What to see in Petra

There's no denying that "Jordan" is most synonymous with the word "Petra"! 

But what does one need to keep in mind while planning a visit to the Rose City of the Middle East? Here's a Backpacksters' guide to exploring the ruins of Petra.


The panoramic view of the ancient city of Petra, as viewed from the Royal Tombs


In the early 4th century BC, a nomadic tribe known as the Nabateans began to gather immense popularity on account of their business and trade. They relied extensively on the trans-Arabian trade routes to earn their livelihood. Many trade routes that originated from Africa (Egypt), Asia (the Mesopotamian and Indus Valley civilisations) and the Mediterranean regions passed right through the deserts of Southern Jordan. Eventually, the Nabateans decided to establish their Kingdom's capital within the sandstone mountains of the Arabah Valley - and that was how the great city of Raqmu was established. In the early 2nd century AD, the Romans took over this city, annexed the Nabatean kingdom into its empire and renamed it as Arabia Petraea (Petra).


The King's Highway that leads to Petra (Wadi Musa) is just surreal


Petra is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the significance it held as a representation of one of man's most impressive skills of carvings and intelligence. With over 600,000 visitors in the past year it has been the most popular attraction in all of Jordan!


The main entrance to the City begins at the visitor centre. A road leads downhill towards the sandstone canyons which marks the actual entry into Petra. The path is about 1.6 kms long and three options are available to visitors: walk (free), on horseback (one ride complimentary with entry ticket, but you have to to tip the caretaker) and a horse-drawn carriage (pricey but most comfortable). Of course, we walked and it was not so bad!


The mandatory photo-stop after passing through the entrance


Along this path, the Obelisk Tomb. It has four pillars and one disfigured human statue at the centre and is said to be the tomb of five Nabateans. Most monuments in Petra are really big. If you look closely, you can see see it rather clearly. And at different times of the day, the buildings wear a different shade from the sandstone palette: amber, red, magenta, pink and more. 


The Obelisk Tomb is on the other side of a moat-like water way built during the Nabatean times to handle flash floods.


The most interesting walk for any first time visitor to Petra, has to be through the Al-Siq ("the Shaft"). It is a 1.2 km long path through the canyon, with the walls on either side ranging up to 600 ft in height! The Al-Siq was not cut by water; the canyon was formed due to a natural fault, that was later smoothened by water that flowed through it.


The sunlight and the canyons can create the most mesmerising hues together


The walk that nearly lasts 30 minutes is very rewarding. You know that feeling that kicks in when you know you will see something really incredible? Yup, thats what we felt, just before we got a glimpse of this: It really is one of the most impressive views in all of Petra! 


The Treasury, viewed from the Al-Siq


The viewing of the Al-Khazneh ("the Treasury") through this shaft is extremely popular - there's mostly, always a huge camera-wielding crowd at the spot. Of course, the view is highly Instagramable - so click away!


The most impressive architecture that almost every visitor gawks at is the Al-Khazneh. It is the most elaborate temple in all of Petra, and legend has it that it housed a huge amount of gold within the urns at the top of the structure. The monument is so popular, that it has even appeared in several movies like Indian Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). It spans about 12 stories in height and is the epitome of the architecture featured in the entire city - it has been carved right out of the sandstone canyon walls - not built!


The Al-Khazneh in its sunset glory


There's also a little rock trail you can climb (with a local guide for JD 10) to get a spot all the way up on the canyon top from where you can get another beautiful perspective of the structure. Its takes about 20 minutes to get to the top and the path can be quite slippery. At the top, there are a few small shops selling refreshing bedouin tea for JD 1 (buy it if you want to take a picture comfortably) and you can spend a half hour just admiring the views from there, whilst sipping on the drink.


The Treasury viewing point: its a must go-to!


From here on, the path to the right leads in to the massive open area of the city. Again, the options to ride a camel, a donkey and a horse are all available at the cost of a few JDs. But, we had made up our minds to walk as much as we could before giving up and riding the donkey!

There are a number of buildings carved out of the huge sandstone walls of the mountain. Most archaeologists believe that these were tombs as they did not seem suitable for living in. There is one trail that leads to the High Place of Sacrifice from in between the Tombs.


The Rose City - just look at those colors of the Sandstone!


The City has some very exquisite buildings. The Nabatean Amphitheater for instance, was evidently built with the Greco-Roman influence of the time. Its quite massive, considering it also, was carved right out of the rock. 


The Roman influence in structures like the Theater


One of the most interesting aspects of the City was the fine water conduit system that was set in place. Considering that the region was quite arid even then, the Nabateans had learnt to harvest water and store it all year round for their daily needs. At the entrance of the Al-Siq, a large tunnel can be seen, just around the corner. The tunnel had only one purpose - divert all the flash floods (common in the desert region) away from the rock-cut pathway, which was the City's main entry-exit point. The tunnel ultimately connected with the reservoir much deeper inside the City, from where conduits supplied the water to the Nymphaneum and other public buildings. How ingenious!


The colonnaded streets, complete with remains of the cobble stones rend a wonderful reminder of how simple and well designed the city was. The Temple of Dushares and The Great Temple are some of the larger ruins there.


At this spot, the Basin restaurant is visible - the path to the other most spectacular monument in Petra begins from behind the restaurant. A 1.6 km walk through the beautiful canyon leads to the resplendent Ad-Deir ("the Monastery"). The walk itself can be quite challenging since there are about 850 steps, given the weather conditions, but the services of a donkey can be easily availed.


