Noisy, crowded, and cosmopolitan, Amman thrives on its mix of modern business and traditional culture. The sidewalks in Amman are as packed with people as its streets are with cars, and the entire frenetic scene grooves to the beat of the popular Arabic music pouring out from downtown storefronts. When the sun goes down and the lights come up, the jasmine-scented streets provide the perfect setting for lazy summertime strolls through the city’s seven hills. Hospitality is also a way of life in Amman; the greetings you hear are quite sincere, and chances are a “welcome” will lead to a cup of tea and a conversation. Seasoned globetrotters agree – travelers are welcome in Amman as in few places on earth.
Take advantage of Amman’s summits to get a perspective on this roller-coaster city. Rocky Jabal Al-Qala’a (“Fortress Hill”), also known as the Citadel, where the Archaeological Museum sits amid Roman and Umayyad ruins, provides a panoramic view of tall buildings, mosques, and ruins, all of which serve as useful landmarks. Although most people know King Faisal St. and Hashimi St., other inquiries are likely to produce blank stares. Successful navigation of Amman means knowing its landmarks. Try to find out which numbered circle your destination is near and you’ll have an easier time finding your way.
Amman’s downtown district, al-Balad, is neatly framed by the city’s seven hills and is the best location from which to orient yourself. Al-Balad has three major landmarks: al-Husseini Mosque (Masjid Malik Hussein), the Roman Theater, and the Central Post Office. Amman’s eight numbered traffic circles follow a line leading westward out of town and through Jabal Amman on Zahran St. Beyond 3rd Circle (Amman’s diplomatic center and home of most embassies), traffic circles have been replaced by busy intersections. Although the city is earnestly attempting to rename these intersections “squares,” each is still fondly called a “circle,” or duwwar.
Following King Hussein St. northwest from the city center leads to Jabal al-Weibdeh, a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood perched on a hill. The JETT and Abdali Bus Stations are in this neighborhood. The blue dome and octagonal minaret of the Jabal’s enormous King Abdullah Mosque (Masjid Malik Abdullah) are visible from all surrounding heights. To the north of the city lies Jabal Hussein, a largely residential district. This area is bordered to the northwest by the Ministry of Interior Circle (Duwwar al-Dakhiliyyeh) and the modern suburb of Abdoun and Sweifiyyeh, Amman’s other hotbeds of Western-style decadence, lie west of al-Balad. To the southeast of the city, in the direction of the airport, rises Jabal al-Ashrafiyyeh. Its ornate Abu Darwish Mosque can be seen above the Wahdat Bus Station and the Wahdat Palestinian Refugee Camp.
Amman’s central location makes it the country’s base for exploring Jordan’s other sights – but not to worry. Between the historic museums, stunning ruins, and grand mosques in close proxity, you’ll have to plenty to see in Jordan’s capital city. Add in its spectacular restaurants and cafes and a few al-Vegas to your schedule, and you’ll be in no rush to leave Amman anytime soon.
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The better sit-down restaurants in Amman cluster near 3rd Circle, in Shmeisani, and in the area around Abdoun Circle. These places usually add a 10% service charge to the bill. Street vendor prices are drastically cheaper, and take-out food is usually excellent. The most common offerings, and sometimes the only ones, are shawarma (usually lamb and sometimes chicken) or falafel, stuffed into a pita with french fries and fresh vegetables. If the listings are in Arabic only, ask the vendor to translate. The souq is near al-Husseini Mosque, across from the Nymphaeum; prices are stable and bargaining is unnecessary. When summer temperatures soar above 100 degrees, an ice cream cone can be priceless. Thankfully, the soft-serve vendors along Hashimi St. charge little for a fruity-flavored one in a colorful cone.
