Craft, culture and cuisine in Amman, Jordan’s mountain-fringed capital

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

The skyline of Amman looks a bit like a game of Tetris. From the top of the Bronze Age Citadel, the city’s highest point, the view seemingly comprises tiny blocks of tightly compacted, limestone houses strewn with washing, topped with water tanks and interspersed with the odd cypress tree. The clear blue sky is occasionally pierced by one of the city’s many minarets. The soundtrack, a cacophony of traffic and car horns honking from the streets below, is soothed by the echoes of the call to prayer.

Broadly speaking, the Jordanian capital is divided into two parts; the affluent, modern west, home to the city’s upmarket hotels, rooftop bars and restaurants, and the more traditional east, with its older buildings on winding streets, where you’ll find most working-class Jordanians. Juxtaposition is something Amman delivers in droves. For every chaotic souk, there’s a plush multi-storey shopping mall. For every hole-in-the-wall knafeh (sweet cheese dessert) joint, there’s also a fit-for-royalty fine-dining spot.

It’s a relatively small city, so new developments like the US$300m (£250m) commercial complex, The Boulevard, are never too far from, say, a 2,000-year-old Roman theatre. In Jabal al-Lweibdeh, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city, ancient and modern are synchronous. It’s Amman’s centre of cool: calm, devoid of crowds, dotted with art galleries, colourful street art and quirky coffee shops, and frequented by some of the city’s most creative, progressive minds. It feels worlds away from the adjacent chaotic downtown area, jam-packed with narrow alleys and deafening souks, where pedestrians serpent between back-to-back cars on the mighty King Talal Street. 

Modern Amman is lively, tolerant and relatively unaffected by the political unrest that’s been unfurling in its neighbouring countries for decades. Just over four million people — mostly Jordanians as well as refugees from Syria, Palestine and Iraq — call this city home, creating a mosaic of cultures that can be found in its art, cuisines, religions and voices. This kaleidoscope of influences is nothing new. Amman is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and, to name but a few, the Nabateans, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads and Ottomans have all contributed to the make up of this fascinating Middle Eastern metropolis. Much like a successful game of Tetris, all those pieces seem to just slot perfectly into place.

Where to shop 

1. King Faisal Street
This grand throughfare in downtown Amman is jam-packed with shops selling everything from knick-knacks and colourful mosaics to traditional and everyday garments. Just off King Faisal Street you’ll find the Gold Souk, which is home to dozens of specialist jewellery stores offering high-quality gold by weight. Be sure to shop around to find the best-priced golden keepsake. 

2. Iksa Shop
In the heart of Jabal al-Lweibdeh, family-owned IKSA is a boutique furniture store selling small items like stools, textiles, ceramics and coffee tables inspired by the owners’ Palestinian heritage. Everything is handmade at their workshop, and there’salso suitcase-friendly souvenirs like cups, coasters and cushion covers available. 

3. Jordan River Designs Showroom
From refined copper fruit bowls to chess sets with beautifully embroidered cases, everything at this artisanal gift shop is exquisite. It’s part of the Jordan River Foundation, which employs hundreds of women from local communities, including Wadi Al Rayan in northern Jordan and Bani Hamida, a Bedouin tribe famous for their traditional weavings. 

What to see and do

1. Citadel
On the city’s highest hill in Jabal al-Qala’a, the archaeological site of Amman Citadel watches over the old town like a primeval guardian. The area dates to the Bronze Age, although it’s comprised of rebuilds from later periods. The remnants of the Roman Temple of Hercules are the star of the show; in its heyday, it would’ve been bigger than any temple in Rome. Make time for the Umayyad Palace and the Jordan Archaeological Museum, and stay for sublime sunset views over the city.

2. King Abdullah Mosque
Blue-domed King Abdullah, which can hold 7,000 worshippers, is the city’s only mosque to openly welcome non-Muslim visitors — dress  modestly to enter. The walls of the complex are inscribed with verses from the Quran. Swing by the gift shop to see craftsman Ala chip away at mosaic art — something the Jordanians have been perfecting for over 1,500 years.

