As published in the bmi Voyager
A Roman temple and ruined Islamic palace perch on its citadel hill, but Jordan’s capital is predominantly a modern city – and an intriguing one at that. Matthew Teller gives the lowdown on its buzzy bars and cafes, and flourishing arts scene
PHOTOGRAPHY TIM WHITE
BEST LOCAL BLING
From a workshop staffed by 25 local women trained in metalwork and jewellery making, Nadia Dajani produces an exceptional array of handmade designer jewellery, all with Jordanianthemes. Designs include replicas of ancient earrings found at the Roman city of Jerash near Amman, necklaces featuring beautiful Nabatean script from Petra, and sleekly contemporary rings, necklaces and cufflinks adorned with Arabic calligraphy. Dajani’s collections make the elusive crossover from design to art.
Main showroom: InterContinental Hotel, 2nd Circle; +962 (0)6 461 2272; www.nadiadajani.com. Outlets around the city
BEST WAY TO HAVE FUN DOING GOOD
As well as running listings website BeAmman.com and lobbying everyone from the mayor’s office to the national tourist board on urban issues affecting the city, Raghda Butros is the dynamo behind Hamzet Wasel, a communities project working in low-income areas to break down social barriers. Visitors to Amman can contact Raghda in advance to be whisked off to a bustling cornerof Jabal al-Qalaa, one of east Amman’s poorest neighbourhoods, to spend a day with local kids, who’ll teach them how to build and fly a kite using everyday materials. It’s a fantastic way to feed a bit of money into these sidelined communities, and to experience a completely hidden side of Amman.
6 Sharia Street, Jabal Weibdeh; +962 (0)79 663 7377; www.hamzetwasel.com
BEST SWEET STREET TREAT
Tucked into an alleyway downtown, a tiny outlet of the local patisserie chain Habiba is famed for its knafeh, a Palestinian dessert made of shredded filo pastry and goat’s cheese, served hot and drenched in syrup. People queue night and day and perch on bollards in the alley outside to fork down freshly made knafeh from paper plates in silent, sugar-happy communion.
King Feisal Street; +962 (0)6 462 1333
BEST HOMEMADE EXPERIENCE
Eating local is all very well – but how about learning how to cook local? At Beit Sitti (Arabic for ‘Grandmother’s House’), a tasteful 1920s townhouse in one of historic Amman’s most elegant residential neighbourhoods, you can learn about Arabic cuisine before donning an apron and preparing a four-course meal under expert guidance. Run by two sisters, it’s a great way to get an unusual take on Ammani culture – and, of course, you get to eat your handiwork as well.
16 Mohammad Ali al-Saadi, Jabal Weibdeh; +962 (0)79 563 3868; www.beitsittijo.com
BEST TRAFFIC-STOPPING STREET FOOD
By universal agreement, Reem serves the best shawarma, a doner kebab-style sandwich of spit-roasted shavings of lamb stuffed into a flatbread pocket, with plenty of salad and sauces. It’s takeaway only – from a pavement stall perched beside one of the city’s busiest roundabouts and responsible for causing jams day and night as drivers triple-park to collect family-sized orders.
2nd Circle, Jabal Amman
THE MOST HAPPENING NEIGHBOURHOOD
During the day, Rainbow Street makes for a pleasant stroll: a narrow little thoroughfare whose modern cafés, galleries and antiques shops are overlaid with a friendly community spirit. On Fridays in summer, the Souk Jara open-air market of clothes and crafts runs here, but the street really comes into its own after dark. You could take all evening to amble your way down, stopping in at the arty, revamped Rainbow Cinema for which the street was named, old-style coffee houses, swanky cafés and restaurants and ending up at Books@Café (+962 (0)6 465 0457, www.booksatcafe.com) for a cocktail amid retro 70s interiors or up on the roof terrace.
BEST STEAM CLEAN
Common in Cairo, Damascus and many other cities in the Middle East and North Africa, hammams (Turkish baths) are elegant, civilised places to steam the dust out of your pores. Amman’s short history as a capital city, though, means it doesn’t share the urban traditions of its neighbours. Pasha is almost the sole exception – a modern hammam built around a gorgeous Syrian-style courtyard, with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzi, massage and a relaxed ambience. Book ahead for women-only and men-only hours, or for a mixed group.
Off Rainbow Street, 1st Circle; +962 (0)6 463 3002; www.pashaturkishbath.com
Happily settled in Amman, Nick Neibauer felt there was one thing absent from his expat life. ‘I missed good Italian coffee,’ he says. ‘While at college in Milan, I fell in love with Attibassi coffee in particular.’ So Neibauer, with a couple of partners, decided to fill the gap and Caffè Strada was born. Airy, family-friendly and – a rarity here – smoke-free, Strada has gained a reputation for excellence. As well as being the sole Jordanian importer for Attibassi, the café also offers panini, salads and a selection of expertly prepared specialist teas.
15 Mohammed Rashid Ridha Street; +962 (0)6 461 0017; www.cstrada.com
Rainbow Street has emerged as the heart of Amman’s contemporary art scene. Leading the clutch of galleries, Nabad (46 Othman bin Affan Street; +962 (0)6 465 5084; nabadartgallery.com) stages monthly art shows from Jordan and beyond in a cool, minimalist setting. ‘We hope that giving Jordanian artists some exposure will inspire others,’ says co-owner Mona Deeb. ‘We’re a business, but we have a philanthropic bent.’ Round the corner on Mango Street, Jacaranda Images (jacarandaimages.com) is dedicated to prints and artworks on paper; it also stages striking exhibitions by local photographers.
