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Destination guide: Jordan

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From the majestic, rose-tinted facades of Petra to the vast monoliths of Wadi Rum - a one-time playground of Lawrence of Arabia - Jordan is a country steeped in other-worldly appeal. It’s also a land of contrasts, with a trove of archaeological treasures and serene desert landscapes straining to keep pace with its frenetic, rapidly modernising urban core.

Around the size of Austria, Jordan is sandwiched between a mass of Middle Eastern countries and originally formed part of a tourism beat that covered Egypt, Israel and Syria. With troubles flaring up amid many of its neighbours in the past five years (not least the conflict in Syria which has led to a refugee crisis on its border), this beautiful region has worked hard to keep visitor figures up.

Unsurprisingly, it’s keen to promote itself as a standalone destination and the only real question is why it didn’t do so before. Jordan has so much to offer the average tourist, be they a culture junkie, an adrenaline seeker or a die-hard foodie. A typical holiday here will see you soaking up the rays in the party-hard resorts of the Dead Sea, wandering among strings of purple figs and fragrant buckets of feta in the downtown Amman souk, enjoying Bedouin hospitality in the vast, sandy expanse of the Dana Biosphere Reserve and trekking up 800 steps in Petra to marvel at the magnificent alpine ranges.

It's a glorious assault on the senses and the lack of crowds makes it a friendly, easy-going place to explore.

Where to stay

Feynan Ecolodge in the heart of the Dana Biosphere Reserve

For somewhere unique and affordable, pop Feynan Ecolodge on your radar. This magnificent sand-coloured retreat is located in a mountainous wilderness at the heart of the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Community is central here; all the staff come from local Bedouin families and women nearby supply the hotel’s candles, water jugs and freshly baked bread. Electricity is kept to a minimum and at night, the place comes alive with an entrancing trail of paper lanterns and candles. It’s a tranquil and strangely hypnotic effect, especially come bedtime when your cave-like room is lit up by a host of candles dotted around in mirrored enclaves.

The team at Feynan want their guests to enjoy as an authentic experience as possible and there are loads of one-off expeditions to be had, from sunset hikes to Bedouin make-up sessions. Perhaps the best place to hang out here after sundown is on the lodge’s large flat roof, where hot tea, mattresses and a state-of-the-art telescope await for you to soak in an unblemished view of the night sky. If you're lucky, you'll get a glimpse of Saturn, Venus and the North Star.

Feynan Eco Lodge and the lobby of the Moevenpick Petra Hotel

For a more decadent option, the five star Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea is a fabulous place to be. This sprawling oasis boasts a host of perfectly manicured palm trees, tropical garden areas and infinity pools overlooking the Dead Sea, with a private beach entrance for floating and mud baths. At sunset, grab a cocktail at Kish Bar for a front row seat of the sun going down over the sea and the hazy outline of Jerusalem opposite.

The pool-side view from the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea

There's no shortage of hotels in the tourist hub of Petra but Mövenpick Petra Hotel is among the best. With a large, airy lobby decked out with beautiful antique furniture and imposing chandelier-style lamps, this high-end hotel is luxurious and laid-back, with a gorgeous outdoor terrace at the fourth-floor Al Ghadeer Roof Garden that overlooks the hillside lights of the city by night.

Over in the capital, on the highest of the city’s seven hills, the Four Seasons Amman is another one of Jordan’s top hotels. The newly opened terrace area on the basement floor restaurant is a lovely place to breakfast, but the best feature of this abode is surely its enormous windows overlooking the skyline of Amman.

Jordan: know before you go

  • Jordan is approximately a five hour flight from London and the time zone here is GMT + 2
  • The official language of Jordan is Arabic but English is widely spoken, especially in the cities
  • Jordan is predominantly an Islamic country. More than 92% of Jordanians are Sunni Muslims and approximately 6% are Christians
  • Jordan has a desert-type climate with hot days, cold nights and cool winters. The coldest months are December and January
  • Lightweight cotton clothing is suitable for most times of the year. Very revealing clothing is not appropriate and conservative dress is advised for both men and women in the downtown part of the capital Amman
  • Local currency is Jordanian Dinar (JD) which is often called the "jaydee". Currency can be exchanged at major banks, exchange booths and at most hotels

Food and drink

The street market in downtown Amman

Jordan’s fertile Mediterranean climate means seasonal food is in abundance and its markets are suffuse with overflowing trays of figs, sultanas, apricots, aubergines, prunes and watermelons. There are around 20 million olive trees in the country and the quality of oil here really is brilliant, not to mention rich in antioxidants. Drizzle it liberally over warm hunks of pita bread and hummus, another national specialty that you will find in almost every restaurant and hotel.

