Jordan is inarguably one of the best destinations to visit right now in the Middle East. Tragically, instability continues to plague the region, but Jordan prides itself in being the calm neighbor. Jordanians often share their frustration with Western views on the Middle East as a whole, but specifically that they get lumped into the problems being faced in countries as far away as Yemen. Truth is, Jordan is a perfectly safe country for travel and the people themselves are some of the most hospitable in the world. It’s the perfect destination to visit to experience Middle Eastern culture and life in a predominantly Muslim country for the first time.
WHERE TO GO
Amman is the sprawling capital of just over a million people. But looking out over any balcony with a wide-open vantage point of the city, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s two or three times larger. Streets don’t follow a grid format, but rather look like spilled spaghetti when looking at a map. Again, it’s perfectly safe to walk around yourself, but just like any other city in the world, your time in Amman is better spent with someone who knows where they’re going. A good spot to start is Jafra Restaurant & Café. Fill up on some typical (but exceptionally tasty) Middle Eastern cuisine and set off on foot in any direction for a taste of the city’s street life.
Tip: You can take day trips to Jerash to see the ruins of an ancient Roman city and to Ajloun Castle, a 12th century Muslim castle famous and revered for its connection to Saladin.
Few places in the world leave a mark like the village of Dana, about 200 kilometers south of Amman. The 500-year-old village has preserved many of the characteristics of 19th century Bedouin life and is adjacent to a gorgeous hiker’s paradise, the 308-square-kilometer Dana Biosphere Reserve. Some U.S. travelers might think of it as the Badlands of the Middle East owing to its geologically diverse landscape with splashes of green. Stay at the Dana Hotel and watch the sunset on the rooftops.
Tip: You can stop at Madaba and Mt. Nebo along the way from Amman. Madaba is a market town known for its collection of Byzantine-era mosaics, especially on the floor of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church. Mt. Nebo is featured prominently in the final chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy as the mountain Moses ascended to view the Land of Israel.
Although tourism has sadly plummeted in Jordan largely due to the ongoing turmoil of the country’s neighbors, Petra anecdotally appears to be as popular as ever. That’s because of The Treasury, the archaeological marvel famous for its rock-cut architecture. Cinephiles might instead recognize it as the home of Christ’s Holy Chalice in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Indeed, Petra lives up to the hype. There are opportunities to see The Treasury both at night and during the day. The night option includes a bit of storytelling and a light display. If you’re pinching pennies, then do save your money for either a day or multi-day pass, because once you see The Treasury, there are 30-some kilometers worth of hiking trails to explore just around the corner from Petra’s main attraction. Any trip to Jordan without at least two full days in Petra would be a mistake.
Tip: Plan an activity with A Piece Of Jordan, a local tourism organization led by a British immigrant turned lover of all things Jordan. Your best option might be the dinner option for an opportunity to experience Jordanian cuisine with a Jordanian family. Read about my Jordanian dinner with Steph Altwassi and her family.
Chances are you’ve seen Wadi Rum in a film before. Most recently it starred in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and before that it stood in for Mars in Matt Damon’s The Martian. Like Petra, Wadi Rum is popular with those who do make the trek to Jordan, but you’ll have no problem finding serene expanses without a soul in sight. You can rough Wadi Rum if you wish, but Sun City Camp is a great option for those who’d rather relax while spending their time in the desert. They’ll also set you up with a morning camel walk to watch the sunrise and evening truck tours around the desert to various filming locations and historic points of interest before ending at a prime location to watch the sunset.
Tip: Find out when moonset is and set your alarm. Roll out of bed, step outside, look up and let the universe put on a show.
Yes, my geographically-challenged friends, Jordan is the place to be for a trip to the Dead Sea. The northern basin stretches about 50 kilometers in western Jordan, so there’s not necessarily just one spot to visit it. Various hotels and resorts line the famous salty lake. I stayed at the Ramada Resort, which had a walkway with easy access to a Dead Sea beach.
Tip: Visit the Dead Sea early in the morning so the sun is behind you, making for better photos and an easy view of Palestine on the other side.
Queen Alia International Airport is about 35 kilometers south of Amman with plenty of cabs to pick from. If you’re staying in Amman, check with your hotel to see if they offer hotel pickup.
Cabs are very affordable in Amman and as prevalent as in New York City. Drivers will prefer cash, but some will take card — just make sure you ask in advance. Outside of Amman, renting a car is likely the most popular option with international visitors. Privates drivers, however, are also available, which is how I got around with Bestway Tours & Safaris.
Wadi Mujib is a popular stop with Jordanian and Middle Eastern travelers to trek through in the nature reserve. Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city and is within shouting distance of the Israeli, Egyptian and Saudi Arabian borders. I did visit here, but temperatures hit over 37-degrees Celsius (100-degrees Fahrenheit) and didn’t make walking all that enjoyable.
BEFORE YOU GO
Read King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Our Last Best Chance for a mix of Jordanian history and his thoughts on how peace can be achieved in the Middle East. It’s a bit dated already being from 2011, but insightful nonetheless. There’s also Benjamin Orbach’s Live From Jordan, which sits at the top of my Jordanian literary list for my next visit. Watch Theeb for a Jordanian film celebrated for its use of non-professional Bedouin actors.