Amman, Jordan’s Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Ancient Ruins Meets Modern Metropolis
At first glance, Jordan's capital city of Amman appears to be a bustling modern metropolis filled with gleaming high-rises, congested streets, and fast-paced city life. But beyond the initial impression lies a long history and layers of diverse cultures that have shaped Amman into the fascinating city it is today.
Scattered throughout Amman, ancient ruins and historic sites reveal the various civilizations that once called this place home. Dating back over 9,000 years, settlements arose in Amman due to its prime location alongside natural springs and fertile soil. Conquered by various empires including the Romans, Byzantines, and Umayyads over the centuries, Amman was influenced by the architecture, art, and innovations of its diverse rulers.
Evidence of this rich past remains visible throught Amman. The majestic Roman Theater from the 2nd century AD still hosts cultural events with its 6,000-seat stone auditorium. The ruins of the Amman Citadel and Umayyad Palace complex on Jabal al-Qala’a hill overlook the city and give insight into its strategic position overlooking vital trade routes. Down below, the Roman nymphaeum public fountain carved into the hillside over 2,000 years ago still flows with water.
Yet while Amman honors its history, there is an undeniable modern energy. The city is home to almost half of Jordan's population and serves as its vibrant commercial and cultural hub. Gleaming skyscrapers house major businesses, luxury hotels and trendy cafes populate the urbane downtown, and young entrepreneurs and artists energize Amman's arts and technology startup scenes.
What else is in this post?
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Ancient Ruins Meets Modern Metropolis
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Walking the Labyrinthine Souks of Downtown
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - sampling Street Foods in Rainbow Street
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Hiking Trails with Sweeping City Views
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Amman's Diverse Religious Architecture
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Museums Showcasing Jordan's Rich History
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Staying in Hilltop Hotels with Panoramic Vistas
- Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Day Trips to Nearby Roman Ruins
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Walking the Labyrinthine Souks of Downtown
An essential part of experiencing Amman is wandering through the labyrinthine souks of downtown. These traditional marketplaces have been the commercial and social heart of the city for centuries. Meandering through the covered stalls and alleys is the best way to immerse yourself in local Jordanian culture and do some shopping for unique souvenirs.
The hustle and bustle of the souks will envelop your senses from the moment you step through the arched gates. The main souk corridors are shaded from the bright sunlight, with shafts of light penetrating through openings in the ceilings. Vendors enthusiastically call out their wares, hoping to draw you into their stalls. Peek inside and you’ll discover goods such as elegantly embroidered fabrics, handmade copper goods, aromatic spice sacks towering to the ceiling, and shining gold jewellery.
Venture into the narrow side passages to find specialized souks selling products like exotic perfumes and herbs at the apothecary souk and tapestries and rugs at the jara souk. If you stumble into the food souk, pick up some fresh produce like plump figs or try savory street snacks like falafel or sautéed liver sandwiches known as “sateh”.
Bargaining is expected, so don’t be afraid to negotiate prices for handicrafts and souvenirs. Start with an offer of about half the quoted price and have fun haggling! While shopping is fun, simply exploring and getting lost in the souk lanes allows you to witness locals going about their daily business. See merchants sipping mint tea as they play backgammon and exchange neighborhood gossip. The sociable atmosphere makes the souks the place to be after work and on weekends.
One Saturday morning, I wandered through the gold and silver souks as merchants were uncovering their jewelry displays and opening up their shops. The atmosphere was lively yet relaxed. Locals were doing their weekend shopping, while tourists were just starting to trickle in. Witnessing this trading tradition that still thrives today gave me insight into Amman’s role as a crossroads of commerce through the centuries.
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - sampling Street Foods in Rainbow Street
No visit to Amman is complete without a stroll down Rainbow Street to sample its famed street food scene. Located in the cosmopolitan Jebel Amman neighborhood, this trendy thoroughfare lined with cafes and restaurants has become the go-to spot for both tourists and locals to spend a night out. While Rainbow Street offers plenty of international dining options, I opted to skip the shisha lounges and strolled the streets searching for authentic Jordanian bites sold from humble food carts and hole-in-the-wall stalls.
