give people their own tents in the sand although they are semi-permanent so not exactly as the Bedouins would do it, it is a good experience. Dinner and breakfast is usually included as well as shy (tea) in front of a hearty fire to keep the cold at bay. They contain showers, toilets etc.
Fiery red rocks untouched by humanity emerge out of the desert sand to heights of 1750mtrs. Lawrence of Arabia described it as ‘vast, echoing and God like’. This mixture of sandstone, granite and sand is a pure wilderness experience where you can meet Bedouin’s in-between heading down impossibly steep sand dunes. The vast monoliths are arranged almost like they were dropped from a height so that they are scattered everywhere but yet there is hundreds of meters of open sand between them. There is no real infrastructure in Wadi Rum other than the tents of the few thousand Bedouins that live in the area so the area is much like it was thousands of years ago.
There are many different ways to see Wadi Rum. You can get a tour by jeep, by camel or by foot from 2hrs to 12 days and there is also rock climbing and trekking. Obviously the quickest way to see the sites is by jeep. These all start at the little used visitor’s centre which is signposted off Highway 15. The jeep tours are from 2hrs to a full day and you can pick a combination of interests such as the Nabataean rock paintings, T.E Lawrence house, the rock bridge and even a spring among others. Food is not included in the shorter tours and if you want some you have to stop on the way for the guide to buy it in the shop for you and then charge you double what he paid. The tours are fairly expensive but there is not much choice in the matter unless you hire your own which is also expensive. The good thing at the visitors centre is that the rates are posted on the wall giving you the options for the different tours so there is no dispute or hassle over the cost. Tours range from approx JD55 for a 3hr 4×4 tour to JD75 for a full day tour. One day and one night (staying in a Bedouin camp) costs approx JD110 incl lunch, breakfast and dinner. Extra (10-20%) will be added if there are two or more of you.
One night in the desert is an experience I would recommend. From the cool of the sand in the evening to the thousands of stars in the Milky Way that are visible before the moon comes up it is well worth it. A highlight is to get up early to see the sun stretch of the rocks in the morning turning them a hot red.
A camel tour for 2people for a day costs approx JD90 (you need to pay for the guide to be on a camel as well)
Hiking for a day and a night with a guide will cost approx JD 150 for two people including food and accommodation.
The only accommodation in Wadi Rum is to camp in the park with your own tent or with a Bedouin ‘bed and breakfast’.
Need to Know
All tours can be arranged in Wadi Rum visitors centre including overnight stays etc but it is possible to arrange with several operators in the nearest towns of Petra and Aqaba who may also include the transport to get there. Prices of the longer tours and overnight stays can be negotiated so prices above are approximate just to give an indication.
All buses (except JETT) that pass the intersection off Highway 15 (Petra-Aqaba road) will drop you off and it is 20km to the visitors centre from there which can be easy to hitch which is common in Jordan for about JD4.
From Aqaba: From the main bus station in Aqaba (not JETT) 3 buses leave per day in high season (spring, autumn) that go directly to the Wadi Rum visitors centre and one per day (summer, winter). Alternatively you can take any bus going to Amman, Ma’an or Petra, of which there is plenty, for JD5 and get off at the turnoff mentioned above. A taxi will cost approx JD25 and JD 40 return with a wait. Again this depends on your haggling proficiency.
From Petra (Wadi Musa): One bus per day leaves the Petra bus station early in the morning (06:30) and goes straight to the Wadi Rum visitors centre. Also like above any bus to Aqaba can be taken and can ask to jump off at the intersection. Taxi’s cost about JD30 from Petra.
From Amman: There is no direct bus but any bus to Aqaba or Maan means you can get asked to be dropped off at the intersection on the main road.
Wadi Rum park entrance fee is JD5.
Aqaba did not impress me at all and if you are not there for either scuba diving or relaxing on a beach then don’t bother going. Even the scuba diving is not great if you have dived before. The town on the other hand does cater for tourists with lots of restaurants, bars and markets and with the development in recent years it is quite modern. The only historical sites in the town are the 15th century fort, the old town (next to Movenpick Hotel) and the 4th century Roman church.
Aqaba is Jordan’s only access to the sea and hence is has a port and is a big trading town. The main reasons people come to Aqaba is to enjoy the sunshine and relax on a beach beside the very warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and to scuba dive or snorkel.
Compared to other areas around the Red Sea the diving in Aqaba is poor. A lot of corals are bleached with pollution and a lot of corals near the town have died. Having said that it is a good place to learn to scuba dive as there are still plenty of fish. The local authority did deliberately sink a tank so coral would grow on it and this process has started 10mtrs under the surface and is good for novelty photos. There is also a shipwreck in the same vicinity to the south of Aqaba city and are the main attractions for beach entry dives. There are several dive operators in the area which also offer various courses such as the PADI Open Water over 4-5days which can be done in-between sunbathing breaks.
Prices are around JD75 for 2 dives in a boat with weights and tanks, JD90 for 2 dives with full equipment. There are a few places like the International Arab dive centre and Red Sea Resort(websites below) that have accommodation and diving in the one place to make life easier.
Practicalities – About Jordan
€1 = 0.94 Jordanian Dinar, US$1 = JD 0.70
- Language – Arabic. English widely spoken by hotels, tour operators, restaurants but not by the general public.
- Bus – JETT is the main bus company in Jordan and operates from its own bus stations in the main towns (http://jett.com.jo). Local minibuses are available and more widespread from most towns and usually operate on a leave when full basis
- Flights- International airports are in Amman (Queen Alia) and Aqaba (King Hussein) with Royal Jordanian the national carrier (www.rj.com). Aqaba only serves a few international flights and is mainly domestic.
- Accommodation – $25 per night for an average double room
- Ramadan: Life seriously slows down during this Islamic holiday where nothing can be eaten or drank during daylight among other customs. In 2013 it falls from 9th July to 7th August and in 2014 it falls 28th June to 27th July. It changes by approx 12 days each year in the Gregorian calendar as the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle.
- Population of Jordan: 6.5million
Map of Jordan
Roman Theater, Amman, Jordan
|Citadel (Jebel Al Qalaa)|
Amman Citadel, Amman, Jordan
|Temple of Hercules|
|King Abdullah Mosqe|
Mosque, Amman, Jordan
|Tabarbour Bus Station|
Tabarbour, Amman, Jordan
|Raghadan Bus Station|
, Amman, Jordan
|Abdali Bus Station|
Abdali Inn, Amman, Jordan
|Jerash, Roman ruins|
Jerash Visitors Center, Jarash, Jerash, Jordan
|Madaba, St. Georges Cathedral|
Madaba Inn, Madaba, Jordan
Mount Nebo, Madaba, Jordan
|Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Jesus' Baptism)|
|Dead Sea, Amman Beach|
Dead Sea, Al Karak, Jordan
Safi, Al Karak, Jordan
Petra, Ma'an, Jordan
|Wadi Musa Bus Station|
Wadi Musa Secondary School for Boys, Ma'an, Jordan
|Wadi Rum Visitors Centre|
Wadi Rum Visitor Center, Aqaba, Jordan
|Dana Nature Reserve|
Karak, Al Karak, Jordan