x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Amman: thousands of years young

My kind of place Jordan's capital has great weather, relaxed people and surprising diversity.

The Citadel is a historic site on the top of Amman's highest hill that is now a popular venue for local performances.
The Citadel is a historic site on the top of Amman's highest hill that is now a popular venue for local performances.

The quiet Jordanian capital is often overlooked, and unfairly so. Despite the unusual heatwave currently blanketing the country, Amman is known in the Levant for having the best summer weather, with dry, sunny days and balmy nights. One of the oldest cities in the world and a young Arab capital, Amman's greatest feat is its convergence: old and new, east and west. No two visits will ever be the same: change is a constant.

Amman has a diversity driven by the coming together of different peoples in various neighbourhoods, for refuge or opportunity. The capital is a product of the 20th century, despite its ancient roots - a population that was 2,500 in 1900 is quickly approaching three million today. The city has a laid-back feel, where residents want nothing more than to enjoy life, sitting on their terraces and balconies as the sunsets briefly bring the rolling hills of short white buildings to fiery life, armed with nothing more than gossip and fresh fruit, and surrounded by plumes of flavoured tobacco smoke wafting out of their pipes.

The epitome of luxury and style is the Four Seasons Amman, with its dramatic hilltop location on the 5th Circle (www.fourseasons.com/amman; 00 962 6 550 5555). Double rooms start at JOD250 (Dh1,295), including taxes but excluding breakfast, and the hotel's Italian restaurant may just be the finest in Jordan. The Alqasr Metropole in the commercial Shmesani district is a charming, four-star boutique hotel with panoramic views of the city from its rooftop sushi bar, Vinaigrette. Double rooms start at JOD107 (Dh553), including breakfast and taxes www.alqasrmetropole.com ; 00 962 6 568 9671. The three-star Shepherd Hotel www.shepherd-hotel.com ; 00 962 6 463 9197 is one of the oldest in the city and is ideally located for exploring. Double rooms, including taxes and breakfast, start from JOD50 (Dh258). On Wednesday evenings, head to the hotel's Cube Lounge for a night of retro music; the city's party crowd will be there, so arrive early.

Amman's neighbourhoods can only be discovered as a pedestrian. The authenticity of Lweibdeh district, for example, can only be felt on foot. The neighbourhood's little corner shops, family-run patisseries and earthy vegetable stores lend a laid-back feel to a part of town traditionally favoured by artists and their galleries.  

One art centre here, Darat Al Funun, or the "little house of the arts", is perhaps the most beautiful spot in all of Amman. It's actually three houses dating from the 1920s set in beautiful gardens. The house cafe, set amid evergreen trees with sweeping views of the surrounding hills, is a fine spot for afternoon tea. Nearby is the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts, the country's premier showcase for contemporary Arab and Islamic art with a 2,000-strong collection of works.

Mingling with Ammanis is easy enough: eat at an outlet of Chili House, Jordan's homegrown fast food chain established in 1985, which Jordanians of all ages must visit at least once a week. Jordanian expatriates drool over the thought of its JOD1.10 (Dh5.70) cheese coney. Play billiards with complete strangers at the small and windowless but hip and friendly Amigo Pub in Jabal Amman, or take a walk in Al Balad, Amman's old downtown, and stop to chat with the men selling hot peanuts at street corners.

Try mansaf, a Jordanian dish of ghee-soaked rice, hunks of meat and goat's yoghurt (JOD6; Dh31) at Al Quds restaurant downtown; falafel, hummous and fava bean salad with freshly baked pita bread (JOD2; Dh10) at Hashem restaurant, also downtown and walking distance from the Roman Amphitheatre; or line up with the locals at Reem Cafeteria, a shawarma shack by Jabal Amman's Second Circle. Knafe, eaten in the street outside the Habiba kiosk near Al Quds, is a must for dessert (JOD3; Dh15).

For a sit-down meal, book at the Lebanese Fakhr El-din restaurant (00 962 6 465 2399) and order from its plethora of mezzes; ignore the main courses as you will be too full by then. A favourite of mine is the kani sarada salad (JOD7; Dh36) at the swanky Living Room restaurant (00 962 6 464 4228) just across from the InterContinental Hotel by the Third Circle. For brunch or an afternoon coffee, head to Blue Fig in Abdoun, where local art is displayed and the menu is an eclectic mix of tastes that has drawn in crowds for years. An enjoyable evening would be dinner at Noodasia, right on Abdoun Circle, for Thai-oriented salad with countless noodle dishes, where a main dish with a side order of rice or noodles would cost approximately JOD15 (Dh78), followed by dessert across the street at Gerard's ice cream parlour, a Jordanian-owned dessert haven.

Do not under any circumstances go anywhere near Garden's Street, one of the most congested and ill-planned roads in the capital and containing nothing of note, for either the resident or the tourist. And Amman is the wrong place for shopping: the prices are too high and the merchandise is mundane.

The Citadel, known among Ammanis as Jabal el Qal'a. Perched on top of the city's highest hill, it has served as a religious, administrative and social centre since the Bronze Age. Once a temple in honour of the Roman god Hercules, then soon after a Byzantine church, the Citadel became a mosque, then a museum, and today is the perfect location for a wedding, concert or rave. And the view is exceptional: the old downtown is laid out before you, around the Roman amphitheatre. The Roman amphitheatre is still in regular use for performances, and if you are lucky, the Amman Symphony Orchestra might be holding a performance during your visit. Built in 177 AD, it can seat 6,000 people in its 33 rows. The entrance fee of one Jordanian dinar (Dh5) allows you to visit the adjoining museums of folklore and popular culture as well. All this and you have barely spent an afternoon in the city. Just off cobbled Rainbow Street, on every Friday except during the winter months, Souk Jara is a rainbow of outdoor stalls selling souvenirs, handicrafts, antiques, paintings and handmade accessories. The Jordan River Foundation, on the same street that houses Jara, is a great place to buy olive-oil soap and Palestinian embroidery.

@Email:hkhalaf@thenational.ae