As a city, Amman’s certainly old. It may have been the capital of Jordan — the state cut from the desert in the post-war carve-up of the Middle East in 1946 — for only 68 years, but it has lit up the map of Arabia since around 1200BC. Then, it was Rabbath Ammon, a place so dusty of origin that it features in the Bible. And since that distant era, it has undergone several updates — via the soft touch of ancient Greek civilisation, the stamp of Rome’s boot, the heavy rule of Ottoman Turkey and the colonial ‘assistance’ of the British Empire.
It wears these influences well, throwing out monuments and echoes at almost every turn. But Amman also wants to be modern. Desperately so. Its ambition reaches for the skies in Al Abdali, a ‘new downtown’ of offices and apartments being built west of the centre, and in Dabouq and Abdoun, westerly suburbs abuzz with chic homes and shining malls.
This is a patchwork quilt of a city, internally divided by both geography and time. It has long stretched out across a hilly landscape whose steep slopes have formed distinct pockets of development. Stand on Jabal (meaning ‘mount’) Al Qal’a, the founding stone of the city, with its historic Citadel, and you can still feel Rome’s hot breath. But wander over to the opposite summit, Jabal Amman, and you’ll find the 20th century, with inviting bars, restaurants and shops set up — some in restored Ottoman homes — along the key food-and-drink avenue of Al-Rainbow Street. Plunge into Al-Balad, the busy district that lurks between these two hills, and you drop into the 18th century, with hawkers calling and crowds of shoppers swirling amid the souks and narrow alleys that still shape the soul of Amman.
There are other areas too, including Jabal Al Weibdeh, a bohemian enclave where cafes circle the leafy Square de Paris, and the adjacent Shmeisani, which splices embassies and hotels with coffee shops where men pass the afternoon in a haze of hookah smoke.
The city has doubled in size in the last 15 years. And it shows. Traffic roars along flyovers and highways, and with public transport limited, visitors may need to resort to taxis to explore it. Yet, in an epoch in which Cairo and Beirut have their problems, and Damascus is a blur of tragedy, Amman is not only a rare case of an Arabian capital that’s safe for tourists, but also one that will share its secrets with those who are prepared to seek them.
The Citadel: Jabal Al Qal’a is crowned by this grand relic, where the pillars of a Greco-Roman Temple of Hercules and the arches of an eighth-century Umayyad palace still overlook the city. The Jordan Archaeological Museum within the site offers artifacts dating back to the early Ammonite settlers. visitjordan.com/attractions/amman
Roman amphitheatre: This 6,000-capacity amphitheatre, dating back to 63BC, still exudes imperial pomp from its location on the edge of Al-Balad, and is one of the most impressive remnants of Roman Philadelphia — the city’s former incarnation.
The Jordan Museum: So new that only its lower floor is currently open, this Al-Balad must-see brings Jordan’s story into the Neolithic age. Highlights include the Ayn Ghazal Statues — plaster figures that are thought to date to 7,500BC — and the Copper Scroll, which, found in the same caves as the Dead Sea Scrolls, talks of lost treasure. jordanmuseum.jo
King Abdullah I Mosque: Amman boasts several impressive examples of Islamic architecture, but the brightest is scarcely two decades old. Built between 1982 and 1989 in tribute to the titular former monarch, this ornate edifice holds up to 3,000, and is topped by a turquoise dome. It’s also open to non-Muslims. awqaf.gov.jo
King Hussein Park: In sight of the affluent properties of Dabouq, this 70-acre green expanse of green opened in 2006. Families picnic and kids play amid its lines of fir trees.
Royal Automobile Museum: Perched alongside the park, this is a collection of cars owned or driven by Jordanian royalty. Among the line-up of Porsches, Mercedes and Ferraris is an armour-plated 1973 Lincoln — used to ferry Richard Nixon during a presidential visit in 1974. royalautomuseum.jo
The Children’s Museum: Next door to the Royal Automobile Museum, this haven of interactive gadgets is ideal for kids. They can walk inside a scaled-up model of their own digestive system, for example, or create mayhem with mini cranes in construction areas. cmj.jo
Jerash: Some 30 miles north of Amman, Jerash was another of Rome’s Decapolis cities in the Middle East. Two millennia on, it’s one of the best-preserved Roman sites on the planet — the second-century Arch of Hadrian greets travellers, and the main Oval Plaza is still framed by columns. Half-day trips from Amman start at £54 with viator.com
Like a local
Public transport: Although buses run in Amman, routes tend to be convoluted, with the final destination usually written on the vehicle’s front in Arabic only. It’s simpler to take a taxi. Yellow, metered cabs are plentiful and can be hailed in the street. Any journey in Amman should cost no more than JD5 (£4.25).
Hashem Restaurant: Part downtown cafe, part drop-in centre, this cheap and cheerful eatery, off Faisal Plaza in Al-Balad, is Amman at its most happily parochial. The menu keeps things basic — houmous, falafel, flatbreads — and the number of customers far exceeds the available seating around the low plastic tables. Al-Amir Mohammed Street.
