Iraq is a fascinating country located in Western Asia. Touristically speaking, Iraq lost its place in the world tourism arena.
For a long time forgotten, Iraq is now a mysterious country since we don’t hear people speaking about traveling there that often (due to the lack of security).
Before the unilateral American incursion of its territory, Iraq was safe and had thousands of western tourists visiting it every year.
Because Iraq is located in the heart of Mesopotamia, where humans established the first great civilizations.
This said, Iraq is a natural born historical nation. Present in the early birth of modern civilizations, places like Samarra, Ur, Hatra and famous Babylon still ring the bell when mentioned.
Unfortunately today, due to the presence of radical militant Islamic groups that took advantage of the political and security void, Iraq is a no-go destination for the most of its north and center territories.
Instagramming from Iraq
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom Government advises against all travel to:
- Anbar province
- Ninewah province
- Salah-Al-Din province
- Diyala province
- Tam’mim (Kirkuk) province
- in Erbil province, south of Road 80, and within 10km of the border with Ninewah province between Road 80 and Road 2
This means that, apart from these hard core dangerous areas, Iraq can still be visited, although the FCO advises here against all but essential travel to the rest of Iraq.
ATTENTION: Middle-east is very unstable and you should know that travelling to this region is not 100% safe. This blog just shares travel information, and by this, I mean that I am not responsible for any misinformation or anything that can happen to you. Be conscientious and travel safe and sound. Visit the Iraq Travel Warning page by the U.S. Department of State.
Travel to Iraq – important
Visiting Iraq is difficult because it’s not a safe destination. Yet, it’s full of very friendly, proud and hospitable people.
On this page, I make a list of 24 amazing places in Iraq which are undoubtedly the country’s major tourist attractions. Iraq has much more than this to see, but this is just a list of locations that we can visit and that are not off limits to westerners.
Three regions in Iraq are somehow safe for the adventurous travelers
- Iraqi Kurdistan – controlled by the Kurd government headed by President Masoud Barzani. The capital city is Erbil.
- Baghdad – the capital city of the Republic of Iraq controlled by the Iraqi government headed by President Fuad Masum.
- Southern Iraq – controlled by the Iraqi government and other shia armed militias. The most important cities are Karbala, Najaf and Basra. These shia militias are currently protecting and sheltering thousands of Christian and Yazidi refuges that run away from the northern part of the country.
Amazing Places to Visit in Iraq
1- Al Kifl
Al Kifl is a city located in the south-east of Iraq, on the banks of the Euphrates River, between Najaf and Al Hillah. Al Kifl’s importance is due to be the location of the Bible prophet Ezekiel’s tomb.
This place was once a major tourist attraction with thousands of visitors. Inside the walls, this shrine has a dome with Hebrew inscriptions mixed with floral Islamic designs.
Before the war, Iraq had the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East (the first being Israel and the third being Iran).
Yearly, thousands of Jews used to visit this place during Easter. Nowadays, with the lack of security, this is not possible anymore as most Iraqi Jews left the country.
Photo gallery of Al Kifl
2- Al Mada’in
Al Mada’in is an ancient settlement with noticeable regional importance. Here passed the Sasanian, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid and Buyid Empires. It is said that it was the Iranians who built the city and was later rebuilt by King Zab, Alexander the Great and King Shapur II.
In recent history, Al Mada’in is the location of the pilgrimage site of Salman al-Muhammadi’s Tomb. Since this is a Shia shrine inside a majority Sunni town, Al Mada’in has a very strong army presence.
Also known as Salman the Persian, he was the companion of Muhammad (the central figure of Islam) and Ali (the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad).
Inside the mosque, one can also visit the tomb of Hudhaifa al-Yamani and the grave of Jabir Abdullah al-Ansari.
A few kms south of Al Mada’in we can visit the archaeological site of Taq Kasra (the only remaining structure of the ancient city of Ctesiphon).
3- Al Qurnah
Al Qurnah is a small town located in south Iraq. This is the confluence of the Tigris and the Euphrates River. You can easily visit the exact place where the rivers meet.
