A visit to Petra is the main reason most people travel to Jordan these days. This alluring city that laid hidden for centuries, continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Unfortunately, very few of those who flock to its mysterious treasures are truly prepared for this visit or know what to expect. Therefore, in this post I’ll tell you all you should know before visiting Petra.
A Brief History of Petra
Petra was once the thriving capital of the Nabatean Kingdom. Nabateans were the people who inhabited the area until 100AD, when the Romans invaded it and took over Petra.
Because of its location at the crossroads between Arabia, Egypt and Phoenicia, Petra was a major caravan centre during the Roman period. However, in time the city’s importance declined and Petra was ultimately abandoned and forgotten. Since it wasn’t marked on any modern maps, Petra remained ‘hidden’ to the Western world for more than 500 years.
In the 19th century, a Swiss explorer by the name of Burckhardt discovered the prehistoric city of Petra accidentally. In the last two centuries since its discovery, Petra has seen more visitors than it has seen in its 3000 years of existence!
When is the best time to visit Petra?
Spring and fall (March to May and September to November) are the best months for a trip to Petra. The days are warm, but the nights are cool. Although temperatures get into the high 20°C during the day, it’s not too hot for hiking.
The summer months in Petra are very hot. In June, July and August temperatures may get as high as 40°C. While you may have Petra all to yourself, hiking in that kind of heat is brutal.
In the winter months (December to February) Jordan experiences more rain and sometimes even snow. Nonetheless, winter is also a great time to visit Petra. The cool temperature is perfect for hiking.
The best times at the site are in the early mornings, before the crowds arrive, and late afternoons when most tourists already left.
How to reach Petra
Petra lies about 230 km south of Amman, the capital city of Jordan, and 120 km north of Aqaba, the southernmost city in Jordan. Depending on how you choose to travel to Jordan, there are several ways to reach the archeological site of Petra.
The fastest way to get to Petra from any point in Jordan is to rent a car and drive yourself there. If you are coming from Amman it’s a 3-hour drive on Desert Highway, or 2-hour drive from Aqaba.
You can also hire a taxi that will drop you at the visitor center parking lot. If you choose this option, try to negotiate the price before you get into the cab. The cost they quoted us was 35 JD ($50) one way, from Aqaba to Petra.
The cheapest way to travel to Petra is by JETT Bus that runs daily between Aqaba or Amman and Petra. The cost from Aqaba is 18 JD ($24) round trip. From Amman the ticket is probably more expensive.
The easiest way to get to Petra is to join a guided tour. This option is much more expensive, but it’s the most convenient one. You let someone else do all the planning and you sit back and enjoy your day. There are tour packages available from Amman and Aqaba in Jordan, or Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Eilat in Israel.
Admission fees and hours of visitation
The ticket price for one day in Petra is 90 JD. If you are staying in Jordan overnight, the ticket price is only 50 JD for a day, 55 JD for 2 days, and 60 JD for 3 days. So the longer you stay, the more you save. Children under 12 are free.
You can buy your tickets at the Visitor Center with cash or credit card. If you are planning to visit other sites in Jordan, I recommend buying a Jordan Pass. The pass will give you free entry to Petra and many other sites, including Jerash and Wadi Rum.
The Visitor Center is open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in summer, and from 6:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in winter. Visitors need to leave the site by 7:00 p.m. in summer and 5:00 p.m. in winter.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays between 8:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. you can experience Petra by Night. This beautiful candlelight show with music played by the local Bedouins allows you to visit the Siq and Treasury away from the hordes of tourists.
What to expect when you visit Petra
Petra is a vast conglomerate of elaborate tombs and religious high places half-built and half-carved into red sandstone cliffs. But no matter how much you read about Petra, or see pictures of it, that first glimpse of the lost city of the Nabateans will take you by surprise.
Petra is really big!
The first thing that will grab you when you first visit Petra is its size. Even the tombs and the public buildings that line Petra’s main street look like they were built for giants. Petra is huge, stretching for at least 60 square kilometers through canyons, along river beds and up the mountains.
There are lots of hiking trails in Petra
Most of the sites in Petra are close to the main street and don’t require any special effort to visit. Other sites, like the Monastery, or the viewpoint for the Treasury, that can only be reached by hiking steep trails, with numerous steps.
There are also some sites, like the High Place of Sacrifice, that can only be accessed by going off-road, on unmarked trails. Those trails are almost impossible to follow if you don’t know what to look for. If you are interested in going off-road, I suggest hiring a local guide.
Expect to walk mostly in the sun
There is barely any shade in Petra, so be prepared to do a lot of walking in full sun. This makes hiking in Petra really difficult during the summer months and even in the fall. You get no break from the sun, so wearing a hat or a scarf and lots of sunscreen is a must! Also, drinking lots of water
Petra is packed with working animals
There is an abundance or working animals in Petra that are used for tourist transportation. While they are a source of income for the Bedouins, there is much debate as to how well these animals are kept and cared for. Donkeys and mules haul tourists up 900 steep and eroded steps to the Monastery, horses and camels carry tourists through the city, by pulling carriages and carts.
