Jordan has long been one of the Middle East’s more established tourist destinations, not in small part due to the stunning ruins of ancient Petra. But the country has impressive archeological sites from all periods: besides Nabatean Petra, there are the Roman ruins of Jerash, Byzantine mosaics, crusader castles and early-Islamic desert retreats to explore. And although mostly desert, Jordan’s landscapes are just as varied: from the imposing rock formations of Wadi Rum, to the austere beauty of Wadi Dana and the surreal salinity of the Dead Sea. All in this 1 week road trip itinerary!
Jordan road trip itinerary highlights:
- Roman ruins of Jerash
- Floating in the Dead Sea
- Hiking Wadi Dana at Feynan Ecolodge
- Camping in Wadi Rum
- Exploring the ancient city of Petra
- Castles and mosaics along the King’s Highway
- Desert (wild)life at Azraq
The best way to visit Jordan is on a road trip. Driving here is easy and places are mostly well indicated. Jordan is a very safe destination. It is possible to visit all year round, but the best time to go is in spring or fall, when it’s neither too hot nor too chilly. These are the busiest months though, so try to avoid school holidays and Islamic holidays.
Before going, make sure to buy your Jordan Pass online to save both time and money. This pass does not only give you access to plenty of sights and museums (including Jerash, Wadi Rum and Petra, prices vary according to how many days you want to spend in the ancient city), it also exempts you from paying your entry visa fee if you show it upon arrival.
Our flight landed late in the evening, so besides picking up our rental car and driving to Amman, we didn’t get to do anything except eat a tasty shawarma at Reem, a hole-in-the-wall and Ammani institution. We stayed at The House Boutique Suites, a comfortable, business-like hotel. Unfortunately, there is no decent hotel close to the airport. This Jordan road trip itinerary starts on the following, first full day.
Day 1: Jerash & the Dead Sea
Get up early and head to the Roman ruins of Jerash, about an hour north of Amman. This beautiful archeological site is vast and very well-preserved. Besides the impressive colonnaded Oval Plaza there are temples and theatres aplenty to explore and it is easy to spend a whole morning wandering around.
Have a well-deserved lunch break at nearby Lebanese House. The restaurant is huge and does get its fair share of tour groups, but it’s also popular with Jordanians for its good quality fresh food. After lunch, we drove on to the Dead Sea, but there are several other places to see in the north of Jordan if you want to stay longer. One of these is Ajloun Castle and the nearby Ajloun Forest Reserve, where you can spend a night at the Ajloun Cabins run by Wild Jordan. Still further north are the ruins of Umm Qais.
We did make a quick stop at As-Salt to break up the drive. The Historic Old Salt Museum (and its supposedly nice café) in the Abu Jaber House was unexpectedly closed, so we just walked around the rather uninspiring Souk Hammam and had a juice, but there is not much else to see here. Another possible stop in the area is Qasr al-Abd, a pre-Roman country villa.
Aim to arrive at the Dead Sea before sunset, a great time to take a dip. Sitting at 400m below sea level, it is the lowest point on Earth and usually very hot. Trying to swim in the Dead Sea is an experience: the water is so salty you’ll float. It’s absolutely necessary to rinse with fresh water afterwards, so you need to swim somewhere with shower facilities.
Unfortunately, there are only big impersonal hotels around. We stayed at the Movenpick, a sprawling luxury hotel. Rooms are very comfortable, but rather soulless. There are several restaurants on site, none very interesting but decent enough. The Movenpick’s private beach was very crowded and rather squalid, however. The only more “boutique” accommodation in the area is Mujib Biosphere Reserve Chalets, also part of Wild Jordan. Their fifteen simple but tasteful chalets right on the edge of the Dead Sea fill up quickly so reserve well ahead. If you don’t want to spend the night at the Dead Sea at all, most hotels give access to their beach and pool facilities for a fee.
Day 2: Dead Sea to Feynan
We had planned to have early lunch at Dead Sea Panorama before driving on to Feynan Ecolodge along the Dead Sea highway. Unfortunately, the highway was closed due to flooding a few days before. The alternative route, through Madaba and Karak, took us at least twice as long… But at least it permitted us to see some of the Mount Nebo sights.
The road from the Dead Sea up to Mount Nebo is deserted and very scenic. The Moses Memorial Church is well worth a stop. You risk having to jostle for space with big groups of religious tourists, but the church’s famous 6th century mosaics are interesting and the modern structure protecting the old church foundations is very tastefully done. You can have lunch nearby at Hekayet Nebo. The place is nothing special (although the terrace with sweeping views must be pleasant on less windy days) but the food is delicious. Even when the Dead Sea highway is open it might be worth taking a detour here on the way to Feynan.
Finally, we arrived at Feynan Ecolodge just before sunset, but ideally you should plan to arrive in time for the lodge’s included afternoon activities. With a good car you can drive there yourself (not necessarily 4×4, but definitely high and with good tires, the road is very rocky, as we found out the hard way). The lodge is not easy to find but Google Maps has got the road right. You can also arrange to be picked up at the Feynan visitor center.
