Travel Iraq Guide
For as long as I can remember Iraq has been in my life, but for all the wrong reasons. War on terror, car bombings, and more recently the Islamic State claiming the majority of the nation’s northern regions. However, over the past few years, something special has been happening here. Isis is gone, the streets are safe, and travelers are beginning to come to Iraq.
After what has seemed like a lifetime of hell, Iraq is making a comeback! After seeing it only through the media’s lens, it is finally my turn to experience Iraq in person. I can tell you this, something incredible is happening in Iraq and after three weeks of traveling across the cradle of civilization, this is what I saw! This is not a typical travel guide for Iraq, but more an account of my experience and travels in Iraq, I am not going to write you an itinerary, but instead guide you to see the best of what Iraq has to offer.
Places to See in Iraq
Baghdad, Iraq’s Capital City
Baghdad is one of the oldest cities on earth and everything that happens in Iraq starts here. It’s a city of contrast, you have hipsters hanging out in cafes along Karrada Street, while the old men smoke shisha in the old city. Scars of Saddam Hussein’s regime mark many of the buildings, while brand new high-rises protrude above the city skyline, Sunni, Shia, Christian, all walks of life exist here coexisting peacefully encapsulated into one amazing place.
To start any trip in Baghdad I highly recommend arriving on a Friday and getting lost in the Friday market of Alrasheed Street. Shop for antiques here before sipping on tea and hookah in the neighborhood’s most famous café, Shabandar. This café is located on Mutanabbi Book Street and has survived several car bombings.
In the Afternoon be sure to make a stop at the National Museum for an insight into Iraq’s 10 000 years plus history. You can also see some of Iraq’s more recent history at the blue-domed monument known as Martyrs Monument which has a museum underneath it.
In the evening you can either join the hipsters for coffee on Karrada Street or if you thinking of delving into the spiritual side of Iraq check out the twin golden dome Shia shrine of Kadhimiya.
Ancient Sights around Baghdad
There are countless Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Sassanid, and many other ancient kingdoms who have left their ruins around Iraq. This list is a quick breakdown of some of the most important Archaeological ruins you can visit around Baghdad and other regions of Iraq.
Babylon – Founded by the Babylonians in 2300 BC, the ancient city of Babylon is quite possibly Iraq’s most famous ancient site. Much of the ancient city is intact, but during Saddam’s regime, much of the city was “reconstructed” in the incorrect manner. Now restoration efforts are being conducted by UNESCO to restore the glory of Babylon. Babylon is only a few hours west of Baghdad and can be reached by a day trip.
Ctesiphon – Ctesiphon or Taq Kasra as the locals refer to it is the remains of a Sassanian era, Persian monument dating back to around 300 AD. The arch of Ctesiphon is a landmark in historical architecture as it has the largest single-span vault of unreinforced brickwork in the world. Ctesiphon is one hour south of Baghdad and can be visited during a day tour.
Ur – Ur is quite possibly the greatest finding in Sumerian and Iraqi archaeological history. Ur was founded in 3800 BC and much of it is still currently being excavated. Much of the Sumerian treasures in the National Museum came from the royal tombs here at Ur. The Ziggurat of Ur was one of ancient Samaria’s most significant and was the altar to the god Nanna. Ur is best visited while visiting the marshes near Nasiriyah, which is located about four hours south of Baghdad.
Dur Kurigalzu – Dur Kurigalzu also known as Agarquf is just 30km west of Baghdad. Agarquf was founded around 1500 BC by the Kassite King Kurigalzu. The area is steeped in Babylonian, Akkadian, and Kassite history.
Nineveh – Nineveh is an enormous Assyrian city on the outskirts of Mosul. When it was founded is uncertain, but the region is known as being one of the longest inhabited places on earth, in fact, Nineveh was the world’s largest city until 612 BC. In 2015 much of Nineveh was destroyed by Isis. Now, archaeologists are trying to reconstruct much of the damage caused by Isis, meanwhile also finding new and exciting findings of this ancient city. Nineveh is worth a stop if you’re in the Mosul area.
Holy Cities of Karbala and Najaf
The holy shrine cities of Karbala and Najaf are amongst some of the most spectacular sites in all of Iraq. It is here that the heart of spiritualism for the Shia faith is at its most present. In the Shia Muslim faith, there are 12 Imams, but two are the most significant, Imam Ali and Imam Hussein. The shrine and resting place for Imam Ali is in Najaf and for Imam Hussein in Karbala.
Every year hundreds of thousands of Shia pilgrims from around the world come here during the Arba’een Pilgrimage, which is similar to what Sunni followers do during Hajj in Mecca.
Unlike Mecca which is closed to all non-Muslims, both Karbala and Najaf are open to all those who wish to visit. I highly recommend staying within the holy cities, many of the hotels offer views of the shrines and the ancient alleyways are for pedestrian traffic only. Exploring the Souq’s of Karbala and Najaf is half of the excitement of visiting these incredible places.
When entering both shrines it is important to remember that women must wear hijab/abaya and men are to wear pants with preferably long sleeve shirt. Entry is free of charge and once you enter you can wander the countless gold and jeweled halls. The amount of gold, jewels, mirrors, and stone is very impressive, take your time to see all the details. The shrines themselves are found under the gold domes, here pilgrims worship by touching the shrine, shouting prayers, and walking around the inner halls. It is in all my years of travel one of the greatest spectacles I have ever seen.
Nasiriyah and Iraq’s Marshes
Southern Iraq is teeming with history, this is where the descendants of ancient Samaria still call home. Nasiriyah is the jumping-off point to both the Ancient City of Ur and the Marshes of Iraq.
