A Tourist Guide for Visiting Petra
The ruined city of Petra is one of the marvels of the ancient world. Described by the poet John William Burgon as “the Rose-red City, half as old as time,” Petra is a place that will captivate even the most hardened traveler, and one of those places you will never forget. Petra should be on every traveler’s bucket list. We’ve prepared this handy visitors guide to help you prepare for your first visit.
A Brief History of Petra
Hewn entirely out of the sandstone cliffs in southern Jordan, Petra was the capital of the Nabatean empire for centuries. The city was a critical spot on trade routes and became rich through spice trade. Eventually the Nabatean kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire in 106 AD. Roman occupation slowed the city’s growth but Petra continued to thrive as a fairly active trading center, eventually becoming the capital of the province of Palaestina Taertia.
The city’s prominence ended quickly after a catastrophic earthquake in 551 AD. After the Arab conquest in 663 AD, Petra declined completely. It was fortified briefly during the crusades and was known as Li Vaux Moise, the “Valley of Moses.” It was the last crusader outpost to surrender to Saladin’s Muslim forces in 1189 AD, after which it was abandoned and lost to the world.
Temenos Gate in Petra
The ruins remained hidden to all but the local Bedouin inhabitants until a Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burchhardt rediscovered Petra in 1812. As news of the fabled city reached the West, other explorers set off for Petra in search of adventure. The most notable of these was David Roberts, a Scottish artist who traveled to Petra in 1839 to study the monuments. It is through Roberts’ exhaustive graphic documentation that we have a context of the social life in Petra in the early 19th century.
The first real excavation campaigns were conducted by the British shortly after the formation of Transjordan in 1929. Despite academic recognition, Petra remained fairly unknown until it was included in the Steven Spielberg movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. Since that time, Petra has risen in prominence as a global wonder and a magnificent archeological treasure. Petra was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and was chosen to become one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in 2007.
Oh the places you’ll see…
One of the thrilling aspects of visiting Petra is all of the places available for exploration. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there are hidden paths and trails that lead to new, wonderful vantage points. This is the view from above the Royal Tombs looking down into the valley with the Theater below.
When to Visit
Petra is located in the middle of the Jordanian desert, which means it can be ridiculously hot in the summer time. In addition, Petra is pretty barren and shade trees are sparse. Expect temperatures to be upwards of 100º F (37º C) during peak summer months (June – August). The winter months can be cool, especially on cloudy, windy days. For the best weather, visit in the Spring (March – May) or Autumn (September – November). Temperatures will be a much more pleasant 70 – 85º F (21 – 29º C).
Street of Facades
Getting To Petra
Most visitors to Petra start out from the capital city of Amman. Petra is a 3.5-hour trip south of Amman by car, and possibly longer if you choose a bus that makes multiple stops along the way. Transport is also available from Jordan’s port city of Aqaba, and takes about 1.5 hours. Tours are also available from Eilat and even farther afield from Sharm el Sheikh.
Local car rental companies in Jordan offer vehicles for around 40 JD per day. Big chain car rental companies (Hertz, Avis, et al.) will be more expensive. While renting a car is the most flexible and freeing option, it is not without its challenges. Getting out of Amman can be chaotic, as the maze of roadways are not clearly marked. Relying on a GPS can be tricky, as map systems are still unreliable in Jordan. Also be aware that drivers in Jordan do not abide by normal traffic rules. Make sure you have a full tank of fuel, as service stations are infrequent outside of large towns or cities.
If you can find your way to the 7th Circle, just head south as if you are going to Queen Alia International Airport. This links up with the Desert Highway, which will continue south for several hours. As you get close to Shobak, you’ll begin to see the brown tourism signs directing you to turn off the Desert Highway towards Petra. Follow the signs down through the town of Wadi Musa and then to Petra, which is the end of the line.
Watch Your Speed
Be careful if driving too quickly through small towns along the Desert Highway, as there is a chance you’ll get flagged for speeding. If you get stopped by the police, be polite and respond in any language except Arabic. Most likely they won’t understand you and will kindly let you be on your way.
Buses are one of the cheapest means of traveling to Petra. JETT buses leave from the JETT offices in Abdali and travel to Petra and back. A round trip ticket costs around 20 JD (~ $29). The buses depart around 6:30 AM and arrives to Petra around 10:30 AM. JETT buses depart back to Amman at 5:00 PM.
Minibuses are available from Amman but they’re not worth the hassle. They cost less than a larger tourist bus but they make multiple stops along the way. Minibus drivers are not known for their knowledge of languages other than Arabic, which makes communication very difficult.
Taking a taxi is probably the most expensive means of getting to Petra. Prepare to spend around 75 JD (~ $105, depending on how much you are willing to haggle) for a private taxi service from Amman and back. The price covers the 4-hour trip down and back, along with the taxi driver having to wait around for you while you explore Petra.
