Things to Do in Amman
The stone city of Petra was carved into Jordan’s red rock cliffs more than 2,000 years ago. Once a Roman trading stop and stronghold of the Nabataean Arab kingdom, Petra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s most iconic archaeological destinations.
The brilliantly colored sands and stark rock formations of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, make this desert wilderness a must-visit for most travelers to Jordan. Signature sights, typically visited by 4WD, include the Burdah Rock Bridge, a natural arch; the Khazali Siq, a narrow canyon; and the scarlet Al Hasany Dunes.
The Dead Sea, home to the lowest point in the world at 1,269 feet (383 meters) below sea level, also ranks as one of the world’s saltiest bodies of water. This hyper-salinity that is so unique to the Dead Sea attracts visitors from all over the world who come to experience the unusual buoyancy, as well as access the nutrient-rich mud on its banks.
Second only to Petra in terms of archaeological importance, Jerash (Gerasa) is one of Jordan’s most significant Roman sites. The area has been inhabited for over 6,500 years, but its high point was under Roman rule, beginning in 63 BC. Today it’s known for beautifully preserved ancient architecture, including temples and an amphitheater.
Ancient history sits high above downtown streets at the Amman Citadel (Jabal al-Qalaa), a compact hill topped with Roman ruins, a palace, and the National Archeological Museum. Whether you’re exploring the sites or just enjoying panoramic views across Amman, the Citadel is an essential stop.
Built atop the ruins of a monastery between 1184 and 1188, Ajloun Castle (Qala’At Ar-Rabad in Arabic) sits on Jabal Auf hill overlooking the countryside in the north of Jordan. Arab general Azz ad-Din Usama, Saladin’s nephew, oversaw its construction in part to protect the region from Crusader expansion and to safeguard iron mines in the nearby hills. The fort was enlarged in 1214 but largely destroyed by Mongols in 1260. It was rebuilt almost immediately, and while earthquakes have twice caused significant damage, ongoing restorations have kept the castle in much the same condition as it stood in the 13th century.
During the Crusades, the hilltop fort was one in a series of beacon and pigeon posts that allowed messages to be transmitted from Damascus to Cairo in a single day. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fort served as a garrison for Ottoman troops, and in 1812, when it was “discovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the vasy castle was occupied by a single, 40-member family.
Today Ajloun Castle houses a small museum with artifacts from its long history. Visitors can climb to the top of several towers for sweeping views of the Jordan Valley all the way to the Dead Sea.
Spectacularly restored, Amman Roman Theater once held an audience of 6,000, and in summer, it’s still used for shows and concerts. Dating to the second century AD, it nestles towards the base of Amman Citadel. The 3-tier seating structure reflects Roman society: rulers sat at the front, army in the middle, and ordinary folk above.
Probably Amman’s best-known road, Rainbow Street runs along the top of Jebel Amman hill. Despite the name, it’s not especially colorful, but the mass of cafés, eateries, and stores make up for it, while jewel-like villas and atmospheric stairways nestle down side streets.
Winding through some of Jordan’s most stunning scenery, this ancient trading road runs south from historic Madaba to Wadi Musa, your base for exploring Petra. While faster routes exist, the King’s Highway offers majestic crusader castles at Karak and Shobak, the spectacular Wadi al-Mujib canyon, the Dana Nature Reserve, and more.
A fine example of contemporary Islamic architecture, the King Abdullah Mosque commemorates King Abdullah I, founder of the dynasty that rules Jordan to this day. The vast blue dome, decorated with texts from the Quran, shades a space that can hold over 10,000 people, while a small museum celebrates the king’s life.
More Things to Do in Amman
A true “desert castle” near the Saudi Arabian border, Jordan’s Kharana Castle (Qasr al-Kharanah) sits two storeys tall over the desert plain. Built in the early Umayyad period 1,300 years ago, the purpose of the 60-room monolith is unclear — its design shows that it was never a fort, and it’s not on a trade route so it’s unlikely to have been a caravanserai either. It’s most likely that Kharana Castle was a meeting space for Damascus elite and local Bedouin tribes. Whatever it was, the thick-walled limestone building remains imposing even today.
Excellently restored in the 1970s, its location in the barren desert makes Kharana Castle one photogenic place. As you explore the upper rooms set around the large courtyard with a rainwater pool in the middle, look out for ancient Arabic graffiti. Just inside the entrance, learn more about Qasr al-Kharanah from the interpretive plaque which is in both English and Arabic.
Qasr Amra (Amra Castle) earned itself UNESCO World Heritage site status in 1985 because of its famous frescoes, and it’s one of Jordan’s most renowned desert castles. Built near a wadi of pistachio trees during the reign of Walid I in around AD 711, restorations by a group of Spanish archaeologists in the 1970s unveiled floor-to-ceiling frescoes that caused the powers that be at UNESCO to describe the castle as a “masterpiece of human creative genius.”
Built from limestone and basalt, from the outside Qasr Amra doesn’t look particularly special. And then you enter. Greeted by frescoes of cherubs and hunters, nude women bathing, and all kinds of scenes of wine drinking, the racy images are a world away from typical Islamic art. Look up at the ceiling of Qasr Amra’s main dome to see an accurate painting of the zodiac, still remarkably well preserved after 1,200 years.
