Here are the things to do in Aqaba, another interesting place to visit in Jordan, besides Petra and Wadi Rum. It might not be the best idea to come during summer though, because of the high temperatures. Still, you might consider traveling to Jordan after this travel series and having a nice Aqaba holiday. I know I did.
Aqaba is located on the Red Sea coast, the sea famous for its warm waters and colorful coral reefs. Just like in Egypt, you can go scuba diving here or gulf cruising. No surprises there.
You will not be surprised either when you see that the beach is divided among various hotels, just like in Egypt or Tunisia, and that you are almost unable to find a small piece of sand to walk to the sea. Nevertheless, having in mind a few local “rules”, that might not be an issue.
Things to do in Aqaba
Most of the hotels provide their own beach. Few of those that are less expensive are located in the town center and therefore not on the beach. If you choose to stay here, you can either pay the fee for the beach of other hotels (around JD20 or 20 Euros), you can go to the public beach, or visit some of the resorts that are about 10 kilometers away from the town (or a few kilometers from the border with Saudi Arabia).
If you choose to go by taxi, make sure to arrange the pickup time with the driver since going back to Aqaba might get somewhat tricky. Taxi ride costs are different depending on the way you booked the ride. (If they call a cab to pick you up at the hotel it can get pretty expensive.) Taking a taxi to a remote resort where tourists usually spend time at the beach, going scuba diving or snorkeling, where restaurants and sunbeds are available, will cost from JD5 to JD10.
You will probably notice that there are no Arabs swimming in these hotels. Also, children might splatter themselves in shallow waters on the public beach, but Arab women will sit on the shore covered in traditional dark clothes. They may soak their feet in the water.
Tourists are not advised to swim here since, they say, there might be broken glass or small junk at the bottom. You won’t be wrong if you think that women are not advised to sunbathe or swim here. Local guides will recommend that “it would be best” if you go to some resort on the outskirts of the town. Still, this would be the place to go if you want to book a cruise or snorkeling excursion.
The public beach is not that pleasant. When you say to someone from Europe that Aqaba has a nice long seafront, the first thing to pop in mind will be an image of some Mediterranean coastal town with charming restaurants and cafes, and balconies from which one can enjoy the view of the sea. That’s not the case here though.
Almost the entire beach is covered with tents. They make it impossible to see the beach while strolling along the seafront and they actually mark different restaurants or bar areas underneath. Plastic chairs with coffee in a paper cup, and Arab women taking care of their children swimming. If you want to take photos, be so kind as to ask for permission first.
The only Arab men that you will see wearing short pants will probably be here since they are the ones who will take you scuba diving. Everyone else is always in jeans or jalabayas, long white robes, regardless of the heat.
Anyway, try to follow the instructions you hear from your local guide and everything will be fine. People working at the hotels or in the restaurants, stores, and banks are more than nice and welcoming, hotel beaches are lovely and the sea is clean.
When it comes to the weather, Aqaba tends to get very hot during summer. It is usually around 20 degrees Celsius in March, while in June or July you might feel as if your shoes are melting and getting stuck onto the concrete. It’s often over 40. When it gets this hot, the whole of Aqaba seems dry and burned by the sun, and the air conditioning unit in your room sounds like a far better idea. But if you come in May or September, you will be able to enjoy the real “summer” vacation.
Lemonade with Mint
You probably wonder if it’s okay to wear summer clothes on the streets. This is another one of those things to do in Aqaba issues. Sure, locals are used to tourists lightly dressed, in skirts or short pants, but still, don’t be surprised if all the Arab heads turn after you. Their eyes will follow you all the way, you might hear a whistle or two along with a few Arabic words that you, luckily, don’t understand.
It was 2008 when I was in Aqaba for the first time. This is where I tasted the lemonade with mint that was served in every cafe. The drink was green, the ingredients blended and it was perfect for high temperatures.
Given that there are tourists here from around the world, Aqaba offers a range of restaurants and cuisines, from local shish kebab or shish tawook to pizza and McDonald’s. Their vegetable soups, various salads and appetizers, falafels or crunchy pastry, and Arab bread – are just delicious. Considering that you are on the seaside, try not to skip the seafood.
If you are wondering about alcohol, you should know that outside the hotels, places that serve these drinks are scarce. There is also a specialized drink store where you can buy a bottle or two. I found araq here, a local liquor made of rice and anise (resembles Greek ouzo), that was nicely packed in a blue-glassed bottle with a golden Arabic inscription. It was perfect to buy as a present or a souvenir.
Aqaba is equipped with everything a tourist might need. You will find banks, exchange and post offices, souvenir shops, and lovely jewelry stores. But don’t think that this is yet another beach town since the town is so rich in history. Here are things to do in Aqaba, and it won’t take you more than two days.
If you stroll by the sea, you will come across a few ruins. Those are the remains of the first Islamic city outside the Arab Peninsula that dates back to 650 AD. The town was called Ayla. Urban areas or misr were then built with mosques, governor residences and tribal headquarters included. Today you can see the remains of the stone gate, columns, and the old mosque.
The finds from this area that date back to the Umayyad, Abbasid, and Fatimid periods (7th-12th century) can be seen at the Archaeological Museum. They say that Aqaba was called Ayla during the Byzantine era. It surrendered to Muslims in 630 AD.
The Arab Revolution
If you go further, you will see a vast square with a huge flag. It can be seen in the neighboring towns of Eilat in Israel and Taba in Egypt. The flag was erected in 2004 and became a certain symbol of Aqaba. It is dedicated to the great Arab revolution of 1916 when Arabs freed themselves of Ottoman rule. That was the revolution in which Lawrence of Arabia participated.
The revolutionary leader was Sharif Husein bin Ali, the ancestor of Abdullah II who now rules the kingdom of Jordan. His former house was located near today’s flag at the same square. Bin Ali’s portrait can be seen on the bill of one Jordanian dinar. The flag was the highest in the Arab world for a long time and it differs from the Jordanian one in color disposition.
The Archaeological Museum is nearby, along with the Aqaba Castle or the Mameluke Fort. It’s possible to visit the old prison, horse stable, and the room where carrier pigeons were kept. The Castle was last altered in 1587 AD by one of the last Mameluke sultans.
A coastline of 27 km
One more interesting detail to be added – the coast of the Red Sea that belongs to Jordan is only 27 kilometers long. It was even shorter earlier, but after the agreement with Saudi Arabia in 1965, it got an additional 6,000 square kilometers of territory – about 18 kilometers.
Only one wide street separates Aqaba from the Israeli town of Eilat. After Eilat, the Egypt coastline stretches. If you go to the opposite side, to one of those resorts with lovely beaches, you will stumble across signs saying that you are “12 kilometers from the Saudi Arabia border“. So, don’t be surprised when you see a Saudi man with a red and white scarf sitting at the local restaurant. There will actually be a lot of them here who stop by from Saudi Arabia.
An authentic Middle Eastern journey as it can get, right?
The full Jordan SERIES