On a growth curve that has seen the city flourish artistically, creatively and spatially over the last decade, Amman shows no signs of stopping — there is now so much more to experience, see and eat in the once barren desert capital of the Hashemite Kingdom.
History of Amman: Why it’s hot and why now?
With a population about 4 million people, Amman is the fifth largest city in the Arab region. It is an alluring example of natural and forced fusion between many minorities that include Palestinians, Iraqis, Syrians, Armenians, Circassians, Bediouins, Druze, Assyrians, and Chechens.
Initially known as the city of seven hills on which it was built, Amman has expanded to include 19 hills, with names of areas attributed to the various hills (jabal) or valleys (wadi). Geographically, East Amman is where you’ll find all the historic sites and the heart of the arts and culture scene; West Amman is the modern version of the city with upscale neighbourhoods and the economic centre of the city.
This city, while still making its way onto the global landscape of tourist destinations, is one of the most visited in the Arab region. The fact that it hasn’t drowned in world tourists, yet, also makes it one of the world’s coolest destination secrets.
- Iraq al-Amir Women’s Co-op near Amman
- Citadel and the Hercules Temple
- Wild Jordan Centre and cafe
BEST TIME TO VISIT
March to September
DO YOU NEED A VISA FOR AMMAN?
While you should definitely refer back to the visa rules for Jordan, most countries can get a visa at the airport, including Canadians. The major international currency used local is the US dollar, but many exchange places will accept Canadian dollars and Euros. The exchange rate is pretty standard, with minor differences between exchange places in the airport and within the city.
What’s cool about Amman?
Where the influx of refugees almost always burdened neighbouring states, in Jordan, the affect has been a natural progression towards the fusion of authenticity, experimentation and innovation. Though the Jordanian model is far from perfect, it’s long history as being home to the largest population of forcibly evicted Palestinians, has allowed it absorb new cultures as positive impact on its social fabric. The result is a burgeoning arts and culture scene that encompasses everything from music bars and global music festivals to graffiti festivals and artist-inspired design shops. Additionally, the Amman culinary scene, while traditionally quite exquisite, has definitely become something close to unforgettable with new fusions featuring interactions from other cultures.
The most awesome part of Amman, however, is perhaps the amazing sense of initiation and entrepreneurship in the city, which has led to a diverse variety of social enterprises led by young entrepreneurs who have figured out how to make social impact sustainable and profitable for the growing tourism market. Many of these are on our list of must-do and must-try for Amman.
The see & do
The hub of the independent culture movement and scene in Amman is Al Balad Theatre, a multi-purpose artistic and community space. Amongst its many organized events are these absolute must-dos: the bi-annual Al Balad Music Festival which is often held in the historic Roman Amphitheatre and features some of the best music out of the Arab region; and the BALADK Street & Urban Arts Festival, an eight day event celebrating the most inspiring of graffiti and murals with opportunities to engage directly with the artists. Other festivals to keep an eye out for are the Amman Jazz Festival (think Arab instruments meet jazz lines) and the Jerash Festival for a more mainstream version of Arab arts.
Not far from the downtown is the Wild Jordan Center, a center aiming to produce income for the nine protected natural areas (by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature) across Jordan and promote ecotourism. Through their onsite Nature Shop, where you’ll find quality handicrafts and jewellery and candles created by Bedouin female artisans, proceeds are used to create sustainable economic and social benefits to under-served populations. Their restaurant, which offers traditional meals, and the panoramic view of downtown Amman is unparalleled.
The largest museum, and reputedly one of the best in the region, is the Jordan Museum. Located next to City Hall, a series of displays tell the history of Jordan. Amongst the archaeological treasures is Jordan’s share of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other museums in the city include The Children’s Museum, The Royal Automobile Museum, the Prophet Mohammad Museum and the Jordan Folklore Museum.
Beyond Al Balad, the music scene in Amman is explosive, with something to do every night of the week if you’re not festival hopping. The three it spots to catch some of the best live music in the region are Rustic Bar & Eatery, especially on Tuesday nights, The Corner’s Pub, and the Blue Fig.
