Of the other quarters of the city, you’re most likely to visit sprawling, relatively wealthy West Amman, home to practically all of the city’s upmarket hotels, as well as restaurants and nightlife. Key areas to explore include Jabal Al Lweibdeh, an attractive residential neighbourhood that is home to the National Gallery, and the lower reaches of Jabal Amman, particularly around 1st Circle, where the cafés and quirky shops of Rainbow Street make for some of the city’s most pleasant strolling.
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Jabal Amman: around 1st Circle
Jabal Amman: around 1st Circle
West Amman is too large to attempt aimless exploratory rambling, though if you have a spare afternoon to fill, you might like to take a wander through the leafy streets around 1st Circle on Jabal Amman. When Amman was a small town occupying the Downtown valley-floors, this gentle neighbourhood was the preserve of the elite, including royalty, families wealthy through business or commerce, politicians and ambassadors, British commanders of the army, and so on. The quiet streets either side of Rainbow Street are still lined with many fine old villas dating from the 1920s and 1930s.
We’ve outlined a stroll beginning at 1st Circle, but you could instead pick up a detailed (free) “Jabal Amman Walking Trail” leaflet at the small tourist office at 36 Rainbow Street, or at Wild Jordan.
Perhaps Amman’s most famous thoroughfare, Rainbow Street has become known for two things: cafés and traffic. Of the former there are dozens, both on and just off the street: this has become one of the city’s prime spots for socialising. All tastes are catered for – there are traditional coffee houses, zingy contemporary espresso bars, cosy hideaways for organic tea-lovers and swanky DJ venues, alongside antiques shops, craft studios, edgy fast-food hangouts, top-quality restaurants…it’s quite a whirl. All attractions, though, are crammed onto what is effectively a narrow, semi-residential one-way street: traffic on weekend evenings in particular can be disastrous. It can take half an hour to drive a few hundred metres.
On foot, though – cafés, shops and restaurants notwithstanding – Rainbow Street is a window into another Amman. As you head east from 1st Circle the street – named after the recently restored Rainbow Cinema on the right – bustles with activity on the stroll to the walled-off British Council. Beyond here, the street dips sharply; partway along on the left is the Al Safadi mosque, with a fine old minaret, while on a minor street to the right, an anonymous-looking town house, in a dark shade of plaster and sporting curved Art Deco-style balcony railings, was where King Talal lived for a time before his accession, and where both the late King Hussein and his brother Prince Hassan were born.
Fawzi Malouf Street
Two of the most attractive villas in the area, both well signposted, are beside each other on Fawzi Malouf Street – also known as “Souk Jara Street” after the summer street market here – about 250m east of the British Council. On the Rainbow Street corner stands an elegant symmetrical villa set back from the street and faced in local stone, with a stepped portico and tall, slender windows; it is now used as showrooms for the crafts of Jordan River Designs and Bani Hamida. Alongside it is a one-storey villa – once home to Major Alec Kirkbride, the first British Ambassador to Jordan – with a beautiful portico of pointed arches, wrought-iron window-bars, and a lovely garden centred on a star-shaped fountain. Both these houses were built in the late 1920s by Salim Al Odat, an architect originally from Karak.
Just round the corner with Asfour Street is a pair of houses built for Egyptian businessman and adviser to Emir Abdullah Ismail Bilbaysi, a smaller one dating from the 1930s with a semicircular balcony featuring a lavishly painted ceiling visible from the street, and beside it a much larger villa designed in the 1940s in a consciously medieval Mamluke style, with bands of alternating pink and white stone and pointed arches.
