The lost Nabatean city of Petra dates back as early as 300BC, and was not built, but rather carved out of brick-red sandstone mountains. With every passing year, more of the “rose city,” a New Wonder of the World, is uncovered at several active excavation sites throughout Petra Archaeological Park.
Although the park is sprawled over 100 sq miles (260 sq km), our two-day itinerary allows pro travelers comfortable hiking up to 30 miles (48 km) over 48 hours to take in the famous sights, as well as lesser explored but no less impressive highlights. You’ll enter Petra two ways, roam through ancient temples, explore tombs built for kings, walk a Roman road and survey it all from insanely picturesque vantage points.
For non-Jordanians, purchasing the Jordan Explorer Pass (USD$106 / JOD75 for foreigners) online prior to arrival is recommended – it includes two-day entrance to Petra (USD$78 / JOD55) and Jordan entry-visa fee (USD$56 / JOD40).
The town adjacent to the Petra Archaeological Park, Wadi Musa, exists entirely to service tourists and the local Bdoul Bedouin. Tourists are not allowed to overnight in Petra so, aside from lunch at Basin Restaurant, Wadi Musa is where visitors eat and sleep. With no competition and a remote location, the food and accommodations in Wadi Musa aren’t the star of the show.
Pro tip: Visitors seeking a a more authentic Petra-adjacent overnight experience stay in the Bedouin camps on the park outskirts.
The Bdoul, many of whom have lived in Petra for generations, now earn their livelihood primarily by catering to tourists. Some have been relocated to surrounding villages but others remain in Petra proper, living in millenia-old caves, tending flocks of goats and sheep, selling trinkets, snacks and beverages, and camel, donkey and horse rides. At out-of-the-way locations in the park, there is a chance visitors will be invited to tea by residents. Accept the invite for a true Petra experience. The hosts will often decline payment but it’s polite to purchase a souvenir or two, which will undoubtedly be on offer.
Pro tip: Locals can be persistent with their sales techniques, so be kind but firm. The keffiyeh (traditional red-checkered Jordanian scarf) is a great Jordanian souvenir, but negotiate the price up front before the shopkeeper “demonstrates” the Bedouin style wrap on your head and you suddenly own it.
The first day, plan to explore the most popular sights along the main wadi (valley) road that runs from the visitor center to the Basin Restaurant. The route includes climbing steep rock stairs – to see the Royal Tombs – but otherwise it’s a moderate day of hiking 6 – 8 miles (10 – 13 km), so you’ll be raring to go for the 11 mile (18 km) back-door hike on the following day.
Pro tip: Petra Visitor Center doesn’t always have detailed maps, so buy a copy of Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre’s “Map of Petra” in Wadi Musa. The safest way to navigate off the main path (particularly for the Little Petra to the Monastery trek on day two), other than hiring a guide, is by downloading Hiking in Jordan’s e-trails to a GPS device.
Breakfast at Sanabel Bakery
Grab an early breakfast at your hotel or hit Sanabel Bakery for breakfast and brown-bag lunch supplies. The restaurant inside the park is conveniently located for a mid-day stop, but selections are limited and prices can be steep.
Pro tip: If you want a no-holds-barred fancy breakfast, splurge on the Movenpick Petra buffet. Located across the street from the park entrance, their breakfast buffet opens at 6am and will set you back USD$15.80 (JOD11.20 ) inclusive of taxes, which can be as high as 27% on food and beverage in Jordan.
Petra Archaeological Park Visitor Center
If you can be the first at the gate when the park opens at 6am, do. At the very least, arrive before 8am, when tour buses usually arrive. If you have time, check out the museum, which has been temporarily relocated to the Visitor Center, before you start your adventure. You can also arrange a guide for one or both days. Professional park-approved guides are JOD100 – JOD150 (USD$141 – USD$212) for the day. Once inside the park, you can hire unofficial guides, locals from the Bdoul tribe, for much less, but the quality of these guides can vary.
Pro tip: If you didn’t snag the Jordan Pass prior to arrival, make sure to purchase a two-day visitors pass since there is no place to purchase a pass at the entrance you’ll be using on day two.
Bab El Siq Path
During the 15 minute downhill stroll to the Siq, you’ll pass a few notable sights: the Obelisk Tomb and Djinn Blocks, the latter of which also functioned as vertical shaft graves. You’ll be approached by locals with horses. Before accepting a ride, negotiate the “tip” (the ride is free but they will expect a tip at the end,) and, as with all animals you encounter in the park, make sure the horse in good health and well-cared for.
Pro tip: Aside from the blocks and the tomb, there’s not much to see. If you’re a runner, this is a great section to jog. Plus, if you arrive when the park opens, being one of the first visitors at the Treasury will allow you to snap photos before the milling crowds appear in your grand shots of the most iconic edifice in the park.
A naturally occurring geological rift between mountains, the Siq’s undulating walls reach nearly 600-foot (183-metre) heights and were worn smooth by torrents of water after the city was abandoned and the sophisticated system of dams and aqueducts fell into disrepair. It’s worth slowing down on the shaded paved path to experience the grandeur of the Siq with its organic curves and richly colored striations. Don’t miss the votive niches, tombs and partially eroded carving of a caravan.
