When my husband and I began planning a trekking trip to Jordan with Intrepid Travel last year, I gleefully jumped down Instagram rabbit holes in search of my favorite activities/rewards for off-trail days: #art and #architecture.
Images from Jordan’s capital city Amman were flat-out astounding. Excitedly, I reached out to fellow travelers for Amman-centric recommendations and, once again, astonishment set in: it seems, most view the metropolis as ‘gateway to elsewhere’ – Petra, Wadi Rum, Dana Preserve – yet, underestimate the value of the city itself.
“Get in, get out,” is what one globe-trekker advised. Others proclaimed, “Traffic in Amman is horrendous.” “The city is a sprawling and chaotic.” “Amman is burly.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, all these sureties serve as inspiration to dig in and decide for myself about this city which four million Jordanians call home. What I soon discovered is…traffic and street life in Amman is chaotic, the city is sprawling and can be burly, but this is merely outer skin. Layers upon layers, those of ancient empires and civilizations, nomadic desert tribes, and multi-ethnic refugee populations have built on each other, fusing and creating this complex metropolis.
To experience Amman in full, Intrepid Travel leads travelers to a base in downtown, the city’s oldest area. Here, you will feel the city’s beating heart, get lost in the streets, sample local eats while chatting up food cart vendors, bargain for dried fruits in the souks, spend an afternoon café hopping, and breath in the ancient glories and modern rhythms. Don’t worry about wondering too far afield, yellow taxis are metered, cheap and omnipresent; and, white shared taxis, known as serveeces, can be the ticket for hopping between prime areas.
If you revel in the unexpected, you’ll soon discover that Amman is indeed a gateway – but, not merely to places like Petra and Wadi Rum. Immersion into Amman provides a peek into the very core of Jordan’s past, present and future.
Here’s how Amman will surprise you – at times, even, mesmerize you. (And, isn’t that what keeps us traveling?)
Café culture is abuzz
As discombobulation will likely be your mind and body’s status on day one, let the city’s favorite pastime – lingering over a cup of thick and foamy cardamom-tinged Arabic coffee (the taste grows on you) – jolt your jet-lag. To say there’s a café on every corner would be an understatement. Everyone has their favorite and choices run the gamut from smoky, male-dominated traditional haunts to ultra-modern art gallery hybrids. For eye-popping views, head to aptly-named Old View Café near trendy Rainbow Street.
Great civilizations are always in sight
A pillar of the Greek Decapolis, this area was named Philadelphia and famed as a trading nexus. The strategic location ensured mighty empires to come, from Byzantines to Umayyads, would leave their mark. The fascinating Citadel Hill, known locally as Jabal Al Qal’a, perches high above the city and boasts well-preserved Roman and Islamic ruins.
Walking the site feels like being on a movie set, as columns from a 2nd century temple dedicated to Hercules rest in harmony near a stunning Arabic palace (constructed over 600 years later). If that wasn’t enough, these treasures overlook a 6,000 seat Roman Theatre, with the entire expanse of Amman just beyond. The scope and views are breathtaking.
Employ a licensed guide at the front gate (sporting Minister of Tourism badges) for a walking education in the site’s history and meaning. Morning and sunset are ideal times to visit. Amman heats up quickly, so avoid sweltering midday sun.
Escape afternoon heat with a visit to the impressive Jordan Museum. Ancient wonders are housed within a strikingly-modern building, designed by Jordanian architect Jafar Touqan. You’ll never think of the term “built to last” the same again after seeing the world’s oldest human statues – these beauties are 9,500 years old! – discovered near present day Amman.
Regional flavors mix and mingle
In late nineteenth century, Circassian Muslims fleeing Russia brought the first modern wave of refugees to the country. Since then, Jordan has continued to welcome communities displaced by war and persecution, particularly Iraqis, Palestinians, and Syrians into Amman’s swelling population.
For visitors, the diversity offers the opportunity to sample regional cultures, art and food. Taste a traditional Armenian roast beef at Levant Restaurant, see the work of acclaimed Iraqi modern artist Dia Azzawi at Dar Al-Anda gallery, and catch a documentary about the Syrian experience at Rainbow Art House Theater.
Hospitality runs deep
From shopkeepers to strangers on the street, Jordanians are renowned for welcoming visitors with open arms. Initial greetings usually move quickly to what seems to be every local’s favorite topic: food. Have you tried our national dish of lamb called mansaf? May I recommend a restaurant?
An immense sense of hospitality is woven into local culture and food is revered as a gift best when shared. Never pass up recommendations, recipes or dinner invitations – which happens more often than you might think.
Plan your own cooking and tasting session at Beit Setti, a school and dining experience run by three Jordanian sisters. Translated as “grandmother’s house,” this family home is an ideal setting for learning about traditional dishes and sharing the results over dinner on the terrace, a belly and soul-filling experience.
And, don’t even think about leaving Amman without visiting Hashem. Under shade canopies, this bustling 24-hour institution has served small plates of falafel, hummus and pita bread for nearly 100 years. This is a fast food feast, Ammani-style.
Contemporary art and architecture are in bloom
Walking underneath the billowing domes of Queen Alia International Airport upon arrival is a cue to architectural surprises to come. One of the most accessible spaces comes from acclaimed Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash. Wild Jordan Center features a beautiful café and terrace with expansive city views, making an ideal spot for healthy, locally-sourced eats. There is also a farmers’ market on Fridays and locally-crafted art and jewelry.
The same neighborhood, around leafy Rainbow Street, is an art lover’s dream. You can walk from one contemporary art space to another in minutes. Nabad Gallery and Wadi Finan Gallery are equally impressive for the range of emerging and established artists as for the sublime setting, while cozy Salam Kanaan Gallery serves art alongside coffee, tea and pastries.
A short taxi ride brings you to a series of 1920s villas hosting Darat Al Funun (House of Arts), one of the city’s most beloved art spaces which also boosts a serene café (Khammash also designed these new gallery spaces).
Keep your eyes open for colorful murals throughout the city. Many are compliments of arts trailblazer, the annual Baladak Street Art Festival.
Surprises come in small, sweet packages
Jordanians are legendary for having a raging sweet tooth and one of the tastiest treats combines savory, sweet, crunchy and gooey into one delicious bit. Head to Habibah Sweet Shop, an institution since 1951, to sample kanafeh, a cheese pastry covered in pistachios and syrup. The sign is in Arabic only, so look for the shop’s blue and white logo.
A hot, dry afternoon calls for scoops of pistachio ice cream and local chain Gerard’s is happy to oblige. There’s a popular location on Rainbow Street as well as by the Royal Automobile Museum, where you can combine this sweet indulgence with a viewing of rides fit for kings and queens.
Beer culture is brewing
Though, we weren’t expecting to find local craft brews in Amman, after hot, steamy days, this particular surprise was welcome! Grab an Uber or Careem (now owned by Uber), to the city’s outskirts for a tour and tasting at the country’s first micro-brewery, Carakale.
Ready to experience the wonders of Amman and the rest of Jordan for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s small group adventures there.
(All images courtesy of writer Jess Simpson. All images taken on Intrepid’s Trek Jordan trip.)