Omar bin al-Khattab Street (Mango Street)
Continuing past more cafés and crafts outlets down Rainbow Street, you come to the distinctively modernistic Mango House on the right, at the corner with Omar bin al-Khattab Street (aka Mango Street). In smooth, reddish stone with curving, pillared balconies, it was built in the late 1940s by Kamal and Ali Mango, members of one of Amman’s most prominent business dynasties. On the other side of Rainbow Street is a long, low house, the whole facade of which is sheltered beneath an elegant Circassian-style porticoed balcony; its most famous resident was Said Al Mufti, a Circassian who was prime minister in the 1950s and also mayor of Amman. Following Mango Street to the right brings you past more cafés and another fine villa, now home to the Royal Film Commission, before – on the right – the widely known Books@Café, an attractive bookshop and café-bar shoehorned into another historic old house. A few doors further is the print gallery Jacaranda, past which the road climbs to a mini-roundabout; to the right is the Al Pasha hammam, while straight on leads past shops towards 2nd Circle.
At a T-junction at the bottom end of Rainbow Street – where a set of steep stairs clatters ahead down the hill into Downtown – if you walk left (slightly uphill) on Othman bin Affan Street you’ll come to the striking Wild Jordan centre, designed by architect Ammar Khammash for the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). It is also reachable from 1st Circle by taking the fourth turning on the left (signposted) and following the street round – or by walking down the stairs at the end of the “Souk Jara” street, Fawzi Malouf.
This is the headquarters of the RSCN’s ecotourism unit, who manage visits to Jordan’s nature reserves. As well as information about how to visit the reserves, you’ll find a nature shop (daily 9am–5pm) selling all kinds of pieces designed in traditional style by Jordanian craftworkers – often rural women – ranging from jewellery to painted ostrich eggs and handwoven bags. Also on sale are organic herbs, dried fruits and spices, produced on the reserves. There are often free exhibitions of photographs or art inspired by Jordan’s natural environment. The cool, shaded balcony of the excellent café here – which serves organic food, drinks and smoothies – offers one of Amman’s most spectacular views, looking over the valleys of Downtown and across to Jabal Al Qal’a. Opposite, between the hills, rises a gigantic flagpole with an enormous Jordanian flag fluttering lazily. The pole stands a shade under 127m high, and the flag itself is 30m by 60m – impressive, but no longer a world record.
A few doors along from Wild Jordan on the same street is the beautiful Nabad art gallery, housed in a particularly fine old villa with a secluded rear terrace. This has rapidly earned a reputation as one of the city’s leading galleries, with a consistently high-quality range of temporary shows. Check the website and Facebook to find out what’s on – or just drop by on the off-chance.
At the bottom end of Rainbow Street, turning right at the T-junction leads into Khirfan Street, with some great views out towards Jabal Al Ashrafiyyeh. A short stroll along from the corner stands Beit Shocair, an old three-storey villa in the Syrian style, with rooms opening off a central courtyard with a fountain. It’s worth stopping here: the house is full of atmosphere, the terrace has another wonderful view and several artists rent space here or nearby to sell crafts, jewellery and lanterns, including Ola’s Garden. There’s also a highly regarded old-school Arabic café-restaurant upstairs.
Jabal Al Lweibdeh
Jabal Al Lweibdeh
Amman has a dynamic contemporary arts scene, and some of the best galleries are within walking distance of each other in the neat, respectable neighbourhood of Jabal Al Lweibdeh, just north of Jabal Amman and overlooking the hubbub of Downtown. The area has a relatively high proportion of Christian residents, and you’ll find a tangibly different atmosphere from other parts of the city: many women are unveiled, streets are quieter and you might hear the unfamiliar sound of church bells.
Darat Al Funun
On Jabal Al Lweibdeh, a few minutes’ walk above Downtown, stands an idyllic refuge from the noise and bustle. Head for Omar Al Khayyam Street, which leads steeply up behind the Downtown post office; turning right at the first hairpin, you’ll soon come in sight of a high stone wall. With gates to left and right, this wall defines the grounds of Darat Al Funun, a lush haven of tranquillity housing a centre for contemporary Arab art. The “little house of the arts”, as its name translates, comprises a set of three 1920s villas in a beautiful, shaded hillside garden, within which lie the remains of the small sixth-century Byzantine Church of St George. The “Blue House”, at the top of the steeply terraced complex, houses changing exhibitions, and its wooden porch – a common feature of Circassian architecture, added to the building as an acknowledgment of the Circassian presence in the city – serves as a tiny café, Amman’s most beautiful and peaceful. On the same level is the former home of Emir Abdullah’s court poet, now a private studio for visiting artists. Below is the main building, the former official residence of Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Peake, or “Peake Pasha”, British Commander of the Arab Legion in the 1920s and 1930s. It sports a wonderful semicircular portico and has been superbly renovated by Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to house well-lit galleries, studios and an excellent art library. Legend has it that, on his stay in late 1921 as a guest of Peake, T.E. Lawrence wrote much of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in this building.
