Awesome Aqaba: a relaxed Red Sea Resort in Jordan
In the cold winter months during lockdown, I wondered when it might be possible to return to Jordan. I promised myself that soon as travel to Jordan is safe again, I will be back in a flash!
Now that I take a professional interest in diving, Aqaba makes an even better destination, with some great yet uncrowded Red Sea dive sites, nearly 20 dive centers and all levels of internationally accredited diving courses.
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Where is Aqaba?
Aqaba is Jordans only port city and Red Sea Resort in the Gulf of Aqaba, in the northmost shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. It has nearly 200000 inhabitants, but at the seaside, you won’t notice that it is actually a city. It shares a coast with Israel’s resort of Eilat, which is much smaller but has a port and international airport as well. Aqaba has a small airport very well served by international airlines, mostly budget airlines, and as it is relatively little known, flight prices tend to be quite cheap.
There is a nice, mostly pedestrian city center with the prerequisite souk, a long palm-fringed sea front with upmarket resorts, and another resort area about 10km from town, which is, again large resorts, beaches and dive sites. Taxis are plentiful but of you value your nightly passeggiata, ice cream and coffee, it is better to stay in town.
What’s even better is that it makes an extraordinarily relaxed base for trips to Wadi Rum (50km, 1 hour) , and Petra (120km), with frequent public transport and tourist bus connections.
Getting to Aqaba
This is how I first got to Aqaba! I was looking for some winter sun and culture and saw flights from Europe for less than 40 Euro, so it was a no brainer. Most people on my flights were Jordanian citizens on family visits, pilgrims, divers heading to the Sinai and Polish families looking for a beach holiday. My first trip there was somewhat inauspicious as I ended up providing CPR somewhere over Turkey which resulted in an emergency landing in Antalya and an unscheduled 12-hour layover followed by riding a full bus through the night to Amman, but let’s say it led life in directions I hadn’t thought possible, so look now I am back!
When I returned to Aqaba, I imagined two nice relaxed days by the beach, but I managed to squeeze in a day trip to Wadi Rum as well. I rode his minibus, straight from my hostel in Petra, to Aqaba. Very comfortable, airconditioned minibus costing very little.
Arriving in Aqaba
Dropped in central Aqaba, I strolled to my hotel, the Amir Palace – you can see it on the left corner of the photograph. The Area is central yet not too touristy, so not exactly the place for romance, but quiet at night, and an absulutely central location.
For about 25 Euro, not bad, is it? I got a super clean airconditioned room with nice soft cotton linens, a thick comfy mattress, clean bathroom, a sliver of a balcony – enough to rest and recharge. The hotel has no restaurant or pool, it is rather on the budget side of things, but extremely clean, tidy and safe.
Rid of luggage, I went on a little walk through town. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but was pleasantly surprised how relaxed and friendly it is. Of course, no tcontent with “just relaxing”, I looked for some activities. I thought about a dive, but, having to fly out the next day, I did not want to risk decompression sickness, however mild it might be, and also, I thought one dive ould just make me feel sad not to have more time. So I thought I will buy a ticket for the JETT bus to Wadi Rum and try to see it on a budget.
But first, I was quite hungry and strolled to al-Nadah Street wich has many hotels and cafes.
Here I found what I was looking for! Small plates, absolutely delicious, in this new-ish smart cafe restaurant. Hummus and halloumi for one, what a splendid lunch.
Thus fortified, I walked along the street, pretty dead on a Friday afternoon, catching quick glimpses of vaguely Arabic architecture of the larger seafront resorts.
JETT Terminal of Aqaba
The city beach of Aqaba was just across the road. But for swimming, it isn’t that suitable. Not only is is narrow and not exactly scenic, but you will definitely stared at if you turn up in Western swimwear. Anyway, it is fine for a picknick and people-watching, nut for swimming, you would be way better off taking a free shuttle to one of the beach clubs about 10km south, which is also where a bunch of upmarket sea front resorts and dive bases are.
My first destination, the JETT Terminal. This is where I had started my Jordan trip a week ago, at 1am! JETT stands for “Jordan Express Tourist Transport” and has buses and minibuses running to the most touristy destinations, i.e. Wadi Rum, Petra, Amman and Jerash, often running direct routes. Between JETT and a public minibus, I must say I did not notice much of a difference in terms of comfort, but JETT offers you the opportunity to pre-book (sometimes) and to book online, whereas the public buses and minibuses often run a more erratic schedule and leave from an informal bus station (big parking lot) about 800m away.
