Amman is easily the most underrated city in the Middle East. With neighbours like trendy Beirut and cosmopolitan Dubai, as well as historically dazzling capitals like Cairo, Jerusalem and Damascus, Amman has a modest reputation. Even Lonely Planet dubs it “the forgotten city of the Middle East.” As a Jordanian writer focused on alternative travel, I hope uncover the true beauty of this hilly capital, encouraging young travellers coming to Jordan not to overlook exploring this eclectic city.
With the growth of social media accounts encouraging travel, Jordan is gaining traction as a promising destination in the Middle East. It might even surprise some that the Instagram account of the Jordan Tourism Board has over 100,000 followers and counting. Yet, despite Jordan’s growing popularity as a travel destination, Amman continues to be a pit-stop for travelers making their way to Petra and the Dead Sea. I write this guide hoping to uncover an alternative face to this beautiful city, and share with you the reasons Amman continues to capture my heart over anything.
Amman’s charisma can be better understood within the context of the region. The Middle East is known for its rich history of artists including poets, writers, and musicians that used their craft as a way to make sense of our complex region. Decades of war, occupation, and struggle have given birth to generations of artists taking refuge in Jordan’s capital. Unlike many parts of the Middle East, Amman continues to be a haven for those looking for amnesty, and till today hosts more refugees than any other city in the world. Amman is now home to a tapestry of artistic and cultural life waiting to be discovered.
Understanding the geography of Amman is the first step in unpacking its true charm. Amman is made up of two distinct districts — West and East Amman. Any Ammanite would tell you the difference between the two: West Amman being Jordan’s urbanized, affluent centre and East Amman its less fortunate counterpart. Amman’s downtown “Al Balad”, the oldest part of the city, currently serves as a checkpoint between the two. Al Balad currently has the highest density of refugees living in an urban setting in the Middle East, and is home to Amman’s art and cultural scene.
The following guide will outline some of my favourite spots around in Amman, mostly situated in downtown or “Al Balad”. I will highlight interesting places to eat, where to find Middle Eastern art, and other places worth seeing around the city.
Go to Amman to… Eat.
Just north of Al Balad, in Jabal Lweibdeh, is an eccentric restaurant named Beit Sitti (Arabic for “my grandmother’s home”), where tourists and residents can sign up for Levantine cooking classes. Beit Sitti is the home of Jordanian sisters Maria, Tania and Dina Hadadd’s late grandmother, who started the restaurant as a way to commemorate her life. The restaurant supports Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian female refugees by hiring them to teach Arabic cooking techniques to tourists. The restaurant has been reviewed recently by Vogue magazine as one of the top 7 global cooking schools, and cites Maria Haddad saying that the “ restaurant allows travelers to have an open forum to discuss political, cultural, and intellectual issues openly and without hesitation; through our food, travelers connect more deeply with Jordan.”
Shams El Balad
Shams El Balad is another favourite of mine. Internationally recognized by the New York Times, Shams El Balad is the perfect breakfast spot serving Levantine delicacies. Its stunning views of Al Balad (that’s where they got the name) and its farm-to-table concept make it a must-visit. Although I would say that a plate of hommus at Shams El Balad is slightly pricey-er than the average, I still recommend it.
Last, but certainly not least, is Cafe Rumi. Cafe Rumi was recommended to me by a close friend, and is in fact where my infatuation with Amman began. The cafe is tucked into a street corner right off of Square De Paris in Jabal Lweibdeh. Inside the cafe, you’ll find artwork inspired by Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet. Sitting on the bar stools are young artists and travelers discussing politics, social movements, learning languages, and meeting people. Inside the cafe, the cliques of Amman’s social scene melt away and everyone’s open to meeting someone new. I recommend trying their Arabic tea, which comes in a charming red Levantine tea-pot.
Go to Amman to… see art.
Amman is a haven for contemporary art… if you look hard enough. Nestled in the heart of Al Balad is a variety of art galleries dedicated to showcasing the work of artists from the Arab world. Head North of Al Balad to find street art, galleries and cafes dedicated to showcasing the eccentric side of the region.
Darat Al Funun
The first stop on your itinerary should be Darat Al Funun. Darat Al Funun is easily Amman’s most prized art gallery held inside a 6th century Byzantine church. The gallery showcases contemporary art and conducts workshops, exhibitions and other art-related activities open to the public. Darat Al Funun has become one of the Middle East’s most prestigious institutions supporting arts in the region and is respected across world.