Amman, the Capital of Jordan, is a city often overlooked by tourism, which focuses mostly on the splendid and very famous Petra or on religious and biblical itineraries. But there is so much to see in Amman and it is well worth spending a day or two to visit its most interesting monuments, museums and bustling downtown bazaars.
What to see in Amman
The citadel is certainly one of the most interesting attractions to visit in Amman. It is located on top of a small hill, easily reachable by taxi or even on foot from the city centre. The entrance with the Jordan Pass is free, otherwise, it costs only 2 JOD (less than 3 €/$). The ticket gives you access to the entire area, including the archaeological museum.
Next to the ticket office, there are several people who offer their service as tour guides. They have an identification tag and should be properly educated. It must be said that inside the Citadel there are descriptive panels for almost all the monuments. Unfortunately, however, they are few and not always well-placed. Depending on the direction of your tour, you could easily miss them or see them when you have already finished exploring an entire building. A tourist guide, on paper or in person, will help you to orient yourself and understand what you are visiting.
Besides the monuments, aim for the lookouts where you can appreciate the view of Amman: it’s really interesting to see the city from above and the panorama changes a lot from one side of the hill to the other!
Curious detail: I found the citadel full of local children playing among the ruins. They weren’t there on a school trip, or to visit Amman with the family. They were clearly kids who somehow managed to enter this area and enjoy annoying the tourists. For the most part, in fact, they ignore or at best stare at the visitors. But there was also the small group who wanted to convince me that taking photographs was forbidden. Surely someone believed the lie. Maybe they asked for a tip to “distract” the guardian while shooting in secret, who knows.
The most interesting monuments to visit inside Amman Citadel
I’m going to leave the historical and artistic details to tour guides more prepared than myself about Amman, but I would still like to give you a brief general introduction to the must-see monuments.
The Roman Temple of Hercules is the most photographed and most instagrammable monument in the Citadel, if not in all of Amman. It was built in the second century and all that remains of it are two huge columns, a few pieces of the wall, part of the floor and a lot of ruins. Among the various rocks scattered seemingly at random, there is a huge hand fallen from some statue. Take a good look at it to understand the level of detail that this temple must have had!
The Umayyad Palace Complex takes up a vast area of the Citadel. Sadly, most of the complex collapsed in a devastating earthquake in AD 749, and it was never rebuilt. Only the throne room and the audience hall have been restored and their majesty can still be appreciated. The rest (the collonaded street, the royal and non-royal residences, the courtyards…) remain abandoned more or less as time has left them. However, it is interesting to see what is still left standing after so many centuries: Amman is considered one of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world!
Don’t miss the ancient baths on the right side (facing the entrance) of the building. They are under restoration and they look very promising!
The Cistern is a curious construction located on the side of the Umayyad Palace. It is a deep and wide circular hole that supplied water to the entire citadel. With an ingenious network of canals, it collected and redistributed rainwater. At the center of the cistern, there must have been a column, now fallen, to measure the water level.
Not much remains of the Byzantine Basilica: you can see the floor, a few pieces of columns, capitals stolen from the Temple of Hercules and the structure of the side rooms. I read that some mosaics are still visible. They survived the earthquakes that did a lot of damage to Amman, but sadly they are now really difficult to see, mostly faded away.
The archaeological Museum
Inside the citadel of Amman is the small Archaeological Museum, which you can visit either very quickly or wasting long hours, depending on how interested you are in the hundreds of objects on display. It is full of statues, sarcophagi, skulls, cases with jewels and objects of all kinds. The oldest piece is a 9,000-year-old Neolithic figurine. Some elements have recently been moved to the Jordan Museum, in downtown Amman.
The Roman Theater
Maybe because I’ve already seen so many in Europe, I didn’t have high expectations for this Roman theater. But it has been a real surprise. From the citadel, there is a wonderful view of it. And when entering it in person you realize how big it actually is: 6000 seats!
The visit is free with the Jordan Pass, or costs 2 JOD (less than 3 €/$). You can climb up to the last flight of steps, with a little courage. In fact, the grandstands have been restored, but they definitely maintain an ancient feeling. I thought that at the end of the show, not all 6000 spectators would have easily left the theater on their own feet!
The view from the top is fabulous, you can see a good part of Amman. But the stairs are steep and time-worn, so be careful.
The theater museums: Folklore Museum and Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions
Included in the Roman theater ticket are two small museums on either side of the ancient stage. I didn’t find them particularly interesting, but they are free and you can easily visit them in just a few minutes. In GoogleMap they are swapped, maybe to create some confusion to the visitors.
The Folklore Museum exhibits mostly historical clothes, accompanied by some jewels and objects of daily life.
The Jordanian Museum of Popular Traditions (also called Jordanian Museum of Traditional Costumes and Jewelry, to further confuse tourists) offers curious reconstructions of Bedouin and rural life, with life-size puppets. The exhibition also includes some ancient objects, a collection of weapons, musical instruments and little else.
The Nymphaeum is a second century fountain. It was originally supposed to be two stories high, well decorated and with a very large pool. Unfortunately, very little is left of its former glory. Perhaps with more excavations and a lot of work, Amman will be able to make it shine once again, as it did with the Roman Theater.
It can be seen from the road and is currently (January 2023) under renovation, so you cannot “officially” visit it. But like so much else in Jordan, a small tip to the gatekeeper is all it takes for him to open the gate and let you in for a quick private tour.
Amman bazaars: gold souq, spices souq... and everything else souq
There are various areas and streets in Amman that can be defined as souq, or bazaar, and which attract tourism for their ethnic character. But basically, they are commercial streets or local markets and, as such, also frequented by locals. Some are open only a few days a week, while others have more traditional opening hours.
