Known as Philadelphia when it was part of the Decapolis (a group of 10 cities on the eastern border of the Roman Empire), Amman, Jordan's capital and largest city, lies just a short drive from the country's border with Syria and Israel (it's about 45 mi/70 km northeast of Jerusalem).

The area has been continuously inhabited since 6,000 BC, though few ancient buildings remain. This relatively drab, modern and sprawling city was not much more than a village when it became the seat of government in the 1920s—since then it has grown dramatically. (Its population swelled with the arrival of succeeding waves of displaced Palestinians, who today make up a majority of the city's residents.)

Nowadays, Amman has little of the atmosphere or medieval architecture one might describe as typically Middle Eastern. If you're trying to get away from Western life, you'll have a particularly hard time in the Amman West section of the city, which is lined with upscale shopping malls.

But if you're looking for historical surroundings, attend a performance in the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater or the Royal Cultural Center. Also visit the Basman Palace, the city's Folklore Museum, the Museum of Popular Traditions and the National Archaeological Museum. Tour the Forum and the hilltop Citadel area to see the remaining ruins (including a Roman temple of Hercules). The hill affords a sweeping view of Amman and is a tranquil escape from the rest of the crowded city.

The Hejaz Railway Station and Museum offers a chance to look at rail travel from a bygone age. Some of the rolling stock dates back to the Great Arab Revolt, but the locomotives are mainly from the mid-20th century. Trains run from Amman to Damascus, but the journey is long, dusty, uncomfortable and probably only of interest to rail enthusiasts. The small museum details the history of this railway and, although there are no apparent opening hours, the friendly stationmaster is happy to show people around.

For an entertaining evening—complete with waterpipes, sweet tea, dancing and oodles of food served at low tables—try the Kan Zaman, a late-19th-century walled village turned into a restaurant and handicrafts complex—it's on the way to the airport. For newer attractions, the Jordan National Gallery displays modern Jordanian and Middle Eastern art. Don't miss the enormous King Abdullah Mosque, completed in the late 1980s.

Amman is an excellent departure point for visiting some of Jordan's most impressive ancient structures. These include the Desert Castles to the south, east and northeast; Jerash to the north; the ruins of Qasr al Abid in the Wadi Seer Valley to the west; the Araq al Amir Caves and the impressive remains of Iraq al Amir (a second-century Greek castle surrounded by a moat).

Excursions can also be made from Amman to the nearby towns of Ajloun and Salt. The latter, located 13 mi/20 km northwest of Amman, has charming 19th-century carved-stone architecture and a handicrafts center. The picturesque village of Fuheis, which has some nice restaurants and shops, is also worth a short visit.

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