Tamriet Omar: Locals queue through the door of this institution off-Al-Rainbow, where chefs churn out parcels of tamrieh — sweet filo-pastry morsels stuffed with a paste of almonds and cashews, and fried in oil — on a seemingly ceaseless basis. Abu Tamman Street.
King Talal Street: Stroll along the key thoroughfare of Al-Balad, and you’ll be able to buy everything from antique furniture, Iranian carpets and hand-sewn shoes to recycled computers. The adjacent Souk Al-Sukkar (Sugar Souk) is a maze of fruit and vegetables.
Jordan River Foundation: Tucked into a courtyard on Al-Rainbow, the Jordan River Foundation has a charitable ethos, selling arts and crafts, such as candles and embroidered cushions, sourced from rural communities. jordanriver.jo
Soap House: Hidden just off (and signposted from) Al-Rainbow on the north slope of Jabal Amman, this lovely former mansion sells soaps and cleansers, as well as Dead Sea salt crystals. T: 00 962 6 463 3953.
Taj Lifestyle Center: Nowhere is the clash between the historic heart of Amman and its glitzy western half more apparent than in this colossal Abdoun mall whose high-end fashion stores could not be further removed from the souks. tajlifestyle.com
Al-Rainbow Street is strewn with food options, but intrepid diners can also find intriguing eateries amid the hubbub of Al-Balad or the easy vibe of Jabal Al Weibdeh.
£ Wild Jordan: Right where Jabal Amman meets Jabal Al Qal’a, this lunchtime favourite offers healthy fare, with inventive salads (strawberries and avocado with cheese) and gloopy smoothies. wildjordancafe-jo.com
££ Beit Sitti: ‘Grandmother’s House’ fits in neatly with Jabal Al Weibdeh left-field spirit. Guests learn to cook traditional Jordanian dishes such as mouttabal (eggplant dip) and maaloubeh (a mix of chicken, rice and cauliflower), then eat the results. beitsittijo.com
£££ Sufra: One of the gems of Al-Rainbow, Sufra makes excellent use of an Ottoman townhouse to serve delicacies like mansaf (lamb with rice, almonds and pine seeds) and houmous billahmeh (mashed chickpeas with mincemeat). facebook.com/SufraRestaurant
Amman doesn’t have a giddy cocktail culture, but it can claim a more relaxed attitude to alcohol than many of its Middle Eastern counterparts — and the occasional cool watering hole.
Vinaigrette: Basking on the seventh floor of the Al Qasr Metropole, this hotel bar is unabashedly western in its outlook. The cocktail list is enticing — ‘Red Citrus’ blends vodka and orange liqueur with lime — and the city views are splendid.
Cantaloupe: One of several possibilities for refreshment at the eastern end of Al-Rainbow Street, this stylish gastropub boasts a rooftop bar overlooking the Citadel, a lengthy cocktail and wine list, and stays open till 1am. cantaloupe.jo
Jadal Culture: Not strictly a house of intoxication, this Al-Balad ‘hideaway’, concealed on Al Kalha Steps above Faisal Plaza, is a blend of gallery, library, performance space and cafe, where musicians play evening sets to young Jordanians. facebook.com/jadal.amman
Jabal Amman plays host to many of the city’s main hotels — and is the most convenient base for a weekend here — but Shmeisani is a feasible place for slumber.
Al Qasr Metropole: Comfortable four-star amid the quiet residential streets of Shmeisani. Its 66 rooms are complemented by a next-door gym. alqasrmetropole.com
Grand Hyatt: This gilded five-star sits just off Third Circle — the Jabal Amman roundabout that’s the city’s focal point. The lobby lounge-bar does discreet evenings, while guests may also be drawn to the inhouse art gallery, Zara. amman.grand.hyatt.com
Le Royal: Amman’s landmark hotel is visible from almost every corner of the city – not least at night, when its exterior is bathed in purple light. Its Shahrayar Restaurant does top-notch Arabian food, while its spa extends over two floors. leroyalamman.com
Queen Alia International Airport is 20 miles south of the city. British Airways and Royal Jordanian offer daily flights from Heathrow. EasyJet will end its once-weekly flight to the city from Gatwick at the start of May. ba.com rj.com easyjet.com
Average flight time: 5h.
The bus system can be confusing for non-Arabic speakers/readers. For the brave, services 26, 27, 28, 41 and 43 cover the city centre, although taxis are easier and not much more expensive (see ‘Like a local’).
When to go
Spring and autumn with temperatures around 20C. Amman can be scorching in summer (30C), but due to its mountainous setting, winters can be chilly (the city occasionally sees snow).
Need to know
Currency: Jordanian dinar (JD). £1 = JD1.17.
Visas: UK citizens travelling to Jordan can buy a visa for JD20 (£17), in cash, on arrival.
International dialling code: 00 962 6.
Time difference: GMT +2.
How to do it
A four-night break with Parnassus Travel in May at the five-star Four Seasons Hotel Amman, including flights from Heathrow, transfers and accommodation with breakfast, costs from £808 per person (based on two sharing). parnassustravel.com
The Rough Guide to Jordan. RRP: £15.99.
Lonely Planet: Jordan. RRP: £15.99.
Published in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)