One of the world’s top adventure spots, tourists to Jordan tend to zip right through Amman and head straight to the mountains, Petra, or the fabulous burnt-orange desert in the south. But Jordan’s capital is well-worth devoting a long weekend to. It’s a vibrant, buzzing place to spend a few days, browsing through the fashionable city-centre boutiques, filling up on falafel and listening to an Ammani rock band bring the house down in a dry music venue.
Why should you go?
No matter where you are in Amman it can seem like you’re at the top of a hill, climbing a hill, or in a valley contemplating the hill you’re about to ascend. The city was originally built on seven hills, but it now sprawls across 19, which is why a trip to Amman can feel a little like preparing for an Everest expedition. Despite its many slopes, Amman is a walkable city, packed full of attractions. Plus, it’s bursting with countless falafel joints and cake pit stops so you can happily justify grazing your way around the city all day long.
In the height of summer, when temperatures can reach a skin-prickling 45 degrees, you’ll find the city blessed with stunning roof-terraces cooled by air-conditioning – the perfect setting to relax with a refreshing mint-lemonade. Even better, visit in autumn or springtime and you’ll find a far more walkable city ready to explore.
Why is now a great time to visit?
The city is liberal and bohemian (at least compared to its tumultuous neighbours). That, coupled with the arrival of Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi refugees who have taken root here over the past decades, has created a hotbed of entrepreneurialism. You’ll find kooky coffee shops tucked behind stairwells and cafés serving plates of sweet cheesy kanafeh (Habibah Sweets is highly rated) located on verandahs high above the gridlocked roads of downtown.
And since last year with the recently opened Jordan Trail – an adventurous 650km hiking trail that links the nose and tail of the country – Amman is now a great place to put your feet up post-trek.
What shouldn’t I miss?
The Romans conquered most of Jordan in 63 B.C and ruled for a further 400 years, so there are plenty of ruins to explore. Dry desert conditions have preserved these sites well, and an ancient theatre – with a vertigo-inducing 6000-person capacity – still dominates downtown.
If you’re hankering after more ancient sites, you can glimpse the Ummayad-era Citadel from almost all of downtown. Like Athens’ Acropolis, the temple walls and pillars cut a striking figure against the sky. Go to the Citadel at dusk to catch the call to prayer, listening to what feels like one-hundred muezzins across the city. It’s a good place to watch the city glow pink as thousands of birds beat their wings across the sky, before heading back downtown for a cool glass of sweet mint tea and a hookah-pipe with friends.
Jabal Luwaibdeh, a neighbourhood with a bohemian vibe, is well-worth a wander. Around every corner you’ll stumble upon bright murals, tucked-away cafes and artists’ workshops. Make a beeline for Darat al Funun, an exhibition space for emerging and established Jordanian artists. Set in three villas, the workshops put on gallery shows and cinema screenings – there’s also a tumbling, fragrant garden.
Further afield, Jerash, one of the world’s most ancient and well-preserved cities is just a 45-minute minibus ride away. It can be visited easily as a quick day trip – aim for early morning before the sun rolls up into the sky, baking the rows of Roman columns and Greek temples that are crammed into this site.
Where should I eat?
Eating could well be a full-time hobby in Jordan, a country where it’s always time for a mint tea pick-me-up or a plate of eye-wateringly garlicky dip.
For a quick meal Hashem is a great downtown joint offering plates piled high with falafel and freshly chopped herb salads. Dishes are served on plastic sheets to speed up the experience and service is friendly, if initially mystifying. You’ll get what the waiters bring you and it’ll be vegetarian, cheap, and delicious.
Sufra is suave and sultry in a colonial-style house decked with cool white tiles. Come here for the incredible (and yet miraculously still not bank-breaking) traditional Jordanian food; Sufra serves up some of the city’s best mansaf (a hearty meat stew and rice) but the salads are knock-out too, with plates of stewed aubergine, tomatoes and mint, and spinach fatayah (pastries) to nibble on.
If you’re looking for another chilled-out dining option with a stonking view from the terrace of the Citadel, then head to Shams al-Balad. With a farm-to-table concept, the food is some of the best in the city – especially for vegetarians. The persimmon and walnut salad is to die for, and the fatoush and eggplant mutabl are best eaten with heaps of fluffy-on-the-inside bread.
If you’re after a quick falafel sandwich before a day-trip, then Al Quds on Rainbow Street serves up cheap, cheerful and insanely good specimens, which are perfect for cramming into your bag en route to Jerash or the desert.
What’s there to do in the evening?
Amman has a laid-back style: lunches turn into dinner which lead on to nightclubs which then lead into long sessions of conversation. For those who are happy to slow the pace during vacation, Amman is a good place to settle and experience contemporary Arab culture up close. And while the delicious juices and mint teas are often your best bet, the city has enough watering holes to keep all but the most committed drinkers entertained.
A good place to start is OTR, a 1920s-style speakeasy specializing in cocktails. It’s hardly off the beaten track, but it’s a great place to sample different uses for the Levantine spirit arak; you can try it here paired with gin, lemonade, and herbs. Books@Cafe on Rainbow Street has long been one of the go-to places for expats and tourists. Expect exposed brickwork and plenty of Macbooks during the day, before the place transforms into a bustling café-bar in the evening. Finally, keep your eyes peeled for Carakale, the Jordanian craft beer brewery – it produces bottles such as Dead Sea-rious, which combines salt from the Dead Sea and orange oil. Their tasting room is open from Thursday to Saturday, so make a pitstop there.