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Guide to visiting ancient Petra: The rose-red city of wonder

Gazing up at the monuments of the ancient lost city of Petra – feet sinking into soft red sand and dust swirling about – you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of its ancient Nabatean builders.

Wealthy traders and masterful rock sculptors, they chiseled a vast city of beautifully carved tombs, temples and houses out of rose-and-peach rock in the Jordanian desert.

Today, Petra is a a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has more than 800 registered archeological sites, including 500 tombs.

And it’s a marvel to visit – a place you must put on your travel bucket list.

Dating back to the 4th century B.C., the lost city of Petra is one of the world's most important archaeological sites.
Dating back to the 4th century B.C., the lost city of Petra is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites

Lost city of Petra, Jordan

History of ancient Petra

The Nabateans started building Petra around the 5th century B.C.

They likely chose the site for easy defence. Its wondrous entrance way – the Siq – is its only access.

For ancient Petra stood at the crossroads of ancient trade routes linking East and West.

Caravans of camels loaded with spices, incense, silks and gold were taxed by the Nabateans for safe entry through the Siq.

The Monastery is Petra's largest monument.
The Monastery is Petra’s largest monument

A center for trade and culture, Petra at its height was a glory of the ancient world.

Over time, however, its glory began to fade and it was eventually abandoned 800 years after being founded.

Many of the tombs were looted and, for centuries, Petra was “lost” to the modern world.

Lost City of Petra
Sunlight bathes Petra in a golden glow…

Lost, that is, until a Swiss explorer named Johannes Burckhardt re-discovered it in 1812.

The story goes that, dressed as an Arab, he persuaded his Bedouin guide to lead him to the lost city.

The western world took notice of this once-great city, and archaeologists began excavating Petra.

The lost city of Petra is one of the world's most wonderful ancient marvels.
The lost city of Petra is one of the world’s most wonderful ancient marvels

Petra today ranks alongside the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”

In recent times, more than a million people have visited Petra each year.

You can bargain for a camel ride at Petra.
You can bargain for a camel ride at Petra

Petra Siq

To reach the Petra ruins, a horse carries you along a stony track to the entrance of the fabled Siq, a 3/4-mile path snaking through a narrow mountain canyon.

A horse pulls a carriage along the Petra Siq
A horse-drawn carriage clip-clops through the Siq

At the entrance, you can ride in a horse-drawn carriage – or walk – through the Siq.

Sandstone cliffs soar more than 260 feet high on either side as you make your way along the Siq’s twisting turns.

It’s quite dramatic to follow this path – sometimes it squeezes tight to only seven feet in width.

Ancient Petra's only access is the Siq, created by an age-old earthquake.
Ancient Petra’s only access is the Siq, created by an age-old earthquake

Stone idols line the rock walls, and guides point out the clay pipes that fed water into the city.

The limestone slabs beneath your feet or carriage wheels date back to Roman times.

Weird rock formations line the Siq in the ancient city of Petra.
Don’t you think these giant rock formations lining the Siq look like elephants?

Petra Treasury

Suddenly a magnificent rock carving – the Treasury (or Al-Khazneh) comes into view.

At the end of the Siq, the Treasury suddenly bursts into view.
At the end of the Siq, the Treasury suddenly bursts into view

You can’t help but gasp when you see this colossal 140-foot high monument.

Sunlight illuminates the façade’s double row of 12 Corinthian columns, crowned by a giant stone urn.

Look closely, and you can see bullet holes fired at the Treasury by Bedouin tribes.
Look closely, and you can see bullet holes fired at the Treasury by Bedouin tribes, who tried to dislodge the treasure that a Pharaoh supposedly hid in the urn

Despite its name, the Treasury never actually contained treasure.

It was a tomb that was later used as a temple. (Inside, there’s nothing much to see except for a couple of bare rooms with high ceilings.)

Petra tombs

One of the Royal Tombs, the Urn Tomb is built high up on the side of a mountain at Petra.
One of the Royal Tombs, the Urn Tomb is built high up on the side of a mountain

Now turn left down a colonnaded street. (The horse carriages only go as far as the Treasury, so you have to walk.)

Hundreds of royal tombs, sacred halls, mammoth temples, cave houses and even an ampitheater sprawl before you in a desert valley.

Climbing up to the Petra Monastery

You have to climb up 850 steps (or take a donkey) to reach the Monastery, Petra.
You have to climb up 850 steps (or take a donkey) to reach the Monastery

Petra’s grandest edifice is the Monastery.

It’s some distance away from the Treasury – and a breath-sucking climb up 850 granite steps (or you can ride a donkey up).

Petra Monastery
Looking up at the Petra Monastery

At least you can get a refreshing cup of tea from a simple Bedouin tea shack up top.

Close-up of the magnificent Monastery, Petra
Close-up of the magnificent Monastery

Interestingly, researchers have discovered the Nabateans sculpted their monuments to capture key celestial events and sunlight images, such as the lion’s head (a sacred animal) reflected by the setting sun at the Monastery.

People and donkeys share the steps up to (and down from) the Monastery at Petra.
People and donkeys share the steps up to (and down from) the Monastery

Recommended reading: If you love Petra, you’ll love Egypt’s ancient tombs and temples too

Ancient city of Petra – not forgotten today

Window to the ancient world of Petra
Window to the ancient world?

Petra thrived for centuries, only fading away away in the 4th century A.D. when the Nabateans left – perhaps earthquakes or shifting trade routes led to its decline.

After Burckhardt re-discovered Petra, the English theological scholar John William Burgon penned a poem in 1845 about Petra.

Even though he never actually visited the city, he famously called it “a rose-red city half as old as time.”

The name stuck, and the city is known today as the rose-red city of Petra.

A Bedouin points out the different colors of the rock at the lost city of Petra.
A Bedouin points out the different colors of the rock

So far, perhaps only 15% of the city has been unearthed.

Who knows what other secrets this ancient kingdom may yet reveal?

Souvenir stand in the rose-red city of Petra
Souvenirs anyone? Little stalls throughout ancient Petra sell jewelry and souvenirs

Petra by night

If you stay overnight (which we highly recommend), you may want to return to the Petra archaeological site when it’s dark.

Visiting Petra at night is a totally different experience.

Petra by Night
Experiencing Petra at night, when it’s lit by candles, is very different than exploring Petra by day

That’s when the Siq is hand-lit by 1,500 candles.

You slowly walk along the Siq to the Treasury. No large tourist groups. No horse-drawn carriages passing you by.

Expect to be completely awed by the silence and the experience of treading the centuries-worn path by candlelight.

When you reach the Treasury, you sit on rugs and listen to a musician play an ancient flute-like instrument and a Bedouin guide share a story about Petra.

A fan of UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Sri Lanka has 8 fabulous UNESCO sites (read next)

Tips: How to visit Petra

Petra is the best of Jordan’s tourist attractions.

Many travelers visit Jordan and Petra Archaeologic Park on package tours. Cruises to the Middle East often offer shore excursions to Petra too.

Here are some useful tips for visiting Petra:

Best time to visit Petra:

Spring (March to May) and autumn (September to November) are the best times to visit, when days are pleasantly warm.

Avoid the scorching heat of summer.

Is it safe to visit Petra?

Jordan is generally considered safe to visit (but check government travel advisories before you go).

Health and comfort:

You shouldn’t get sick if you drink only bottled water and eat at recommended places.

As Petra is sandy, wear comfortable closed-toe walking shoes (not travel sandals) and carry bottled water, a hat and sunscreen.

Practical information for visiting Petra

Amman is the capital of Jordan. If flying into Amman, here’s how to get from Amman to Petra.

If traveling independently, hire a licensed tour guide to make the most of your Petra visit (book at the Petra Visitor Centre).

Ideally, allow two days to take in the whole 65-acre site. Two-day entrance fees are 55 J.D. (about $78 USD) and include a horseback ride to the beginning of the Siq (extra cost for a horse-drawn carriage ride to the Treasury monument). A one-day entrance fee is 50 J.D. (about $70 USD).

The 2-hour “Petra by Night” 2-hour show is offered on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, starting at 8:30 pm. Tickets for this cost extra: 17 JD (about $24 USD).

Try to walk up to the Monastery, rather than paying to ride a donkey. (Charities work with the animals’ owners to help improve their conditions, but there are still reports of mistreatment.)

For more Petra facts and information, see the Visit Petra website.

Where to stay in Petra

Because the Movenpick Resort Petra is next to Petra, you can visit the site several times.
Because the Movenpick Resort Petra is next to Petra, you can visit the site several times

We stayed at four fabulous luxury hotels in Jordan; the 5-star Movenpick Resort was our base in Petra.

It’s the closest hotel to Petra, located directly at the site’s entrance, and has 183 newly renovated rooms and an outdoor pool.

Movenpick Resort Petra: Check rates and availability

More Petra travel information

For more Petra facts and information, see the Visit Petra website.

Also check out the Rough Guide to Jordan and other Petra guides and travel books (e.g., Moon and DK Eyewitness), available on Amazon. (As an Amazon associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.)

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Ancient City of Petra

Photo credits: 2, 5 to 11, 13 to 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photos 4, 12, 19 courtesy Visit Petra


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Jessica

Friday 8th of May 2015

The giant rock formations really do look like elephants! I really enjoyed reading your post; it really felt like I was right there next to you as you traveled through the ancient city of Petra. Great tips at the end about when to go and where to stay-- this will definitely come in handy for anybody considering a trip to Petra.

Muza-chan

Friday 26th of September 2014

Amazing...

Nita

Thursday 25th of September 2014

Wow! Jordan has been on my mind a lot lately and your post makes me want to visit even more. Beautiful pictures and excellent writing! :)

Shikha

Friday 12th of September 2014

Gorgeous gorgeous photographs! This is one country I'm just desperate to visit - it looks truly spectacular and I've never heard anyone say they didn't love Petra - stunning :)

Parm Parmar

Tuesday 26th of August 2014

Wow.. fabulous post. makes me want to go there ASAP. Your photographs capture the place so beautifully.