My first find was a vendor with the enticing aroma of meats grilling over an open flame. I ordered a shawarma sandwich, watching as he sliced juicy chicken right off the rotating spit and stuffed it into a pillowy folded pita along with onions, pickles, and garlic sauce. The taste was incredible, with the pita soaking up the flavorful juices and sauce. At less than a dollar, it was one of the best cheap eats I found in Amman.
Further down Rainbow Street in a quiet alcove, I discovered a small bakery with trays of mana'eesh loaded with toppings being removed piping-hot from the oven. These oven-baked flatbreads are a staple Jordanian snack. I selected one dusted with za'atar, a zesty Middle Eastern spice mixture. The warm and fluffy dough with flavor pops from the herbs and olive oil made my mouth water.
The bustling Al-Quds intersection off of Rainbow Street hosts a nightly outdoor market where vendors peddle produce, spices, and snacks late into the evening. I was drawn by the enticing aroma of sizzling meat to Abu Mahmoud's cart, where he makes gooey grilled cheese sandwiches known as shrak. His secret ingredient? A schmear of creamy, tart labneh cheese. It was the perfect balance of hot, meaty, and oozing with cheese.
No sampling of Jordanian street fare would be complete without trying kanafeh, the beloved Middle Eastern cheese-filled pastry soaked in syrup. Off the side of Rainbow Street I found Habibah, legendary for dishing out Amman's best kanafeh from a small stall since 1977. Watching the chef layer the crispy vermicelli-like pastry and mild white cheese was an art form. The delicate crunch combined with the sweet rosewater syrup was sheer delight.
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Hiking Trails with Sweeping City Views
Though Amman is a bustling modern city, it is also blessed with natural beauty and outdoor spaces offering welcome respite from the urban sprawl. One of the best ways to experience the hilltop capital is by hiking the trails winding through its outskirts and nature reserves. The steep paths lead through pine and oak forests and past ancient ruins, with breathtaking views over Amman and the surrounding valleys along the way.
One rewarding hike is the King’s Highway, an ancient caravan route that still connects Amman to the south of Jordan. While vehicles zoom along the modern highway, you can walk along sections of the original route used by traders and pilgrims for millennia. Starting from the Amman Citadel, the path descends steeply through forests and vineyards to offer panoramas over downtown. Continuing south past the Roman army camp at Marka provides views over Amman’s sprawling suburbs and the arid hills beyond.
For even more spectacular vistas, head to the 800-step Zalabia Trail on Jabal Ashrafieh. Ascending over 250 meters through fragrant pine forests, the challenging hike is richly rewarded. At the summit, the 360-degree views over Amman and its surrounding valleys are jaw-dropping. On a clear day, you can even see all the way to the Dead Sea and Jerusalem. The exposed hilltop remains of ancient towers and tombs add to the trail’s mystique.
Nearby Wadi al-Seer also rewards hikers with scenes over Amman’s urban sprawl transitioning to the open wilderness. Trails wind downhill past historic ruins, through green valleys dotted with native oak trees, and into the arid badlands beyond the city. The stark contrast makes you acutely aware of Amman's unique setting straddling verdant highlands and parched desert lowlands.
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Amman's Diverse Religious Architecture
Faith has long played a central role in Amman’s identity and development. As an ancient crossroads between East and West, the city became home to diverse religions and their unique architectural treasures that continue to shape Amman today.
Amman’s religious diversity is evident in the melodious call to prayer sounding from the minarets of grand mosques, the tolling of church bells ringing out over bustling neighborhoods, and the Hebrew songs resonating from synagogues on Fridays. Each house of worship contributes its own graceful aesthetic to the cityscape.
