by Rebecca Holland
When it comes to Jordan, I’m a bit biased. It was the first place I ever traveled outside of the US, and for that reason one of my favorite places in the world. So, of course I think five days is way too short. I realize though, that vacation days are not always unlimited, and there are other places you might want to spend your small stash. I was in Jordan for the past few weeks, but a friend visited for five days and we managed to pack a lot in in that time period. So, if you can make a longish weekend out of it (much easier to do if you’re traveling from Europe, the Middle East, or Asia), here’s how to maximize your time. If you have more time, spend another day wandering around Amman, and head north to Jerash and Umm Qais, or do some adventuring in Wadi Mujib.
Day 1 – Fly into Amman
Amman is a thriving city of four million people. There’s plenty to do to entertain yourself for days, though most of it is things you can do in any big city. Shopping, dining, drinking. If you want to get to know the city, spend some significant time here, but if you want to see the main sights and eat the best food, 36 hours is perfect.
Say you get in in the afternoon. Grab a juice at Wild Jordan Center at the end of Rainbow Street. The center is run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and proceeds go to the rural communities of eight nature preserves throughout the country. If you have time, you can take a day trip to one of the preserves through the center. Either way, take a look through the gift shop, where you’ll find homemade jewelry and other souvenirs that are nicer than other spots in the city.
Wild Jordan also has a cafe with juices and coffee, and most importantly some of the best views over the old city of Amman. The food here is wonderful too, and if you have more days I would suggest dinner at some point. If you only have one night though, go to Al Quds or Fakhr El-Din. Al Quds serves the best Mansaf (Jordan’s national dish of rice, meat, almonds, and fermented yogurt), in Amman, while Fakhr El-Din serves fine Arabic cuisine. Make a reservation for the latter or prepare to wait for a table. If you’re not too tired after feasting, go to Cantaloupe, O Six, Maestro Bar, or one of the many other bars for drinks.
There are plenty of hotel options in Amman, but if you only have a day or two I recommend staying in the historic area, near the main sights.
Day 2 – Amman/Wadi Rum
Wake up early and head to Cafe Rumi for coffee and a light bite to eat. You might want to walk around the neighborhood too. There are some cute shops.
Walk or take an Uber to the Citadel (warning: it looks close on a map, but the hills to get there are killer). Spend some time exploring the ancient Roman and Umayyad ruins here, then walk down the hill to the Roman Amphitheater.
Now walk to Hashem, one of Amman’s most popular lunch spots and what is in my opinion the best hummus in the world. Also excellent, light and fluffy falafel. I get giddy every time I go here. There are only four or five things on the menu. A waiter will come up and list them to you and you can just say yes to what you want.
After lunch hop in a taxi and head to the airport to pick up a rental car. In most places, I am a huge fan of renting a car. It’s so nice to have the flexibility to stop whenever you feel like it for snacks or photos. I feel like renting a car allows you to see more of a place, which is especially useful when you have limited days.
There are a couple ways to see Wadi Rum, and after three trips I think this last one was by far the best. You can camp with bedouins in tents, which can be really fun. You’ll be taken to a campsite with a few other tourists, where you’ll chat, drink tea, and eat a giant dinner usually prepared in an underground oven. Sometimes there’s traditional Bedouin dancing too. During the day, you can choose to hike, take a camel, or drive around to different famous sites. Or, you can sleep outdoors and have a more private experience, which is what we did this time. We booked through Atullah at Wadi Rum Jordan Guide. He and his small staff are fantastic! We arrived in time to catch sunset from atop a giant sandstone cliff, then drove around until our guide found the perfect camping spot.
Here, he lit a fire and made us tea, which we sipped while watching stars slowly populate the sky. Atullah and a friend met us for dinner, which was rice and chicken with yogurt and spices. After more tea, we settled in for bed.
The camping spot really was perfect. A rock awning hung over the mattresses our guide brought for us, creating a natural frame. Snuggled up under blankets with a fragrant fire burning and trillions of stars overhead, it couldn’t have been any cozier.
Day 3 – Wadi Rum/Petra
Waking to crisp air and bright blue skies was invigorating, as was an early morning walk and more tea, served with bread heated over the fire, za’atar, cheese, and jam.
Spend the morning exploring Wadi Rum with your guide. Driving is much more comfortable than camels, I promise. Also, how cool is this truck?
We hiked over rocks, climbed sand dunes, and took more photos than I know what to do with.
