Beautiful, beautiful Jordan
Scroll to the end for travel tips and links!
Jordan (The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, officially) is a small country located in the beautiful Levantine region of the Middle East. Bordered by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Israel (and around the corner from Lebanon and Egypt), it has managed to remain quite stable and peaceful in a region known for strife and calamity. With tourist attractions like the Dead Sea and Petra, Jordan draws in quite a few tourists every year and so has developed a fair amount of tourist infrastructure. Despite this, there are plenty of places to go without tourists and ways to avoid them as well. Amman is its capital city as well as its most populous and is well worth visiting.
We arrived in Jordan in the evening and took a cab from the airport into Amman. Although there wasn’t too much to see from the taxi, my excitement grew as we wound our way into what was obviously an ancient city.
Despite the hour (it was approaching 10pm) we dumped our bags off at the Airbnb and took off to find our first Jordanian meal. We chose an Airbnb on Rainbow Street, which proved to be loud and bustling, full of cars, bumper to bumper, cruising the strip and youths in groups eating and having a good time. Walking through them all in a bit of a jet lagged daze, we made our way to Hashem Restaurant, about a 20 minute walk away.
Hashem Restaurant is one of Amman’s most famous and oldest restaurants, once visited by the King himself! The tables are all located in a smoky courtyard, where large families (at 11pm!) ate communally, breaking bread and dipping it into the various dips and spreads on the table.
We were whisked to our own small table, and as I began ordering, I was quickly shut down. “No, no. We bring you food. No menu.” Sounded good to me! We sat back as our table was slowly filled with hummus, falafel, bread, fol (ful madummas), tahini, hot sauce, french fries, vegetables and herbs… it just kept coming! We ate as much as we could of the delicious fare, then stumbled back to our beds, over-tired, over-stuffed, and happy as hell.
The next morning, we woke up tired and bleary eyed, but ready to explore. Turns out Rainbow Street is a very cool, lively street, but it stays lively well into the night and it’s liveliness (in the form of shouts, music, and car horns) has no problem making its way through windows beside the bed!
We headed out right away for some kaek for breakfast at Salah Addin Bakery, about a 45 minute walk away through old winding streets. Going to this bakery is a very unique experience and I highly recommend it!
This is how to work it: enter the bakery and grab a hot, freshly baked sesame bun from the stack beside the oven, bring it to the counter next to the window and slather soft cheese, olive oil, za’atar spice, chili paste and a baked egg on it, grab a tea and pay the man sitting beside the door on the way out. You may need to use your elbows as this is a busy and very chaotic place! The sandwich costs next to nothing and makes for a great breakfast, washed down with hot tea.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the city, getting a feel for busy, ancient vibe it had to offer.
We grabbed a shawarma sandwich from Shawarma Reem, which had amazing reviews, but I wasn’t too impressed at all.
In the afternoon, we visited the Citadel, in the centre of downtown, on top of a hill, overlooking the entire city. The Citadel is known to be one of the world’s oldest continually habited places, playing host to neolithic peoples, Assyrians, Babylonians, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids, Romans, Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Bedouin, and finally its current occupants. When we showed up there was barely anyone there. You could literally climb on the infrastructure and touch all of that history. Why go jostle in the crowds of Rome when you could visit a place like this?! It was incredible, with a wonderful view of the city, a cool little museum on site, and lots of space to be alone and soak in all of that history.
After the Citadel, we took an Uber (just starting in Amman when we visited, and very confusingly still dealing in cash) to the Al Swaifyeh neighbourhood to visit Shereen for cooking lessons. This was definitely a highlight of our trip! Not only did we get to learn some amazing dishes (which I still make at home to this day) but we were also welcomed into a home and got to spend the afternoon chatting with women, something you don’t always get to do in the region.
