Amman is often a pit stop on the way to Petra, but there are enough old and new flavors to keep visitors satisfied for a weekend.
For a city smack in the middle of an ancient region, Amman can be charmingly modern. Its rolling hills and tolerant attitude have long been a refuge for displaced Palestinian, Iraqi and Syrian neighbors, and a base for nongovernmental organizations. It is also home to a worldly creative class, increasingly inserting Western trends, like a Manhattan-style speakeasy, into the fold. Known as Philadelphia in Hellenistic times and reduced to a forgotten village until it became Jordan’s capital in 1921, Amman has expanded from its original seven hills to around 20, steadily progressing westward since the 1950s, and developing a split personality along the way. In the east, a gritty, more traditional old city is centered downtown, where the hillsides are blanketed with white, boxy homes. In the west, stately villas, malls and glass-and-steel towers predominate. Visitors often use Amman as a pit stop on the way to Petra, the Dead Sea and desert preserves, but there are more than enough old and new flavors to keep you satisfied here for a weekend.
(Jordan, like a number of countries, has been the recent target of a terrorist attack and the United States Department of State on Dec. 23 issued a travel warning advising Americans to “consider the risks of travel to and throughout the country.”)
1. STEPPING UP, 3 P.M.
All hills lead downtown, the locals say, and the most colorful of the steep stone stairwells cutting through the slopes is Prince Mohamed, blooming with flowerpots bolted to the walls. Zigzag around women in head scarves and pop into Zajal on the first landing, one of several restaurants creating an elevated cafe vibe with streetside balconies. Get a boost from the full-bodied coffee, creamy hummus and fattoush salad (11 dinars, about $15.50), before scaling the next height — the ancient Roman Theater, built to seat 6,000, with about 100 steps to the top, where hoi polloi once took in the show. Don’t miss the view of the towering columns from the mountaintop Citadel. (Admission is included in the Jordan Pass, the online ticket to more than 40 sites, 70 to 80 dinars.)
2. ROMAN SUNSET, 4 P.M.
Friday is holy day in this Muslim country, and there’s a lull in the hubbub as you stroll downtown, past storefronts sparkling with jewelry and shops festooned with embroidered gowns. Duck into one of many stairwells that will eventually lead to the rim of the ancient Citadel complex, a rambling collection of remnants from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods, with a 360-degree view of the neighboring ranges. At the Temple of Hercules, two massive columns topped with an arch dramatically frame the setting sun. Head to the overlook around 6 p.m., when the mesmerizing calls to prayer cascade from dozens of minarets dotting the hilly panorama, building into a symphony.
3. SUDS AND HUBBLY BUBBLY, 7 P.M.
Hop in a yellow cab (most rides cost 2 to 4 dinars) to Books@Café, billed as the first internet cafe in the Middle East when it opened in 1997. It fills two colonial-era villas in the Jabal Amman district. The bookstore and the delightfully retro dining rooms above have long served as an oasis for rebels, artists, musicians and activists. The pink sticker on the door — Hate Free Zone — sets the tone. Grab a table on the terrace, puff on a water pipe called hubbly bubbly, and try the Saint George Jordanian shiraz and the blonde ale made by Jordan’s first craft brewer, Carakale, (21 dinars).
4. FORMAL AFFAIR, 9 P.M.
For a classic Levantine dinner, options include Sufra and Diwan Al Sultan Ibrahim. But if you’re keen on experiencing kibbeh nayeh (minced raw meat) at the stately residence of a former prime minister, go to Fakhr El-Din. Make your way to the back garden terrace for a Lebanese formal affair, from the milky glasses of arak, an anise-flavored spirit, to the mustard greens and grape leaves, and to the raw lamb that you spread on flatbread with garlic paste, sprinkle with salt and drizzle with olive oil. (Dinner for two with drinks, about 70 dinars.)
5. NIGHTCAP, 11 P.M.
Juice stalls and sidewalk cafes are far more common than bars, but there are some Western-style watering holes. Two that you won’t find easily are OTR, Jordan’s first hipster speakeasy, and tiny Petro. Wedged between alleyways downtown, Petro is a dark, smoky dive with a back room about as wide as a delivery van and with pints of gold label Arak Haddad to go. Order two glasses (4 dinars), served with almonds and white cheese, perch at a back counter and watch the colorful characters come and go. OTR, for Off the Record, is an upper-crust hideaway with a dress code, a 1920s jazz motif and cocktails like the Street Swing (arak, pomegranate juice, triple sec and lemon juice; 8 dinars).