The ancient Adam’s tree inside the public garden is said to be Bible’s Tree of Knowledge. Some say that Qurnah is the actual location of the Garden of Eden. It seems Abraham himself was there 4,000 years ago acknowledging the importance of this tree.
This city is also known for being the scene of the Battle of Qurna. During the First World War, the British invaded this territory in order to defeat the Ottoman troops.
4- Al Ukhaidir
The Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir, also known as the Abbasid Palace of Ukhaider, is located about an hour drive from Karbala.
This rectangular shape fortress, erected in the year 775 BC, was used by the Abbasid caliph As-Saffah with the purpose of defending his territory.
Amadiya is a city built on top of an inhospitable rocky mountain, 1500 meters above sea level.
Once upon a time, the only accessible entrance was via a staircase carved on the rock itself.
The various points of interest to visit are the tombs of the Kings, the panoramic view from the top of the mosque, the Market Street, the fabulous Badinan Gate, Sulav springs and Kani village.
Aqrah was the most spectacular place of my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Aqrah name means “sterile”, since the land is not suitable for agriculture purposes. Aqrah consists of houses built on the hillside, a mosque with a prominent minaret, the mountain Zarvia Dji and two waterfalls.
Barzan is a town located in Erbil province along the Great Zab river. Barzan is the birthplace of Sheikh Ahmed Barzani and Mustafa Barzani. They are the famous Kurdish leaders from the family in power in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Barzan we can visit the Centre for Kurdish Studies, the Kurdish Independence Museum and the martyrs cemetery.
Babylon was an important city in ancient Mesopotamia.
Situated on the banks of the Euphrates River, this archaeological site is one of the highlights when you visit Iraq.
Babylon was one of the largest cities in the world during the sixth century BC. German archaeologist Robert Koldewey unveiled the buried monuments, contributing to one of the greatest archaeology discoveries of all time.
Instagramming from Babylon
This city was a massive urban center in former times composed of Ancient walls, temples and the Etemenanki ziggurat dedicated to Marduk, which inspired the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Unforgivable not to visit Babylon once in a lifetime.
Near Babylon, we can also visit the inside of Saddam Hussein’s Summer Palace.
Instagraming from Babylon
Baghdad is the capital of Iraq and its cultural-political center. With its 6 million people, Baghdad is considered to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
The current difficult political situation due to many years of war and sectarian problems caused by extremist Islamic militant groups makes this city witness suicide attacks almost daily.
At a touristic level, the city faces serious difficulties due to the extreme police control and military presence.
If you’re courageous enough to visit Baghdad, you can go to the Museum of Baghdad, the Al-Faw Palace (Water Palace), the famous Firdos Square and the Swords of Qadisiyah aka the Victory Arch.
Instagramming from Baghdad
Other nice places are the Al-Shaheed monument, the National Museum of Iraq, the famous book market in Mutanabbi Street, Umm al-Qura Mosque, the Ottoman Castle, the Cathedral, the Khan Murjan caravanserai, the al Rashid Street market, the Tahrir Square and the al-Kadhimiya shrine.
Basra is one of the largest cities in Iraq, and where its most important port is located.
Set on the banks of the River Chatt al-Arab in the south of Iraq, Basra is about five hours drive from the capital, Baghdad.
It is one of the most relevant cities in relation to oil production, contributing to much of the country’s economy.
Borsippa was a prominent city in Sumer (the first civilization in the world) which was erected on the banks of the Euphrates River.
It is believed that the ziggurat was erected in honor to the local god called Nabu – the son of Marduk of Babylon. The city is of extreme cultural importance in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia.
Ctesiphon began to gain local relevance around the second century BC. It was one of the great cities of Mesopotamia and the capital of the Arsacid and Sassanid Empire for almost 1,000 years.
Instagramming from Ctesiphon
This city is mentioned in the Old Testament (the first section of the Christian Bible) and in the Book of Ezra (a book of the Hebrew Bible that describes the restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Jewish exile). Ctesiphon is located along the Tigris River near Al-Mada’in.