We made fattoush salad, phyllo packages containing ground lamb and rice, and my favourite, fattet hummus, a beautiful dish of chickpeas, yogurt, tahini, and bread. Here is the recipe Shereen sent to me for the fattet hummus:
1 Arabian bread (cut to small squares )
We chatted with Shereen and her cousin Zain for hours and shared this wonderful meal together. Shereen is a Syrian refugee, living in Amman with her cousin Zain, separated from friends, family, and her home, yet fiercely independent and such a lovely person. Please go take a cooking class from her if you happen to be in Amman!
That night we checked out the Roman Theatre (from afar, we were too late to actually get in) and the square outside it, full of local families gathering to play and eat. We had an interesting and hilarious experience in a spice shop trying to find Aleppo pepper which is NOT named that in the region. After 15 minutes of explanations, switching phones back and forth and a little bit of good humoured shouting, we discovered that they didn’t have Syrian Aleppo pepper, but did have Jordanian chili flakes. I walked out of there with an armload of chili flakes, four different types of za’atar, and a big bag of fresh sumac. From there we went to one of the few bars in town for a drink (mostly for tourists and ex-pats) but it felt weird. Like the owners had read what a bar was but didn’t quite understand it. In other words it was lame as hell (and expensive!!!). We quickly scuttled out and found ourselves a shisha bar on Rainbow Street called Nara Cafe. Now this was what we wanted! There was no booze, but we tried the double apple shisha (flavoured tobacco smoked out of a water pipe also known as hookah) and drank fun local drinks. The atmosphere was definitely party time and the chaos was managed by staff that seemed everywhere at once. They took a liking to us and kept us supplied all night, while giving constant slaps on the back and handshakes. Word to the wise: skip the bar and go to the shisha lounges instead!
The next morning we got up early and headed over to Al Qud’s Falafel, for by far the best falafel sandwich I’ve ever had. This is a an Amman institution where you order your sandwich at the store front, then eat it on the street. Delicious! This was also the first time a local asked to take our picture out of nowhere. I guess with our toques and plaid shirts (it was quite cold), we must have looked pretty Canadian!
Now it was time to leave Amman and head southwest to the Dead Sea. I really felt like I could have used a couple more days to explore Amman and all it has to offer, but we were pressed for time! We took a taxi back to the airport (so we didn’t have to drive in the chaotic city) and rented a car. Great, a run down Hyundai Elantra, even crappier than our own Elantra! The lights didn’t really work and there were a couple other problems, but Cecelia by Simon and Garfunkle was playing on the radio in Arabic so we were happy!
The trip to the Dead Sea felt harrowing. It was my first time driving in a foreign country and the traffic worked in such a different way than in Canada, it was a lot to get used to at once. Cars came out of each and every direction, passing you and honking, while goats, sheep, and camels stepped out onto the road in front of you every couple kilometres. After a couple hours, I got the hang of it though, and quickly got used to driving there. Having a car proved to be super useful, and I’d do it again in a second!
We drove our way through Madaba (where we picked up some groceries) and then down through twisty mountain roads to the Dead Sea where we stayed at the Mujib Ecolodge. We stayed in one of these nice little huts (our adobe abode as I called it) that had a bathroom, bed, and mini fridge. It was right on the shore of the Dead Sea, with barely anyone around! The way in was treacherous though, with razor sharp salt crystals littering the seabed. I recommend bringing flip flops or water shoes to enter the water. It was cool having the whole place to ourselves though! There was an eco adventure park across the road, but it was unfortunately closed due to dangerous flooding.
People who know me, know that I sink like a stone in the water. I’m a good swimmer, but can’t float for the life of me! I’ll sink right to the bottom and can just sit down there until my air runs out. Being in the Dead Sea was great because I finally got to float! And not only float, your body is buoyed up right on top of the water. It’s quite the experience.
After an afternoon of swimming and relaxing, we got a good sleep, then headed towards the city of Aqaba, en route to Wadi Rum.
