Jordan occupies one great cut-out of the Arabian Peninsula. Sandwiched between the more tumultuous nations of contested Israel, Iraq and Syria, it’s long been considered one of the rare stable enclaves of the region; one replete with mind-blowing UNESCO World Heritage Sites and totemic cultural hotspots – not least of all the carved ancient Nabatean ruins of Petra and the very site where Jesus Christ is thought to have been baptized!
Add in a deep, deep history going back thousands of years to the times of the earliest humans (archeological findings have suggested that even Neanderthal roamed these parts), and Jordan also begins to reveal its crumbling Roman cities, its exquisite Ottoman charm, those Persian treasures and Egyptian relics from long gone dynasties.
Jordan isn’t all about touring the past though, and you’ll only have to look to the lively streets of Aqaba on the Red Sea for world-class diving, or the downtown areas of Amman – the capital – for a burgeoning nightlife scene and up-coming modern art to boot.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Jordan:
The undisputed piece de resistance of Jordan is a place totally unlike anywhere else in the country.
Set out between the red-hued desert escarpments in the southern heartlands of the country, it’s thought the site was first inhabited in the 4th century BC. It was the ancestral capital of the thriving Arabian Nabataean civilization, which managed to raise the rock-cut treasuries and temples here to one of the most important trading outposts in the region.
Today, the whole enchanting site is known for its roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Indiana Jones, and comes hidden between a series of winding siq (tunnels created by erosion) passageways that are a real treat to explore.
In short: Petra is not to be missed!
Butting up to the Israel-Jordan border on the extreme eastern edge of the country, the dust-caked conglomeration of small dig sites and uncovered builds known as Al-Maghtas is arguably one of the most important biblical relics to be found on the entire courses of the Jordan River.
Tagged by UNESCO and slowly becoming a high-profile pilgrimage site for Christians (think papal visits aplenty in the last couple of decades), it’s thought to have been the original site of the baptism of Jesus.
Apart from that, the spot displays an interesting array of Jewish and Christian religious remains, Roman constructions, and Orthodox monasteries from the ages of the Ottomans and Mamluks.
Amman is a great place to feel the beating pulse of Arabia, and get a sense of the deep histories and cultural strands that inform Jordan as a whole.
Head to the warren of streets that weave and wind through the hectic center of the capital to see the mosaic of frenetic souks and echoing mosque minarets that make up the famous area of Balad.
Or, go to Abdali, where leafy boulevards give way to chic cafes and high-street boutiques.
There’s a clutch of must-see sights and landmarks to add to the menu too: that colossal Roman Theatre; the occasional remains of Ammonite fortifications; the medley of mosques and churches and palisades that make up the Jabal al-Qal’a citadel…
It’s a testimony to the sheer wealth of immersive history that still exists at the ruined city of Jerash that this site just north of Amman pulls in almost as many visitors as the legendary rock-cut temples at Petra.
Yep, this medley of towering colonnades and old forums, fascinating temples turned to Byzantine churches, and great plazas is hailed as perhaps the most amazing Roman provincial city still on the planet today.
You can come and stand where merchants from the Med would once have touted their goods, or imagine the hubbub of camel caravans arriving here straight from the dunes of the great Arabian sand sea.
5. Wadi Rum
Sun-scorched and glowing deep orange and red under the Arabian sun, the breathtaking reaches of the Wadi Rum of southern Jordan are surely one of the most awesome natural wonders in the region.
Carved from the rocky limestone escarpments that rise and fall dramatically on the eastern fringes of Aqaba, the famous valley is quintessential Jordanian backcountry.
Huge bluffs of rock-ribbed mountains loom on the horizon; mythic petroglyphs from ancient Nabatean peoples hide in the nooks and crannies; camels groan, and climbers swing tenuously from ropes around the hoodoos.
It’s hardly a surprise that this was chosen as the backdrop to one Lawrence of Arabia back in 1962!
6. Dead Sea
The Dead Sea carves its way through the heartlands of the Middle Eastern Levant.
The lowest and most salty of the world’s ocean water bodies, it’s encircled by rising mountains and ochre-hued sand dunes, all of which reflect majestically upon the surface as the Arabian sun beats down.
Today, the whole area on the Jordanian banks (the western side is over the border in Israel) comes dotted with beaches and resort hotels, while the south of the sea is taken over with interesting mineral evaporation pools, built for the harvesting of carnallite and potassium.
The favorite activity though? Well, that’s surely lazing on the surface of the water, where the high saline density keeps travelers afloat like logs!
Aqaba is Jordan’s gateway to the Red Sea.
It buts up to the out-and-out resort town of Eilat in Israel across the border, and crowns the tip of the salty water with a medley of palm-spotted promenades and yellow sand beaches.
