Visiting Petra

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Introduction: Road-Trip Through Jordan
Review: Emirates Lounge San Francisco Airport
Review: Emirates First Class A380 San Francisco To Dubai
Review: Emirates First Class 777-300ER Dubai To Amman
Review: Mosaic City Hotel Madaba Jordan
Driving The King’s Highway In Jordan
Review: Feynan Ecolodge
The Sharah Mountains & Little Petra
Review: Glamping In Wadi Rum
Review: Petra Marriott Hotel
Visiting Petra


After a quick breakfast at the Marriott we jumped in the car and headed to Wadi Musa. The drive only took ~10 minutes, and we didn’t have any issue finding street parking across from the Movenpick.

To give you a sense of how the town and the historical site are oriented, here’s a picture taken from a hill above Petra, which I’ve added labels to.

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It’s about 2 kilometers from the Petra Visitor’s Center to the Treasury, to give you a sense of the distances. The Treasury itself is only about halfway down the main road into Petra — you’ll go another 2 kilometers to the end of the main road where you can see some of the other key sites.

You’re looking at a minimum of 5 miles of walking if you stay on the main road and don’t explore any of the side trails, so keep that in mind when choosing your footwear!

Tickets to Petra

If you stupidly haven’t purchased a Jordan Pass (more on that later), ticket prices are as follows:

  • One Day 50 JOD / ~$70 USD
  • Two Days 55 JOD / ~$78 USD
  • Three days 60 JOD / ~$85 USD

If you think there’s even a chance of going for more than one day you might as well purchase a two-day pass, as I’m not sure it’s possible to change it later.

Tickets can be purchased by credit card in theory (it was broken when we were there), or with local currency. If you need cash at the last-minute like we did, there are several ATMs in Wadi Musa, including in the lobby of the Movenpick (no ATM at the Marriott).

Exploring Petra

By the time we were done with the ruckus of getting cash and buying tickets it was about 7:15AM, which was still plenty early. There was hardly anyone there as we started walking (the fact that it was barely above freezing may have helped).

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After about a kilometer we reached the entrance to the Siq, which is every bit as impressive as you’d think.

I especially loved how the canyon narrowed in places and widened in others.

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The Siq was chaos later in the day, but in the early morning we had plenty of space to ourselves.

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While it’s a pretty walk, there’s of course more than just the landscape to enjoy. Nabatean relics dot the pathway:

Eventually you get that famous glimpse of the Treasury:

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And then the Treasury itself:

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Even in the early morning, this is Tout Central. If you want to hire a camel, donkey, carriage, guide, or possibly anything else, these gentlemen are up early and ready for you!

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Moving on then.

There are several facades along the main road, and myriad trails branching in every direction. You could spend a lot of time exploring the various temples and tombs.

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Or take a break at what is possibly the best-named souvenir shop of all time:

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The nice thing about Petra is that the desire to serve tourists makes it very approachable. You can stay on the main road and have a perfectly decent time.

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There are plenty of ruins, tombs, temples, and even an amphitheater, so there won’t be a shortage of things to see.

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The road eventually takes you down to a bit of a plaza heralded by a large gate. A pair of enterprising Jordanians had dressed up as Nabatean guards and were taking photos with tourists.

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There are washrooms in this area, along with a decent cafe (managed by the nearby Crowne Plaza, they take credit cards with an attitude). And there several structures to explore as well.

It is worth noting that despite what the maps and signs say, there isn’t a museum down here. That’s back up at the Visitor’s Center these days, but the literature hasn’t been updated.

Climbing to the Monastery

If you start early enough in the day, you can climb up to the Monastery before it gets too warm and/or crowded.

And I do mean climb. There are stairs, but they are carved into the rock, and are very steep in spots.

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And there are over 900 of them.

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The views on the way up are beautiful though!

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There are also plenty of vendors cheering you on as you make the climb (or offering to sell you things on the way back down).

Did I mention there are a lot of stairs?

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The climb took about an hour to cover ~1.5km, with the reward being the incredible facade of the Monastery:

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And lovely views of the surrounding mountains:

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That shop on the upper left was advertising the “best view in all of Petra,” and some of the other vendors pointed it out, assuring the “BEST view.”

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I think the view was far better from our hotel, so this last stretch probably isn’t worth the extra wear and tear on the toes 😉

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The climb back down only took ~15 minutes, but was quite a bit more treacherous due to the influx of people (and donkeys!) on the narrow path. I can’t imagine this being a pleasant hike during peak season, but I think regardless of the time of year you’ll want to get an early start.

Petra by Night

So here’s the thing about Petra by Night — it’s a real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma. On the one hand, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, so if you’re there, you should go based on that alone.

