Why go now?
Tomorrow, the Jordanian capital joins the no-frills club of cities served by Britain's biggest airline, easyJet. Fares on the link from Gatwick are well below full-service rivals, opening up this fascinating country.
If you seek exotic souks, medieval mosques or Gulf-style bling, look elsewhere. Amman is young, irreverent and graceless. But it manages to mix ancient history with contemporary zip in a way no other Arab city can match.
This week, easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) launched a new three-flights-a-week schedule to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport from Gatwick.
From QAIA, as it is locally abbreviated, a taxi into the city costs about20 Jordanian dinars (20JD/£17.50), or take the Airport Express bus (hourly 7am-11pm,then 1am and 3am) to Tabarbour bus station (1) in the northern suburbs; 3JD (£2.50).
Hail a yellow taxi for your final destination: metered fares for even a long cross-town journey rarely rise higher than 3JD (£2.50). City buses exist, but Arabic-only displays and a lack of information makes them visitor-unfriendly. Amman has no tourist office, and good sources of online information are few.
Get your bearings
The heart of Amman is Downtown, its crowded streets wedged intovalleys between towering hills. This is where the Romans settled atop Biblical remains: their theatre survives, loomed over by temples and later Islamic construction on Jabal Al-Qalaa (Citadel Hill) alongside.
Following an earthquake in 749AD, Amman lay uninhabited for over 1,000 years. Settled again in the 1870s, the city began its modern growth in the 1920s. Now it sprawls. Most visitors stay among the big hotels and urban freeways of hilly West Amman,which extends above Downtown betweentraffic intersectionsnumbered from 1st Circle (2) to 8th Circle (3).
Districts to either side offer diversions, notably Shmeisani (café culture), Swayfiyya (shopping) and Jabal Weibdeh (galleries).
The Marriott (4) on Issam Ajlouni Street in Shmeisani (00 962 6 560 7607; marriott.com) benefits from smooth, cheerful service and a welter of facilities, including a US-style sports bar. Doubles start at 129JD (£111), including breakfast.
On quiet Abu Firas Al-Hamdani Street in the embassy quarter, the family-run Hisham (5) (00 962 6 464 4028; hishamhotel.com.jo) is known for its warm welcome and stylish interiors. Newly renovated doubles are around 78JD (£68), breakfast included.
The Bonita (6)(00 962 6 461 5061; bonitaamman.com) – more of a guesthouse than a hotel – has six old-fashioned rooms above a Spanish restaurant and tapas bar on Qiss bin Saedah Street, by 3rd Circle.Doubles with breakfast around 50JD (£43).
If you're on a budget aim for the Farah (7), onCinema Al-Hussein Street in the Downtown bustle (00 962 6 465 1443; farahhotel.com.jo), where a bed in a dorm starts from 6JD (£5), and anen-suite private room for two is around 22JD (£19).
Take a hike
From the little roundabout at 1st Circle (2), amble your way past the bookshops and mini markets of narrow Rainbow Street, in Amman's most walkable quarter. The mix of everyday commerce with pavement cafés and antiques emporia is enticing.
After a 10-minute stroll Rainbow Street, flanked by 1920s-era villas of pale limestone and pointed arches, begins to drop away down the slope, offering San Francisco-style views to neighbouring hills. Past the shabby-chic Duinde café-gallery (8), turn left on to Fawzi Malouf Street. On summer Fridays (May-Sept 10am-10pm) this is the location of the Souk Jara street market of crafts and food. At the end, steps clatter down to the striking glass and stone offices of Wild Jordan (9), a nature conservancy society. Its café (daily 11am-midnight) offers magnificent city views, as well as ethically sourced refreshments.
Keep going past Wild Jordan to find steps down to the left which bring you into the noisier, grimier world of Downtown. Keep zigzagging down until you emerge in front of the twin minarets of the small Husseini Mosque (10), built in 1924. This is the geographical and spiritual heart of Amman, tooting with traffic, the souk alleyways all around packed by bargain-hunters.
Turn left along the main street, then right at the police kiosk to reach the part-restored Nymphaeum (11), a Roman fountain viewable from the street. The adjacent river is now dry but Quraysh Street, marking its course, is still nicknamed Saqf Al-Sayl (Roof of the Stream). Turn left for the Roman theatre (12), an echoing bowl capable of seating 6,000 (Sat-Thurs 8am-4pm, Fri 9am-4pm; 1JD/£1).
