The treasures of Jordan have beguiled visitors for centuries, from the rose city of Petra – unknown to Westerners for centuries – to the otherworldly Martian-red sands of Wadi Rum. Access to Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions, plus a whole host of other worthy sites around the country, is now easier and cheaper for travellers thanks to the Jordan Pass.
Exploring the ancient sites of Petra and beyond is easier and cheaper with the Jordan Pass © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
What is the Jordan Pass?
The Jordan Pass is a discount program offered by the Jordan Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities that combines a tourist visa and admission to 36 tourist sites across the country. The pass comes in three price levels, depending on whether you'd like to stay at Petra for one, two or three days. Costs start at JD70 (about US$98). If you buy it online before you arrive, the Jordan Pass waives visa fees of JD40 (approximately US$56) for many nationalities, making it a good bargain for even the lightest of users.
Do the maths: is getting a Jordan Pass worth it?
For most visitors, there are just two questions to answer: are you eligible for visa on arrival in Jordan, and will you visit Petra during your trip?
The visa question is more complicated than it appears on the surface. Visitors from 137 countries are eligible for visa on arrival in Jordan, so independent travellers from these countries will save the JD40 fee if they've purchased a Jordan Pass before arrival. However, travellers visiting with a tour operator are already eligible for waived fees, so the Jordan Pass may not be worthwhile. The pass also only waives visa fees if you spend at least three nights in Jordan, so if you're coming in on a day trip, it probably doesn't make sense.
Visiting Petra is a little more straightforward, especially as it's often the highlight of a trip to Jordan. Entry fees start at JD50 (about US$70) for a one-day visit and go up to JD55 for a two-day visit or JD60 for a three-day visit, so the various price points of the Jordan Pass track the additional entrance fees to Petra exactly.
If you need to purchase a visa on arrival and plan to visit Petra, the Jordan Pass will save you money even if you don't visit any of the other 39 included tourist attractions. Of course, if you add on visits to more sites, your savings will grow even more.
Here are some of the best places to put your Jordan Pass to use.
Hikers and explorers will want to maximise their time spent in Petra © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet
Digging into the tomb city of Petra
The key decision when buying a Jordan Pass hinges on Petra: how many days will you stay? While one day in Petra might be enough for the casual visitor, hikers and history buffs will want to spend far more time exploring the unexpected corners of Petra that tourists rarely visit. Opting for the three-day pass will provide enough time to explore the 'Indiana Jones Way' and the High Place of Sacrifice, make a one-day pilgrimage to Jebel Haroun (said to the the burial place of Aaron, brother to the biblical Moses, and also one of the best viewpoints of the region), and to hike in from Little Petra along the back entrance to the Monastery.
Plus, there's a poorly publicised bonus to a three-day pass: your fourth day is free! Bring your Jordan Pass or three-day entry ticket back to the gates on your fourth consecutive day at the site, and you'll be stamped in for an extra day of visiting – perfect if you really want to spend time exploring all that the ruins have to offer.
Exploring the Martian-red landscapes of Wadi Rum are included on the Jordan Pass © moorhen / Getty Images
Into the sands of Wadi Rum and Aqaba
In the far south of the country, entrance to Jordan's second-favourite tourist site is also included in the Jordan Pass: Wadi Rum. Camp under the stars with local Bedouin or ride 4x4s through the deserts that helped inspire TE Lawrence's 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom', exploring the craggy rock faces and towering dunes of one of the Middle East’s most incredible landscapes. Down on the Red Sea coast, Jordan's second city, Aqaba, has a few sites on the Jordan Pass as well. Aqaba Castle and the Aqaba Museum are temporarily closed for renovations but worth a quick stop when they reopen, particularly if you're passing through the city en route to the border crossing with Israel or continuing by ferry to Egypt.
The lure of the south is strong, but don't skip the historic sites, such as the Roman Theatre, in Amman © Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock
Exploring the history of Amman
Many first-time visitors to Jordan skip through Amman, heading straight to the more famous sites in the south, but whether you stop for a 48-hour visit or an extended stay, there's plenty to see in the Jordanian capital. Jordan Pass holders should plan some time into their itinerary for Amman, as the city's two top historic sites are included on the Jordan Pass, and it's easy enough to see them both in a half-day even if you're short on time. Start at the hilltop Citadel, packed with ruins of successive Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad towns that once controlled the area, scouting out the old city’s palaces and temples before stopping in at the on-site archaeological museum. Head down from the Citadel towards the obvious coliseum below at the Roman Theatre, once the heart of the ancient city of Philadelphia and now a popular meeting place for Amman youth; stop in at the nearby Museum of Popular Traditions as well for a look at Jordanian folk culture through the ages as illustrated by textiles, jewellery and mosaics.
Step into the past amongst the columns at the Roman ruins of Jerash © lkpro / Shutterstock
Jordan's Greek and Roman ruins
In the relatively unexplored north of Jordan, several ruined Greek cities are also included on the Jordan Pass. Jerash is by far the highlight of these, often considered one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the world, and it's also the easiest for independent travellers to reach (many visit as a day trip from Amman). Further afield, the ancient city of Gadara in Umm Qais and the ruins of Pella both give a glimpse into the former strategic importance of the Jordan Valley to trade and transportation. However, while the settlement of Umm Qais stands in faded glory atop a hill overlooking the Jordan River and across the borders into Syria and the Palestinian West Bank, Pella's limited excavations belie the major city that still lies buried beneath the soil, which once rivalled Jerash in size and importance.
Frescoes from the 8th century decorate the interior of Qusayr Amra, free to visit with the Jordan Pass © Steve Bardens-FIFA / Getty Images
Forgotten castles of the eastern desert
Equally underexplored is the northeast of Jordan, where the rocky hillsides give way to sandy deserts that stretch towards the horizon to the borders of Iraq and Syria. Nabataean, Roman and Umayyad castles dot these arid lands, once serving as crucial stops for caravans as they traversed the desert on trade routes that crisscrossed the many kingdoms that controlled the area throughout history. The most visually stunning may be Umm Al Jimal, the widely scattered stones of which attest to the size of the ruined city, but tiny Qusayr Amra is noteworthy for the 8th-century murals that still cover the walls, and fans of modern Middle East history will appreciate a stop at Qasr Al Azraq to see the famed fortress where Lawrence of Arabia spent a long winter with his warriors in 1917.
En route from the north of Jordan towards Petra and Wadi Rum, the large Crusader castles at Karak (impressively large and well-excavated) and Shobak (smaller but remarkably well-preserved) make for fun stops to break up the drive, and taking the Kings Highway route between them offers a much more interesting alternative to the standard desert highway trip between Amman airport and Petra.