Last Updated on June 19, 2023
Jordan, safe and neutral, is referred to as the Switzerland of the Middle East. While it is both those things, it is in no way bland or predictable. On the contrary, the country is rich in history, the people warm and generous. Historical sites run the length of the country and range from Roman citadels to places important in early Christianity. Petra is certainly the most famous, but read on to find out the best things to see and do in the Kingdom of Jordan from north to south:
1. Walk through Hadrian’s Arch in Jerash
As you enter ancient Jerash through Hadrian’s Arch, a massive stone entrance with three arched doorways, you’re passing beneath a structure built to commemorate Roman Emperor Hadrian’s visit in 130 A.D. But the city dates back much earlier. Humans have lived in the area since 7500 to 5000 B.C.
Greeks built temples to their gods—Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Poseidon, and Artemis here in the 2nd century B.C. Many of their foundations and columns remain.
Several hundred years later, the Romans occupied Jerash. The cosmopolitan city grew along trade routes and flourished. Two well-preserved amphitheaters, a hippodrome, colonnaded streets, and an oval plaza also lined with columns are preserved.
Walking the ancient city’s stone streets spanning several miles, it’s easy to see why Jerash is considered the best place outside of Italy to see Roman ruins.
2. Visit Amman’s Citadel and Theater
When you visit the citadel in Amman’s old city, you are standing on ground that is among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited places. Its origin can be traced to the Neolithic Age (the last of the Stone Age, starting 12,000 years ago.) The civilizations who’ve called Amman home include Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, and later the Bedouins.
Perched on a hilltop in the city, the citadel contains the Temple of Hercules, a 7th century A.D. Umayyad palace with an intricate wooden dome, an archeology museum, and a sweeping view of Amman, Jordan’s capital and largest city of 1.2 million people.
The Roman Theater, built in the 2nd century A.D. in Amman’s city center, is used for concerts and an international book fair. Popular with the city’s residents, it’s a great place to meet the local people who are warm and friendly.
3. Visit the River Jordan
No matter your religious persuasion, a visit to the River Jordan is an experience not to be missed. The River Jordan separates Jordan and Israel. The area, called Bethany Beyond the Jordan, is a World Heritage Site. A simple rope strung in the middle of the water separates the two countries.
You’ll see pilgrims wading into the water to be baptized on both sides of the rope. On the Jordanian side, a simple wooden building hovers on the riverbank. In sharp contrast, the Israeli side has a beautiful white and tan stone building, throngs of worshippers in baptismal gowns, and choirs singing Amazing Grace in their native tongue.
Armed guards stand on each riverbank in case anyone is tempted to visit the other country by ducking under the rope barrier in the shallow water.
The river has changed course over the years, so the actual location of Jesus Christ’s baptism is east of the river. A nearby kiosk shows photos of religious dignitaries visiting the baptismal site.
Archeologists have discovered about 20 churches, caves, and baptismal pools used during the Roman and Byzantine times. A newer Greek Orthodox church honoring John the Baptist is located near the banks of the River Jordan.
4. View Madaba’s Mosaics
Madaba is called the City of Mosaics for good reason. A 6th century A.D. mosaic called the Madaba map is in the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. The mosaic, located on the church floor, contains the oldest surviving map of the Holy Land.
Although only about a quarter of the original map remains, those portions are quite detailed, down to landmarks in Jerusalem, fish swimming away from the Dead Sea, and a lion hunting a gazelle.
In addition to the Madaba map, the Madaba Archeological Park and Museum is home to well-preserved mosaics from the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries A.D.
The tradition of making mosaics continues in Madaba at the Handicraft Center Mosaic Workshop. Artisans demonstrate their craft and are willing to design custom pieces if one of the hundreds of pieces in the showroom isn’t to your liking.
5. Pamper Yourself at Ma’in Hot Springs
Between Madaba and the Dead Sea, water percolates out of natural hot springs in the mountains and cascades into pools surrounded by bougainvillea and palms.
Rather than using the public thermal pools, check in to Ma’in Hot Springs Resort and Spa for a luxurious spa experience. The resort has spacious, modern rooms overlooking the mountains and waterfalls, fine dining, a thermal pool with mineral-rich water, and a spa with an extensive menu of treatments.
6. Float in the Dead Sea
It’s impossible to sink in the Dead Sea. The salinity is 10 times that in regular saltwater, so buoyancy is a sure thing.
But before you float, slather yourself with the greenish black mud you find along the shore. I’m not sure if all the claims are true—that the mud cures skin problems and has pain-relieving properties—but it does make your skin smooth and radiant.
