The remains of this 2,000-year-old capital of the Nabatean empire offer a peek into a vanished culture, which thrived for hundreds of years until evolving trade routes left it languishing and vulnerable to Roman overthrow. A few earthquakes later and Petra was forgotten altogether under sand and rubble. Rediscovered in 1812, amazingly, large portions of the city survived intact.
If you have only one day to explore this “new wonder of the world,” here’s a guide to the must-see highlights.
Pro tip: Prior to arrival, purchase the Jordan Wanderer Pass online for USD$99 (JOD70) to save on the JOD50 (USD$70) Petra entrance fee. Importantly, the Pass also includes Jordan’s obligatory JOD40 (USD$56) entrance visa fee.
Breakfast at Sanabel Bakery (or fancy buffet)
Roll into town bright and early for a stop at Sanabel Bakery to snag traditional Arabic breakfast foods. Sanabel is known for sticky sweet baklava, but also offers a wide selection of other pastries and bread, including savory snacks perfect for a picnic lunch – it’s also one of the few breakfast places in town open at 6am. Grab a few mini pizzas and cookies for later. Movenpick Petra, conveniently located mere steps from Petra’s entrance, also offers an early-morning JOD11.20 (USD$16) breakfast buffet, for those who prefer a more lavish meal to start the day.
Pro tip: Wear a hat and sunscreen and don’t forget to buy water at Sanabel. It’s easy to get dehydrated and sun-scorched hiking Petra. Water is available for purchase in the park but isn’t always available when you’re parched. There is limited shade and you’ll be walking anywhere from 9 – 11 miles (14.5 – 17.7 km), including well over 1,000 stairs, so plan to stay hydrated and protected from the sun.
Petra Archaeological Park Visitor Center
Arrive at the main gate early to avoid the crowds, particularly before 8am when busloads of tourists flood into the park. If you have time, stroll through the museum, which is usually in the Petra City Center but is temporarily relocated in the Visitor Center. Snag a map and consider hiring a guide. While it is easy to see the most popular sights independently, you may want an expert escort for off-the-beaten adventures like Wadi Muthilim (see below). A park-sanctioned guide will cost you JOD100 – 150 (USD$140 – 211) for the day. Many visitors hire unofficial guides at a lower rate, but there are no guarantees about the quality of services provided.
Pro tip: The Visitor Center maps aren’t always detailed and they tend to run out occasionally, so do your homework in advance and print several maps online – or better yet, bring a GPS device loaded with Hiking in Jordan e-trails maps. If you plan to take Wadi Muthilim (see below), verify that the route is open and there is no risk of flash floods.
Road to the Siq
The wide road to the the Siq is uneventful other than a troupe of local men offering horse rides, the Obelisk Tomb and a couple of Djinn Blocks, the latter of which have nothing to do with the actual djinns and are instead housing for vertical graves. Cover this ground quickly so you can spend more time in the Siq and the heart of Petra, the City Center.
Pro tip: A horse ride to the Siq is said to be included in the ticket price, but beware, a hefty tip will be expected at the end of your ride. Pre-negotiate the tip in advance. And as with all animals in the park, make sure the animal is well treated and well cared for before saddling up.
Leisurely stroll the peaceful shady Siq for a zen-like experience and absorb the majesty and organic beauty, with the only sounds from occasional horse hooves as carriages pass carrying the elderly or disabled. Most of the three-quarter mile (1.2 km) downhill walk is evenly paved, other than a few preserved patches of the original Roman paving stones. The dramatic walls of the naturally occurring geological ravine (nearly 600 feet/180 meters high at points) were after the city and the advanced water-control systems were abandoned, transforming the Siq into a seasonal waterway, with flash floods wearing away the walls over the centuries.
Pro tip: Keep your eyes peeled for the notable sights along the way, including two tombs, a scattering of votive niches and the hint of a caravan relief almost completely eroded away, with only the footprints of camels and people left to tell the story.
After a 20-minute walk through the Siq, you’ll arrive at the most famous sight in Petra, the Treasury, or Al Khazaneh in Arabic. The 130-foot (40-meter) tall, two-storey Hellenistic structure likely served as a tomb for a Nabataean king – or possibly a library, but the name comes from local legend involving an Egyptian pharaoh’s hidden treasure (which has never been found). Look off to the left for steps carved into the mountainside, just beyond the Bedouin cafes. It’s a 15-minute climb with an epic payoff: the view of the Treasury from above is one of the most stunning ways to gaze at the crown gem of Petra.
Pro tip: The stone steps aren’t well maintained, so they can be a bit treacherous, so proceed with caution. If they’re closed to the public, which they occasionally are, take the Al-Khubtha trail (see Royal Tombs below) in the afternoon to get that epic selfie-above-the-Treasury shot you know you want.
As you walk from the Treasury down the main trail, you’ll walk the Street of Facades lined with souvenir sellers. Next you’ll see the Royal Tombs to your right (you’ll explore those in the afternoon). Take some time to explore the amphitheater on your left. Originally built by the Nabateans to seat 3,000 spectators, the Theater was expanded in AD106 by the conquering Romans to seat around 8,500, including the carved niches above (formerly tombs), which might be world’s first sky boxes.