With the Roman ruins of Gadara, an abandoned Ottoman village, and sweeping views over Jordan, Israel, and Syria, the little town of Umm Qais (Gadara) has a lot to offer the visitor. The undisputed highlight is the ancient city, Gadara, where the remains of Roman theaters, colonnades, and tombs enjoy a spectacular hilltop location.
The ancient city of Pella, one of Jordan’s most underrated attractions, is also one of the country’s most important archeological sites. Humans have been living in and around Pella continuously for more than 6,000 years.
Among the ruins in the area are the remnants of a Greco-Roman theater, a Chalcolithic settlement dating back to the fourth millennium BC, Byzantine churches, Bronze and Iron age walled cities and early Islamic residential neighborhoods. Excavations in Pella have been ongoing since 1979, and there are still countless sites left to be excavated.
A tranquil oasis hidden between the vast sands and sandstone cliffs of Jordan’s deserts, the Azraq Wetland Reserve offers a welcome change of scenery, and it’s an easy day trip from nearby Amman.
The expanse of lush wetlands, glittering blue pools and seasonally flooded marshland is undeniably scenic, but the main attractions for visitors are the wildlife spotting opportunities. Around 150 species of migratory birds pass through the reserve, while native species include water buffalo and the rare Azraq Killifish.
The collections of the Jordan Archaeological Museum, established in 1951 near the Amman Citadel, run from the Stone Age to the Islamic era and include Nabatean and Roman works of art. The museum has lost some of its most important pieces to the Jordan Museum, which opened in 2014, and there are plans to update it.
A huge draw for car enthusiasts, the Royal Automobile Museum displays more than 70 classic cars and other vehicles, many of which are from the personal collection of King Hussein. Not just about the cars themselves, the museum looks at who drove them and the events they were a part of, making the museum a point of interest to those interested in history and the royal family too.
Each car has a full explanation of its type, and model, plus the year it was made, its engine power, and the occasions it was used for. In addition to grand classic cars, the Royal Automobile Museum also has various types of motorcycles and racing cars on display.
A trip to the Royal Automobile Museum can be combined with visiting the Jordan Museum, King Abdullah Mosque, the Roman Theater, Rainbow Street, and the Citadel, either on a private six-hour tour or a longer sightseeing tour with lunch included.
Standing at around 2,680 feet (817 meters) above sea level, Mt. Nebo is an important Judeo-Christian pilgrimage site. Moses first saw the Holy Land from the summit and may have later died here. While it's of particular interest to history buffs, it's also great for its views—on clear days it's possible to see the Dead Sea from here.
La Storia Tourism Complex, located just over a mile (2 kilometers) from Mt. Nebo, offers visitors a quirky overview of the culture, religion, history and heritage of Jordan. The museum portion of the complex comprises a series of dioramas (some of them animatronic) depicting mostly Biblical scenes, starting with Noah’s Ark and continuing through the parting of the Red Sea, the birth of Jesus and the Last Supper. Other scenes show what life was like in a traditional Bedouin village, with animatronic villagers performing day-to-day tasks.
Also of interest is the onsite HandiCrafts Centre, where you can buy handmade mosaics, furniture, carpets, Dead Sea products, scarves, shawls and Bedouin jewelry, much of it made by local artists with special needs. Another section of the museum has been reserved to house what could turn out to be the largest mosaic mural in the world, set to measure 98 feet (30 meters) long and 20 feet (6 meters) tall.
Situated in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba in Jordan, the Madaba Map dates from 542-570 AD and is the world’s oldest cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. While some of this richly detailed map is lost, it’s still more than worth seeing for its depiction of 6th-century Jerusalem and the wider Holy Land.
Azraq Castle is a desert fortress created by the Romans back in 300 AD, although the current structure was built in 1237 by the Mamelukes. Its location in the center of the Azraq Oasis was chosen strategically; this area is the only water source in over 7,000 square miles. The basalt castle’s most striking feature is its black-blue hue.
In Amman’s old quarter, Raghadan Palace was the first of many Crown properties to be built in the Royal Hashemite Court compound. Designed by Lebanese architect Saadedinne Chatella and built in 1926 as the residence of King Abdullah I and his family, the ornate palace is designed in traditional Islamic architecture style, with stained glass windows inspired by Jerusalem’s iconic al-Aqsa Mosque. Built from stone sourced from the Jordanian town of Ma’an, Raghadan Palace is also famous for its ornate woodwork and Throne Room ceiling fresco.
Renovated in the 1980s after a fire, you may recognize the Throne Room from the newspapers: it’s where King Abdullah II hosts royalty and Heads of State like Barack Obama for important meetings and ceremonies.
“Raghadan” means “the very best life,” and the palace even has its own galleried prayer hall, al-Maar al A’la, on the ground floor. Basman Palace, the offices of the current king, is also in the court compound, as is Al-Qasr Al-Sagheer where Queen Rania works from. Just outside the palace, you’ll recognize the Raghadan Flagpole — standing 416 feet tall, the flag can be seen from 12 miles away, making it one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.
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