Return left along Hashmi Street, then head right into frenetic King Faisal Street, commercial hub of Downtown. At the far end, steep Omar Al-Khayyam Street climbs to Jabal Weibdeh. This walk ends in the leafy grounds of Darat Al-Funun (13) (10am-7pm, closed Fri; daratalfunun.org), a splendid gallery of contemporary art shoehorned into one of the city's most beautiful old hillside villas. The "Out of Place" photographic exhibition currently at Tate Modern transfers to Darat Al-Funun on 7 June.
Lunch on the run
Once you've got your breath back – Darat Al-Funun has a little tree-shaded café serving coffee and soft drinks – aim for the nearby Canvas Café (14) on Muntazah Circle (00 962 6 463 2211), an arty, lounge-style venue for light Mediterranean cuisine.
Amman is strong on contemporary art from the developing world. Occupying twin townhouses flanking the gardens of Muntazah Circle, Jordan's National Gallery (15) (9am-7pm, closed Tues and Fri; nationalgallery.org; 3JD/£2.50) houses a fascinating collection taking in more than 2,000 works from the Arab and Islamic worlds.
For an authentically Jordanian yet alluringly Notting Hill vibe, head to Books@Café (16) at12 Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Street (00 962 6 465 0457; booksatcafe.com). When it opened, this bookshop doubled as Jordan's first internet café. Almost 15 years on, it remains an essential pit-stop. Head up to the rooftop terrace or lounge inside on white leather sofas, amid swirly retro wallpaper and downlit beaded hangings. An excellent Bloody Mary costs 6JD (£5.20).
Dining with the locals
Jordanian cuisine has its roots in familiar Lebanese cooking, with a dash of Palestinian and Iraqi influences thrown in. The best stuff, inevitably, never leaves the confines of private homes (or tents), but Amman has a clutch of world-class Arabic restaurants. Classy Fakhr El-Din (17), 40 Taha Hussein Street (00 962 6 465 2399; fakhreldin.com), often hosts the royal and diplomatic upper-crust: service can be stiff but the food is sensational. Don't miss the muhammara, a spicy Syrian dip of ground walnuts and red pepper.
Tannoureen (18) on Shatt Al-Arab Street (00 962 6 551 5987) is perhaps even better: a suave, warmly welcoming urban retreat serving exquisite Lebanese cuisine.
At either, mezze start around 2.50JD (£2), with mains from about 8JD (£7). Both serve alcohol.
Sunday morning: out to brunch
Just before Omar Al-Khayyam Street stands Hashem restaurant (19), which has been churning out bowls of hummus and fuul (a delicious hot bean dip) 24 hours a day for almost a century. It's a no-frills place, with plastic chairs and unsentimental service – grab a glass of tea, use flat bread to scoop up your food and then slope away, invariably less than 2JD (£1.75) lighter.
Rainbow Street hosts some excellent outlets for Jordanian crafts. In a historic garden villa on the Fawzi Malouf Street corner, the upscale Jordan River Foundation (20) (00 962 6 593 3211; jordanriver.jo) showcases handwoven rugs and baskets, silver jewellery, textiles and home furnishings. A few metres away are the exquisite hand-painted Armenian ceramics of Balian (21), while Wild Jordan (9) sells handmade crafts and organic herbs and jams made by rural people in the nature reserves. Beit Shocair (22) (00 962 644 094; beitshocair.com), a beautiful old Syrian-style house at 38 Khirfan Street, houses a diverse group of artists and jewellery-makers who sell direct from their workshops.
A walk in the park
Amman's only decent open space is the King Hussein Park (23) on the western outskirts. Picnickers congregate here on Fridays, but it's pretty bare by European standards. Come chiefly for the cleverly designed Royal Automobile Museum (24) (10am-7pm, closed Tues; royalautomuseum.jo), which tells the story of Jordan's 20th-century history through the classic car collection amassed by King Hussein. Admission, which includes an audioguide, is 3JD (£2.50) per person.
Take a view
As the afternoon draws on, aim for Jabal Al-Qalaa or Citadel Hill (25), a steep-sided peak ringed by wave after wave of sugar-cube houses. On top stands the National Archaeological Museum alongside the ruins of a fascinating early-Islamic palace complex (Sat-Thurs 8am-6pm, Fri 9am-5pm; 2JD/£1.75). Panoramic views from the adjacent Temple of Hercules extend as far as the desert fringes – especially moving at sunset, with the call to prayer echoing from a thousand minarets hidden in the city.
Icing on the cake
The classic Jordanian draw of Petra is just about reachable as a very long day trip from Amman, but another spectacular site is under an hour away. A taxi to Jerash could cost as little as 15JD (£13) and rewards you with fabulous Roman ruins – including an eye-popping display of gladiatorial combat and charioteering in the restored hippodrome ( jerashchariots.com).
Matthew Teller is the author of the Rough Guide to JordanReuse content