Traipsing up and down the seven hills that Amman was built on, expect to be bombarded with the scent of cardamom and coffee, as well as the sound of the sputtering oil readying fresh falafel. Prepare to dodge and weave between crowds queueing for sugar-soaked knafeh, flitting amid cascading displays of spices in the central souk or setting up shop outside fragrant cafes.
The city unfurls in every side alley, in every flight of sandstone stairs that twists around homes and shops. Amman’s highlights lie not only in its ancient sites and skyscrapers, but in the joy of daily life in the young and lively Middle Eastern metropolis.
Here’s our guide to making the most of your time in Jordan’s laidback capital.
What to do
The Amman Citadel and Temple of Hercules
Contested by countless emperors and kings in its thousands of years of prominence, Amman’s history of conquest can be traced in the hilltop ruins of the Amman Citadel. It has loomed over the city since the Bronze Age, and was first constructed by the Ammonites some 3,800 years ago. Subsequent rulers fortified the complex during the Iron Age, lent it Byzantine flair and gave it Umayyad architectural prowess. The Romans, who dominated Jordan for nearly 400 years, made the most substantial additions. Explore the conserved columns of the Temple of Hercules, and what remains of the colossal Hercules statue that once dominated the Amman skyline.
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The Umayyad Palace
Venture just above the Temple of Hercules to see what remains of the mighty Umayyad Caliphate in Amman. Constructed in the early 8th century, the palatial complex and its domed audience hall was used as an administrative centre for the Syrian caliphs. The second successors of the Islamic empire, the Umayyads expanded their realm from Afghanistan to Granada in Spain, administering their vast empire from strategic complexes in Jordan, Syria and Palestine.
Where to stay
Travellers looking to splash out on a luxurious experience will be able to swim above the skyline in the rooftop pool of the W Hotel. Situated in modern Abdali, the high-end hotel is decked out in eclectic art pieces.
A short jaunt from the National Gallery of Fine Arts, the Canary Boutique Hotel’s modern rooms are tucked away in quiet Jabal el-Weibdeh. Enjoy traditional Jordanian dining on its cosy terrace or a rare pint in the lively, low-lit bar.
Budget-minded travellers can opt for a private room or dorm on the doorstep of the Roman citadel. The Castle Star offers travellers an ever-attentive staff and unparalleled location, with the bonus of occasional communal, homemade meals.
Where to eat
Bubbling in basins of hot oil, falafel is served freshly formed on Rainbow Street in Lweibdeh. Look out for the little window with the long line – that’s al-Quds, a family-run spot with a falafel recipe that has remained unchanged for 50 years. There’s no seating here; customers take their densely packed rolls to the street.
Though many of Amman’s best eats follow this format – like the ever-crowded knafeh spot Habibah or scoopers of pistachio-laden Syrian ice cream at Bekdash – Sufra, another Rainbow Street institution, offers a very different experience. Situated within a 20th-century villa, the Sufra team serve soft pittas hot from the oven and primed for a dollop of classic hummus or local favourite, aubergine dip mutabbal.
Where to drink
Amman’s young social scene revolves around its cafes. Tucked away into tightly turning alleys, its best coffee spots are sequestered in green courtyards, perched on scenic rooftops or spread out over airy patios. The standout is Jadal, a community-minded cultural centre where you pay by the hour, rather than by the drink. In the day, it’s a serene escape from the busy downtown. In the evening, strangers become friends over board games and hibiscus teas.
As Jordan is a Muslim country, drinking culture isn’t big here. However, unlike many of its neighbours, the country hasn’t banned alcohol outright. Plenty of Amman natives still choose to throw back Petra beers at Red’s Bar or The Corner’s Pub.
Where to shop
Leaning on traditional Levantine textiles and techniques, Jordan’s fashion offering is chic and contemporary. Trinitae, on Rainbow Street, has been in the olfactory business since the 1930s, making soap with native ingredients – think Dead Sea minerals imbibed the perfume of pomegranates grown in the Jordan Rift Valley.
Just around the corner you’ll find Souk Jara, where leatherworkers and seamstresses are cloistered in a claustrophobic den of bright colour and elaborate mosaic. Browse the expertly crafted goods on offer here, or head to the glitzier lanes of Souk El Sagha, where shoppers buy gold and gems by the pound.
Jutting into Amman’s pastel sky, the minarets of the King Abdullah I Mosque can be spotted from most vantage points in the city. Patterned in geometric azure and sapphire mosaic, the accents of the holy site distinguish themselves boldly from Amman’s beige base.
What currency do I need?
What language is spoken?
Should I tip?
Tipping isn’t expected or required, but it is appreciated.
How should I get around?
While Amman is a reasonably compact and walkable city, the steep slopes on most streets make taxis highly appealing. Uber is widely available and very affordable.
What’s the best view?
From the walls of the Roman citadel, standing sentinel over the centre of the city. Head up at sunset, just before close, to catch the hazy fade into night that’s typical of Arabian evenings.
Jordan accepts the second-highest number of refugees per capita, so while you’re here, shop for Syrian shawarma, Iraqi textiles or Palestinian sweets to help understand the capital’s diversity.
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