A little Middle Eastern country that packs in a lot of magic, friendly Jordan has lots on offer for families – think deserts, castles, ancient rock-cut cities, Biblical sites and two seas – especially those willing to try out a little bit of (soft-as-you-like) adventure travel. Jordanians love children, so expect your little ones to be spoiled rotten, whilst its diminutive size and excellent safety record make for extremely easy travelling. All destinations below can be reached from each other within a couple of hours’ drive, often along the stunning, historically and Biblically-significant King’s Highway. Charter taxis for the most headache-free adventures; drivers are extremely friendly, and will often pull over to avail you of mint tea or strong, sweet Arabic coffee from roadside stands. Once, en route to Petra, our driver even took time out to build a snowman for our toddlers on a high mountain pass….the ultimate in family-friendly travel.
You might find that online literature on what to see and do here can be patchy; to make it easier, here are our Top Picks, courtesy of the wonderful Laura Rihani – CEO of Discover Jordan Tours, which offers a vast array of fabulous tours and day-trips around the country, and mother of adorable five-year-old twins, Anthony and Alexis – and her amazing team at Discover Jordan. Laura notes that her clients are frequently astonished at just how warm, welcoming and hospitable Jordan is – and all the more so if you’ve a gaggle of pint-sized visitors in tow.
“Rose-red city, half as old as time…” One of the most stunning archaeological sites of the ancient world, hidden behind a barrier of rugged mountains, little explorers will relish exploring this over-2000-year-old Nabataean rock-cut city, which tired legs can choose to do from the comfort of horseback, donkey, or even camel. Families with older kids will likely love “Petra by Night” (Mon/Wed/Thur): walking the narrow, towering 1.2 km-long Siq (entrance gorge) to the iconic rock-cut Al Khazneh Treasury by candlelight is an unforgettably (if chilly: bundle up!) experience. Solid family stays can be had at the Marriott Petra (a little out-of-the-way, but well worth it) and the Moevenpick Resort, right beside the entrance gates, or, alternatively, camp it up at the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, where you can sleep in beneath-canvas comfort. And after all that exploration, stop in for a parental beer and a snack at the atmospheric, rock-cut Cave Bar – a bar, certainly, but children-friendly all the same.
Wander Amman’s Downtown
Though Amman is – by Middle Eastern standards – a calm modern city, with its western half being devoted to demure residential districts, restaurants and galleries, there’s plenty of hustle and bustle to be had in its east, where lies the capital’s busy, buzzing Downtown. Climb up to the ancient Citadel for a view of it all, before descending into streets packed with commerce, honking cars and fabulous food. Stop in at simple local Hashem Restaurant (Al Amir Mohammed St) for fine, filling hummus and falafel, and dig sticky fingers into pastry marvels at Habibah Sweets (near the downtown branch of the Arab Bank: ask any local) for dessert. Don’t, whatever you do, miss the kunaffeh, a syrup-soaked sweet cheese pastry, which sweet-teeth of all ages will love.
Jordan is home to dozens of stunning, untouched desert valleys (wadis), perfect for a spot of jumping-climbing-hiking canyoning with children above toddler age. A few great choices are Wadi Bin Hammad, Wadi Hudeira (both especially easy choices for younger children), Wadi Ghuweir, and Wadi Defnan, most filled with lots of natural vegetation, palm trees, rocks, and seasonal water sources. It pays to take along a tour guide: local tour companies (including Discover Jordan) can hook you up.
Spot wildlife at the Azraq Wetland Reserve and Shawmari Oryx Reserve
Azraq, a unique wetland oasis in the heart of the semi-arid Jordanian eastern desert and managed by the RSCN, is home to a variety of birds which stop off here each year to rest on their migration routes between Africa and Asia. Stop here for a stroll along the Marsh Trail boardwalk to catch sight of larks, warblers and buzzards, then head to the Shawmari Reserve, close by, to encounter a large herd of Arabian Oryx, a species once near-extinct, along with resident ostriches, desert gazelles and onagers (wild asses).
Dip in at the Dead Sea
How can you not? Dipping into the highly saline, buoyancy-inducing waters of the Dead Sea – the lowest point on the planet – is an obligatory when-in-the-Middle-East experience (cue 1980s postcard of man reading the Sunday Telegraph whilst bobbing about). Slather yourselves and your little ones with skin-calming Dead Sea mud straight from the ground, then go for a float to wash it off – only don’t get those salt, salt waters in your mouth. If you’re staying a night or two, nothing beats splashing out on the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, with its glorious pools, well-kept beach, sleek rooms, and immense, child-pleasing breakfast buffet. Other reliable options for comfortable stays are the Crowne Plaza – with a good kids’ club for those in need of alone-time – and the pool-heavy Jordan Valley Marriott (though note that two of its five pools are adults-only).
Clamber Ajloun Castle and Picnic in Dibeen Forest
Perched up high on a hill and the perfect place to play at knights and invaders, Aljoun, one of Jordan’s best-known castles, was built in AD 1184 by one of Saladin’s generals, and is considered a marvel of Medieval Arabic architecture. There’s a museum inside – along with plenty of vast, echoing spaces and narrow, winding staircases – and stunning views over the Jordan Valley. Later, stop off for a hike at the beautiful Aljoun Nature Reserve, where a breeding program is underway for critically endangered roe deer, or at little, flower-filled Dibeen Forest, a pretty spot for a picnic.
