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Aqaba: A multicultural near-desert town with great mezze

Terrence T. White ▼ | October 5, 2019
Set on the east bank of the Jordan River there is Aqaba, an ideal combination of city-life, beaches, colourful history and many luxury hotels which will make you feel like royalty.
Jordan   A great place near the desert, on the sea, with great food and archeology
AqabaJordan is a country on the east bank of the Jordan River, set in a valley with tombs, temples and monument, and this is not a surprise because everywhere you look in that part of the world you will see some ancient monument and site that proves that life was very present here thousands of years ago. The country has just one seaport and that's Aqaba, a city that used that fact to become a multicultural place full of life and events and places to visit. Its vibrant atmosphere makes it one of the top leisure travel destinations in the Middle East.

Aqaba CastleAqaba is an open city, so to speak, thanks to its port that brought a large number of influences from other cultures. As a strategic port, it was a target for many nations, while maybe the most known event is the Great Arab Revolt’s Battle of Aqaba, the one you saw in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. All those battles and wars destroyed many old monuments but a lot left in the city, and its natural wonders and position make it a great place to visit. Not to mention truly great weather, something you wouldn't normally expect from a place so close to the desert in this part of the world.

Shopping in AqabaFor tourists, it's interesting to say that Aqaba is a duty-free town with low taxes. So take advantage of Aqaba’s Free Zone, stroll its largest retail and entertainment complex Aqaba Gateway for jewellery, watches, leather goods, whatever your heart desire, and shop in style before you head to the beach. Al-Hafayer, or Palm Beach as they call it, is a public beach with a free access just ten minutes or so from downtown to the south, a perfect place to enjoy a great sunset along with some local tea among friendly local people.

Berenice Beach ClubThen Berenice Beach Club is the place to go. No doubt about that. You can get there taking a bus and after a short drive, you will see some half a kilometer long piece of coast along the Red Sea and for which they say there are best waters of the Aqaba Marine Park. There you can find a swimming pool if you like, all the beach amenities, but the sea is your target! Weather is always perfect without great jumps into high temperatures, and clear waters hide beautiful corals and friendly dolphins you can swim with. And if you were never into scuba diving, this place will inspire you to try.

Mamluk CastleAfter that, your obvious target is Mamluk Castle, a famous place where one of the most famous battles of the World War I took place and inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia from 1962. It was used earlier as a traveler’s inn for pilgrims all the way back to the 16th century when it was built. Not far from the castle, and nothing is far in Aqaba, there is the Aqaba Archaeological Museum with an excellent choice of artifacts, from more recent country's history to 6,000 years old things. Not far from it there is the 130 meters high Aqaba Flagpole, one of the central milestones in the city.

Ruins of AylaThe Sherif al-Hussein bin Ali Mosque, built in 1975 and later enlarged, is a truly magnificent building that got its name after the leader of the Arab Revolt of 1916. If you go north-west from the city center, you'll encounter the ruins of Ayla. It's not Petra but there is a special place in the heart of Islam for it because it is one of the earliest churches outside the Arabian Peninsula dating back to the 7th century. Nearby, there are ruins of a church for which they claim it's the oldest in the world, and the best thing all that is located just across the Aqaba Gulf and the Mövenpick hotel.

Wadi RumAnd there comes the Wadi Rum. Known as the Valley of the Moon or Valley of Light Sand or the Roman Valley, it is located 60 kilometers from Aqaba to the east. There you can see paintings on the rocks and temples that belong to people that lived there in prehistoric times. We can argue that there you can experience one of the best sunsets in the world, and many opt to spend the night under the stars and they easily can find some new friends among Bedouins. If you take a walk to Jabal Ram, you will find itself on the second highest peak in Jordan. The view from there is spectacular.

Dining in AqabaAfter all those exciting adventures, it's time to eat something! If we have to name the place with the best fish meal in the whole Middle East, Aqaba will be it. It is an absolute sin to visit Aqaba without trying Sayadieh Fish. They took a grouper and serve it together with caramelized onions and peanuts, rice, all that in a fine sauce. Al Shami is popular among locals and that should tell you something: There you will find traditional Jordanian food and mezze platters. When you try good mezze, you will start to look for an excuse to visit Aqaba again.