Petra… where to begin? This place inspires every travel cliche we try to avoid using in our writing– “jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, unbelievable, awesome, life-changing”– the list goes on, and on.
Petra truly has to be seen to be believed, and this “rose-red city half as old as time,” as Dean Burgon’s poem goes, is one of those rare few places that we’re pretty adamant that you truly must see in your lifetime.
Normally we leave this type of over-the-top zealousness for places like the Grand Canyon– places that no photos do justice, or that we were worried may be over-hyped by those who had visited before us but instead left totally converted to their majesty.
So, that said… Let us be the first (or thousandth) to tell you that Petra is one of the coolest places you’ll ever visit, and that you should prioritize a visit both to Petra and to Jordan in general ASAP.
A Quick History Lesson:
Today, Petra is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the (Ancient) World, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site par excellence, said by UNESCO to be “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage”. It is the most-visited tourist attraction in Jordan, and one of the most famed archaeological sites in the world.
First built by the Nabataean Empire somewhere around the 1st century BCE, it served as a crucial crossroads for the trade of frankincense, myrrh, and spices due to its strategic location as a convergence point between the Arabian Peninsula to the south and the Levant to the north. Wares that crossed through Petra even made it as far away as China and Europe!
Even after annexation by the Roman Empire a few centuries later, the city continued to thrive. Sadly, damages from a large earthquake somewhere in the 4th century CE, coupled with a change in trading routes led to the diminishing of this once-influential city, and by the 7th century CE, historians believe it had largely been forgotten, except by Bedouin tribes that still resided in the area (and reside there to this day!) Interestingly, archaeologists believe that the decision to abandon Petra was made well in advance, as very few items of value (like silver) have been found in digs, suggesting a lack of urgency in leaving the city.
The city was “rediscovered” in the early 1800s by a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, which led to its newfound fame in Europe and North America. However, similar to the “rediscovery” of Machu Picchu in Peru, the Bedouin tribes had obviously known it was there all along… so “rediscovered” is a bit of a stretch.
Anyway, arguably the biggest thing you should take away from your visit to Petra is that the Nabataeans were really, really extraordinary. They buried their dead in elaborate tombs and carved entire buildings straight out the rock face– a feat of engineering that is just jaw-dropping given the lack of modern tools and conveniences. Perhaps most extraordinary is their ability to survive and thrive in a place almost entirely devoid of water. They built ingenious irrigation systems and a variety of buildings so durable, they are still in remarkably good condition today.
For a complete history, as well as the ability to see some really neat artifacts dating back to various points in Petra’s history, we recommend starting your day with a visit to the Petra Museum, included in the price of your ticket. It will really set the tone for your day and is very well-done and informative.
Getting To Petra + Know Before You Go:
Petra is an easy day trip from Amman or Aqaba, and while you could easily spend several days there, it is entirely possible to visit in just one day– just be prepared to walk a lot! There are a lot of tours that do overnight or multiple-day tours of Petra, Wadi Rum, and other parts of the Wadi Musa area. One pro of spending the night is that you’ll be able to see Petra lit up by lanterns, which is a treat.
However, if one day is all you have (like we did), here’s what you should do.
1. Take the bus
- First of all, and we really mean this– you do not need to book an organized tour to go to Petra. There are buses that leave from Amman on set schedules, one in particular being the JETT bus. It leaves Amman (Abdali area) at 6:30 AM sharp, and returns to Amman at 5:00 PM. The bus ride takes about 3 hours each way, and the buses are super comfortable and have bathrooms and AC on board. Tickets cost 11 JOD, which is quite a bargain given the distance and touristy nature of the trip.
- We recommend stopping by the JETT terminal to purchase your bus ticket the night before just in case, as they do sell out– in which case, it’s possible to take a taxi, but this costs upwards of 90 JOD and is not advised. The last option is to take a local bus, which is cheaper (3 JOD), but not ideal as it doesn’t leave on a schedule, instead waiting for the bus to fill up completely prior to departing.
- We also recommend visiting on a weekday during the off-season like we did, as our bus ended up being almost empty, and Petra wasn’t quite so crowded. It was so nice to be able to stretch out and relax while on the bus, as well as have portions of the hiking trails to ourselves.
- Be sure to arrive to the JETT station a few minutes before your bus is scheduled to depart to scope out the best seats and have everything settled and ready to go. The bus drops you off in a parking lot right at the entrance to Petra, near the entrance to the al-Siq canyon area.
- Note that the bus may stop briefly for restrooms at souvenir shops, but of course you’re not required to purchase anything.
2. Be ready to walk!
Keep in mind that Petra is not a “quick visit” place– from the outset, it’s a 1.2 kilometer walk through the al-Siq walkway (pictured above) to get to the area where the Treasury is. This part of the walk is very flat, but you will notice immediately that any trip to Petra will involve quite a bit of walking. We did the (admittedly fairly tough) Ad Deir Trail, and we walked over 30,000 steps in our time doing it.
When you arrive, the walk through the al-Siq to the Treasury is very easy and absolutely marvelous, as you can gaze up at the narrow canyon walls around you and really lose yourself in the natural splendor of Petra! Be sure to look for the water channels carved by the Nabateans into the rock, that collect rainwater as it flows down! This walkway is a real meeting point of man-made and natural splendor, as some portions occurred naturally and others were carved in antiquity.
Once you get to the Treasury, there are a few flat places to walk around and explore if mobility is an issue for you or you’re not feeling up to it. There is plenty to do between the Museum, the Visitor’s Center, and the views at ground level. For a list of trails suggested by Visit Petra, see here.
