Mention your visit to Petra in casual conversation and watch eyes widen, mouths drop, and a flurry of “Was it incredible?” inquiries hit you. The phrase “unlike any other,” gets thrown around often, but when it comes to this Nabatean city carved entirely out of pinkish rock, with over 800 tombs and intricate details that have withstood the test of time, Petra truly is unlike anything you’ve seen. The thousands and thousands of Petra photos on your Instagram explore page might entice you, but until you’ve climbed almost 1,000 steps, chugged a bottle of water, and looked out at the expanse of Jordan and Wadi Arabia, you will not know the magic of Petra.
History of the Lost City of Petra
Petra was the capital of the Nabatean (an Arab Bedouin tribe) Kingdom from around the 4th century B.C. and was used as a successful trading route. Because of its location and its ability to innovate elaborate water irrigation systems, Petra was a wealthy and prosperous city. After surviving attacks from the Greeks a few hundred years prior, the Nabateans were eventually conquered by the Romans, who ruled for 250 years until it was destroyed by a massive earthquake, leaving Petra effectively uninhabitable. The Byzantines later took over for about 300 years, and by the beginning of the 8th century A.D., it was a completely abandoned city.
Most recently, a small Bedouin tribe — Bedouins are historically nomadic Arabs of the desert region — lived inside its caves for about 170 years. But after Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980s, they were forced to leave their semi-nomadic lifestyle and live in the nearby settlement of Umm Sayhoun. Many of these Bedouins now work inside the park, supplying donkey and horse carriage rides, or selling merchandise and food. The site attracts almost a million visitors each year.
How to Get There
Many people choose to tack a Petra visit on to their holiday in Israel. From Israel, there are a few main options for travel to Petra. One of the most convenient ways is with a tour operator, like Abraham Tours, which offers multiple packages from various start locations. While they offer a one-night, two-day tour from Jerusalem, their two-night package is recommended. Plus, the longer option includes a visit to Wadi Rum, which is a protected desert with epic sandstone mountains, other-worldly panoramic views, and dramatic sunsets — a must if you have the time.
For your entry into Jordan, you’ll need cash for required border crossing fees as it’s not included in the tour price. The Israel exit fee is 107 ILS (about $30), payable in euro, dollars, or ILS. The Jordanian visa fee is 40 Dinar (around $56), payable only in cash and in Dinar, which you can exchange on site. You’ll also be required to pay a Jordanian exit fee of 10 Dinar (around $14).
It's also fairly simple to plan your own trip. By bus, train, or flight, make your way down to the Southernmost Israeli city of Eilat. There, you’ll cross the border (don’t forget your cash) and take a few minute taxi ride to the town of Aqaba.
From Aqaba, you can rent a car, or take a two-way taxi for 60 Dinar (around $85). They’ll wait for you all day and take you back to Aqaba if you wish. You can also take a bus (with the English-speaking company JETT) to Petra, which should cost you 12 Dinar (around $17) for a one way ticket.
If you fly into or are staying in the capital city of Amman, it’s about a 2.5-hour drive if you choose to rent a car. If you prefer public transport, you can catch a JETT bus for around 20 Dinar (around $28) straight to Petra at the 7th Circle JETT bus station. Note that it only leaves once a day, starting at 6:30 a.m.
Where to Stay in Petra
Seven Wonders Bedouin Campsite
Bedouins inhabited Petra for almost 200 years before being forced out, but since many still live and work nearby, there are several traditional campsites you can stay in for a more rugged, local experience. It is undoubtedly one of the most hospitable environments you’ll find. If you think Southern hospitality is nice, wait until a Bedouin tells you a bedtime story.
At the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, you’ll sit around the campfire drinking tea, eat a buffet of fresh food prepared daily, and gaze at the stars while nestled between the lantern-lit rocks of Little Petra. Without light pollution or the hustle and bustle of city noise, you’ll sleep like a baby under the four giant blankets they provide in each bed. Price for bed, breakfast, lunch, and dinner runs about 35 Dinar ($49) a day.
