Whereas we sometimes feel like we know the Romans and Greeks when we visit the ruined cities they left behind, the Nabataeans, the mysterious ancient civilization behind Petra, are people we need to meet. Over 2600 years ago, they managed to carve a rather sophisticated water transport system out of slot canyons and valleys. Their sophisticated existence made their city a key caravan route stopover.
When most people hear the name Petra, images of its famed Treasury dance in their heads. More than that, Petra and the surrounding Wadi Musa (Moses Valley) is an experience. If the archaeological remains aren't themselves enough, you get to enjoy them in the context of red sandstone canyons whose colors change as the day advances.
No wonder Petra and Wadi Musa appear on so many Bucket Lists and “Do Before You Die” lists. Check. Open up the audio slideshow below to see why. (The music track is a clip from the live Bedouin rebab performance at Petra By Night.)
Practical Details for Visiting Petra
Transport to Petra
Public buses leaving from Amman’s southern bus station take around 3 hours and cost around $4. (Note: we didn’t take this bus; this information was provided to us).
Where to Stay in Petra
There is accommodation of all kinds in and around Petra, from dorm rooms in hostels to fancy 5-star hotels. We stayed at the Mövenpick Resort Petra. Certainly not the cheapest accommodation option in town, but if you do have the budget it is quite nice and convenient.
Tickets to Petra
For foreign tourists, the entrance fee is 50 JD ($70) for one day, 57 JD ($80) for two and 60 JD ($84) for three days.
As entrance fees are rather high and there is a lot of ground to cover at Petra, our recommendation would be to get a two or three day pass, take your time to enjoy the main sights, and take some hikes or short walks in the valley.
Finding a Guide for Petra
Given the breadth of history at Petra, we enjoyed having a local guide take us around for over three hours. There is an office for local guides at the entrance gate to Petra; each guide is a local and has received at least one year of training to achieve certification. Again, the price is not insignificant (50 JD/$70) so we recommend grouping with several people to share costs.
You can also wander around on your own. And if you choose to ride a donkey or camel, your driver may serve as an impromptu guide.
Petra by Night
If there's any icon associated with Jordan and its history, it must be the stunning facade of the Treasury at Petra. We were fortunate enough to be introduced to the crown jewel of this ancient Nebataean city at night. If you think the Treasury looks incredible in the light of day, check out what it feels like when lit only by the warm light of hundreds of luminaries (paper bag candles) laid at its base.
So, if you are planning a visit to Petra, we recommend beginning it with Petra by Night (Monday, Wednesday, Thursday nights at 8:30 PM, but double check times in advance). To walk the siqs, the narrow canyons that form the road to the Treasury, by candlelight is a work-of-art experience. Once you arrive at the base of the Treasury, you'll be treated to a visual that's nothing short of incredible.
After arriving, you'll sit on the ground, enjoy a cup of hot tea and hear two rounds of traditional Bedouin music — one played by a man with a rebab (a traditional stringed instrument) and one by a man with a flute who follows up his performance with a short story. We have to admit that when we first heard Petra by Night would include “traditional music” we cringed. Traditional music shows can often be cheesy and over-the-top. For Petra by Night, not at all. The performance was simple and very tastefully done.
You can buy tickets for Petra by Night (17 JD) at the Petra entrance gate or at travel agents in town. Our advice is to arrive at the gates a bit early so you can get ahead of the crowd and secure a front row seat at the Treasury.
When you see Petra — its canyons, its history, its icons — in all its various lights of day after seeing it at night, you will be fulfilling a piqued curiosity.
Hikes around Petra
These are why we suggest spending two or three days at Petra. This way, you can enjoy some sightseeing and some hiking without wiping yourself out in one day.
We thank Ma’moun Farajat, our local guide in Petra, for pointing out these treks and providing us with this information.
1. The High Place of Sacrifice (3 hours, medium difficulty)
The start of this path is just past the Street of Facades. A great view of the city from above and interesting tombs and carvings on the way down at Wadi Farash.
2. Almadras (3.5 to 4.5 hours, difficult)
This path begins about 150 meters away from the Obelisk Tomb. The highlight of this path is the ability to see the Treasury from the top of the mountain. The path continues to the High Place of Sacrifice and Wadi Farash.
3. The Monastery (2 options)
A. The regular path (1.5 hours, medium difficulty) starts from the restaurants and will take you 800 steps up to the Monastery monument with a chance to see “The End of the World” overlook to Wadi Araba and the Israel heights. (We did this, highly recommended.)
B. Start from Little Petra and climb up to the Monastery and back down again to the restaurant area. This is more difficult, requires a guide and takes around 8 hours. But, having seen both Little Petra and the Monastery and some of the areas in between, it looks like it would be a great hike.