A contemporary edge combined with classic appeal makes it one of the Middle East’s most fascinating cities.
Visitors to Amman may be familiar with its historic Citadel, Roman Amphitheatre and traditional souks of the old city. But there’s also a fresh, contemporary side to Jordan’s capital city that adds an extra dimension to anyone’s visit. Amman is now more exciting than ever. A perfect example is Love On A Bike, the cozy art gallery on trendy Rainbow Street. Run by young artist Rima Malallah, the gallery shares its name with a self-portrait of Rima cycling. Many visitors call in to admire her colourful, faux-naïve paintings.
The Khalid Shoman Foundation Darat Al Funun in Nadeem Al Mallah Street is another surprising art gallery, created out of three houses from the 1920s. It’s currently showing a retrospective of installations by Emily Jacir, a professor of Palestinian art in Ramallah. The Royal Automobile Museum, a spiky new building in King Hussein Park, combines modern design with Jordan’s iconic royal family. Its exhibition tells the story of Jordan in the 20th century through the classic car collection of its four automobile-loving kings. Car lovers can cast their eyes over Lincoln Convertibles, a Rolls Royce Phantom V, several Mercedes sports cars and HRH King Abdullah II’s rally cars.
Shopping in Amman is also full of discoveries. In addition to the souks and souvenir shops is Ola’s Secret Garden, just five minutes away from Rainbow Street. Here Ola Mubsalat designs everything in this stylishly eccentric shop and loves to chat over a cup of tea. Working in front of us on her latest wooden jewellery collection, Ola explains, “I like using olive wood because the smell is like therapy itself.”
There’s also the Jordan River Foundation Showroom, a former 1930s primary school that sells the work of Jordanian women artisans. The shop is inspirational. The main showroom displays cushions, tablecloths, candles, jewellery and a range of accessories from cups to handwoven iPad covers. Everything on display has evolved from traditional designs, rethought for modern tastes with eye-popping colours. Walk to Wild Jordan Café on Othman bin Afan Street, which also has a gift shop. Created to generate income for rural communities, there are tempting treats such as homemade cakes, flavoured coffees, smoothies, and herbal teas. The building, all glass and terraces with fabulous city views, is an experience of contemporary Jordan in itself.
Jabal Amman, near Amman’s old Downtown area, supports a lot of cafes. Most stay open late but after 10 pm lounge bars such as Sekrab (meaning `scrapyard’) are the places to be. Sekrab is also Amman’s first big upcycling project: radiators and road signs are repurposed as tables, wheels hang from the ceiling as decorations and coat hangers have been rewired as bookcases.
Another stylish retreat is The Living Room above Romero restaurant, which is part lounge, part sushi bar. With its high-backed chairs, fireplace and newspapers, The Living Room is reminiscent of a members’ club and its all-day lunch menu embodies the definition of eclectic. Not many places in Amman offer sushi, halloumi cheese and American-style ribs in the same place. Beyond Jabal Amman, the U Roof Lounge (open in summers) is packed with comfy white sofas, purple lighting, bold coloured cushions and an amazing night sky view from the roof of the Regency Palace Hotel. The lounge also boasts a slender infinity pool and even a Jacuzzi. Oobe is another hotel lounge-bar-restaurant, on the lower floor of the Al Qasr Metropole Hotel. It’s a colourful experience — a riot of fuchsia, purples and lime — with remarkably convincing artificial sunlight. But Oobe’s unique selling point is the longest happy hour in Amman, if not the Middle East. On Sundays, it runs from 1 pm to 7 pm (two drinks for the price of one) and coincides with Hungry Hour (25% off all food).
Hotels in Amman are also becoming more stylish and inventive, with a trend towards smaller independent venues with contemporary furnishings. A good example is Canyon Boutique Hotel, a 30-room hotel housed in a sleek purpose-built structure on Adeeb Wahbeh Street, which opened in 2011. It has a simple, fresh feel, with huge windows. Whether you want to explore its rich history or its unique new style, Amman now shouts “Look at me!” — and there’s a lot to see once you start looking.