Ancient Ruins, Sprawling Desert, and Dead Sea Healing Powers

Flying in over red sands, lose yourself in Jordan's blend of ancient and modern in its architecture and sights, from Petra’s historic ruins to sandboarding in the desert, exquisite food, and relaxing mineral spas. 

Sights and smells of Amman

Hilly downtown Amman has a long and rich history, now evolved into a unique mixture of Roman ruins, traditional Arab souks and mosques and fashionable glass modernities. The Roman amphitheatre stands beautifully intact and the capital's central King Hussein Mosque, built in 1924, was constructed above an older mosque from 640AD.

Both are well worth a visit and just around the corner from each other, which can be nicely combined with a wander through diverse and intricate markets in the surrounding streets. Here’s the best place to pick up a handmade keffiyeh as a souvenir.

Amman view

Marvel at Amman’s homogenous white houses at a viewpoint from the city’s hills, contrasting starkly with the ultra-modern, dazzling constructions outside the centre, now an epicentre for offices of multinational corporations and malls popular among wealthy Arab shoppers.

It’s easiest to whizz around the city in taxis, probably travelling too fast and stinking of tobacco – cheap and cheerful.

Petra, wonder of the world

But it’s outside the capital that Jordan’s real treasures lie. Bus travel is cheap, efficient and quick, so make your first stop Petra, three hours’ drive from Amman and a popular day trip. If time and money allow, stay a few days to really explore this magical site.

Petra's famous treasury

A lost city hidden beneath the sand – so mystical it features in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Petra’s rose-coloured ruins etched into the rock can’t help but leave you in awe. Built around 300BC, the Nabataeans’ capital city remained unknown to Westerners until 1812.

Get there early to avoid the crowds, and prepare for a long day. Petra’s ruins stretch so far that camel and donkey rides through winding ancient streets are an attractive option.

The lost world reaches its zenith as you climb (or the donkey climbs) up 800 crooked steps to the 50-metre tall monastery, set into the rock and with views across the whole region. You’d be surprised that some Jordanians working in the tourist industry live up here, but I can’t think of a better place for a picnic.

The fun part

Heavy tourism aside, Jordan has plenty else to amuse you. Try sandboarding in the red desert of Wadi Rum, or if the Middle Eastern heat gets too much, head to the Dead Sea for a day of pampering. About half an hour outside Amman, the cheapest option here is paying entry to one of the luxury spa hotels for one day only and paying a taxi driver to wait for you.

Floating in the salty Dead Sea

Lie on the beach and coat yourself head to toe in its famous mineral-rich mud, an expensive product around the world, and feel your skin’s impurities wash away. Don’t forget to try swimming in the Dead Sea, one of the saltiest waters in the world where it’s a real struggle to stay underwater – and take that famous photo reading a newspaper whilst floating in the saline water.

When the summer heat reigns Jordanians and tourists head to the popular Red Sea resort of Aqaba in the south of the country, where snorkelling, diving and sunbathing dominate the days.

If camels and souks, donkeys and bazaars, mineral mud and mosques haven’t left you exhausted, the sprawling and well-preserved Roman ruins at Jerash are well worth a visit. Here, or in the beautiful city of Salt, you’ll see rare greenery in the desert kingdom and both are great day trips from Amman.

Roman ruins at Jerash

Food – healthy, fresh, delicious

Don’t leave without trying the crisp, warm falafel and hummus with flat bread, surrounded by all the tastes and smells of a bustling downtown food stall in Amman.

Another wonderful dish is mansaf, a traditional Jordanian and Palestinian lamb dish usually served with rice and dried yoghurt. Wash it down with a refreshing mint-lemon drink, found in most food stops, or a hot mint tea.

Jordanian mint-lemon drink

Female travellers

Popular belief often holds that the Middle East is dangerous for female tourists, especially alone. Most ladies have been and gone without problems –a little precaution and respect for custom goes a long way.

Women can avoid unwanted attention by covering their arms and legs and wearing loose clothes. A headscarf is not necessary outside mosques, many of which provide tourists with their own appropriate clothing for entry anyway.

Bear in mind that it’s unusual for women to sit in the front of taxis, meaning it’s often less awkward to head straight for the back.

Booking tips

Flying over Jordan's desert landscape

Visit October-November or February-May to avoid Jordan’s roasting summer months, especially if you’re planning to spend time in the desert at Wadi Rum or trekking around Petra. But take a coat if you’re travelling November to February as temperatures can get fairly chilly at night; it’s even been known to snow.