Known as the Rose City due to the pink-hued colour of the sandstone, Petra is enchanting to all who visit. The ancient city was carved from the rock by the Nabateans more than 2,300 years ago. Invaded, looted, then forgotten by the western world until it was rediscovered once more in the 1800s.
In 2019 Petra received a record number of visitors, exceeding 1 million for the first time in modern history. However, since the pandemic, numbers have dropped to just 236,088 visitors in 2021. There's never been a better time to visit Petra. Compare those figures to the 1.3 million visitors to the Taj Mahal or 1.7 million to the Colosseum (2021), and you can see that Petra is still one of the least visited New 7 Wonders of the world.
Located just a 3-hour drive south of Jordan's capital, Amman, Petra is relatively easy to get to for travellers. But you do need to be reasonably fit to explore here; Petra is a vast site at around 60km². Explore royal tombs, hike to an ancient monastery, and see the Treasury lit up by candlelight after dark.
Originally established as a settlement by the Nabateans, the first recorded reference to Petra was in 312 BCE when the Greek Empire failed to gain control over the city. Later in 106 CE, after much bartering, the Romans would succeed where the Greeks had lost, claiming Petra as their own and renaming the city Arabia Petraea.
After an earthquake in the 4th century CE, the Romans left the city, and it was taken over by the Byzantine empire, who considered Petra to be the capital of the province of Palaestina. But after 300 years of rule, they too left the city as it no longer held importance for trade.
Each empire has left its mark on Petra, much of it inspired by the rock-cut architecture of the early Nabateans. Although Petra is often described as a lost city, nomadic shepherds remained in the dwellings even after it lost its economic importance.
In 1812, the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, disguised as a Bedouin man, travelled to the ancient city of Petra, putting it back into the European spotlight. It attracted a lot of attention, not all good, and was excavated and surveyed in the years that followed.
When Petra was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, the Bedouin tribespeople who had once again made homes for themselves within the ruins were forcibly relocated by the Jordanian government.
It’s believed that 85% of Petra is yet to be uncovered. Given that UNESCO has already listed over 800 monuments, the settlement must have been one of the biggest in the ancient world.
As one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Petra is absolutely worth visiting. There is so much to see... whether you enjoy archaeology, beautiful landscapes or getting under the skin of a culture, Petra captures the imagination of everyone who visits.
Much of the archaeological site is open to tourists, but you cannot go inside the Treasury or the Monastery. It used to be possible to enter the buildings of Petra; however, the government was concerned about its preservation and closed the entrance.
The real beauty can be seen from the outside. Unfortunately, the inside is mainly bare sandstone due to many years of looting.
The 1.2km alleyway of Al-Siq guides you into the ancient city of Petra. This unique geographic feature is caused by an underground fault that split the rock apart following a shift in tectonic forces.
The result is a grand winding entrance, adding to the sense of anticipation and mystery as you make your way towards the Treasury. As you walk through the Siq you get glimpses into the ceremonial passageways and remains of millennia-old terracotta pipes that once carried water into Petra.
As you leave the cool dark walkway, you will emerge right in front of the Treasury, immediately recognisable from the film ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’. Known as Al Khazneh, the Treasury is actually a grand tomb for a Nabatean king.
European looters nicknamed it the Treasury due to the wealth found inside. If you look closely, you can still see the bullet holes where tomb raiders littered the building with ammunition to set off any booby traps.
The first royal tomb you will come to is the Urn Tomb. This tomb is built high on the mountainside and requires climbing several flights of stairs. There are three chambers above its doorway, and the central chamber is blocked by a stone that depicts the man buried inside.
Wander between the grand columns and explore the back rooms within. On the rear wall is an inscription recording the consecration of the tomb as a church in 447 AD.
Other tombs to visit include the Silk Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, and the Palace Tomb, thought to be similar to the Roman palace design of the Golden House of Nero. These tombs show a mix of Hellenistic architecture and Eastern traditions, marking a significant meeting of East and West at the turn of the first millennium.
The High Place of Sacrifice is named after its high location, perched on the Jebel Madbah Mountain. Named al-Madhbah in Arabic, it was mainly used to sacrifice animals to the Nabatean God Dushara.
