You’d have to try pretty hard to have a bad experience at Petra, the stunning ancient city carved into the desert cliffs of southern Jordan. That said, the landscape there is extreme, and aside from the Treasury building, the way to the gems not always obvious. After my trip there last December, I assembled this list of 10 things you can do to get the most out of this trip of a lifetime to the Lost City of Petra.
1. Pick the Right Time of Year
Peak tourist season in Petra happens between March and May, and again in October and November. The summer months are prohibitively hot, while over the winter heavy rains can cause flash floods and keep parts of Petra off limits. That said, I visited in early December and found the entire situation ideal. The weather was cool—perfect for hiking—and the crowds were at an entirely pleasant level. I got lucky to have no rain.
Keep in mind that tourism to Jordan is down significantly over the past few years, no thanks to the civil war in neighboring Syria and a general, if misunderstood, fear of ISIS in the West. Between 2010 and 2014, visitors to Petra fell by a full 50 percent. This means that even during high season, now can be a great time to go to Petra.
2. Give It Two Days, Minimum
You’ve come all the way here. Don’t try to cram it all into one day. I had two, but wish I’d had three. You absolutely don’t want to have to rush through the Siq and the Treasury—you’ll need to devote a half-day to those two highlights. Give another half day to simply wandering the desert, and make time for at least one of the once-in-a-lifetime hikes available in the within Petra.
The water within Petra is obscenely expensive—think airport prices. If at all possible, bring water with you from Wadi Musa. You’ll need it—the air is dry and shade can be scarce.
4. Check Out the Back Entrance
On my first of two days at Petra, I did what everyone does and entered through the Siq. You have to do this once—emerging onto the Treasury from those narrow canyon walls is an experience of a lifetime. But on the second day, we hopped in a $5 (US) cab to the little known back entrance, next to the village of Umm Sayhoun.
From there, we descended into the park, walking with some schoolkids on their way to meet up with their parents, then found ourselves directly at the base of the hike up to the Monastery (also a must-do. See below). Note that tickets are not sold at the back entrance—you must buy one ahead of time at the main entrance.
5. Hike to the Monastery
Even bigger and grander than the Treasury, the Monastery sits dramatically atop a desert mountain. The hike up takes about an hour, and you’ll come across plenty of local craft and food stalls along the way. There’s a café at the top where you can have lunch and wonder how on earth the ancient Nabateans pulled off this feat.
Walk a little past the Monastery itself and you’ll find several outlooks over the entire dramatic mountain range.
This is an absolute must—you’ll find plenty of opportunities, especially along the hike up to the Monastery. It’s fresh squeezed and divine.
7. Get a Drink at Cave Bar
Just outside the main entrance to Petra next to the Petra Guest House Hotel, the Cave Bar is self-explanatory: It’s a great bar housed in a 2,000-year-old cave tomb. There’s live lounge music most nights, and plenty of cool stone nooks to settle into. The food is tasty, too.
Note: There are no liquor stores in Wadi Musa, the town where all the hotels are. For quite a premium, Cave Bar sell you bottles of booze to-go, which is especially helpful if you’re prepping for a night or two in the nearby Wadi Rum desert.
My otherwise reliable Lonely Planet guide recommended The Petra Palace Hotel, but I was disappointed in it. On our first night there, we had a drink at the Mövenpick Hotel a few doors down—it was stunning, and not terribly more expensive than our dreary place. The Mövenpick is also directly across the street from the entrance to Petra. It doesn’t get more convenient.
Note that there’s another Mövenpick a 10-minute drive from Petra—don’t get them confused.
9. Hire a Donkey on the Way Up Only…
…if you must get one at all. The hikes up are most rewarding if you’ve done it yourself. That won’t be an option for everyone, of course, but even if you need to ride all or part of the way up (there will be plenty of offers along the way if you get tired), forego the donkey on the way down—they have no speed limit or fear of death.
10. Petra at Night Is Nice, But Not a Must
Visiting Petra at night requires a separate ticket, which costs 17 Jordanian dinars (about $24 US). I’m glad I did it, but it’s a very structured experience, and a little cheesy at times. Also bear in mind that it would be more accurately called The Treasury at Night, since that’s all you’ll have access to. If you’re on a tight schedule, I wouldn’t sweat missing out on Petra at Night. If you’ve got a free evening, though, by all means do it.