Aqaba is a city on the Red Sea and definitely has more of a beachy vibe to it. It was pretty touristy and hassle-y and had whole sections of the beachfront and city cordoned off for rich people. We spent the morning there, wandering around and had an awesome dish of Sayadieh (a local dish of whole fried fish over spiced rice) at Al Mabrouk restaurant, but the city itself didn’t really appeal to us. I’m glad we went, but I’m also glad we didn’t spend the night.
From Aqaba, we drove to Wadi Rum Village, the sometimes home to many of the Bedouin living in and out of the desert and the gates to Wadi Rum. There we parked the car and met up with our guide from Bedouin Directions, a cool company offering experiences in Wadi Rum. By law, you need to hire a guide to enter Wadi Rum, so keep that in mind! We got in the back of an old pick up truck and bounced along sandy desert roads into the evening, the heady scent of Jasmine flowers nearly overwhelming us with pleasure. We arrived at our camp (a series of goat hair tents in a hidden valley, surrounded by rock cliffs) by nightfall, deposited our bags in a goat hair tent (not a 5 star hotel room by any means, but super cool nonetheless!) and were invited into the main tent for tea and a fire.
There we hung out with the guides and other visitors, drinking copious amounts of tea, and getting to know everyone. As the night wore on, a few of the guides brought out instruments and played and sang for us, which was haunting and magical in the setting we were in.
The next day we woke up early and took off into the desert in a beat up old truck with a sun screen on top, with our ham of a guide Fahdi.
Fahdi was hilarious (in the picture above, he’s driving down a bumpy road, hanging out of the door, smoking a cigarette and grinning wildly at us the whole time) and though he could barely speak English, we had a great time with him. He took us all over Wadi Rum, dropping us off to make our own way up sand dunes, mountains, cliffs, rocks, and canyons. It was honestly one of the best days of my life. The scenery there is so mind blowingly beautiful and stark and incredible. After several hikes and some historical monuments (like a garrison hut that T.E. Lawrence stayed in) we stopped in a canyon for lunch.
Fahdi took off and collected some firewood, then cooked up a little lunchtime feast of tomato and chickpea stew, bread, chicken, vegetables, and cookies. He asked to listen to some of our music so we played him Beirut, thinking that they might cross over a few musical boundaries. He claimed he liked it!
We spent the afternoon doing more hikes and exploring, having tea with other guides and getting a real sense of the desert in Wadi Rum. What an exceptional place! I want to be back there right now.
That night, our Bedouin hosts cooked Zarb, a traditional meal of lamb, chicken, and vegetables, lightly seasoned and cooked underground. Simple, but delicious, it was perfect fare after a long day of hiking in the sun and wind. Our eyes grew heavy as we drank tea in front of the fire in the main tent, chatting with the guides and listening to their music. It was time for bed.
The next morning was our last in Wadi Rum which saddened me greatly, as I just wanted to spend the next month there exploring. We decided to splurge a bit and hire a guide to bring us back to Wadi Rum Village on camelback. It may have been a little ambitious to try out a 4 hour ride the first time we ever got onto camels, but hey, it was an adventure!
Our young guide brought us through the desert, past feral camel herds (at one point we were followed by and nearly attacked by some mean-ass camels!) towards the village. Riding a camel was such a different experience than the truck we came in on, and I’m not just talking about the aching legs and back we were experiencing (seriously, riding a camel for 4 hours frigging hurts!). The desert was now quiet, and our relatively slow pace through this vast expanse was absolutely magical. Despite the literal pain in the ass, I would recommend everyone do this!
Once again, Wadi Rum was an incredible experience and I highly highly recommend visiting there. Rough it a bit and stay in a goat hair tent, ride a camel, climb a mountain, it’s worth it!
Back in Wadi Rum Village, we had a nice tea with the owner of the guide company and then took off on the next leg of our adventure, Petra. We swung by the back entrance to Petra first and did a little hiking for the afternoon before finding our accomodations.
