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Rich in archaeological heritage, Jordan has been at the centre of history-altering civilisations even before the ancient Nabateans founded their now famous sandstone-carved capital and the Romans built marvellous cities on the edge of their empire. Few experiences in the world come close to the pure awe of seeing Petra’s Treasury for the first time, as it becomes visible through a narrow slit in the canyon. Further east, bouncing through the otherworldly deserts of Wadi Rum in the back of a pickup truck makes you feel like you’ve stepped onto another planet — and perhaps you have: the Valley of the Moon has moonlighted as the red planet in The Martian.

Often unfairly lumped together with its troubled neighbours, Jordan remains stable and ever-welcoming. The country’s culture is deeply underpinned by Bedouin traditions, with the memory of Jordanians’ generosity and lively spirit one of the best souvenirs you can take home.

4 days

Petra and Wadi Rum

Petra | Wadi Rum | Aqaba
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7 days

Highlights of Jordan

Amman | Dana | Wadi Rum | Petra | Jerash
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14 days

Archaeology beyond Petra

Amman | Dana | Petra | Wadi Rum | Aqaba | Dead Sea | Jerash | Umm Qais
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  • Petra

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  • Dead Sea

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  • Wadi Rum

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  • Jerash

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  • Amman

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  • Dana Biosphere Reserve

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  • Aqaba

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  • Umm Qais

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Seasons and climate

Despite Jordan’s small size, its climate is divided into three distinct zones. The largest is the desert zone to the south, which covers 80% of the country. Jordan’s cities and archaeological sites are mainly found in the western mountain heights, while the Jordan Valley – found 300m below sea level has an entirely different climate.

Month-by-month

March to April and September to October are the best – and busiest – times to visit Jordan. Tolerable temperatures make these months perfect for exploring Jordan’s natural beauty, from discovering ancient Nabatean history at Petra and taking a camelback safari in Wadi Rum to tackling a section of the country-length Jordan Trail and relaxing with a dip in the Dead Sea. Look out for the yellow and purple wildflowers that blanket the country in spring.

The mercury plunges between December and February, ushering in a winter season that can be surprisingly grey and rainy. Snow sometimes dusts the tops of the rocky tombs of Petra, but the cooler weather means you might just have the site all to yourself. The colder season is also a great time to soak up knowledge and history in the museums of Amman and marvel at the mosaic map of the Holy Land at St George's Church in Madaba. The summer months between May and August are scorching, but if you can tolerate the heat, bargains abound across the country. Outdoor activities are essentially off-limits at this time of year, but you might find a cooler respite in the community-run B&Bs in Jordan’s far northern reaches.

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Wild desert flowers growing in front of the monastery, Petra

Festivals and events

Perhaps because of Jordan’s rugged environment, many of the country’s events focus on athleticism and endurance. Since the inauguration of the 650km-long Jordan Trail in 2015, which runs the entire length of the country from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba on the Red Sea coast, the trail’s association has hosted an annual thru-hike in March and April for intrepid trekkers that lasts 46 days. Also in April is the Dead Sea Marathon, which starts in the hills of Amman 900m above sea level and drops down to the lowest point on earth, 400m below sea level. In September, runners descend on the sandy paths of the ancient Nabatean capital for the Petra Desert Marathon, which races past the delicate tombs along the Street of Facades and then out into the surrounding desert.

For those keener on culture, the Jerash Festival for Culture and Arts takes over the Roman ruins during evenings in July to host folk dances, theatre, poetry performances and handicraft stalls. Jordan is a majority Muslim country, so the holy month of Ramadan brings on a spiritual and festive atmosphere. It also means that opening hours are often shortened and that it’s polite to eat and drink behind closed doors during daylight hours out of respect for those who are fasting. The dates of Ramadan align with the lunar calendar, so they shift slightly earlier each year in the Western calendar.

