Amman doesn’t always receive the appreciation it deserves. Beirut, or even Damascus before the war, have always been viewed as offering far more to travellers than Jordan’s capital city.
Not only in terms of history and architecture, but in terms of cuisine and nightlife too.
Amman has traditionally been viewed as a means to an end — a gateway to the wider wonders of Jordan rather than as a destination in itself. After all, when you’ve got Petra — one of the seven wonders of the modern world — and the cinematic landscape of Wadi Rum, with its majestic rock formations and Stone Age petroglyphs, who’s arguing? Throw in the Dead Sea, the Roman ruins of Jerash, and the castles of Ajloun and Kerak, and it’s easy to see why most visitors treat the capital as a staging post rather than as a city to be enjoyed in its own right.
Yet such views do everyone a disservice. Take, for example, the city’s historic attractions. There’s the ancient Citadel, with its Temple of Hercules and Umayyad Palace, and the 6,000-seat Roman Theater located just off Hashemite Plaza. The latter is the most spectacular remnant of Roman Philadelphia and is cut into the northern side of one of Amman’s seven hills.
It is possible to argue, however, that it is not the city’s ancient ruins that are its main attraction, rather its more modern neighborhoods, some of which have been transformed over the course of the past few years. A case in point is Jabal al Weibdeh. Once a purely residential area, it is now home to many of the city’s best cafés and restaurants, including the ever popular Rumi Cafe and Fann wa Chai, an art gallery and tea bar. On its fringes is also the National Gallery of Fine Arts, which itself is home to the delightful Jungle Fever Coffee and Tea House.
A walk along one of the neighborhood’s two main arteries, Al-Shariaah College Street, is a pleasant, even sedate, experience. It is busy yet quiet, trendy yet relaxed. It is also home to Chapters, a family-run restaurant serving homemade cuisine in a pocket-sized venue. Able to accommodate no more than 16 people at a push, its menu includes tomato galayeh, aubergine fateh, and rummaneyye — a wonderful dish of lentils, aubergine and pomegranate molasses.
A short walk from Jabal al Weibdeh’s Paris Circle is Darat Al Funun, an art center located in a renovated building overlooking downtown Amman. It even has a restored archaeological site in its garden, and from the stairs running alongside you can easily reach the historical sites of downtown.
Downtown is also where you’ll find Hashem, a legendary eatery with a very basic menu — falafel, hummus, foul, fatteh and moutabel, essentially. But there’s falafel and then there’s Hashem falafel. It’s hugely popular, so be prepared to wait for a table. If you love your food, also make sure you visit Reem, a hole-in-the-wall shawarma joint located next to the city’s second circle. No tables, no chairs, just the best beef shawarma in town.
Across the valley on Jabal Amman is another concentration of attractions. Running from the city’s first circle (there are eight in total) is Rainbow Street, arguably Amman’s most tourist-friendly artery. It is longer and far busier than Al-Shariaah College Street and has enough shops, cafés and restaurants to keep you busy for hours. At the top, and just to the right, you’ll also find the Royal Film Commission and, further along, Books@Cafe. The latter’s rooftop offers wonderful views of Amman, especially at sunset.
If you decide to stay for a few days, the best place in which to base yourself is the Four Seasons. Perched on top of one of the tallest of Amman’s hills, this 15-story white-limestone landmark includes an outdoor pool area with views over the city and large, bright and modern rooms.
As with other outposts of the Four Seasons, it’s the small details that make a difference. The generosity and friendliness of the staff, the small wooden tray of locally-grown strawberries and freshly-made jam delivered to your room, the down duvets, and the thick terrycloth bathrobes. For lovers of food, there’s the French brasserie La Capitale and the Levantine cuisine of Olea, but it’s the pool that wins the day. On a perfect summer’s day it provides the kind of resort-style relaxation that is rare to find in any city center.