The people of Jordan pride themselves on their hospitality and a meal here is a very convivial affair, usually featuring a vast array of sharing dishes that you can help yourselves to (but don’t make the rookie mistake of filling up, only to find out it’s the just first course…).

Delicious offerings at Sufra in Amman

Amman is a thriving culinary hot spot and you’ll eat well here whether it’s street food or high-end cuisine. For the latter head to Sufra, an urban retreat flanked by palm trees in western Amman. The food at this legendary restaurant is nothing short of superb and it's best to come armed with a gladiator appetite. Mosaic tile flooring and an airy courtyard combine to create a chilled atmosphere where you can kick back and relax as a banquet of delicious fare arrives, from Mashawi (barbequed meat) to Mansaf (the national dish of Jordan - lamb marinated in yoghurt and served on rice), moreish cheese pastries and Fawaregh (stuffed sheep sausages). Wash it down with a cool lemonade heaped with sugar and fresh mint, or strong Arabic coffee served in tiny flowered cups. According to Bedouin tradition, coffee is served three times to a guest unless they indicate otherwise (you show you've had enough by shaking your cup from side to side).

Another great place to grab a bite to eat in Amman is Hashem in the downtown area of the city. The falafel here is so good that the restaurant counts King Abdullah II ibn al-Hussein among its regulars. It's also one of the few places in the city to still serve falafel and hummus for breakfast.

A quick walk around the city will introduce you to a host of treats, including bowls full of stewed fava beans, freshly squeezed juices served out of sugar canes at corner kiosks and Shawarma dens, where you can feast upon grilled chicken or beef wraps drizzled with onions and tahini sauce.

Falafel and hummus, anyone?

For a country that loves its Kofta (grilled lamb ground with spices) and other meats, there are a surprising number of vegetarian options. Those who shy away from meat or fish can tuck into platefuls of delicious Baba ghanoush, dough balls filled with creamy white cheese and plump, herb-infused Dolmades. In fact Feynan Eco Lodge’s dining experience is entirely vegetarian, comprising a candlelit buffet of dishes such as freshly baked flatbread (known as shraak), tabbouleh, hummus and yoghurt sauce.

Tea-making is a tradition taken seriously at Feynan and you’ll be offered a cup as soon as you step over the threshold. All the staff come from local Bedouin communities and they serve tea in delicate thumb-sized cups heaped with sugar and spices such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves and sage. The sugar content might be a bit strong for some tastes but it certainly delivers a welcome hit when you brew up a pot to watch the sunrise on a 5am mountain trek, or as the evening chill sets in on an evening’s stargazing expedition.

Tea served on the hills overlooking the Dana nature reserve

As a predominantly Muslim country, drinking alcohol in public outdoor areas is a no-no (especially during Ramadan) but wines, spirits and cocktails are widely available in bars and hotels. In fact Jordan's balmy climate is perfect for the production of rich grapes and there are some great local wines to be sampled, including Zumot Wine's award-winning Saint George Merlot with hints of plum and cherries.

Useful Arabic phrases

  • Yes - Na'am
  • No - Laa
  • Please - Min fadlak (to a man) Min fadlik (to a woman)
  • Thank you - Shukran
  • You're welcome - Afwan
  • Hello - Marhaba
  • Goodbye - Ma'asalameh
  • What is your name? - Shoo ismek?
  • What time is it? - Edesh el sa'aa?
  • How much? - Addeysh?
  • I don't speak Arabic - Ana laa ahkee Arabee

Things to see and do

The wonderful cityscape of Amman

You’ll probably land in the capital Amman, a crowded and vibrant metropolis that’s well worth lingering in for a day or two. Head to the Citadel for a true appreciation of the immense, contrasting cityscape with its mosques, amphitheatres, skyscrapers and miles upon miles of squat, yellow and white buildings. Take a look around the Temple of Hercules and the rather great Jordan Archaeological Museum, home to a curious array of Iron Age scarabs, Roman lamps and pottery and jewellery from the Byzantine era.

