AMMAN — If you are keen on getting your Middle Eastern fix of ancient sites, sun, mint tea, and falafel, the Arab Spring may have challenged your travel plans. Although tourists have stayed largely safe in the Arab world in the past several years, the turmoil in Egypt, war in Syria and spill-over in Lebanon have kept some visitors away.
But fear not. Jordan is a world removed from the instability that has engulfed the region and Jordanians warmly welcome tourists year-round. On a recent visit, my first to Jordan, I found myself falling in love with its tranquility and hospitality.
Jordan's sites are spread out, but there's a good road and transportation system, and not an overwhelming number of things to see. It's easy to meet and talk with locals, many of whom speak English.
The serene capital, Amman, was originally built on seven hills on the ruins of ancient Philadelphia. The modern-day city has developed over a hundred years into a hip town full of young people and a regional hub for tech start-ups.
The capital's most prominent sight is a Roman amphitheater that's right in the middle of Amman. On the grounds of the amphitheater, do not miss the Folklore and Popular Traditions Museum where you can see displays of traditional dress from Jordan and Palestine and learn more about the cuisine and ways of life of the nomadic Bedouins.
The Citadel on Amman's highest hill is impressive, home to a Roman temple, Islamic palace, cistern and Byzantine church. From its vista you can get a full appreciation of the massive 2,000-year-old amphitheater a stone's throw away.
What the capital lacks in ancient sights, it makes up for in food. In a short span of several days, and accompanied by local friends, I was able to feast on the country's famed kebabs and mezze — small dishes — and even had pretty good sushi. Whatever you do, do not miss a late-night meat fix from Reem on the 2nd Circle (roundabouts in old Amman are numbered). Find the line of hungry Jordanians waiting outside this takeout shack for sandwiches ($1), and you're in good hands. The meat is marinated, grilled and topped with onions, tahini, tomatoes and salad for an unforgettable pita sandwich. The wait is long but worth it.
Jafra, also in the old city, combines a radical intellectual ambiance with a robust menu of traditional favorites. Photos of pro-Palestinian activist Edward Said, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwich and Western left-wing celebrities adorn the walls, but the crowd is split between decidedly hip young Ammanis and middle-class families. Sit on the terrace to soak up the street atmosphere below you.
Outside Amman your travels could take you to ancient castles and Christian and Judaic sites or to wild natural reserves. But all paths will lead to Petra, an ancient city built in rose-red rock that remained largely undiscovered till the 19th century.
Petra was built by the Nabataeans, Arabs who controlled the region's trade routes over 2,000 years ago. The structures they left behind are so fascinating they were voted as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in a global poll six years ago. This led to more visitors, so early morning is the best time to beat the crowds. To get to Petra, you can take a JATT bus from Amman (three hours) or hire a car and a driver for about $120 a day.
Entering from the official gate, you pass through a tourist market in a street that descends into a wide valley where Petra's architectural gems begin. Walking through the winding Siq, a gorge formed when land movement split the massive rock mass, you come to appreciate the site's enormity. You may even gasp out loud when you first glimpse the majestic "Treasury" building through the narrow gorge. The Treasury is actually a burial building and not, as myth had it, a place where treasures were hidden. The intricate facade of the building is Petra's most famous image, made even more famous by appearing in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
Continue along a wide and sunny route past the Theatre, High Place of Sacrifice, Royal Tombs and other structures. The site's undiscovered gem, at its highest point, is the Monastery, a first century B.C. building. There's good reason few people make it there: It's at the end of a 45-minute climb of 800 rocky steps. But it's worth it. Beyond the Monastery at that elevation is a spectacular view of the entire city of Petra and the colorful valley, Wadi Araba.
I ventured also to Jordan's well-preserved Judeo-Christian sites, including Mount Nebo, where Moses saw the promised land. A map there shows the distance to towns in Israel and the Palestinian Territories; Jerusalem is less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) away.
Close to Mount Nebo is the historically Christian town of Madaba, whose St. George's Church houses an unusual floor map of the Middle East, done in colorful mosaics almost 1,500 years ago. Another unique mosaic is the large and almost-intact floor piece at the Church of Saint Lot and Saint Procopius in the nearby town of Khirbet Al Mukhayyat. These mosaics were discovered in a family's house when a cooking fire ruined the plaster hiding the original floor. The keeper of the church and son of that family holds the keys. He'll let you in and proudly explain that the house belonged to his Muslim family before they donated it to the government, which in turn made it into a church. He earns very little as the guardian of the site, according to my guide, and appreciates a tip of a dinar.
Beyond all this, there's the Dead Sea, along with more ancient Roman sites, Islamic castles and natural wonders — all beautiful and worth visiting. But if you are tempted to simply lounge about with a glass of Jordanian shiraz and a water pipe, staring at the stars in Amman's clear skies, go ahead. Enjoy it.