Pro tip: As you walk toward the Treasury between the rock walls, note the left wall is actually the Madras Mountains, and on the right is Khubtha Mountain. You’ll have the chance to explore both a bit later in your itinerary. (When viewing site maps, note that “jabal” is Arabic for “mountain.”)
If you want an Indiana Jones photo on a camel with a dramatic background, this is the place. Historians disagree on the original purpose of the Treasury. Some think it was a library, others believe it was a mausoleum for a Nabataean king. The current name came from local lore that treasure was hidden in the urn toward the top of the facade. The urn is actually solid, but bullet holes show that at some point the Bedouins believed the rumors. Once you’ve oohed and aahed and snapped the perfect selfie, climb the stone stairs to the left of the ancient edifice to get an even more dramatic view from atop the sheer rock wall.
Pro tip: The steps are a bit sketchy and may occasionally be closed. If they are, don’t despair. Later in the afternoon, you can hike above the Royal Tombs along the Al Khubtha trail to get the view from on high (see below).
As you follow the main wadi toward Petra City Center, along the Street of Facades and the Colonnaded Street, explore the attractions on south side of the street (on your left). First you’ll see the Theater built by the Nabateans and expanded by the Romans. A little further down, veer off the main path to explore the remains of the old market, the Great Temple (a current Brown University excavation site) and Qasr Al-Bint. Don’t worry about the other side of the street… You’ll hit it on your way out.
Pro tip: At the start of the Colonnaded Street, look for the 450-year-old pistachio tree. It makes for a nice resting spot.
Lunch and North Sites
Head to the buffet lunch in the welcome air-conditioning of Basin Restaurant or unfurl your picnic nearby. Take a gander at the steps leading up to the Monastery – you’ll be hiking down them the next day. After lunch, head back along the main wadi, treading on stones Roman chariots once raced over on the Colonnaded Street, and focus on exploring the ruins on your left including the Winged Lion Temple, Royal Palace and Petra Church.
Pro tip: Don’t be tempted to skip the church. In addition to offering a bit of shade, it houses some of the finest examples of Byzantine mosaics in the country.
Royal Tombs and Al Khubtha Trail
Before you reach the Theater, climb the steps to the Royal Tombs and start with Um Tomb. Explore each one along the way. About 150 meters (492 feet) past the Palace Tomb, look for a steep set of stairs leading to the Al Khubtha Trail. This 1.5 km (1 mile) trail will lead you to a dramatic overlook of the Treasury and is considered one of the best views in the park. Return on the same trail to the Royal Tombs and continue to Sextius Florentinus Tomb, an overlooked tomb with more to explore inside than the others. If you’re lucky, you might be invited for tea by the older Bedouin woman who sets up shop nearby. For an adventurous exit from the park, continue past Sextius Florentinus, to Wadi Muthilim (see below). If you’ve had enough excitement for one day, simply return to the main wadi trail, take a left and follow the crowds out of the park, the same way you came in.
Wadi Muthilim tunnel trail
If you prefer the less-traveled path, at Sextius Florentinus Tomb continue to follow the wadi around the backside of Khubtha Mountain for about a half mile (0.8 km). Take a right into Wadi Muthilim (also called Wadi Mudhlim and “the tunnel trail”). After some climbing over boulders (don’t attempt alone, you’ll need a hand from a friend), splashing through some puddles, and scooching through a 100-yard (91-metre) section of Nabatean tunnel, the wadi lets out at the dam located at the Siq entrance. Turn left and walk back to the main gate you entered in the morning.
Pro tip: Wadi Muthilim may not be passable if it’s rained recently… which also increases the risk of flash floods. Hiring a guide is recommended. To see the exact location of Wadi Mudhlim, take a look at this Jordan Trail map.
Petra Kitchen Cooking class and market
For dinner, schedule a cooking class at Petra Kitchen in downtown Wadi Musa and learn to make traditional Bedouin dishes from farm-fresh local ingredients with a group of fellow travelers. After dinner, hit a local market and stock up on day-two snacks, water and lunch supplies (if you’re picnicking).
Early bedtime (…or a quick nightcap)
With an 11 mile (18 km) hike on the cards for day two, an early bedtime is a wise choice. For those who require a little socializing and perhaps a cold beer, hit the cozy English pub in Petra Palace Hotel. If you’re visiting in the summer, try the semi-swanky rooftop bars at La Maison Hotel or Movenpick Petra.
Pro tip: Before bed, set out your park entrance pass/ticket for easy access in the morning. You’ll need to carry it with you the next day.
