Shortly after my plane took off the tarmac, I flipped open my copy of Rough Guide to Jordan. I tried to get comfy in my seat — it would be 12 hours until I could be skipping across the sand in Amman.
I read through Rough Guide’s helpful notation for gay and lesbian travelers: “Homosexual conduct in private between consulting adults is legal in Jordan, but social disapproval of an overtly gay lifestyle is strong . . . Amman has a small underground scene for gay men and lesbians, for the most part invisible to outsiders.”
Fast forward a few hours, and I’m lounging in a posh suite at the Four Seasons Hotel Amman (the city’s swankiest), flipping through Tinder, woofing on Scruff and saying hello to a legion of friendly locals eager to chat with a foreigner like me. I was in the city over the weekend and wanted to know where the local gays hang out when they want to socialize and have fun. I received a string of responses within minutes, all directing me to one little café in the heart of the city.
You can easily explore Amman over the course of a weekend. Here are my top five things to see and do in the Jordanian capital:
1. Books @ Cafe on Rainbow Street
Perhaps Amman’s most famous thoroughfare, Rainbow Street has become one of the city’s prime spots for socializing. All tastes are catered for — traditional coffee houses, zingy contemporary espresso bars, cozy hideaways for organic tea-lovers and swanky DJ venues, alongside antique shops, craft studios and top quality restaurants.
When it opened in 1997, Books @ Cafe was Jordan’s first-ever internet cafe — combining a bookshop with a café-bar and the novelty of online access. The decor is wild, flowery and ultra retro, the ambiance is light and the coffee is top-notch. I visited the patio during an afternoon and found the place packed with locals enjoying massive plates of french toast and poached eggs while sipping on wine and slowly exhaling sweet smelling shisha. I quenched my thirst with a citrus-forward, locally produced blonde ale produced by Carakale. Craft breweries in the Middle East? A delightful surprise!
According to locals, Books @ Cafe is the only LGBT-friendly venue in the city (if not all of Jordan). Best time to mix and mingle with locals is on the dancefloor in the wee hours on Friday and Saturday nights.
2. Brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel Amman
The most famous brunch in Jordan is served at the Four Seasons Hotel in Amman, a Levantine-inspired buffet served daily at Olea. Wake up to the world on the restaurant’s intimate patio while the sun splashes across the city. Ask your server for freshly squeezed juice and either Turkish or Arabic coffee before hopping out of your seat. You’ll find international classics (eggs, sausage, cereal, fresh fruit, pancakes, pastries), but the highlights of course are the local specialties on show: crispy falafel, foul, fresh olives, spoons full of yogurt and cheese, sesame-flecked flatbread and crunchy croquettes.
3. Explore the Ancient
The Roman theatre, dominating the heart of downtown, was the centrepiece of Roman Philadelphia and the initial focus for Amman’s modern settlement in the late 19th century. Cut into a depression in the hillside, the theatre itself is impressively huge, and the view, as well as the ability to eavesdrop on conversations between ant-like people on the stage below, definitely repays the steep climb to the top.
Citadel Hill has been a focus for human settlement since the Paleolithic Age, more than 18,000 years ago. Of the Roman-era remains that survive today, the most impressive by far is a huge Umayyad palace complex on the upper terrace of the Citadel, dating from the first half of the eighth century. On the middle terrace below and to the south lies the Roman Temple of Hercules, its massive columns dramatically silhouetted against the sky.
4. Inspired Art
The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts is the country’s premier establishment showcase for contemporary art, with artists from Jordan, the Arab world and the wider Islamic community all represented in a changing program of shows, drawing on the 2,000-work permanent collection. Exhibitions are split between the main building and an annex in a townhouse opposite; take time to stroll in the pleasant garden between the two, which also houses the chic Canvas art lounge and café.
5. Arabic Cooking Class
Beit Sitti is a project set up by Maria Haddad Hannania and her sisters Dina and Tania, in which visitors cook their own meal under supervision. In a spotless modern kitchen installed in a charming historic townhouse, participants get to spend a couple of hours handling ingredients, learning techniques and hearing stories of culinary endeavours from chefs — generally wives and mothers with a lifetime of cooking behind them — and prepare a three-course, Arabic meal. Then, of course, scarf up your handiwork on the shaded front terrace, with a gorgeous view over the downtown rooftops.