3. Roman Theatre
A 6,000-seater theatre from the Roman era lies adjacent to local hangout The Hashemite Plaza. It was carved into the hill of Jabal al-Qala’a two millennia ago, when Amman was governed by Rome and known as Philadelphia. Climb its steps for phenomenal views of the city, and look out for the cultural events hosted here during summer. 

4. Beit Sitti
In 2010, sisters Maria, Dina and Tania converted their late grandmother’s house into a cookery school, where guests can learn to make all sorts of Jordanian and Arabic dishes, most notably maqluba — the culinary star of Jordanian cuisine, with chicken, rice and fried vegetables. The all-female school includes passionate experts like Um Mohammad from Egypt and Um Malek from Lebanon, each bursting with joy, expertise and an uncontrollable need to feed. 

5. Darat Al Funun
Located in downtown Amman, this peaceful labyrinth showcases the best of contemporary Arab art. The complex consists of six renovated historic buildings hosting workshops, exhibitions and events. Spend an afternoon here to also explore the remains of a sixth-century Byzantine church, a library with over 4,000 books dedicated to art from around the world, and a shady fountain garden presided over by an army of kittens. 

6. Jordan Museum
The country’s biggest museum is a great introduction to Amman and the rest of Jordan. Housing over 2,000 artefacts, it takes visitors on a journey from the Palaeolithic era to the present day. Don’t miss the Ain Ghazal statues; at over 8,500 years old, they’re among the oldest known large-scale statues of the human form. 

Where to stay

1. Nomads Hotel Amman
This two-star lodging offers great value for its room rates, with helpful staff, rooftop views of the Citadel and top-notch Arabic breakfasts. The showstopper is its location, just minutes from lively Rainbow Street, the Jordan Museum and the Roman Theatre. 

2. La Locanda Boutique Hotel
In the heart of historic Jabal al-Lweibdeh neighbourhood, this quirky hotel has 21 rooms, each dedicated to a famous Arab musician. Breakfast in the leafy garden is a great way to start the day. Plus, the area abounds with al fresco cafes, art galleries and unique gift shops. 

3. Amman Rotana
At over 600ft high, this is the tallest (and arguably sleekest) building in all of Jordan. Its 412 rooms span 50 floors and offer floor-to-ceiling views of the city. Outdoor terrace The Deck Lounge is ideal for a cocktail while watching life go by in the buzzy New Abdali commercial district. Dining options include the Italian Gusto and Rodeo Grill Skeakhouse. 

Where to eat

1. Habibah Sweets
This hole-in-the-wall dessert shop is the go-to place for knafeh — shredded filo pastry stuffed with cheese and topped with sugary syrup. It’s at once crunchy and soft, and best eaten warm. Expect queues come evenings and weekends, but it’s worth it.

2. Tawaheen Al-Hawa
This lively restaurant in Tla’ Al-Ali has a large outdoor dining area and is a real treat. Take a seat on one of the rug-strewn chairs and order traditional local dishes like mansaf (lamb cooked in yoghurt and served with rice) or opt instead for a mezze selection featuring meats, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, pickles and freshly baked saj (flatbread). 

3. Hashem Restaurant 
Low-key Hashem is considered to be the oldest restaurant in Amman. Grab a table in the courtyard and order the falafels stuffed with onions and sumac, and sides of moutabel (spicy aubergine dip), ful medames (stewed fava beans) and smoother-than-silk hummus.  

What to do after hours

1. Maestro
Comprising a bar, restaurant, rooftop terrace and live music space, Maestro is known for its jam sessions featuring local and international artists. Book ahead for a night of great music and delicious food, ranging from kofta to pizza. Regular events include the popular Wine and Sax Night with Cuban saxophonist Alex Perez.

2. Rainbow Street
Eat, drink and people-watch to your heart’s content — Amman’s most colourful and energetic street is the ideal place to spend a leisurely evening. It’s flanked with bars and restaurants, or for something a little different, duck into Books@Cafe. This rustic cafe/bookstore/gallery is perfect for a home-roasted coffee or dinner with friends. There’s often live music, too. 

3. Ghoroub Sunset Lounge
Amman’s no stranger to a rooftop bar. For something a little upscale, head to the 13th floor at Landmark Amman and take a seat at the longest bar in the city. As the name suggests, it’s a great place to admire the sunset over shisha or a bottle of local Carakale blonde ale.

Published in the December 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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