Secrets of the Citadel

Hot spot ... the Temple of Hercules.
Hot spot ... the Temple of Hercules. Photo: Getty Images

Gail Simmons explores Amman, one of the Middle East's liveliest, least visited and safest cities.

Each time I return, I'm struck by how this once-sleepy town has so rapidly become one of the most sophisticated cities in the region. Ancient even before the Greeks named it Philadelphia, Amman was chosen as the capital of the new kingdom of Transjordan in 1921. Now, it's one of the region's liveliest and most underrated centres.

It's also one of its safest. Since the early days of the Arab Spring there have been sporadic protests in Jordan, but the country has been quiet compared with some areas of the Middle East and neither the Australian government nor British Foreign Office advises against visiting.

As with Rome, Amman was originally built on seven hills but is now spread over at least 19, connected by thundering highways. Rather than attempt to explore the city on foot I always hail a taxi, then get out and walk when I arrive at my chosen district, map in hand.

One of my favourite quarters for an amble is Jabal Amman, occupying an original hill. Populated by Jordan's elite in the early 20th century, it's now a hot spot for students, young professionals and expatriates. I like to stroll along leafy Rainbow and Mango streets, lined with 1920s-built villas, as well as cafes and boutiques, perhaps popping into Books@Cafe to mingle with hip Ammanites.

Amman doesn't have the intoxicating, winding souks and magnificent mosques of most Middle Eastern capitals. But what it lacks in the more obvious exoticism of its neighbours it makes up for in its theatres, galleries, cinemas and restaurants.

However, there is classical culture if you know where to look and to get my fill I head for the old centre, called Downtown. Old Philadelphia lies beneath its streets and although there is little to see of the original Greek metropolis, I enjoy sitting on the steps of the Roman Theatre, imagining the old city surrounded by its once-green hills. I always end a visit with a trip to the ancient Citadel, towering above Downtown and the rest of the capital. This is the original city, with its monumental Temple of Hercules, Umayyad Palace, National Archaeological Museum and panoramic views of Amman's jabals (hills).

It's worth spending a few hours at the Citadel, especially in the late afternoon. If I'm still here at sunset, when most other visitors have gone, I'm rewarded with a symphony of sound as the city's mosques serenade with the call to Maghrib (sunset) prayers. Truly one of the most magical experiences in the Middle East.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJ) flies to Amman from Sydney for about $1970 low-season return, including tax. Fly Qantas to Bangkok (about 9hr), then on RJ to Amman (9hr 45min); see rj.com. Melbourne passengers can fly Qantas or Cathay Pacific (about 9hr) to Hong Kong and then via Bangkok on RJ to Amman (about 14hr including transit time ). Australians require a visa, which costs $75 if obtained in Australia or 20 Jordanian dinar ($28) on arrival. Queen Alia International Airport is about 48 kilometres south of central Amman. A taxi into town costs about 20 to 25 dinar. Ahmed Mansour offers a reliable pick-up service and speaks good English: book ahead (phone +962 79 565 4720).

Staying there

Hotel Bonita, between the 2nd and 3rd Circles, is an unpretentious inn with six simple rooms and free wi-fi. Rooms cost from 60 dinar a night. Phone 461 5061; see bonitaamman.com.

Heritage House is a stylish, modern hotel with a garden and wi-fi, and is within walking distance of the historic area. Rooms cost from 93 dinar a night. Phone 464 3111; see heritageamman.com.

The Grand Hyatt is well placed within walking distance of Jabal Amman and has rooms costing from 152 dinar a night. Phone 465 1234; see amman.grand.hyatt.com.

Exploring there

Jabal al-Weibdeh is one of Amman's most pleasant old districts, with restaurants, galleries and parks. It's a place to retreat to from the noise and chaos of a modern city.

Al-Aydi, just off the 2nd Circle behind the InterContinental Hotel, is one of the best places to buy genuine Bedouin crafts, including carpets, ceramics and handmade, local jewellery.

Beit Sitti, in one of Amman's oldest quarters, hosts cooking classes. Phone 563 3868; see beitsittijo.com.

Darat al-Funun, the former home of "Peak Pasha", who commanded the Arab Legion in the 1920s-1930s, is now a gallery housing works by leading Arab artists. Phone 464 3251/2; see daratalfunun.org

The Royal Automobile Museum houses the private collection of the late King Hussein. Phone 541 1392; see royalautomuseum.jo.

If you're in Amman for several days, the Dead Sea and old Roman city of Jerash are an hour away by car. Petra, Jordan's greatest tourist magnet, is three hours' drive from the capital.

Eating there

Levant, in the 3rd Circle (behind the Royal Hotel), serves good Arabic food and has a garden. Try mansaf — a lamb, almond and saffron-rice dish traditionally served at weddings and other feasts. Phone 462 8948; see levantjo.com.

The conservation group Wild Jordan is housed in a stunning modern building overlooking Jabal Amman. Wild Jordan Cafe is open to the public and offers organic food and the chance to buy artefacts made by Jordanian craftspeople. Phone 463 3542; see wildjordancafe-jo.com.

Fakhr el-Din serves Lebanese/Levantine cuisine in an elegant stone villa in Jabal Amman, with a terrace for warm evenings. The food is excellent, service courteous and the cellar has good Jordanian wines. Book well in advance. Phone 465 2399; see fakhreldin.com.

Insider's tips

In Jordan, it is polite to refuse the offer of a meal three times before accepting.

Don't try to walk around too much. Apart from old areas such as Downtown, Jabal Amman and Jabal al-Weibdeh, the city is made for cars, not people.

Eschew the ubiquitous bottles of coloured sand. The authentic ones (such as those made of sand from Petra rocks) are not environmentally sound; the non-authentic ones, made of dyed beach sands, fade.

Sweifieh, the so-called shopping district, is chaotic, choked with traffic and unpleasant. Don't go.

Cabs are yellow, plentiful and cheap. Do not pay more than one to two dinar for any journey within the city.

More information

See visitjordan.com.

- Telegraph, London

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