I have a soft spot for Amman not only because it reminded me of Istanbul — a hilly, cosmopolitan city of mosques, pistachio desserts, and rich history — but also because it was in Amman that we could really appreciate the inclusion of immigrants for which Jordan is so famous. Jordan is a tiny country surrounded by much larger, much more powerful countries. Despite its inevitable vulnerability to regional turmoil, Jordan has graciously welcomed refugees, i.e., cleaned up other countries’ messes. 60% of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, mostly refugees who fled the Arab-Israeli War and Six-Day War. Jordan is the only Arab country to fully integrate the Palestinian refugees of 1948. It has not been easy; schools must operate on double shifts, with teachers working both shifts, and since 2011, Jordan has also been taking in Syrian refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war. Yet Jordan remains one of the most generous places I have ever visited, and its immigrants have only added to its tapestry of cultures.
We didn’t have much time in Amman, but we made sure to take a cooking class, smoke shisha at a rooftop bar, hike up to Amman Citadel for the best view of the city, eat the best kunafa of my life, and cautiously climb the steep steps of the Roman Theater.
We always take a cooking class or food tour in every country we visit. In Jordan, we took a cooking class at Beit Sitti, run by three sisters who want to keep their grandmother’s recipes alive. We learned to make maqluba (meat, rice, and vegetables cooked upside-down), mutabal (eggplant dip), shrak (flatbread), fattoush (salad), and basbousa (baked semolina and coconut soaked in rose water). Beit Sitti means “grandmother’s kitchen”, and after our class in the outdoor patio, we went inside to eat in her charming dining room and living room.
Located on top of the city’s highest hill, the Amman Citadel has been inhabited by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans throughout its history. The site contains fragments of a colossal stone statue of Hercules that was destroyed by an earthquake. All that remains are three fingers and an elbow. It would have been 42 feet high, making it among the largest statues in the world.
The Roman Theater is a 6,000-seat theater that dates back to the 2nd century, when the Romans called this city Philadelphia. Unlike other Roman theaters, which are built from the ground up, this one was carved into the hillside. Even the highest section of seats can see and hear clearly, thanks to the steepness of the cavea. It faces north so audiences are protected from the sun. The theater is still used for cultural activities, such as the International Book Fair, marathon prize ceremony, and musical concerts.
One of the best things we did was take an “Alternative Downtown” tour through Airbnb with a young Palestinian guide named Anas. He led us through the oldest souk in Amman, where he bought us some necklaces when he noticed how touched we were by the legends he told of displacement and resilience. Then he took us to a Palestinian neighborhood, where we ran into his friends who bought us coffee and invited us to breakfast in their tire shop. We wandered around downtown and met the “duke” of Amman, who purchased a historic home that was about to be demolished for a new hotel and turned it into a cultural center instead, and invited us to join him for another breakfast. Anas then brought us to Habibah, where the kunafa is so good that I went back twice that day to get more. Next, he led us to the top of a parking lot for a secret view of the city. And finally, we ended at a neighborhood covered in street art, where more of his friends offered us drinks and welcomed us into their nonprofit restaurant that donates meals to the hungry.
Jordan, more than any other country I’ve been to, is proof that it is possible to be surrounded by corrupt countries (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) and war-torn countries (e.g., Syria, Iraq), yet still remain peaceful, civilized, and open-minded. This country is not perfect, but I think it has done as much good as it can and should be a model for the rest of us.
Tips for future travelers:
Eat at Hashem, a popular restaurant that serves Jordanian street food 24-hours a day. Order falafel and a bunch of spreads for a perfect dinner.
Stay at The House Boutique Suites, a hotel that perfectly matched civilized Amman. Our stylish room came with a kitchen and a huge bed we never wanted to leave. The hotel offered a lavish breakfast (make sure to walk over to the Middle Eastern section on the opposite side of the Western food section), free self-service laundry facilities, and a rooftop pool overlooking Amman.
Use your Jordan Pass to enter the Amman Citadel and Roman Theater for free.
Try kunafa at Habibah. Kunafa is made of a fine semolina dough prepared in a large round shallow dish, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with a mild white cheese, topped with crushed pistachios. It closes at midnight, which is fortunate because you’ll definitely want to come back after every meal throughout the day.
Eat mansaf as often as you can. Mansaf is Jordan’s national dish and one of my favorite dishes in the world. Made of tender lamb cooked in a dried fermented yogurt sauce, sitting on rice and a thin flatbread, topped with pine nuts and parsley, and dipped into more yogurt sauce. Also eat maqluba (meat, vegetables, and rice cooked in a pot upside-down), falafel, hummus, ful medames (mashed fava beans and olive oil), and baklava.
The city is built on seven hills, which you’ll notice immediately while walking around. Much to our delight, Amman is surprisingly walkable, though you’ll have to get used to holding your hand up and making eye contact with drivers to stop traffic as you cross the street.