Petra is not the best ruins complex in the world. It’s the best ruins experience. Sure, visiting Petra involves seeing tombs and ruins. But it also involves hiking through rose-red wadis and secret passages, encountering camels and wild mountain goats, and having tea with the nomadic Bedouins who still inhabit the area.
Petra, and the Nabataean people who inhabited it, remain a mystery to historians. While little is known about this ancient city, it’s still thoroughly enjoying and fascinating to explore — even if you’re not a ruins buff.
Don’t even think about trying to cover this massive complex in just one day. You need at least two — and ideally three. This list of essential experiences to have when visiting Petra will help you plan the perfect trip to the Rose Red City!
1. Walk through the Siq to catch a glimpse of the sunlit Treasury
One of the best parts of visiting Petra comes before you even get to the ruins themselves. Walking through the two-kilometer-long canyon called the Siq that leads to the Treasury — Petra’s most iconic building — is unforgettable.
The Siq’s high walls obscure the sunlight, giving it a mysterious and adventurous vibe. In the afternoon, you’ll share the path with dozens of tour groups and people riding horses. But if you go first thing in the morning, you could have the canyon entirely to yourself.
As you near the end, rays of sun poke through and you catch glimpses of the Treasury. Finally, you stumble into a clearing, staring up at this massive building, bright pink in color, carved into the side of a mountain. And that is how your trip to Petra begins.
The Treasury itself is actually a tomb. It earned its name because a fortune was buried here along with its Egyptian owner, at least according to local legend. You may or may not be able to peak inside, depending on excavations, but the interior is completely empty anyway.
Try to arrive at the Treasury by 10 am to see it fully sunlit. The best views are not actually from the path through the Siq, but from the lookout above the Royal Tombs — more on that later.
2. Climb to the High Place of Sacrifice
As soon as you get into the ruins complex, you’ll be tempted to follow the crowds of Petra tours toward the Roman theater — the most imposing landmark beyond the treasury. But instead, take a left to find the path to the High Place of Sacrifice — one of the most remarkable places in ancient Petra.
The steep climb takes 45 minutes, but the stairs are well-maintained and anyone in decent shape can do it. About halfway up you’ll find a tea/souvenir stall, which makes for a good break.
Continue until you reach a set of two 6-meter-high obelisks. These were carved out of the surrounding rock — all the empty space around them used to be sheer cliff face. You’ll also find some of the best views you can get while visiting Petra, both across the desert and up to the Royal Tombs.
The actual High Place of Sacrifice is off to the right. You can see the altar itself, along with more epic views of the landscape and the rest of the historical park.
Instead of going back the way you came, take another 90 minutes to loop around the back of the mountain to visit some remote tombs. The technicolor Tomb of the Roman Soldier is a highlight, as is the Lion Monument. Bear in mind that the path is not always clear — just keep following the bed of Wadi Farasa and you’ll eventually figure out where you are. The path leaves you a short walk from Qasr al-Bint — one of the most important temples in the ancient city.
Try to do this circuit in the late afternoon, when it’s not too hot for hiking. Set out by 2 pm and you’ll safely make it back before the park closes.
3. Explore the Royal Tombs
The Treasury may be Petra’s most famous building, but the Royal Tombs are its most spectacular. These massive structures are unmissable when visiting Petra.
Once you pass the Roman theater, the tombs are off to your right as you enter the complex. A short staircase leads up to the base of them. You can’t go completely inside, but you can poke your nose in from the doorway. The Urn Tomb is among the most elaborately decorated ruins of Petra — look on both the outside and the inside for neat little details like a carving of the king dressed in a toga.
Time your visit to the Royal Tombs as late as possible in the afternoon. The fading sunlight strikes the rock faces and turns them a stunning gold/pink color.
4. Walk down the colonnaded street
Once the main road in the Ancient City of Petra, today the colonnaded street retains little of its former glory. It’s still worth a stroll to see the many small structures along the way. These give you a sense of what daily life was like back in Nabataean times.