Around 11am (the benefit of waking up with the sun is that by this time we had already been up for hours and seen a lot), we headed back to our rental car and drove the hour and a half to Petra.
Now, this part of the trip changes depending on what time of year you go. We went in March, when the weather is perfect. Warm during the day but not too hot, and jacket weather at night. This meant we could walk through Petra at around 2pm when we arrived, and be back in our hotel by dark. If you go in the summer though, exploring Petra in the afternoon is just too hot. I’ve been in June and August, when I started hiking at 6am to beat the heat, but was still dehydrated and exhausted by 1pm when I returned. I strongly suggest visiting in the spring or fall.
Let me say a few things about Petra here. It is beautiful, the history is fascinating, and the carvings and logistics of it are impressive to say the least. It is also Jordan’s most touristy spot, and someone should really do something about the number of people hassling you about donkey and horse rides, not to mention cleaning up after said donkeys/horses. Endless selling is a problem with most touristy sites around the world, but maybe because you’re walking through small passageways it feels exacerbated here. If you can get past that though, it’s easy to see why Petra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Walking back later in the day after most of the crowds had gone and the sun was beginning to set was especially beautiful. There’s also a new visitor’s center and museum, which is worth walking through before or after your trip to get a better grasp of how and why Petra exists.
There’s not much to do in the town of Petra at night. There are restaurants, but nothing very special. We stayed at the Movenpick, where we had dinner, took much needed showers, and relaxed while watching BBC. Because you’ll probably spend tonight mostly in your hotel, spring for a place that’s comfortable.
Day 4 – Road Trip/Dead Sea
Today you’ll be driving to the Dead Sea, with a few stops thanks to your rental car. First stop is Little Petra, which is far less visited than the main sight, and for that reason almost more charming.
The ruins aren’t as impressive, but the canyons and rocks are just as beautiful. If you have time, you can also hike from here along part of the Jordan Trail, a recently completed trail that runs the length of the entire country.
Back in the car, you’ll drive along the King’s Highway, a scenic, hilly road that warrants a few photo stops.
Arrive at the Dead Sea in the afternoon. There are a few hotel options here all offering more or less the same thing. I like the Holiday Inn the best, mainly for its swim-up bar and various pool options. Walk to your hotel’s beach (there are public beaches too, but they’re not as nice and you’ll want to shower after), coat yourself in Dead Sea mud, and wade into the water. There’s so much salt in the Dead Sea you can’t sink, and floating without trying is such a strange sensation. Hotels are the only thing around, but they all have bars and often nighttime entertainment, so settle in and enjoy.
Day 5 – Madaba/Return
Have a leisurely morning at your hotel, either hanging by the pool, taking another mud float in the sea, or getting a spa treatment. On your way out, stop at the Baptism Site, the World Heritage Site where it’s believed Nazareth was baptized by John the Baptist. There are also a few Roman and Byzantine ruins here.
Drive to Madaba, an ancient city with hundreds of pretty Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics. Visit the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to see a large mosaic map on the floor depicting the Holy Land. The Archaeological Park has many more mosaics, and also houses the Church of the Virgin Mary. Visit the Shrine of the Beheading for St. John the Baptist for the underground Acropolis Museum and views from the bell tower. On the way, there’s a rare book shop. I can’t remember the name, but it’s on Haya St. near the church. Have lunch at Haret Jdoudna, a sunny spot serving large salads, mezze, and other healthy-ish dishes.
You can stop at Mt. Nebo if you have time, where according to the Hebrew Bible Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land.
Head back to Amman and either go straight to the airport to drop off your car and catch a flight, or like we did head back into the city for a few hours (our flight was at midnight).
A few things to consider:
- Spring and fall are really the best times to visit, especially if you don’t do well in hot weather.
- Dress conservatively. Even in Petra, even though you’re surrounded by other tourists.
- Driving in Jordan is a little rough at times. You’ll be fine, but watch out for what seem like unnecessary speed bumps in the middle of the highway, and a general disregard for lanes. If you’re nervous about driving, pick up and drop off the car at the airport, and do not attempt to drive in Amman, which is much crazier than the highway.
- People ask me all the time if Jordan is safe. Yes, it is. It really, really is.
- These five days are all spent in Amman and south, but there’s plenty to see in the north of Jordan too. Jerash and Umm Qais are both worth visiting.
Jordan Travel Essentials