If there’s anything more fun than planning a trip, it’s planning with a like-minded friend. I’m fortunate to have one of those friends. We research lodging, restaurants, and adventures on our own, before bouncing ideas off each other. Our plans occasionally (well… usually) grow out of control, but ultimately, we arrive at an itinerary. When we decided to book a tour of Egypt, we couldn’t resist adding Jordan to the trip. (After all, they’re not that far apart on a map, are they??) The week in Jordan was a success with our visit to Petra one of the most memorable experiences of our lives.
Have you ever been to a place that takes your breath away? A place you know you’ll remember the rest of your life? For me, that place is Petra. No matter how familiar I was with the images of the rock-hewn city, coming through the Siq (the narrow slot canyon leading to the ancient city) and catching my first glimpse of the Treasury sent shivers up my spine. Was it coming from a dark canyon into a bright valley, the detail of the carving, or the magnitude of the site? Whatever the reason, I will never forget my first view of the ancient city.
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Facts About Petra
- Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom for about 500 years (earliest dating ~312 B.C)
- Petra was established by the Nabatean people who were very successful traders. They located Petra near the intersection of the most important trade routes of the Middle East and in an easily defended location.
- The edifices carved into the pink sandstone were actually tombs and temples.
- Within Petra are the remains of colonnaded street and an amphitheater.
- At one time 30,000 people lived within Petra.
- The first European to see Petra (1812) disguised himself as a sheik in order to be led to the hidden city.
- The city was still occupied by Bedouin until it was designated a UNESCO site in 1985. At that time the residents were resettled into housing outside of the Petra Archeological Park.
Traveling to Petra
Wadi Musa, the town where Petra is located, is a little over three hours from Queen Alia International Airport, the primary airport for Amman, Jordan. We hired a driver and guide for our group of four. If you’re on your own, you can hire a private driver as we did (Viator has a Amman to Petra transportation option), take the JETT bus (4 hours, leaves Amman at 6:30 am), join a group tour, or drive yourself.
How much time should you allocate for your visit to Petra? If you’re tight on time, you can see the highlights of Petra in one day, but it’s definitely worth more time. There are accommodations for every budget in the Wadi Musa area, so book at least one night if you can. Book two nights or more if you’d enjoy hiking around the site.
A 48 Hour Visit to Petra
We left for Petra from a resort on the Dead Sea. Our guide, Mahmoud Twaissi, suggested we arrive in Wadi Musa mid-afternoon. We stopped in the town of Madaba to see the 6th century mosaic map on the floor of St. George Church and had a traditional lunch in a local restaurant. From Madaba we traveled the Desert Highway south into the Ma’an Governorate area of Jordan, stopping occasionally for photos. Mahmoud knew all the best spots for photos, including one stop where he took us through the back office of a shop for this photo:
We arrived in Wadi Musa, checked into our hotel, the Mövenpick Resort Petra. It’s a beautiful luxury hotel directly across from the entrance to the site. After settling into our rooms, we enjoyed a drink at the bar, and got ready for one of the highlights of a visit to Petra.
Petra by Night
Imagine entering a narrow slot canyon with only candles lighting the way. It’s a challenging one mile walk over uneven terrain but suddenly the passage ends and you’re standing in front of the famous Treasury building. You’re led to a spot on the ground and given a cup of tea as Bedouin musicians perform. The ancient music and glowing candlelight transport you back to the distant past. And you’re silent.
Petra by Night is held Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. (Plan your visit to Petra accordingly and book early for your holiday in Petra!)
We were happy to have headlamps on the walk out of the canyon, making the walk easier and a bit quicker. A light dinner at the hotel and we were ready for bed.
A Full Day in the Rose City
Petra opens at 6 a.m. and it’s wise to get an early start to allow time to explore, and to escape the heat if you’ll be visiting Petra during the summer months (June – September). We traveled in February when it was cool enough for us to wear light jackets until midday.
From the main gate you enter the site on an easy trail. There are a few things to see here – the obelisk tomb is a highlight, but mostly you’re anticipating entering the Siq, the slot canyon (known in Arabic as al-Siq – “the shaft”). If, like us, you experience Petra By Night before your day excursion, you will be amazed by everything there is to see along the Siq.
Our guide Mahmoud was trained as an archaeologist and pointed out things we would not have noticed if we had entered Petra without a guide. The Nabateans developed a remarkable system for getting water into the city. Through a series of aqueducts, cisterns, and reservoirs, the water from natural springs was made accessible to the thriving city. The remnant of the system are clearly evident along the walls of the Siq.
The Treasury – Al-Khazneh
The first view of the Treasury from the Siq is breathtaking. It’s not surprising that this spot has been used by directors for some blockbuster films – most notably Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Take a few minutes to appreciate the skills needed to create this huge, elaborately carved edifice out a rock wall. The Treasure, Al-Khazneh, may have been a temple or a royal tomb. A recent excavation found graves within the site.
When you’re ready, continue walking down what is known as the Street of Façades. While most people have seen images of the Treasury, few realize how big the Petra Archeological Park is and how many edifices and caves there are to explore. The valley opens up as you walk through the site, and you will see evidence of a colonnaded street, an amphitheater, and many, many tombs.
It’s possible to enter some of the edifices, though not the Treasury, but there isn’t really anything to see. Most are shallow and empty. The real beauty, the pride of the Nabateans, was the exterior façade.
Within the park are all the conveniences you might need – a luncheon area, bathrooms, and lots of shopping opportunities. You will have MANY offers for horse and donkey rides. Agree on a price before you accept any offers and know that a tip will be expected.
The Monastery – Ad Deir
The largest edifice on the site is the Monastery – Ad Deir. It is not located in the valley but ‘hidden’ 800 steps up at the (apparent) end of the archeological park. Standing at 149 foot high structure the Monastery is one of the largest and oldest monuments in the world, built ~87 B.C. There are questions about whether this was the tomb of a Nabatean king or a temple built to worship King Obodas II. The large crosses carved into the interior suggest it was used as a Christian church at some time and thus the name – The Monastery.
I had no plans to hire a donkey to get to the top of the mountain, but my companions decided it would be a good idea. They were wrong. It was a bad idea. The donkey I was riding didn’t get along with another of the donkeys and they raced and jostled all the way up along the steep cliff edge. At one point my donkey jumped onto the safety wall to squeeze by a group of tourists. Needless to say, I chose to walk down from the Monastery.
Back in Wadi Musa, there are lots of things to fill your evening. Take a cooking class, enjoy a delicious Jordanian dinner, or relax in a traditional Hammam.
More Ideas of Visiting the Petra area
Little Petra, another archeological site, is just ~5 miles north of Petra. It is thought to have been a trading and supply center supporting Petra. Many visitors will enjoy the walk between the sites.
Wadi Rum, the desert of Lawrence of Arabia, is about a 2-hour drive south from Petra.
Shobak Castle was built by a Crusader king in the 12th century. It’s located ~40 minutes north of Wadi Musa off the Kings Highway.
Aqaba on the Red Sea is a top destination for scuba divers and has many lovely resorts. It’s about 2 hours from Petra and is serviced by the King Hussein International Airport.
There are many fascinating destinations in Jordan, so make sure to plan enough time to enjoy the country. The Jordanian people will make you feel most welcome!
Map of the Petra Archeological Park
*See the real-life capsule wardrobe I wore on my visit to Petra here – What’s in My Bag – Jordan
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