Amman is subtly and surprisingly magical, with all the bustle of a Middle Eastern city and a population of overwhelmingly friendly people living within it. It feels unbelievably safe, and people are always willing to help you; eager to introduce you to their beautiful country. Quaint, colourful alleyways covered in street art give way to a chaotic main street, the heart of Downtown. The seven hills on which the city is built flow up and down like limestone-covered waves and make for tough exploring, but boy is it worth all the hundreds of stairs you’ll be climbing. Streetside sellers are friendly, shouting “welcome to Jordan” and asking how you are as you walk past. There’s none of the pushiness, yet all of the buzzing energy that makes a city so enjoyable.
Day One: An Introduction to Amman – Roman Theatre, Umbrella Stairs, Hashem’s and Beit Sitti Cooking Class
A roman city turned quasi-modern, Amman is bursting with beautiful ruins, combined with modern restaurants and shisha bars and incredibly ornate mosques. Start your first day downtown, wandering past street sellers – some might offer you testers of perfume or tasters of food – there’s even a man who sells huge tubs of fresh honey on one of the corners. Wander down to the Grand Al-Husseini Mosque in the heart of the downtown area; this mosque was originally built by the second Caliph of Islam in 640 AD and rebuilt in all its pink-and-white glory in 1924. It sits on a busy intersection and non-muslims can’t enter, but it’s a nice spot to watch the comings and goings, especially around prayer time. From here, walk with the mosque on your right and take the second turning, which will take you to the Roman Nymphaeum, a partially-preserved Roman public fountain, and your first introduction to Amman’s ancient history.
Continue to another Roman treasure, the Odeon, also known as the Roman Theatre. This is one of Amman’s most famous sights, but it’ll likely be fairly quiet inside. Work out those legs with a climb to the top for amazing views across to the Citadel, on another one of Amman’s immense hills (which you’ll be dragging yourself up tomorrow). Spend some time sitting at the top to catch your breath and prepare for the wobbly climb down, then head back to downtown for some well-deserved lunch.
Hashem’s is an Amman institution, supposedly the King’s favourite restaurant – and it’s clear why he loves it so much. There are no menus – though you can ask for specific dishes if you’ve got a decent grasp of Arabic – so you just get what you’re given, but that’s all part of the adventure, right? Crunchy yet soft falafel, the smoothest houmous, smoky mtabbal (aubergine dip) and ful medames (fava bean dip) are all on offer, and you’ll eat with your hands using bread to scoop up the dips (there’s no cutlery either). (If you’re a bit of a foodie, don’t miss my guide to Jordan’s eats!). Savour this delicious meal and wash it all down with a cup of sweet mint tea, then head across the road to the Umbrella Stairs.
Just one of Amman’s many hill-bypassing staircases, the Umbrella Stairs are a fun twist on a city staple. The walls on either side of the staircase are peppered with plant pots filled with herbs and succulents, and the blue and purple overhead umbrellas provide a welcome respite from the beating sun, alongside being seriously instagrammable. After you get your snaps, head back past Hashems to the Al Khala stairs, speckled with more plantlife alongside plenty of impressive street art, and stop in for a coffee or milkshake at the Zaizafoun Cafe, a blue-hued spot down this tranquil backstreet.
In the evening, book yourself into a cooking class at Beit Sitti, a social cooperative run by three women in their Grandmother’s 1950’s home (Beit Sitti literally means ‘grandmother’s house’). Here you’ll sip on delicious lemon and mint juice before embarking on a journey of Jordanian food discovery – learn to make Maqlooba, meaning ‘upside down’, a dish of chicken, rice and cauliflower cooked in the oven then ceremoniously flipped upside down to serve, plus fresh bread, dips and even coconut cake. It’s BYOB (if you can find somewhere to buy the B) and though it’s more of a cooking demonstration than a class, the atmosphere is incredible; especially when the evening call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque as the sun is setting. It’s the perfect way to end your first magical day in Amman.
Day Two: The Citadel, King Abdullah I Mosque, Shisha and Jordan’s Favourite Sweets
More Roman ruins are on the itinerary today, so forget your hill-sore legs and get ready to climb some more. It’s usually possible to find a staircase to bypass the hills, so if your map tells you to walk along and up several parallel streets, keep an eye out for a handy set of stairs to help you along the way – not that they’ll be much kinder on your legs. The Citadel sits atop Amman’s highest hill and is the current name for the ancient city of Rabbath-Ammon, which was, alongside the Romans, inhabited by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Islamic Umayyad dynasty: it is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited places in the world.
The most impressive part of the complex is the Temple of Hercules. Little more than four columns remain standing, but at 33-feet tall the main archway is still mighty impressive and makes for some incredible pictures. You’ll also be blessed with awe-inspiring views across the whole of Amman from every angle – the Roman Theatre sits below to the southeast, and all around the rolling, lime-stone covered hills ebb and flow.
If you’re still up for walking, take the hill back down and head north, then continue uphill (again, sorry) to the King Abdullah I Mosque, known for its sky-hued tiling and being the largest religious establishment in Amman. You’ll see the incredibly ornate blue dome from a mile away, then pay a couple of dinars to enter, once you’ve dressed in appropriate clothing. This is the only mosque in Amman that allows non-muslims to enter, and it’s definitely worth the short trip. Passages from the Qur’an are delicately tiled in the trademark blue hue on the walls of the circular courtyard and you can even go right inside (though be sure to remove your shoes).
After all this walking you’ll surely be in need of a snack, a coffee and a sofa to lounge on, and Jafra is just the place. Back in downtown almost opposite Hashems, this balconied shisha bar-cum-coffeehouse-cum-restaurant is the perfect all-rounder for your afternoon. Enjoy a traditional Jordanian pastime in the form of a shisha pipe (try the Watermelon-Mint flavour) enjoy puffing as you watch Amman’s bustling goings-on.
Just up the road from Hashem’s (basically, just use it as a landmark for all your Amman-exploring), is Al Quds, also known as Jerusalem, a delightful restaurant which serves up traditional Jordanian and Bedouin dishes. Here, take the opportunity to try mansaf, a dish made of lamb cooked in yoghurt, served with rice and Bedouin shraak bread. Then, for pudding, venture just a minute away to Habiba Sweets, to try what many profess is Amman’s best kunafeh, a staple dessert. Kinda like the Jordanian take on baklava, this dish incorporates soft white cheese and pastry, baked together and drenched with sweet rose syrup then covered in crushed pistachios. Stretchy, stringy cheese turns sweet, crunchy pastry turns soft and gooey: it is delicious. (Be warned though, you’ll have to queue).
After these two days, you’re sure to have fallen in love with Amman and its people – I certainly did. This budding love will make exploring the rest of Jordan ever more special.