It’s well worth the hike to the top as the views of the ancient city of Petra are mesmerising. At 170 metres high, the High Place of Sacrifice is not only an important historical site but also one of the tallest locations in Petra.
Climb the 800 sandstone steps to the beautiful Monastery. It will take around an hour to get there and about 30 minutes to get back if you are quicker downhill. Try not to ride the donkeys even though it saves time - they aren’t treated fairly and contribute to erosion. By not riding them, you will help to stop the cruel practice.
Along the walk, you will meet many locals selling their wares. You can buy or, alternatively, trade your own things for Bedouin crafts within Petra. Trade is still a common form of payment in this culture, and it can be a fun way to recycle your items and support the true custodians of Petra.
When you arrive, get a traditional coffee from the small tea shop opposite the Monastery. The Monastery is also a nickname, and it is called Al-Deir in Arabic. Historians believe the carved crosses discovered inside the building that led to the nickname were a Byzantine-era addition when the space was repurposed as a church.
Although Jordan is very liberal compared with its neighbours, there are some general rules for visiting the site. Petra is a historical site and it is important to dress modestly; men should wear trousers, and women can cover up with a scarf to be respectful. It’s also important to wear comfy shoes as it’s a massive site with a lot to see.
There are some other ways to preserve Petra when you visit. It’s best to avoid purchasing authentic souvenirs looted from the site or buying sand bottles: The more sand and rock taken from Petra’s natural landscape, the less stable the terrain becomes.
Also, avoid riding the donkeys (as mentioned above) and buying souvenirs from children as this, unfortunately, encourages them to stay out of education.
The months of December, January and February can see a lot of rain and even snow. Night-time temperatures can plummet below freezing in nearby Wadi Rum. June, July, August and September see temperatures of over 30 degrees centigrade and little to no rainfall.
Weather-wise, the shoulder months of April, May, October, and November are the best times to visit Petra. Visit early in the morning to have the place to yourself, or visit in the evening to see the treasury lit up by candlelight.
While it's possible to visit Petra in one day, the more time you spend there, the better. The site is vast, and there are many hikes and different routes. In addition, the ticket prices encourage you to hang around for a while and take a few days to explore the ancient city.
Petra is open from 6 am - 6 pm in the summer and 6 am - 4 pm in winter. The quietest times to visit Petra are usually in the early mornings and late afternoons.
Petra is also open in the evenings between 8.30 pm-10.30 pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for the candlelit 'Petra by Night' experience.
The best way to visit Petra as a traveller is to get a Jordan Pass before you arrive. This will include your Petra visit, waiving all tourist entry visa fees, and including free entry to over 40 attractions in Jordan.
It makes sense to buy the Jordan pass if you’re visiting Petra. Most foreign citizens will need a visa to enter Jordan, costing 40 JD, combined with a visit to Petra at 50 JD, anything else you do is free with a Jordan pass (70 JD).
Tours to Petra can be arranged from Amman or Aqaba, a 2-hour drive south. Multiday tours will often include a trip to Wadi Rum, a beautiful desert famous from films such as ‘The Martian’, and an overnight stop at a Bedouin camp. But it is also easy to explore Petra on your own, by public transport or by hiring a car.
A one-day ticket costs JD50* (around £53 or US$70) per person (a two-day ticket is only JD55 and a three-day ticket JD60).
Petra by Night tickets cost JD17 (£18/$24).
Children under 15 get free entry.
You can also book a guided tour of the ruins if you want more context when you visit.
*These are the prices if you are staying in Jordan; if you’re on a day trip and not staying in the country overnight, then the price is higher.
Most visitors to Petra will stay in the nearby Wadi Musa. It’s jam-packed with hotels, and two great options are the Petra Desert Dream Hotel and Infinity Lodge. If you want to try something a little different, you can also stay at Little Petra Bedouin Camp, just 5km from the archaeological site.
It’s owned and operated by a Bedouin family originating from Petra and is eco-friendly. Stay on comfy double beds in private tents, and get the opportunity to experience traditional Bedouin culture.