The route locals call “the back door” to Petra is a striking way to enter the lost city – and a great alternative to taking the main entrance (again). Hiking to the Monastery from Little Petra (known as Siq al-Barid locally), takes about three hours, with a bit of easy climbing, and is less frequented by the crowds. The Siq Al Barid trail also allows you to approach the Monastery from the other side, and while there are stairs along the path, you’ll only have to amble down the 800-plus stairs on the other side. The trail is not marked, so hiring a guide is suggested (or see below for details on GPS coordinates)
Pro tip: If hiring a guide isn’t in your budget and you don’t own a GPS device, research the Umm Sayhoun trail to the Monastery – it’s a shorter trail and although you’ll miss Little Petra, it may prove easier to navigate.
Breakfast and taxi to Little Petra
Eat a hearty breakfast at your hotel or hit Sanabel bakery again to carb load. Order extra savory pastries if you didn’t procure lunch goodies at the market the night before. Grab a taxi and take the 10-minute ride to Little Petra.
Little Petra to the Monastery
While, as the name suggests, Little Petra is smaller scale than the real deal, it is still an impressive site of carved dwellings, tombs and ceremonial sites, worthy of a stroll before heading into the main park. If you prefer to hike to the Monastery sans guide, you’ll need GPS coordinates to find your way. Download Hiking in Jordan e-trails coordinates to a GPS device in advance. This route is also part of the Jordan Trail which provides maps to the Monastery with this disclaimer: The Jordan Trail is a newly established trail, and is not marked. It is therefore our strong recommendation that you hire a local guide for your safety as many sections are remote with limited water sources and at times no connectivity.
Pro tip: If you didn’t arrange for a guide at the Visitor’s Center, in a pinch you can hire one of the neighborhood kids at Little Petra to guide you to the Monastery for JOD25 – 30 (USD$32 – 45).
If you have a picnic lunch, unpack it before you hit the Monastery at any one of the scenic spots with a stunning views of Wadi Araba. The Monastery is actually larger, though less detailed than the Treasury, and sees fewer visitors due to the arduous stairs when approaching from the main entrance. Like many sites in Petra, the name has little to do with its historical use. The spectacular structure was likely a temple or final resting place for another Nabatean king, though Byzantine cross carvings suggest it was later repurposed as a church. Perhaps have tea with the cave directly facing the Monastery. On your way down the steps, be sure to take the short detour to view the Lion Tomb.
Pro tip: Don’t be tempted by the stairs to the left of the edifice, they are permanently closed to protect both the monument and visitors. Do, however, explore the wall of caves and cisterns further left and look for the carving of a camel and its owner.
Lunch and High Place of Sacrifice
After you’ve ambled down the Monastery steps, if you didn’t bring a DIY lunch, stop at Basin Restaurant to graze the buffet. Next, set out to explore the opposite side of the main trail, the Madras Mountains and Wadi Farasa, by taking the High Place of Sacrifice loop trail. This two to three hour trail is more about the Nabatean wonders along the way and the view from 550 feet (170 meters) above the main wadi than the actual ceremonial spot used for sacrifices. Along the way, look for a fountain shaped as a lion (the head was destroyed at some point); the Garden Triclinium used for feasts honoring the dead; the rare surviving remnants of ancient homes; and several notable crypts, including Garden Tomb and Triclinium, Roman Soldier’s Tomb, Renaissance Tomb and Broken Pediment Tomb.
Pro tip: Hiking in Jordan offers a very helpful map with GPS coordinates for the High Place loop (trail 08).
From the High Place it’s possible to continue on the Madras trail, which runs above the Siq along the south, for another angle on the Treasury from above. While locals manning trinket and tea tents can be found along the way, and can point you in right direction, it’s essential to hire a guide since the trail is unmarked and somewhat overgrown.
Pro tip: The Madras Trail is a very adventurous option and not shown on many maps. Don’t attempt without a guide. The route has steep sections and narrow rocky paths with sheer dropoffs. If heights are a problem for anyone in your party, stick to the High Place trail.
Dinner at Red Cave
If you’re staying near the park entrance, have a traditional Arabic feast at Red Cave on Tourist Street. Most restaurants in Wadi Musa offer similar fare, but the owners and staff of Red Cave are known for their friendliness. If staying further up the hill, Al-Wadi is decent reasonably priced option for digging into traditional Bedouin dishes (vegetarian options are also available).
Pro tip: Non-alcoholic beverage options in Wadi Musa are usually limited to sodas, but, like many Jordanian restaurants, most offer “lemon mint” which is a delightfully refreshing lemonade, made from fresh lemon juice and a handful of fresh mint (and sugar, of course).
Petra by Candlelight and Cave Bar
If you’re longing for one last unique Petra experience, don’t miss Petra by Night, held every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday night from 8.30-10.30pm. Ticket price is 17JOD, purchased at the Visitor Center (but you must present a valid day ticket). Blend into the crowd of strangers and make the trek through the Siq to see the famous Treasury again, only this time, lit by candlelight. After taking photos and listening to the live Arabic music, head back. As you exit the main gate, look back to your left for Petra Guest House. Tuck into the adjacent Cave Bar for a drink or snack.
Pro tip: If you enjoy the thumping music, have a drink on the Cave Bar patio under the stars, but for a more mellow vibe, grab a table indoors in the 2,000-year-old cave that gives the bar its name.