Feynan is not very attractive at first sight, but once you’re inside you’ll start seeing the appeal (and intelligence) of the architecture. Built especially for the harsh surroundings it makes optimal use of light, shade and breezes. It’s a real eco lodge, all electricity is generated by solar panels and water comes from local springs. Most of the building is lit by candles, which I don’t think is necessarily more eco-friendly than LEDs but does create a nice romantic mood. However, if you want to do anything after dinner, like read a book, bring a torch. Included buffet style meals are purely vegetarian and made of local produce. The only downside is that the bed and pillows are too hard, but otherwise this is one of very few hotels with charm in Jordan.
Day 3-4: Dana Biosphere Reserve & Wadi Rum
The real reason to stay at Feynan Ecolodge are the beautiful surroundings. Feynan has various complimentary organized activities, depending on the day. Groups can get big though, so if you’d rather enjoy the surrounding Dana Biosphere Reserve on your own, you can do a wonderful self-guided hike through Wadi Dana.
After lunch at the lodge, it was time for us to leave. If you want to visit the Red Sea it’s only a short drive down to Aqaba, but I recommend skipping this rather boring, touristy destination unless you are a diver (diving in the Red Sea is not as spectacular as it once was, but nice nonetheless). The beaches here are unmemorable, and there is no decent accommodation except for uninspiring mega-hotels. Instead, I suggest you head straight to Wadi Rum.
The monumental valley of Rum with its spectacular sandstone and granite rock formations is a highlight of any Jordan itinerary, so expect to share it with plenty of others. The Wadi Rum visitor center at the entrance to the park already has some impressive views. Officially you pay an entrance fee per person and per vehicle, but for some reason the latter doesn’t seem asked any more. Most people spend at least a night camping in the desert and arrange to be picked up by a guide from their accomodation, but we decided to drive ourselves. With a good 4×4 this is not too difficult (just let some air out of your tires), but it’s still a good idea to have a guide to point out where to go… you won’t get hopelessly lost, but you will not necessarily find what you are looking for either: there are no roads in Rum. Plus, that way you’ll have help if you do get stuck in the sand.
There are now too many camps to count, but unfortunately they are all very basic and none of them really stands out. We decided to stay at Starlight Camp. Their luxury tents have private bathrooms (although everyone can hear everything) and nice views, but otherwise expect no luxuries. Simple but tasty Bedouin style food (cooked underground!) is served in a common area. If you prefer some more comfort I recommend you stay at Bait Ali, just outside Wadi Rum near the visitor center. They even have a pool! It’s a good fall-out base and they can organize tours of the desert outside Rum, where some places are just as nice and much less visited.
It is worth staying in Rum for two nights, to have a full day to explore, and to have two sunsets and sunrises! To really appreciate the magnificence of the place, consider booking a hot-air balloon or glider plane ride with the Royal Aero Sports Club of Jordan. Sadly, we missed that experience as everything was cancelled when we were there because they were filming Disney’s Alladin…
We did however get to do a fun Wadi Rum tour (following a guide in our own, much more comfortable, car: my boyfriend enjoys off-road driving). Tours cover more or less the same spots, some of which can suddenly get busy, but if you’re willing to wait for groups to leave you can still get some places to yourself. Don’t miss Umm Fruth Rock Bridge and a walk through Barrah Canyon.
Day 5-6: The ancient city of Petra
After a final Rum sunrise, we started on the 2-hour drive to the Unesco world heritage site of Petra. It is one of the world’s most famous archeological sites, and rightly so: this ancient Nabataean city hasn’t lost any of its power to impress. The ruins are accessed from the adjacent town of Wadi Musa. All tourist accommodation and infrastructure is here, but the modern town is of no other interest.
Originally, we had planned to stay at the Petra Bubble Luxotel, located out of town near Little Petra (an ancient suburb of Petra which is worth visiting, but only if you’re staying in the area longer). Already a popular concept in Wadi Rum, the hotel is made up of rows of plastic, see-through bubble rooms. In theory, these offer amazing views and the possibility to sleep under the stars, but the plastic is not as see-through as one would like, and cooling and/or heating is decidedly not eco-friendly. This particular bubble hotel also didn’t pick its location right. Yes, the view is impressive, but it’s very exposed and thus often windy. When we were there, the wind had completely ripped open the reception area (a supersized bubble), and being in our room felt like being on a plane during turbulence. It was impossible to sleep, so we took a last-minute room at the Movenpick instead. This Wadi Musa classic could use some refurbishment, but it is conveniently located right next to the entrance to Petra. Another plus is the great breakfast buffet. The hotel’s Al Iwan restaurant also seems worth a try, but they have few tables so reserve ahead. Another more casual dining option nearby is My Mom’s Recipe Restaurant.
Petra is huge, and while one day might be enough to get an idea, if you like hiking and want to see it properly I recommend spending at least two days at the site. Petra has changed a lot in the past years, there are now cafés and Wi-Fi hotspots everywhere. It’s become quite touristy, but the ruins remain absolutely stunning. You only need to wander off the main path a little and you can still have some of the less well-known ruins (almost) to yourself.
