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Imagine walking into Petra, Jordan without the hustle and bustle of tourists clamoring over each other for photos and mule handlers and souvenir stall sellers harassing you for business?
You’ll get it soon enough when you get into the heart of the city. A place like Petra deserves silent space to absorb its beauty and contemplate its magnificence.
The backdoor hike into the Ancient City of Petra gives you that. It was one of the best things I did in Jordan on my one-week trip with Globus.
I had never heard of it until I arrived in the nearby town of Wadi Musa and was instructed to lace up my boots!
Most people arrive down the 1.2 km Siq – the curving red and orange canyon path into Petra that leads straight to the front façade of the iconic Treasury – the most famous site in all of Jordan.
The back door takes you along a 9-mile hike through the rugged, mountainous terrain to the ancient Rock City. (It was several miles before we even reached the back door!)
It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Jordan and the most unique way to experience Petra.
If you don’t want to do this hike, this post will still give you interesting facts about Petra, travel logistics, and the many things to see and do in Petra.
What is Petra?
Petra is a spectacular sandstone city built in the third century BCE by the Nabataeans in the heart of the mountains between the Red Sea and Dead Sea. This location allowed it to become an important city on the major trading route connecting Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Caravans would stop here to trade and refresh before continuing their journey transporting rare items such as pepper, sugar, ginger, cotton, frankincense, and myrrh.
With the tolls and services Petra provided it was a very wealthy society and, at one stage, it accounted for 35% of Roman income.
At its peak in the first century BCE, Petra was home to almost 35,000 residents. As Romans are want to do, they invaded Petra in 106 CE, forcing the Nabateans to surrender. They ruled the city for more than 250 years. The Byzantines took over control governing the city for around three hundred years.
What makes this capital city of the Arab Nabataeans so unique and impressive are its monumental structures, tombs, theaters, and complex irrigation system carved directly into the soft red stone.
It wasn’t just buildings carved into cliff faces though, the Valleys of Petra also housed a number of freestanding buildings as well.
In 1985, Petra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and it was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
Petra is known as the Rose City” because of the color of the stones used in its buildings.
Petra is not just the Treasury. It’s actually 263 square kilometers – the size of 50,000 football fields. And amazingly, archaeologists have only uncovered about 18% of it so far.
Why is Petra known as a Lost City?
Can you believe this incredible and expansive city actually faded into obscurity over a thousand years ago?
An earthquake in 363CE destroyed many of the freestanding buildings and the city started its decline. Another tremor in the 7th Century pretty much wiped it off the map.
It’s hard to fathom that, what is now one of the most visited attractions in Jordan and around the world, was left to the desert dust. It wasn’t completely lost though, for centuries it was known only to local Bedouin tribes living in the area.
In 1812, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, rediscovered Petra and brought it back into the world’s spotlight.
Our Guided Hike into Petra
This hike into Petra takes you through Jordan’s stunning desert landscape with breathtaking views of the mountains and across the wide basin of Wadi Araba. At times, the hazy view stretches across the Dead Sea into Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
As there was no one else around, it really gave a sense of what it must have felt like riding in and out of Petra thousands of years ago in your trading caravan.
The trail starts near Little Petra, which I did not know at the time. The beauty of a guide means you can just switch off your orientation antennas and just follow and enjoy.
Our private guide, Abdullah met us at our hotel and took us to the start point by the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere.
We began by walking across the plain until we veered to the left up a small hill to where we saw the only sign for the entire trail. This is the actual start to the Back Door Trail, and you can hire a 4×4 to drop you there.
The trail goes up and down through small valleys, up staircases cut into the rock face, and around beautiful mountains with stunning ledges for viewpoints and photos and resting points.
We passed very few people and came across a couple of places where you could have a Bedouin tea or coffee. (They were closed as it was low season.) We even had a fun photo opportunity with a random abandoned car.
I highly recommend you take a local guide on this 9-mile hike into Petra. You could easily get lost on the trail that has little signage.
Plus, having a guide will give you a deeper insight into Petra’s history, and the desert mountain world. (And it’s a fantastic way to support local economy)
Abdullah pointed out details we otherwise wouldn’t notice like the wine vats, water tanks, tombs, and areas of the Holy Land stretched out across the views in front of us.
He pointed out the valuable juniper tree, a wood great for building with very long fibers like human muscle. Because of its high alcohol it is poisonous to insects and so won’t ever rot.
He shared so much about the history of Petra from the Nabateans, to the Roman invasion, to its eventual demise.
