The Middle East is full of treasures, but the region is not an easy one to visit, whether because of violent conflicts or the difficulties foreigners face when trying to obtain tourist visas. Jordan is an exception. Surrounded by Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, Jordan is the safest and most stable country in this part of the world. Add to that the fact that US citizens wishing to explore the nation can effortlessly obtain a 30-day visa on arrival for just $60, and you’ve got another country to include to your must-visit list.
It’s hard to go wrong with a trip to Jordan, but depending on your interests, some spots are better suited for you than others. From archeological wonders to unique diving spots and nights in the desert, here are the top places to visit during your trip to Jordan.
For desert safaris: Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is a spectacular desert. Its intense scenery of rolling sand dunes punctured with arching sandstone formations explains why it has been a filming location for so many movies, from Lawrence of Arabia to Rogue One and The Martian.
Exploring Wadi Rum should be a multi-day trip and there are several ways to travel through this protected area. Jeep tours are the most efficient way to see large areas of Wadi Rum in a short amount of time, but camel tours are a more traditional and peaceful transportation method. Likewise, there are several ways of enjoying a night in Wadi Rum — Wadi Rum Night Luxury offers you the opportunity to rent your own Bedouin-style tent, or you can glamp in a unique and luxurious stardome. If you’re looking for adventure, Wadi Rum Nomads offer guided trips that allow visitors to camp under the desert’s beautiful clear skies for an unforgettable stargazing experience. Most tours offer a combination of travel methods and their own sleeping accommodations.
Nearly all tour guides are operated by the local Bedouin population. Ancient Bedouins were nomadic people, herding goats and sheep, moving regularly and establishing temporary settlements as they went. While some Bedouins continue to maintain a nomadic lifestyle to this day, most live somewhat permanently in Rum Village, the only town in the desert area. Many elements of Bedouin life remain pervasive in Wadi Rum, allowing visitors to enjoy an additional cultural experience.
For open-air museums: Petra
Half-built and half-carved into the rose-colored rock face by Nabataeans, the ancient caravan city of Petra, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, is currently Jordan’s most-visited tourist attraction. It is easy to see why you cannot skip it during a trip to Jordan; this extraordinary archeological site — consisting of a winding sandstone canyon, tombs, and temples — can be visited via eight walking routes (ranging in difficulties), making Petra worthy of at least a two-day trip.
To get the full Petra experience, you’re going to walk through sand and rocky terrain for several miles (to reach the Monastery, intrepid travelers must ascend around 800 steps). Sensible shoes and sunscreen are highly advised. Local tour guides also offer donkey and camel rides if you are interested in an easier journey.
For a spa day: The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is the lowest land-based point on Earth. While it is referred to as a sea, it is actually an extremely salty landlocked lake. Its salt concentration is so high, in fact, that people can effortlessly float in its waters. Furthermore, mud from the shores along the Dead Sea is naturally rich in minerals; Dead Sea mud masks are often used in spas and many skin care products.
To enjoy all the benefits the Dead Sea has to offer, we recommend that visitors purchase a day pass from hotels like the Mövenpick Resort or Dead Sea Marriott Resort. Both hotels have a Dead Sea salt water pool and offer treatments like massages, facials, and more. Just make your reservations for your spa day over the phone, as priority is given to their hotel guests. If you’re ready to splurge, the Kempinski Hotel offers luxury spa treatments, such as body scrubs and wraps that use Dead Sea mud products to exfoliate and hydrate your skin.
Be aware that the waters of the Dead Sea can be extremely dehydrating. Soak for no more than fifteen minutes at a time to prevent your skin from drying out. Once you get out, remember to cover yourself in Dead Sea mud and relax as its minerals exfoliate you. Hotels offer hoses to wash the mud and remaining salt off your skin, which will be necessary to prevent skin dehydration.
For Roman ruins: Jerash
Jerash, a city located in northern Jordan, is famous for its extremely well-preserved Roman ruins. Compared to the crowds that come to see Petra, the archeological city of Jerash receives fewer tourists, but it’s very much worth the detour.
