Paris has the Champs-Élysées, London has Oxford Street and New York has Fifth Avenue. But while life in Amman may not be as fast-paced as the world’s major metropolises, the Jordanian capital has Rainbow Street, one of the most colourful and multiethnic streets in the Middle East.
While Middle Eastern cities often replicate European and North American trends, Rainbow Street is a world away from the new-money glamour and in-your-face glitz of Beirut or Dubai. Not only is it the spearhead of the city and country, but the street is also becoming a focal point for some of the most cutting-edge trends and cultural initiatives in the region.
Located in the cosmopolitan hilltop hub of Jebel Amman, Rainbow Street is a mile-long cobbled strip of real estate is where you will find the most exciting coffee shops, book stores, boutiques and late-night bars. The side streets that fan out from it are home to a number of cultural and environmental agencies, including the Royal Film Commission and Wild Jordan – and in this blossoming street network, you get a sense of a new creative national identity sprouting up. It is where urban European cool mixes with a renewed sense of Arab pride, due in part to Jordan’s largely absent role from the 2011 revolutions that engulfed other countries in the region.
Start at the First Circle roundabout, a hub of taxis and fast food joints, from where Rainbow Street tumbles down the hill towards downtown Amman and the historic Roman Theatre. You will know you are in the right place when you see an outpost of the garish Buffalo Wings and Rings restaurant. Though Amman has absorbed plenty of influences from its large US-educated population, this American fast food chain is the antithesis to the street’s other locally-owned shops – set up by Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians.
If you dream of starting every day with the finest Italian coffee, continue past the Saudi Arabian Embassy for a couple of minutes to Caffé Strada, just off Rainbow Street on Mohammad Rashid Ridha Street. One of the newer startups in the city, its Jordanian owners are proud of their former life in Italy and coffee-making credentials (they get their roasted beans from outside Bologna). If tea is your preferred choice, make the short walk to Turtle Green, across the road from the historic Rainbow Cinema; its iced jasmine tea is the perfect morning thirst-quencher. For something more local, try a cup of Southern Sweet, a zesty concoction that mixes black tea with lemon and home grown mint.
Thanks to its hilltop location, Rainbow Street is spoilt with panoramic views across the city, glimpsed from between the neighbourhood’s 1920s houses. Past the Turtle Green cafe and a short walk from the graffiti-covered walls of the British Council building is the best of these. The small, tiered, picnic-perfect Viewpoint Park has jaw-dropping views of the ancient Roman citadel, located on the opposite side of the city atop Jebel Al Qala’a, a historic fort that could not be further removed from Rainbow Street’s modernity. Budding photographers should visit in the late afternoon to make the most of the red sunsets that coat the downtown rooftops in a rosy glow.
Come Friday during summer, this stretch of Rainbow Street is also the focal point for the Souk Jara market. Like a mini-carnival, it is a popular place for local artists and craftsmen to sell the latest paintings, wood carvings and jewellery from their makeshift stalls. You are advised to come hungry as there are plenty of homemade snacks to choose from.
While Jordanian cuisine is being rediscovered by Generation Y – spearheaded by new start-ups like Jordanian cookery school Beit Sitti – falafel is still king on Rainbow Street, mostly thanks to Al Quds, which has been serving crisp, fresh fried chickpea sandwiches and wraps since 1966. Do not be put off by the queues outside of the tiny takeaway joint, hidden behind vintage wooden decor – it is definitely worth the wait, and Al Qud's falafel is widely regarded as being the best in the country.
Further along the street, you will pass more coffee and cake shops before you come to Sufra, a unique Jordanian eatery. One of King Abdullah and Queen Rania’s favourites, Sufra is a new concept that brings classic Jordanian dishes like mansaf (lamb cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yoghurt) to the fore. The royal seal of approval means that it pays to book in advance for one of its terrace tables – you may find yourself competing for elbow space with some of the Jordanian royal family.
But it’s not just during the day when Rainbow Street impresses itself upon you. Cantaloupe is the country’s first gastropub; Amigos Pub on Al Imama Malek Street has pool tables and the city’s best happy hour; and La Calle is an Italian restaurant with wraparound windows that ensure diners and drinkers linger for hours to people watch. All of these are populated by an easy-going mix of Jordanian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Palestinian 20-somethings looking for a good time.
Before checking out the street’s most popular nightspots, however, pop into art gallery Jacaranda Images. While owner Barbara Rowell hails from Down Under, you are likely to unearth photographic prints or paintings from local up-and-coming artists like Tariq Dajani and Mike V Derderian.
Next door is Books@café a two-storey house with a vast bookshop-cum-late-night-bar. It regularly hosts events and concerts, and has a vast terrace that overlooks the white-washed rooftops of downtown. Ask any long-term Amman resident and they will tell you that you have not really been to Rainbow Street unless you have sat under a star-filled, inky-black sky at Books@Cafe and shared a fruit-flavoured shisha or drank an ice-cold beer.