Never plan too much in Amman. Far better to chase the plot of each day as it unfurls through this up-and-down maze of a metropolis. Follow the smell of brick-oven bread. Inhale the cardamom coffee air and the scent of grilled meat. Meander down mysterious back alleys. Always say “yes”—yes to tea in a new friend’s home, yes to camel burgers or smoking strawberry shisha, and yes to going out dancing on a school night.
Jordan’s beautiful beige capital spreads across seven hills, a geometric puzzle of stone blocks, perfect domes, and fantastical minarets that punctuate the pastel sky. Take in the full architectural splendor from atop the Citadel, where the Temple of Hercules, with its giant columns, stands as a testament to the city’s ancient past—back when Amman was called Philadelphia and thousands of cheering spectators packed the Roman Theater. Amazingly well preserved and still a working venue, it’s well worth the steep climb to the top of the stands for a second-century view of the old city.
But exploring Amman is less about sightseeing and more about “being”—jumping headfirst into the sensory flow of daily life, then stopping often, for coffee, tea, and art. Beneath the Bauhaus glory of Al Hashimi Street are the colorful shops and people that make downtown Amman so fabulous. Step into Habibah for some hot and gooey knafeh (a sweet, cheesy pastry), browse the shelves of sidewalk booksellers, or try on some of the one-of-a-kind bling in the many gold shops of the quarter.
Nearby Rainbow Street attracts a more cosmopolitan crowd, though the restaurants and cafés stay true to tradition. Shadowed by palm trees and fuchsia vines, the patio at Sufra hums with families and good friends huddled around tables piled high with Jordanian delicacies. As the hours pass, the folk music grows louder and more upbeat, until chairs are pushed aside.
“Amman doesn’t club so much as it lounges,” explains Muna Haddad, a lifelong Ammani resident and local business owner.
From afternoon to evening, any venue in Amman might evolve from coffee shop to restaurant to nightclub, and your late lunch might drag on past midnight. Note that aside from the Islamic weekend (starting Thursday night), Monday is the night to go out in Amman (seriously).
Dunia dishes up a delightfully arabesque vibe with colorful couches and patterned ceramics on the wall. The dapper, professional crowd comes for the live bands, expressive singers, and spirited dancing. Super posh and always shiny, OZ is the late-night haunt of the glitterati—expect high fashion and high prices. Meanwhile, younger Ammani flock to the trendy rooftop lounge of the Loft, with its phenomenal city view and famous bar. Neon-lit Studio 26 boasts an amazingly diverse lineup of bands, including funky Arabic and Spanish music, while the grungy Corner’s Pub is equally musical but a bit more laid back.
Amman’s open-minded community finds a home at Books@Café, preaching “peace, love, and diversity” through good literature, music, food and drink. Yes, alcohol is legal here, even celebrated by some in Jordan. Check out Amman’s underground speakeasy Off the Record (OTR) for crazy handcrafted cocktails and 1920s jazz, or visit Good Pub for multiple craft beers on tap. Visit the birthplace of Jordan’s first beer at Carakale Brewing (the tasting room is open Thursday through Saturday), or spend the evening savoring buttery Chardonnays at Zumot Wine’s Winemaker shop. One of only a few winemakers in the country, their fruity reds pair perfectly with the intricate spice blends of the local palate.
But Jordan’s joie de vivre goes well beyond dry Cabernet, echoing loudest in Amman’s marvelous art scene. Swing by contemporary art foundation Darat al Funun for the latest talks, shows, openings, and screenings (in English and Arabic). The outdoor cinema sits among ancient ruins, and the reading room is a vaulted paradise of oversize art books. For local fine art and unique jewelry, visit Dar al Anda gallery.
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Nearby, poignant street art decorates the city walls and stairwells of this creative neighborhood, Jabal Al-Weibdeh. Lawrence of Arabia lived for a time in Weibdeh and wrote a portion of his autobiography here. A century later, poets and writers still gather outside, in the aptly named Paris Circle and among the open-air cafés of this unassuming hillside.
Rumi Café is a twee favorite, with decadent baked goods to match the artisanal coffees. For lunch, snag a seat at Joz Hind, where fresh, Italian-inspired meals are served family style, or take in the art and full dinner menu at Jasmine House. Overnight in Weibdeh proper by checking into boutique hotel La Laconda, where each room’s design is inspired by a legendary Arab chanteuse (the downstairs bar Maestro boasts a scene of its own).
Amman’s inspiration spans all tastes with a few surprising gems. If you’re into obscure black-and-white films, catch a show at Jordan’s Royal Film Commission; if you like tomato red Ferraris, you’ll want at least two hours inside the phenomenal Royal Automobile Museum; and if you simply want to sit outside and catch the sunset, wondering how a city of four million can be this quiet, then pick a balcony and breathe in the cool, dry air (I recommend the back patio of Wild Jordan).
Marveling at all the twinkling lights, it’s hard to believe that Amman is one of the oldest cities on Earth, continuously inhabited for the past 9,000 years. That airy sense of timelessness can only be felt—the momentous past against the ever changing light, from soft gray mornings to bright white days, to the sudden peach dusk of one more day in lovely Amman.