Jerash is roughly one hour by car north of the capital city of Amman. The drive from Amman to Jerash is itself very pleasant; while southern Jordan is characterized by desert landscape, northern Jordan is full of sloping hills and groves of olive trees.
The full site can be explored in one day, and while the entire ancient city is beautiful, there are structures that visitors should not skip, such as the Hadrian’s Arch, a sprawling triple-arched gateway that lead to the archeological site; the temple of Artemis, perched on the highest point of the city, which honored the city’s patron goddess; and Jerash’s hippodrome, built between the mid-2nd to 3rd century AD, which hosted chariot races and gladiator fights in its heyday.
The only way to explore the ruins of Jerash is by foot, so wearing practical footwear is a must. Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. There is not much natural shade in Jerash, and the Jordanian sun can be strong.
For outdoor adventures: Wadi Mujib
Wadi Mujib — a canyon whose river flows into the Dead Sea — offers outdoor enthusiasts opportunities for swimming, canyoning, and hiking. The entrance to Wadi Mujib canyon is roughly an hour by car from Dead Sea resorts like the Dead Sea Marriott Resort or the Hilton Dead Sea Resort.
The Siq Trail — the most popular trail through Wadi Mujib, open from April 1st to October 31st each year — begins by entering a wide canyon, where you will tread through calm, shallow water. However, the water deepens as the sandstone walls close in. This trek continues by climbing up three small waterfalls — some effort is required to ascend these falls, using preset ropes bolted to the canyon’s walls. But the reward is worth the journey. The trek concludes at the base of a stunning thirty-foot waterfall. You are required to rent life jackets at the visitor’s center, which may be necessary as you navigate through the waterfalls.
You can hire a guide to pick you up from your hotel and help you navigate through the Siq Trail, although guides are not necessary to enjoy the full experience.
For religious pilgrimages: Mount Nebo
Jordan is home to many religious sites, such as Jesus Christ’s baptismal site (Al-Maghtas). One of the most accessible and popular ones is Mount Nebo, from where Moses is said to have seen the Promised land.
Mount Nebo, located about one hour south of Amman, can be visited as a short day-trip from the capital city. A guide is not necessary to visit Mount Nebo. Most visitors reach the summit by car, although you can also get there on an easy thirty-minute hike. From the top, on a clear day, you can see across the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea to the West Bank city of Jericho and Jerusalem. Sunsets over the West Bank are particularly stunning. Don’t skip a visit to the fifth/sixth-century basilica built on the summit; it contains beautiful Bizantyne mosaics.
For nature lovers: Aqaba
Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city, offers visitors the unique opportunity to snorkel or scuba dive in the Red Sea. The Aqaba International Dive Center and the Coral Garden Diving Center can help you get your PADI certification (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), rent gear, or take you to one of the many dive sites located along Aqaba’s coastline. Some of the area’s unique diving sites include coral reefs, an eel garden, a shipwreck, and even a submerged tank.
Bird watchers should make their way to the Aqaba Bird Observatory to watch the many avian species that pass through Aqaba. Aqaba is a natural resting site where many birds rest and eat before continuing their journeys north in the spring and south in the fall. Over 250 migratory bird species — including greater flamingos, gray and purple herons, and great egrets — can be spotted feeding Aqaba’s marshlands before they resume their long journeys.
For shopping: Madaba
The Middle East is famous for its souqs. Madaba — a small town located less than 25 miles south of Amman — is the best place in Jordan to experience the Middle Easterm shopping culture. Artisans sell their goods in open-air shops in the center of the city. Products are not labelled with fixed prices, so bartering is a must. Souvenirs to consider include locally made, hand-painted ceramics, as well as hand woven Bedouin rugs.
If you enjoy Middle Eastern food and want to cook it for yourself, you might want to consider buying sumac (a red spice sprinkled on hummus), za’atar (a mix of dried herbs and roasted sesame seeds used to season pita bread and meats), or cardamom (seeds which are used to accentuate coffee). Buying spices is a fully sensual experience in open-air markets; spices are held in large baskets, displayed so that shoppers can smell, touch, and even taste the product before purchase.
Madaba is also famous for Saint George’s Church, a Greek Orthodox Church that is notable for its ancient mosaic. Go and visit in between shopping sessions.