Much of the time, visitors to Jordan follow in the footsteps of Indiana Jones -- rushing straight to the Treasury and Monastery tombs that bookend the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. But in doing this, they are overlooking some of the best that this country has to offer. Jordan, and its laidback capital Amman, hide a treasure trove of unmissable, authentic Arabian experiences. And the best of all, you will have most of this to yourself.
Through no fault of its own, Amman has become the forgotten city of the Middle East. It is also the most underrated. The streets have ancient monuments and dusty history to rival Cairo, without the grinding traffic or pollution. Its suburbs have a vibrant restaurant and cultural scene to match neighbouring Beirut, but locals have kept it to themselves.
To see the city at its best, start your day early at the Jabal al Qal’a, or Amman Citadel. In the morning sun, it is the perfect vantage point from which to get your bearings. The seven main hills of Amman spread out below like a rumpled carpet, each mound helping to define a different neighbourhood within the city. Under your feet, meanwhile, lie more than 7000 years of history, and the crumbling pillars, arches and staircases of the Citadel are testament to Amman’s claim as one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.
Do not miss the Roman-era Temple of Hercules, a honeycomb-coloured jumble of columns and beams, and the hilltop’s Umayyad Palace, believed to date back as far as the 8th Century. Before you leave, take a peek into the hill’s onsite museum – even some locals do not know that it has priceless Dead Sea Scrolls in its collection.
Honking horns from the baying taxi drivers outside will bring you back to modern day Amman before you can say la shokran elak (no, thank you). Resist the urge to be ferried across the city (save the Royal Automobile Museum for another day), and head to one of Amman’s best-kept secrets, the Darat al Funun gallery, on the nearby hilltop Jabal al Weibdeh. A champion of the local arts scene, the gallery is located in a series of three 1920s whitewashed mansions that can be hard to find up a series of crooked steps -- but it is worth the effort. Darat al Funun regularly hosts artists in residence and impromptu concerts and is a great place to dig deeper into the soul of the city. On the way, you will pass one of Amman’s strangest claims to fame: that it is home to one of the tallest flagpoles in the world.
Up the steps outside the gallery and across a few side streets is Paris Circle, one of the city’s most talked about suburbs and home to the coolest fashion store in the city, Jo Bedu. Its Arabic-inspired retro t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts play on a number of Arabic phrases and in-jokes, making for a perfect streetwise souvenir. Favourites include Wadi Rum and Coke and tongue-in-cheek twists on the Facebook and Twitter logos.
From here, retrace your steps back down the steep side-streets to the hustle and bustle of downtown, also known as Jabal Amman. Here, the clichés of Arabian Nights spring to life, in the muezzin call to prayer and the smell of spices and flavoured tobacco smoke wafting from the surrounding souk and shisha cafes. Make sure to stop by Hashem, the finest falafel cafe in the country bar none (it has a picture of King Hussein dining here on its wall, if you need any further recommendation) and Habibah, a hole-in-the-wall baker selling Palestinian knafeh, a syrupy vermicelli-like pastry that locals swear by. There is a lack of street signs, so they can be hard to find – just follow your nose.
Nearby, the city’s ancient Roman forum and amphitheatre – the largest in the country – rises above the surrounding buildings. A tiered structure squashed at the end of a busy traffic junction, the amphitheatre is built into the side of a hill and once had room for 6000 spectators. For a handful of pocket change, you can climb to the top of the parapet for God-like views over the rest of the Roman ruins.
No trip to Amman would be complete without a walk down Rainbow Street, a kilometre-long stretch of rag-bag antique shops, art galleries, coffeehouses and low-key bars in upper Jabal Amman, a five-minute trip away by taxi from downtown. It is home to the city’s most happening creative community -- do not miss Café Des Artistes, Books@Cafe, Wild Jordan or Jacaranda Images to get a real sense of where Jordan is heading. Located in an old townhouse halfway down the street, Sufra is another favourite of King Hussein and Queen Rania, and even though it has only been open for six months, it is already regarded as the best Jordanian restaurant in the country.
Should you want to get a glimpse into the story behind some of these cherished Jordanian dishes – like muskhan (chicken with pine nuts) or mansaf (lamb, yoghurt and rice) – pop into Beit Sitti on Jabal Weibdeh, a Jordanian run cooking school where you can eat and cook to your heart’s content with no one else around. Be quick, before the word really starts to spread.