Visiting Petra, Jordan: Everything you need to know
I found it difficult to envision what Petra was like. Most images of Petra (on the gram!) are of the famous Treasury and the Siq. In reality, Petra is a massive site with lots to see. It was, after all, a large city during the Nabatean period. Tourists can spend up to three days hiking to various sites within Petra.
If you are visiting in the hot summer months, spending several days is a good way to avoid the extreme heat. If you are pressed for time, focus on the Siq and the Treasury rather than committing to hours of trekking. If you would like to see more of Petra, consider visiting other popular sites which include: The Royal Tombs, the Al Deir Monastery, the Colonnaded Street, Roman Theatre, Urn Tomb, Byzantine Church, and the High Place of Sacrifice.
The site is expansive, mountainous and rugged. There are two options for exploring the site. Go by foot, by carriage, or by donkey. Going by donkey is fast, but expect to pay a large sum and be wary of the treatment of the donkeys. If you are physically able, I recommend hiking the site. You have the freedom to stop, rest, and take pictures as you go, and you’ll get a good work out.
Get an early start.
An early start is key for any popular tourist site. Although waking up at 5:30am was rough, the effort made for an exceptional experience at Petra. If you are visiting Petra in the summer, the added bonus of an early start is that you’ll avoid the heat. We arrived at the gates at exactly 6:00 am, which is when the site opens to tourists. Our hike through the Siq (approx. 1.2 kilometers) was beautifully quiet. We were entirely alone. When we reached the famous Treasury, there was a small group of other early starters. Everyone present respected each others wish to have a photo in front of the Treasury. It was truly exceptional to experience the serenity of the Treasury that early in the morning.
After the Siq and Treasury, we went straight to the Al Deir Monastery. The trek to the Monastery is long (1.5 - 2 hours), but we stopped for coffee and to admire some of the ruins along the way. When we reached the Monastery we were lucky again: barely anyone else was there.
Returning from the Monastery, we stopped at places that we had skipped that morning, and then did one of the famous hikes to a viewpoint overlooking the Treasury. We encountered barely anyone on this hike! Following a long, relaxed rest at the viewpoint we decided we were happy with our day and began the hike back to Wadi Musa city. When we passed by the Treasury on our way out (2:00pm), it was total chaos due to the tour buses, which show up around midday.
Pack the essentials and dress accordingly.
No matter how you intend to experience Petra, you will want to bring essentials. Food and water within the site are available, but expensive. To avoid the prices, bring lots of water and snacks. Many hotels in Wadi Musa will prepare a packed lunch for you if you request one in advance. No matter what the season, bring sunscreen. If you are visiting in the cooler months, pack various layers so that you can adjust accordingly to the temperatures. We visited in February, and it was quite frigid early in the morning.
Be sure to carry cash on you for any souvenirs, meals, or drinks you might want to buy. If you think you will be hiring a guide, donkey, horse or camel, be sure to bring at least 20 JOD. It is custom to negotiate prices, but do not expect to be able to negotiate more than a 30% reduction in the initially stated price. Do not interrupt praying shopkeepers (this goes for traveling all over Jordan).
Because of the rugged terrain, if you choose to hike you will want to wear proper footwear. I wore lightweight day hiking boots paired with sports leggings, a t-shirt and a light down jacket. If you are planning to shoot glam photos, you will want to wear hiking clothes and change into your “photo outfit” after the hiking is out of the way.
It is the 21st century. Yes! There is WiFi in Petra! To access it you will need to stop at a restaurant or coffee house. They will expect you to purchase a beverage or meal. I had a Jordanian SIM card, with the company Orange. The mobile data seemed to work throughout the site.
Distances within Petra and budgeting your time.
We relied on the offline maps application “Maps.Me” for distances and routing within the site. The app proved reliable and accurate at calculating distances between the main areas of Petra. Although maps are providing at the entrance of Petra, we preferred to use the app.
Time budgeting will depend on what you intend to see, and your pace. Keep in mind that Petra closes daily at 6:00pm in the winter, and 8:00pm in the summer. The peak traffic hours are between noon and 4:00pm, this is when the tour groups arrive by bus.
If visiting only the Siq and Treasury, two to three hours is plenty.
A more intensive visit will include the Siq, Treasury, Al Deir Monastery, Colonnaded Street, Royal Tombs, Roman Theatre, and a viewpoint of the Treasury. We accomplished all of these sites in one day, approximately 8 hours. We are seasoned hikers - if you prefer a slower pace, break this itinerary up into two (or even three!) days.
Petra from above: How to reach the Treasury viewpoint.
It is probably the most popular image of Petra on social media: the view of the Treasury from above. For good reason. The view is spectacular, and it does make for an incredible picture. Before heading to Petra, I found it difficult to find up to date instructions on how to reach the viewpoints without hiring a guide. As it turns out, there are two viewpoints. One is quicker to reach, but is dominated by Bedouins who charge money to take you up to the point. It is accessed by turning left, when facing the Treasury (just after the Siq). Throughout the day the viewpoint has an ongoing assembly line of tourists waiting to have their photo taken. I had heard that there was an alternative viewpoint which is overseen by two Bedouin men who only ask that you buy a drink upon arrival. Although it was a longer hike to reach this point, it proved worth it because there was barely anyone else there. We got to spend close to an hour relaxing with the Bedouin men, their cat and two other tourists while sipping delicious Bedouin tea.
Here is how to access the alternative viewpoint:
After visiting the Treasury at ground level, you will turn right, following the path towards the Royal Tombs.
The starting point for the route to the viewpoint is at the Palace Tomb, which should be clearly marked on your map - whether it is a physical map or an app on your phone. The Palace Tomb is just past the Roman Theatre (which will be on the left) and the Urn Tomb (which will be on the right).
Follow the path past the Palace Tomb, and you will see a set of stairs which veer to the right. This is the starting point.
The first half of the trek to the viewpoint will be mostly stairs. It is about thirty minutes of grueling staircases, but eventually levels out. Once the path has leveled, it becomes more difficult to identify the route. We encountered other trekkers along the way which helped us to maintain confident that we were on the right path.
For a trek to the viewpoint free of navigation stress, I absolutely recommend downloading the app “Maps.Me.” This viewpoint is marked in the app as “Treasury from Above.” Be sure to download the maps for Jordan, that way the app will function without data or wifi. I relied on this app to ensure we were headed the right way.
Make sure to have some dinars on you. A tea or coffee cost 2 dinars at the viewpoint. Believe me, it will be the best 2 dinars you’ve ever spent.
The Jordan Pass.
The Jordan Pass is purchased online, before your trip begins. It includes your visa fees as well as access to most tourist sites, including Petra and fees to visit Wadi Rum. We purchased the basic Jordan Pass (70 JOD) which was well worth it. The pass must be printed and presented, along with ID, at each site to be stamped. When entering Jordan you will present that pass when receiving your on arrival visa - the pass will waive all visa fees. The visa fees to enter Jordan and fees to visit sites like Petra and Wadi Rum are expensive. For example, our visa cost 40 JOD, and Petra fees start at 50 JOD. The pass, at 70 JOD is already worth it!
There are tiered prices of Jordan Passes. If you intend to spend more than one day in Petra, consider buying the 2nd or 3rd tier pass. The more expensive the pass, the more sites you will have access to without fees. Be sure to look at all the passes before deciding which one is most suitable for your trip.
The pass can be bought at https://www.jordanpass.jo/
Remember that the pass MUST be bought before you arrive in Jordan. You can read more about the Jordan Pass and traveling the country, here!