Amman Through the Ages: Discover Jordan’s Captivating Capital

If you want to sample some great Middle Eastern history, art, and cuisine, plan a visit to Amman. It's one of the most exciting cities in the Middle East...Read More

Amman's history, culture, and modern outlook make it a top destination in the Middle East. (Source: Shutterstock / Leonid Andronov)

Amman, Jordan – one of the most exotic and historic cities in the Middle East – is a top bucket list destination. Part Biblical landscape, part contemporary urban hub, the city is a tapestry of bustling ancient districts, tony commercial wards, and the various immigrant communities who have settled there throughout its deep history. If you want to sample a bit of great Middle Eastern history, art, and cuisine, make plans to visit Amman. It’s not just camel rides in the desert.

A brief history

Statues from Amman’s Ain Ghazal Neolithic site suggest that humans were living in the Jordanian highlands (including Amman) as far back as 7250 BCE; thanks to the area’s relatively high rainfall and moderate climate, it has played host to settlers ever since.

Statues from the Neolithic period discovered near Amman (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Statues from the Neolithic period discovered near Amman (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

During the Iron Age (some 6,000 years later), the Ammonites established their kingdom seat in the area, and many Biblical and Quranic references to the city allude to this period. Over the ensuing centuries, various invaders laid claim to Ammon, including the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. With a series of occupiers came changes to the name of the city itself; for the Geek and Roman period, Ammon was known as the Middle Eastern commercial and cultural center Philadelphia.

A series of severe earthquakes in the 8th century rendered the city, then part of the Umayyad caliphate, uninhabitable. Largely abandoned during the medieval and post-medieval periods, the city (now Amman) remained under Islamic control (primarily as part of the Mamluk Sultanate) until the area was annexed by the Ottomans in 1516.

Renewed activity came to Amman in the late 19th century with the settlement of Circassian peasants escaping aggression in their Caucasian homeland. Significant economic growth soon followed. Later, Amman came under British mandate as the capitol of the newly created Emirate of Transjordan (1921), and was overseen by Emir Abdullah I of the Hashemite family. Immigrant waves from Syria and Palestine expanded the city to about 10,000 by the 1930s.

Jordan gained independence in 1946 as a constitutional monarchy with Amman as capital and Abdullah I as its first King. Further growth ensued with successive waves of refugees escaping war in nearby countries; these immigrants included scores of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, followed by Iraqis in 1990 and 2003, and Syrians from 2011 onward.

Today, Amman is considered a regional capital in the banking, tourism, business, and pharmaceutical sectors. A business-friendly environment has attracted considerable foreign investment and, though economic activity has slowed in recent years, growth in the region remains positive.

General information

Arabic is the primary language spoken in Amman, although English is also widely used and understood. The local currency is the Jordanian Dinar (JD), and though U.S. dollars and credit cards are accepted, this is not universal. Make sure to have local currency on hand, especially at tourist sites.

Tipping is expected for good service, especially when using taxis, hotels, restaurants, and guides. Waiters, porters, and the like should be tipped at about 1-2 JD ($1.40-3), and guides at a heartier 10% or so. To tip your taxi driver, round your fare up to the next round figure.

Amman has moderately hot dry summer days and cool nights. If you’re there from March through September, you’ll want a hat for the sun and a shawl or jacket for evenings. Autumn and winter are cooler with a rainy season from December through February. Temperatures range from about 33˚-89˚ F throughout the year.

Jordan is primarily a Muslim country and wearing revealing clothing is not appropriate outside major tourist areas or in mosques. It’s best to default to more conservative clothing for both men and women on your trip. Alcohol is generally served at major hotels and restaurants, but less so in the more conservative, eastern parts of the city. Also, be sure to research tips on Jordanian etiquette.

How to get there and get around

Major airlines like American, United, and Delta offer service to the area’s major hub, Queen Alia International Airport. Visitors from the U.S. are required to buy an entrance visa for 40 JD ($56) which can be purchased upon arrival or ahead of time at your nearest Jordanian embassy/consulate.