I loved learning how the pagan Nabadeans created a wealthy society that revered women, forbade prostitution and slavery, paid people what they were worth, and engineered a world that existed in harmony with Mother Nature.
How did we go wrong and stray so far from this ideal path?
I’m grateful we experienced Petra on this hike with Abdullah. Without him, I may never have seen beyond its impressive physical realm.
Petra Back Door Trail Tips:
You will climb several stairs throughout the hike, but apart from that, it’s not too strenuous. I am an experienced hiker and very fit. If you aren’t either of those you may find it challenging. I would, however, take my children on this hike with me.
Be sure to have good sturdy, walking shoes, plenty of water, snacks, and sun protection.
If you are doing this in the summer months, you will want to start at sunrise. We had a 70-degree winter day and it felt much hotter and more intense in the direct line of the desert sun.
Be sure to organize your tickets into Petra before starting this hike. You cannot buy tickets as you enter into the Monastery side, but your tickets will be checked. If you have the Jordan Pass, get it stamped at the visitor center before you do the hike as well.
You can hire guides at the Petra Visitor Center in Wadi Musa. You can also bok this private guide for the back door trail via Viator.
Things to do and see in Petra, Jordan
Now let’s look at what you see once you arrive in Petra. Remember if you are not doing this backdoor hike in, you will arrive via the Siq from the Visitor Center in Wadi Musa. The Treasury will be the first thing you see.
Jump down to that section in the post and work backward if it gets too confusing. I’m going to follow the trail as I experienced it from the Monastery into the Treasury.
NOTE: The Globus Escape Tour of Jordan organizes a tour guide for your day trip to Petra coming in via the Visitor Center and the Siq. i.e. Not doing the back door trail!
You can do it yourself as the visitor center have self-guided maps. I personally think as this is a once in a lifetime experience, you hire a guide as you’ll learn so much more from the expert, local perspective.
This tour guide comes highly recommended on Viator if you want a guide to take you though Petra.
The Monastery, al-Deir
You will not forget turning the corner on your hike and suddenly seeing the Monastery rising out of the cliff face.
As the Treasury is so well-known to the world, and the Monastery isn’t, I think this will be the memory that will most live with me from my Petra excursion.
It was a much-needed Oasis after two hours of walking through the desert. It’s similar to the Treasury in style and grandiose, but bigger and more unexpected (and quieter).
The Monastery is the largest structure in Petra dating back to the 1st Century B.C. (50m high and 45m wide)
Archaeologists think it was built as a tomb, although the colossal chambers and several other structures around it that suggest that it was used for religious gatherings. It was most probably used as a church in the Byzantine times.
The façade is less elaborately decorated than the Treasury with no statues in its niches.
Walk around to get different viewpoints. Don’t miss the view staring out from within a small cave opposite it.
I enjoyed drinking a freshly squeezed lemon mint juice from the small cave café under the shade of a Eucalyptus tree!!
It was the perfect refreshing break and opportunity to stare in awe at the Monastery, enjoy the groundedness that comes with feeling so small, and wonder just how they carved all of that into the rock.
Are humans even capable of such commitment, patience, and elaborate artistry anymore?
NOTE: There are toilets which will cost you 1JD to cover the cost of the water (and labor) as they have to carry water in on that long trek where we just came.
As the walk from the Treasury to the Monastery is quite far and strenuous for most visitors, it will be a much quieter Petra attraction.
Even if you don’t hike in via the backdoor, I recommend allowing time in your day to walk up to the Monastery from The Treasury (about three hours round trip from the Visitor Center in Wadi Musa).
The 1,000 steps
If you are exploring Petra beyond the Treasury, you may hear of the 1,000 steps up from the lower road in the city center. It’s worth it – just take it slow.
Good news! If you are taking the back door hike, you’ll mostly be going down them!
It’s a beautiful walk with plenty of places to rest and soak in the views.
The pathway lined with stalls selling jewelry, scarves, trinkets, and offerings to sit and take tea together. Just offer a polite no.
Our Globus guide, Osama told us if you place your right hand over your heart while saying no, they’ll understand you’re truly not interested.
It seemed to work, and I did not find them as insistent or aggressive as I have in other countries.
Be on the lookout for passing donkeys. If you don’t want to hike all the way to the Monastery from the Treasury, you can ride a donkey. Although reports are mixed about how the animals are treated so think carefully.
A slight detour along the stairs is a little temple hidden in the mountains called the Lion Triclinium. It’s named after the carved lions on both sides of the entrance. If it weren’t for our guide, we would have missed this.