For those wanting to drown in the wonderful possibilities of color and design, the Amman Design Week is the city’s answer to how to tell a visual story that reflects the depths of the cultural tapestry within it. This global event showcases exhibitions, talks and workshops around the city and includes popular attendee favourites like The Crafts District, Future Food/Future City, and the Dezain fashion pop-up.
When the weather is nice, Amman transforms into a mostly outdoor setting. The Jabal Al Weibdah area provides the perfect backdrop to a day spent outdoors. Organize your walk in the area around these various street art sites.
Competing with the graffiti scene is the adorning of many of the stairways throughout the old city with umbrellas. As Amman is vertically stacked, often the best way to get around, particularly from areas like Rainbow Street to downtown where the trip can take over an hour due to traffic, is via the network of staircases. For a pretty epic photo of the outdoor umbrella installations, take the most famous of the staircase that leads from Prince Muhammed Street up to Zajal Restaurant.
The Hashemite Plaza, a sprawling area of about 50,000 square meters, includes open spaces, fountains, gardens and cafes. At its flanks is the smaller 500-seat Roman Odeon and the 6,000-seat Roman Theatre, the heart of downtown and the size of which can be seen from a distance.
Nearby, and located on the highest hill in Amman, about 850m above sea level, is the area known as the Citadel. Within this complex, which has, remnants of the Roman and Islamic empires are the Temple of Hercules, the splendid Ummayad Palace, the Byzantine Church and the Jordan Archaeological Museum.
The Mosques in Amman are sites to behold, each reflecting a specific moment in history and a particular architectural vision. Amongst the many our top tow suggestions are: the Ottoman-style Grand Husseini Mosque, found past the gold souk, which features the traditionally unique pink-and-white stone of the Levant and was rebuilt in 1924 on the site of the original mosque built in 640 AD; and the blue-domed King Abdallah I Mosque which also features an Islamic Museum.
Before properly exploring Rainbow Street, Amman’s most famous street, an absolute regret would be to not eat at Shams Al Balad. A family run restaurant that began as a lifestyle design company that expanded into a flower shop and café, before becoming this heavenly spot for gastronomic delights with an attached studio for locally handmade goods. The family focuses their energies on locally sourcing and connecting food heritage with the modern Jordanian identity. There literally isn’t anything on their menu that isn’t amazing, but their breakfast/brunch options are just other-level. Another particularly cool spot, and the epicentre where many of Amman’s artists and musicians can be spotted (largely because one of the owners is also a lead vocal/guitarist in a major Jordanian band) is the Turtle Green Tea Bar, great for a light meal or an afternoon coffee pick-me-up.
Rainbow Street is at a central location to most of the sites of Amman and a great place to stop at to eat, shop or people watch. And, when the weather is warm, roof top terraces are a visual delight, many of which are on this street. Head over to Cantaloupe on Rainbow Street for a drink or a meal, but mostly for the breath taking views of the Amman cityscape. The biggest outdoor Friday market open during the summer months is the Souk Jara Market on Rainbows Street, where you’ll find everything from local handicrafts and souvenirs to food and music. Key cultural institutions, like the British Council, are also found along this street. For most of the events taking place in this neighbourhood, check out the street posters or the signs in Turtle Green Tea Bar.
What to eat
For a traditional Arab spot, check out Rakwet Arab. Those wanting to balance out the yummy sweets of Amman with healthier lunch spot a visit to the family-run Joz Hind is a must, particularly because guests are seated in a communal veranda to encouraged conversations and food is responsibly sourced. The coffee fix is most definitely found at Rumi Café, where the sun is just right if you get there in the late afternoon or early morning.
Mansaf, with popular variations in Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia, is officially Jordan’s national dish. Often prepared for any kind of family gathering, it is an extremely heavy dish made of camel or lamb meat, rice, bread and yogurt. It is an absolute must-eat when in Jordan. Head to Jabri or Jameeda Khanum for a delicious foray into mansaf, however, it is strongly advised that no serious plans be made after this meal as will often require many cups of mint tea to digest and for the body to return to it’s full agility.