Having enquired at the office, I was just told to come back the next day half an hour before the scheduled departure for the once-daily minibus to Wadi Rum. Being a bit navie, I did not make any Wadi Rum arrangements at all, but happened to run into two fellow travellers the next day, and we arranged a private tour by phone while on the bus! If you are travelling solo, you can also join tours from the visitor Centre once in Wadi Rum, so do not worry, there are many opportunities, just be aware of the price points .
Central Aqaba Sea front
Walking on, partly on the beach, partly on shaded K. Hussein Street, I passed the more upmarket hotels, mot of them gated and rather uninviting from the outside, and the narrow strip of beach that continues all the way to the port – where you can see the cruise ship. Sad truth is, Aqaba saw a lot of cruise ships before the pandemic – and then, about 20 or more huge coaches snaking up the road to Petra. And while you can see the main attractions of Petra in a day, it is less than ideal arriving there at noon with limited time to explore, and a two-day ticket is marginally more expensive than a day entry ticket.
Anyway, not to rant. If I remember right, the ship in port is the Queen Mary II, which, at 2600 passengers, is considered a smaller ship. Most guests will be ferried to Petra or Wadi Rum right away, only a few will actually explore town.
The setting of Aqaba is quite beautiful, with mountains rising soon past the city limits.
And the Red Sea on the other side. It’s all rather laid-back, with verdant gardens, a small strip of beach populated with families, and kiosks selling refreshments. I noticed that many Middle Eastern tourists here dress way more conservatively than, for example, in Amman. While it is fine to walk on the beach, and swim in a modest swimsuit, I think I would have felt slightly uncomfortable in my “usual” one-piece Western swimsuit, although teh beach is nice and the water very clean.
Aqaba is also a Duty Free Zone. In theory, this means a lot of things like alcohol and cigarettes will be cheap, but I did not see any huge Duty Free Shops like on the Canary Islands. Alcohol was relatively hard to come by, in specialist liquor shops and, of course, all international hotel bars, at least those that cater to a Western clientele.
Walking past the mosque and up Prince MOhammed Street, the pleasant resort athmosphere with manicured lawns and palm trees changed to a much more Middle Eastern flavour, with small shops and cafes aplenty. By the way, these juide bars seemed pretty safe. I had juice and fruit shakes at several, didn’t get sick at all.
From here the entryways into the small market area are pretty obvious. I went into a few cavern-like clothes shops to find modest underwear, then into a more produce-oriented area – all running in lanes parallel to the sea front. From there, what looks like one huge shopping trip, was actually divided into three walks, usually at night after returning from aday out, and one morning before my return flight. Aqaba is surely no match on the great downtown shops of Amman, but the relaxed city centre makes for some great browsing.
As anywhere in the Middle East, there is no shortage of gold. Some of it is fairly plain and simple, and usually 750k. There is a small group of gold shops near Princess SAlma PArk in the bazaar area, and at least one in Al Nadah Street, and several in the five-star resorts.
I saw one shop with pretty old inlaid silver as well. Most need a good polish, and as this was in the area where some of the cruise tourists go, starting prices were relatively high, bit if your heart is set on simething, I am sure you can barter along.
Of course, like anywhere in Jordan, here I had the chance to buy more Keffiyeh. The “traditional” Jordan style is red and white, but there was no shortage of other styles. Most didn’t seem to be made locally and were rather stiff and not cosy. I bought two in a keffiyeh shop elsewhere – one okay one for about 3 Euro, and a really nice one for about 10 Euro – the difference is pretty stunning.
They certainly make for good protection from the sand an sun if you are walking a bit or are planning a trip to Wadi Rum.
What Aqaba (and Jordan in general) have is scent, incense, and cosmetic products! They have products from all over the Middle East, even Pakistan. I saw at least twenty shops like this one, selling cosmetics, spices and scent.
Very often, there will be copies of big-brand perfumes. The big golden appliances to the left are traditional censers for private homes, usually made form plastic with a metal core and very, very ornate. On the other hand, you get the ultrasonic diffusers more common in the West.
As well as perfumes, many stalls sold incenxe, solid perfume, and censers, along with bath accessories and oils.
Most vendors were happy to give you a demo of their incense, too.
From market stall to upmarket stylish scent shop, you get it all in Aqaba. This shop was really nice, but with heady scents clearly designed for a Middle Eastern clientele! The shop was very friendly, and readily sprayed all sorts of “light and fresh” scents on my wrist, but I had to leave after a few minutes in the shop!