I visited only a couple of them, because these were the ones close to the hotel or on the routes of my tours.
My favourite is definitely Souq Al-Sukar, in the historic city center. It consists of a bunch of crossroads of semi-covered alleys between the Al Hussei mosque and the Nymphaeum. You can find mainly fruits, vegetables and spices, but also toys, cheese, and even some house-ware shops. It is quite small, but so crowded that it takes time to get around it all.
King Ghazi Street and its cross streets make up the Gold Souq. A narrow street dominated by jewellery shops on both sides. It’s pretty, but if you’re not interested in jewels, it’s not very worth a visit: it lacks the ethnic character of the spice bazaar and, by itself, it’s not the prettiest alley in Amman.
The southwest side of King Faisal Square is the facade of Souq Mango. The bazaar extends into the narrow streets that open between the buildings of the square, which is not so much a square as a somewhat wide street. Some shops overlooking King Faisal Square are owned by famous brands, while others are small local sellers. The nicest, however, are those in the passageways between the houses. You will mainly find clothing and accessories, but there are also perfumes, products from the Dead Sea, souvenirs and toys.
Al Hussein Mosque
Also called Grand Husseini Mosque, El Hussein Mosque is the oldest mosque in Amman. Over the centuries it has been rebuilt and renovated several times, unfortunately making it uninteresting from an architectural point of view.
Entry is free, but not easily achievable by foreign tourists. On the square in front of the mosque, however, there are often people who offer to guide you inside for a tip. As in all mosques, you will need to remove your shoes and cover your legs and shoulders, especially women.
I didn’t have time to visit it, but I would like to mention the Jordan Museum because it exhibits some really important pieces. Among all, you can see fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). They date from III BC to I AD and they were found in the Qumran Caves, near the Dead Sea.
Some items on display at the Jordan Museum were formerly housed at the Jordan Archaeological Museum, in the Citadel. Considering the size of the Citadel museum and how full of little treasures it still is, it’s no surprise that they decided to move some stuff to a bigger place.
The entrance fee to the museum is 5 JOD (6-7 €/$) and the Jordan Pass doesn’t include it.
What to see nearby Amman
A day trip from Amman can take you to various places: Jerash, Madaba, Mount Nebo, the Dead Sea, the desert castles and various religious sites, such as Bethany and the baptismal site of Jesus Christ. To reach any of these destinations, just book a taxi or private driver. Among the many possibilities, I suggest a day tour, which for me has been a detour from Amman to Petra, to visit Madaba, Mount Nebo and the Dead Sea.
Day tour: Madaba, Mount Nebo and Dead Sea
Madaba, an hour’s drive from Amman, is a town definitely worth a visit. It is famous for its mosaics and for being the only predominantly Christian city in Jordan, a rather Muslim country. The most popular place to visit is the Church of Saint George, with a huge mosaic on the floor. Unfortunately quite ruined, the mosaic represents the oldest map of Palestine in the world. The church is small and you can visit it in just a few minutes. The entrance costs 1 JOD (a little more than 1 €/$). You shouldn’t miss the Church of Saint John the Baptist, which entrance ticket costs the same as Saint George Church. The church itself is nothing special, but underneath there are tunnels that lead, among other curiosities, to a 3,000-year-old Moabite well that is still functioning. You could also try to climb the bell tower, an adventurous activity not recommended for small children! Finally, the Madaba Archaeological Museum, free entry with the Jordan Pass, is a small jewel full of mosaics.
Not far from Madaba is Mount Nebo, known since biblical times because this is where God showed the promised land to Moses. There is a church with very beautiful Byzantine mosaics and little else. The view over the “promised land” is peculiar: so much desert and… mist! They say that in good weather you can also see Jerusalem, but I wasn’t so lucky!
The last stop of the day tour is the Dead Sea. It’s famous for being 400 meter below sea level, the world’s lowest point on earth, and for making you float like crazy! Tour operators usually opt for a 3-4 hour stop, lunch included, in a resort in the area. There are many of them and almost all of them offer daily entrance tickets even without a reservation. The advantages, compared to the free beach, are the cleanliness of the beach itself, access to water (you’ll really need it after swimming!) and nobody staring at you assiduously. My driver had contacts with the Dead Sea Spa Resort, a semi-deserted hotel that basically guaranteed me a private beach! It was much more fun than I expected. And the food was good!
Where to sleep in Amman
Generally speaking, downtown Amman is the oldest and least developed part of the city, even though it’s the center of tourism. Hotels here tend to be small, poorly maintained and of a low standard, even if they are well priced. Moving away from the centre, however, you find more sophisticated hotels, some well-known names and, of course, higher prices. If you’re staying in Amman visiting the city, you can basically choose between “near but ugly” and “far but beautiful”.
Exception to this rule, Khan Khediwe Hotel is a great hotel at a decent price in the heart of Amman. True enough, the main entrance is located in a long noisy avenue, under a slightly dirty portico, not particularly appealing. But the rooms are nice and spacious, everything is clean, the staff is kind and helpful and the windows’ soundproofing is nothing short of amazing. Ok, you can’t demand to not hear the muezzin singing the prayer at 5 am, but everything else is completely blocked out. Furthermore, it is very close to Al-Sukar, the Al Hussei mosque and the Nymphaeum.
Where to eat in Amman
For a good dinner, I suggest you one restaurant, the Zajal, because it’s absolutely the best I’ve tried in town.
It offers excellent local dishes and generous portions at average prices. There is a sort of semi-enclosed terrace/balcony and two internal rooms. I’ve only seen locals eating here, but I suppose it will soon fill up with Amman tourists too because it’s really a culinary gem. A talking parrot in the entrance hall makes it even more interesting!