Pro tip: The Theater is sometimes roped off for preservation and/or renovation purposes, but you may be able to hike up around the sides to get a gander from above. Just keep in mind that the day is young and you have miles to go and over a thousand steps to climb.
Petra City Center
After the Theater, continue along the main wadi and take the rest of the morning to explore all the sights along the Colonnaded Street between the Theater and the steps to the Monastery: check the map choose what appeals to you. Not to be missed are Temple of the Winged Lions, the active excavation site at Great Temple; Qasr al Bint, one of the only free-standing structures in the Park; and the intricate mosaics at Petra Church.
Pro tip: The ruins of Petra Church, sometimes called the Byzantine Church, are shaded by a protective tent, which can offer a brief respite from the desert sun.
Lunch and The Monastery
Picnickers may wish to wait for until lunch after ascending the steps to the Monastery. Those without packed lunches can stop at Basin Restaurant near the foot of the stairs. Climb the Monastery stairs then catch your breath at one of the Bedouin cafes facing the monument. The Monastery edifice is larger than the more famous Treasury, but is less often visited by tourists because of its remote location: the only routes in are up the taxing stairs from below or a 3.4 mile (7km) hike from the other side. Take in the sheer majesty of the 164-foot (50-meter) wide, 147-foot (45-meter) high marvel, then continue past the Monastery for unforgettable panoramic overlooks. Unpack your picnic or just relax and take in the views of Wadi Araba.
Pro tip: Keep an eye on the time and remember from Basin Restaurant, the return to the gate is slightly uphill, so your return may take a bit longer.
Once you’ve descended from the Monastery, return along the Colonnaded Street and head for the Royal Tombs. Start with the closest, Urn, and work your way back through the Silk and Corinthian. Don’t turn back after the impressive Palace Tomb (one of the largest edifices in the park), but instead continue along the wadi a a few hundred yards to see Sextius Florentinus, an impressive tomb with individual crypts carved into the interior walls. From here, if time allows, head to the Christian Tombs (currently being excavated) then turn around and return the way you came, or head to the mouth of Wadi Muthilim trail (see below).
Al Khubtha Trail
This optional detour will take you to a spectacular view of the Treasury from above. To follow the Al Kuhubtha Trail, which has a strenuous but not challenging ascent, take the steps located about 160 yards (150 meters) to the left of Palace Tomb, before Sextius Florentinus Tomb. You may need to consult a map or ask a local for directions, but this 1.6 mile (3 km) round-trip trail to and from the Treasury overlook offers some of the best views in the park.
Wadi Muthilim Trail
If you’re up for some canyoning, rather than returning to the Street of Facades after the last tomb, continue on and follow the wadi that hugs the back of Khubtha Mountain. About a half mile (0.8 km) from Sextius Florentinus Tomb, turn right into the narrow ravine of the Wadi Muthilim trail (also called the “tunnel trail” by local guides). This route is more challenging and includes scrambling over a few boulders (difficult alone, but doable with a buddy), possibly splashing through some water and ducking through a 100-yard (88-metre) Nabatean tunnel. The Muthilim trail leads to the dam at the Siq entrance.
Pro tip: There is a serious risk of flash floods on the Wadi Muthilim Trail. Experts strongly suggest hiring a guide. On your way into the park be sure to enquire whether the trail is passable at the Visitor Center. To see a Wadi Muthlim clearly marked on a map, check out the Jordan Trail Little Petra to Petra map.
Cooking class or mellow dinner
For one of the best experiences in Wadi Musa, take a cooking class at the highly regarded Petra Kitchen and learn how to make a multi-course Bedouin-Jordanian dinner with farm-fresh local ingredients. For a less interactive dinner, try the classic low-key Red Cave Restaurant on Tourist Street, not far from the park entrance. Order up a feast of mezze, mixed grill, maqlooba and other Bedouin specialties while sipping minty lemonade on the no-frills patio.
Pro tip: If you don’t mind taking a taxi or walking uphill, other popular restaurants on higher ground include Al Arabia for falafel and shawarma, or Al Wadi for a more extensive but still traditional menu, which also includes a number of vegetarian options.
Petra by Night and Cave Bar
For the grand finale, consider Petra by Night. Every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night, guests walk the three-quarter mile (1.2 km) main path through the Siq to ogle the Treasury lit by hundreds of candles, with the sound of live Arabic music reverberating off the sandstone cliffs. The cost is JOD17 (USD$24) with a valid day ticket. The event wraps up at 10.30pm… just enough time to return to Wadi Musa and grab a drink in a 2,000 year-old cave, at the aptly named Cave Bar just outside the park gates at Petra Guest House (also known as the Crowne Plaza).
Pro tip: Pictures taken with your phone at Petra by Night will be pitch black – there just isn’t enough light. If you have a proper DLSR camera and a tripod, this is the time to whip them out. A long exposure is the only way to capture the Treasury in the candlelight glow.