We decided to Airbnb a cave(!) outside Wadi Musa (near the Petra ruins) and drove there after our little hike. Part of the experience was meeting the owner in a small village nearby and then being led to this cave in the wilderness. We were supposed to contact this guy to figure out a meeting place. We called the whole drive up but never got an answer. Once we arrived in the village, we wandered around, slowly picking up curious neighbours, who all tried to help us find this man. Eventually a friend of his named Attallah pulled up and told us that he was leading a trek in the wilderness and his brother was supposed to meet us, but never did. He took us into his home (also an Airbnb, Petra Bedouin House 1) and let us stay in a ‘cave’ he had built in his back yard for the night for free! The cave he built was beautiful and we spent the night eating and chatting with him and his friends. He’s had quite the incredible life and had lots of stories to tell. Jordan is just full of the most friendly people like him.
It is important to arrive to Petra as early in the morning as possible to beat the crowds and hustlers. We showed up first thing, and set to hiking around the entire place and exploring the caves, mountains, and canyons. We ran into shepherds, ushering a herd of cute goats through Petra, and watched a dog play with them for nearly a half hour. Very entertaining!
We followed the directions from this awesome blog post and had an amazing hike up the mountain to get to an awesome view of the treasury. Doing it this way, you don’t have to pay a guide to bring you up, even though they claim that you definitely need one. Don’t listen to them! Honestly, the views from the other side of the mountain were almost better, overlooking a very biblical landscape full of caves, carved out buildings, and hills.
Going to Petra early allowed us to get some sweet photos, with no one else in them and really let us get a feel for the place. By the time we descended back down the mountain and tried to do another climb, the crowds had shown up and we were stuck shuffling behind a bunch of loud, nasty, and slow tourists jamming the rock stair case. We turned around and left for home; that kind of scene just isn’t for us!
Petra is really really cool and awe inspiring, but it is a massive tourist destination. After our serene and fulfilling trip to Wadi Rum, I was a little bit let down by it, despite its impressiveness. Lots of dumb tourists and hustlers. Also a lot of sad looking animals being ridden by overweight Europeans and North Americans. If I were to do the trip over, I would go there first, then let Wadi Rum soothe my soul. Make sure you do the big hikes, they make it all worth it!
We spent the last night in Little Petra Village, then left early in the morning for our next destination: Feynan Ecolodge. On the way there, we nearly ran out of gas, almost hit a camel, drove through a sandstorm, then got kind of lost. It was a bit of an adventure. We finally made it to a little building where we waited for a driver, while batting away flies.
He showed up in an old car, nearly falling apart, but he was ridiculously nice and we had a great time navigating through his bad English and our non-existent Arabic, with lots of laughs. The ecolodge employs these drivers from the nearby village and apparently pays them well.
We showed up to the ecolodge and were a bit disappointed. The place was very beautiful, with super comfortable rooms, friendly staff, and a large buffet style dining room. It was also stuffed full of annoying yuppies and seemed almost ridiculous after all of our amazing adventures. We couldn’t wait to get out for a big hike the next day.
Luckily we managed to connect with a few latecomers, one couple from Czechia and two women from the USA (all our age), one living in Amman, and the other in Germany. They all proved to be much better company than anyone else in the place. We woke the next morning ready for our massive hike and were let down to find out that we couldn’t go due to flash floods in the area. One of the guides, Mohammed, saved the day and brought us out for a little hike into the mountains, where he showed us some wild medicinal plants and mountain survival tricks.
In the afternoon, a guide named Suliemon, led us on a short hike out to a Bedouin encampment, where he and an old matriarch showed us how to make Bedouin flatbread, which was delicious!
We scidaddled out of there first thing the next morning, accompanied by our two new lovely American friends and began our drive back up north. Along the way, we stopped at the old crusader castle called Al Kerak. If you’re into history, it’s a really cool place to check out! It also has amazing views of the countryside; you can stand on the ramparts and easily imagine enemy forces closing in from afar.
