Day trip from Amman: Madaba, Mount Nebo and Dead Sea

posted in: Asia, Jordan | 0

Jordan’s capital, Amman, is worth a day or two to visit. If you have time to spend in the area, however, there are many other interesting places to see: Jerash, Bethany, the castles of the crusades and even older ones.

I suggest you a rather relaxing tour, with plenty of cultural visits, southwest of Amman. The schedule for this day trip usually includes an early departure to visit Madaba and Mount Nebo during the morning, lunch upon arrival at the Dead Sea, and an afternoon of sun and relaxation at the beach, before returning to Amman in the late afternoon.

Day trip from Amman: Madaba seen from Saint John the Baptist Church bell-tower
Madaba seen from Saint John Church bell-tower

How to organize a day trip from Amman

Jordan’s roads are quite well maintained and easy to follow. If you want to rent a car, it shouldn’t be too difficult to get around on your own. Amman is the only place where I advise against driving, because the traffic is really intense and chaotic. But of course it very much depends on your background and how brave you feel!

If you want someone else to deal with road signs and traffic, it is very easy to organize your tours in Jordan with taxis or private drivers. You can contract a driver online, ask at your hotel, or befriend a passing taxi. An agency can offer you the same service, clearly at a higher price (even double).
Make sure everything is very clear: schedule, itinerary, pick up, what is included and what you’ll have to pay yourself.

Prices

The cost of a day trip can vary a lot depending on the services requested: driver only, guide fluent in a certain language, lunch included, number of passengers, drop off not in Amman… The entrance to hotels and resorts on the Dead Sea alone costs about 30 JOD per person (almost 40€, 42$ in January 2023). The price of the trip obviously also covers the salary of driver/guide and more than 120 km of petrol, which nowadays costs like gold!


With a private driver, no guide, all entrance fees included, lunch and drop off in Petra, I paid around €280 for two persons. A taxi would cost a little less than a private driver, if you know how to bargain. And a private driver costs less than an agency that organizes (or pretends to) every little detail. Even classic online agencies like Get Your Guide or Viator offers hardly any less than €120-150 per person. And they might be group tours, where you still have to carefully check what is included in the quotation.

Places I visit during my day trip from Amman

Let’s see the itinerary of this day trip, which starts with a pick-up at the hotel and reaches Madaba in less than one hour drive.

Hills and roads between Madaba and Mount Nebo
Hills and roads between Madaba and Mount Nebo

Madaba, the Christian city of mosaics

Madaba is a rather quiet small town, famous for two reasons: art and culture. On the one hand there are really beautiful as well as extremely ancient mosaics. On the other hand, there is a curious Christian prevalence in an almost completely Muslim country. The story goes that a group of Christians settled in this area in the fifth century, starting an important mosaic tradition. In 747 an earthquake destroyed almost everything and the survivors fled. The city and its ruins were abandoned for a whole millennium! In the 19th century, another group of Christians decided to return to Madaba. Over time, excavations revealed the ancient buildings and what are nowadays the famous mosaics of Madaba. Some excavations are still ongoing.

Saint George Church and the “Madaba Map” mosaic

The most famous mosaic of Madaba is in the Church of Saint George. The huge mosaic lays on the floor of the right apse. Centuries of neglect ruined some of its surface, and we have sadly lost several square meters. The map shows Palestine and the Nile delta from the 6th century, with villages, towns, churches and many Greek inscriptions. There is also Jerusalem with its houses and walls. All perfectly oriented with the cardinal points and made up of 2 million tiles!
The entry costs 1 JOD.

The most famous mosaic of Madaba, in Saint George Church: the oldest map of the Holy Land in the world
The most famous mosaic-map of Madaba

Saint John the Baptist Church

This church is a gem not to be missed. On the floor of the ticket office there is a huge replica of Jordan’s largest mosaic, located in Umm Ar Rasas. You can start your visit here, even before buying the entrance ticket, which costs only 1 JOD.
The Church of John the Baptist is not very impressive per se. But the excavations, some still ongoing, brought to light ancient constructions under the current church. Several sections are open to the public and more are added every year.
The exploration begins by descending through a narrow passage to the right of the church entrance. The first treat is a 3000-year-old Moabite well still functioning! A couple of small rooms follow, with some objects on display related to Saint John. Then the tunnels start getting lower and less organized. Every now and then they open into wider passages, revealing areas with still in progress excavations: walls of the ancient city, columns, tombs…
The visit ends climbing the bell tower. Leave the children behind, possibly even bulky bags and anyone who suffers from vertigo. The stairs climbs between bells, hanging ropes, beams in the middle of the passage and not very reassuring looking ladders. At the very top, a tiny door opens onto the balcony of the bell tower. The balcony has a railing that is far too low, but the view from up there, with good weather, repays the effords.