Amman’s leafy streets are rich with art galleries, boutiques and artisan workshops but for a truly authentic shopping experience, make a beeline to the downtown souk. The tiny, crowded alleyways here are crammed with every imaginable kind of product, from tinsel to flip flops, toilet rolls, remote controls, gold jewellery (in fact there’s a whole market dedicated to gold), gas stoves, shisha pipes and a greater variety of food than you’ve probably ever seen packed into one, compact space. Greater than any upscale shopping mall and more bargainous than a budget chain supermarket, you’ll be hard-pushed not to find what you want.

Petra is the archaeological jewel in Jordan's crown

The Wadi Rum, a Unesco World Heritage site, should be next on your hit list. This fabled 74,000-hectare desert wonderland in southern Jordan was described by its token adventurer Lawrence of Arabia as "vast, echoing and God-like...". There’s certainly something unearthly about its timeless formation of towering monoliths, gorges, caverns and giant sand dunes. Also known as "Valley of the Moon", the horizon seems to stretch out forever and is filled with all kinds of treasures from prehistoric rock carvings (used by archaeologists to detail the evolution of human thought and the alphabet) to imposing rock formations such as the Seven Pillars (named by Lawrence of Arabia in his autobiography of the war, Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

You can tackle this landscape via a camel ride or even aboard a hot air balloon, but 4x4 trucks are the quickest way and you can zoom down the sand dunes on the way for extra kicks – or climb one of them (harder work than you might think) and "moonwalk" down in giant, leaping strides. Find a high spot to see the sun set, lending a beautiful gold-red glow to the rocks, before retiring to one of the desert camps dotted in and around the entrance to the Wadi Rum.

The Treasury at Petra

Another world heritage site, Petra, is the jewel in Jordan’s crown and any trip to the country should allow a good three or four days to explore this ancient city of breath-taking archaeological wonders. Part of the Indiana Jones franchise was filmed here and even with the customary handful of overpriced tourist stalls and tickets touts that frame its entrance, it still feels like stepping into a fantasy world.

Bedouin men dressed in traditional dish dashes with red bandoliers and red and white headdresses dash down the main through-fare on camels. As you approach the city through Siq, a narrow and dramatic gorge that stretches over a kilometre, you will be overtaken by colourfully adorned wagons driven by slightly harassed-looking donkeys. Take a good pair of flats and water with you to tackle the main sites, including The Treasury and the Roman-style theatre. A trek up to the imposing Ad-Deir Monastery is definitely worth the sweat factor but donkeys are available if you can’t face the climb.

Pause for a moment of reflection at "the view at the end of the world" with towering alpine ranges and the Jordanian flag pitched here and there. Petra by night is a particularly special experience if you can make it (it usually runs a few times a week but is subject to restrictions); the entire site is illuminated by the ethereal glow of 1,800 candles.

The Wadi Rum (top) and the Dead Sea (bottom) are among Jordan's highlights

Finish your trip off with a well-deserved break by the Dead Sea, 400-metres below sea level. The mineral-rich water and sea mud here is renowned for its cleansing qualities and a floating dip/mud bath combination is not to be missed – grab a newspaper for full effect but remember not to splash any water in your eyes. As you’d expect, spa facilities in this region are particularly good; book in for a Dead Sea salt body scrub at the brilliant Kempinski Ishtar spa for revitalisation at its best.

Getting there and away

Royal Jordanian flies daily from London Heathrow to Amman with prices starting from a very reasonable £228 each way. For further information and to book online, visit rj.com or call 08719 112 112.

Rates at the Four Seasons Amman start from £131 per room. Feynan Ecolodge start from £70 per room, with £6 for a sunrise hike. Rooms at the Movenpick Resort Petra start from £126 per night. Rates at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea resort start at £192 per room, with spa treatments from £113 for 90 minutes. Entrance to Petra costs £50 per person for one full day. A two and a half hour guide for all the major sites costs around £13. Jeep tours at the Wadi Rum cost £20 per jeep, per hour and camel rides start from around £14 per person.

For more information on Jordan, go to visitjordan.com

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