The ancient city of Petra (map), located deep in the mountains of southern Jordan, is an awe-inspiring monument to mankind’s ingenuity and craftmanship. The city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the new seven wonders of the world, is situated in a basin and was carved out of the rose-red stone of the surrounding mountains. Built by the Nabateans as their capital city around 100 BC, the city was an important trading city that controlled the main commercial routes between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Archaeological evidence shows that its inhabitants were able to control the water supply by means of a series of dams and cisterns, and this allowed the city to thrive in the harsh desert environment. Most visitors visit this UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Jordan as part of a day-trip and that’s a pity as there are many things to do in Petra to keep visitors occupied for at least a few days.
Things to do in Petra
You may have seen images of Petra – or its most famous structure, the Treasury – in magazines, documentaries or movies – but it’s not till you’re there that you begin to feel a real sense of awe for the place. Petra has formed the backdrop for many films, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; a tribute to its mystery and charm that continues to captivate visitors right to this day.
The approach to the city is through a spectacular red sandstone gorge that, in some parts, is only a few meters wide. Just before the end of the gorge (the Siq), the split in the rocks provides an unforgettable preview of the city’s most astounding monument: the Treasury.
Past the Treasury, the gorge opens out into a broad plain where other buildings including the amphitheatre, all hewn from the rockface, are located. Here are my suggestions for what to do in Petra:
1. Visit Petra by night
Seeing Petra during the day is an awe-inspiring experience for most visitors. By night, the ancient city transforms into what must be one of the most magical places in the world. Thousands of candles guide visitors through the Siq (a canyon) to the main square where the Treasury is located, making a visit to Petra by night one of the most unique things to do in Jordan. It’s a truly romantic experience and a perfect place to pop the question (for those planning to do so).
2. Join a cooking course
This is a great thing to do in the evenings if you’ve already seen Petra by night. The Petra Kitchen (located along the main road in Wadi Musa, a few hundred yards away from the main entrance to Petra) is a lovely place that promises an educational and fun-filled evening. Visitors don gloves and aprons, and under the supervision of the restaurant’s chefs, learn how to create typical Jordanian dishes.
3. Look for traces of ancient grandeur in the Siq
The Siq is a canyon that connects the city of Petra with the outside world. It’s a wondrous experience to walk on thousand-year-old cobblestones and see the curvy rock face in a multitude of colours. Look for traces of ancient dams and water channels used by the Nabateans to control the water supply into the city. As the Siq was the main entrance to the city, the Nabateans carved magnificent statues and arches along the Siq. Little of it can be seen today but look carefully… what may at first look like a hump in the rock face may actually be a carving of a camel.
4. Meet the Bedouins
As you make your way around Petra, you’ll see various Bedouin tents that provide visitors a shady respite and refreshments. Strike up a conversation with the Bedouins – many of them are from Petra and speak good English – and ask about stories of their ancestors living in Petra. Chances are, you’ll get to hear a fascinating story about what it was like living in Petra in days bygone.
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Another interesting person to look up is Marguerite van Geldermalsen who was a backpacker from New Zealand. She visited Petra in the 1970’s and fell in love with Mohammad, a local Bedouin, and she never left. Her heart-warming story about being married to a Bedouin and adjusting to the lifestyle is a great read and I highly recommend it if you’re visiting Petra.
5. Hike through the mountains
There are numerous trails which lead hikers through the mountains and to breathtaking vantage points such as the High Place of Sacrifice. It’s a great way to discover lesser-known ruins like Little Petra, as well as admire colourful and strange rock formations. This is a desert climate so wear appropriate clothing (a cap and proper hiking shoes are a must) and bring plenty of water and some food. Avoid venturing off the path and make sure you get back to the main gate before dark. Information about guides and trails can be obtained from the Petra office at the main entrance.
6. Visit the Monastery
The Monastery is another of Petra’s highlights. Located in the mountains above Petra, it’s a moderately difficult hike to the top, especially in the afternoon heat. An alternative to hiking to the Monastery is to ride a mule up. It’s fun and quite harrowing at times but you’ll get there in good shape! A one-way ride to the Monastery costs ten dinars (about $15).
7. Check out ‘The Best View’
At the Monastery, near the small café, you’ll spot a sign pointing you in the direction of “The Best View”. It’s a short hike uphill and the view of the Monastery and the surrounding mountains is stunning!
8. Shop for authentic souvenirs
Petra/Wadi Musa is a great place to shop for traditional Jordanian and Nabatean handicrafts. You can visit various Bedouin tents in Petra (near the Roman ruins) and learn about the culture of the various tribes as well as local community initiatives to improve the livelihoods of the Bedouins.
These places have a modest collection of silverware, stone carvings, embroidery and pottery. There is a bigger variety in the Wadi Musa township. The Nabatean Ladies Cooperative of Wadi Musa is an initiative that focuses on the production and sale of silverware and jewellery to wholesalers and tourists, thereby creating jobs for the women in the township. The cooperative operates a modest retail outlet along the main street in Wadi Musa.
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9. Check into a hammam
After a day of trekking through Petra, there’s no better way to soothe those aching muscles and rid yourself of the dust and sand than to check into a hammam (or Turkish bath). There are several hammams in Wadi Musa (the township adjacent to Petra) that serve both male and female clientele. A typical hammam session consists of a steam bath, a body scrub and an oil massage.
10. Relax at the Mövenpick Resort bar
I stayed at the Mövenpick Resort Petra, an excellent base from which to explore Petra as it’s situated right next to the main entrance. It’s Arabic-style interior is stunning, not to mention inviting. The atrium is beautiful but make your way to the adjacent bar for a drink – the interior of the bar is absolutely gorgeous!
Note: a big thank you goes to the Jordan Tourism Board for hosting me in Jordan.