Along the way, you’ll pass the Royal Palace, the market area, the baths, and a fountain. You’ll eventually come to the city’s gate — which separated secular life on the outside with spiritual life at the Qasr Al Bint.
Many of the structures in this area were elaborately painted. Today, they’ve been restored so you can get a sense of their original colors.
Off to your right, away from the main path, look for a covered area up on a hill. Under the covering are a set of mosaics. Archaeologists are still excavating this part of the park.
At the end of the colonnaded street, continue away from the entrance to reach the next essential Petra travel experience.
5. Walk up the 800 steps to the Monastery
The Monastery is one of Petra’s headline sights. But considering how iconic and epic it is, relatively few tourists make it here — even most tours to Petra skip it. Maybe that’s because of the long, steep climb?
The Monastery looks quite similar to the Treasury, but it’s actually far bigger and was probably used for religious purposes. The pathway leading to it was once a processional.
It takes about 45 minutes to climb the 800 steps to the Monastery from the end of the colonnaded street. You can hire a donkey if you must, for around 20 JD round-trip, but you’re better off walking. Follow a few side trails to small tombs, including one containing lion carvings.
The views of the Monastery from the top are amazing — particularly around 4 pm and later. For even more incredible views out over the desert and Wadi Araba, follow the side paths another 15 minutes. Local Bedouin kids who hang out up here can show you the way.
6. Hike through Wadi Muthlim
So you’ve been in Petra a couple days. You’ve walked through the Siq enough times that it’s getting boring. The tombs are all starting to look the same. Now what?
Now is when it gets good. On your second or third day, instead of walking through the Siq, travel to Petra through the “secret” hike through Wadi Muthlim. Allow three hours for this hike and do it first thing in the morning.
While this is the single best experience you can have while visiting Petra, it merits a few words of warning. This is not an easy hike. There are three points where you have to lower yourself over boulder blockades several meters tall. It’s more akin to a rock scramble than a hike. If you get nervous between blockades, you could get stuck, unable to climb back up the way you came and unable to continue. Don’t attempt to go past the first (and easiest) one if you’re not sure you can make it through all three.
Additionally, the wadi is prone to flash flooding. Do not attempt this hike alone (you may even be required to have a Petra guide as of 2018) and don’t try it if it could rain or has recently rained.
To reach the starting point, take a right at the entrance to the Siq, down a “path” that won’t really look like a path. Start walking along the canyon’s edge, on the left side. At some point, you’ll have to cross over — there is no ideal place to do this, and it’s a little vertigo-inducing. Then, you’ll see a point where you can walk down into the canyon.
Once you’re in the canyon, just follow the riverbed. Along the way, you’ll pass small tombs and monuments engraved in the canyon walls. Imagine the ancient city with this massive river running through it. Soak up the atmosphere and marvel at how few people make it to this corner of the park. The trail gets very narrow toward the end, then opens up near a pathway behind the Royal Tombs.
Then, you’ll see a huge — and steep — staircase in front of you. Climb 1,000 steps to get Petra’s best aerial view of the Treasury. There’s nothing like it.
Walk down the stairs and around the Royal Tombs and you’ll be back in the heart of the Ancient City of Petra.
7. Join the Bedouins for tea
Adding to the experience of visiting Petra are the Bedouins who call this area home.
You’ll meet people like Sabah, the woman who sat and chatted with me for nearly an hour when I got lost finding a path.
Or Raja, the 12-year-old girl who called me her “half-sister” after I let her try on my sunglasses.
Or the old man who saw me and a few travel buddies scrambling through Wadi Muthlim and shouted “come tea!” He invited us back to a cave he was camping in. All he had with him were a small carpet, a tin tea kettle, and a single cup. He brewed us a fresh pot, poured it into the cup, and passed it around to the six backpackers sitting around his fire for a few sips each while we rested our feet. It was possibly the most memorable fifteen minutes of all of my world travels.