Allow the mud to dry, then simply bob on the surface of the sea at the lowest point on earth, 1,300 feet below sea level.
7. Explore Petra’s Main Trail
When you visit Petra, you’re exploring not only a World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, but also one of the locations used for filming Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The place to start is at the Visitor’s Center. Tickets can be purchased for one, two, or three days at 50, 55, and 60 JD (Jordanian dollars) or $71, 78, and 85 USD respectively. The visitor center provides a free map and has guidebooks for purchase.
Petra’s main trail is 2.7 miles one way and is an easy walk but one without much shade. Before you enter the ancient Nabatean city, you’ll see Djinn or God blocks about halfway between the visitor’s center and Al Siq, the narrow passageway into ancient Petra.
The purpose of these carved stone blocks remains a mystery. Nabateans carved them in the 1st century A.D. and called them Djinn blocks, which translates to spirit blocks. Were they funerary monuments, tributes to gods, or the beginning of tombs? Debate continues.
Also along the main trail, the tombs of Bab Al Siq, meaning the gateway to the Siq, give a preview of things to come with pyramid-shaped columns carved into the face of the mountain.
Soon after passing Bab Al Siq, you enter a half mile long narrow fissure with rose-colored sandstone walls that rise so high that they’re all you see. Petra’s most famous building, the Treasury, is first glimpsed from the Siq, just a sliver of a view of its columns carved in the 1st century A.D. for the Nabatean King Aretas IV.
Besides the Treasury, Petra is home to a number of other sandstone buildings. The Royal Tombs, four in all, are perched on the hillside. An amphitheater, Great Temple, and the ruins of a church with preserved floor mosaics are along the main trail, as well.
Petra’s valley is full of temples, tombs, and caves which where home to the Nabateans and later Bedouins. Today, Bedouins live outside of the ancient city, but sell their wares and bring working animals for tourists to ride each day while exploring Petra.
8. Hike to Petra’s Monastery
If you have more time, you can tackle the two- to three-hour climb to the Monastery (or you can ride a donkey or mule, but some animals are overloaded, overworked, or treated harshly). You’ll need to tackle about 850 uneven steps, but it’s worth it. Reward yourself with a mint lemonade at the café across from the Monastery’s façade and enjoy viewing a building constructed in the 2nd century A.D.
The Monastery looms large, about 150 feet wide by 170 feet high. Niches carved into the stone originally held sculptures. It eventually became a Christian chapel and is how it came to be called the Monastery.
For more information on Petra, including guided tours, visit their website.
9. Go Four-Wheeling in Wadi Rum
Plan to spend a night camping in Wadi Rum. This orange sand desert is home to the iconic mountain, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, made famous by the book of the same name by T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia.
There are a number of permanent luxury tent camps to choose from with some having geodesic dome cabins that allow you to stargaze from the comfort of your bed. These are all-inclusive camps with food included.
If time doesn’t allow for an overnight in Wadi Rum, you can arrange a Jeep tour at the visitor center. Barreling over dunes to get to the desert’s Burdah Rock Bridge and scrambling to the top of the rock formation is a thrill.
10. Tour Wadi Rum by Camel
While Petra provides camels, mules, and donkeys to help visitors reach the Monastery, a tour of Wadi Rum spanning several days seated on a camel is an immersive, eco-friendly desert experience. This is slow travel at its finest, with stays in Bedouin camps that serve traditional food.
Camel treks lasting several hours to those lasting several days can be booked at the Wadi Rum visitor center.
11. Eat the Best Falafel in the World
This is subject to debate, of course. Egyptians claim they make the best falafel, chickpea, or fava bean patties with cumin, parsley, and garlic that are deep fried to a golden brown. Israelis say their falafel is the best. But the Jordanians are quite sure no falafel in the world beats theirs for flavor or consistency.
I’m no expert, but it is the best falafel I’ve ever eaten anywhere.
Jordanian food is a mixture of flavors from the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Persia. Be sure to try warak enab, minced meat with rice stuffed in a grape leaf and moutabel, a roasted eggplant and yogurt dip. The national dish is mansaf, a Bedouin meal served family-style. It’s made from lamb, rice, and dried, fermented goat’s milk yogurt, called jameed. In case you’re unsure because of the ingredients, rest assured it tastes better than it sounds and makes me hungry to return to Jordan.
Jordan’s ancient sites span thousands of years and serve to remind us the time we walk on this earth is short. While in Jordan, sample the food and see sites of religious and cultural importance, truly wonders of the world. Take the opportunity to learn about a religion and culture that may be vastly different from your own. With 95% of the population Muslim, dressing conservatively is appropriate and appreciated.