Today, widespread redevelopment projects, and the raising of uber-luxurious resort hotels at Tala Bay just to the south, are converting Aqaba into the perfect seaside escape in the Middle East.
You can tour the ancient ruins of Tall Hujayrat Al-Ghuzlan, see the date trees of the Shatt Al-Ghandour, or do what most do: go underwater on a SCUBA excursion to see the multi-colored reefs that fringe the submarine beds all around.
8. Mujib Nature Reserve
This vast swathe of north-west Jordan promises some seriously breathtaking backcountry, complete with winding river valleys and dust-caked gorges, steep-sided valleys sculpted over the centuries and oodles of hidden walkways chiseled out of the rocks.
It’s known as the lowest nature reserve on the globe, and slopes down slowly to the saline waters of the Dead Sea.
Today, it’s taken over largely by adventure tourists and outdoors outfitters, who offer everything from intrepid hikes to heart-thumping rock climbing in the canyons to zip-lining through the dry and dusty air.
9. Dana Nature Reserve
Go back in time with a trip to the rugged lands of the Dana Nature Reserve.
This sweeping dash of carved valleys and rock-ribbed hills, scrub-dressed mountains and chiseled peaks topped with crumbling rocks, is not only Jordan’s largest protected area, but also offers a glimpse at the age-old lifestyles of the Middle Eastern folk who’ve made their home here.
You can bed down in drystone huts in the ancient villages, or opt to camp under the stars, all before days of hiking through the dusty canyons and spotting rare Nubian ibexes on the ridges.
It’s wonderful stuff for the outdoorsy traveler.
The old, old city of Madaba can be found clinging to the edge of the famous King’s Highway that weaves through the dusty desert hills and the very historic heart of Jordan.
Dominated by its glorious, gold-gilded mosque and collection of spiked minarets, the town also hides some awesome ancient mosaics that date from the Umayyad era.
There are wondrous Byzantine artworks lurking in the alcoves and chapels of the Orthodox Saint George Cathedral too, not to mention a clutch of old Roman ruins peppering the town.
You’ll also be able to sample spice-packed Jordanian mezze and smoky shisha in the fading Ottoman houses along the main drag.
Dominating the green and undulating hills of northern Jordan, the historic town of Ajloun is now just a smattering of individual villages and hamlets.
All of these smaller settlements are glued together by the soaring rises of the famous Ajloun Castle, which is by far the main reason most folk flock to these parts.
This mighty citadel of the Muslim dynasties of old sits in pride of place, on the ridges of Jabal Ajlun above the wadis that surround the peak.
It’s now possible to hike up to the old gateways and pass into the interior courtyards.
Within is a comprehensive exhibition that chronicles the many masters the castle has had over the centuries.
Irbid has thrived thanks to its hugely prestigious university – the acclaimed Yarmouk University – and a whole host of other well-known higher education facilities besides.
Consequently, the vibe here is undeniably lively and youthful, and the folk of this bustling northern city are proud of their forward-thinking, more off-the-wall reputation.
In recent years, theories that this was once the site of one of the ancient Decapoli (one of the great 10 cities in the Roman east) have gained traction too, and there’s plenty of fascinating relics and archaeological evidence to see in the local museum to support them.
Okay, so Zarqa hardly has the totemic archaeological ruins or the awesome historical monuments of the biblical proportions found elsewhere in Jordan, but there’s something else that attracts travelers to this down-to-earth exclave of Amman: a rough, lived-in feel that oozes the modern energy of the Middle East.
Over the years, the town of Zarqa has become subsumed by the growing tendrils of the capital, but it’s also managed to retain its blue-collar character, and there are now oodles of bazaars and markets, interesting little local food shops, teahouses and more to explore between the traffic-crammed alleys.
Another of the aged stopovers on the bends of the King’s Highway, Ma’an now straddles the divide between the old and the new.
To the south of the dusty, sun-scorched city in the desert that can be seen today, the remains of a much older settlement can still be found.
It’s thought that these date all the way back to the times of the Nabateans, and Ma’an formed an outpost away from Petra and the capital.
Ma’an also serves as a good stopover in the southern reaches of Jordan; perfect for travelers making their way through to Egypt, Israel and the Red Sea.
Surrounded by endless peaks and troughs of dry-mud hills, peppered with the occasional scraggy scrub and hardy acacia tree, the ancient ruins at Shobak are another spot perfect for the budding history buff traveling to Jordan.
Known – appropriately – as just the Shobak Castle, these great palisades and arched gates of old now stand crumbling and cracking on the edge of the beautiful Dana Reserve.
They aren’t much visited by tourists, but offer a unique insight into the fortification structures of the European crusaders of the 11th and 12th centuries.
Expect winding tunnels and hidden dungeons aplenty.