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Jordanian delights

Many travelers to Jordan believe there is little to do in Amman. For one thing, most of Jordan’s travel destinations, such as Petra, Jarash and the Dead Sea, are far from the capital.

Architecturally speaking, the city has something of a reputation for monotony. Built on seven hills, it consists mainly of low buildings of white brick, although some glass high-rises are beginning to dot the skyline.

However, despite the relative lack of cultural and architectural attractions, the city is actually incredibly interesting, full of things to explore, particularly if your tastes tend toward good food, shopping, sipping tea and strolling the streets in a leisurely fashion.

For those visiting Amman to shop, the city provides plenty in the way of modern shopping conveniences, as evidenced by Mecca Mall and City Mall. I preferred the small and cozy City Mall, which, despite its size, contains a number of international chains, including Zara, Mango and Carrefour. The mall's top floor food court offers a number of laid-back coffee shops with free wifi — a very convenient option for the traveler.

Mecca Mall is not as modern as City Mall and the stores are more local in flavor. If you happen to go there, head to a store called Muse for amazing (and cheap) women’s bags. The only downside of Mecca Mall is that it is something of a maze and does not really have a quiet place in which to sit and relax.

For a pleasant stroll and a relaxing evening, head to a shopping area called Jebal Amman and ask for Rainbow Street. Despite Rainbow Street's English name, the Jebal Amman neighborhood is a commercial hub for everything that is Jordanian. I was told there was a Sony store there that was shut down because Sony is not a Jordanian brand. Once on the street, head to a café and bookstore called Books@. After picking up a copy of Lonely Planet Jordan, my friend showed me to a backdoor at the very end of the bookstore leading to a flight of stairs, at the top of which is a coffee shop complete with a terrace overlooking the hills of Amman.

Further down Rainbow Street, a store called Batata (Potatoes) serves fries with a variety of sauces, including oregano and honey mustard. If you're still hungry, a few stores down, Gerard serves heavenly ice cream. To wash all the food down, there is an amazing tea place called Turtle Green, which is also next to a delicious shawerma shop.

Rainbow Street is not just a phenomenal place for food or a stroll; it really represents Jordan in a lot of ways. The country is very modern and Westernized, but it has also kept a strong sense of its Jordanian Arab and Bedouin culture. Although Rainbow Street’s restaurants and stores make up an amazing mosaic of the world’s foods (pizza, pasta, ice cream, shawerma, potatoes…etc), they still have one thing in common: everything is Jordanian, and no foreign franchises are allowed.

For a little more of the traditional Jordanian flavor, skip breakfast at your hotel and have a streetside breakfast of Jordanian knafeh (pronounced "konafa"). This sweet dish is common enough in Egypt, but Jordanians have a particular twist to the recipe, introducing a layer of melted cheese for added taste. There are two variations: kheshna (coarse) and naama (silky). If you ask a taxi driver to take you to “Habiba” in downtown, you can ask for a piece of each, and they will heat it up for you and you can eat it right there.

While you are in downtown, walk a block down to Capatillo, a paradise of heavenly spices for cooking. They also sell mixtures of spices for different foods, like chicken or meat, and a number of well-priced Dead Sea products. For souvenirs, just cross the street and you will find different stores with Jordanian products.

More gastronomical delights can be found at the district's Shawerma al-Reem. According to residents, this is "the" place in Amman to get shawerma. There is no seating area, but you can always sit on the sidewalk (we did).

For more local shopping, head to Sweifiya, where you'll find a gold shopping neighborhood and another specifically for shoes. As a shoe-shopper myself, I had great success in the shoe store neighborhood, and it took great willpower to keep from buying every shoe I found. I was told the shoes are imported from Turkey, and that this is the secret behind the low prices.

On my last day in Amman, I had a breakfast of authentic Jordanian falafel and hummus at the downtown restaurant Hashim, then headed off to Citadel Hill (Jebal al-Qalaa), which is approximately 15 minutes away. From the top of the hill, you can see the citadel and a number of ruins that date from Roman times through the early Islamic period. Ask for a paper guide when you buy the ticket at the entrance, because they won’t give it to you if you don’t specifically ask… From Citadel Hill, you have a breathtaking view of Amman.

The citadel complex also includes Jordan's Archaeological Museum, which showcases different treasures from all over the country. After the Citadel you could head down to Jaffra, almost across the street from Hashim, where you can relax, have some tea or coffee and enjoy the music.

I could not leave Amman without paying a visit to the famous Tannoureen, a posh Jordanian restaurant that offers amazing food and regal service. Make sure to order their Knafeh for dessert — it's out of this world.

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