How to visit Petra

Exploring the jewel of Jordan

A brief history of Petra

It’s hard to imagine with the huge number of travellers who visit Petra today that it was once nearly erased from memory. The ‘lost city’ of Petra is the most evocative memory left by the ancient Nabateans, a prosperous society of traders and merchants that controlled caravan routes through this part of the Arabian desert and nearby oases. From their accumulating trading wealth, the Nabateans, who were highly-skilled sculptors and engineers, carved a series of incredible structures straight into the sandstone canyon walls around the 1st century BC. A few centuries later, the Romans took over the area and added their own architectural features, such as a looming triumphal gate dedicated to the ruling emperor and a column-lined main thoroughfare.

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View from above of Al-Khazneh "the Treasury"

Earthquakes and shifting trade routes that bypassed the city entirely ushered in Petra’s decline in the 4th century AD, though the Byzantines continued to construct churches, some of which are now being excavated. Another earthquake in 551 saw Petra crumble into an obscure backwater; passing nomadic shepherds used the abandoned city for shelter for hundreds of years.

Though Petra has always been known to the local Bedouin – many of whom lived in caves and tombs on the site for generations – the ancient city was rediscovered for the West in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who disguised himself as a Muslim to gain access. Western archaeologists, Orientalist artists, adventure seekers and treasure hunters soon arrived, and Petra now sees nearly one million visitors each year.

How to get to Petra

The main entrance to the site is near the Petra Visitor Centre in the town of Wadi Musa, where most travellers stay during their trip. Tickets can be purchased just before the turnstiles with prices depending on how long you want to stay in the site: one day costs 50JD, two days 55JD and three days 60JD. However, the best option is to purchase a Jordan Pass before you arrive, as this scheme includes the visa required to enter the country as well as queue-jumping entrance to Petra and 39 other archaeological sites around the country.

Petra is a vast site that covers some 264 sq/km, so comfortable walking shoes are essential. In a day, you can visit most of the tombs that line both sides of the main street, but to experience the quieter and off-the-beaten track areas of Petra, plan to spend at least an additional day or two.

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Ad Deir "the Monastery"

Hidden Petra: Beyond the tourist trail

Most of Petra’s monuments lie along the well-trodden Street of Facades and Colonnaded Street, so it’s easy to venture off this track and find a more peaceful Petra away from the crowds.

Unbelievable Treasury views from the Al Khubtha Trail

The immaculate Treasury, Petra’s most iconic structure, is breathtaking from ground level, but for an incredible eagle-eye perspective, head to the Royal Tombs and look for the signs labelled with the trail name that point to the stairs. This 3.5km hike is short but steep and the stairs can seem never-ending. Fortunately, you can catch your breath with panoramic views high above the Theatre and the tourist-thronged Street of Facades along the way. At the top, the ever-entrepreneurial Bedouin have set up tea tents at some of the best viewpoints, so bring along some 1JD notes and have a mint tea with a view that you’ll never forget.

Enter Petra through the hidden ‘back door’

The well-known main way into Petra is through the winding slot canyon called the Siq, but at the other end of this vast site is a little-visited ‘backdoor’ entrance, which curves around the mountainsides and drops hikers near the Monastery. If you can get to this back entrance early enough, you’ll likely have the Monastery all to yourself, as other travellers are huffing and puffing up the 850 hand-carved sandstone stairs to get here. This back door path is one of the most popular sections of the Jordan Trail, which runs from a nature reserve at Dana to this secret entrance. It’s one of the most remarkable ways to experience Petra from a different perspective. There are no facilities at this back entrance, so you must have a ticket to the site before you arrive.