Oh, and once thing I recommend you try: Luxury soap and skin care. While I happily use Aleppo Soap and Nablus Soap, which sells as cheap as 50 cents in drug stores, I have tried the other end of the spectrum at Trinitae, and I am hooked. Their main shop is in Amman but there is a small shop at the Kempinski Hotel in Aqaba.
And saving the best for last: my seat neighbor on the plane said if I go to Aqaba, I must tgo to Al Shaab. I never heard of them, of course, but knowing she gives good advice (she took me to HAshem in Amman at 6am), I paid a visit to one of their bigger stores in Aqaba. This is what their logo looks like, big yellow Arabic script on red. Their nuts are the bees knees, seriously, if you like nuts, buy as many here as I can. I walked out laden with 3kg of roasted cashews and “luxury mix”. They are very friendly, and let yiu try as much as you like. Apparantly they are famous all over Jordan.
By the way, for spices you might strike lucky in one of the spice shops in the market area, but a lot of the sellers have pre-packaged spices only. If you are a cook and want a lot of herbs ands spices at good quality, head to one of the supermarkets. I walked to the Al-Rahma Mall, about 10min walk along the main road out of town. It has a Carrefour in the basement with a great selection of loose nuts and spices, literally pennies for a kg of sumac, and at least ten different types of zaa’tar, including organic one.
At some point, I carried my shopping mainly a couple kilos of nuts and spices home, then went to the Al Mohandes cafeteria round the corner for a very generous and filling dinner.
Late at night, I made another foray into incense and scent, when many outdoor stalls set up along the main road.
Leading into Al-Nadah Street, I was spoilt for choice with coffee, juice, desserts and well, scent and jewellery.
And here’s my last sunset, viewed from my hotel balcony.
I spent two days in total in Aqaba, which is usually enough to see the city and spend a bit of time at the beach. However, I recommend spending at least a week if you are planning to dive. Alternatively, use it as a base for trips to Wadi Rum which can be done as a day trip, but it’s better to spend at least one night in Wadi Rum. And last not least, petra warrants at least two days. YOu can see the main attractions of Petra easily in a day trip from Aqaba, but if you are planning on hiking, three days are best to allow for weather.
What else can you do in Aqaba?
You know, I just spent two days in Aqaba, taking advantage of the cheap but good hotels, the good food and the proximity to Wadi Rum, and spent one full day in Wadi Rum. I totally misssed out on swimming, snorkelling and diving.
For swimming, the best is to go to a beach club on a stretch of pristine beach past the port. Berenice Beach Club is the most popular one, and if the hotel does not have a beach, they will usually have information on at least one beach club and how to get there. For about 10 Euro a day, you get transportation from town, towel and lounger, as well as restaurants, WiFi and showers and changing facilities.
For diving and snorkeling, there are at least 20 outlets both in the town centre and further south, between the beach clubs and the cargo port and border crossing into Saudi Arabia. Most are PADI certified, some SSI. From what I read so far is that diving is suitable for beginners, corals are a lot more intact but less spectacular reefs than on the Sinai, and it lacks the visitors Egyptian Sinai resorts of Hurghada and MArsa Alam have. Therefore, the groups are smaller, the diving more relaxed, and most dive sites cn be accessed from the shore. But I am going to find out for myself. So far, contact with dive schools ahs been nice,they seem very accommodationg for courses beyond entry level, so this is to be continued.
I don’t know if I can make the comparison to Egypt, because while the sites near Sharm el Sheikh are spectacular, I visited 20 years ago, drove to Ras Mohammed and snorkelled by the drop off, so of course there was nary a visitor there, and this may all have changed now!
On my last morning, I stocked up on more nuts and soap, then caught a lift with some friends to the airport. With my holidays being rather short and sweet, I vowed to come back. Little did I know at this point that a pandemic would put a two-year stop on all but essential or EU travel, but I have booked my next flight now, so Aqaba is definitely a place to return!
Aqaba is located at the southernmost tip of Jordan on the Red Sea, in direct neighbourhood of the Israeli resort of Eilat and just a few kilometres north of the border with Saudi Arabia. Aqaba has its own (tiny) international airport just 10km from the centre, with a free visa issued on arrival. Right now there are no restrictions to European and North American citizens to enter except to obtain a QR code by filling out a form found under gateway2jordan.gov.jo.