If you haven’t had kunafa, have you even really been in Jordan? This traditional and popular Arab dessert is made with shredded dough, mozzarella or ricotta cheese, rose water, pistachios, syrup and topped with a light crème is a common delight in the region, with each country having its own unique variations. It has been an unofficial agreement amongst the Arabs that Palestinian kunafa is truly above the rest and in Amman, leaving without a taste of kunafa is tragic. Our picks for kunafa-connoisseurs is Habiba Sweets.
But, the crown jewel of culinary options in this suburb, and another fantastic social enterprise, is Beit Sitti (meaning my grandmother’s house). Established in 2010 by a trio of sisters wanting to keep their grandmother’s legacy alive, they opened their grandmother’s house to visitors wanting a different kind of dining experience. This social business recycles impact through the community y offering local woman an opportunity to showcase their cooking talents, sourcing from the local markets and offering visitors an opportunity to cook and eat a traditional Arabic meal in one of the most magnificent old homes of Amman.
Another important part of the Amman exploration is the downtown (and perhaps not the same day as the Jebel Al Weibdah excursion). Drastically different from the other suburbs of Amman, the downtown is the heart of the old city. For breakfast, and as far as really authentic spots go, start with Hashem Restaurant for the deliciously simple falafel, hummus and Jordanian bread.
The stuff most don’t know
Because of its elevation, Amman experiences a range of weather with mildly hot days and breezy nights in the summer, and cold weather during the winter months. It is not unusual to find the city covered in snow, particularly in January and February. Depending on where you are in the city, a light sweater or shawl might be needed for the summer and much warmer clothing, including an umbrella for the fall.
Amman is home to some of the world’s best graphic designers. Their creative presence is easily felt in and around the city. Wherever you go, the city’s graphic designers leave their creative footprint in restaurant logs and menu designs, storefronts, street posters, and design shops. One of these is JoBedu, a little shop in the heart of Jabal Al Weibdeh, that has single-handedly become the epicentre of complimentary and interacting arts. This shop is the mecca for graphic designers to try out new ideas, which are then printed onto anything possible including mugs, kid’s onesies, and notebooks. JoBedo is especially prolific at making t-shirts and posters as they fuse cheekiness with emphasis on Arabic language and a dash of pop culture, like their marvel collection with superhero t-shirts made up entirely of Arabic calligraphy or their originals collection of tongue-in-cheek English plays on Arabic sayings. Founded in 2007, JoBedu has not only supported the local artists and graphic designer scene in Jordan, but has played a pivotal role in supporting musicians and street art while using it’s, now, regional platform to support other charities.
SHOPPING IN AMMAN
Even if you are not a big shopper, there are a few items that are special in Jordan and should be on your ‘Need to Buy List’. The traditional Bedouin headscarf, the kefiyyeh, comes in a variety of colors and is often sewn by women in refugee camps. The Social Enterprise Project is located in the Jerash ‘Gaza’ Camp and supports the economic independence of women within the camp. Handmade olive oil soap is a common product in the Levant area due to the high quality of olive trees found locally. Sitti Soap is famous for its soaps as much as for its social enterprise work in the Jerash Camp and as a certified Women’s Business Enterprise. Olive oil can be found anywhere in the city and we can confirm, as you will too after our first few meals in Amman, that it tastes much richer than most places in the world. Take advantage of the abundantly available and coveted oil during your trip. A tin of sweets basically makes everything complete—pick up an assorted tin of Jordan’s most famous delicacies from any of the multiple locations of Zalatimo.
Ready to go?
We can work with you to plan this ultimate adventure. In partnership with local tour operators in Jordan, we make sure you get the most out of your vacation – and you’ll feel good knowing your travel dollars are supporting community initiatives. Feel confident knowing you are getting expert advice in booking the journey that is right for you.