In general, we recommend purchasing a Jordan Pass if you are planning to be in Jordan for at least three nights and are not part of a tour group. For 70 JD ($99), the pass offers entry to 36 attractions, including farther afield destinations like Petra, Jerash, and Wadi Rum, and waives the country visa fee altogether. This deal is especially good if Petra is on your itinerary, as admission there would otherwise cost 50-70 JD ($70-90). The Jordan Pass can be purchased in advance or upon arrival.

Amman’s city center is 25 miles north of the airport, and your best options for getting there include taxi or an airport bus. The taxi will cost about 22 JD ($31) for a 45-minute ride. Local buses are less expensive but unpredictable, as they depart only when full; they also only stop at the Tabarbour Bus Station, which is not near the main hotel districts.

Amman doesn’t have an integrated public transport system, so your best bet for getting around is by metered taxi. These tend to be cheap and in good supply; just make sure your driver starts the meter when you enter. If your driver claims that the meter is broken or tries to negotiate a fixed fee, get out and find another one. Walking is also a great way to see parts of Amman, but be prepared to walk (via stairs) up and down plenty of hills, especially in the older parts of the city. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Amman’s layout

Initially, Amman was built among a cluster of seven hills, called jabals. Jabal al-Qala’a, at the easternmost part of the city, overlooks Amman’s oldest historic district (al-Balad or “Downtown”) and is the site of the Citadel, the city’s millennia-old acropolis and temple site. Over time, the city has expanded north and westward, with newer districts reaching seven or eight miles out. A series of numbered traffic circles run from “one” to the east, through “eight” to the west along main artery Zahran Street. This can be a useful reference for an approximate east-west positioning of a given attraction or hotel.

There are 27 districts or neighborhoods scattered across the city, though we recommend focusing on a handful toward the east, including Jabal Amman, Jabal al-Weibdeh, and Downtown. These are the more historic sections and include more of the interesting sites along with solid dining and shopping.

Where to stay

Poolside at the Intercontinental Amman (Source: InterContinental Amman Facebook)
Poolside at the Intercontinental Amman (Source: InterContinental Amman Facebook)

Accommodation options in these areas are plentiful and range from well-known top end chain properties like the Grand Hyatt Amman and InterContinental, to one-of-a-kind boutique lodgings like La Locanda. For more on where to stay in the city, check out our piece on Amman hotels.

What to see and do

Given its extensive history and modern growth, Amman has more attractions than we can cover here. To ensure you visit the top sites, however, we’ve included a few we think are well worth a stop.

If you grew up thinking history was a bore, the Amman Citadel will change that. With evidence of human existence from Neolithic times, folding in some of the most astounding Greek, Roman, and Umayyad ruins this side of archeology, it’s a must-see. For a detailed guide of the acropolis, see our piece on the Amman Citadel.

Remains of the city's historic past at the Amman Citadel (Source: iStock / mozcann)
Remains of the city’s historic past at the Amman Citadel (Source: iStock / mozcann)

Strolling through al-Balad, the oldest of Amman’s neighborhoods is a treat in itself. Meander through ancient winding lanes, shops, and markets for a taste of life through the ages. The Souk al-Bukhara is one of Amman’s oldest and best markets for authentic Jordanian goods, such as metal works, textiles, perfumes, and more. Later, take in a concert at the historic Roman Theater, a unique and satisfying way to experience the city’s living history.

For a bit of art and culture, head to the historic and bohemian al Weibdeh district for an afternoon wandering through art galleries. The Dar Al-Anda is a top choice here. Housed in two exquisite villas from the 1930s, the gallery includes some of the best Middle Eastern art, both historic and contemporary, from the broader region. The Jordan National Gallery of the Fine Arts and The Jordan Museum (just south in Jabal Amman)  are two additional options for exploring more about Jordan’s cultural and artistic heritage.