Iraq’s Marshes have been the home to the “Marsh Arabs” for generations. This small Iraqi minority is famed for building reed villages amongst the marshes and keeping their agrarian culture present.
This region is also more conservative than other parts of Iraq and the Marsh Arabs have kept to themselves for quite some time, but now one local here, in particular, is breaking boundaries and introducing foreigners into their culture, his name Abu Haider.
Abu Haider offers boat tours into the marshes; he takes the few foreigners who visit inside the reed homes and navigates the marsh just as his ancestors have for generations. With any trip to Iraq, a visit to the marshes with Abu Haider is a must! Nasiriyah and the marshes are located four hours south of Baghdad.
Shrine City of Samarra
Located 125km north of Baghdad on the Baghdad – Mosul Road is another shrine city called Samarra. In Samarra, you will find the Al-Askari Shrine which I the resting place of the two Imams, Ali al-Hadi and Hassan. The shrine has seen several bombings and many repairs have been undergone to protect it.
Samarra is also where the Great Mosque of Samarra is located, constructed in 851 AD by the Abbasid Caliphate. The location of the mosque has one of Iraq’s most iconic sites, the Spiral Minaret. This Minaret has a staircase leading to the summit of it providing spectacular views over the city.
It is not possible to stay in Samarra as the security situation is not advisable according to the local militia. But Samarra can easily be visited from Baghdad as a day trip, or as a stop on route to Mosul.
Mosul was a city famed for its beauty, the old city was its historical heart home to countless ancient Souq’s, stunning mosques, churches, and homes dating back several hundreds of years. In 2014 the Islamic State known as ISIS captured the city of Mosul and brought three years of terror to its citizens. In 2017 an Iraqi-led coalition liberated Mosul from ISIS, but it came with a price. Thousands of civilians were killed during the ISIS occupation and the liberation, the historic Old City was reduced to rubble from the fighting.
A visit to Mosul is painful but walking through the destroyed city you find hope. The ancient mosques and churches are being rebuilt. Many citizens whose houses had been destroyed have returned and have begun reconstruction, even living here again!
Iraq has a long history, but it’s most recent is some of its most tragic, by visiting Mosul you will show the citizens that there is hope, tourism will return and so will money to help the efforts of reconstruction. Witnessing the horrors of ISIS firsthand is an eye-opening experience but letting the people of Mosul know that we have not forgotten them is the real treasure to coming here.
Where to Stay in Iraq
Tourism is making a resurgence across Iraq and hotels are becoming readily available in all the destinations I have mentioned above. It’s easy to book online, but you are almost guaranteed to pay more by doing this. Booking online also leads to many occurrences where the hotel might not be up to the standards it advertises.
It’s just as easy to show up and book on the spot, by doing this you can see the quality of the rooms and usually negotiate a good price.
Hotel prices in Iraq vary depending on location and quality, for example in Baghdad you can find 5-star for 200 USD, while a comfortable 3-star is only about 60 USD for a double. My best tip, use online to locate hotels and then show up!
Getting Around Iraq
This is currently Iraq’s biggest issue; public transport is not readily available around Iraq. If you would like to take public transport, then you must go to the taxi garages. each city has multiple taxi garage’s where you can find taxis heading to many regions across the country.
The taxis are indeed quite efficient and affordable, but the issue is checkpoints. Across Iraq you will find countless police and militia checkpoints, these checkpoints will need to check your documents, and this may take time. Many checkpoints might also stop you and send you back to Baghdad as rules change fast.
Because of this I highly recommend hiring a driver and car. This doesn’t come cheap; prices start at 50 USD per day around Baghdad and 100 USD each way from Baghdad to Mosul. However, having a driver not only ensures that you can get past the checkpoints, but also allows you to visit more sites. Plus, a lot of sites can only be reached by hired car as well.
If you’d like to hire a car and driver, I can recommend one I worked with closely in Iraq. He speaks perfect English, has security clearance to almost all the sights, and will make your trip a breeze. Just send me an email and I will get you in contact with him!
Is Iraq Safe to Travel
I get this question a lot and for good reason. Iraq in the past years was one of the most unsafe destinations in the world. Now, Iraq is seeing a time of peace and has become stable enough to reintroduce tourism. You can walk freely in the streets, across the country, visit all the sites, and smoke sheesha until the late hours of the evening with locals. Iraq is VERY safe, the only real danger here is Iraqi hospitality, which can be overwhelming, almost suffocating at times. Be prepared to meet some of the world’s friendliest people!
Despite the regions I have mentioned in this post, which are all very safe to visit, there are still some areas of the country which are not secure. Security forces have set up check stops to ensure that tourists do not venture here, I will not mention these regions as I do not want to encourage irresponsible travel. If security forces stop you and tell you to turn around, then do so and do not try to find other ways, this could ruin travel for us all later.
Getting Iraq Visa on Arrival
As of March 15th, 2021, the Iraqi government introduced a “Visa on Arrival” system that allows citizens from 38 different countries to get a visa on arrival for Iraq. This visa is only available by flying into Baghdad, Najaf, and Basra airports.
When you arrive you will be handed an immigration form which you fill out and hand to the officer with your passport. The cost will be 75 – 80 USD and takes around 30 min. You can see a full list of who all can get the Iraq Visa on Arrival Here.
Using ATM’s in Iraq and Getting Money
According to most posts online you should bring USD into Iraq, but why would you do this when ATM’s in the larger cities all disperse cash in Iraqi Dinar or USD! That’s right! Iraq has ATM’s and they work just fine, of course, you might have to try a couple, but in my three weeks in Iraq, I had absolutely no issues getting money.
If by chance the banks can’t get you the money you can always use western union to send USD to yourself in Baghdad. This option is easy and fast as well, but I recommend using the ATMs in Baghdad.