Ultimate Guide to Petra
If Jordan is on your travel wish list, chances are it’s because of Petra, the highlight attraction and Wonder of the World. You may have seen pictures of the rock-cut facade of the Treasury, but Petra is an immense site covering many square kilometers. Be prepared to walk. A lot. Or, have enough dinar handy to hire a donkey or camel. If at all possible, make plans to spend at least two days here. You have a lot of ground to cover and this post will help you make the most of your time in the ancient city of the Nabataeans.
1 Day Pass – 50JD
2 Day Pass – 55JD
3 Day Pass – 60JD
Starting at 70JD, the Jordan Pass includes admission to Petra and other attractions as well as your tourist visa.
Open daily 6am–4pm Winter; 6am–6pm Summer
What exactly is Petra?Petra is an ancient city, former capital of the Nabataean empire which reached its height in the first century B.C. Although evidence shows a long history of settlement, it is during this era that many of the notable features such as the rock-cut tombs and temples took shape. Petra’s topography and water access make it a natural fortress and refuge in the midst of the surrounding landscape. Because of this the Nabataeans were able to control the trade routes through the region and build an impressive civilization.
In the second century A.D. it came under Roman administration and began to decline due to shifting trade routes. By the time of the Byzantines, economic decline and earthquakes had caused most residents to abandon the city and it drifted into history until it was “discovered” by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in the 1800s. At this time, Petra was known locally and inhabited by Bedouin tribes, but the world at large had forgotten of its existence, instead connecting historical references to Al-Karak in the north.
In 1985, Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which led to the forcible relocation of most of the Bedouin inhabitants into nearby settlements constructed for them. Some still live in the premises though, and you can interact with many of the vendors who sell refreshments and trinkets along the way. They are amazingly hospitable and will offer you tea and conversation. Don’t hesitate to accept.
Today visitors can tour the sprawling ancient city, which takes a considerable amount of time to navigate from one end to the other. Most are somewhat familiar with the iconic image of Petra’s Treasury, depicted in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and may make the mistake of thinking that’s all there is to see, but in its heyday this was a large and important city with many impressive structures and mysterious high places where religious rituals were performed.
Getting there and Getting aroundBeing Jordan’s most famous and visited tourist attraction means that Petra is very accessible. From either Aqaba or Amman, you traverse the well-maintained Desert Highway before turning off the last 45 minutes toward the town of Wadi Musa, which caters to visitors with numerous hotels and restaurants. Localtrips.net is a good site for arranging private transportation from either city to Petra, although you might be able to negotiate a cheaper price on your own with a taxi driver. We were able to get a taxi from Aqaba for 30JD, which we shared with another pair of travelers.
From budget to luxury, there are suitable accommodations for all travelers. We opted to stay in the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, close to the secondary site of Little Petra. The camp offer rides to and from the Petra entrance, making it easy to get around. Taxis around the town of Wadi Musa will set you back around 3JD per trip.
At the entrance to Petra there is plenty of parking if you’ve rented a car. Going toward the gate is a plaza full of shops and restaurants. Be warned! Eating here is pricey. Going into Wadi Musa can definitely save you a few bucks. But if you decide to have a meal here, we recommend the Cave Bar adjacent to the Crowne Plaza.
Also take a few minutes to visit the museum located in the plaza. You can gain further insight into the history of Petra and the Nabataeans. It’s open late, so it might be a good stop after you leave Petra while waiting for the Petra at Night tour to begin.
Entrance to PetraThe area between the Visitor’s Center and the Siq is a pretty incredible attraction on its own. Following a path along the wadi you’ll see several carved structures of the Nabataeans. Although nothing like what awaits you inside the city, they’ll still cause you to pause in wonderment.
Of note is the Obelisk Tomb, capped by four carved obelisks. We asked a passing guide if we could enter, and he just chuckled and said “Sure, but why when there’s bigger and better inside Petra?” Farther along the path are the massive “Djinn” blocks, of which little is known.
It’s a fairly lengthy trek through this area, about a kilometer, and you haven’t even reached the Siq yet. If you need it, horses and carts can be hired to whisk you all the way to the Treasury.
The SiqThe Siq is narrow canyon that served as a natural barrier and entrance for Petra. This was the main path for trade caravans entering into the city, and the high walls helped protect the city from invasion. Now it’s the most popular way for visitors to enter the city, and the narrow winding path leads directly to the Treasury, Petra’s highlight attraction.
The Siq is more than a kilometer in length, making it a considerable trek. Along the way there are many rock-niches and other carvings. Be on the lookout for the carving of two tradesmen leading their camels, an homage to the many caravans that came through here. Take your time to enjoy the feeling of exploration and discovery that the Siq offers.
The TreasuryThe iconic Treasury (Al-Khazeh in Arabic) is the most familiar site of Petra. Your first glimpse of the treasury between the narrow walls of the Siq is sure to take your breath away. Emerging from the Siq you enter into another, larger canyon into which the Treasury is carved. The Treasury is, in fact, no treasury at all, but was rather a temple for religious rituals. It got its nickname from legends that the Egyptian Pharaoh had hidden treasures inside.
