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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

My Kind of Place: downtown and central Amman, Jordan

The life and soul of the Jordanian capital lies in its hipster-and-history-packed heart.
The view across Amman from the Citadel, which features attractions including a temple for Hercules and a Byzantine church. Getty Images
The view across Amman from the Citadel, which features attractions including a temple for Hercules and a Byzantine church. Getty Images

Why Downtown and Central Amman?

Amman’s soul is in its downtown district and adjoining central neighbourhoods Jabal Amman and Jabal Al Lweibdeh. Because its authenticity hasn’t been stripped away entirely by rampant urbanisation, these areas still retain an old-school charm. Even the most jaded traveller will pause to take in the impressive skyline, with Lego-like houses framed by the Roman Empire-era columns looming over downtown Amman.

A comfortable bed

La Locanda offers a room with an artistic perspective. The boutique hotel’s 14 rooms are themed after Arab cultural icons, including Umm Kulthum and Fairouz. The decor provides contrast, dominated by furniture with clean lines, architectural details, a slate-grey colour theme and plush linens. On Fridays, the buzzing Maestro bar hosts jazz musicians. Rooms cost from 92 Jordanian dinars (Dh477), including breakfast.

To witness the action first-hand, the three-star Art Hotel – on one of the busiest roads in downtown Amman – is a convenient, no-frills option, a short walk from all the main tourist sites. Modern artworks line the lobby walls and the hotel is clean and well-maintained, with helpful staff. But be warned: street noise does filter into the rooms. Rooms cost from 48 dinars (Dh249), including breakfast and Wi-Fi.

Find your feet

Start your explorations from First Circle – Amman’s navigational points are its numbered roundabouts – and follow the downwards-sloping streets to enter the downtown Al Balad. Amman’s old neighbourhoods, built on hills, are connected by flights of steep stairs, and from downtown, you can access everything from hipster-friendly cafes to the historic Citadel.

Join locals snapping mandatory selfies at the Instagram-perfect steps, with its canopy of umbrellas, next to Zajal Restaurant, then find a spot on the balcony for argileh and tea. Or head to the nearby Jafra or Jameeda Khanum cafes for similar views of downtown from balcony terraces. On weekend evenings, the Hashemite Plaza, outside the Amphitheatre, draws families, kids on roller skates and shoppers from the nearby spice and shoe markets.

Meet the locals

Jabal Al Lweibdeh is the new centre of Amman cool, home to artisanal jam makers, cutesy coffee shops, graffiti-covered walls and gallery spaces. In the evenings, edgily dressed, bohemian locals with artfully draped headscarves and fedoras come out to play. People hang out on the benches at the Paris Circle roundabout or take in the sights from sidewalk cafes such as Rumi Cafe, with decor (suspended light bulbs, subway tiles) that lend it a Williamsburg-meets-Lweibdeh feel. Combined with expats spilling out onto the streets after Arabic lessons at nearby language classes, there’s nary a dull day – or night – in Lweibdeh.

Book a table

For cuisine beloved by royals, locals and backpackers alike, get a falafel sandwich on regular or sesame-topped kaak bread (0.55 dinars [Dh2.85] or 0.75 dinars [Dh3.73]) at Al Quds cafe on Rainbow Street. Head to Hashem, where for 3 dinars (Dh16), you can eat a basic falafel and hummus meal with sweetened tea. Or jostle for a place in the queue at Habibeh for syrupy kunafa.

Fakhr El Din serves high-end Lebanese fare in an old-house-style setting characteristic of Amman’s dining scene. A meal costs from 30 dinars (Dh155).

The sunny space of Shams El Balad lends itself to long breakfasts with a pot of tea and zaatar flatbreads.

Revel in local organic produce at the Friday brunch at Fann Wa Chai – pile your plate high with crunchy salads and terrines for 8 dinars (Dh41).

Joz Hind’s seasonal menu changes daily – expect fresh bread with vegetarian entrées featuring black rice and zucchini, from 6.50 dinars (Dh34).

Top it all off with parfait (5 dinars [Dh26]) from We Farm (Nicolas Ghanmah Street), an organic-juice-bar-style venue that offers non-dairy options.

Shopper’s paradise

Look but don’t buy at downtown’s stretch of gullible-tourist traps, where bilingual store owners hawk coloured sand bottles, kaffiyehs and shimmery belly dancer costumes. Instead, buy handicrafts and mosaics – one of the country’s most historically famous crafts – at the Darat Mosaic and Ceramic Art showroom on Nicolas Ghanmah Street. While in the neighbourhood, browse the tongue-in-cheek T-shirts at Jobedu and Korts.

What to avoid

With overpriced cafes, people cruising aimlessly and way too many tourists frequenting the area, Rainbow Street is largely best given a miss.

Don’t miss

From the Citadel to the Amphitheatre, the ruins of the Roman Empire alone are worth the visit to Amman. The former includes a temple for Hercules and a Byzantine church.

The Roman Amphitheatre in downtown often hosts concerts, but it’s a great experience even without the music. Its stairs are sunk into the city’s hills, making it part of Amman’s backdrop. Tickets include entry to smaller museums including the Jordan Folklore Museum.

Getting there

Direct flights from the UAE to Amman with Emirates, Etihad, FlyDubai or Royal Jordanian cost from Dh1,000.

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