An Evening in Jordan’s Port City of Aqaba

Tourists apart, Aqaba is also most Jordanians' favourite weekend jaunt. They throng here to swim and scuba-dive, shop for less, gorge on seafood, and smoke shisha.

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Ambling in Aqaba at night, past meat shops and shisha parlours, is the best way to connect with this seaside city. Photo by Yadid Levy/Alamy/Indiapicture.

From the airy, high-ceilinged balcony of my room in Aqaba’s Kempinski, I gawk at the orange sun melt into the Red Sea. On its ripples bob countless commercial vessels. Aqaba is, after all, Jordan’s only port city. To my right, distant mountain settlements of Eilat, Israel’s coveted resort town, twinkle like fireflies, to my left are the hills of Saudi Arabia, and just beside them I see traces of the tiny Egyptian town of Taba. The sum of my sights, it hits me, is more dramatic than the sunset—I’m inhaling three countries from a fourth’s balcony. And that’s not it. There’s more. Moses’ biblical heroism dawns on me. I imagine a parted Red Sea, its waters raging in a gravity-defying whirlpool.

I have been hearing about how mouth-watering mansaf is from the moment I had set foot in Jordan, but it’s finally over a delectable buffet at the hotel that I get to dig into some. A lamb rice preparation cooked in a fermented dried yogurt sauce, mansaf is Jordan’s national dish which comes loaded with chunky lamb pieces, chunky enough to not let me go beyond two morsels. I find it overwhelmingly meaty, both in aroma and flavour. I say so as politely as possible to my fellow Jordanian diners, switching swiftly to hefty portions of hummus and baba ganoush.

An Evening in Jordan's Port City of Aqaba 1

Snorkeling and scuba diving are popular activities around the port town of Aqaba. Photo by: John Elk III / Getty Images

After dinner, ambling in Aqaba’s night market seems like a perfect plan to expend the gluttony. So I hit the market with my guide Isam. From souvenirs and spices to clothes and consumer electronics—everything is cheaper here, making Aqaba most Jordanians’ favourite weekend jaunt. “It’s a customs-free zone. People come here to buy iPhone, TV, microwave,” Isam briefs me as we walk past shopfronts billowing copious amounts of frankincense plumes. Aqaba is also where locals throng to buy alcohol. This nugget of information does leave me a little stunned, and Isam is quick to read my face. “Look, we’re a liberal Sunni nation,” he says, straight-faced. “You want to drink, drink. You don’t want to drink, don’t.”

Taken in by the aromas of my surroundings, I decide it’s time to shop. Jordanian dates, Isam tells me, are exported extensively across Europe, so I buy four boxes, plus some souvenirs, canned hummus, tahini, and fūl, a fava bean dish that’s a breakfast staple across Jordan, and which I have tried and fallen in love with. Shopping bags in hand, I walk out of the humble grocery store content. A few metres further down the street, another shop catches my eye. Its LED-lit window displays a row of skinned goats hooked upside down, coriander bouquets bulging out of their hollowed rears; a clever embellishment, I imagine, to arrest stench. This is probably where mansaf got its meat from, I deduce.

Isam and I are finally walking in the direction of our last stop tonight, Captain’s Restaurant. The three-storeyed diner is famed for two things: seafood, which I love, and shisha, something that I occasionally indulge in. Hatem Zaeel, from the Jordan Tourism Board, had learnt earlier in the day that I smoke hookah, and it’s on his insistence that a table is reserved at Captain’s. “Two tafaha (Arabic for apple),” he orders the server to bring us a double-apple flavoured hookah. Within minutes of its arrival, Hatem and I start sparring over our shisha skills. I concede defeat when he blows out perfect rings.



  • Humaira Ansari is a certified nihari-lover who travels with an open mind and lots of earbuds. She invests a lot of time and Wi-Fi in planning her itineraries. She loves neighbourhood walks, meals at a local’s home, and discovering a city's nightlife. She is Senior Associate Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.


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