6. FUUL FUEL, 9 A.M.
A popular breakfast ballast in the Middle East is fuul, a mashed fava bean concoction served up fast, tasty and cheap at Hashem on King Faisal Street downtown. Find a table in the alleyway under the strung lights and big umbrellas, and ask a green-aproned waiter for the fuul and falafel. Soon bowls of fuul and luscious hummus in local olive oil will arrive, along with bite-size falafel balls and French fries. After settling up (5.50 dinars) at the front booth but before you head out, check out the photo of King Abdullah II and his family eating here.
7. ART OASIS, 11 A.M.
Jabal Luwaibdeh is a Bohemian neighborhood with funky cafes, murals and Darat al Funun, a workshop and exhibition space for Arab artists. The complex of three villas dating to the 1920s covers a hillside and hosts film screenings amid the columned ruins of a sixth-century Byzantine church. Explore the studios on the first level before winding up through the gardens and patios leading to the restored villas, the vaulted-ceiling library and rooms displaying contemporary works and video art.
8. WILD JORDAN, 1 P.M.
Over the last half century, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature established nine protected natural areas across Jordan, and you can get the lowdown on each on a visit to the Wild Jordan Center for lunch. The multilevel building — eco-lodge meets industrial chic — provides stunning views of the old city from its cafes. The daily special on our visit was mansaf, Jordan’s national dish: tender lamb boiled in yogurt and served with rice and pine nuts. The icing on the rich chocolate cake was as thick as taffy, in a good way (meal for two, about 34 dinars). Proceeds from the cafe and Nature Shop — with handmade goods like a bronze necklace from the Dana reserve (145 dinars) — support this eco-tourism mission.
9. RAINBOW STROLL, 4 P.M.
Just as the other Philadelphia has its South Street tourist strip, this former Philadelphia has Rainbow Street, a cobblestone lane flanked by native and modish shops and dining spots. Pop into Rihani Gallery to covet the mother-of-pearl Syrian furniture; grab an Arnold Palmer drink (3.25 dinars) at the Turtle Green Tea Bar; try a renowned falafel from the Al Quds stand (.75 dinar); and view the Citadel from the rooftop of Cantaloupe Gastro Pub.
10. NO-FRILLS PERFECTION, 8 P.M.
The presentation of the barbecue itself is reason to head to Al-Kitkat downtown for dinner — although the servers hoisting my wife, Susan, who had sprained her ankle, on a chair up three flights was quite impressive. But the highlights here are the golden boxes warmed by embers and piled with perfectly grilled wings and skewered beef (meal for two with drinks, about 35 dinars). The restaurant has no-frills décor, cold beer and tasty mezze. Ask the waiters to make a run to the famed Habibah for salty-sweet servings of soft white cheese topped with pastry and pistachio and drenched in syrup (large, 1.10 dinars).
11. ROAD TRIP, 8 A.M.
One of the world’s best sites for Roman ruins is the sprawling city of Jerash, a 50-minute drive from downtown (we hired a van and driver from Tropicana Tours, $100). Jerash had its heyday around the third century, but parts of it are surprisingly intact. You feel the immensity as you approach Hadrian’s triumphal arch, and walk past the hippodrome where chariots once raced. Climb the walls of the Temple of Zeus for a bird’s-eye view of floral capitals on tall columns and scale the steps of the South Theater. There, if you time it right, you can get the full acoustic effect of two costumed Jordanians playing drum and bagpipe.
12. HERITAGE BRUNCH, NOON
The culinary fusion of trendy and traditional is thriving at Shams El Balad. The décor of this farm-to-table forerunner — exposed kitchen, distressed stone floors — suggests a nouveau laboratory. But the dishes are traditional Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanian recipes. The chef Mahmoud Shahrour calls it “celebrating the Jordanian kitchen.” Try the molasses and tahini dip and oven-fired bread (2.10 dinars), pan-fried cauliflower-and-egg patty on hummus (3 dinars), and a seasonal salad medley of apple, pomegranate seeds, shredded pomelo citrus, rocket and grape-molasses dressing (4 dinars).
At the InterContinental Jordan (intercontinental.com/amman) you’ll find plush beds, soundproof windows and rooms with a view of the blue-domed King Abdullah Mosque. Double room, 160 dinars; suite, 260 dinars.
Art Hotel (arthoteljordan.com) is a spartan, downtown boutique hotel that is great for exploring the old city on foot, if you don’t mind the commotion from the street outside your window. It features local artists, comfortable beds in clean rooms and a top-floor breakfast lounge. Double room with breakfast, 45 dinars.
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