Hidden away among pink-hued cliffs in the valley of Wadi Musa is the forgotten city of Petra. In its heyday, the enigmatic destination was home to 30,000 people and the center of a kingdom four times the size of Jordan. The once-nomadic tribe of Nabataeans who called Petra home gained their wealth through the frankincense and myrrh trade as well as by charging merchants for safe passage. It is their 800 tombs and monuments in the 2,640-acre park that drive visitors to the region daily. Today, the city’s chiseled architecture is a reminder of what once was, evoking a sense of awe and mystery upon arrival.
A Muslim takeover in 633 and an earthquake in 749 devastated the city, it wasn’t until 1812 that Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt wrote about the ancient city and reintroduced it to the Western world. It is now considered one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For most, Petra can be experienced in a day, but there is something to be said about taking your time and splitting it up between two to three days. If you’re headed there to discover its secrets, here’s a first-timer’s guide to exploring the Rose-Red City:
When to Go
Petra is in the desert, which means it’s going to be hot during the high season (I know, you’re pretty surprised). The best time to go is in the spring from March to May, when temperatures are around 73 F and wildflowers are in bloom. Or in the fall, from September to November, travelers will see temps around 64-77 F. In the winter (November to February), there is rain, below-freezing temperatures and occasional snow. Most crowds arrive in the morning to the sites, so it’s suggested that you arrive at sunrise (for the go-getters) or around 3 p.m. to benefit from minimal groups.
Where to Stay
In terms of luxury hotels, there aren’t many directly in the city. The five-star Petra Marriott Hotel, however, is located about a 10-minute drive from Petra’s entrance. The property offers 100 rooms and one-bedroom suites with views of the valley as well as a fitness center, spa and four dining venues. For those looking to enjoy an authentic local meal, Al Matal Tent serves Mediterranean fare and traditional dishes and drinks under a Bedouin tent. A few miles away is Mövenpick Nabatean Castle Hotel which is also just a 10-minute drive to Petra’s entrance. Resting 4,593 feet high, the hotel overlooks the valley’s hillsides and landscapes. While the standard rooms are cozy, the suites are your best option here. They feature a living room, terrace and bedroom. A 1,184-square-foot indoor pool is situated on the hotel’s garden level.
How to Get There
From Amman Queen Alia International Airport, Petra is about a four-hour drive away. Plan on renting a car as neither of the above hotels offer shuttle service. To get to Petra from the hotel, there are plenty of taxis in the area or you can park opposite the bus stop in front of the Petra Moon hotel. The site is entered through a rocky passage called the Siq and is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer and in the winter from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.
A day pass will be more expensive than an overnight and multiple-day ticket. To secure a lower fare, you’ll have to show your passport stamp to prove you’ve stayed overnight. However, if you go straight from the airport to Petra, you’ll have a harder time securing the reduced pass (hotel confirmations are not enough). The longer you plan to visit, the cheaper your daily rate will be. A one day visitor pass is 90 JD (USD $127) while an overnight one-day ticket is 50 JD (USD $70). A two-day overnight ticket is 55 JD (USD $77) and a three-day pass is 60 JD (USD $84). Children under 12 years of age are free. When securing a pass, you can also opt to arrange for a carriage or camel ride from the entrance of the Siq to either Khazne or Qas al-Bint. There are also local guides available for hire ranging from 20 JD (USD $28) to 50 JD (USD $70) a day. The visitor’s center can be reached at +962 (0)3 215 6020.
What to Bring
Water, water and more water. Because of the high temperatures, dehydration is something to be concerned with. Be sure to stock up, apply generous amounts of sunscreen and wear a hat, the Middle Eastern desert sun can be very cruel on unsuspecting tourists. Also, wear comfortable, sturdy shoes since you’ll be on your feet most of the day.
What to See
Depending on the amount of time you’ll be in the area, some of the main attractions are: The Treasury, the Street of Façades, the Royal Tombs and the Monastery. One of the most beautiful sights you’ll see will appear as you enter through the Siq (which was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). The dramatic path ventures through towering sandstone cliffs for about a mile before opening up to the Treasury. Petra’s most-celebrated structure was carved out in 1st Century BC and is believed to have been a tomb and a temple. Decorated with chiseled eagles and gods, it is a sight you’ll want to capture on camera.
The Royal Tombs are reached by easy climbs on the East Cliff and are made up of the Urn, Silk, Corinthian, Palace tombs. Lying across from the Roman Theater, the tombs look out onto Petra’s entrance. The Street of Façades sits nearby and boasts even more impressive tombs with large faces, all leading into the heart of the city proper.
The Monastery can be reached by camel or up 822 steps and was carved into the sandstone hill in the second century AD. Standing at its doorway, you’ll most likely need a minute to take in its beauty and sheer size. Visitors are immediately dwarfed by the 164-foot high structure. Its interior is made up of a single room with double staircases leading up to a niche. Opposite the Monastery is a small, shaded café where guests can relax and enjoy a beverage or snack.
Tip: There are various tours you can take advantage of as well but one thing to consider is "Petra By Night," a candlelit walk through the Siq after dark. It takes place every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.
What Else to Know
There are restaurants on site and most hotels will offer a packed lunch for your trip. From Bedouin tea stalls to small cafés and a full-service restaurant called The Basin, there is plenty to eat should you wish to forego a picnic meal. For a great cocktail in the midst of it all, head to Cave Bar housed in a 2,000-year-old Nabatean cave. There are various restrooms available within the site, but the best ones are at the Visitor’s Center and near the Theater and museum. Souvenir shops and stalls are sprinkled throughout the site, and while some sellers are pushier than others, the Bedouin people are typically very friendly.