I had a TONNE of questions before visiting Petra, which resulted in much Googling, but mainly in me quizzing the poor hotel manager for about half an hour once we arrived in Wadi Musa – the gateway town to Petra.
Soo, I thought it might be useful for me to compile my ‘Top Tips for visiting Petra’ in case you or anyone you know is planning a visit in the future, or if you just wanted to learn a bit more about it!
A little bit of Petra History
It is not known exactly when Petra was built, but it was centuries or even millennia BC by the Nabataean people – a nomadic Arabic people who developed the city as a trading hub on the overland trade routes connecting the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
The majority of the buildings are tombs for Nabataean rulers or places of worship, built by carving directly out of the rock. The unique building style is part of the reason they have lasted so long and withstood multiple earthquakes.
Petra is also known as the “Lost City” and The Treasury features in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a secret temple lost for hundreds of years. It was never really ‘lost’ since Bedouin people have always occupied the land and caves around it, however after a couple of centuries of Roman occupation (100-300BC), a series of earthquakes and shifts in the trade routes meant it was largely abandoned. No outsiders visited for centuries until it became a place of legend.
It was ‘rediscovered’ by a Swiss explorer Burckhardt in 1812 who pretended to be an Arabic traveller fulfilling a vow in order to persuade the Bedouin guides to take him into Petra and to the ancient tombs.
1) Buy a Jordan Pass in advance of your visit
As long as you’re spending 3 nights or more in Jordan you will be eligible, and it waives your visa cost, your entry to Petra, and entry to multiple other historic sights around the country.
You can buy a different pass depending on how many days consecutive entry you want to Petra, we opted for the ‘Jordan Explorer’ which gave 2 days entry to Petra. You’ll get e-mailed an online pass which you can download to your phone, or print, both were accepted and all the guards seemed reasonably blase about checking IDs.
The only ID exception being at Petra where we were asked for our passports. We were kicking ourselves as had specifically got there early and didn’t want to walk back up the hill to our hotel, but the guard was relaxed and accepted our driving licenses.
2) Visit the Petra Museum before going into the site
Petra is a huge tourist attraction, with visitor numbers constantly increasing and tracking to exceed 1M per year soon. However the site has largely been left as is, with limited information available as you walk around.
The free guide booklet and the “Go Petra” app provide further information on the individual buildings, but didn’t really add any colour around the lifestyle of the Nabataean people.
The recently opened (late 2018) Petra Museum sits right by the entrance gates and is free to visit. It was funded by the Japanese government (unsure why!) and contains artefacts recovered from the site as well as lots more background on the history and culture.
Given you’re likely to be arriving in Wadi Musa the day before you visit Petra, it’s well worth spending an hour or so learning a bit more about it. (Opening hours 8:30 – 20:30 Apr to Oct, 8:30 – 19:30 Nov to Mar).
3) Get there early!
Gates open at 6am (closing 6pm summer, 4pm winter). We arrived around 6.15am and whilst there were others around, we had sections of the Siq totally to ourselves. The Siq is the passageway between the 100m high cliffs which runs for about 1km and delivers you to the Treasury. It was pretty magical to walk along it in the early morning silence with the only noise being birds singing.
It also meant there were slightly less people trying to persuade us to ride a donkey every couple of minutes….
Tour buses bring crowds of day-trippers down from the capital, Amman, descending around 10am and leaving again by 4pm. Personally I don’t think that’s enough time to do this wonderful place justice. The amount of people we saw walking out the Siq, getting their ‘Insta-photo’ on a camel and then walking straight back out again was crazy!
4) Stay in the lower town at Wadi Musa
You’re going to be doing enough walking as it is when you visit Petra. Ben and I both clocked up around 30km each. So you might want to make life a little easier for yourself by staying in the lower town of Wadi Musa.
Wadi Musa is the ‘gateway’ to Petra, basically a modern bustling town where the visitor’s centre is and start of the walk in begins. It is split by a large hill, with the majority of the town being up at the top, and with some hotels sitting at the bottom, near the entrance to Petra.
A couple we met in Petra were staying at the Petra Moon Hotel, and we went up to the rooftop bar there for sunset. They also had a pool on the roof which they said stayed miraculously cool on the hot days and was super refreshing when returning from sightseeing.
We stayed at the Esperanza Petra Hotel. It was pretty basic (no pool here!) but we only needed somewhere to sleep and the staff were FANTASTIC. So welcoming and if they were irritated by all my questions they hid it well. The breakfasts were also a marvellous spread, and they offered the option of doing a packed lunch to take into Petra for the day.
Which leads me to…
5) Take some food and drink for the day with you
It sounds very English of me “make sure you pack some sandwiches”, but honestly, well worth taking some food and water with you.
There were a few cafes within the Petra complex: one opposite the ancient Pistachio tree, the main ‘Basin restaurant’ with another cafe opposite, a couple of stalls on the hike up to the Monastery and one up at the top by the Monastery.