Far better than playing with sand castles on the Red Sea shore, head for a day-trip to one of these lesser-visited, real-deal Mamluk and Crusader strongholds. Karak, the better-preserved of the two (you’ll find detailed historical info, courtesy of Rough Guides, here), is roughly halfway between Amman and Petra, making for a great stop-off en route between the two: grab a snack at the souq (market) in Karak city below. The more ruinous Shobak, meanwhile, boasts secret passageways and atmospheric arches: well worth a pause to explore on the road between Petra (see above) and the Dana Biosphere (see below). Look out for historical re-enactments run by the Jordan Heritage Revival Company.
Hit the Desert in Wadi Rum
Head to the “Valley of the Moon” to fulfill your brood’s wildest Lawrence of Arabia urges: hike vast valleys and scale natural bridges, or, with smaller people in tow, explore by 4X4 Jeep, camel, or even hot air balloon the stunning arid landscapes that Lawrence himself called “vast, echoing, and God-like.” And an outdoorsy adventure doesn’t have to be without its little luxuries: there’s glamping galore, with Bedouin outfits such as the friendly, atmospheric Khaled’s Camp (with its own special sand-dune play area for kids), the well-run Rumshines, and Bedouin Directions offering nights under canvas – or even, in the case of Khaled’s Camp, in a rock-cut cave – with fine food, crackling campfires and shooting star sightings way into the wee hours.
Take a Cooking Class at Beit Sitti
Situated right at the heart of capital Amman’s old city, the charming, highly hospitable Beit Sitti restaurant offers chefs big and little the opportunity to try their hand at cooking a four-course Arabic meal, and dig in afterwards. Choose your menu online, add on a trip to the local vegetable market, and prepare for a fun morning of chopping, stirring and sampling.
Tramp the Trails of the Dana Biosphere & Go No-Tech at Wadi Feynan
Dana Biosphere Reserve, the largest nature reserve in Jordan, comprises some 300 square kilometers of stunning, geologically-diverse landscape, and boasts, along with bounteous wildlife, the remains of Neolithic villages, ancient copper mines, Roman aqueducts and Byzantine churches. There’s a host of easy, family-friendly hiking trails leading from Dana Village, or, alternatively, from the Rummana Campsite (see below) within the reserve; many, however, require a guide, so make sure to book with the RSCN in advance.
For a night or two in the reserve, the Rummana Campsite itself, with its bird hide for spotting species at dawn, makes for a great outdoorsy experience (tents, bedding and even meals are provided). Alternatively, for something more luxurious and entirely unforgettable, head on up to the incredible Wadi Feynan Ecolodge, solar-powered, candlelit, Bedouin-staffed and remote, from which hikes and mountain-biking can be arranged, tailored to your family’s requirements. The food is all-vegetarian, there’s no internet access, and the star-gazing is…well – out of this world.
Horse-ride at Little Petra
A lesser-known tourist destination, Little Petra (Siq Al-Beidha) is quite possibly the world’s first suburb, built by the ancient Nabateans as an off-shoot of far-more-famous nearby Petra. Stay overnight at the Little Petra Bedouin Camp, from which can be arranged family-friendly horse (or camel, if you’re so inclined) riding expeditions into the ruins – replete with carved rock-cut facades and staircases, and incredible wall paintings) – and the stunning surrounding mountains. Little film-buffs take note: the Matrix scene from the Transformers movie was shot here, at Little Petra’s monastery.
Take to the Rails
Like something a certain Mr. I. Jones might encounter on his travels, the Royal Heritage Revival Company at Wadi Rum (see above) transports visitors back to Ottoman times via a ride on its refurbished Ottoman-era train, outside which a dramatic real-life reenactment of a battle takes place (for a somewhat quirky taste of what to expect, click here). Think tanks, soldiers, plenty of guns (with fake bullets, naturally) and galloping horses…all you need to complete the picture is a Spielberg to yell “Cut!”
See Chariots in Action at the “Pompeii of the East”
Sometimes referred to as “Rome away from Rome,” the ancient city of Jerash, in continuous human habitation for more than six millennia, is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Middle East. Wander the magnificent ruins by all means, but more impressive for smaller visitors will likely be the daily chariot-racing reconstructions, put on in the restored Hippodrome by RACE (the Roman Army and Chariot Experience), with horses and charioteers, legionaries and gladiators galore.
Go Wholly Holy
With more than 2000 sites straight from the pages of the Bible – including the Baptism Site at Bethany where, according to the Bible, Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist – Jordan’s got a whole lot of Holy. At Madaba – built on the remains of the Biblical city of Medeba – head down into the tunnels beneath the Church of St John the Baptist or ascend to its bell tower for a view of the modern city, and look in on the two million-piece 6th century mosaic map of Jerusalem and the Holy Land at the Church of St. George. Alternatively, head to Mount Nebo (the place from which, according to the Bible, Moses saw the Promised Land), and the nearby La Storia museum, home to automated mannequin recreations of historical scenes (think: Instagram outsider-art heaven), and the opportunity to get your name in the World Record books by helping in the creation of the world’s largest mosaic.
Kick Back at the Red Sea
Oh, we do like to be beside the seaside…especially if that sea happens to be bathwater warm, and brimming with colourful underwater life. Rest up in comfort at Aqaba, on the shores of the Red Sea, where hotel options include the fabulous Kempinski and the highly family-friendly (there’s even a water slide) Moevenpick Resort & Spa Tala Bay. Take a glass-bottomed boat tour – or, if your kids are up for it, a submarine – and a boat-trip out to Pharaoh’s Island for incredible snorkeling over the coral reef; Sindbad, a reputable local operator, can arrange all these excursions, along with sunset cruises on beautiful sailboats. And if you chance to tire of lounging about at the hotel pool, there’s always the Berenice Beach Club, with its beach, water sports, and kids’ club, down on the balmy Red Sea shores.
Thanks, Laura and team!