Explore the tombs of Wadi Farasa and the High Place of Sacrifice

Just behind Petra’s main valley is another collection of stunning but hardly visited tombs. To find the trail, follow the path that goes up the stairs behind the Temple of Dushara, Petra’s largest freestanding building. The trail then meanders through a shrub-speckled rocky valley before arriving at the Broken Pediment Tomb and the water-worn Renaissance Tomb. Nearby, the imposing Tomb of the Roman Soldier and the columned façade of the Garden Temple show the architectural influence of the ancient Roman Empire on this area. Though the exteriors in this valley are not as well preserved as the Treasury and the Monastery, the tombs are a delight to visit because they see so much less footfall and are open for exploring inside, where waves of colours in the rocks wash across the smoke-darkened interiors. After Wadi Farasa, this trail carries on to the High Place of Sacrifice, a lofty viewpoint where the Nabateans chiselled small bowls and channels into the rock to drain the blood of sacrificial animals.

This path is not marked, and few of the tombs have signage or further information, so hiring a local Bedouin guide will help you get the most out of this hike. Most travellers tackle the High Place of Sacrifice first, but the gentler ascent starting in Wadi Farasa is kinder on the legs.

Little Petra

Thought to be an ancient suburb of Petra, Little Petra is worth a visit in its own right and sees just a fraction of the visitor numbers as the main site. The path through the valley is only about 500m long but is also part of the Jordan Trail, and it’s possible to hike from here to Petra’s back door. Don’t miss Little Petra’s Painted House, which has a fresco ceiling painted with remarkably preserved looping vines of ivy and grape leaves, winged cherubs and colourful birds – all symbols of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine.

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View from the entrance of Al-Khazneh "the Treasury"

How to visit Petra responsibly

Petra has withstood sandstone-eroding rains and invading empires for two millennia, but today one of the biggest threats to Petra’s preservation is the rapidly increasing number of visitors. It’s imperative for travellers to be aware of how to lessen their impact on the site. Before you arrive in Jordan, invest in a multi-litre water bladder so you’re not reliant on small plastic bottles. Wear comfortable shoes, but make sure the tread isn’t so abrasive that it digs into the fragile and easily loosened sandstone. Similarly, leave the hiking poles at home, as these easily chip away at the Nabatean-carved stairs. The obviously responsible travel tenets of taking any rubbish out with you and not touching the monuments hold especially true at Petra, though unfortunately, it appears that not all travellers adhere to them.

Though the treatment of the working camels, horses and donkeys in Petra has improved in recent years and many Bedouin handlers are sensitive to visitors’ concerns, incidents of animal abuse, unfortunately, do still occur. Travellers can do their part in protecting the welfare of Petra’s animals by understanding their own physical abilities and setting a good sightseeing pace. If you do decide on a ride, ensure that the animal looks healthy and can carry your weight. Use the services of an adult handler, not a child. While many goods and services are up for negotiation in Jordan, avoid bargaining on a ride so that the provider doesn’t feel pushed to rush the animal to recoup a lost fare; prices are posted at the Petra Visitor Centre.

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Located along the Wadi Al Farasa processional route is the Garden Hall

Though Jordan is one of the world’s newer countries, this land has been home to civilisations since time immemorial, and many have left behind evidence of their advances and achievements.

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Tetrapylon, Ancient Roman city of Gerasa, Jerash

Jerash

One of the best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, Jerash is Jordan’s largest ancient Roman site, and it has all of the city essentials still intact, including a hippodrome once used for chariot races, a triumphal arch, theatres, temples, a cobbled and collonaded main street and a column-encircled central forum at its heart. Jerash is often visited as a day trip from Amman, and it’s best to hire a guide to get the full history of the site as signage is poor.

Umm Qais

Northern Jordan doesn’t see as many visitors as other parts of the country, but its archaeological sites are no less impressive. The chequerboard white marble and striking black basalt columns of the ancient Roman city of Gadara, now called Umm Qais, shoot up from the remains of a Byzantine church, and the acoustics of the West Theatre are still second to none. From its hilltop perch high above the lush Jordan Valley, the site offers views into Syria, Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.