The Bedouins are extremely hospitable, but keep in mind that their culture is heavily built on reciprocity. Don’t take from them without giving something in return — whether it’s a few coins, purchasing something from their shops, or sharing your snacks. It’s more about the gesture of giving than what you actually give.
If you follow that simple cultural tradition, you’ll find that the Bedouin people will totally open up to you and welcome you. It makes visiting Petra that much more special to share it with the people who call it home.
Practicalities for visiting Petra
The gateway for your trip to Petra is the small, friendly, scruffy town of Wadi Musa. The ruins themselves are 2 km down the hill — most hotels run free shuttles, or you can walk.
Petra entrance fee
Visiting Petra isn’t cheap, but it’s totally worth the ticket price. Spring for more time in the park — you won’t regret it.
The general admission ticket for one day in Petra is 50 JD. This goes up to 55 JD for two days, or 60 for three (recommended). If you purchased a Jordan Pass before you arrived in the country, you don’t have to pay the Petra entrance fee.
However, if you’re visiting Petra from Israel, the cost of your Petra tickets goes up to 90 JD. To further add to the complication, if you stay overnight but visit Petra on your first day in Jordan, you’ll have to pay 90 JD when you arrive — but you can return to the ticket booth the following day to get 40 JD back.
How to get to Petra
To get from Amman to Petra, you could take the 6:30 am JETT bus (tourist bus) from the company’s office in downtown. If that’s too early for you, head to the south (“Wihdat”) bus station in Amman and pick up a minibus (expect to wait 30 minutes for it to fill up). Both options take about 4 hours and drop you at the Petra Visitor’s Center.
If you’ve been soaking up the sun with a few days in Aqaba, or you’re headed from Wadi Rum to Petra, you’ll have to take a minibus. They leave when full — especially from Wadi Rum, you may need your camp manager’s help to arrange one.
From Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the easiest option is to take a bus from Jerusalem to the King Hussein Bridge. Walk across the border — long queues are common — and pick up a service taxi to Amman’s south bus station from the Jordanian side. You must have a pre-arranged Jordanian visa. Once you get to Amman, change for a minibus to Petra. This will take the better part of a day and will cost around $10 USD total.
Alternatively, many tours to Petra will pick you up in Amman, Aqaba, or Israel and the Palestinian Territories and whisk you to the ruins. While having a Petra guide can be informative, these tours tend to be extremely rushed and are only a good option if you’re very short on time.
Where to stay
The Valentine Inn is a gravitational force sucking all the backpackers in town in. Luckily it’s a great guesthouse.
The large but very clean dorms cost 5 JD. You can also buy filling and delicious breakfasts and dinners for around 3-5 JD. The hotel provides transportation to and from the ruins of Petra and the minibus stand. You can get a hot shower during a couple hours each morning and evening.
On top of those amenities, the guesthouse screens Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade regularly, and has a generally social vibe. One evening when I stayed there they even put on a folk music performance for the guests.
Where to eat
The restaurants in the historical park itself looked pretty awful and are wildly overpriced. Your best option for lunch is to pack a picnic.
The bakery at the edge of town (to your left from the roundabout) is a great place to stock up. Every convenience store and corner cafe will sell you hummus and yogurt in portable containers.
If you’re not eating at your guesthouse, everybody’s favorite choice for dinner when they visit Petra is Oriental Restaurant. You can try most typical Jordanian specialties for around 6 JD. Beit Al Barakah Restaurant has cheap schwarma and Turkish coffee.
You can’t help but fall in love with Jordan and its ancient culture while visiting Petra. These seven experiences will surely make your trip unforgettable.
Have you ever visited the Rose Red City? Any suggested additions to this Petra travel guide? Leave a comment!
Like this post? Pin it!
[…] backpackers in Jordan head immediately south, to visit Petra and Wadi Rum. The north is often overlooked, but it shouldn’t be — it’s an area […]