Aqaba, the only coastal city in Jordan, is a base for diving the coral reefs of the Red Sea or heading to the Star Wars-esque landscape of the rocky Wadi Rum. The city landmarks – from ancient ruins to a showstopping mosque – illuminate fascinating elements of Islamic culture and Middle Eastern history. Here’s what to do in Aqaba.
Want to explore Aqaba with a local guide at your side? Join our nine-day adventure from Amman to the Dead Sea and discover the cultural must-sees and must-dos that are often overlooked.
The free public beach of Al-Hafayer, also known as Palm Beach, is on the southern coast, 10 minutes from downtown. This beautiful palm tree-specked stretch is lapped by the Red Sea. This is the perfect place to watch the sunset with a pot of tea, and soak up the atmosphere as Aqaba locals enjoy their leisure time.
One of Aqaba’s greatest assets lies beneath the surface – the coral reefs of the Red Sea. The gulf’s mild weather makes it a perfect place for a first trial dive, while certified divers can choose from a plethora of sites. Go looking for turtles at the Seven Sisters coral, or swim down to Cedar Pride, a Lebanese freighter wreck that’s accessible from the shore. Ahlan Aqaba Scuba Diving Centre offers adventurous diving trips and snorkelling in the Aqaba Marine Park.
Alternatively, you can go diving in the Red Sea as part of Culture Trip’s carefully curated small-group trip, Beyond Petra: Discovering Jordan’s Rugged Side.
Northwest of the city centre, ancient ruins mark the spot of the first Islamic city to be founded outside the Arabian Peninsula. You can see the ruins of an ancient church, arguably the oldest purposely built church anywhere in the world, and sections of the city wall. The site is located right in front of the Mövenpick and Aqaba Gulf hotels, a short walk from the waterfall, and entrance is free.
The Aqaba Bird Observatory is at the northern tip of the Red Sea, close to the Eilat border, and receives flocks of birds from Europe, Asia and Africa every migration season. The forest and wetlands cultivated here create a stark contrast to the surrounding desert and are no less beautiful for being artificially managed. Any given season attracts more than 70 different bird species passing through this bottleneck of global migration routes.
Should you not fancy getting into the water for snorkelling or diving, glass-bottomed boats are a fantastic way to see the Red Sea. Boats pull up on a beach near the Mövenpick hotel, or at a jetty in front of Aqaba Castle. Tours last from 30 minutes to an hour, the latter rounding most of the harbour and going close to the Israeli border and the city of Eilat.