Five Reasons to Visit Petra

On Aug. 22, 1812, young Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt tricked his way into the lost city of Petra, the forgotten capital of the ancient Nabataean civilization. The formerly nomadic Nabataeans had chosen this site, sheltered within the Shara Mountains of southwestern Jordan, to carve out the hub of their commercial empire, so becoming the pre-eminent merchants of their age.


Burckhardt's approach to Petra was along the Siq, a narrow canyon that is today part of a 3-km path to the city. The route keeps the visitor's dramatic first sight of Petra under wraps until the very last moment, rewarding you with tantalizing glimpses of its most iconic monument, the perfectly preserved Treasury (al-Khazna), bathed in sunlight. Most visitors congregate around the central area of the Treasury, Roman theater and Cardo Maximus (main street), but venturing farther afield will unearth other gems. Climb several hundred steps up to the Monastery or the High Place of Sacrifice for panoramas over the 2,000-year-old city. Delve down dramatic sandstone wadis (canyons) to stumble upon deserted rock tombs, shrines and temples.


Jordan's cuisine of eastern Mediterranean-style dishes tempered with traditional Bedouin fare will satisfy even the most demanding palate. At the Petra Kitchen ( in Wadi Musa, minutes from the Archaeological Park, you can spend an informal evening learning to cook like a Jordanian. Coached by a professional chef and cheery local women, you'll learn to make mezes, salads and a main dish — then tuck into your efforts. Later, kick back with a nightcap at the Cave Bar. Carved in the 1st century B.C., this former tomb is quite possibly the world's oldest watering hole.


Three nights a week (Monday, Wednesday and Thursday), an evening excursion lets you see the city by moonlight. Meeting at the visitors' center at 8:30 p.m., you walk in magical silence along the Siq, your way lit by 1,800 candles and your footsteps ricocheting around the canyon walls. Sitting on kilims, the iconic Treasury flickering in the candlelight, you sip tea as a Bedouin plays his flute, the notes wafting heavenward.


Two millennia ago, caravans crossed the Arabian deserts and plied the trade routes from Egypt and the Mediterranean, converging at Petra. Before arriving, it's thought that traders would stop to rest themselves and their camels at Little Petra (Siq al-Barid), a miniature version of the city with temples and frescoed caves, which some belief was used as a caravansary. You no longer need a camel, but you can still soak up the history with an overnight stay at the comfortable Ammarin Bedouin Camp.


Some 90 minutes' drive from Petra, and well worth the detour, is one of the world's most breathtaking and primordial landscapes. Also known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum's immense swaths of apricot sands, silent canyons and towering pinnacles of red rock were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site last year. You can explore the desert from the passenger seat of a 4x4 vehicle or, like Lawrence of Arabia, on the back of a camel. Lawrence famously described Wadi Rum as "vast, echoing and godlike." Coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of his celebrated biopic falls this year.