It’s not common knowledge to the average traveller, but the actual size of the lost city of Petra is much greater than what you might think. This ancient city covers more than 60 square kilometres of rugged landscape. Travellers usually underestimate the amount of time required to see all of Petra’s hidden treasures and leave with only seeing a small segment of what the ancient city has to offer. Lucky for you, from our experience, we have detailed the ultimate plan for you to be able to conquer the best hiking trails and ancient ruins of the city of Petra in a 24-hour period.
Where is Petra located?
The city of Petra, long lost for thousands of years, showcases its archaeological delights through extravagant facades, finely carved into the pale pink rock that adorns the surrounding cliffs. Situated on the southern segment of Jordan’s Mountain Heights Plateau, Petra is located approximately 240 kilometres south of Amman.
History of Petra
The ancient city of Petra gives a unique insight into what the lavish lifestyle of the Nabataeans may have been like, as they ruled one of the key Middle Eastern trading routes over 2,000 years ago. Petra’s influence dwindled following its annexation by the Romans in the second century AD, and it was severely damaged after an earthquake in the 4th century. The city continued to decline to the point that its location was lost to western civilisation for centuries until an undercover Swiss traveller named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt rediscovered Petra sometime in the 1800s. Recently, Petra became one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985, which has understandably directed an influx of curious adventurers to this mysterious landmark.
How to experience Petra in just 24 hours
The early bird catches the worm: commit to a sunrise hike to the Treasury
Al Khazneh, or more commonly known to travel addicts as the Treasury, is perhaps the most spectacular building within the ancient city of Petra. The building stands at an impressive 45 meters tall and is half-carved into a canvas of rose-coloured sandstone. This engineering marvel is said to have been used by Nabataean inhabitants as a royal tomb some centuries ago when Petra was an affluent trading route.
The Treasury is the first site on your agenda, and you’ll need to walk through a narrow canyon for nearly two kilometres (I promise this is more fun than it sounds). Known as the Siq, the canyon was used by the ancient civilisation to collect water via a series of aqueducts, which are still present today. Walking through the canyon, you’re first introduced to Petra’s famous palette of the red, pink and white tones, which sets the scene for the Treasury waiting ahead of you. As you approach the Treasury, the Siq narrows further. Before your eyes can adjust to the low light – out of nowhere – one of the most iconic facades in history is revealed.
As you could imagine, the Treasury is highly trafficked by tourists, all day, every day, so making sure you wake up with enough time to enter the UNESCO site at its opening time is imperative, to ensure you give yourself enough time to tackle all the best hiking trails and viewpoints. Not only will you benefit from viewing this archaeological masterpiece without busloads of tourists getting in your way (or local vendors trying to sell you camel rides), but the cooler temperatures will allow you to tackle some of the more challenging hiking trails before the desert sun begins to drain your energy, now that’s a win-win situation.
Set in motion a game plan: tackle the Monastery first, and then work your way back
Now that you have had time to compose yourself after coming face to face with one of the new world’s Seven Wonders, you need to continue with your game plan to see the rest of Petra’s sites. The next site on the agenda is Ad-Deir, commonly known as the Monastery. The structure shares some similarities with The Treasury, as it’s also carved into a cliff face for eternity. Architecturally speaking, Ad-Deir is perhaps equally remarkable.
The Monastery is quite a distance from the Treasury, so prepare yourself for a 3.5-kilometre trek. You’ll want to continue straight down the main road (called the Street of Facades), past the Nabatean Theatre, until you come to the Petra Museum. From there, take a right onto the Monastery Route hiking trail. At this point, if you don’t want to attempt the near endless number of steps ahead of you, feel free to hire a donkey or a camel to do the hard work for you. However, you’ll feel a great sense of achievement if you hike it yourself – not to mention that you’ll be able to stop and take your time at several viewpoints, witnessing dazzling panoramic views of Petra (so keep those cameras on standby). Reaching the peak of the climb, you’ll come around one last bend and be rewarded with the view of the fabulous Monastery. Being able to walk right up to a structure that has been in existence for centuries really allows you to connect with the ancient history of Petra and gain a sense of the Nabataeans’ skill and knowledge in constructing such monumental structures.
Enjoy a picnic with your very own cliff edge view of the Treasury
Now that you have conquered both the Monastery and the Siq trails, it’s time to discover the Treasury from a slightly different perspective. The Treasury is known as the jewel in Petra’s crown and when you first experience seeing it through the end of the Siq, you’re going to instantly fall in love with its iconic façade. The most enchanting part of the Treasury is in the colours of the rocks, that transition throughout the day. Expect deep reds, to rose pinks to mellow oranges.
It’s not common knowledge, but there are several alternative viewpoints to witness this wonder in all its iridescent glory. The most awe-inspiring view of the Treasury is from the top of the cliff-face, which is approximately an hour’s hike from the base of the Treasury, or an hour and a half from the Monastery. You need to follow the street of facades until you reach the royal tombs and then continue right; you’ll see signposts saying either ‘viewpoint’ or ‘Treasury’. Don’t worry – if you get lost, there are plenty of friendly vendors to ask on the way.
