Inside: A highlights tour of Jordan with kids
Jordan is one of the most incredible countries in the world. Whenever we are asked to recommend where newcomers to the Middle East should begin, Jordan is the undeniable winner.
Mixing culture, religion, vast desert plains, Red Sea diving, ancient cities and the lowest point on earth – it really is the road trip of a lifetime with so much to offer for active family explorers.
Here are 6 highlights every visitor to Jordan shouldn’t miss.
The Dead Sea
What better way to start your Jordan adventure than descending to the lowest point on earth! The salty waters of the Dead Sea are the second saltiest in the world. (Lake Assal in Djibouti has the first saltiest.) They are famed for the ability to float on water – no matter how hard you try you cannot swim, you cannot sink!
Now as fun as it looks, be warned it’s not for everyone. The salt concentration is 34%, which can prove too much for those with delicate skin. Any scrapes or open parts of your body (be it your mouth, eyes) that come into contact with the water will sting immensely. For this reason, it’s not recommended for young children and I suggest you keep your head above water!
For those not ready to tackle the salty extremes, you may prefer to enjoy the Dead Sea mud instead. It is said to have many healing properties due to the salt and magnesium content. There are a string of luxury resorts that line the Dead Sea coast. There, you can either opt for a proper luxurious spa treatment, or have some fun on the waterfront; coat yourself in the healing mud then either rinse off with the fresh water provided by the resort or take a dip back into the salty waters.
On a lovely clear day, you will be treated to spectacular views as the sun sets over the Dead Sea and the mountainous backdrop of the West Bank.
Explore Castles along the Kings Highway
Next, we recommend you journey south along the dramatic Kings Highway. There are many stops you could make along the way, the most famous being Karak Castle, but we also really enjoyed the more recently excavated Shobak Castle.
The drive itself is part of the fun – be warned though – distances are deceptive. Although a “highway” at points the road is narrow and bumpy and winds slowly through the villages that sit atop the mountain ridges. This is as much a part of the experience as you pick out the brightly colored houses and stop for random herds of goats or the odd donkey to make their crossing. You need a full day to make the journey south to Petra.
Karak Castle is an ancient Crusaders stronghold and is one of the most complete in Jordan, offering many tunnels and partly excavated rooms to explore. Shobak, on the other hand, holds the promise of a secret, unlit passageway leading to the valley beneath which is likely to excite your little explorers. Just be warned its a long way back up the hill if you forget to leave someone else the car keys!!
A local guide can readily assist you along the way, just be prepared to pay small gratuities even if unsummoned help suddenly arrives, the locals are doing their best to make a living and you will get a far more in-depth experience.
The Lost City of Petra
One of the countries most famous sites is Petra. Also known as the Rose City – it will be clear why – it is undoubtedly one of the most impressive archaeological sites you will encounter in the world (many of you may be conjuring up images of Indiana Jones at this point!).
Recently declared as one of the Modern 7 Wonders of the World and a UNESCO site, it has been “hidden” from the world until rediscovered in the 19th Century. Its origins are believed to date back to the 1st Century AD.
Entrance to the ancient city is by way of a narrow Siq. It then dramatically opens up to the carved rock face of the Treasury. Continue on through the bustle of modern-day markets and camels, operated by locals who until very recently still occupied the caves of Petra. Then you will come to the main Petra trail.
There are plenty of sites to explore within the city, including the Great Temple, the Colonnaded Street, the Royal Tombs, the Theatre and the Street of Facades. Unless you are planning to hire a guide (which can be done at the new visitor center entrance), you are best doing some reading up before you go as signposting is limited within the site.
Be warned it’s a lot of walking – well over 7km to get to the furthermost point, the Monastery. Frequent hikers will find it straight forward but the relatively unfit and little legs will find it tough going. There are opportunities to hire animals from horse and cart in the Siq (limited to those less able to walk), through to donkeys and camels on the main Petra Trail to help little legs through the day. Older and larger tourists – please think about your weight before considering this option. Pack good walking shoes, a lot of water – and cash for trinkets along the way!
Plan for at least one full day to explore the main Petra site, staying in the nearby village of Wadi Musa. Time permitting you should allow an extra half day to explore Little Petra – Siq Al-Barid. Another impressive rock carved city just on a much smaller scale sitting around 7km west of the main Petra site. Younger children may prefer Little Petra as there are more opportunities to freely wander and explore the small caves, with only one more challenging stair climb.