The city of Petra is HUGE and there is a lot to discover. It’s best to enter Petra as early as possible in order to beat the rush of tourists and the mid-day heat. If you arrive when the park opens at 6 AM, you’ll have the place to yourself for a while.
While you can explore most of Petra’s top sites in a single day, don’t expect to see everything. If you are really into history, archeology, or just prefer to take things slow, I suggest you plan to visit the site over the course of two days.
Maps of the city are available in English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Arabic at the Visitor Center. The English maps are often in short supply due to demand. Licensed guides can be booked from the Visitor Center to take you through the site. Guided tours start at 50 JD (~ $70) and can be as much as 70 JD (~ $100) if you plan to visit any of the high places (the High Place of Sacrifice or the Monastery).
The Siq is the mile-long, winding canyon that leads down into Petra. First time visitors are often surprised at its length, as every turn offers a different view and builds anticipation as one approaches the Treasury. Don’t be in such a hurry to traverse the Siq that you miss the details that are carved into the walls along the way.
All that remains of a group of statues portraying a caravan in the Siq.
Petra’s most famous and best preserved monument is the Treasury. It’s a stunning sight to behold as you exit the long winding Siq canyon. Many will recognize the Treasury facade which was made famous in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Unfortunately there’s no Holy Grail in here.
The best time to admire the Treasury is between 8:30 and 10:00 AM when the facade is bathed in the morning light. While there are plenty of details to marvel at on the exterior, the interior is rather lackluster. Visitor are only allows to peer inside from the doorway and are met with a few large, bare rooms and a couple anti-chambers.
The Treasury (“al-Khasneh” in Arabic) is not a treasury at all, but instead was either a tomb or temple. The structure received its Arabic name from a local legend which claims a treasure was hidden within the stone urn near the top of the structure. Over the years, Bedouins tested this legend by shooting at the urn in an attempt to break it open and retrieve the treasure. Significant damage from bullets can be seen in the solid sandstone.
The Treasury urn is littered with bullet holes – some from iconoclastic movements and others as a result of locals testing a legend that claimed the urn was full of treasure.
High Place of Sacrifice
Past the Treasury and down the Street of Facades is a stairway that leads to the High Place of Sacrifice. The steps are one of the more grueling climbs of the day, but the reward is spectacular sweeping views of the Petra valley from the top.
The top of the mountain (known as “Jabal Attuf”) is divided into two sections: one containing a pair of obelisks and the other containing the High Place of Sacrifice. The obelisks are thought to represent the gods Dusares and Al Uzza.
The High Place of Sacrifice consists of a large courtyard and several elements for offering blood and non-blood sacrifices, including a pair of alters, a wash basin, and a cistern. Be sure to enjoy the view from the top of the mountain and stop by the coffee tent for some Bedouin tea.
The alter atop the High Place of Sacrifice.
Instead of descending from the High Place of Sacrifice the way you came, explore the western descent through Wadi Farasa. There are a number of stunning tombs along the way that most visitors never see, including the Garden Tomb, the Roman Soldier Tomb, and the Renaissance Tomb. The path will end back at the main road, just past the Theater.
The Garden Tomb with its reservoir wall to the right.
Along the main road, opposite from the Theater, are the “Royal Tombs” – subsequently named due to their size and prominence rather than being confirmed as a the burial places of Nabatean royalty. While the edifices have suffered centuries of elemental abuse, they still are quite powerful. The largest and most impressive is the Urn Tomb, which is set back into the cliff face. A series of steps lead up to a large courtyard which offers great views of the Street of Facades, the Theater, and the Colonnade Street.
Much of the Palace Tomb has been eroded away by the elements. What is left is a shade of its former glory.
The Great Temple
The Great Temple can be found along the Colonnade Street. It is still under excavation, but its size is quite impressive. The temple was dedicated to the goddess Al Uzza. Be sure to search the standing columns for the ones containing elephant head ornaments – the only intact examples of their kind in the world.
The Byzantine Church
The Byzantine Church is the remains of a large Christian church which dates from the sixth century AD. The church can be recognized by its large tent covering which protects the elaborate mosaics that decorate the church floor.
A sample of the mosaics that adorn the floor of the Byzantine Church.
The Monastery (or “al-Deir” in Arabic) is one of most recognized and striking monument in Petra, second only to the Treasury. It sits on a mountain high above the rest of the city. A series of 800 steps winds from the Colonnade Street, past several smaller edifices, and finally to the top of Jabal al Deir. The monument is set a few feet back from the side of the mountain, so it is not seen until the last minute when you round the corner. It’s breathtaking to behold for the first time.
For all its exterior size and grandeur, the interior is fairly small and uninspiring by comparison. The steps leading up to the entryway are missing, meaning that you’ll have to boost yourself about 5 feet (1.5 meters) to enter the inner chamber.
The enormous and impressive Monastery.
