Top tips for visiting Petra
By Huw Owen
One of the world's most impressive archaeological sites is a hidden Nabatean city which was forgotten for centuries until it was rediscovered in the early 19th century. Petra’s legendary beauty and intrigue makes it Jordan’s premier tourist hotspot and indeed it draws visitors from all over the planet. The narrow Siq is the dramatic main entrance to the site, a great prelude to the breathtaking major monuments hewn directly into the reddish rock: the Treasury and the Monastery.
But there is far more to Petra than these two headliners. It's a sprawling site and many visitors barely scratch the surface, missing out on some of the most interesting areas. So how best to make the most of your visit to Petra? We spoke to our local experts in Jordan to get you these top tips.
1. Be sure to allow two whole days
Petra sprawls across approximately 60 square kilometres and there's plenty to explore. A single day will feel rushed, especially as the two most famous monuments, the Treasury and the Monastery, are at opposite ends of the main thoroughfare. Better to split your visit over two relaxed days rather than cram it all into one hurried and tiring day, especially if you have children in tow or need to rest frequently when walking. Realistically two whole days means three nights - often your itinerary will include other activities en route to Petra meaning you will arrive into Wadi Musa (the town where Petra is located) in the evening.
2. Consider a guide for your first day
Guides are readily available and can make the difference between a wonderful visual experience and a deep understanding of the history of the site. Even if you have done extensive research on how Petra came to be and what the monuments were built for, a guide can bring the site to life and take you to some lesser-known corners or unusual viewpoints. A guide is also useful to help you fend off the many offers of donkey transport and so on. With an expert on hand on the first day to help you understand the layout of the site and orientate yourself, you will be free to explore under your own steam on the second day.
3. Get up early
The site opens at 6am, and an early start ensures you miss the big tour groups, as well as the heat of the midday sun at some times of year. The first two or three hours in the day can be the most magical, when the angle of light is perfect for photographs and there are few other visitors around. If you plan to cover a lot of ground in a day, an early start means you can also afford a few long rests to really absorb the incredible atmosphere and beauty of the site. Make time for the fascinating Royal Tombs, the High Place of Sacrifice, and the Colonnaded Street at the very least. Again, best to spread these over two days if you have the time available. A two day ticket is not much more than a single day so offers great value.
4. Come in winter
It can get pretty chilly in the winter months (December-February), which often puts people off visiting, meaning you get less footfall and therefore a more impressive experience. In many respects winter is a good time to visit despite the cooler weather - perfect temperatures for walking, far fewer souvenir sellers and people encouraging you to take a ride on a ‘Bedouin Ferrari’ (donkey or camel), and better hotel availability with lower prices. And if you're really lucky, the rare sight of Petra under snow is stunningly beautiful.
5. Bring your walking shoes
Much of what makes Petra so special is that it still retains its harmony with the natural surroundings, and while most of the major paths are sandy or gravelly there are some areas where the going gets a little tougher. The area is largely flat but to reach some of the points of interest such as the High Place of Sacrifice or the Monastery - not to mention all the other, lesser trodden paths around the area - you will need to tackle some uphill stretches, some steps and some uneven ground. Wear comfy, hard-wearing walking shoes and you won’t regret it, especially if you do have the time and energy to strike off into the rocky canyons around the site. This is a great way to escape the big tourist groups and discover lesser visited parts of Petra.
6. Come in through the back door
The hike from Little Petra to Petra itself is a beautiful way to get acquainted with the unique landscape in this region. It’s a moderate hike of two hours or so but you arrive at Petra at the opposite end to everyone else - at the Monastery. This means you begin your day in Petra with a breathtaking sight before many others have arrived, and then walk down 800 steps instead of finishing your day walking up them! It is quite an undertaking to do the hike and the whole of Petra in a single day - it’s 8 kilometres to arrive at the Monastery then a further 4 kilometres to reach the visitor centre without any detours - so again it's wise to spread your visit over two days.
7. See Petra by night
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays those with a valid day ticket can pay a supplement (17 JOD) to participate in the Petra by Night experience. 1,800 candle lanterns are placed along the entire 1.3 kilometre length of the narrow cleft of the Siq, atmospheric enough in the daylight but impossibly romantic and magical by candlelight. Slowly and silently make your way through this deep crevice between rose red rocks, until you arrive at the facade of the Treasury, lit by candlelight it is amazingly atmospheric. Sit in the Treasury ‘plaza’, encircled by the rose red cliffs lit by the flickering glow of 1,000 flames, and enjoy the atmosphere, the stargazing, and the storytelling. Bear in mind that after a long, hard day’s exploration, another walk through the Siq and back could be too much, especially for children.
Petra is expensive, but for maximum value buy the Jordan Pass. You will save money even if all you wish to do is enter on a tourist visa then go to Petra. All the major visitor locations in Jordan are covered, specifically museums and historic sites such as Jerash but also natural attractions such as Wadi Rum. It almost always works out to be good value getting the Jordan Pass.
Make it happen
Petra is a true wonder of the world, and due to Jordan’s manageable size it can easily be incorporated into any wider trip to see the other gems Jordan has to offer. Visiting Petra is a great experience for all, with lots of interest for everyone from experienced archaeologists to curious children. Our trusted local experts have lots of itinerary ideas that include Petra, all of which can be tweaked and tailor-made to your requirements and dates. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.