The trail to the Ad-Deir leads through the Canyon, one of the best treks we have had till date


A one way climb is about JD 10 (but you can definitely bargain your way to a very attractive deal) and the donkey takes about 30 minutes to get there. Yes, we decided to walk this path too and about 1 hour later (with a couple of rest-stops on the way up), we reached the point from where we could notice the Urn, at the top of the Monastery.


The Monastery itself is massive! About 150 ft high and 160 ft wide, it made us feel like dwarfs! The Monastery was claimed to be a temple considering there were some cross engravings found inside and hints of a broken alter on the upper level. Since it was built like a cave, carved right out of one side of a mountain, it was also referred to as the Hermit's Cell.


The sheer size of the Monastery can be comprehended only in person, the photo does absolutely no justice!


Across from the Monastery, there is a small restaurant to grab a well-deserved sandwich, some tea and other snacks! After all, its a long walk from the Visitor Centre. The walk back down to the Basin restaurant is much easier than the climb, but we suggest you watch out for the donkeys that are climbing up steadily - just don't get in their way!



Now that you have a fair idea of what to see inside Petra, here's the low down on things to keep in mind while exploring the ruins:


1. Tickets:

Tickets to Petra can be bought right outside, at the Visitor Centre. There are 3 types of tickets, costing JD 50 for a 1 day pass, JD 55 for a 2 day pass and JD 60 for a 3 day pass. Those visitors who are not spending a night in Petra (Wadi Musa) need to pay JD 90 for a one day pass. 

For your convenience, here are the conversion rates:

  • JD 1 = USD 1.41 - the Jordanian Dinar is pegged to the US Dollar, which means there is hardly any fluctuation impact that you will notice, and most exchanges are done at this rate with an additional service charge sometimes.
  • JD 1 = INR 90 - things could seem a little expensive at times, but it is justifiable in most places, so don't worry! 

Coming back to the tickets, we recommend getting the Jordan Pass, since its the most economical way for a budget traveller, especially considering that cost of the pass is under JD 80 and this includes a waiver of JD 40 VISA fees at Immigration (if you have opted for visa-on-arrival). So its definitely much cheaper!

Read more about the Jordan Pass experience here.


2. Where to stay:

The ancient city of Petra is an archaeological site - there are no hotels inside it. The town of Wadi Musa, in which Petra is located has a huge number of options! Ranging from JD 5 hostels to The Mariott, there's something for everyone's budget and taste. We suggest that you consider finding an economical hotel room over a hostel - we heard from a few travellers that the hostels didn't have any hot water (in winter) at all! Exploring Petra can be hard work, so reward yourself a little bit after the exertion.

We stayed at the La Maison Hotel, which was just a few hundred feet from the Visitor Centre. So it was very easy to get inside Petra.


3. Getting around: 

Petra can be covered in the manner that is most convenient to anyone, but those who prefer to walk all around inside the City, you can expect a LOT of walking! To put things into perspective, we walked nearly 38 kms in the two days there, roaming around and inside every other structure. But like us, if you are into learning about the history and find the architecture admirable, you will be very satisfied even with sore legs!

The other alternatives - take the comfortable horse drawn carriage to the Al-Khazneh, which is quite expensive at JD 20 per person or ride a horse (cheaper, but you will have to tip the caretaker). 


A horse-drawn carriage passing through the Al-Siq


4. Food and Drink:

Walking in Petra can get very tiring, so we recommend carrying some water bottles with you to avoid dehydration (especially in Summer, when it can get torturously hot). There are many shops inside Petra selling water bottles (JD 1 for small bottle), soft drinks (JD 2 for Coca Cola) and yummy bedouin tea (JD 1). Even while walking up The Main Trail to the Ad-Deir (Monastery), there are a few shacks on the way. Sandwiches, Bread-and-hummus rolls (JD 3) and other snack items are easily available. There is also one restaurant managed by Crowne Plaza, called the Basin Restaurant in the heart of Petra. So food (including vegetarian) is definitely nothing to worry about!


5. Guide:

The Visitor Centre has a fare-chart for hiring the services of a Guide, but it can be very expensive (over JD 50 for a 3 hour tour, and JD 100 to go up to the Monastery). The maps, freely available at the Visitor Centre are very clear and if you follow the path and the sign boards along the way, you don't need a guide - its that easy. But of course, the guide can tell you a lot of stories, and show you specific spots of importance. Alternatively, get a guide book and just explore on your own like we did!


6. Shopping:

There are a number of souvenir shops at the visitor centre. But the best deals are the ones you get inside Petra, when you buy from the local bedouin people in the shacks. Most small souvenirs are JD 1 and interesting things like a mosaic-design metal handbag are as cheap as JD 10 (you can bargain further) which is very cheap compared to buying at the shops outside.


6. Petra By Night:

Read about the most spectacular way of experiencing Petra right here.


If you have been planning to visit Petra, we would recommend going in the tourist season which is from late September through November, when the weather is most pleasant. But this also means that there's going to be a big crowd everywhere you go!

What did we do? We visited in December, when the winter had begun and there were far fewer tourists. In fact on our first day, by the time we were climbing down from the high viewpoint across from the Al-Khazneh, the place was deserted, and we enjoyed the views of the Treasury in absolute solitude (while we shivered in the low temperatures). That was something else, really, but very deeply satisfying!


We have tried to include most of what we thought is helpful, but if the curious traveller in you wants to ask us a question, don't hesitate to write to us. We will help you plan your adventure run in the Lost City!


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