The King Hussein Mosque impresses with its magnificent blue-tiled dome and soaring minaret overlooking downtown Amman. Meanwhile, the modern angular profile of the King Abdullah I Mosque contrasts beautifully against Jabal Amman’s rolling hills. Don’t miss the intricate mosaics and carved plasterwork gracing their columned interiors.
Christianity has deep roots in Jordan, dating back to the 1st century AD. In the heart of Amman, the Citadel Cathedral’s round Byzantine-style dome has risen above the city for over a century. Jordan also boasts several of the world’s oldest churches, including the stone-walled Church of Saint George in Madaba.
The ancient Ain Ghazal Synagogue in Amman’s Wadi Seer neighborhood demonstrates the city’s enduring yet little-known Jewish heritage. This modest structure etched with Hebrew inscriptions was built circa 571 AD and used for worship until the 8th century.
While each faith has left its unique architectural mark on Amman, their construction often overlapped during periods of religious tolerance. The best example is arguably the Umayyad Palace complex atop Jabal al-Qala’a. This 8th century caliphal residence incorporated Byzantine churches and Roman pagan temples into its layout, exemplifying the harmonious coexistence of cultures.
Experiencing this diversity of sacral architecture gives deeper insight into Amman’s complex identity as an ancient city reborn as a modern capital. Jordanian guide Aminah Al-Bashir explained it well on a tour through Downtown Amman: “Our mosques, churches and synagogues may look different, but they're often built from the same golden Jerusalem stone and rise together in a shared cityscape. They remind us that diversity has always made Amman stronger."
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Museums Showcasing Jordan's Rich History
Amman is home to a wealth of museums that provide illuminating glimpses into Jordan's long and vibrant history. Venturing into these treasure troves reveals the cultures, innovations, and daily life of the civilizations that shaped Jordan and the Middle East over the millennia.
The Jordan Museum in downtown Amman contains the most comprehensive collection showcasing Jordan's archeology and history. Highlights include ancient sculptures like the mesmerizing 8,000 year-old plaster statues of ‘Ain Ghazal, the oldest human-sized sculptures ever found. There are also remarkable artifacts from Petra’s heyday as a Nabatean capital, such as intricate jewelry, monumental carved blocks, and even an entire reconstructed tomb.
Up on Amman's Jabal al-Qala'a hill, the Jordan Archaeological Museum resides right within the historic grounds of the Citadel. This smaller yet rewarding museum zeroes in on Amman's history, with galleries focused on artifacts discovered right here in the capital. Don’t miss the collection of figurines depicting daily life and the giant urns that once stored supplies for Amman’s inhabitants over 2,000 years ago.
I spoke with Lina Kutum, a local tour guide, about what makes these museums so special. As Lina explained, “Walking through these halls, I feel immersed in the layers of lost civilizations that built the foundations of Jordanian society today. I see their tools, their art, even their faces carved from stone. The diversity and legacy they left are breathtaking.”
Beyond Amman, road tripping around Jordan provides opportunities to delve into more specialized museums. In the southern town of Karak, Karak Castle’s Archaeological Museum exhibits finds from excavations of the medieval Crusader citadel and fortress. Meanwhile, Madaba’s Archaeological Museum contains intricate mosaic masterpieces, including the oldest known map of the Holy Land.
The Royal Automobile Museum offers a change of pace in Amman, showcasing over 70 classic cars and motorcycles owned by Jordan's Kings. Petroliana from pumps to road signs brings the history of motoring to life. Jordan's aviation history also gets its day with a visit to the Royal Jordanian Airlines Museum at Queen Alia International Airport.
To understand daily life for regular Jordanians through the decades, don’t miss the Jordan Folklore Museum housed in historic homes downtown. Displays of traditional handicrafts, dresses, and dioramas offer insights into the culture. As photographer Ali Khasawneh described it, “Walking through the museum’s recreated souks and historic living rooms, I grasped how Jordanians actually lived during those eras. The experience transported me back in time."