Exhibitions at Darat Al Funun vary from grand overviews of contemporary Arab art to small shows from local artists, with everything publicized on the gallery website. There are also plenty of lectures and performances, often staged atmospherically in the ruined church, and all events are free to the public. Even if art isn’t your strong point, dropping in gives a sense of a flourishing side of Jordanian culture that’s barely touched upon by most visitors.
Makan Art Space
If you turn left out of the top gate of Darat Al Funun, a short walk straight ahead and then behind the Al Saadi mosque will bring you to another of Jabal Al Lweibdeh’s arts centres, Makan. It’s a small, alternatively minded place, started up by the enthusiastic Ola Khalidi, which stages exhibitions and events, and also serves as a venue for informal concerts and film-screenings – links with the Amman Filmmakers’ Cooperative are strong. Its balcony has another spectacular view out over the city.
Dar Al Anda
Further along the same street, ochre adobe walls announce Dar Al Anda, a gallery and cultural centre staging concerts, workshops and arts events. The original building, which was built in 1939, has been beautifully restored, and – along with newer buildings around the courtyard – now houses a library for children, a studio, a guest apartment for resident artists, and so on. Opening hours for both vary (and often include a break in mid-afternoon), but it’s worth popping by on the off-chance to see what’s happening.
Leaving from the top gate of Darat Al Funun, it’s a stiff five-minute climb north past the Luzmila Hospital to the roundabout known as Lweibdeh Circle on top of the hill; the little park on the roundabout has been prettified thanks to the French Embassy and renamed “Square de Paris”. Ten minutes or so from here on the flat along quiet, shady Shari’a College Street, past the Terra Sancta religious academy, will bring you to Muntazah Circle, an oval expanse of green lined with elegant town houses. One of these, on the right, is the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, also reached on a short, signposted walk from Abdali. This is the country’s premier establishment showcase for contemporary art, with artists from Jordan, the Arab world and the wider Islamic world all represented in a changing programme of shows drawing on the 2000-work permanent collection. Exhibitions are split between the main building and an annexe in a town house opposite; take time to stroll in the pleasant garden between the two, which also houses the chic Canvas art lounge and café.
King Hussein Park
King Hussein Park
Amman’s favourite green space is King Hussein Park, a large tract of hilly land on the western outskirts of the city. Many people come out here – especially on a Friday – to stroll, picnic or play games. There’s a monument to King Hussein at the highest point of the park, and you’ll also spot the minarets of the King Hussein bin Talal Mosque, inaugurated in 2006. The park is also home to two fine museums.
Royal Automobile Museum
Following King Hussein’s death in 1999, King Abdullah II established the Royal Automobile Museum in his father’s memory. This fine building, designed by star Jordanian architect Jafar Touqan, blends in with its natural surroundings by being partly sunk into the earth and clad in untreated stone. The airy, spacious exhibition areas are filled with vehicles with a royal connection, ranging from a 1916 Cadillac through some elegant Rolls-Royces (and even a 1952 Triumph Thunderbird motorbike) to a Porsche 911 turbo. Images, dioramas and noticeboards give background information to the various vehicles so beloved of King Hussein and his predecessors. It’s a unique, fascinating way into twentieth-century Jordanian history, superbly presented. Petrolheads will be enthralled.
Alongside the Royal Automobile Museum is the wonderful Children’s Museum, another superbly designed building – by Jordanian architects Faris & Faris – that is packed with toys, games, hands-on exhibits, art equipment and all kinds of fun for kids, from toddlers to teens, including a gift shop and on-site restaurant.