Old meets new in Jordan’s electrifying capital city of Amman. Ancient Roman ruins, hip shisha cafés, labyrinthine souks, and a buzzing nightlife scene stretch across the hilly landscape, beckoning travelers of all types to explore its hidden treasures.
For History Buffs
Centuries of history are perched atop Jebel al-Qala’a, Amman’s highest hill, where ancient Roman, Byzantine, and Umayyad ruins make up the area known as the Citadel. Visitors wander back in time through the stone-carved columns and vaulted chambers of the striking Temple of Hercules and Umayyad Palace. Farther down the hill, the impressive second-century Roman Theater, the center of ancient Philadelphia (Amman’s one-time moniker), is carved into the ridge. As a bonus, the Citadel’s high vantage point offers breathtaking views of downtown Amman.
Amman’s burgeoning art scene sets the stage for some epic festivals. Every summer, thousands of revelers flock to King Hussein Park for the Amman Summer Festival—a joyful explosion of dance, music, and art. In May, spectators can view graffiti masterpieces at the Baladk Street Art Festival, and in July, the Franco-Arab Film Festival showcases French-Arab productions. Can’t make it during the summer? Embrace the drama at the European Film Festival held in November.
Weave your way through the city’s winding souks, where vendors hawk eclectic wares. Grab authentic souvenirs, lanterns, jewelry, and antiques in Souk al-Bukharia in downtown Amman. For shoppers looking to splurge, head to the aptly named Gold Souk, where intricate gold and silver jewelry adorns window displays, tempting shoppers to empty their wallets. If you’re looking for vintage fashion inspiration, stop by the Jordan Folklore Museum and Museum of Popular Tradition, both located within the Roman Theater, which display traditional Jordanian and Palestinian costumes, jewelry, and headdresses.
Treat your taste buds to the spicy and sweet flavors of Amman. Next to the King Hussein Mosque, the smells of candied fruits, flaky baklawa, and syrupy kanafeh (a sweet cheese pastry) sweeten the air at the Souk Al-Sukar, or sugar market. Sharpen your cooking skills at Beit Sitti, where visitors learn how to prepare their own four-course meal. Those looking for fine dining with an old-world atmosphere should venture to Kan Zaman, which serves up traditional Jordanian and Levantine cuisines. Vaulted stone ceilings, softly lit lanterns, and Arabic music transport diners to a different century. For traditional Arab dishes, feast on falafel in the family-run Hashem, order mansaf at Sufra Restaurant, and satisfy your sweet tooth with some baklawa at Jabri Restaurant.
For Architecture Fans
Amman boasts Islamic architecture spanning from ancient times to the modern age. Four towering minarets announce the pink-and-white King Hussein Mosque. The Ottoman-style construction was rebuilt in 1932 over the site of an ancient mosque from A.D. 640. On Fridays during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, worshippers often spill out onto the streets. Venture farther east, where the turquoise-domed King Abdullah Mosque, a memorial to the late King Hussein’s grandfather, pops against the sandy-colored landscape. The dome is adorned by intricate Quranic inscriptions and accommodates thousands of worshippers. Another 15 minutes east, Abu Darwish Mosque sits on Jebel al-Ashrafiyeh, one of Amman’s seven hills, and is most notable for its stunning facade, made up of alternating layers of black and white stone. (See “How to Visit a Mosque.”)
For Night Owls
For many, the fun begins when the sun goes down. Dance to the beats of a live DJ at H20 Pool and Lounge at the Kempinski Hotel. Enjoy your brew with a spectacular view at the Ghoroub Lounge on the rooftop of the Landmark Hotel, or dine under the fiber-optic chandeliers of 32º North at the Grand Hyatt. Those looking for a more low-key night can relax at one of Amman’s trendy shisha and coffee lounges scattered across the city. Head to eclectic Rainbow Street and order some local eats and fruity-flavored shisha at Jafra Restaurant & Cafe while listening to live music. Relax into a pile of bright pillows at the funky Azkadenya Arabic restaurant, grab dessert with an extra side of swag at Fashion Café, or sip on a coffee with a good book at the psychedelic Books@Café.
Amman is an ideal base for making day trips to nearby attractions. An hour from the city, at 1,300 feet below sea level, lies the lowest point on Earth: the Dead Sea. Due to its high salinity, mud-slathered bathers float on top of the mineral-rich waters, which are believed to have healing properties. In the same trip, visitors can stop in the old town of Madaba, known for its vibrant collection of Byzantine-era mosaics and religious diversity.
For Fans of Art
Amid the ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church, Darat al-Funun hosts, exhibits, and supports the work of contemporary Jordanian and Arab artists in renovated 1920s buildings. It is believed that T. E. Lawrence—the storied Lawrence of Arabia—was once a guest in the main Venetian-style building. In the historic Jabal Amman neighborhood, Nabad Art Gallery hosts the work of emerging Jordanian artists, rotating several exhibitions throughout the year.
A short drive to the outskirts of Amman, Iraq al-Amir, the “Caves of the Prince,” dot the picturesque olive groves of the Jordan Valley. Near the caves, Qasr al-Abd, the ruins of a grand Hellenistic palace, dominate the landscape. Fifteen minutes south of Amman in the village of Rajib, the Cave of Seven Sleepers is filled with carved sarcophagi from the late Roman and Byzantine periods. According to the tale of the Seven Sleepers—which appears in Syriac, Latin, Greek, and Arabic sources—Christian youths who faced persecution by the Roman emperor slept in the caves for 300 years in a divine miracle.
For Spa Lovers
Let your worries evaporate in the steamy chambers of Al-Pasha Turkish Bath or the beautiful marble baths of Alf Layla Wa Layla, where visitors are treated to a luxurious soak, scrub, and massage. About an hour outside of Amman in the hills of the Dead Sea, the mineral-rich thermal waterfalls of Hammamat Ma’in feed a variety of public pools nestled in a striking landscape.