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Aqaba is a pretty cool city. I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard of it before I went there on my way to explore the Golden Triangle of Jordan. Most people, myself included, usually just fly to the capital of a country to start from there, and in the process, sometimes overlook a much better choice. Similarly, lots of tourists head to the overcrowded and chaotic Amman and don’t even know about the charming coastal city to the south. Aqaba has a small airport, only a few charter planes and Turkish Airlines head there, which means a hassle free, fast and easy entry into the country. Petra is about a 2 hour drive away, Wadi Rum can even be reached in under 45 minutes. But Aqaba isn’t only the perfect gateway to the amazing attractions of the region, it has much to offer in itself.
Here’s my top ten picks of activities in and around Aqaba:
1. Go Diving and/or Snorkelling
The Red Sea is famous for it’s diverse ecosystem with colourful coral reefs and abundant underwater life. On top of that, I found the water to be incredibly clear as well as mild, even in winter, and can now fully understand, why diving in the Gulf of Aqaba is advertised as one of the best diving experiences in the world. Having snorkelled before and enjoyed it, I longed for more and opted to go for a test dive with Mohammed from Deep Blue. Starting from the Royal Yacht Club, the dive boat was steered to the Cedar Pride, a sunken ship which lies on top of two coral reefs. Having expected my first dive to be in some pool, this was absolutely mind blowing. While I got to explore around the outside of the ship and observe the vibrant corals growing all over it, Brendan, a more experienced diver, investigated around the insides as well. My first dive couldn’t have been in a better spot and definitely left me with a taste for more.
2. Go for an ATV ride through the desert
Fans of adventure and getting dirty listen up: a ride on the dune buggies is a pretty fun way to spend an hour or two. There’s a couple of rental places around, but I went with Thrifty’s on Mena Street. They have a huge track built on the outskirts of Aqaba, with paths through the rugged landscape and even a few jumps built in. Even if you’re a beginner, it’s fairly easy to do, as the buggies are comfortable to handle and everything is explained well. But make sure to be appropriately dressed, because more likely than not, you will be completely covered in dust and dirt when the fun is over.
3. Visit the Aqaba Castle
The castle is one of the landmarks of the city and located next to the archaeological museum, which in itself is worth a visit as well. Here Aqaba fell to the Arab forces after they captured the stronghold from the Turkish defenders.
4. Get a complete Jordanian makeover at the local spa
After a long flight, you’ll feel the need to relax and get pampered, so treat yourself to a day at the spa. One I can personally recommend is the Janna Spa located on Al-Saada street, which is insanely popular with the locals, as well as visitors. And that for good reasons: the girls working there are lovely and do everything from facial treatments, massages, sugaring and waxing to henna tattooing, hairdressing and manicuring. With some good conversations thrown in as well, if you’re interested in learning about the local lifestyle. There’s even a gym, pools and a hammam. As a long-term traveller who hasn’t gotten dressed up in forever, I opted for a full on Jordanian makeover. The girls did my makeup, my hair and nails and afterwards, I then went out to a fancy dinner at the Double Tree with Brendan.
5. Relax by the beach
This one is a no-brainer. Aqaba is Jordan’s only coastal city and offers countless resorts, beach clubs and public beaches along its 27km coastline on the clear and warm waters of the Red Sea. You don’t even have to be staying in one of the expensive hotels with an adjoining beach. The Berenice Beach Club offers a full day entry ticket, as well as an included shuttle service to all Aqaba hotels for only 7 Dinar. Apart from the beach, there are three pools, lots of shaded areas as wells as places to sunbathe. The staff is really friendly and helpful, the food is great (try the Sayadiyah, a local fish and rice dish) and the fun activities aren’t lacking either. There’s a dive center and different water sports like banana ride’s and parasailing. I had a great time hanging out there for two days and would go back for more any day.
6. Go on a day trip to Wadi Rum
Only a 40 minute drive and 60km separate Aqaba from Wadi Rum, a desert valley full of some of the most impressive sandstone and granite rock formations on the planet. Wadi Rum has been the filming location of several Blockbusters, such as Lawrence of Arabia, or the more modern Transformers and Prometheus. Here Bedouins offer different tours, ranging from camel rides, over hiking and climbing trips to 4×4 rides up and down the dunes. Wadi Rum is an impressive place, don’t forget to pack the camera and a big memory card!
7. Eat, eat and eat some more
I love the Jordanian cuisine and I seem to never get sick of it. Of course, there is always hummus; bowls of delicious chick pea, lemon, garlic and olive oil puree, into which you can dip your pita bread over and over again and stuff yourself, before you even get to the main course. If you’re a bread lover like me, try to get your hands on shrak – the traditional Bedouin bread, which is stretched extremely thin and cooked on some kind of inverted wok. The most dominant style of eating is just pilling a bunch of dishes, from hummus, to falafel, kubbeh and vegetables on a table. Everything is then shared around and scooped up with bread. For a refreshing drink, try the popular lime-mint juice.
8. Shop till you drop
The city of Aqaba lies within the Aqaba Special Economic Zone. This means, that apart from there being no visa fees if entering the country through Aqaba (usually it’s 30$), there are also much lower taxes than in the rest of the country and everything you buy is duty free. The city has modern malls, as well as traditional markets and little speciality shops.
9. Visit the Aqaba Market
The Aqaba souk is where one can buy those fragrant spices you enjoyed so much in your Jordanian dishes, purchase colourful sand bottles – another Aqaba speciality -, admire fresh caught fish and colourful fruit, as well as get shocked by some cow and sheep heads dangling from ceilings in butcheries. This is what makes it pretty interesting and different from the usual tourist markets filled with trinkets and scarves. Well, there’s scarves and whatever else you might want to bring back from a vacation too, if you’re looking for that, but you get what I mean. The market is pretty lively and within walking distance of all the hotels. Go for a little stroll and delve into the local culture.
10. Go on a sunset cruise on the Red Sea
No better way to ring out the day than sitting on a boat, drink in one hand, holding on to the railing with the other and watching the sunset.