You’ll be pleased to know at the bottom of the steps is the lovely Basin Restaurant with a beautiful overhanging willow tree offering plenty of shade for a well-deserved rest.
This is when you’ll first start to notice Petra crowds. As we were traveling in the off season (the Jordan Globus Escape tour is designed specifically for them) the crowds weren’t bad at all.
I couldn’t imagine being here with the intense heat and crowds of the peak season months.
Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter – Qasr Al Bint
One of the most important Temples in Petra stands at the end of the Colonnaded Street. Named Qasr Al Bin by the local Bedouin, which means Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter.
It was built as a dedication to the Nabataean gods, stood at 23 m high, and was elaborately decorated with marble, columns, raised places for worship, and a large sacrificial altar in the front courtyard.
It’s also one of the few (albeit crumbling) free-standing structures in Petra.
We stood on the small hill opposite, taking in the wide perspective of the temple, Colonnaded Street, and the Great Temple. Next visit I’ll explore them up close.
The Great Temple
The largest free-standing building in Petra is the Great Temple. However, it is said to serve the purpose of a Royal Reception Hall and the Romans probably used it as a civic center.
The Great Temple included a 600-seat theater, vaulted rooms underneath, a huge, paved courtyard and a triple colonnade.
From our all-encompassing perspective you could see how grandiose the complex must have been. It stood on the ground and covered an area more than twice the size of a football field.
The Colonnaded Street
Whether you are coming in from the Treasury, or from the 1,000 steps, you will soon arrive at the Colonnaded Street, where you’ll start to see the Roman influence on the city.
On one end is the Castle of the Pharaoh’s Daughter and the other is the Royal Tombs carved into the massif.
Abdullah told us of the exotic area up behind the Great Temple which as three villas with thirty rooms, each with their own steam room.
There are a few restaurants and resting places along here. Grab a pomegranate and orange juice from the vendors and spend time watching the camels and donkeys go up and down this street.
You can almost imagine the hustle and bustle of what would have been one of the ancient city’s busiest areas. It was once lined with shops and columns of marble clad sandstone. It is estimated 1,000 people lived in this city center.
The Royal Tombs
As you continue walking along the Colonnaded Street towards the Treasury, you’ll notice a set of tomb facades cut into the cliffs above.
These huge mausoleums carved into the ‘Jebel Al Khubtha’ are the Royal tombs and illustrate some of the best carvings in Petra.
We were content to look at them from below and learn more from Abdullah about these impressive burial places in Petra.
You can climb up to the top and explore another mystic high place of Petra.
Near the Royal Tombs is also the The ‘Al Khubtha’ trail that leads you to what is said to be the best view of the Treasury. It’s 3.5 km / 1.3 mil one way.
As you can tell Petra has lots of other hikes you can do within the city..
The Street of Facades
After the Colonnaded Street, before you reach the Treasury (or just after you leave) is the Street of Facades in the Outer Siq. Along this street is a collection of more than forty tombs as well as government offices at street level for trading documents, taxes etc.
I loved the colors and textures of the walls along here.
We were able to go into one of the caves. There wasn’t much to see but it gave an insight into how it could have been. Big black smoke stains from the fires made inside are still visible on the ceilings and walls.
Carved Roman Theater
Here is where you’ll find the 7,000-seat Theater worn by the passage of time and damaged by the earthquake. I wish we had time to climb up here and get the perspective of the Nabateans coming together for entertainment with their outside view of the incredible city carved out of the rocky red landscape.
The only comedic entertainment you can see now is that of the tourists with all their ill-mannered and quirky habits wandering up and down the hot and dusty street below.
There are a set of steps to the left of the theater, which lead to the High Place of Sacrifice, a well-preserved sit on top of Jebel Madhbah.
A popular hike in Petra is the 45-minute steep climb up to this hilltop altar. It’s meant to be one of the best things to do in Petra for the intrepid explorer! From there you can go down the other side of the mountain to see the Garden Tomb, Roman Soldiers, Tomb, and Garden Triclinium.
The Irrigation System
As Petra received little rainfall, the Nabateans developed an advanced water management system, which helped them create a lush garden in the middle of the barren desert, as well as a series of fountains and pools.
From this irrigation system they were able to also produce wine and olive oil as well as fruits and other crops.
No wonder Petra was paradise to passing traders.
Without a guide, it may be difficult to notice the complex irrigation system. Abdullah shared insights with us about this along our entire hike stopping along the way to show us storage cisterns, tanks, aqueducts, and water channels and pipes carved into facades and rock faces.
