Week eight of my crazy 52 countries in 52 weeks adventure took me to the Middle Eastern gem of Jordan, the cheapest flight out of Budapest. Now don’t get me wrong, I love European cities, but after two months straight of churches, castles and old towns I was SO excited to be heading somewhere completely different to the first part of my big trip.
Jordan jumped onto my bucket list a couple of years back after seeing photos of the stunning Petra ruins on Instagram, but because it’s notoriously expensive to get to, and still not easy on the wallet once you’re there, I hadn’t managed to make it there just yet. But now after spending a week exploring all the country has to offer, I can say with certainty that it’s absolutely worth the money!
Here are five reasons why you need to visit Jordan and where you should go, plus a guide on how to get around once you’re there.
1. The people
Jordanians were some of the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. After experiencing the craziness of souks in Morocco and bazaars in Istanbul, where women are pulled into shops and yelled at (“Spice Girls! Lady Gaga! *Insert other western celebrity here*!), I was totally prepared for the same in Jordan. Turns out that was unnecessary!
While shopkeepers still vye for your business, I found that shopping in Jordan was far more enjoyable than doing the same in both Morocco and Turkey. I wasn’t touched once, most shopkeepers say a polite ‘hello’, might show you a couple of specialities and then leave you to browse for a while, and while there were people who stared, especially in downtown Amman, I never felt like I was being targeted or pressured.
The taxi drivers I had were all so friendly (including a female driver who picked us up from the airport, a pleasant surprise to start our trip!), waiters were always more than happy to help translate menus, and there was a group of school girls at Ajloun Castle who were all desperate for selfies with us just because we looked different, and they then sang happy birthday to my friend! Beautiful people, beautiful moments.
2. The ancient ruins of Jordan
Aside from the people and the food, the obvious next reason to visit Jordan is because of the incredible ancient ruins it’s home to.
The obvious leader of the pack in terms of Jordan’s must-sees is the magical ancient city of Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World. The city is more than 2000 years old, was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss explorer disguised as an Arab scholar, and now sees almost a million tourists visit each year.
The most well-known part of Petra is Al-Khazneh, the Treasury, which featured in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and is now one of the main tourist attractions in the entire Middle East region. It’s actually thought to be a king’s mausoleum from the first century, and you can see bullet holes on the facade from tribesmen attacking the building hundreds of years ago looking for (and failing to find) treasure.
Another worthwhile site to see in Petra is the Monastery, although the trek isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to climb 800 uneven steps to reach the Monastery which can be tough in the summer heat (I went in August, would not recommend), but you’ll be rewarded with close up views of this magnificent 3rd century BC tomb. It’s a similar style to the Treasury but it’s even bigger, measuring 50m wide and 45m high.
And for some very different but also super impressive ruins, it’s worth heading just north of Amman to the Roman ruins of Jerash. These ruins are some of the best-preserved ruins I’ve ever seen, and there’s a colonnaded main street that’s still got the original stones so you can see where the chariots used to ride over them.
3. The food
My stomach is rumbling just thinking about Jordanian cuisine. Local dishes are quite similar to other countries in the region, with huge mezze platters, hearty meat dishes, endless falafel and sugar-soaked desserts as staples on restaurant menus.
The local hospitality flows right through to the restaurants, where they serve gigantic meals that you probably won’t be able to eat all of without falling into a food coma. If small plates are an option, it’s best to get a couple of those to avoid over-ordering, or if you’re travelling in a group then go hard and order as much as you want, sit around for a couple of hours to devour it, then tuck into some syrupy goodness like knafeh to wrap up a delicious meal.
While Jordan is an expensive country overall, if you’re on a budget you could definitely live off pita, falafel and hummus if you have to (like I did!). I’d recommend checking out Hashem in Downtown Amman, one of the most-loved and cheapest falafel eateries in town.
4. The natural landscapes
Jordan isn’t just beautiful thanks to humans, its landscapes and natural phenomena are right up there with the ruins on the best things to see in this country.
Wadi Rum desert looks like another planet, so much so that it’s been a filming spot for The Martian, a Transformers movie and Star Wars amongst others. It’s home to vast dunes of red sand, huge jagged rocks and bedouin tribes who run beautiful camps for travellers to experience a night in the desert.
If you’ve got the need for speed then you should book a spot on a 4WD safari, where you’ll hit the dunes hard and fast sitting in the back of a 4WD jeep, or opt for a sunrise camel ride to see the desert in a more calming environment. Note that camels should only ever carry one person, passengers should not be over 90kgs, and please report any mistreatment of the animals to the supplier or local authorities.
Keen to get wet? Jordan’s one of the countries that borders the Dead Sea, a salty lake (yes, the name is confusing) where the shore is the lowest point of dry land on earth, at 432m below sea level. The Dead Sea’s salinity is 33.7% (compared to the ocean’s salinity of 3.5%) which means human bodies literally can’t sink and just sit at the top of the water. It’s a crazy sensation, you need to try it yourself to believe it!
For another underwater adventure where you can actually go underwater, head to Aqaba and dive in the Red Sea. The Red Sea is home to vibrant corals, whale sharks, turtles and many more sea friends, as well as some incredible wreck dives.
5. The safety
Jordan is actually known as one of the safest countries in the Middle East, and the 40th safest country in the world according to SafeAround.com.
Borders with Syria and Iraq are particularly dangerous, but the rest of the country is seen as a bit of a safe haven in an area that’s often known globally for its instability. If you’re keen to get a taste of the Middle East but you’re anxious about the political and safety issues that unfortunately taint many other countries in this region, Jordan is a really great option for you and in my personal experience was completely safe even for female travellers*.
*A disclaimer on solo female safety: While I personally had no trouble at all as a girl travelling in Jordan, it is important to note that there have been instances of harassment of solo female travellers at some tourist sites like Petra. Most attention you receive from locals (and if you look different, you will receive attention) is completely harmless and not meant maliciously, but if you do find yourself being touched, grabbed or followed, it’s best to avoid contact, say or yell ‘leave me alone’ and get to an area with police and/or other tourists.
How to get around Jordan
The best way to explore Jordan is by jumping on a small group tour. Not only will you get a guide totally clued up on local history, culture, activities and must-sees, you’ll also get the safety and security of your trip being pre-organised, you won’t have to deal with tough language barriers, and you’ll be hanging out with a ready-made group of travel buddies.
If a tour isn’t your thing, the other options are to hire a car or hire a private driver, as public transport in Jordan is extremely limited. Car hire starts at about £40 per day but you’ll need to understand local traffic laws and be prepared to deal with the language barrier, and private drivers will set you back at least £70 per day.