The cosmopolitan crossroads of the Middle East
Amman's modern Rainbow Street has jaw-dropping views across to the ancient Roman citadel. (Christopher Groenhout/LPI)
Paris has the Champs Elysees, London has Oxford Street and New York has Fifth Avenue. But while life in Amman may not be as fast-paced as the world’s major metropolises, the Jordanian capital has Rainbow Street, one of the most colourful and multi-ethnic streets in the Middle East.
While Middle Eastern cities often replicate European and North American trends, Rainbow Street is a world away from the new-money glamour and in-your-face glitz of Beirut or Dubai. Not only is it the spearhead of the city and country, the street is becoming a focal point for some of the most cutting edge trends and cultural initiatives in the region.
Located in the cosmopolitan hilltop hub of Jabal Amman, the mile-long cobbled strip of real estate is where you will find the most exciting coffee shops, book stores, boutiques and late night bars. The side streets that fan out from it are home to a number of cultural and environmental agencies, including the Royal Film Commission and Wild Jordan -- and in this blossoming street network you get a sense of a new creative national identity sprouting up. It is where urban European cool mixes with a renewed sense of Arab pride, due in part to Jordan’s largely absent role from the Spring Revolutions that engulfed its neighbours Egypt and Syria.
Start at the First Circle roundabout, a hub of taxis and fast food joints, from where Rainbow Street tumbles down the hill towards downtown Amman and the historic Roman Forum. You will know you are in the right place when you see an outpost of the garish Buffalo Wings and Rings restaurant. Though Amman has absorbed plenty of influences from its large US-educated population, this American fast food chain is the antithesis to the street’s other locally-owned shops – set up by Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians.
If you dream of starting everyday with the finest Italian coffee, then continue past the Saudi Arabian Embassy for a couple of minutes to Café Strada, just off Rainbow Street on Mohammad Rashid Ridha Street. One of the newer start-ups in the city, its Jordanian owners are proud of their former life in Italy and coffee-making credentials (they get their roasted beans from outside Bologna). If tea is your preferred choice, then make the short walk to the Turtle Green Tea Café, across the road from the historic Rainbow Cinema; its iced jasmine tea is the perfect morning thirst-quencher. For something more local, try a cup of Southern Sweet, a zesty concoction that mixes black tea with lemon and home grown mint.
Thanks to its hilltop location, Rainbow Street is spoilt with panoramic views across the city, glimpsed from between the neighbourhood’s 1920s houses. Past the Turtle Green Tea Café and a short walk from the graffiti-covered walls of the British Council building is the best of these. The small, tiered, picnic-perfect Viewpoint Park has jaw-dropping views of the ancient Roman citadel, located on the opposite side of the city atop Jabal Al-Qala’a, a historic fort that could not be further removed from Rainbow Street’s modernity. Budding photographers should visit in the late afternoon to make the most of the red sunsets that coat the downtown rooftops in a rosy glow.
Come Friday during summer, this stretch of Rainbow Street is also the focal point for the Souk Jara market. Like a mini-carnival, it is a popular place for local artists and craftsmen to sell the latest paintings, wood carvings and jewellery from their makeshift stalls. You are advised to come hungry as there are plenty of homemade snacks to choose from.
While Jordanian cuisine is being rediscovered by Generation Y – spearheaded by new start-ups like Jordanian cookery school Beit Sitti – falafel is still king on Rainbow Street, mostly thanks to Falafel Al Quds which has been serving crisp-fresh fried chickpea sandwiches and wraps since 1966. Do not be put off by the queues outside of the tiny takeaway joint, hidden behind vintage wooden décor – it is definitely worth the wait and Al Quds falafels are widely-regarded as being the best in the country.