How to Plan a Day Trip to Petra

An ancient city carved into sandstone mountains, Petra offers the chance to hike through ruins and absorb ancient history
An ancient city carved into sandstone mountains, Petra offers the chance to hike through ruins and absorb ancient history | © Wiliam Perry / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Catrina Gregory
4 September 2021

An ancient city carved into variegated sandstone mountains, Petra offers the chance to hike through jaw-dropping ruins – including the epic Treasury made famous by Indiana Jones, elaborate mausoleums, holy temples, and a Byzantine church with mosaic-tiled floors. Here’s how to see the historic city in Jordan in a day.

The history of Petra

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, the city still has amazingly large portions intact.

If you have only one day to explore this New Wonder of the World, enjoy our guide to the must-see highlights. You can also now visit Petra with Culture Trip on our nine-day small-group Jordan adventure, avoiding the crowds by entering through the ‘back door’ route.

Pro tip: Prior to arrival, purchase the Jordan Wanderer Pass online to save on the Petra entrance fee. Importantly, the pass also includes Jordan’s obligatory entrance visa fee.

Morning

Breakfast at Sanabel Bakery – or enjoy a fancy buffet

Roll into town bright and early for a stop at Sanabel Bakery to snag a traditional Arabic breakfast. Sanabel is known for sticky sweet baklava, but also offers a wide selection of other pastries and bread – including savoury 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 snacks later. Movenpick Petra, conveniently located mere steps from the entrance to Petra, also offers an early-morning breakfast buffet, if you prefer a more lavish meal to start the day.

Pro tip: Wear a hat and suntan lotion and don’t forget to buy water at Sanabel. It’s easy to get dehydrated and sun-scorched when 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 14km to 18km (9mi to 11mi), including well over 1,000 stairs, so plan to stay hydrated and protected from the sun.

Come to the Movenpick Hotel for a grand buffet breakfast to start your day | © christophe cappelli / Alamy Stock Photo

Petra Archaeological Park Visitor Centre

Arrive at the main gate early to avoid the crowds, particularly before 8am when bus-loads of tourists reach the park. If you have time, stroll through the museum, which is usually in Petra city centre but is temporarily relocated in the visitor centre. 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-track adventures. Many visitors hire unofficial guides at lower rates, but there are no guarantees about the quality of service provided.

Pro tip: The visitor centre maps aren’t always detailed and they run out occasionally, so do your homework in advance and print several maps – or better yet, bring a GPS device loaded with Hiking in Jordan e-trails maps. If you plan to take Wadi Muthilim, verify the route is open and there is no risk of flash floods.

Road to the Siq

The wide road to 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.

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. Negotiate the tip in advance. And as with all animals in the park, make sure the animal is well treated before saddling up.

When taking a horse ride to the Siq, negotiate your tip in advance | © Boaz Rottem / Alamy Stock Photo

The Siq

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. Most of the 4,000ft (1,220m) downhill walk is evenly paved – other than a few preserved patches of Roman paving stones. The dramatic walls of the naturally occurring geological ravine – nearly 600ft (180m) high at points – 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.

The naturally occurring walls of the Siq can reach nearly 600ft (180m) high at points | © Alexey Stiop / Alamy Stock Photo

The Treasury

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 130ft (40m) tall, two-storey Hellenistic structure likely served as a tomb for a Nabataean king – or possibly a library – but the name comes from a 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 – proceed with caution. If they’re closed to the public, which they occasionally are, take the Al-Khubtha Trail in the afternoon to get that epic selfie-above-the-Treasury shot you know you want.

The 15-minute climb up is worth it for special views of the Treasury | © Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo

The Theatre

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 – explore those in the afternoon. Take time to explore the amphitheatre on your left. Originally built by the Nabateans to seat 3,000 spectators, the Theatre was expanded in 106CE by the conquering Romans to seat around 8,500 people, with carved niches above, perhaps some of the first skyboxes in the world.

Pro tip: The Theatre is sometimes roped off for preservation, but you may be able to hike up around the sides to look from above. Just keep in mind that the day is young and you have miles to go and more than a thousand steps to climb.

The Romans expanded the Theatre to seat around 8,500 people | © mauritius images GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Petra city centre

After the Theater, continue along the main wadi (valley) and take the rest of the morning to explore the sights along the Colonnaded Street between the Theater and the steps to the Monastery – check the map and choose which appeals to you. Not to be missed are the 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.

Look down when you visit Petra Church to see marvellous mosaics | © Robert Preston Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

Afternoon

Lunch and the Monastery

Those without packed lunches can stop at Basin Restaurant near the foot of the stairs to the Monastery. After, climb the steps, 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 are up the taxing stairs from below or a 4mi (7km) hike from the other side. Take in the sheer majesty of the 164ft (50m) wide, 147ft (45m) high marvel, then continue past the Monastery for unforgettable panoramic overlooks. Unpack your picnic if you have one, 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 it may take a bit longer.

The Monastery of Al-Deir is larger than the Treasury, but less visited | © Michele Burgess / Alamy Stock Photo

After, 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 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 then turn around and return the way you came – or head to the mouth of Wadi Muthilim Trail.

The impressive Urn Tomb is one of several royal mausoleums to explore | © Michal Sikorski / Alamy Stock Photo

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 479ft (146m) 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 2mi (3km) round-trip trail to and from the Treasury overlook offers some of the best views in the park.

Take the Al Khubtha Trail for a spectacular view of the Treasury | © Ian Bottle / Alamy Stock Photo

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. It starts about 2,600ft (790m) 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 289ft (88m) Nabatean tunnel. The Wadi 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 which is why experts strongly suggest hiring a guide. On your way into the park, stop at the visitor centre to find out whether the trail is passable. To see Wadi Muthlim clearly marked on a map, check out the Jordan Trail Little Petra to Petra map.

Evening

Take a cooking class or enjoy a 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, there are other popular restaurants on the higher ground, including 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.

Take a cooking class to learn how to create traditional Bedouin-Jordanian food | © agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Night

Petra by Night and Cave Bar

For the grand finale, consider Petra by Night, which runs on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. You’ll walk guests walk the 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 event wraps up at 10.30pm, which is 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 truly capture the Treasury in the candlelit glow.

If you time your trip right, you can catch Petra by Night to see the Treasury lit up by candles | © Keren Su/China Span / Alamy Stock Photo

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