Originally built on seven hills and known as Philadelphia, the Jordanian capital of Amman has suffered a degree of middle-aged spread. The country’s largest city, Amman now spans at least 19 hills.
Amman is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world, but its population of just 20,000 people was of little significance until the 1920s when it was made the capital of the-then Transjordan. Regional instability over the next few decades resulted in a massive influx of settlers, and today the greater Amman area is home to almost half of Jordan’s three million-strong population.
Amman is often cited as one of the most liberal and ‘westernized’ areas in the Middle East; the city has a burgeoning arts scene and is home to numerous artists, writers and musicians. Ammanites are multicultural, multidenominational, well-educated and extremely hospitable; warmly welcoming visitors and taking pride in showing them around their modern and vibrant city. As a result Amman – and Jordan – is fast becoming a favorite for off-the-beaten-track travelers.
Although capital of an ancient kingdom, Amman is light on sights in comparison to other regions of Jordan and as a result tends to be overlooked by travelers keen to rush south to the delights of the Dead Sea, Petra and Wadi Rum. However, Amman is more than just a port of entry and has a number of cultural sights well worth seeing.
Start your tour in the downtown area of the city; known as al-Balad, it sits in a basin created by four of Amman’s original seven hills. This is where you’ll experience a truly Arabic sensation with numerous souqs, shops and street vendors plying their wares.
The Citadel hill is where most of the ancient sights are located. Here you’ll find the ruins of the Temple of Herakles, a structure commissioned by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius almost 2,000 years ago. The Citadel also contains the 5th century Byzantine church, the historic Al-Qasr or Umayyad palace and the National Archaeological Museum. The Citadel enjoys a stunning view over Amman; time your visit just before Maghrib prayers and experience the acoustics of the city’s numerous minarets complete with a spectacular sunset.
Downhill from the Citadel is the Roman Amphitheatre, an impressive relic of ancient Philadelphia. Built almost two millennia ago, the amphitheatre can accommodate 6,000 spectators. From here it’s just a short stroll to the King Hussein Mosque, an Ottoman-style mosque rebuilt in 1924. However, Amman’s most well-known mosque is King Abdullah I Mosque; completed in 1989, it is recognizable by its magnificent blue mosaic dome.
As Amman has expanded, so has its culinary scene. Once known mainly for its admittedly excellent shawarma stands, Amman now offers everything from Western fast-food outlets and Asian fusion restaurants to bustling Italian trattorias and authentic French bistros.
Those looking for the real deal will enjoy the city’s abundant Arabic fare. Experience traditional specialities such as mansaf, a delicious lamb and rice meal typically eaten with your hands, or knafeh nabelseyye, a dessert which originates from the Palestinian city of Nables. There are numerous places to eat in Amman but downtown offers a myriad of restaurants including one said to be favored by the royal family.
For nightlife, visit affluent West Amman where many cosmopolitan drinking and dancing venues operate. It’s not as vibrant as other Middle Eastern cities such as Beirut, but there is still plenty going on. Abdoun Circle is home to a large number of nightclubs, but be warned: many maintain a strict couples only policy i.e. no unescorted men. Many Ammanites indulge in smoking nargilah, also known as Shisha, and traditional cafés are filled into the early hours with people enjoying the fragrant smoke.
Jordan is a small country and it is only a few hours’ drive south along the King’s Highway to reach the miraculous Dead Sea, the lost city of Petra, or the burnt orange sands of Wadi Rum. However, for a short break from the city, consider Jerash, the second-most popular tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
Just 48km north of Amman, Jerash is one of the largest and best preserved examples of Roman architecture outside of Italy. Its colonnaded streets, temples, theaters, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains, city walls, towers and gates remain in exceptional condition and make for a visually and historically breathtaking day trip.