Updated January 21, 2019
In November, Albert and I traveled back to where we served in the Peace Corps, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I had been back since we completed our service in 2009 but this was Albert’s first time.
Having lived in the country for two years we had seen all the major sites so this trip was more of a walk down memory lane-visiting the mainly expat oriented places we frequented as Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) as well as those places we couldn’t afford as PCVs and often dreamed of going to. Nevertheless, I’ve incorporated some things you can’t leave Amman without doing into this guide.
Jordan and Tourism
The small country of Jordan has a lot to offer travelers- Roman ruins, major Biblical sites, world-class diving, one of the wonders of the modern world, a modern bustling capital city, amazing food, and a warm and welcoming people.
With such a diverse range of activities, it is no surprise that Jordan has a strong and vibrant tourism industry. In 2015, travel and tourism contributed to 20.7% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 18.1% of total employment. These figures were expected to rise in 2016 by 2.3% and 1.9% respectively.
How to get around Amman
Despite Amman’s size, it’s a very challenging city to navigate, and this goes for people who live here too. Compared to Cairo there is virtually no public transportation, meaning you have to take a yellow taxi or car-sharing (Uber or Careem) to travel the city. Yellow taxis are by far the cheapest and fares start at .25. To put the cost into perspective, it cost 1.7 JD to travel from Paris Circle to Seventh Circle via taxi whereas with Careem it's about 3 JD.
One issue with yellow taxis is the occasional reluctance to turn on their meter, especially at night. If you don’t see it on when you start your trip ask that it be turned on, sometimes they honestly forget. If they refuse, then you should get out. It’s illegal not to use it and there are lots of other taxis to take. Our recommendation is to take Uber or Careem at night. It might cost more, but your journey is tracked and you know how much your trip will cost from the outset.
Unlike like car-sharing apps in the United States or Europe, you pay in cash for your ride so make sure you have small bills when traveling across Amman. Uber offers the option to pay by card.
Where to Stay in Amman
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option within walking distance of downtown Amman (the balad) then the Caravan Hotel is the place for you. This was where PCVs stayed on special occasions-normally we stayed at the super low budget Mansour in the heart of the balad. Looking for a little nostalgia and to offset the cost of our other hotel stays on this trip, we stayed at the Caravan for our last few days in Amman.
In the time since we were last there, the hotel had changed ownership and undergone a small renovation. The rooms and common areas had been spruced up and the empty rooftop where we spent many a hot summer evening had been transformed into a dining area with sweeping views of King Abdullah Mosque and Al Bishara Greek Orthodox Church where breakfast was served (breakfast is included in the room's cost).
The Caravan is truly a family-run establishment. The owner’s smaller children can be found playing in the common areas during the day and his son provides airport transfer for 25 JD.
With its clean rooms, proximity to the balad, and a good price point, the locally owned and operated Caravan hotel is a great option.
What to Eat and Drink in Amman
An Amman classic located at the far end of Rainbow Street, La Calle is the perfect place for a happy hour beer on one of the three floors or on the rooftop deck. An Amstel, which is produced in Jordan and considered a “local” beer usually runs about 4 JD during happy (normally 7 JD). There’s nothing like a good Amstel at happy hour prices in Amman to bring us back to our Peace Corps days but we were beyond delighted to learn about Carakale, Jordan’s first micro-brewery and were determined to taste as many of their beers as possible even if they weren’t on happy hour. We had our first taste of their Blonde Ale at La Calle and were not disappointed.
Love rooftop bars? It’s hard to be Cantaloupe located right around the corner from La Calle. The restaurant and bar provide sweeping views over Amman.
JR The Wine Experience Tasting Room
This might come as a surprise to some but Jordan has a well-developed wine industry and the best place to sample the range is at the JR - The Wine Experience at the Boulevard. After a day of exploring Amman why not head over to the wine bar where you can either order by the glass, or bottle, or try The Experience. Our advice is to go with The Experience which includes 3 glasses (12 JD) all of which you can pick from the selections of limited editions, reserves and standard wines. The wine bar also has food too! If you love the wine and want to bring some back with you this is the best place to buy wine as no other liquor store will sell this broad of a selection at this low of a price.
Rustic Bar & Eatery
Our local bar, Rustic happens to be one of Amman’s top places to drink. Their happy hour which starts early and runs late even over the weekend can’t be missed. Situated next door to the Canary Hotel on a quiet road in Weibdah this is a must for those looking for a more local place to have a drink outside tourist-heavy Rainbow Street. You may even run into us!
No visit to Amman is complete without a visit to one of Weibdah’s numerous cafes. Rumi Cafe the neighborhood’s most popular by far is a great place to people-watch while sipping on your choice of coffee. I typically get a Turkish coffee. If you arrive mid-day or early evening expect to wait for a seat. The place is so popular people end up hanging out on the sidewalk. My advice is to come early, but if you can’t grab a seat nearby Old Town or Rakwet Arab Cafe closer to Paris Circle serve excellent coffee and also offer shisha too!
Al Quds Falafel
Who doesn’t love a falafel sandwich especially after a few beers? Backpacking with the Bonds certainly does. Just up the street from La Calle is a little falafel shop called Al Quds Falafel. The sandwiches at Al Quds are like grilled paninis as opposed to the traditional pita bread. A bit different but just as delicious.