On the other, it’s terribly obnoxious, poorly organized, and generally overpriced, and something I hesitate to recommend. But your experience could be better, and I don’t want you to miss out on something that on paper sounds delightful just because I didn’t have a great group. So I struggle.

Petra by Night is offered three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Tickets are 17 JOD (~$24 USD), with children under 10 being free.

The idea is to enjoy a quiet walk under the stars, with the pathway through the Siq illuminated only by candlelight. There’s a small musical performance, the Treasury is illuminated nicely, and then you can meander back through the Siq and up the hill.

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That all sounds nice in practice, but the execution is stunningly poor. We’ve been discussing this since we got back, and I think the problem lies in the multiple points of sale for this experience.

If you buy your tickets directly, like we did, you are sold on “the candlelit walk” as the main purpose of the event. So you’re encouraged to take your time and reflect on the history. Tickets are also sold through hotels and as part of tour packages, and all these groups seem to sell “a concert at night.”

If you’re told you’re going to an 8:30PM concert at the Treasury, and gates open at 8:15PM, and it’s a 1.2 mile walk from the gate to the concert, you don’t take a leisurely stroll. You bomb the hill!

So that’s pretty much exactly what happened. It was a loud, boisterous, rush down the canyon, an excruciating 30 minutes where everyone tried to get seated on the ground while taking flash photos with their phones and lighting luminarias on fire, followed by two musical numbers, a brief (5 minute?) narration, and a rush back up the hill.

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But if you can pace things so that you have space from the crowd, it is quite lovely.

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If you decide to go to Petra by Night, here are my top tips:

  • Know going in that you can’t control for other people, and that they will likely be horrible
  • If you are confident walking quickly in dim light on uneven ground, be waiting at the gate when it opens for the night (no need to wait in the courtyard for the guide)
  • If you’re intimidated by the idea of rushing down a hill in a crowd, arrive late — a 9PM or even 9:15PM walk should be less crowded
  • When you arrive at the Treasury, you want to sit on either the far left (on benches at the coffee shop), or in the back on the slight right (better for photography if you’re bringing a tripod)
  • Be prepared for other people to be annoying — I can’t emphasize this enough
  • When it’s time to leave, you again want to be one of the first up the Siq, or one of the last, otherwise you’ll be getting pushed around by the crowd

Regardless of where you sit, you realistically have two opportunities to take a picture without having the exposure ruined by a phone flash or a silhouette.

When the narrator says “close your eyes and make a wish” you have your best shot at an image with a darker Treasury lit by candles. Three seconds later he’ll ask everyone to open their eyes, and the Treasury will be illuminated. If you are ready and have adjusted your camera you have about one second before everyone picks up their phones again. We were about half a second late and with the focus not quite right.

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Like I said — it’s a wonderful idea that is really diminished by all the obnoxious behaviors. But you should still go, because I’d feel badly if someone missed out on a nice moment based on the rough crowd we had.

How much time do you need?

We had budgeted one full day for Petra, with the option to expand a half-day on either side.  With our early start and the evening return for Petra by Night, that was more than plenty for us.

You certainly could spend more time — possibly endless amounts of time — exploring the site and surrounding areas. There are some great hiking trails, and plenty to discover beyond the main site.

But one day was plenty for us. I enjoyed the hiking in Dana and Wadi Rum more than in Petra (partly due to having so few people around in both places). If you are pressed for time I think you can get a good taste of Petra in a day, and if that opens up a day for another part of Jordan that’s even better.

It’s also worth noting that there isn’t much information on-site. A guide could certainly be useful, or just be prepared with a book (I loaded a basic guidebook onto my Kindle, which was perfect). There’s a lot to explore and digest.

Bottom line

Petra is incredible, and is obviously something most people will make time for when visiting Jordan, if not the impetus for an entire trip.

Because of that, it is very touristy, and that can’t really be avoided. It is what it is, basically, so the best approach is to try and embrace all the nonsense that goes along with a single site providing the bulk of a country’s tourism revenue. Jordan needs the money.

But Petra is an incredible place, and definitely somewhere you should make time to visit.

Any other tips for visiting Petra?

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Comments

  1. When I went in December, I loved Petra by night, but I did get there late and walked the Siq alone, which was just magical.

    The need to arrive early in the morning can’t be emphasized enough. There are tons of people who come on packaged day-tours from Israel whose buses arrive around 9:30 AM. I got there at 6AM, when the park opened, and had the Treasury to myself for a good 20 minutes before another soul was there, and I loved it. I also really wished I had a second day at Petra, and I would gladly have given back the time I spent in Dana for it.

  2. Been there twice and love the place. Once we were there in February and the place was quite empty. It was so tranquil and the weather was cool. We took donkey ride to the Monastery.