Amman has more than its share of beautiful mosques, leading off with the King Hussein Bin Talal Mosque (aka the “King Hussein Mosque”) in the northwest Dabouq neighborhood. Built by the current King Abdullah II in 2005, the mosque is the largest in Jordan and dominates the western skyline with its fortress-like structure, soaring minarets, and ornately carved façades. If you visit just one mosque in the city, this should be it.

The colossal King Hussein Mosque (iStock / mtcurado)
The colossal King Hussein Mosque (iStock / mtcurado)

For a bit of retail therapy, Amman offers a handful of fabulous options. For gold jewelry, both in traditional and contemporary styles, head to Souk el-Sagha, the gold market Downtown. Check out historic Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman for shops with local handicrafts, including hammered metal Arab coffee pots, candlesticks, and textiles. Modern shopping malls include the Mecca Mall (on Mecca Street, just off the 8th Circle) with a huge assortment of tony boutiques and well-known brands.

For more on getting the best out of your time in the city, see our top 7 things to do in Amman.

What to eat

Much like the many cultural influences and customs that shape Amman’s daily life, the local cuisine is a joyous mix of Arab, Bedouin, and Levantine fare. Meals are often shared among family and friends and are an expression of the magnanimous generosity for which Jordanians are known.

While it’s hard to generalize, typical culinary elements include rich and complex combinations of garlic, onion, lemon, tomato, nuts, herbs, and spices. Za’atar – a flavorful spice mix based on tangy sumac and sesame – is a centerpiece of many dishes. Chickpeas, rice, potatoes, flat breads, chicken, and lamb are the main meal building blocks, as are flavorful desserts comprised of sesame paste, pistachio, pastry, chocolate, almonds, and honey. Yum.

The day’s primary meal is lunch, which can go for two hours or more, while lighter fare is enjoyed for breakfast and dinner. You will find many a Jordanian enjoying a fragrant sage or mint tea, sweet black coffee, or freshly squeezed pomegranate or sugar cane juice – or all of the above – throughout the day.

The al Weibdeh neighborhood has a lock on great traditional breakfast/brunch options. There is Tammouz Restaurant & Café for eggs and or a traditional mezze-sort of spread, including any variation of hummus, fattoush (garden vegetables with fired pita), baba ghanoush, and tabbouleh; or for rich Arab coffee and a wedge of warm apple or cardamom cake.

Head to Jabal Amman for lunch or late afternoon snack at Al-Quds Restaurant on Rainbow Street. A favorite of locals, Al-Quds makes outstanding falafel and a fully satisfying mansef, the traditional Bedouin (and national Jordanian) dish made from lamb or chicken cooked with fermented dried yogurt (jameed) and served over aromatic rice topped with nuts.

Sufra is one of our favorites for a relaxed dinner (or lunch) downtown. Enjoy authentic Jordanian fare in the idyllic back patio where the atmosphere is as pleasant as the food. We particularly fancy the Freekeh Beljaj, a mouthwatering blend of poached chicken, roasted green wheat, and almonds.

Sufra's exquisite Freekeh Beljaj (Source: Sufrah Facebook).
Sufra’s exquisite Freekeh Beljaj (Source: Sufrah Facebook).

For a unique fine dining experience, reserve a table at Fakhreldin Restaurant (Jabal Amman). Housed in one of Amman’s most elegant villas (and once the residence of a Jordanian prime minister), the restaurant features a Lebanese-inspired menu that includes elevated takes on traditional favorites, like Kastaleta in Oven (lamb cutlets prepared with potatoes and tomatoes) and Zagaleel Hamam (grilled pigeon with garlic and lemon sauce). Enjoy a cocktail or glass of Pinot before your meal from the extensive drink menu.

Finally, If you fancy a nightcap before heading back to the hotel, try Maestro Restaurant and Bar (Al Weibdeh) with contemporary styling, smart cocktails, and live music most nights. Most large hotels will also have lounges with a full selection of tippling treats, if not also a cadre of DJs and dancing until the wee hours.

For more adventures in yet another favorite Middle East destination, check out our journey to Jerusalem.