Find one of Amman’s many traditional cafes, hidden in an alley or up an unmarked staircase, by following the trail of perfumed argileh smoke. Hosting card games and conversation over hot drinks and tobacco in its many forms, Jordanian cafes are a great place to unwind in the cool evenings. Food is sometimes available, but cafes are primarily a place for sipping and smoking. Tea, Turkish coffee, and Arabic coffee (a concentrated beverage made with cardamom and served in small portions – definitely an acquired taste) are staples, along with the ubiquitous argileh water pipe.
Most Jordanians prefer to spend their limited leisure time at home with their families, watching TV, or maybe going out to a movie. Strolling the lazy evening streets downtown and talking to friends or playing cards late into the night at a smoky cafe are also popular ways to mellow out after a week of work. However, the tranquil majority is steadily being won over by a variety of alcohol-oriented forms of nighttime debauchery. A western influence is obvious in the discos and pubs that are popular with trendy locals, but al-Vegas (Jordanian “nightclubs”) remain unique in many respects. The glitzy neighborhoods of Shmeisani and Abdoun, western suburbs of Amman, draw an energetic mix of young and wealthy locals every night of the week. The main streets are a flashy blur of European-style cafes, American franchise restaurants, and the occasional pricey bar or disco. Women, gays, and lesbians will feel more comfortable going out in these two neighborhoods than anywhere else in Amman. If you seek a somewhat different scene, the region of Prince Muhammad St., downhill from 3rd Circle, is home to a cluster of Jordan’s Vegas, and dozens of similar establishments are tucked into the cracks of reputable daytime business throughout the city. As the Vegas are almost exclusive frequently by men, a trip into Amman’s underbelly will likely not appeal to everyone.
Most Amman bars have dance floors, and it goes without saying that all dance clubs have bars, but whether the crowd chooses to emphasize sit-down-drinking or dancing-drinking is largely unpredictable. Thursday nights are consistently intense, and Sunday and Monday see their fair share of action. Some places have begun to capitalize on the potential Friday night scene, but the rest of the week can be rather mellow, especially in the winter.
Jordanians refer to these well-known haunts simply as “nightclubs” and sometimes refer just as “bars.” They are characterized by a female singer accompanied by a few male musicians (or sometimes just one guy banging obnoxiously on a synthesizer), waitresses in tight clothing, and a horde of men (of all ages) seated at tables around the stage. The loud music and overpriced drinks lead many men to burst into mockingly sensual dances to the amusement of their friends and to throw five-dinar bills over the head of the female vocalist. This traditional Jordanian nightlife can be quite fun for the uninitiated who are open-minded, but it is rarely going to be cheap. Drinks range from expensive to absurd, and generous tips are expected. On the bright side, table prices usually include bar snacks (nuts, popcorn, and other salty delicacies), a surprisingly pleasant plate of fresh fruit, and the first round of drinks. Women will probably feel uncomfortable, but if accompanied by a group of (already-familiar) men, the seedy spectacle is likely to entertain.
Although Jordan has been known as the least conservative country in the Middle East, by Western standards, it may still be considered old-school. Neither sex can wear shorts (except in hedonistic Aqaba), and women’s skirts should be ankle-length. Sandals that expose feet are acceptable. Amman slackens its dress code at night and by the pool. Men and women are not allowed to show affection for one another in public. For example, upon introduction, a man should not kiss a woman, but should rather shake hands with her. Religious Jordanians will not shake hands. Women are also not allowed to smoke in public, though in private it is okay. Never beckon a person by using only one finger, as that is the way to beckon an animal.
Jordanians have a very strong hospitality ethic. Bedouin invitations to coffee or tea should be strongly considered, as declining an invitation is often interpreted as a direct insult. If you choose to reject an offer, be calm and firm and repeat yourself until the point sinks in. Lone women should never accept an invitation from a single man. Most people who offer to help you, feed you, or take you somewhere are probably not con artists; they often represent the best of a culture that is serious about kindness to visitors. If invited out to a meal, offer to pay your share, though it is customary for the host to pay – offer to go out again as your treat. It is also polite to leave a bit of food on your plate at the end of the meal and always serve yourself with your right hand.