If you’re traveling to Jordan, chances are high that Petra is part of your itinerary. The vast majority of American tourists venturing to this part of the world are coming specifically to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of them end up battling for selfie space in front of Al-Khazneh; the two-thousand-year-old Nabatean structure (also known as the Treasury) is among the most photographed facades of the ancient world. And yes, it is an awe-inspiring landmark—almost supernaturally preserved. But it’s a picture you’ve already ‘liked’ on countless Instagram feeds. What you’ve yet to see might impress you even more.
At the crossroads of civilization, this is a country blessed with both cultural wonder and an intense natural beauty. It houses hundreds of impressive archeological ruins underneath a society tracing its roots back through thousands of years of recorded history.
One of the best ways to observe it all is with a tour outfitter. The options are robust, catering to a range of specifications. Intrepid Travel, for example, offers its ‘Real Food Adventure’ to taste your way across the landscape. “You can uncover secret traditions and flavors with a Jordanian shepherd over breakfast,” explains Jenny Gray, who helps organize adventures for the Australian-based company. “Then drink fire-warmed sheep’s milk, and scoop bread into a pot of rich Galayet Bandora.” If you want to burn calories instead of stacking them, they also offer a 9-day bicycle adventure. Encounters Travel promises ‘Jordan on a Shoestring’, while Abercrombie & Kent appeals to well-heeled travelers with customizable luxury experience curated by local guides.
To truly treasure Jordan, regardless of how you get to this part of the world, make sure you fit a few of the following lesser-explored destinations into your plans.
Jordan’s capital city is among the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. You could spend weeks exploring the artifacts here, some dating back to the Stone Age. But if you have no more than a day, sunrise or sunset over the Temple of Hercules is obligatory. The uncompleted Roman edifice rests on a hill alongside other crumbled structures from the Byzantine empire as well as the Umayyad dynasty.
A series of caves and ruins on the outskirts of the city, Iraq al-Amir is a testament to the archeological abundance of the Jordan Valley. In other parts of the world, such a site might be closely guarded—or accessed only with costly fees. Here you’re free to wander as you’d like, past two-thousand-year-old dwellings featuring walls inscribed with ancient text.
To the east of Amman, this 8th Century Islamic castle rises starkly from the desert floor. It measures 115-feet on each side—a perfect square nearly 50-feet in height. Built shortly after the birth of Islam, it is among the oldest architectural examples of how religion influenced Middle-Eastern design. The significance is magnified by the degree to which it has withstood the ceaseless weathering of time.
A vast red valley speckled with sandstone formations, Wadi Rum feels more like mars than it does something of this earth. To properly traverse this rugged terrain you’ll need a 4x4, usually included as part of organized tours. “I recommend staying at least a few nights,” adds Ati Nain, a frequent traveler to the region, who recently visited on a group trip with his wife. “Make sure you stay in a Bedouin campsite. They’re so welcoming and typically will prepare you a traditional feast using an underground pit called a zarb.” During the day hike through narrow slots like Khazali Canyon, or climb up the Burdah Rock Bridge for a once-in-a-lifetime photo op.
This hilltop fortification, also known as Machaerus, affords uninterrupted views of the Dead Sea, backdropped by the sharp cliffs of the West Bank. It is one of Jordan’s many cultural attractions with religious significance. According to the New Testament, John the Baptist was executed here in 32 AD. “Far removed from the tourist circuit, the solitude of this area transports you back to biblical times,” says Gray. “Shepherds and their flocks still find shelter in the myriad caves and grottoes in the area. If you’re lucky you might get a chance to have a chat with them.”
So much Greco-Roman antiquity lies in ruin throughout Jerash that archaeologists have been continuously excavating the area since the 1920s. They still haven’t uncovered it all. After the occasional rainfall, coins from the ancient empire have been known to reveal themselves to visitors. Above ground, Corinthian colonnades remain intact, connecting a massive ovular forum to amphitheaters and hilltop palaces. The site constitutes the most well-preserved collection of Roman architecture outside of Italy.
While a soak in the Dead Sea is almost as commonplace as a trek to the Treasury, far fewer visitors make it to the shores of the Red Sea. Those that do are rewarded with vibrant underwater encounters. Jordan’s sole port city is home to a marine park, where snorkelers and divers enjoy mingling with lionfish, moray eels, and other aquatic marvels. At a dedicated diving area known as Seven Sisters, you’ll find a sunken tank that’s taken on a less menacing role as a hotbed for curious sea life.
Mujib Nature Reserve
Abutting the eastern edge of the Dead Sea, Mujib owns the title of the lowest-lying nature reserve on earth. Water—and life—flourishes here despite the seemingly inhospitable conditions at 1300 feet below sea level. Several prominent trails (Wadi Mujib, Wadi Balou, Wadi Zarqa Ma’in) lead through deep ravines concluding at dramatic, cliffside waterfalls. “The further you get from a tour bus, the happier you’re going to be,” explains Nain. “Our fondest memories came from places that we didn’t even know existed moments before we arrived. There’s so much more to Jordan than what you’ll find on a postcard."