However, the majority of these just seemed to sell snacks (crisps, wafers) and soft drinks. The Basin restaurant and the place opposite both did full buffets, but you don’t really want to shell out for a big meal when you’re about to walk up 1000 steps!
As I mentioned we got in the gates at 6.15am, meaning we were at the Treasury before 7am, and had made it to the viewpoint overlooking the Treasury by 8am. We spent about an hour up at the top, and once we were back down at the Royal Tombs it was around 10am. We were ready for a snack but nowhere was really open, so I was very glad of the dried apricots and pringles we’d brought with us.
We then wandered around the Great Temple and Temple of Dushares, which are on the ‘main street’ of the ancient town, by which point it was 11am and the sun was getting high and hot hot hot. We had been up quite a few hours, so thought we should have some “proper food” before tackling the walk up to the Monastery. But the Basin Cafe didn’t open until 11.30 (missed opportunity there guys!!) so more pringles and lots of water it was!
6) Don’t don’t ride the animals unless you really need to
Petra was full of animals! Birds, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, horses… as I mentioned earlier there is clearly a tourist trade in donkey rides, with some people even riding them the whole way up to the Monastery.
Now I know, donkeys are hardy creatures, but there was something rather grating about seeing one woman in her 20s who looked perfectly fit and healthy, sipping a can of Coke and cruising around on her donkey whilst a local man walked and led it.
Another girl was wearing a moon-boot, so her carriage ride through the Siq was more understandable…
There has been a history of poor animal treatment at Petra, and we did see a couple of donkeys looking less than happy. It seems as though there are efforts to prevent it though, with various signs telling tourists to report injured animals or mistreatment.
The couple we’d met up at the viewpoint over the Treasury told me a heartbreaking story of how they’d heard little mewing sounds up there and found a plastic bag with a knot tied in the top full of little kittens 😦 they obviously set them free but how sad that someone would try to kill them especially in that way.
7) Wear ‘sensible’ shoes
If you want to see Petra properly, you will do a LOT of walking, including steps galore and lots of gravelly terrain.
I contemplated wearing my trusty Birkenstocks, but was so glad that I opted for trainers as I’d otherwise likely have spent most of the day extracting pebbles from my shoes.
8) Go see the Treasury from above
Okay, so now you’ve learnt a bit about Petra in the museum, you’ve got there bright and early and breezed through the entry with your Jordan Pass, you’re kitted out like Dora the Explorer with your snacks and sensible shoes. So now it’s time to actually go see some cool stuff!
Seeing the Treasury come into view as you emerge from the Siq is incredible, but what was equally awesome was making the 45 minute walk up past the Royal Tombs to get a view of the Treasury from above.
Hawkers down by the Treasury will try to persuade you to pay them to guide you up a short 15 minute walk to the opposite viewpoint (i.e. they are at opposite sides of the cliffs at the top of the Siq), but I’d recommend taking the slightly longer self-guided walk up past the tombs as it’s a beautiful walk, you get a view of the amphitheatre from above, and it’s free!
Head to the Royal Tombs and take the Al-Khubth Trail which will take you all the way to the viewpoint. An enterprising local has pitched his tent right at the view spot, but that’s okay, as you’ll be happy to part with $1 for a refreshing cup of sweet mint tea by the time you get there, and it’s well worth it to sit and soak up the views.
9) Make sure you visit The Monastery (Ad-Deir)
The Monastery is the farthest building from the entrance, and is about another hour’s walk uphill from the Basin. We found this walk much harder than our morning walk up to the Treasury viewpoint, I think partly because we tackled it around midday. If we’d have waited a few hours into the afternoon the path would have been more shaded.
It was worth the walk though! Again cut out of the rock face, the Monastery is one of the largest buildings at Petra and was used as a religious meeting place. It’s absolutely spectacular!
We had a refreshing lemon and mint juice up at the cafe at the top and it was delicious, hit the spot perfectly!
An alternate option if you have a couple of days in Petra, is to leave your visit to The Monastery until day 2, and pay someone around USD$25 to be dropped at a back entrance to Petra, about a 45 minute walk from The Monastery. That way you can do a ‘one-way’ walk through the site, with the majority being downhill from The Monastery, with just the gradual incline of the Siq on your way back into town.
10) Just go!!
Partly I felt it would be odd to stop at 9 tips…. but also I wanted to reiterate how absolutely incredible Petra was, and Jordan as a whole country and travelling experience.
If you have any reservations about visiting, you shouldn’t, it’s (relatively) inexpensive if you self-drive around Jordan, it’s safe, and Petra is truly a must-see place in your lifetime!
Next – on to lively Lebanon for a Syrian-Irish wedding! After a final non-alcoholic Ramadan beer at the ‘Cave Bar’ in Petra: