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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.

This 3/4-mile path snakes 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

Petra’s grandest edifice is the 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

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

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

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.

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.)

Craving more exotic travel inspiration?

Mozambique: From swimming with wild dolphins to strolling haunting colonial ruins, there are many unique things to do in Mozambique on a luxury beach holiday.

Bora Bora: There’s nothing like staying in one of the beautiful overwater bungalows in Bora Bora. See the pros and cons for the best ones.

Athens: Is Athens worth visiting? You bet! From the fabulous Acropolis Museum to the changing of the guards, check out the many good reasons to go.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


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Ancient City of Petra

Photo credits: 2, 5 to 12, 14 to 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photos 4, 13, 19 courtesy Visit Petra


About the authors

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

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

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  1. Irene S. Levine says:

    Thanks for the beautiful photography and a glimpse into what sounds like a fantastic journey!

  2. Michele Peterson says:

    I’ve long wanted to travel to Jordan to see Petra and your photos and description of Nabatean history has inspired me to make it sooner rather than later.

  3. Amy Lynne Hayes says:

    Your photos are amazing!!! I confess the Middle East has not been high on my list of places to visit, but I have become more intrigued as of late. I think my family would throw a fit given the safety issues for much of that region though. But, as you say, Jordan is pretty safe. This would be an incredible site to experience in person.

    • If you visit Petra, you should also take a spin in a jeep with a Bedouin guide around Wadi Rum, Lawrence of Arabia’s stomping grounds. And you can do some beaching too down in Aqaba. Cross fingers – Jordan is safe for now…

  4. Ryan says:

    Excellent photos, Janice! Totally agree with you that visiting in the summer months would be a horrible idea. My wife and I visited in March 2009 and even found that the weather then was borderline too hot, especially as soon as you get into the wide open area past the treasury—there’s literally no shade on the trails! Definitely gotta wear a hat and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate; sun stroke is all-too real of a possibility over there. Thanks for sharing, Janice!

  5. Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Janice and George,

    Amazing shots! This brings me back to the classic Indiana Jones movie. Seeing the images is a throwback, and I can only imagine how it felt to see this in person….although your images did a fine job relaying the feeling.

    Thanks Guys.

    Tweeting in a bit.

    Ryan

  6. Dana Newman says:

    Especially love the shot looking up up up at the entrance! Thanks for the tips–this is definitely on my list of places I’d like to visit! Glad to hear you had a positive experience.

  7. Frank says:

    Gorgeous photos. We’ve never travelled in the Middle East and might never – but if there is one site I’d like to see it’s Petra.
    Very informative post,
    Frank (bbqboy)

  8. Shaun says:

    Awesome info and great photos! Jordan is in my “see you soon” list. Hope to get there early 2015 so this is so helpful!

  9. Michelle da Silva Richmond says:

    Wonderful post and excellent photos. Petra has been on my bucket list for many years. I hope to get there one day…..especially after reading this.

  10. Donna Janke says:

    An amazing place. To think that so much detail on the architecture remains after all these centuries and that only 60% of Petra has been unearthed. I would love the opportunity to see this.

  11. Kay Dougherty says:

    I really enjoyed your post and photographs and thanks for the helpful tips at the end. My sister has bad asthma so she was very happy to hear about the donkey option for getting to the monastery! We’ve been wanting to go to Petra for years; maybe your post will nudge us along!

  12. Betsy Wuebker says:

    I am enthralled with your magnificent photos, but your excellent background information told just as important a story. Thanks for an excellent post.

  13. Dorothée says:

    I love your pictures, they are beautiful. The camel looks pretty friendly too. Hard to grasp they really started building Petra so many centuries ago, fantastic.

  14. Michelle says:

    These photos all take my breath away. I would only dare travel to Petra with a group (my husband wouldn’t go). Thank you for the travel tips because I would love to see this beautiful area.

  15. Juergen says:

    Jordan is still high up on my bucket list. Unfortunately recent troubles everywhere rendered our initial plan infeasible! We were going to drive (right now) from Central Europe through Syria and Jordan into Egypt, then continue south in Africa, Sudan being the next country… What happened: first the uprising in Egypt, then civil war in Syria, now on top of it civil war in Sudan :(
    I hope one day we will be able to do it…

    Greetings from South America instead.

  16. Marilyn Jones says:

    Your article on Petra is one of the best, and most useful for anyone planning a visit, that I have ever read! And your photos really capture everything so well. Excellent, excellent post!

  17. Carole Terwilliger Meyers says:

    Petra is truly a breath-taking sight. Those poor donkeys! I walked in, but had the exhilarating experience of riding out fast in a horse-pulled chariot. Amazing.

  18. Suzanne Fluhr says:

    We were invited to visit one of my husband’s colleagues in Jerusalem in March, but something tells me that might not be happening. I had already decided that a visit to Petra should be part of the same trip, and your post has certainly solidified that decision.

  19. Doreen Pendgracs says:

    There is no way I could manage 850 stairs with my knees! And the donkey ride doesn’t thrill me either. We did that in Greece and there was no rail or anything to break one’s fall down the cliff if the donkey lost his footing. And in that blazing heat … Anything is possible! But that aside, Petra does indeed look like a fascinating place. Thx for sharing your experience with us.

  20. Keith Kellett says:

    Great photos! I’d recommend to walk down the Siq; you can ride or take a carriage back (because you’ll be shattered after a long day’s exploring! :D). And, if you buy those lovely little bottles of different coloured sand, be sure to pack it securely, or you really will have ‘sand in your suitcase’!

  21. Nat says:

    Great photos and yes the rock formations do look like elephants. I thought that exactly, even before reading the photo’s title.

  22. Charu says:

    I had low expectations for Petra (not one for much hype), but like my visit to the Grand Canyon, Petra surprised by an overabundant excess. Your chronicles make me crave more; beautifully written.

  23. Alex says:

    Wonderful post with amazing photos! I’ve always wanted to visit Petra since I was a boy and saw ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.’ I always thought it would be cool to kinda live my life in a similar form…without the gun battles ;) Someday I’ll get to Petra but in the meantime your photos took me there in spirit!

  24. Freya says:

    Visiting Petra has been on my list for a long time but for some reason I still did not make it there. It looks so beautiful, you’re stunning photos even want me to more. Who know maybe next year

  25. Parm Parmar says:

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

  26. Shikha says:

    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 :)

  27. Nita says:

    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! :)

  28. Muza-chan says:

    Amazing…

  29. Jessica says:

    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.