Where to go in Jordan
Map & Highlights
Although pink is the colour that jumps to mind when most people think of Jordan, with famous images of its Rose City at Petra engraved into everybody’s travel wish list, Jordan’s palette is verging on prismatic. With rolling hills covered in thick forests, table-flat expanses of shimmering desert, Arcadian groves of olives, pomegranate and apricot trees, stark saw-toothed mountains, as well as mystical, narrow canyons of pink, red and cream rock. Bazaars are bursting with spices and sweets, fruits and falafels and even the main market street in Amman is called Rainbow Street. Because Jordan is not just rosy. It is simply, and gorgeously aglow.
Aljoun Forest Reserve
This reserve comprises just 13 square km of densely mountains, but within this are some 300 plant species, including 30 medicinal plants. Visit in spring for a carpet of rock roses, wild tulips, black iris and orchids. Walking trails here last from one to ten hours, some longer routes include lunch stops with local families. Keep an eye out for elusive roe deer, wild boar, golden jackal, porcupines and wolves.
Perched on three hills in a land of fertile soil with a pleasant climate, Al Salt has been settled since the Iron Age, and subsequently inhabited by Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks – and sacked by the Mongols. It was Jordan’s capital during the Ottoman Empire, and the gorgeous Ottoman architecture still lines the winding streets, linked by stone stairways. The souk is a real treat – yet rarely visited by tourists.
Aqaba & the Red Sea
Jordan has a toe in the water of the Red Sea at Aqaba and although the country’s total coastline is only about 27km long, 7km has been designated a marine park. There are 21 designated dive sites, some only 60m from shore. As well as coral and fish, green turtles put in an appearance. The park also has a wonderful visitors’ center, as well as several beaches with wooden jetties above the reef.
Azraq Wetland Reserve
‘Azraq’ means ‘blue’ – and is the name given to this oasis in the heart of the Eastern Desert, where 150 species of birds can be seen on their migration between Europe, Asia and Africa. Raised boardwalks take visitors on a looping trail over the waters and reeds; there are also remote adobe hides that you can access with the reserve’s guides. Water buffalo help maintain the ecosystem and reduce the reeds.
Straddling the edge of the Great Rift Valley, it’s Jordan's largest nature reserve, with 320km2 of shark-tooth mountain ridges with towering cliffs, sandstone, limestone and granite canyons, eroded into exquisite landscapes. Receding finally to dramatic Saharo-Arabian desert plains of Wadi Arabi. Dana village, around 400 years old, is a fascinating place and top spot for buying a wide array of artisans’ finery. Read more
Water falling in the mountains filters down and collects at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley; the Sea’s shores alone are 400m below sea level. Evaporation creates a cocktail of salts and minerals leaving a solution so strong the shoreline’s rocks are white from a thick deposit of salt. Its high viscosity means that this lake, 80km long and 14km wide, is often mirror calm – and the best place to float in the world.
A desert plain east of Amman that is home to several monuments known as ‘desert castles’. Qasr Amra, best preserved and UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a bath house and pleasure palace, Qasr Kharrana was thought to be a desert retreat for Umayyad dignitaries and Qasr al-Azraq has a military history, including Lawrence of Arabia using it as headquarters during the Arab Revolt.
One of best-preserved provincial Roman cities in the world, preserved through time by sand. The main street is still paved with dressed stone and lined with an impressive colonnade. A huge triumphal arch, erected in honour of Hadrian, marks the site entry where hilltop temples, baths, hippodrome, fountains and a large oval forum are just some of the highlights. As well as magnificent city walls.
Karak's position, on a hilltop almost 1,000m above sea level, surrounded on three sides by valleys and with commanding views over the Dead Sea, makes it a perfect spot for a castle. With a bloody history in the hands of infamous 12th century Crusader Reynaud De Chatillon, the ruins still seem to have an air of menace, possibly due to the many underground passages with side rooms and chambers to explore.
Dating back 3,500 years and mentioned in the Old Testament, it’s now most famous for its intricate 5th and 6th century mosaics, prolific throughout the town. The most important example lies in the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, a Byzantine mosaic map of the holy land, which originally contained 2.3 million pieces. Nearby Mount Nebo is the place from where Moses viewed the Promised Land.
Mujib Nature Reserve & Wadi
Over 200km2 of stark rugged mountains, veined with deep river filled canyons. With biodiverse beauty, conservationists have bred the endangered Nubian ibex and nine species of birds of prey. Down in the snaking, sheer canyons, waters teem with freshwater crabs and fish, with a plethora of hiking and canyoning routes along the way.
Pella (Taqabat Fahl)
Sitting on a plateau above the Jordan Valley, Pella village seems like a sleepy backwater, yet this area has marked the march of civilisations and human presence as far back as the Stone Age. Archaeological digs have revealed Neolithic houses built around 6,000 BCE, massive city walls from 3,200 BCE and a Greek city. But it was the Romans who left a lasting mark with a theatre, fountain-house and baths.
A world great, this ancient capital cut into pink sandstone, giving its name The Rose City, dates back to 312 BCE. First timers should approach via the extraordinary, multi-coloured Al Siq. Other highlights include 800 steps up to Al-Deir Monastery and Al Khazneh Treasury. Take in Bedouin lifestyles, still thriving in Petra’s caves. Top tip: leave via lower gate, taking the road that climbs to Umm Sayhoon village.
The King’s Highway
This ancient artery is now a well maintained road. It begins in Amman and winds its way through over 330km of rolling farmland, past sleepy villages, along the edge of the desert and up into steep, rugged mountains. From there, it plunges 600m into Jordan’s Grand Canyon and follows the Desert Highway down to the Red Sea. Along the way you’ll encounter Madaba’s mosaics, Petra, Karak’s castles, roadside coffee and baklava stalls.
Before the Middle Ages, Umm Qais was known as Gadara. It was probably founded by Greeks in 4th century BCE, but reached prominence as a Roman city during the 1st century AD. There are remains of a mausoleum and public baths, colonnaded street and Basilica of Gadara. Most impressive of all is the imposing and well-preserved Roman amphitheatre. Sweeping views lead down to the Sea of Galilee.
The Bedouin call it "Valley of the Moon" and its razor-toothed mountains, wind-sculpted rocks and expansive plains do make it otherworldly. Wadi Rum describes Southern Jordan’s entire desert, but the true, protected area makes up 720km2. Rich in Bedouin culture, access is via Wadi Rum village, the last outpost of modernity before untamed, daunting yet captivating wilderness.
Photo credits: [Intro box: jcookfisher] [Aljoun Forest Reserve: Smart Viral] [Al Salt: Omernos] [Aqaba & the Red Sea, Azraq Wetland Reserve, Dana Reserve: Visit Jordan] [Dead Sea: SarahTz] [Desert Castles: Paul Mannix] [Jerash, Karak, Madaba, Mujib Nature Reserve & Wadi, Pella (Taqabat Fahl), Petra, Umm Qais: Visit Jordan] [The King’s Highway: Hendrik Dacquin] [Wadi Rum: Miriam Mezzera]