Amman’s Roman theatre and citadel

Amman is built atop seven hills showcasing Jordan’s capital’s history front and centre. Right in its downtown, a restored 2nd-century Roman theatre is dug into one of the many hillsides. Lording over the city from the crown of its highest hill is the Citadel, a sprawling site enclosed by a wall nearly 2km long. Giant columns – two still holding a fragmented pediment aloft – loom above the remains of the Temple of Hercules, constructed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius around 162AD. Linger at this heady viewpoint and take in the blocky sand-coloured cityscape of Amman, which is especially beautiful just before sunset.

Crusader castles

To protect trade routes to Jerusalem and keep religious enemies at bay, a series of castles were constructed in the 12th century by Christian Crusaders along Jordan’s rugged mountainous spine. The fortified stronghold in Karak is one of the most famous Crusader castles. Visitors can explore its moats, tunnels and watchtowers that have views all the way to the Dead Sea on clear days. Further to the south, the remote fortress of Shobak is less intact than Karak, but it’s notable as the Crusaders’ first headquarters in the region.

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Ruins of the Roman city of Gerasa, Jerash

Mosaic map in Madaba

The intricate mosaic map on the floor of St George’s Church in Madaba is one of the oldest surviving maps of the Holy Land, highlighting the most significant biblical sites of the region, all labelled in Greek. The walled city of Jerusalem immediately catches the eye, with the bright yellow roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where it’s thought that Jesus is buried, clearly visible. In the top left corner, tiled fish swim up the Jordan River away from the Dead Sea. The view extends all the way to Egypt’s Sinai, where Christians believe God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

How to visit Wadi Rum

Exploring Jordan's desert wonderland

The trippy rust-red deserts of Wadi Rum are bound to make you wonder which planet you landed on. This vast protected area, also known as the Valley of the Moon, is tucked into the southern section of the country near Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia, a 1hr 30min drive from Petra or four hours from Amman. Ancient nomadic tribes of southern Arabia, including the Nabateans, passed through these sands and thousands of age-old inscriptions have been etched onto the canyon walls.

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Rust-red deserts of Wadi Rum

Visiting Wadi Rum offers travellers to Jordan the chance to experience desert life, complete with extremes of heat and cold, Bedouin tents and spectacular sunsets.

Because of its protected status (Wadi Rum is a UNESCO Area of Outstanding Universal Value), access to Wadi Rum is tightly controlled, and visitors must arrange their itineraries through the visitor centre or a tour operator. Guides, camels and drivers for 4WD excursions can be hired at the visitor centre and prices are fixed. Wadi Rum has a huge list of places to explore, including sloping sand dunes, precarious rock bridges, narrow slot canyons sprinkled with ancient graffiti and picture-perfect sunset viewing points.

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View through a rock arch in the desert of Wadi Rum

What to do in Wadi Rum

Although the options for exploring Wadi Rum are pre-prescribed, many travellers don’t stay long enough to venture into the farthest reaches of the desert, meaning that it’s possible to break away from the crowds at the more popular and closer sites.

A rewarding trek far from the visitor centre is to the top of Jordan’s highest peak, named Jebel Umm Adaami, a moderately difficult hike that takes a couple of hours. A Jordanian flag has been proudly planted at the summit, where you can rest and peer into neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The path is sporadically marked by cairns and it’s recommended to hire a local Bedouin guide. For a kestrel’s-eye view over Wadi Rum’s majestic mountains and rock formations, set an early alarm for a sunrise trip in a hot air balloon and glide over the desert sands before even the camels have woken up.

Alternatively, on the road into Wadi Rum, a seemingly forgotten train station hides the curious story of the abandoned Hejaz Railway, an Ottoman-built route constructed between 1900 and 1908 that stretched from Damascus in Syria to Medina, one of the holy cities in Saudi Arabia. T.E. Lawrence, a British army officer better known as Lawrence of Arabia, encouraged the Arabs to rise up against their Ottoman rulers in what became known as the Arab Revolt, and his group attacked train stations along the Hejaz Railway, including the outpost at Wadi Rum. An original Ottoman-era train sometimes still operates between Aqaba and Wadi Rum for heritage tours, if you want to play the part.

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