The Lost City. The Red Rose City. Wonder of the World. Petra.
This city is on many bucket lists. More than 2,000 years ago, taking advantage of unique geological features like a 1.2 km long narrow canyon (the Siq) and rock that is layered in a rainbow of colors, equipped with unique skills to build water storing and delivery systems, the nomad Nabatean tribes decided to create a graveyard for their nobility. Over centuries, more and more elaborate buildings were hewn into the rock. The city sprawled and was only brought to an end in the 8th century by an earthquake. Over a thousand years, the city turned into a myth, a secret known only to the local people. In the 19th century, Western adventurers gained access to Petra, and to this day archeologists are working to uncover all of its secrets.
My guide gives you all the info you need to organize a visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site.
How to get there
There are two international airports in Jordan: Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, which handles most of Jordan’s international air travel, and King Hussein International Airport in Aqaba, which sees flights from Europe on a seasonal basis.
From Aqaba airport, it’s easiest to catch a cab downtown to the bus station.
From Amman airport, there is a bus, but it will neither take you downtown nor to the South Bus Station (see below). However, cabs are relatively cheap once you’re in Amman. So you can catch that cab for less than $5 to take you from one bus stop to the next.
Please reference my post on going from Israel to Jordan over land for more info on getting into Jordan via the three Israel-Jordan land borders.
The most tourist-friendly way to bus into Wadi Musa (Petra), is the Jett bus (jett.com.jo). Buses run both, from Amman and Aqaba, into Wadi Musa. However, for the benefit of having a guaranteed departure, being able to book a ticket online, and having a fairly central bus stop in Amman, you get a very limited number of departures, and you pay up to twice as much as on the regular bus.
The regular local buses run about hourly, at least until the early afternoon (stopping slightly earlier on Fridays).
Aqaba has only one smallish bus station, and the bus conveniently has “Wadi Mousa – Aqaba” written on the side. Buses leave once they’re reasonably full, about every 1-2 hours. The ticket is JOD5 if you have a big backpack. Tell the bus driver, where you need to go to in Wadi Musa, and he’ll drop you as close as possible.
Amman is a whole different ball game and can be daunting. There are multiple bus stations. Buses to the South (including Wadi Musa/Petra) leave from South Bus Station (Wehdat – مجمع باصات الجنوب الوحدات). From downtown Amman, you can either catch a taxi or a public bus (if you are near Faysal Square, you’ll find buses to South Station outside the Grand Husseini Mosque). The ticket to Wadi Musa is JOD6.
A word on taking local Jordanian buses: It’s best to hand the conductor/driver a note that covers your fare but isn’t too big (especially if you don’t know the exact fare). You might not get your change back immediately, but do signal with a look and a slight wave of the hand that you know you’re owed change. If you haven’t received your change by the end of the trip, stop by the conductor/driver to subtly (!) ask for change. For some, it’s a game to cheat you — so don’t get mad, just play better than them.
The bus station in Wadi Musa is right next to the fruit/vegetable market next to the big mosque and near the upper end of Tourism Street.
The easiest way to move around Jordan is to hire a tax/driver. However, it’s also very expensive compared to other options. Expect to pay at least $50 for the transfer (considering that the driver can’t always secure a load back). The easiest way to get a trustworthy driver is to talk to your hotel. They will also usually negotiate a good rate for you.
(During the summer months) It is often possible to carpool. Ask your hotel whether they have other guests arriving/leaving or going on your desired tour to share the cost of car and driver.
The roads between Amman and Aqaba are fine. However, navigating on your own can be a challenge as routes aren’t always self-evident (left-turns may include a U-turn…). Also, Jordanian drivers tend to speed and expect you to move out of their way.
If you want the easiest option or even visit Petra from Israel (Jerusalem or Eilat), an organized tour might just be right for you. An operator that I’ve used for another tour and found reliable is AbrahamTours (note that they offer a 10% discount for travelers staying at their hostels). But by all means: shop around!
Where to stay
There are three options for staying in Wadi Musa/Petra:
- Right outside the main gate: Here you’ll find a selection a hotels/hostels for a range of budgets. The advantage is the location — be it for early morning excursions or for not having to climb the steep road into downtown Wadi Musa after a day of exploring; the disadvantage is that shops and food down here are rather expensive.
- On the hill: The end of Tourism Street has it all — hostels/hotels for different budgets, affordable food, and the bus station is also up here. Petra can be reached in about 15 minutes on foot. Taxis cost JOD1 to Petra and around JOD5 back to the hotel (depending on your bargaining skills, you should be able to reduce that to JOD2 off-season). I stayed at the Seven Wonders Hotel and the Cleopetra Hotel/Hostel and can recommend both. (Click here for my post on accommodation in Jordan, incl. Wadi Musa.)