As we walked down the Street of Facades you could see clay pipes running across the cliff faces. They were carefully constructed to form part of the tomb’s decorations, allowing them to respect the dead while running water through the city.
You should easily be able to notice the water channels and pipes carved into the rock faces as you walk down the Siq. At the entrance to the Siq on the right as you come in, you can see a Dam with a tunnel cut through the mountain, built in the first century BC, to prevent the waters of Wadi Mousa from entering through the Siq.
The Treasury, Al-Khazneh
As soon as we walked into the Treasury area, the atmosphere became more frenetic and chaotic with people buzzing around everywhere trying to get their shots or barter with the local Bedouin for the touristy things.
Girls dressed as Arabian princess on camels were rotated in and out to pose in front of the Treasury; kids were getting into arguments with elders over the hiring of animals; golf carts whizzed by with tired tourists; and camels were lazing around with their Bedouin masters standing guard and ready to convince the next tourist to jump aboard.
It was fun to watch, but also a little intense. I missed the quiet serenity of the Monastery.
The Treasury in Petra is one of the most historical sites in the world. It was made famous in part by Indiana Jones on his quest for the Holy Grail in Petra’s caves. The final scenes of 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were actually filmed here.
The Treasury was built to serve as a tomb for the Nabataean King Aretas III (c 100 BCE–CE 200), However, its name comes from the story of the Egyptian Pharaoh who hid his treasure in the façade urn while pursuing the Israelites.
Look closely and you’ll see pockmarks in the sandstone urn from those trying to shoot it down!!
The breathtaking Hellenistic façade of the Treasury stands nearly forty meters high and twenty five meters wide. It’s richly ornamented with Corinthian pillars, friezes, sculptures, and other details.
You may get lost for a while studying and contemplating the magnificent artisanship of the building and how earth they would have the enduring patience to chip away at the rock so meticulously. And all just for someone’s tomb!!
You can’t go inside the Treasury, but there’s nothing to see anyway: it’s an empty chamber. Its creators were far more focused on crafting the outside.
The Treasury is at its most photogenic in full sunlight between about 9am and 11am or late in the afternoon, around 5 or 6pm, when the façade is bathed in a reflected reddish-pink glow from the walls all around. We timed it perfectly for that.
If you are not hiking into Petra via the backdoor, your arrival into the Treasury will be magical. Don’t race through the Siq to hasten your arrival to The Treasury.
That view at the end of the 1.2km canyon is something to savor, but so is the walk between the narrow, curving, vertical walls of the tunnels as it snakes its way there.
The curving walls narrow as you walk down the Siq adding that extra element of drama for the final arrival. You can see that in this reel.
It’s easy to think that the canyon was carved by the natural flow of water, but it’s actually a crack in the rock, torn apart by tectonic forces. As we learned already an earthquake was what caused Petra’s eventual demise.
This was a sacred place for the Nabatean pilgrims as they began their spiritual journey into what they thought of as their Holy City. Along the canyon you can see many wall niches that once held figures of their Gods, giving the pilgrims a glimpse of what was to come.
There is a lot to see along the Siq so take your time.
Some parts of the pathway will be the worn patches of the Roman/Nabatean road which originally paved the Siq along its entire length.
You can see the original water channels cut into the walls in some places they pass behind what you can tell would have been an elaborate carving of a camel and a caravan man on the wall.
Between the Petra Visitor Centre and the entrance to the Siq, there is the Obelisk Tomb, a tomb with four pyramidal obelisks, built as funerary symbols by the Nabataeans in the 1st century BC.
There are also three enormous, squat monuments, known as Djinn Blocks or God Blocks. No one really knows their purpose but it is thought to either represent the start of tombs, be associated with funerary dedications, or used for the worship of water and fertility.
And if you do arrive at Petra via the backdoor hike, I recommend you walk out through the Siq a fair distance and then turn around and walk back so you can experience that sublime introduction to this ancient city.
It takes about 20-30 minutes just to walk down the 1.2km Siq to reach the Treasury.
Petra By Night
If your daytime adventures in Petra aren’t enough, you can walk back in to experience Petra by Night (an extra fee of 17 JOD).
Even though our legs protested, it was fun walking down a dimly lit Siq under the starry sky to arrive at the Treasury.
Candles were evenly spaced on the desert ground in front of the shadowy outline of the Treasury.