Dohuk is located in northern Iraq along the Tigris River. Most of its population are Kurds and Assyrian Christians. The landscape surrounding the city is quite mountainous and beautiful.
Erbil is the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan Region, which is located 4 hours drive north of Baghdad. Erbil it is one of the oldest cities in the world. Its first settlement dates back 7,000 years.
Erbil Citadel is on the list of UNESCO as a World Heritage site, because it is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the history of mankind.
15- Euphrates river
The Euphrates River is the longest and the most famous river in the Middle East historically speaking. The Euphrates, along with the Tigris, form the largest river basin in southwest Asia.
The Euphrates crosses cities such as Ar-Raqqah, Ramadi, Fallujah, Kufa and Nasiriyah. The old city of Babylon was built upon the left and right banks of the Euphrates.
Karbala is a well known city where the famous Battle of Karbala took place in 680 AD. It is one of the holiest cities for Shiite people after Mecca, Medina and Najaf. The reason of this importance is the fact that Imam Husayn Shrine and his half-brother al-Abbas ibn Ali are located in the city center.
Khanzad Castle is located on the way to Shaqlawa, north of Erbil Province. The recently restored ancient castle dates back a few centuries ago to the Kurdish emirate in the Soran period.
This city reveals great importance to Shiite Muslims, since along with Samarra, Karbala, Kadhimiya and Najaf, they all had the presence of the great masters of Shia Islam. It was in Kufa that the Arab vertical Kufic writing was created and developed. Dating back to the seventh century, the Great Mosque of Kufa is considered one of the oldest in Iraq.
19- Mar Odiso Monastery
Mar Odisu is a holy place for Assyrian Christians (Chaldeans), where people do their religious rituals with special sacred spring water. Located in Iraqi Kurdistan, this Christian religious complex is located between Amadiya and Barzan.
20- Mesopotamian Marshes
The Mesopotamian Marshes are considered to be Western Eurasia’s largest wetlands ecosystems. This unusual place in the desert had plenty of water, so it used to be very productive and prosperous.
Instagramming from the marshlands
The people who live in Iraq’s southern marshes are known as Ma’dān – or simple as – Arabs of the Marshlands. These people build incredible floating houses made of reeds harvested in their own marshes, transported in canoes and small boats.
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Najaf is considered to be one of the holiest Muslim cities in the world. It also holds the Shiite political center of the country.
Instagramming from Najaf
The tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s – the first Imam of the Shiites (Shias) – is the most important site in Najaf. Being the holiest site of Shia Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Najaf receives millions of pilgrims annually.
The largest and the oldest cemetery in the world, Wadi-us-Salaam is worth a visit for its incredible size, since it has more than 5 million tombs.
Sulav is a small village in Iraqi Kurdistan. Quite hilly, the surrounding mountain landscapes are breathtaking.
Locals gather here in the afternoon to enjoy the river cafés and to smoke hookah (argilah) with flavored tobacco. Sulav is located near Amadiya.
23- Ziggurat of Ur
The Neo-Sumerian ziggurat in the old city of Ur near Nasiriyah is an amazing historical site.
This place was an important commercial hub back in 3800 BC. Located in a strategic region between the Tigris and the Euphrates River, Ur was the perfect connection to the Persian Gulf.
Abraham, the first of the three patriarchs of Judaism, was born in Ur. His house is located north of the ziggurat and can be visited.
24- Zab river
The Great Zab river runs in eastern Turkey and northwestern Iraq. It rises near Van lake and flows into the Tigris River south of Mosul.
NOTE: I’ve been to Iraq three times. The first time back in 2010, the second time at the beginning of 2016 and the third time just recently in 2018 traveling for one month driving my campervan. I know I’m writing about a country where its Northern regions are currently fighting against terrorists, but southern Iraq does seem a bit safer. If you think you’d like to make such a trip, contact Mr. Adam from Alwaseilah Tours – a Liverpool (UK) based company, and he will give you all the details about how you can travel to Iraq.
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