An Amman classic, Hashem Restaurant is where to go for Jordanian staples such as falafel, ful (cooked fava beans), hummus, and tea at affordable prices. Located in the center of the balad, you can dine inside or outside and you can even get a falafel sandwich to go. Unfortunately, Albert and I didn’t get the chance to visit this time around but highly recommend it.
Al Quds Restaurant
One of the few restaurants that serve Jordan’s national dish mansef is Al Quds restaurant, located right around the corner from Hashem. They serve a no-frills variation as their main dish, meaning it’s simply rice, lamb, and yogurt sauce made with fermented dried yogurt. When cooked at home mansef can be made with either lamb or chicken (though lamb is the preferred way) and is served with toasted peanuts or pine nuts and parsley over a bed of thin flatbread called shrak. Either way, it is delicious and no trip to Jordan would be complete without it. This time around, my friend made us mansef during a visit to the village where I used to live (see photo below).
An English bookstore on the ground floor and restaurant on the second, Books@Cafe sits on a quiet street just off Rainbow Street. They offer a range of food from pizza to salads to Levantine classics such as manaqish (similar to a pizza and usually topped with thyme, cheese, or ground meat). The food was just as good as we remembered as was the slow service. Books@ is a great spot to hang out and enjoy the quirky 70s decor and food but definitely not the place for a quick bite to eat.
Sufra is by far my favorite restaurant in Amman and like almost everywhere else I’ve recommended it is located on Rainbow Street. Albert and I weren’t able to snag a reservation this time but I dined here a few years ago with a colleague and have dreamed about the food ever since. The restaurant serves traditional Jordanian food-another excellent place to try mansef-in a beautiful old building with a romantic courtyard. I highly recommend eating here and booking a reservation in advance.
Shams El Balad
Are you a vegetarian who struggles to find options when traveling in the Middle East or anywhere? Well, if you’re in Amman-vegetarian or not, the popular Shams El Balad is a must. The restaurant set in an old house offers a selection of Jordanian staples, but all without meat! We’ve been several times now and love more each time we visit. They now have a happy hour!!
A trip to the Levant wouldn’t be complete with at least one piece of Kunafeh and Habibah Sweets is just the place to go. Habibah is a colossal two-story building dedicated to serving this delectable sweet cheese dish that originated in Nablus, Palestine. With several locations across the city, there is no excuse not to stop in.
Unsatisfied with Amman’s doughnut scene after moving from New York the now owners of Dough Republic sought to change Amman’s perception of what a doughnut is and should taste like. We were first introduced to Dough Republic’s doughnuts at a food event at the Zara Center and when Albert learned of their location in the Cozmo Supermarket in 7th Circle; I knew he would get there even though it’s clear across town. Albert and his brother interestingly offered to go shopping one day and returned with two doughnuts, coconut and apple pie (a new flavor). They are by far the best and tastiest in the city, according to Albert and should be on every doughnut lovers must eat list when in Amman.
Things to See and Do in Amman, Jordan
The Roman Theatre is one site any visitor to Amman must visit. Cut into one of the hills in the center of the bustling downtown area, this well restored theatre that seats 6,000 persons is impressive.
Jabal al-Qala (The Citadel)
Set atop Amman’s highest hill is the Citadel National Historic Site, locally known as Jabal Al-Qala or the Castle Mountain. The most well-preserved sights are the Temple of Hercules and the Ummayad Palace. The Temple of Hercules was built during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-80). The Citadel is only accessible from the balad. We recommend taking a taxi up the hill to the entrance and walking back down. Be sure the cab driver uses the meter.
King Abdallah Mosque
Located right across the Caravan, the King Abdallah mosque was built by the late King Hussein as a memorial for his grandfather. This is the only mosque in Amman that welcomes non-Muslim visitors and was the first site Albert and I ever visited in Amman back in 2007. As when entering all mosques visitors should dress conservatively, i.e. men shouldn’t wear shorts and women should cover their arms and legs, and hair-a simple scarf should be fine. There are abayas (long black robes) and scarves available at the entrance for women if needed.
Shopping in Amman
There is nothing more enjoyable than wandering around the balad and browsing the local shops. You can find most anything here from scarves to souvenirs to jewelry, to nuts and sweets. Shopping in the balad is a great way to engage with local shop owners, experience the day-to-day life of Ammanis, and explore the city. If you buy anything (besides the nuts and sweets that is) be sure to bargain.
Jordan River Foundation
The Jordan River Foundation is a non-governmental organization that aims to protect children and empower communities with a focus on women in those communities. Their showroom on Rainbow Street sells products made with the Foundation’s support, including cushions, baskets, jewelry, wall hangings, and Dead Sea products. The prices are high (even by U.S. standards), but the products are high-quality and all the proceeds go back to supporting the Foundation and its programs.
Wild Jordan Nature Shop
The Wild Jordan Nature shop, in the Wild Jordan Center just off Rainbow Street, is one of nine nature shops around the country that sells nature-inspired products as part of a socio-economic development program for local communities of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN). The RSCN is an independent national organization that was established in 1986 with the mandate to conserve Jordan’s natural resources. In the past ten years, the RSCN has established several handicraft workshops at RSCN manage areas around the country, which aim to use the natural assets of protected areas to create sustainable economic and social benefit for the local communities. They sell these products at the Wild Jordan Nature Shop in Amman. The price tags on these products are considerably higher than most shops but like the Jordan River Foundation, the proceeds go to supporting programming to help local communities.
From Amman we headed south to Aqaba by way of Ma’an. Read about about road trip across Jordan.
All Photography by Albert and Carrie Bond
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