There seems to be a need for some tourist transportation in Petra. Especially for elderly people who can’t climb up steps or walk long distances. However, we mainly saw young, strong people riding the donkeys.
Some of these animals looked really abused and deprived of food and water. We personally witnessed the whipping of an exhausted donkey that was struggling to hike the steep steps to the Monastery. I would strongly discourage people able to walk from riding these animals!
There are quite a few places to eat and drink in Petra
I don’t think anybody comes to Petra to eat and drink, but it’s good to know that if you want to grab a bite or have a drink, there are several eateries on the site. You’ll see them along the Street of Façades and beyond, but you’ll also receive a free map with your ticket so you can locate them. We brought a few snacks and lots of water, so didn’t try any of these eateries.
How much time to spend in Petra?
There is so much to see in The Rose City of Petra! I wish I knew this when I was planning our Jordan itinerary! Many people spend only a day in Petra, but if you want to do some of the hikes you’ll need much longer than that.
We started at 6:30 a.m., right after the gates opened, and were hiking and exploring straight through until 6 p.m. We saw A LOT, but we still missed several sites we were hoping to see. Ideally, you should spend two full days in Petra to properly explore the sites and enjoy what you see.
Top Sites to Visit in Petra
Petra is really big, so unless you have several days to explore the site, you should choose some bits to focus on. You can concentrate on the ones along the main pathway towards the centre of Petra past the Street of Façades and the grand Royal Tombs.
The Bab Al Siq and the Obelisk Tomb
Right after you pass the Visitor Centre, you’ll start walking along a wide path known as the Bay Al Siq. There are several monuments and tombs in this area, among which you’ll notice the Obelisk Tomb. The tomb has four pyramidal obelisks, which were funerary symbols of the Nabataeans.
The entrance passage to the hidden city of Petra is via a towering, narrow canyon called the Siq. The path twists and turns between strangely eroded cliffs for over a kilometer.
Walking the Siq is one of the most pleasant experiences in Petra. The 150 m high emerging walls close to a few meters apart, blocking out sound and light. It’s about the only place in Petra where you’ll enjoy shade.
At the end of the Siq the path narrows becoming completely dark. As you step out into the sunlight you’ll find yourself in front of the Khazneh, or the Treasury. That first glimpse of the Treasury through the narrow passage is a sight you’ll never forget.
Carved directly into the cliff, the 40-meter high Treasury was never a treasury, but rather a beautifully ornate tomb which became Petra’s most iconic site.
The Street of Façades
From the Khazneh, the pathway broadens into a wider area lined with large tombs carved into the rock. The area which is known as the Street of Façades, is a cliff face with a cluster of tombs considered to be the oldest ones in Petra.
Further down the road is Petra’s spectacular Theater, built by the Nabataeans around the 1st century AD. The Theater which was later enlarged by the Romans, can seat 8,500 people!
The Royal Tombs
After passing the Theater, on the right side of the wadi you’ll notice the great massif of Jebel Al Khubtha. Within its cliffs are carved some of the most impressive burial places in Petra, known collectively as the ‘Royal Tombs’. They look particularly impressive in the afternoon light.
The Colonnaded Street
Downhill from the Theatre is the Colonnaded Street, that marks the centre of the Ancient City.
The street ends at the Roman Gate, built in the 2nd century A.D. Originally, the gate had huge wooden doors and side towers and marked the entrance to the sacred courtyard of the temple.
The hike to the Monastery was the highlight of our visit to Petra. Hidden high in the hills, the Monastery is one of the most spectacular monuments of Petra.
The Monastery (called Ad Deir in Arabic) is half-carved, half-built out of rock. The design is very similar to that of the Treasury, but far bigger. The structure was built in the 3rd century BC as a Nabataean tomb.
Hiking to the famous Monastery is quite exhausting, involving climbing almost 900 steep steps! Nonetheless, the hike is really beautiful, allowing bird-eye views of the entire archeological site.
What to wear when visiting Petra
There is a lot of walking on uneven terrain in Petra, so wearing comfortable shoes is essential. I’ve seen people hiking in sandals, or sneakers, but from my experience hiking boots are the best choice for Petra.
You should also wear loose clothing and dress in layers. For the most part you’ll be walking in full sun, which may be pretty cruel in the desert. Bring a hat, a scarf and lots of sunscreen with you. Also, buy a hiking pole from the main entrance. They sell for $7-8 and are totally worth the investment. Your joints will thank you on the steep trails of Petra!
Where to stay in Petra
The nearest town to the archeological site of Petra is Wadi Musa (Valley of Moses). The town sits on a very steep hill at the bottom of which is the main entrance to Petra.
There are plenty of hotels in Wadi Musa to choose from, with prices ranging from $55 to over $380/night. We didn’t want to spend a lot of money since Jordan is an expensive country anyway, so we chose an $85/night hotel (Al Rashid). However, despite the good reviews on TripAdvisor, we weren’t happy with it. The hotel was clean, but very old and outdated. If you want a nice hotel room, you’ll probably have to pay over $130/night.
Planning a trip to Petra? You may want to read these Tips for Traveling to Jordan
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