Why Jordan Is the Perfect Place to Start Your Middle East Adventure
Come for the ancient history, stay for swims in the Dead Sea.
The country of Jordan is only about the size of Indiana—but boy, does it pack a punch. Home to some of the best-preserved ruins on the planet and one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it brims with bucket list items and unexpected experiences alike: you can magically float in the lowest place on Earth, embark on thrilling desert Jeep safaris, and snorkel above a sunken airplane.
For anyone who hasn’t yet made it to the Middle East—a seriously underrated part of the world—Jordan is a fabulous place to start. Not only will you find the food, music, culture, and customs the region is famous for, but credit cards are widely accepted, apps like Airbnb and Uber work well, and good infrastructure and transportation make it easy to explore.
My first trip to Jordan was in 2016 when I spent two weeks solo adventuring around the country. I hung out with people I met on Couchsurfing, hitched rides in shared taxis with locals, gorged on some of the best street falafel I’ve ever had in my life, and learned many of the tips and tricks that most first-time visitors rarely experience.
I loved the country so much that I began leading small group tours to Jordan in 2019 so I could help other travelers go beyond the guidebook and have unique experiences with the extraordinarily welcoming residents of what quickly became one of my favorite countries. As of April 2022, I’m thrilled to report that the borders are open, everything is up and running, and now is THE time to visit since the crowds are still small. Here’s how to plan your first trip.
What to know before arriving in Jordan
As Jordan is extremely safe and is consistently ranked as one of the safest countries in the world, women, LGBTQ+, and solo travelers can also feel safe exploring on their own. It’s worth noting, however, that even though Jordan might be the most progressive country in the Middle East, public displays of affection (particularly among same-sex couples) is frowned upon and women should avoid wearing excessively short, tight, or revealing clothing.
On the note of COVID-19, Jordan has been enjoying very low infection and hospitalization rates, and travelers do not need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test upon arrival and the country recently lifted indoor masking requirements.
That said, all visitors to Jordan must fill out the Travel Declaration Form, which takes about three minutes to complete, before their flight. After filling it out, you’ll receive a QR code by email, which you’ll need to show airline staff before boarding your flight and again when you arrive in Jordan.
Travelers visiting for more than a few days (which is highly recommended since there’s so much to do) should consider buying a Jordan Pass. Jordan requires a visa, which is included in the Jordan Pass, so buying the pass simplifies the airport arrival process.
It also includes admission to all the country’s popular attractions, so buying the pass is typically much cheaper, easier, and faster than paying separate admission fees at each site. Included attractions range from small museums and archeological sites to huge castles and the country’s top attraction, Petra (there are several versions of the pass depending on how many days you want to spend in Petra alone).
Make time for the capital city of Amman
The vast majority of flights into Jordan arrive at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, so this is where most people begin their journey. Instead of immediately leaving town to start checking items off your bucket list, consider spending a couple days exploring the capital city while you get over your jetlag.
Sitting high above Jebel Al Qala’a, Amman’s highest hill, is the stunning Amman Citadel architectural site, which has been occupied by humans since the Bronze Age. Take in the ancient temple, palace, and on-site archeological museum, then stroll around the surrounding downtown area, which is the best place to find food markets and tea and spice shops.
In the evening, head to the female-run cooking school Beit Sitti, where you can learn to make traditional Jordanian dishes like baba ganouj and maqluba, an upside-down chicken and rice dish (Beit Setti also prepares a vegetarian version).
Float like a feather and pamper yourself with a mud treatment in the Dead Sea
The lowest place on Earth isn’t some big, barren hole—it’s the cool, clear waters of the Dead Sea. Since the extreme saltiness of the water prevents any fish or plants from surviving in the sea, this is not a good place for snorkeling or scuba diving, so leave your gear at home.
However, the high salinity does the water dense, making your body lighter and causing you to float along with ease. Have you ever seen a picture of someone reading a newspaper while floating in the water, as though there were an invisible recliner under them? Well, the Dead Sea is where you can do just that.
Just an hour west of Amman, you can easily visit the Dead Sea on a day trip. But if you’re in the mood to be pampered with a Dead Sea mud treatment or invigorating salt massage, consider overnighting at one of the waterfront resorts and spas.
Visit some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world
About 90 minutes north of Amman is Jerash, the best-preserved example of a Greco-Roman provincial city in the entire Middle East. Sometimes referred to as the “Pompeii of the Middle East,” this is a massive collection of hilltop temples, soaring pillars, ancient baths, plazas, shops, and amphitheaters that require at least a few hours to explore. The site is also home to one of the oldest unbroken chains of human occupation, dating back over 6,500 years.
While you’re in the north, head 30 minutes west of Jerash to Ajloun Castle, which was originally built to ward off Crusader armies and then served as a key trade and pilgrimage intersection between Mecca, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Damascus. For a quick bite to eat in Ajloun, swing by Summaga Café, a female-run farm-to-table restaurant that creates employment opportunities for women in the region and sources organic produce from 25 local farms.
Go on a wild ride in the Wadi Rum Desert
It’s very possible that you’ve seen Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum Desert on the big screen without even realizing it. The out-of-this-world, Martian-like landscape has appeared in countless blockbuster movies including Dune, Star Wars, Aladdin, and The Martian, and the perfect way to explore the desert is through a Jeep tour led by local Bedouin guides.
On 4x4 Jeeps, you’ll power through the endless sands past awe-inspiring cliffsides, following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. Within this UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jeeps stop frequently so you can climb the dunes, scramble across rock bridges, discover rock inscriptions and narrow gorges, and pose for selfies with impossibly photogenic camels.
Snorkel above sunken airplanes in the Red Sea
The Dead Sea might be the most famous sea in Jordan, but it definitely isn’t the only one worth visiting. Jordan’s section of the super salty Red Sea is located in Aqaba, about an hour southwest of Wadi Rum. As one of the hottest regions in the country, it’s the perfect place to relax on the beach and swim, snorkel, or scuba dive to escape the extreme heat that generally tops 90 degrees by April.
Scuba divers will be treated to countless eel-occupied ship wrecks and coral reefs, but even snorkelers can view the sunken airplane at the Hercules dive site. However you get out in the water, you’re sure to encounter a huge variety of brightly-colored fish darting past.
Explore one of the Seven Wonders of the World
By far, Petra is the most popular attraction in Jordan. It’s so magnificent that some travelers even visit during a (very long!) day trip from neighboring Israel and Egypt. Given how much there is to see and do in Jordan, a day trip simply doesn’t do the country—or Petra—justice but the fact that so many travelers are willing to spend 10 hours on a bus just to have a few hours in the ancient red rose city speaks to how truly breathtaking it is.
Enter through the Siq (Petra’s main entrance), which guides you through a narrow, ¾-mile gorge to the majestic Treasury, made world-famous by Indian Jones movies. More adventurous travelers may want to hike in through Petra’s “back door”, which offers impressive views of soaring canyons, tree-topped mountains, and deep valleys before arriving at the Monastery.
The Treasury and Monastery are the two most impressive buildings in Petra (prepare to walk at least seven or eight miles to visit both) but one could easily spend several days exploring the lesser-known remnants of this Nabatean masterpiece.