Also look to time your visit for Petra by Night. It is not held every day and requires a separate ticket so plan your leg power, and the timing of your days, around this. You can find more practical Petra planning tips for families here.
Dive in at Aqaba and the Red Sea
Aqaba is the only seaport of Jordan, an almost entirely landlocked country except for this small town along the Red Sea (the Dead Sea is actually a lake). Due to the calm waters and mild sea temperatures, it’s a great spot for diving, snorkeling or catching a glass bottom boat. Here you will find over 200 species of coral and 1000 species of fish, as well as stunning warm weather almost year-round.
If you head slightly further south of Aqaba you will find the delightful seaside township of Tala Bay. More of a French Riviera feel than Middle Eastern, here you’re in fact only 5kms to the Saudi border! Step out on to the jetty at Mövenpick Tala Bay Resort and you will also see Egypt and Israel in the distance – a spectacular meeting of four countries and a real pinch-yourself moment!
If you are short on time in your itinerary or visiting mid-winter when water temperatures can dip to a chilly 21c then this is the stop you’re most likely to leave off. In the warmer weather though, it’s a must!
Camp under the stars in Wadi Rum
Follow in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, and set offinto the vast plains of the Wadi Rum desert. Punctuated by enormous cliffs, rocky outcrops and narrow canyons – there is far more to the Wadi Rum desert than first meets the eye.
The hardiest may want to try bushwalking and rock climbing, or the younger ones jump on a sand board and enjoy the giant red rolling sand dunes.
Due to being a protected reserve, a local Bedouin guide will accompany you to enter and tour the site. This only leads to an enriched experience though. An overnight stay in a Bedouin camp will complete a day trip around the desert’s most famous sites. For the nervous camper, don’t worry these days they are far more akin to luxury glamping sites! For families, we recommend Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp for their hospitality and larger sized tents.
After a spectacular sunset, be prepared for one of the stillest nights and star-lit skies you will ever experience. It is hard not to be moved by the enormity of the desert.
If time permits then stopping a night or two in the capital Amman is definitely worthwhile. However, our preferences for a final stop would be to spend your day north of Amman in the ancient Roman City of Gerasa – modern day Jerash.
Here you will find the most complete of the Decapolis cities that made up the eastern front of the Roman Empire. A thriving city between the 1st and 3rd centuries, it was all but destroyed after two earthquakes and later completely abandoned in the 12th century. Excavation work began in the 20th century to uncover this remarkably well-preserved site.
Perhaps not the same grandeur and mystique of Petra. But you will marvel at the entirely intact amphitheater, walk the colonnaded streets and imagine the action from the Hippodrome.
Extend your road trip north to Umm Qais and a further Decapolis city of Gadara with its abandoned Ottoman village.
Top Jordan Road Tripping Tips
- Get a Jordan Pass. It includes your entry visa and hassle-free entry to most of the country’s most famous landmarks.
- The currency is Jordanian Dinar $1USD=0.7JOD; Don’t always rely on ATMs working outside of Amman. It’s wise to cash up at the start of your trip, or USD and Euro are easily exchangeable in larger towns.
- Although driving is quite straightforward, you may prefer to hire a local driver; even if not a fully guided tour to help navigate the often precarious roads.
- Women should look to dress conservatively, longer trousers and sleeves are appropriate, full head covering is not a requirement.
- Not all travel insurance policies will cover you for Jordan. Make sure you check your policy fine print before you travel.
- In the midst of a politically unstable region, sandwiched between Israel and the West Bank, Syria and Iraq, safety is naturally a concern for many. However, throughout recent history, Jordan’s has always been a moderate in an otherwise unstable region. You can read current safety advisories here from the UK Foreign Office and US State Department.
There is so much more to Jordan but these are the highlights that you could comfortably fit into one week. Jordan is undoubtedly one of those road trips of a lifetime that will leave a lasting memory for your family.
If you are combining Jordan with Egypt, here are more fun things to do in Egypt with kids. And we also have great resources to learn about the Middle East, like this article about fun facts about Oman.
About the author: Keri Hedrick is the editor of Family Travel in the Middle East, inspiring families to explore the Middle East region with confidence. An avid writer, wine appreciator and excess photo taker she also runs family travel & expat blog Our Globetrotters, documenting her families adventures moving to the UAE and traveling around the world with three young kids in tow.