After seeing so many ruins lately, I think everyone was a little fatigued, so after poking around for a little while, we found a nice spot for some lunch. Around the corner from the castle was Adel Halabi restaurant which I’m so happy we found.
One of our new friends spoke fluent Arabic and asked the restauranteur for a selection of foods to try. He proceeded to cram our table with plate after plate of delicious food. This was easily one of the best meals in Jordan!
After lunch we drove to Madaba, where we checked out St. John the Baptist church, home of a large, ancient mosaic and a bell tower you can climb for an excellent view of the city.
It was unfortunately time for our newfound friends to return to Amman and we were sorry to see them go. It’s funny how easy it is to make friends while you’re travelling!
It was also our last evening in Jordan and we were exhausted after all of our adventures. We still managed to spend the rest of the evening strolling around Madaba, and checked out Al Mandi restaurant which serves super affordable Yemeni food, like this chicken and rice, eaten with your hands. You can tell I’m tired in this picture!
After dinner, we made our way to a sketchy hotel near the airport, where the meanest dog I’ve ever seen chased our car, literally biting our tires. I’m glad we weren’t outside!
Other than that mean dog, everyone in Jordan was incredibly friendly. We went in with our guards up, not knowing what to expect travelling to the Middle East, but the friendly, beautiful, welcoming people of Jordan blew away our expectations, and left us wanting to see more, more more!
Travel Tips and Links
GET THE JORDAN PASS
Get it! It gets you into many of the tourist sites for a lot cheaper and it covers your tourist visa. https://www.jordanpass.jo/
We rented a car at the airport after visiting Amman (we didn’t want to drive there!) and loved the freedom of driving around the country. You have to be a good driver and be 100% on AT ALL TIMES. Driving is way more involved and dangerous here, with constant people and animals on the road, cars passing you up hairpin turns, lots of crazy mountain driving (for those not used to driving in mountains), and a general lack of agreed upon road rules. Stay vigilant, avoid driving at night, use your horn, and let people pass you.
There are buses and vans going from Amman to the Dead Sea and Petra as well if you don’t want to chance driving.
Taxis and UBERs are available in the cities and are safe.
Addresses are kind of non-existent which makes it difficult to describe to taxis how to get to places, so print yourself some maps of the neighbourhoods you’ll be staying in to show drivers.
WHEN TO GO
March to May is the peak season, which you should avoid if possible. May to September is very very hot, and November to February can be very cold. We went in February, which was cold, but had blessedly few tourist crowds (other than Petra). Go in a shoulder season and bring some warm clothes!
IS IT SAFE?
Jordan felt like the safest place I’ve ever travelled to in terms of crime. Keep in mind though that anything could happen, so don’t totally let your guard down.
What isn’t safe is the lack of safety features we’re used to in the west. Very few handrails, seatbelts, lights, guardrails, fences, etc. Keep your wits about you and don’t fall off a cliff!
A lot of people in Jordan speak English as well as their native Arabic, especially in the tourist areas. Many people we met spoke several languages.
Many of the road signs and store signs are also in English.
WHAT TO WEAR
Although Jordanians tend to be conservative in the way they dress, you do see people wearing pretty much everything in the major tourist sites. Try to be respectful and wear long sleeved shirts and pants. It’s not your home, no need to try and prove a point.
There is no need for women to wear head coverings.
In swimming areas like the Dead Sea, it’s fine to wear regular bathing suits.
Temperatures can change drastically from day to night, especially in the desert, so pack both warm (toques and hoodies) and loose, cool clothing.
Bring good solid hiking shoes or boots for walking in Wadi Rum or Petra as it is very rocky.