A desert dweller stood amongst the candles playing a Jordanian tune on a flute, bringing harmony to the quiet, dark stillness. After a bit of storytelling about Petra and the Nabateans, colored lights illuminated the Treasury.
I took this moment to completely forget all my photography skills and not turn up my ISO to capture the beautiful Petra by night. At least I got the thousands of candles in front okay!
While it was a little kitsch, it was still worth it for this more eerie Treasury experience and to enjoy walking along the canyon at night.
How Long will you need in Petra?
Petra is so much more than the Treasury. Throw on your T-Shirt, shorts, and hiking shoes and explore it in depth.
You will definitely need at least a full day to explore Petra.
We spent 9 hours and it wasn’t anywhere near enough time!
If you are going to do the backdoor hike into Petra, plan on spending two days in Petra. There is so much to see and do, and we missed a lot of the points of interest along the way.
I would spend one day hiking into Petra and explore the lower levels. The hike can be tiring – especially if it’s hot. You’ll also want to spend time absorbing the beauty of the Monastery and the Treasury.
For the second day, I would come back in to explore the upper levels and the additional hikes and attractions mentioned above which we did not get time to do.
You may also want to explore Little Petra, which I believe warrants a few hours. And then why not spend time resting in the town of Wadi Musa?
Three days in Petra would be an amazing length of time. I do beseech that you spend longer than a quick “I was here photo” in front of the Treasury in Petra. An abundance of riches lies a little further down the path.
Wadi Musa is the town on the doorsteps of the Ancient City of Petra. It’s also known as Petra so it can get confusing. Here you’ll find hotels to suit all types of travelers and budgets. You’ll also find plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops in the town.
We had an amazing dinner with a Jordanian family in their home in Petra. Click here to read more of that.
Where to stay in Petra?
We stayed at the Movenpick Resort Petra, a five-star hotel across the road from the Petra Visitor Center. You couldn’t get any closer!
It was a beautiful hotel with comfortable rooms, and great amenities which included bars and restaurants. Their buffet breakfasts and dinner were great.
I loved the interior design of this Petra resort filled with Middle Eastern fabrics, marble floors, handcrafted wood, embroidered chairs and water fountains.
Sadly, given the time of year we visited the rooftop terrace was not open. The rooftop has amazing views and live music at sunset. It was recommended to me by a trusted friend.
How to get to Petra
Petra is just a short walk away from the center of Wadi Musa. Some hotels may offer shuttles, else you have taxis.
Petra is about 236km/ 3 hours from Amman, the capital of Jordan via the Desert Highway. Many like to arrive by way of the more scenic and historically significant, Kings Highway – 255km / 4 hours. (Check rental cars from Amman here)
If you like convenience and have less time, joining a tour may be the best way. Our Jordan Escape Globus tour of Jordan took care of everything, including hotel stay, transport, most meals, amazing experiences, and informative guide. All I had to do was arrive at the scheduled time and enjoy myself. You can read more about my tour experience with them here.
How much does Petra Cost?
A one-day ticket costs 50JOD, but you can get better value with a two-day ticket for 55 JOD and three-day ticket for 60 JOD. Children under 12 are free. Always check current prices as it may change.
Many travelers recommended the Jordan Pass, which includes entry to Petra and other sites in Jordan like Jerash, Amman, Citadel, and Wadi Rum. As our entry tickets were part of our Globus tour, I did not need to worry about this.
Petra Visitor Center and Petra Museum
You can get your tickets at the visitor center in Wadi Musa at the entrance to Petra. You can also hire guides and pick up some Petra maps.
Here is where you’ll also find the recently opened Petra Museum, which houses artifacts from the lost city of Petra. The free museum features eight galleries with 300 exhibits that were excavated from various archaeological sites in Petra. We didn’t get time to visit.
When is the best time to visit Petra, Jordan?
The best time to visit Jordan is during the Spring and Autumn months, which in Jordan is March, April and May or September, October and November. Average high temperatures are from 19°C–28°C (66–82°F).
Winter will be cold with average temperatures 2–13°C (36–55°F). As it’s the desert you won’t see too much rain but it’s more likely to happen in the winter months.
We visited in late February and were so lucky to have a warm 70 winter’s day. That desert sun beat down so fiercely that these temperatures felt unusually hot. I couldn’t imagine trying to explore Petra – especially that hike – during the height of summer.
If you are visiting in the summer months of June – August expect high desert temperatures. Go early to avoid the hottest part of the day and take advantage of the little shade, you’ll find.
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Comment: Do you have any tips for visiting Petra? Please leave any questions or stories below!