- Outside Wadi Musa: There are some upscale hotels along the scenic route to Wadi Rum with fantastic views of the mountains in and around Petra. If you have a car, you can also look for more local accommodation.
Note, that the weather in this part of Jordan changes throughout the year: Summers are long, dry and hot. Winters are cold and rainy, occasionally with snow. Most of the accommodation options have fans and A/C to help you deal with the summer heat. However, budget accommodations tend to provide only inadequate heating (and hot water) during the cold months.
If you need help organizing a tour or transport anywhere, your accommodation is always a good place to start. They will have contact details for drivers and guides to ensure you get a great tour within your budget. At the same time, you will often hear that you need a guide or a driver to do XYZ. Do your research, think about what you want to do and see, and make your informed decision before buying expensive services you don’t need.
For the adventures types: If you are looking for a more authentic experience, ask the guides in Petra for accommodation. Many are happy to have you spend the night in their tents/caves or have a relative who offers accommodation. Solo traveling ladies: Please see below for a warning on Sex Sparrows.
What to eat
Local food! — Hummus, falafel, shawarma,…
The go-to place for tourists and locals alike is the Al Arabi restaurant on Tourism Street. They have a menu in English with prices and serve the full selection of Jordanian fair.
However, after eating brilliantly for very little money I was not impressed with them. For example, the falafel sandwich here is JOD1.50 — I paid JOD0.60 at the Abu Zaghleh in Amman; hummus is JOD2 for a serving half the size (and quality) of the hummus at Abu Zaghleh’s where I paid only JOD0.75.
Rather, I’d recommend the restaurant (tiny with an Arabian name) to the right of Al Arabi. There is upstairs seating, the coffee/tea is free, and a falafel sandwich is JOD0.50, a large tub of hummus is JOD1 and includes free bread.
Since this place is only open between 6 am and 5 pm, I recommend another hole in the wall type place on the same street the Sanabel Bakery is on (about 50m down from the bakery, in a small house with an angled roof above the door). You’ll have to haggle to get your JOD0.50 falafel sandwich here, and the hummus tub is smaller, but the selection is slightly bigger (try the big spicy falafel balls if you like chili) and the restaurant is open until the night.
The Sanabel Bakery is any gluten lover’s dream. Try the large pita — you’ll get it fresh from the oven and supplies are limited each day — and get your fill of Arab sweets.
The supermarkets in uptown Wadi Musa generally have set prices, albeit not as cheap as you might expect for the region.
For your fill of fresh fruit and vegetables, head to the covered market next to the bus station. Note, that the market opens late in the morning.
For pizza head over to the street that the large Wadi Musa mosque is on (sorry, there aren’t a lot of street names in this town). It’s a tiny shop but pizzas are made to order, and the pizzaiolo knows his trade. Vegetable pizza: JOD5 or JOD8 (small/large).
Coffee shops in Wadi Musa are a tourist affair in the summer but are more like a smoker/boys’ club off-season. Not inviting.
Petra opens every day at 6 am. The site closes at 4 pm in the winter and 6 pm in the summer. See below for info on visiting Petra after dark.
You can buy your ticket for 1, 2, or 3 days, a special (higher) price applies to visitors on a day-tour from Israel. Click here for current Petra entry fees.
If you are planning to stay for a few days and to see more of Jordan’s archeological and natural wonders, the Jordan Pass might be an option for you. Please note that you should buy the Jordan Pass before entering the country to take advantage of the visa fee waiver. Click here for a list of Jordanian attractions included in the pass.
I absolutely recommend getting the 3-day pass and do some of the walks off the Main Trails. In addition to the main attractions Treasury, Monastery, and Royal Tombs, there are dozens of equally beautiful (though not as elaborate) structures waiting to be discovered plus a geological landscape that is unique in its beauty.
What to see, do, and eat?
Do not forget to check out the visitor center for an excellent introduction to the more than 2,000-year history of the Lost City. At the end of the main trail, the Archeological Museum exhibits more of the treasures found in and around Petra.
While the 4km-long Main Trail (from the visitor center to the Petra Museum/Qasr Al Bint) is fairly easy to walk with options of hiring a camel, horse, donkey or carriage, the path to the Monastery ( with its reportedly 900 steps) and trails of the main path are not suitable for persons with limited mobility. — You can hire a donkey for the steps, but in some cases, the donkeys are only able to climb, not to descend.