Bring flip flops or water shoes for the Dead Sea, as some resorts have sharp salt deposits along the beach that will cut your feet.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Jordan is probably not the same as where you’re from. Despite the beauty of the country, there is a lot of garbage blowing around. Some of the cleanliness we’re used to won’t be found in public spots there, though private homes and stores are spotless. There are a lot of stray and sad looking animals. Pretty much everyone smokes, and often smokes inside. Accommodations can be a little… rough.
Having said all of that, Jordan is one of the most beautiful, friendly, amazing places I’ve ever been. Take it for its good AND bad qualities and approach it like the adventure it should be!
FOODS TO TRY
Moutabel – eggplant dip with yogurt similar to baba ganouj
Fattet Hummus – a unique type of hummus with dissolved bread
Labneh with seasonal herbs – a strained yogurt
Gayalet Bandora – a stewed tomato dish, served with bread or on rice
Kousa Mashi – stuffed zucchini
Manakish – flatbreads with toppings
Kaek (~Kayak) Bread Sandwich – cheese, eggs and other toppings in a special sesame bun
Mujadera (~MooJAdra) – rice, lentils and seasonings; ubiquitous with normal meals
Ara’Yes (~aRYas) – stuffed and grilled pitas
Kofta Bi Tahini – tahini, potato and kofta meat (think Middle Eastern Shepherd’s Pie)
Musakhan- bread, chicken and onions slow cooked together with spices
Kibbeh Bi Laban – Ground beef/lamb/goat with bulger cooked in yogurt sauce
Mansaf – Jordan’s national dish, rice, lamb and jameed which is fermented goats milk
Maqluba – upside down rice
Zarb – meat and rice cooked underground, Bedouin style
Show up early (like right when it opens) to avoid annoying crowds and hustlers.
Don’t pay for or go on animal rides, those animals don’t have great lives and if people stop riding them, the practice will die out.
Petra is HUGE plan for a big day with lots of walking. Bring lots of water and sunscreen.
Wear hiking boots and a hat for the sun.
THE DEAD SEA
Bring flip flops or water shoes as some resorts have sharp salt deposits along the beach that will cut your feet.
DO NOT OPEN YOUR EYES UNDER WATER!!
After swimming for a little while, your skin will begin to burn, that means it’s time to get out and shower the salt off!
This was the coolest place I’ve ever been. Go there, hire a guide and a jeep, ride a camel for an uncomfortably long time, hike, climb mountains, meet local Bedouin, eat the food, have a good time and stay for more than the 2 days we stayed for. You won’t regret it!
- Hashem Restaurant Downtown – try the moutabel and falafel plate – $- 24h – King Faisal Street just west of K. Hussein street
- Salah Addin Bakery – one of the oldest bakeries in Amman. Try the Kaek sandwich – $ – 24- K. Hussein Street
- Nara Cafe – try the two apples shisha – $ – Orphans Complex Al، Rainbow St. 54, Amman, Jordan
- Al Quds Falafel – try the falafel sandwich – 10am-9:30pm – $ – Rainbow St. 41, Amman, Jordan
- Al Mabrouk – best looking casual seafood spot in Aqaba, the Sayadieh here was delicious and there is enough to share for two – $ – off of K. Hussein Street, south of the circle
- Adel Halabi – order “a little bit of everything”, delicious and cheap authentic food in a tourist area – $ – around the corner from the castle on K. Hussein St.
- Al Mandi Restaurant – a Yemeni restaurant a little off the main drag, order half chicken, mandi and basmati, then eat it with your right hand (only your right!), very cheap and delicious – $ – Al Quds street
TO SEE AND DO
- Citadel of Amman – Downtown Amman, show up for sunrise or sunset if possible. Visit the little museum.
- Shereen’s Cooking Lessons – Make sure you do this!
- Petra – Go first thing in the morning to avoid the annoying crowds. Don’t pay for or go on animal rides. Use the secret route to overlook the Treasury, don’t pay a guide to bring you there!
- Al Kerak Castle – Very cool if you enjoy castles and crusader history. Found in the city of Kerak, between Petra and Amman