  3. Wonderful article, thanks! Love all the useful details about visiting. After reading this, I don’t think I would want to plan a visit when the weather is especially pleasant.

  4. I went there just as they opened. It was me and 3 other tourists in the Treasury as I got there, and the local shopkeepers were just setting up.

  5. I guess I’m in the small minority, but I thought Petra was a huge let-down. It was overrun by hawkers, scammers, and tourists – all of whom you can’t escape because you’re all squeezed into a narrow rock funnel. But, more importantly, It was the least informative and most poorly organized historic site I’ve ever visited. Who were these people? Why were they here? Why did they carve these facades? Literally no information on site. Like Tiffany, we brought a guide book, but you’d think the government of Jordan would invest some money in creating a visitor center, organized tours, or just exert some effort to clean up and manage what is likely their biggest tourist attraction. I really couldn’t wait to leave and would never recommend it to anyone.

  6. I last visited Petra in 1993. We hiked to the summit of Jebel Haroun with a Bedouin guide (totally necessary!) and was treated to a view rivaling that of the peak of Mt. Sinai. No idea if this can still be done, but it was well worth it!

  7. One great tip for seeing Petra in a less crowded way is to hike in from the back. I did this when I went to Petra and it was fantastic. The hike is definitely somewhat taxing, and there are some parts where you will navigate very narrow ledges (6-8 inches) so it’s not for everyone. However, you see some incredible natural formations you wouldn’t get to see elsewhere. You will arrive at the Monastery using this method and then work your way down to the treasury. This will help you avoid the crowds at the entrance. That being said, you will almost certainly need to hire a guide for this.

  8. @ Brian — My husband would pretty much agree with you. The only caveat is that many of the UNESCO sites we’ve visited haven’t had any information either (Machu Picchu, anywhere in Sicily, etc.), but I was also surprised that there wasn’t so much as an audio guide.

  9. +1 on Petra by Night. I’d say if you’re there when it’s offered, do it but don’t build your trip around it. We went 6ish years ago and the other audience members being loud definitely put a damper on the experience.

    Re the whole thing — I’m glad we went and it was an amazing site. But, it’s one of those sites that we are fine with it being a once in a lifetime thing. We both agreed after walking out of the Siq at night that we didn’t need to come back.

    Was the high place of sacrifice open when you were there? We hiked up there (stairs) in addition to the Monastery. My husband really wanted to go up and the view was nice. I think the fact that we hit both is one of the reasons why we were satisfied with the visit and don’t need to go back.

  10. @Luis — it was closed off when we went years ago as well. Our guide said something about it’s popularity having something to do with it. You can glimpse in — it’s nothing special on the inside (i.e. not Indiana Jones).

  11. Been there twice. We found Petra and Petra by night to be magical. A very special place that I wish on everybody to get a chance to see, visit and experience. We did pay for a university educated guide who told us the history and took us to parts of Petra not usually seen by the tourists. Worth it for JD 30.

  12. I also can’t really recommend Petra by night. We had bought tickets for the second night of our two days in Petra and we were so exhausted that we didn’t want to leave the hotel, but we begrudgingly forces ourselves to go since we had already paid for the tickets. The whole walk through the siq was crowded and we could never adjust our eyes to the dark since everyone was using their phones and flashes. The continued use of phones and flashes at the treasury was pretty annoying. I suggest you don’t buy tickets until you are sure you want to go

  13. Great story. It takes a long, long time to walk around the many spread out sights. The Monastery at the far end is definitely worth it.
    My suggestion: go first thing when the gate opens. There will likely be no one else at the first major site, the Siq and the Treasury, so you won’t have others in your photos.

  14. My husband and I went to Petra in Nov. 26 on a day tour from a cruise ship. We arranged for a private guide through Via Jordan Travel–Petra Day Tours (google them) and I would highly recommend that company to arrange for tours to Petra and Wadi Rum. There are plenty of reviews (including mine) for this company on Tripadvisor. They can arrange anything from a day trip to a week-long hiking trip in the area and they can arrange for pickup in Amman or even from Israel. The guide that we had, Ashram, grew up in Petra, and his father was also a tour guide there. He answered every question that we had about Petra and Jordanian history and explained that Petra’s importance as a stop for camel caravans. The bedouins at the time carved irrigation channels into the mountains to collect water. He stopped to show us unique rock formations and guarded us from hawkers. The siq was built carved from the top down and the markings you see on the right side of the columns on the right (and on the left side of the columns are the left) are the footholds that the workers used when carving into the mountain. We arrived early at the site before other tourists and were able to take great photos of the siq before the large tour groups from the ship arrived. The owner of the company, Hakam, responds to emails quickly and even sent us an email the night before warning that the temperature would be in the fifties and windy–good for us since we were sailing on the Red Sea the day before with temperatures in the high 80s. Petra is beautiful on your own but it is so much better with a guide who knows the history of the site. Prices when we went were $285 per person for the day with 2 people, $245 per person with 3 people, and $215 per person for 4-6 people. (That included pickup from Aquaba, which was 2 hours away). We can’t wait to go back and see more of the beautiful country of Jordan. (We have a nights and flights package from Marriott and the Marriott there is a Category 4, which would fall within the hotel component of the package!)