BTW: The horse ride from the visitor center to the entrance of the Siq is indeed — as the horse handlers will not tire of telling you — included in your ticket price. However, the calculation is that you leave a tip and possibly hire the horse to go further.
Early mornings, from 6 to 9 am are a lot less busy. If you are looking to get some shots of the famous tombs without tourists, get up before them. Note, however, that the Bedouin guides also tend to get up a little later. So if you are looking to hire a guide you’d best arrange a meeting beforehand.
Shops selling souvenirs, Bedouin tea/coffee, and cold drinks are scattered all around the park. Usually, they are a good indicator for an important sight/viewpoint. There are also a few restaurants/snack points for a local meal along the Main Trail all the way up to the Monastery. Prices are relatively high. So if you’re on a budget, pack a picnic.
To get back to your hotel, you can always count on plenty of taxis outside being parked by the main gate. The going rate from town to Petra was JOD1 in December with cab drivers going up and down Tourism Street at almost all hours of the day. The return is — predictably considering the steep climb — more expensive. In December, the first offer was usually JOD6, and I was always able to haggle it down to JOD2, never below that amount.
Petra by Night
Petra by Night is an event held three times a week. Your regular tickets (as well as the Jordan Pass) do not include Petra by Night. You can buy tickets for JOD17 p.p. from the Petra Visitor Center or your hotel. There is no limit on tickets.
The event consists of walking (with a guide) through the Siq to the candle-lit Treasury and allows visitors to explore the Rose City for two hours after dark with limitations.
One recent iconic feature of Petra are the Bedouin guides (often with donkeys) who with their khol kajal, long curly hair, and bandanas bear a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow character from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Those guys are fun. Many consider themselves Rastafarians. They might invite you to join them for a party after work, some drinks at Cave Bar (a bar in a tomb cave just outside the main entrance to the site), etc.
However, note that they are also notorious for trying to get to 2nd base on guided solo tours (or the after-party), and trying to swindle money from ladies after they have long returned home citing some emergency at home.
In my experience, those guys aren’t dangerous. They just want to have fun and make a little extra money.
So, as always as solo female travelers: Keep your thinking hat on!
Day trips from Petra (Wadi Musa)
The classic trip from Petra is Wadi Rum (entrance fee is included in the Jordan Pass). The valley, famous for Lawrence of Arabia and fascinating rock formations, is about 1.5h by car from Wadi Musa.
Since the actual site entrance is about 10k off the main road, getting there by public transport for a day trip is almost impossible: The bus to the Wadi Rum visitor center leaves at 6:30 am from Wadi Musa; the return bus leaves at 9:30 am from Wadi Rum visitor center. However, buses to Aqaba pass the turn-off to Wadi Rum. You can try to hitchhike the rest or hope to catch one of the rare cabs there.
I recommend doing a full-day tour and spending the night. We did only an afternoon with sunset and couldn’t go very deep into the Wadi (to, for example, see the large stone arches).
There are numerous smaller and a couple of bigger Bedouin camps. The Bedouin families actually live here. So going with a small camp guarantees an authentic experience.
Again, your accommodation in Wadi Musa will gladly organize a tour with a taxi to take you there/back and a guide (with 4×4) to drive you in the desert. We paid JOD100 for the afternoon trip. Ask for shared tours to pay less (difficult in winter).
Dana is a large Natural Reserve offering spectacular hikes. For the more adventurous among you: Check out Jordan Trail’s multi-day hike between Dana and Petra: jordantrail.org/route-stages-maps/dana-to-petra.
If you are looking for an authentic desert experience off the beaten path, consider Wadi Araba, a 150km stretch of desert South of Dana. Since it’s not an official reserve (and a vast area), you don’t have a visitor center to turn to for guides and accommodation. Organize your visit in advance. There are official tour operators on Wadi Musa with Wadi Araba in their program. But any Bedouin you meet is bound to know somebody who will host and guide you.
Shobak Castle & Kerak (Karak) Castle
The two Crusader castles (both included in your Jordan Pass) can easily be visited with public buses from Petra on day trips with buses connecting Wadi Musa and Kerak via Shobak. Karak is a lot bigger, but I appreciated the solitude at Shobak.
Aqaba is Jordan’s access point to the Red Sea and as such a snorkeling/diving hub. Even in winter, daytime temperatures are above 20°C. Aqaba is also Jordan’s only harbor and a special economic zone allowing for tax-free shopping. For history buffs, there is a castle and an archeological museum. Buses to Aqaba leave roughly hourly (when full) and take about 2 hours.