The location of Aqaba is really quite fascinating as it has immediate direct borders with two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and is close to Egypt. Although you can visit Eilat in Israel by two straightforward taxi rides, you will need to be Israeli or have pre-arranged Israeli visa (according to some websites) whereas Tourist Israel says you get a visa on arrival. Getting back into Jordan is usually pretty straightforward but it will cost around 100 NIS for the privilege to leave Israel, so that day trip will be quote pricey if you add the cost of taxis.
For those wanting to travel on to Egypt, a ferry runs about once daily to Nuweiba and Taba but costs a pretty penny but avoiding two border crossings at Yitzhtak Rabin and Menachem Begin, parting you with some of your money and having a heavily restricted vehicle quota at Menachem Begin.
Now, on the other side, the land crossing into Saudi Arabia is open to tourists, but you require a pre-arranged visa and while probably very scenic, the Red Sea Coast of Saudi Arabia has no large settlements, with Medina and Jeddah some 1000km down the coast.
Where to stay in Aqaba
I admit it right here, I am not the one to stay in gated resorts, preferring local style accommodations.
Amir Palace Hotel
I stayed at the Amir Palace Hotel near the Bus Station and Prince Haya Circle. Altogether a good overall location, you can easily walk to the sea front, the bazaar, the bus stand (local buses) and the JETTY tourist bus terminal. Very safe and quiet at night.
I was very happy with this hotel room, it was clean, everything worked, I felt safe and there were many international travellers and families at the hotel. It is situated between the Bus Station an Prince Haya roundabout, an overall good location. I paid approximately 25 Euro per room per night. I used Booking.com back then, but it is currently available through their own website only. Some fellow travellers stayed at its sister hptel Karam House across the road, and said it was the nicest hotel on their stay.
Another nice independent hotel that is more upmarket and only about 100m from the city beach is the Lacosta Hotel. Located in gently bustling Al Nadah Street, this is pretty much the touristic centre of Aqaba, the JETT Bus is around the corner, and a bit of private beach where you can sport your European-style swimwear.
Yes, the Doubletree is big, and it’s corporate but located right in the centre, with easy walking distance to everywhere, this is not a bad choice, especially if you want to enjoy some alcoholic beverages and their rooftop pools and some very generous sized rooms with desks.
Where to eat
Aqaba is a wonderful place for classic Middle Eastern food. Strangely, a lot of the fish is imported and frozen, so best to ask before you order that seemingly local freshly caught fish.
I would say 80-90% of the restaurants are dry, as Aqaba is quite conservative and hosts guests from other conservative Muslim countries but there is at least one liquor store in Al Nahlah Street. They do make up for it wuth great fruit cocktail and juice stalls, which really get a lot of custom. They are everywhere, but the nicest (and trendiest looking one) is downstairs at the Lacosta next to my absolute facourite!
Khubza and Seneya
Wins the overall first prize of all restaurants I ate in Jordan. The concept is lots of little dishes or Middle Eastern “tapas” which turn out to be exceedingly well executed Lebanese classics, hummus, grilled cheeses, salads and the like.
Ever so slightly more formal with comfy chairs and with a bigger menu, this tourists favourite is across from the Lacosta Hotel, also off Al Nadah Street. They specialise in meat and sea food. Solid food, would go there again, and well, they do have shisha on offer if you would like one after diner! I had these grilled calamari here and god only knows if they were fresh or frozen, they did taste good!
Al Mohandes Cafeteria
No frills cafe around the corner from the Amir Palace where the receptionist sent me for breakfast. Veery local, only the occasional toursit strays here, but super tasty falafel, hummus, an mssabahah which are all consdiered breakfast and snack dishes, accompanied by tea and soft drinks and extremely cheap. Something like 50 cent for a tasty takeaway falafel sandwich, but the simple hall-like cafeteria does table service too. They also do a bit of meat and innards, but most of the menu is vegetarian/vegan.
A restaurant and patisserie close to Prince Haya Circle, try at least once for the excellent Kunefe and Baklava. You can eat at a few tables outside, and there is a more formal restaurant upstairs.
Map of Aqaba
So, instead of trying to give directions, I have collected all the cool places of Aqaba in a handy map!
The Small Print
I travelled to Jordan in January 2020, when the CoVID-19 pandemic was distant noise in the news and no restrictions were in place in the Middle East or Europe. I few from Berlin to Aqaba and travelled by public transport where possible, and took a few taxis where public transport was not available. I planned and paid for this entire trip using my own funds and was not sponsored by anybody. Some hotel links are affiliate links to Booking.com.