On the first day, take your time for the Siq, the dramatic entryway to Petra culminating at the Treasury, followed by a hike all the way to the Monastery. It’s quite a distance so save some sights near the main road for the following day. We hesitated a lot if we wanted to do Petra by night (every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday at 8.30pm). This candle-lit walk takes you through the Siq to the Treasury, but no further. It is of course very atmospheric, but by now apparently very crowded and so it has lost its magic. We decided to avoid the Petra-by-night-days altogether because a lot of tour groups come exactly those days.
On your second day, hike to the High Place of Sacrifice. It’s a gorgeous walk past various small but picturesque ruins, with incredible views all along the way. Most people start this trail at the Theatre, but I recommend you do it the exactly other way around and start from behind the Qasr Al-Bint. First, take some time to explore Petra’s old city center with its various temples and other buildings. Don’t miss the Byzantine Petra Church with its detailed floor mosaics. The nearby Ridge Church is well worth another little climb up. From here you can see the brand new paved road leading out of Petra to the small town of Umm Sayhoun. It was not yet in use when we were there, but they are planning a shuttle bus service for visitors leaving Petra. The site will lose a bit of its mystery, but it will take some pressure off the overcrowded Siq, and make visiting the city less tiring, especially on consecutive days.
The well-positioned café next to the Church is great for a tea or juice. They serve some snacks and basic food, but the only place to really eat in Petra is the Basin Restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised with both the price and quality of the food (buffet only).
Hiking to the High Place of Sacrifice will take you most of the afternoon. If you start from Qasr Al-Bint after lunch you will probably not encounter too many people along the trail, and you’ll have the late afternoon sun illuminating the magnificent royal tombs on the East Cliff on your way back down.
Day 7: The King’s Highway
Stock up on delicious pastries at Sanabel bakery before leaving Wadi Musa in direction of Madaba along the King’s Highway (the old road from Petra to Amman). On the way, you can make stops at Shobak Castle, a mix between Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman architecture, and/or the better preserved (but still pretty dusty and abandoned) Karak Castle, a huge Crusader fortress with sweeping views over the surrounding valley.
There is not a single decent restaurant here though, so drive on to Madaba for lunch. Atmospheric Haret Jdoudna was our favorite restaurant of the whole trip. Spread over two adjoining old houses and a lovely courtyard, they serve delicious and varied Arabic food.
Spend the afternoon exploring Madaba’s Byzantine and Umayyad mosaics (be aware that in winter many places close at 4pm). The most famous is the mosaic map of the Holy Land at St George’s Church. But there are many more mosaics to see at the Archeological Park and at several other churches, most notably the Church of the Apostles. Madaba is very close to the airport so it’s a good last stop on your trip, or…
Extra day 7: Azraq and the Eastern Desert
If you can stay a little longer, instead of stopping in Madaba, drive on to Azraq. This oasis town in the desert East of Amman is not a must-visit, but if you’re interested in nature and desert life it makes for an enjoyable change from the rest of Jordan. The road there (or the way back the next day) is a good occasion to visit the early-Islamic “desert castles” of Qasr Kharana and Qusayr Amra, both along highway 40. The first is an oddly elegant square box in the middle of empty desert, the other a small bathhouse with wonderful early 8th century frescoes. They only take about half an hour to visit.
Azraq has historically been a crossroads for both people and animals. Lawrence of Arabia chose Qasr Azraq as his headquarters. The Azraq wetlands the castle used to overlook are not so spectacular now, but just imagine that once upon a time hippopotamus, ostriches and lions roamed the area. Water buffalo and thousands of migrating birds were still to be found here until a few decades ago, but depletion of the water means the oasis has now almost disappeared. Nevertheless, efforts are being made to restore or at least halt the decline, and a visit to the Azraq Wetland Reserve supports this initiative. A well-organized walkway leads through the lagoon, with bird hides to observe the remaining wildlife.
Spend the night at Azraq Lodge, a rather unusual hotel in a 1940s British military hospital (once again, run by Wild Jordan). It has retained a spartan character but is comfortable and strangely charming. The restaurant is run by a Chechen family and its buffet dinners are a pleasant change from the usual Lebanese fare. Reserve ahead.
Day 8: Shaumari Wildlife Reserve
Although hippos are a thing of the past, some wildlife remains or has been reintroduced to the area. Shaumari Wildlife Reserve is a breeding center for endangered Arabian oryx, onagers (an Asian wild ass) and other wildlife, which is open to visitors on reservation. The reserve is small but very well-run. You will be driven around in an open safari vehicle and receive plenty of information about the animals’ desert habitat.
As most flights leaving Jordan depart (late) in the evening, you’ll probably still have the rest of the day to fill. This is a good time to fit in those Madaba mosaics, and a last meal at Haret Jdoudna mentioned before. I hope you enjoyed reading my Jordan road trip itinerary, now it’s time to be off!