Old Village Resort
For visitors who prefer a few more frills, book a stay at the impeccably decorated Old Village Resort located just a mile down the road from the park entrance. Besides the quaint, colorful rooms and spacious grounds with enchanting views, the resort has everything you need for a comfortable stay: air conditioning, daily cleaning service, TV, WiFi, an international a la carte menu, indoor pool, sauna, and a free shuttle service to Petra. Rooms start at around $150 a night.
What to See
From the park entrance, you’ll walk through the Siq (a little under a mile of narrow canyon that leads to the main city), past the Treasury (a 130 foot facade of figures, ornate details, and Corinthian capitals), past the Royal Tombs, to the final point of interest is about a 90-minute walk on mostly flat trail. However, there are several split-off trails worth exploring — some that can take you on a multiple hour detour. Since you’ll definitely bump into the Treasury, here are some perhaps less obvious sites that are most definitely worth the trek.
- Street of Facades: Emerging from the Siq, you’ll enter what is commonly referred to as the “Outer Siq.” This row of monuments includes a cliff face of tombs and houses that are much more accessible than many other of the same nature. Over time, many of its details have been destroyed due to natural erosion, but it is definitely still worth some exploring.
- The High Place of Sacrifice: The High Place of Sacrifice is another win for more incredible, sweeping views (We know we sound redundant, but once you go, you won’t shut up about the views, either). Right near the Theatre and just off the Street of Facades lives the Nabatean’s most sacred altar for ritual killings of animals. It takes about 45 minutes up steep steps to reach the top, but witnessing the interesting colors, the elaborate details, and yes, the views, will definitely make the sweat worth it.
- Royal Tombs: This is an easy little detour from the main road, and should only take you a few minutes to reach. The Royal Tombs include Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, Corinthian Tomb and Palace Tomb, four behemoth sites with beautiful mosaics of swirling colors on the ceiling made from minerals in the rock.
- The Theatre: The Theatre can house an impressive 8,500 people, and is the only theater to be built into a rock. The Hellenic style amphitheater is located near the Street of Facades, and dates back to the 1st century A.D.
- The Monastery: Perhaps the most famous site in Petra is the Monastery, a Nabatean tomb believed to be a church, which sits high in the hills overlooking the Petra basin and Wadi Arabia. It requires hiking about 800 stone steps to summit, starting at the Basin Restaurant and past a diverted trail to the Lion Triclinium (if you have the time, this is a great little side canyon that leads to a classical shrine with lions carved into the entrance). From the Treasury (the main starting point — think of it like the lobby of Petra) to the top of the Monastery takes about 1.5 hours, or 40 minutes from the beginning of the makeshift staircase. If you’re too exhausted to make the journey by foot, you can hire a donkey for about $35, depending on your haggling skills. It's recommended to make the journey in the afternoon, when there’s more shade, something you’ll be constantly chasing.
Where to Eat While Inside Petra
It’s best to pack snacks, as there’s not a lot of great options for dining while inside the park. But if you’re in a bind, you do have some options.
The Basin Restaurant, located at the basin of the Monastery trail, offers a buffet lunch for around $25. It's a heavy chunk of change for not exactly the best food, but your options are limited and you’ll probably want to get some carbs in before your trek. Alternatively, once you reach the top, you can grab a light snack, tea, or water at Cafe at the Monastery.
Outside of the park, there are a few noteworthy spots to check out. Try the Cave Bar, where you can drink like Indiana Jones in an ancient cave with a 9-percent alcohol tall boy beer and a tasty sandwich. Or grab a cup of coffee, smoke some shisha, and hang out at the charming Chiffchaff Cafe. For cheap eats, go for some kebabs and yummy roasted BBQ chicken at Bukhara in downtown Wadi Musa, or splurge on bit more upscale but local falafel, hummus, and shawarma at Reem Beladi Restaurant.