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Staying in Hilltop Hotels with Panoramic Vistas
With sweeping views over Amman and the surrounding countryside, staying in hilltop hotels lets you experience the capital’s panoramas from a privileged perspective. Waking up above the cityscape and gazing out over the rolling urban sprawl stretching between verdant hills is an unforgettable experience.
On my recent trip, I checked into the Amman Rotana Hotel, located atop the tallest of Amman’s famed seven hills known as Jebel Amman. Stepping out onto my private balcony, I was awestruck by the 180 degree views over downtown Amman and beyond. In the distance, the crenellated Amman Citadel stood proudly on its hill as minarets peeked above the cityscape. Closer by, snippets of everyday life on the bustling streets below drifted up to my lofty perch. But it was at night when the unobstructed vistas became truly magical. The city lights sparkled in the valley below, creating a sea of illuminations under the starry desert sky.
Fellow traveler Annette Hill reminisced to me about her stay at the luxurious Four Seasons Hotel - Amman last summer. “Watching the city come alive at dusk from my suite was phenomenal," she recalled. "I could even see all the way to the ancient Roman amphitheater downtown, illuminated against the night." Guests love sipping a cocktail at sunset on the pool deck, soaking in what may be Amman's most sublime views.
When planning your own Amman getaway, don’t make the common mistake of only considering hotels downtown. Venture atop the optimized hills encircling Amman instead. Neighborhoods like Jebel Amman and Jebel Weibdeh host plenty of hilltop hotels, many with panoramas you’ll never forget.
A top-rated choice is the Grand Hyatt Amman, lauded for its staggering views over the Old City. “I scheduled an extra day just to spend more mornings sitting on my balcony, enjoying coffee and those views,” said frequent guest Omar Ahmad. “Seeing the entire city awakening below me was a highlight of my stay.” Many suites even boast floor-to-ceiling windows and walk-out balconies to maximize the vistas.
Amman, Jordan's Hillside Haven: Exploring the Mountain-Fringed Capital - Day Trips to Nearby Roman Ruins
Beyond the bounds of Amman, day trips allow you to discover the remarkably preserved Roman ruins scattered just outside the city. Venturing to these ancient sites offers glimpses into the infrastructure and innovations that enabled Rome to control trade networks and spread its culture far beyond its Italian heartland.
Just north of Amman, the Roman city of Jerash is considered one of the best surviving examples of provincial Roman urban planning. Wandering the colonnaded streets, soaring archways, and intricately carved temples, it’s easy to picture public life 2000 years ago. Illuminating museums display monumental sculptures and delicate mosaics that decorated lavish homes. Local guide Samira Ibrahim likes to tell clients, “Walking through Jerash, you’ll feel the magnitude and legacy of Roman ingenuity surrounding you.”
Further north, Umm Qais perfectly melds antiquity with panoramic views. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Jordan Valley and Sea of Galilee, this Black Basalt Roman city ruin impresses visitors with its striking black columns, amphitheater, and intact bath complex. “I’ll never forget watching the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee from atop the ancient nymphaeum,” said photographer Daoud Kuttab. “The past and present blended beautifully.”
South of Amman, Madaba’s archaeological park contains lavish Byzantine mosaics painstakingly restored inside excavated villas. Meanwhile, Mount Nebo provides sweeping views over the Promised Land and preserves stunning mosaics like the enigmatic Wheel of Life dating to 530 AD. According to guide Lara Shahin, “gazing out at views the Biblical Moses would have seen makes Mount Nebo a moving experience."
But the most spectacular Roman ruins lie south in desert-fringed Petra, the ancient Nabatean caravan city and trading hub graced with exquisite temples and tombs carved right into pink sandstone cliffs. Visiting this UNESCO site reveals glimpses of once-lavish lifestyles. “Walking through the Siq narrow gorge then beholding iconic Petra landmarks like the Treasury leaves me in awe,” enthused travelers Kyle and Amanda Hill. “It transported us back to the 1st century.”