Contrary to the depiction in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Treasury is mostly just a facade with one relatively small room carved out inside. Access isn’t allowed, but you can go inside many of the other tombs around Petra and get an idea of what the inside of the Treasury is like. There will be groups of people congregated here as their guides offer explanation and everyone looks for the perfect angles for their pics. Later in the afternoon as we were leaving Petra, that wasn’t another soul around which offered us the opportunity to take some truly awesome pictures, albeit without the direct sun lighting up the red sandstone facade.
Even though wind and time have eroded the structure, you can still see how incredible the handiwork is, and it becomes even more apparent once you notice the carved sculptures decorating the recesses between the columns. Considerably worn down now, it’s easy to imagine just how intricate and detailed the entire facade used to be.
If you’re worn out from the long journey from the entrance and through the Siq, there’s a cafe just to the left to rest and recuperate. Gather your strength, because you still have a long way to go to see everything. Here, independent guides will offer you their services as well as solicitations for donkey and camel rides. We opted to take a donkey all the way to the Monastery which is located at the opposite end of Petra, and then walk back stopping at all the sites along the way. It cost us each 15JD to hire a donkey.
The Street of Facades and the TheatreMoving on from the Treasury, the wadi expands into a wider Siq that has many rock-cut facades on either side. These are simpler tombs than what lies ahead, but you can begin to see how important funerary rituals were for the Nabataeans. Great space was dedicated to the dead, and inside feasts were held in their honor. The Street of Facades is an impressive cluster of carved structures before you come upon what might be the most incredible engineering feat of the entire city: the theatre.
The theatre was first constructed by the Nabataeans before being expanded later by the Romans. It seats up to 8,500 spectators and is notable for being carved out of the cliffside versus being constructed into it like many other Roman theatres. Truly some delightful spectacles took place here during Petra’s heyday.
In this area there are several shops to stop and rest, as well as ample donkeys and camels for hire. Here also is where you can begin your ascent to the High Place of Sacrifice, which we’ll cover in more detail in our Hiking Guide.
The Royal TombsIf the tombs in the Outer Siq impressed you, wait until you see the Royal Tombs. Far larger and more intricate than those along the Street of Facades, the Royal Tombs are perched above the city and can be reached by hiking up a winding path (easier but longer) or steeper hand-hewn stairs.
Once you ascend the path, you’ll be able to explore the insides of the tombs, only to find—not much. Like the Treasury, these are simple rectangular rooms, and were used to hold feasts and celebrations honoring the dead. There isn’t much ornamentation inside, but you’ll still marvel at the work it took to chisel out the large rooms.
At sunset, the Royal Tombs glow a brilliant red hue as the sun dips behind the mountains opposite of them. Have your camera handy; it’s definitely a wonder to behold.
The City CenterNow the valley has opened up and you are in the City Centre. Here is where most of the Roman contribution was made. As you walk along the colonnade you will see tumbled columns and remnants of Nabataean temples. At the end the Qasr al-Bint still stands, with its high walls restored. North and uphill are the remains of a Byzantine Church with its floor mosaics exposed.
After walking the length of the city center there are two restaurants, which might be your best bet for lunch if you’re looking for a full meal. This is a good place to recharge, because you’re only halfway to the Monastery, and it’s mostly uphill from here!
The MonasteryAt the opposite end of Petra lies the Monastery (Al-Deir), a structure equally as impressive and larger than the Treasury. If you’re coming in via the Siq, we recommend heading straight to the Monastery to beat the crowds, then hit all the other sites on your way out. It’s quite a long haul from the entrance, a good hour-plus hike, so hiring a donkey or camel is a way to save some time and some strength (you have to climb a lot of steps to reach the Monastery). Alternatively, you can also enter Petra via the back way from the Bedouin city of Umm Sayhoun and visit the Monastery first, which is usually arranged with a guide as there is no public entrance on that side and requires advanced purchase of a ticket.
Across from the Monastery is a teahouse, perfect for refreshing and taking in the incredible structure, which, like the Treasury, didn’t get it’s name from the Nabataeans, but the later Bedouin inhabitants. Moving on from here, it’s a 15 minute hike to reach the very edge of the mountains and peer into Wadi Araba beyond, which is the valley that contains the Dead Sea and separates Jordan from Israel and Palestine.
Shopping and EatingAll throughout Petra there will be tents set up with local Bedouins selling various trinkets and handicrafts. If you’re looking to pick up a memento, the items you can buy from these vendors have more of a “hand-made” vibe than the shops outside selling mass-produced whips and fedoras.
You’re bound to work up an appetite while you explore all the nooks and crannies of the ancient city. Fortunately, there are ample stands serving up simple refreshments, but not much in the way of actual meals. For that, you can head to one of two restaurants located at the end of the colonnade of the City Center. Basin Restaurant and Nabataean Tent Restaurant serve lunch buffet style. We ate at Basin, and it cost 17JD each, definitely pricey, but the buffet had a lot options and the quality was good.
Feel free to pack a lunch or some snacks before heading in if you’re looking to save some money. We took in some chips and drinks from a convenience store as a snack. The restaurants outside the Petra entrance will sell packaged lunches you can take in with you, typically a sandwich and some fruit.
Ready to Go?It’s not without reason that the ancient rock-cut city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Prepare to be awed by the undertakings of the Nabataean, who created a truly unique collection of monuments and carved out for themselves a civilization in the midst of an inhospitable landscape. Just as it received many visitors in antiquity, Petra calls out for modern day travelers to delight in her wonders.
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