Amman: Welcome to Jordan
‘Welcome to Jordan’. The most common phrase you will here along your journey through this middle eastern country. Jordanians have been welcoming visitors for centuries which has resulted in an unrivaled level of hospitality. Located in one of the harshest environments in the world, where water and farmland is scarce, travelers depended on the Bedouin who called this area home for survival as they passed through these lands. While most visitors today arrive as tourists rather than traders, the welcoming of visitors has not changed from times long past. This is likely to remain as Jordan’s economy becomes ever increasingly reliant on tourism, which depends on it’s positive image abroad, in a region that has been troubled over the past few decades.
Amman: Your Home Base for all Things North
Many people with Petra on their minds, look to get out of the sprawling capital as fast as they can (which can take forever if there is traffic). However the city itself is worth some exploration. In addition to exploring the city, the location makes it a perfect home base for exploring the plethora of sights to be seen in northern Jordan. The highlights of the city can be tackled in one full day while exploring outside of the city takes at least 2-3 days and is best seen using your own set of wheels. For this post, we will be focusing on Amman itself.
Most of the Amman you see today is very new, mainly developed over the later half of the 20th century. For the past several decades, Amman has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from various conflicts that surround the country which has caused the capital’s population to swell. One of the more liberal of the Middle Eastern capitals, the city offers a good introduction and soft landing to those who are new to the region.
On our first full day in the city, we got up early and hired a taxi up to the top of Jabal Al- Qalaa. Perched on the highest of the seven original hills that made up ancient Amman, the hill top is covered in ruins, left behind by the Romans, Byzantines, and Umayyads. The highlight, standing tall above the rest, are the remains of the Temple of Hercules. With much of the temple destroyed over time, it is still very easy to imagine the importance and sheer size of this ancient temple.
After wandering around the temple, Claire and I ducked inside the small museum (included in entrance fee) in order to warm up from the chilly winds outside. The museum is pretty small but has some pretty incredible residents, including a statue of a human figure that dates back to around 7,250 BC, one of the oldest ever found.
All warmed up, Claire and I left the museum in order to check out the other half of the hilltop which is covered with the remains of several Byzantine era churches and Umayyad period settlements. While walking around, be sure to look out at the city that surrounds you as the layout is quite fascinating. The sandstone colored buildings, seemingly built on top of one another, race up the hills that surround you. A sea of buildings riding the waves of the landscape that surrounds Amman.
Once we had enough of the cold, we began making our way down the hill, passing by the hill’s current residents’ homes which were flooded with smiling school children on their way to somewhere with their oversized backpacks. Many of them were eager to catch our attention, shake our hand, or practice their English. All of them, including ourselves, left with big smiles on our faces as we all descended down the hill. At the bottom of the hill lies Amman’s most impressive monument, a Roman theater that dates back to the second century. With a capacity of 6,000, climbing up to the top and looking down the steep angle of seats can induce some vertigo. The theater is a good place to take a break in order to rest your legs for the climbing that comes later (there is nothing flat about this city).
Tackling the Modern City of Amman
Other than a couple of other ruins spread out in town, the highlight of a stroll through Amman is the tasty treats tempting you from the street front shops as you pass by. Outside of the city, finding good eats can be a challenge so this is your only chance to feast on the best of the best of Jordanian cuisine. Before you get a chance to seek some of these out, you will probably be distracted by the noisy chaos that is an Amman street. Horns blaring, people bustling every which way, and sales carts with megaphones amplifying what they buy or sell will assault your senses. While crossing the street can be intimidating, understand that pedestrians are protected heavily under the law as the driver is always at fault. With this in mind, take the road a lane at a time, otherwise you will be waiting on one side of the road all day waiting for a big enough opening to cross all at once. Still can’t do it? Shadowing a local crossing the road is an effective way to get where you want too!
Not far from the Roman theater, tucked in the corner of a small alley, lies Jordan’s legendary sweet spot. You’ll know you’ve made it to Habibah by the sheer number of locals queuing up to get their hands on some of their sugary (and cheesy) sweets. On order here is freshly made (you can watch them prepare the massive trays) Baklava, Halva, and Knafeh. The latter of these was hands down our favorite (missing it hardcore right now). Knafeh, is a cheesy pastry and shredded phyllo (dough) that is soaked in a sugary syrup and sprinkled with pistachio. In simpler terms, it is simply wow! Be warned however that Jordanians have an insanely sweet tooth. These pastries are so sweet that it is hard to finish even one of these without tapping out for a bottle of water. After we ordered three different types, we understood why their was a guy sitting outside the entrance selling bottles of water. We ended up having to tap out despite how good this stuff was. A homeless man was more than happy to take our leftovers that we couldn’t finish even if we tried to.
A rather steep climb from the bottom of town near the theater gets you up to Amman’s most hip hangout, rainbow street. While the name might make you think this is some sort of gay friendly neighborhood (homosexuality, while not illegal, is still severely frowned upon in Jordan), it is rather where the youth of city come out to eat and socialize. The street is rather sleepy during the day, waiting until the evening hours to really wake up. Our main reason for venturing up here however, was to grab what is known as Amman’s best Falafel sandwich. While we have to give Lonely Planet credit for finding this gem, Al Quds has been making Falafel here since the 1970s and has an endless line of people throughout the day. The webiste challenges readers to find a place better than this joint, and after traversing a vast area of the country, we most certainly could not. For cheap eats, this place is the best of the best. Don’t expect this good of a sandwich anywhere else in the country.
Choosing Accommodation In Amman
Like the rest of Jordan, hotels are rather expensive for what you get in return. Budget places are mostly pretty old, offer poor ventilation, and aren’t the cleanest places in the world. Traditional hostels are non-existent leaving you with few desirable options. For Amman, taking a look at Airbnb is worth it. There are a few listings that compare with the prices of budget hotels for two people and offer so much more in return. Our Airbnb was clean and had a kitchen where we could cook which made for a comfortable week long stay in the city. While most budget accommodation is in the center of the city, we choose to live just outside the city center near the US embassy. The streets are quieter out here and more importantly, made it easier for us to park our own car and get out of the city for our day trips without having to deal with Amman’s white knuckle inducing traffic.
Amman: A Good Introduction to the Middle East
Due to Jordan’s stability in a region filled with pockets of instability and the city’s liberal leanings, Amman makes for a soft landing for travelers looking to get a taste of the middle east. No other town in Jordan is better at this than the capital, with its mix of ancient sights, friendly locals, and bustling atmosphere. Rather than race out as soon as you get here, take a day or two to take in the city itself and consider using it as a base for exploring the north of Jordan where much of the countries breath taking (and surprisingly quiet) sights are to be found.