The hike itself isn’t too gruelling but expect quite a few steps, however, let me assure you that the splendid views of the valley throughout your journey will make it well worth the effort. As you approach the end of the trail, you’ll find a little makeshift café made from a tent. Step inside, and you’re welcomed by a local Bedouin man, who will walk you to the cliff edge, where the peak of the façade slowly reveals itself until you’re left with an amazing view of the entire Treasury. The whole experience can be quite overwhelming, and while you sit on the edge of the cliff taking in the sheer enormity of the building, you can enjoy a fresh cup of tea while enjoying a traditional Bedouin music performance. It’s truly something that you’ll never forget. Now you have completed the key hikes, make your way down and explore some of the estimated 3,000 other sites that make Petra so magical.
Hiking not your thing? Here are some alternative ways to see Petra
The sweltering heat of the Jordanian desert, coupled with Petra’s demanding hiking trails, can be a little overwhelming for some. Luckily, there are alternative ways that you can experience one of the seven wonders of the world while minimising the sweat factor. You can opt to explore the picturesque landscape on horseback, all while learning about Petra’s history from your very own local guide.
One advantage of a horseback tour is that you can begin in the cooler hours of the early morning, when the sun isn’t as harsh and it’s also when the cliff faces reveal their most spectacular soft pink tones. Tours usually last half a day, so there’s plenty of time to relax and recharge before tackling Petra at night. If seeing Petra by horseback sounds right up your alley, make sure you organise the tour beforehand through a trusted tour website or company, rather than from the local Bedouin within the gates of Petra. The vendors inside of Petra may pull the wool over your eyes – or try their luck with the Bedouin Romance Scam (see below). If you really have no other option, make sure you take a travel companion with you.
See the Treasury from a different perspective: visit by candlelight
George R.R Martin once said that when the sun has set, no candle can replace it. However, the hundreds of flickering candles illuminating the Treasury sure does come close. Bearing witness to the Treasury’s array of dramatic pink and red tones, accentuated by candlelight, is one of those moments that will be forever engraved into your memory. You can only gain access to the UNESCO site at night via a special guided tour, so even if you’ve spent all day exploring the expanses of Petra in the desert heat, the views and experience of Petra at night time is worth another look. The tour starts with a local Bedouin guide leading you and other like-minded adventurous travellers down a narrow and winding sandstone canyon. The trail is almost in complete pitch black, except for the spiritic placement of candles – which provide just enough light to see the person in front of you. The journey to the Treasury is a highlight, as you can fully experience the serenity and wander the ancient trail that has been walked by travellers for centuries. As the Treasury appears through a narrow crevice in the gorge, the trail comes to a dramatic end… wander out to the expanse and be welcomed by the sight of one of the world’s most iconic buildings. You’ll then be treated to a night of Bedouin tales and music and have a bit of time to explore and capture some stunning pictures before heading back to your accommodation for some much-needed sleep.
What will you need to survive a day of hiking in the desert?
The scale of Petra is so immense that you really need to be prepared for a full day of hiking. People easily spend days taking their time discovering all the hidden paths and tombs, but if you’re on a tight itinerary, the more prepared you’re the more chance you’ll have to see all the major sights.
Hiking in the dry, desert conditions poses a severe risk of dehydration and sunburn to the most seasoned traveller, so the first important consideration is to pack high strength sunscreen and plenty of water to keep you protected and hydrated. Depending on the time of year, you could be walking in temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, so one or two bottles of water simply won’t suffice. Several vendors are located throughout the landmark, so water will always be available if you need to top up.
The second most important factor is to ensure that you’re well-equipped to endure the physicality of the trek. Some travellers will cop a minor scratch along the trail, while some may roll an ankle, therefore, suitable footwear and a small first aid kit with the essentials is imperative. Most of the hiking trails are well maintained but expect to see some uneven surfaces and vegetation. In addition, make sure you invest in a map and bring your mobile phone just in case you get in trouble. Petra is near the town of Wadi Musa, so you should have reception and be able to make calls in the case of an emergency. Lastly, if you want to conquer the trails in one day, you’ll need to keep up your energy levels. Bring high-energy snacks – like nuts and granola bars – rather than sugary snacks, to make sure you stay amped for discovering Petra’s many secrets.
Steer Clear of the Desert Pirates
Pirates in a desert? Yes, that’s perhaps one of the strangest things you’ll discover while exploring the breath-taking rose-tainted valleys and hidden tombs of Petra. The local Bedouin men are renowned for channelling Jack Sparrow-inspired looks, with heavy black eyeliner-adorned faces – and theatrical outfits. While these guys are the perfect candidates for some great selfies and photographs, as a solo traveller you need to be wary of their intentions. They are known for offering tours of the ancient city, with the promise of showcasing the secluded and spectacular viewpoints, “not known by the average tourist or guide”. While an intimate tour of one of the most enchanting locations on earth does sound tempting, their goal is to charm you into falling in love with them and in some cases will even introduce you to their family. They will try and tug on your heartstrings, and perhaps sell you a tale about their financial woes, in the hope to get money out of you. It’s well known around the areas as the “Bedouin Romance Scam”, but don’t let it deter you from exploring this wonder. Just be vigilant about what tours you choose. Your best bet to discover Petra’s treasures is by booking a tour through your hostel.
Petra is truly one of the most visually stunning spectacles of the ancient world, and you’ll not be disappointed – no matter how much or little you manage to see. Now you’re equipped with the best tips to conquer Petra in 24 hours! If you have any questions or other great tips that you think we might have missed, be sure to leave them below.
About the Authors
Craig McCartney and Luke Thomas are the ultimate LGBT+ travel couple who are fuelled by a passion for travel, adventure and anything containing a chocolate content. They blog about their latest travel experiences over at travelnoregrets and you can also find them on both Instagram and Twitter.