There is a coffee tent across from the Monastery from which you can purchase hot and cold drinks, along with a variety of souvenirs. It’s a great place to rest and enjoy the view after an exhausting climb to the top of the mountain. Further along the path is a grand lookout which offers a sweeping panorama of the Wadi Arabah desert valley.
Everywhere there is a scenic lookout, you can count on a souvenir tent to be nearby.
Once you leave the Visitor Center there are limited dining options. Several of the shops throughout Petra offer bottled water, tea, and snacks, but there is only a single restaurant at the far end of the Roman Highway. The buffet-style restaurant is always busy and is overpriced. I recommend packing a lunch and extra water. Eat your lunch on a nice overlook and enjoy the views of the city.
There are a number of less expensive restaurants in Wadi Musa, just outside of the Petra archeological park. It’s a long hike out just for lunch and definitely not worth it for lunch. Perhaps plan to enjoy a nice dinner as you leave Petra, instead.
Shopping in Petra
You’ll find a plethora of booths throughout Petra, even in the most unassuming of places. The local Bedouin that operate these booths offer a variety of wares, from jewelry to antiques, from sand art to carpets. If you want to make a purchase, I encourage you to haggle. Start by offering half of their asking price and then make compromises until you get to a fair price. Haggling is not considered rude. In fact, it is practically considered as somewhat of a sport.
Tourists checking out the sampling of wares available in Petra.
Most of the Bedouin sales people are polite, but a few can be annoyingly persistent. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t want something, don’t look at it. If you are feeling hassled by an unwanted sales pitch, politely tell them no and walk away. For an even quicker response, tell them “la’, shukran”, which is “no, thank you” in Arabic.
It’s not unusual to see Bedouin children manning one of the family’s souvenir locations.
Watch Your Language
When conferring in private with your partner about a fair price for souvenir items, don’t assume that the Bedouin salesperson can’t understand your native tongue. They are used to dealing with visitors from around the world and often they speak a dozen (or more) languages.
Often overlooked is Petra’s norther suburb of Siq al-Barid, also known as “Little Petra.” At a little over 1,000 feet (350 meters) long, it is dwarfed by its larger sibling. It is also much quieter and more relaxing. The site is accessible by car or taxi and is about 5 miles (8 km) along the road north of Wadi Musa.
The facades and edifices in Little Petra are familiar Nabatean artistry with a few standout specimens. Especially of note is the Painted House, which is the only remaining example of Nabatean fresco painting (though much of the artistry has been blackened by Bedouin campfires throughout the years).
At the end of the Siq are some rock-hewn stairs. There isn’t much at the top, but it’s a great place to relax and have a picnic.
Petra has always been the most expensive attraction in Jordan, but it used to be much cheaper than it is today. When I lived in Jordan from 2005-2008, visitors would pay a reasonable 20 JD (~ $28) to visit this amazing marvel of a city. After Petra was voted as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World, the Jordan Tourism Board started milking it like the proverbial cash cow, hyper-inflating the price.
If you’re staying at least one night in Jordan, entrance fees are as follows:
|Length of Stay||Price (Jordanian Dinar)||Equivalent Price (USD)|
|One day||50 JD||$70.62|
|Two days||55 JD||$77.68|
|Three days||60 JD||$84.75|
Day-visitors to Jordan (coming from Israel or Egypt) will pay 90 JD (~ $127), which includes a 40 JD border fee. Children under 12 years of age are free. Student discounts are not honored unless you can provide a valid Jordanian University ID. Credit cards are not widely accepted, so plan to pay with cash.
There are a variety of animal-powered transportation options in Petra, and all of them cost extra. Horses are available to take you from the Visitor Center down to the entrance of the Siq. Horse-drawn carriages will transport you through the winding Siq down to the Treasury. Camels are available for travel throughout the expansive ruins of Petra. And donkeys are available practically everywhere inside Petra, and especially for transport up the more difficult paths, such as the 800 steps up to the Monastery.
If you plan to utilize any of these modes of transportation, be prepared to negotiate vigorously for the best price. Don’t be afraid to say “no” and move on to the next offer. If they want your business bad enough, they will pursue you with a lower price.
Everything is Negotiable
Be aware that haggling in high-peak seasons results in less of a discount than if you were to visit at other times of the year. The animal owners don’t get as much business in low-peak seasons and are more willing to come down on the price in order to make a sale.
Petra can be visited in a single day, but we recommend taking several days to explore everything thoroughly. If you want to witness Petra lit up by candlelight at night (available on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings), you’ll most likely want to stay overnight in Wadi Musa.
There are a variety of accommodations in Wadi Musa, the town located just outside the Petra archeological park. We recommend the Petra Guest House (owned by Crowne Plaza). It’s only steps away from the park entrance, making it very convenient. One of the hotel’s the coolest features is the Cave Bar. What was once a Nabatean tomb has now been converted into the “oldest bar in the world.”