Pending the opening of Amman’s National Museum later this year, head over to the fascinating Royal Automobile Museum.
This fine building, designed by star Jordanian architect Jafar Touqan, displays beautiful cars, using them in an innovative way to examine Jordan’s 20th-century history. The collection was amassed by the late King Hussein and each gleaming vehicle has a tale to tell. Petrolheads will be enthralled by the 1916 Cadillac, the 1952 Triumph Thunderbird motorbike and the 1989 Porsche 959 Twin Turbo.
King Hussein Park; +962 (0)6 541 1392; www.royalautomuseum.jo
BEST FOR CRAFTS
Top among Amman’s craft outlets is Al-Aydi (off 2nd Circle; +962 (0)6 464 4555). Here staff act as design consultants to 100 local artisans – mostly rural women – who share in the shop’s profits. It’s a warren of a place and sells a huge variety of pieces, from hand-blown glassware, ceramics, embroidered cushions and jewellery to a mammoth collection of antique and modern carpets. Ceramics studio Silsal (off 5th Circle; +962 (0)6 593 1128; silsal.com) turns out superb tableware with Jordanian and Islamic motifs, while Beit al-Bawadi (Fawzi Qawuqji Street; +962 (0)6 593 0070; beitalbawadi.com) and Jordan River Designs (Rainbow Street; +962 (0)6 461 2169; jordanriver. jo) both act as retail outlets for rural development NGOs working to revive traditional crafts.
BEST IRAQI IMPORT
A much-underplayed aspect of Ammani culture is the Iraqi influence, notably in cuisine. Drop into Zad al-Khair restaurant for the classic Baghdadi dish masgoof - which is a whole river carp split in two, marinated in tamarind, grilled over an open fire and served with amba, a sour mango chutney. You eat scoops of the buttery, melt-in-the-mouth flesh in pockets of flatbread. It’s unique, and utterly delicious.
Um Uthayna; +962 (0)6 554 0057; www.zadelkhair.com
BEST CITY OVERVIEW
Amman is a city of hills: it purportedly started out on seven, but now spreads across at least 19. Sensational views abound. The city’s most famous terrace is at Wild Jordan Café (Othman bin Affan Street, 1st Circle; +962 (0)6 463 3542; www.wildjordancafe-jo.com). The café is a partnership with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. As well as enjoying organic salads, wraps, grills and an ace frozen mint-lemonade smoothie here, you can take in stupendous views over Amman’s ever-humming downtown area.
Or head up to Shmeisani and Vinaigrette (+962 (0)6 568 9671; www.alqasrmetropole.com) at Al-Qasr Metropole Hotel, long one of the city’s favourite rooftop bars. It has been newly refurbished, using bamboo and other warm natural woods to accompany its relaxed vibe and jazzy beats. The fine modern international menu is bettered only by floor-to-ceiling windows offering wraparound views that go on for miles.
BEST FOR STATEMENT Ts
The coolest fashion store in the city, streetwear outlet Jo Bedu has elevated the simple printed T-shirt to an art form. Founded in 2007 by entrepreneurial duo Michael Makdah and Tamer al-Masri, it specialises in retro-style designs that rely on Jordanian in-jokes for their impact: the scarlet Wadi Rum and Coke shirt is a favourite. Lots of their most striking art relies on puns in Arabic or ‘arabeezy’, an English-Arabic transliteration hybrid – but ‘I camel JO’, ripping off the 70s ‘I heart NY’ logo, is funny in any language.
10 Baouniyyeh Street, Jabal Weibdeh; +962 (0)6 461 8144; www.jo-bedu.com
BEST DAY TRIP
Roughly 75km north of Amman, the modest market town of Ajloun stands amid dense forests at 1,000m above sea level. Up here the air is fresh and the scenery green and beautiful. Stop by Ajloun’s 12th-century castle, book ahead with Wild Jordan (+962 (0)6 461 6523, rscn.org.jo) for a walk in the oak and pine woods of the Ajloun Forest Reserve, or plump for the Al-Ayoun Trail, a locally developed ramble between three rural villages, with home-cooked lunch and hospitality thrown in (contact Mohammed Swalmeh; +962 (0)77 776 5881).
BEST JORDANIAN FINE DINING
The latest buzz on Amman’s dining scene is six-months-old Sufra, offering upmarket takes on classic Jordanian dishes – which is a rarer phenomenon than you might imagine.
The setting is perfect – an old townhouse sporting patterned-tile floors, chandeliers and antique tables – while the menu takes in familiar Arabic mezze dishes, alongside local favourites such as magloubeh(‘upside-down’ meat with rice and aubergine), musakhan (spicy chicken with pine nuts) and mansaf (lamb on yoghurty rice). Make sure you leave space for the Arabic candyfloss ice cream.
28 Rainbow Street, 1st Circle; +962 (0)6 461 1468
Queen Alia International Airport is 20 miles (32 km) south of Amman. Airport Express buses run to the city’s Tabarbour bus station every 30 minutes, 6am-6pm, and every 60 minutes, 6pm-midnight. The journey takes 45 minutes and costs JD3. Alternatively, take a taxi: prices are fixed and displayed by the taxi office or on the kerbside.
Matthew Teller is an award-winning travel writer and the author of The Rough Guide to Jordan. He has a thing for Amman, and we are certain that one day there will be a statue to him at the centre of the city’s 1st Circle.