It merits mentioning that you may be descended upon by touts and “tour guides” when you get to the Treasury, offering donkey, camel, or carriage rides. Our general policy on animal tourism is pretty stringent– it’s not our scene, and we shy away from it. In this case, it is abundantly clear that these animals are malnourished and unhappy, so if you’re physically able to walk, maybe save the camel ride for a reputable company in Wadi Rum or elsewhere.
3. Your recommended packing list for a successful day:
- Comfortable shoes are an absolute must. You will be doing a lot of walking on dusty, uneven surfaces during this day trip, so shoes that are comfortable and have a strong tread are highly recommended. You also may want to wear crew socks, or socks that are higher than ankle-height, as the gritty, sandy dirt will start rubbing on your ankles if your socks are too short, which can feel a bit unpleasant.
- Your Jordan Pass and passport– if you chose to purchase the Jordan Pass when you acquired your visa to enter the country (which we highly, highly recommend getting! You will save so much money!), make sure you have at least a screenshot on your phone of it to show when you enter. We had heard that they don’t always check for tickets and passes very carefully, but this was not our experience. It was quite crowded the day we visited (not summer-level crowds, but crowds nonetheless), but they very carefully checked each pass and ticket when we were there.
PS– If you’re unfamiliar, the Jordan Pass is essentially a visa-slash-tourism bundle, which includes free entry to 40+ of Jordan’s best museums and attractions, as well as a discount on the visa itself. The list of attractions includes Petra, Jerash, the Jordan Archaeological Museum, and more. The Pass costs 70 JOD, but is pretty much always the best deal for tourists, given that the standalone visa costs 40 JOD and a one-day visit to Petra costs 50 JOD. You will get a lot of mileage out of your Jordan Pass on even a 3-4 day trip to Jordan– we really recommend it. (Not sponsored, just our opinion!)
- Something to read, listen to, or do on the bus ride. The bus takes about 3 hours each way, often hitting Amman’s legendary traffic. While you can glance around at the scenery, I was glad to have my Kindle and a downloaded Spotify playlist to listen to on the trip.
- Layers, layers, layers. We visited in mid-January, which was a fantastic time to visit. Jordanian winters are mild, and chances are you’ll only need a light jacket. However, imperative to our Petra day was having several layers on, as walking through the narrow al-Siq Canyon opening at the entrance was quite cold and windy, but by the time we reached the top of the 800-flight hike to the Monastery later that day, we were so sweaty we had stripped down to t-shirts.
- Lunch, water, and lots of snacks! While there are some little cafes and places to buy food in Petra, it goes without saying that their prices are heavily subject to tourist price inflation. Petra is pretty isolated, so really the shops inside cater exclusively to those visiting– leading to pretty pricey outcomes, as is to be expected. We brought big bottles of water, as well as sandwiches, fruit, chocolate, and snacks we’d prepared in Amman, and we only ended up having to buy a bottle of water while we were there.
Top 3 Must-See's in Petra:
- The Treasury, or al-Khazneh: of course, quintessential Petra is its rose-colored Treasury building! Originally built as a tomb for Nabataean King Aretas III, it has long been believed to hold (or have held) hidden treasures– the subject of many, many unsuccessful treasure hunts.
- The Monastery, or al-Deir (pictured above): if you really want to get your cardio going, the Monastery is a breathtaking culmination to a really steep hike– encompassing more than 800 flights of stairs! But the end result is absolutely worth it, as there is hardly anyone there, and there are cute puppies running around. The Monastery is slightly more simple in architecture than the Treasury, but splendid just the same.
- The Urn Tomb: as you walk down the Street of Facades and check out the Royal Tombs, take note of the the largest, the Urn Tomb, which was later turned into a Byzantine Church in the 6th century CE. A series of ancient scrolls made from papyrus were found there in 1993.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with what you choose to explore in Petra. It is a life-changing place to visit, and you’ll enjoy your time there no matter what you choose to prioritize seeing.
What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments!
Options for Extensions:
- You can climb Jordan’s highest peak at Wadi Rum, often combined with a visit to Petra. There was a big storm while we were there, so we were unable to visit Wadi Rum, but most tourists combine these. Wadi Rum also has really cool opportunities for desert off-roading, camel journeys, and more.
- Fairly close to Petra (only 125 kilometers) is Jordan’s only coastal city, Aqaba. A dream for scuba divers and spa lovers alike, with lots of beach clubs and beautiful hotels, Aqaba is worth visiting for a few days for peak relaxation!
- No visit to Jordan is complete without at least a day in lovely Amman, Jordan’s modern and bustling capital city. Amman is bursting with mouthwatering eateries (picture mezze galore and an array of sweets for dessert!); Greco-Roman ruins like the Amman Citadel, and funky cafés and street art in neighborhoods like al-Weibdeh and Jabal Amman.
- Close to Amman is the beguiling and sensational Dead Sea, an easy day trip and a definite out-of-body experience! The Dead Sea is one of the saltiest places on Earth (34% salinity!) as well as the lowest-elevation place on Earth at 423 meters below sea level. This combination has led to the development of a super unique ecosystem here, with lots of purported health benefits. So slather yourself in some mineral-rich mud and float on its super-salty surface to reap those benefits yourself! There are a variety of hotels that give day passes with Dead Sea access and often include other pools and lunches in the area.
- A favorite off-the-beaten-path day trip is a combined tour of Ajloun and Jerash, two historical heavyweights less-visited by tourists, and a highlight of my Jordan trip. Ajloun hosts the eponymous Ajloun Castle, a 12th-century structure imperative in fending off the Crusaders. Jerash is home to Greco-Roman ruins at Gerasa, a really impressive archaeological complex that rivals the Via Sacra in Rome.
We hope you enjoyed this guide to Petra as much as we enjoyed writing it! As always, we’d love to hear what you think in the comments. Check out more Jordan content coming soon, and be sure to pin it for later below!