  15. Is Petra overrated? I understand the jordanian wadis and landscapes are amazing. But Petra alone sounds overrated; especially if there is nothing remarkable to see inside the Treasury

  16. @ VJ — Overrated might be a strong word? I’m okay with saying it wasn’t my favorite part of Jordan, but I often have that feeling at major sites like this. I enjoyed Ollantaytambo more than Machu Picchu, Herculanium more than Pompei, etc.

    The scale of Petra and the variety of construction is fascinating. In many ways I think you’ll get out of a visit what you put into it.

  17. I wouldn’t say Petra is overrated. Yes, the crowds take away some of the magic. And yes the hawkers don’t help the cause much. But there’s something unique and wonderful about seeing the architecture. It reminded me of seeing the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids at Giza. You see this grand edifice and you wonder how the people who built it got it done and what inspired them to do so. If you hate crowds and people then don’t go, but otherwise it’s terrific. As for Petra by Night, same thing. We went in knowing there’ll be crowds but we went there to see the structure in candlelight and take pictures afterwards (especially if you have a quality camera.)

  18. Nat, you’re right that the High Place of Sacrifice is amazing. It a hike, though. I did it early and saved the Monastery until later, as the Monastery looks very pretty late in the afternoon when the sun hits it.

    And for anyone who thinks the site is overrated because of the crowds, that why you should get there at 6AM, or close to it.

  19. My favourite thing about Petra was a walk over the hills to a lookout point directly opposite and above the Treasury. There’s a little Bedouin encampment there where you can sit and buy some Arabic coffee. It was quite magical. Not many people seem to know about it (my BnB host told me about it). It’s definitely worth finding out about and making the effort.

  20. One thing I found valuable on my trip to Petra was paying the bit extra for a guide. He fended off the hawkers and really gave some incredible history, both the ancient stuff and the more modern history of the area.

  21. What Tiffany most modestly forgot to add is that she is pretty physically fit to have covered all this in one day. I spent two days at Petra and what I wish I had known beforehand is how physically gruelling it is. It isn’t Disneyland for sure. It is quite some way to the entrance to the siq and another not inconsiderable distance to the Treasury. And it is all downhill meaning the return journey is agony. I also wish I had known how little sun cover there is once you get into the main site, and how rocky and uneven the terrain is. Still despite all that it was a magical place.
    @Brian – i found the signposted information perfectly adequate. When I am actually at a site, I prefer not to have too much to read. Plenty to absorb already with the other senses! Plenty of information is online, why not read up before going?

  22. Thanks for the great write up. I feel like I am there. I shared this and your other Jordan posts with a friend who is interested in going. She said that even if she never manages to go, your posts gave her the armchair experience.
    I had thought that Jordan for a tourist was basically Petra, but you’ve opened my eyes. Maybe someday I’ll find a good fare for my friend and tag along with her.

    One question: is there any reason to believe that traveler’s to Jordan will get the dreaded SSSS on future boarding passes?

  23. Thanks for an amazing trip write-up! This definitely pushes Jordan higher up on my list of places to go.

    What’s the situation like regarding bathrooms at Petra and some of the other sites? I always pack lots of water, especially if I”ll be hiking, but that has its downsides…

    You’re also lucky that you are a morning person – I’m incredibly nocturnal myself. I could get up early to go see the sights, but I’d be grumpycat. How early does the sun set there, and how safe would I be going out of my hotel after dark? Just wondering what my options would be if I wasn’t an early bird.

  24. @ Helen S — Thanks for the kind words! I wouldn’t worry about the SSSS situation with Jordan specifically. We still flew in and out of there on one-way tickets (half of which were purchased at the last minute) and haven’t noticed any issues.

  25. @ Anastasia — Good question! The Middle/Near East in general seems to have comparatively great toilet facilities in my experience. There were flush toilets at the Visitors Center and at the end of the main road near the cafe. Bring your own TP or wipes to be on the safe side, of course, and a few coins to tip the women who keep everything clean.

    If you don’t want to get up early (though I would try and make an exception here), you’ll want to go closer to summer. Sunset was ~4:30PM when we were there, and everything buttoned up shortly thereafter. Petra closes at sundown. I wouldn’t worry about walking around after dark, personally, provided you’re sober and paying attention, just like anywhere.

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