Moabite well and the tunnels under Saint John the Baptist Church
Moabite well and the tunnels under Saint John the Baptist Church

The Archaeological Museum

I had to insist with the driver to visit the Archaeological Museum. He was dismissing it, considering it uninteresting. He said no one organizing a trip from Amman includes this museum in a single day’s itinerary. Frankly, I don’t understand why. The Madaba Archaeological Museum is small, free with the Jordan Pass (otherwise it costs 3 JOD), and well maintained. It exhibits some mosaics from the surroundings of Madaba, a chapel also decorated with mosaics and above all the Hippolytus Hall, the impressive remains of a Byzantine villa from the 6th century. Its floor is completely covered in mosaics, quite nicely restored. Most of the pictures show Greek mythology scenes, animals and plants.

Mosaics inside of the Hippolytus Hall in the Archaeological Museum in Madaba
Hippolytus Hall

Mount Nebo

From Madaba to the Dead Sea, a short detour takes you to Mount Nebo. The Jordan Pass doesn’t include the entry fee, which costs 3 JOD (about €4). Mount Nebo is the hill known as the place from which Moses gazed upon the Promised Land.

Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo from the plains of Moab to the top of Pisgah, across from Jericho. There the Lord showed him the whole land, from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar. (Deuteronomy 34:1-3)

With good weather, you can see very far: the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho, even Jerusalem, fifty kilometers away. Moses must have had better luck than me, because I barely saw the Dead Sea, less than 20 km away! I had high expectations for the Promised Land, but the haze ruined the view. On top, having read about the “land of milk and honey” I was expecting a very green landscape. Perhaps Moses has seen the potential as well as the reality: there is more desert than anything else around Mount Nebo!

View over the Promise Land at modern times
The Promise Land at modern times

Besides looking at the surrounding panorama, on Mount Nebo you can visit the Memorial Church of Moses. Built to commemorate the death of the patriarch on this mountain, it dates back to the 4th century. In the following decades it has been decorated with Byzantine mosaics (some are restored a little too heavily, in my opinion). The theme of the mosaics is curious, not at all religious: hunting, breeding and many wild animals.

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is a huge salt lake, long and narrow, on the border between Jordan and Israel. It is famous for its incredibly salty waters and the fact that it is located at the world lowest land-based elevation. The water surface, in fact, sits 400 meters below sea level and reaches a depth of about 300 meters. There are various theories about its formation. But it basically used to be a sea that the earth crust movements isolated from the rest of the waters. Its main tributary river, the Jordan, brings a rather small amount of water. This fact and evaporation are the causes of a continuous lowering of the Dead Sea level. In the medium-long term, scientists say the Dead Sea is going to disappear completely.

It’s worth a visit on a day trip or even for a night away from Amman and the other touristic locations. I wouldn’t spend more than a day or two here. But of course it very much depends on the kind of holidays you enjoy.

The Jordanian Dead Sea and Israel on the opposite shore
The Dead Sea and Israel on the opposite shore

Floating on the sea’s surface surprised me more than expected, it’s really fun! You walk in the sea, away from the shore, and when the water reaches more or less your belly button your feet start lifting. In an instant you find yourself belly up, unable to pull yourself back upright, like an upside down turtle! You don’t need to make any movements to stay afloat, the salt supports you completely, with no effort. With a pillow under your head, you could easily lay and relax without drowning!

Apart from floating on the waters, covering yourself in mud is another activity to try at the beach. The mad lays on the shore and you just need to pick up a handful. I’m no expert, but slathering the mud on your skin and letting it dry seems to be good for joints, muscles, circulation and skin.

Remember never to put your head in the sea and to wash yourself with fresh water after each swim.

Where to find the best Dead Sea experience

The northern coast of the Dead Sea is mostly occupied by hotels and resorts. Coming from Amman, they are quite handy because most of them offer a single entry ticket to the tourists passing by or coming specifically for a relaxing beach-day trip. With the ticket you can take advantage of the hotel’s facilities, swimming pools, showers and restaurants. As you can imagine, anything you buy or rent has a disproportionate price: bring everything you need, from water to a beach towel!

During my trip from Amman, I stopped at the Dead Sea Spa Resort, on a lucky winter day with hardly anyone else. I skipped the pools and headed straight to the beach. Just a few meters from the sea there are dressing rooms (not particularly beautiful), slightly old sunbeds and umbrellas and cold showers. The facilities next to the pools look better, but they are a couple of hundred meters from the sea. The beach isn’t huge, but since nobody was there, it hasn’t been a problem. It was all very quiet and relaxing. And the view is curious: on the opposite side of the Dead Sea, the mountains of Israel are clearly visible.

Quiet winter beach at the Dead Sea, with a few umbrellas and no-one around, the perfect stop on a day trip from Amman
Quiet winter beach at the Dead Sea

If you don’t want to spend too much, there are also two equipped public beaches, with cheaper entrance fees. They are Amman Beach and O Beach, and you can easily find them on GoogleMap. They provide everything you need for a day at the beach. But it seems they are a bit dirty and guarantee little privacy. I didn’t go, so take these words as a simple summary of what I’ve read on the internet.

If you book a taxi or a driver, he will probably have a favourite place to take you. Maybe a friend or acquaintance works at that hotel, or it’s a resort that offers him a percentage for every tourist he brings. If you want to stop at a particular beach, make sure the driver knows it in advance, to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings.

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