Wanna travel to Iraq with Against the Compass?
Join a group of likeminded travelers and visit the wonders of Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Mosul, and more
Oct 29th to Nov 5th, 2023
Despite being the cradle of civilization, home to ancient, historical places like Ur and Babylon, Iraq has always been the Middle East’s most well-kept secret.
Back during Saddam’s time, unless you were a soldier or on a diplomatic mission, chances that you went to Iraq were pretty scarce.
Then, came the American invasion, unleashing a nearly 20-year conflict that evolved into civil war between several parties, the Islamic State attracting most of the media attention.
Today, the country has finally gained a certain stability and, with the introduction of a visa on arrival regime, intrepid travelers can finally discover the unknown – and absolutely epic – treasures Iraq has been hiding.
This is a compelling 10-day itinerary containing the things to do in Iraq, and the itinerary we always follow during our expeditions.
Remember that this post refers to Federal Iraq, not Kurdistan.
For places to visit in Kurdistan, refer to our Iraq Kurdistan itinerary.
Iraq isn’t the easiest country to travel to, but independent travel is doable.
During my first visit, I backpacked around Iraq solo for 3 weeks.
It did present its own challenges, especially at certain checkpoints but overall, experienced travelers will find it relatively easy and highly rewarding.
Going on a tour, however, can also present many advantages.
As you may know, in Against the Compass, we run several expeditions into Iraq per year. The next one is scheduled on:
Oct 29th to Nov 5th, 2023
With our group, we visited places and did things in Iraq that would have been practically impossible to do as an independent traveler, even if you had local friends, because what you need in Iraq isn’t just local friends, but local friends with good contacts.
For example, in Mosul, we arrange the visit with the UNESCO team, currently working on the restoration of its main landmarks, like Al Noori mosque. With them, we got access to many buildings which are otherwise off limits to civilians.
We also managed to get permission to visit Hatra, an outstanding fortified city located in the middle of the desert, on one of the last battlefields during the war against ISIS.
Moreover, in Bakhdida, a Christian city near Mosul, we did a guided tour with the very same priest who received the Pope, while highlighting all the horrible things ISIS did to the church.
In addition, we also had clearance for all checkpoints and of course, we managed to visit the below itinerary, without rushing, in just 9-10 days, while independent travelers might need 1 or 2 more extra days.
More information about our tours can be found here.
Click here to see the interactive map
Wanna travel to Iraq with Against the Compass?
Join a group of likeminded travelers and visit the wonders of Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Mosul, and more
Oct 29th to Nov 5th, 2023
Formerly known as the City of Peace – Madinat Al-Salam – Baghdad is a bustling, chaotic, lively, and welcoming city, all at the same time.
I like Baghdad.
It’s a cool city to walk around and hang out with open-minded Iraqis but to be very honest with you, it’s not my favorite place to visit in Iraq, probably because it’s too difficult to get around – traffic is insane and there’s no metro.
Still, strolling the streets of Baghdad is epic because come on, we are talking about Baghdad here.
Between bazaars, monuments, and cool areas to hang out in, Baghdad could keep you busy for several days.
National Museum (The Iraq Museum). It contains endless treasures that belong to many of the places you will be visiting in Iraq. Apparently, it’s been finally reopened after years of being closed, making it one of the most desired places to visit in Iraq for history lovers.
Al-Mutanabbi street. Al-Mutanabbi (10th century) is the greatest poet in the Arab world, and the famous book market was named after him.
Al Rasheed street. The main market street, packed with interesting Ottoman buildings and people.
Shabandar café. One of the oldest tea houses in Iraq, Shabandar café is the Iraq seen in the romantic movies, a hub for intellectuals for more than 100 years, and the best place to visit in Iraq for a cup of tea.
Martyr’s Monument. As a single attraction, Al-Shaheed Monument is the most jaw dropping place to visit in Baghdad. Composed of two absolutely massive turquoise half domes, it’s a memorial to those who died – both Iraqis and Iranians – during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
Tahrir Square & the Freedom Monument. Tahrir is the main square in Baghdad, which is dominated by the Freedom Monument, a mural that depicts the 1958 Revolution. You’ll also see a lot of police, and that’s because Tahrir Square witnessed a pretty big demonstration against the Government back in 2021.
Copper market (Safafeer). In my opinion, this is the most interesting bazaar to visit in Iraq, where you’ll find all sorts of artefacts handmade by local Iraqis.
In terms of value-for-money, accommodation in Baghdad is really expensive.
Backpacker Budget – Royal Garden Hotel – I haven’t personally stayed here but budget backpackers say it’s decent. They have rooms for around $20-$25, but the price may vary. This is the location.
Budget – Life Palace Hotel – Located in Karada, this is a good value-for-money option with the best location, relatively comfortable for what you pay.
Mid-range – Andalus Hotel – Located along Sadoun street, this place is brand-new and absolutely perfect for those with a slightly higher budget.
5-star Hotel – Baghdad Hotel – One of the oldest and most emblematic hotels in Baghdad, located by the Tigris River. The hotel also features a bar where they serve beer.
Top-end – Babylon Rotana Hotel – By far, the best and most luxurious hotel in Baghdad.
After exploring Baghdad, your Iraq itinerary should lead to Ancient Babylon, located 2-3 hours south of Baghdad, depending on traffic.
Today, Babylon is an archaeological site close to a small, uninteresting town named Hillah.
In fact, most independent travelers prefer to visit Babylon on a day trip (either from Baghdad or Karbala), since the few hotels available in Hillah are expensive, plus there’s nothing going on.
Contrary to what most people believe, Babylon isn’t the oldest city in the world. Dating back to 2350 BCE, Babylon used to be a mere village attached to the older and greater City of Ur, and it wasn’t until several centuries later that it began to prosper, becoming the first large and great city in the world.
The Hanging Gardens, one of the 7 Ancient World Wonders, and the Tower of Babel used to stand within these walls, even though there’s nothing left of them.
How to visit Ancient Babylon
Today, Babylon is a pretty big archaeological complex, which can be visited in 2 to 5 hours, depending on how passionate about archaeology and ancient history you are.
Entrance fee is 25,000 dinars.
The site itself has 1 or 2 accredited guides who speak OK English.
While they give a very basic understanding about the generic history of Babylon, they do know about many secrets hidden among those stones, plus they get you access to areas under restoration. During our visit, the price wasn’t fixed, but our guide expected something around at least 20,000IQD for the visit.
Things to see in Babylon
Ishtar Gate – Today the most Instagrammeable place to visit in Iraq – if there has to be one – Ishtar was one of the several gates that gave access to Babylon (500BCE).
What you see today, however, is a replica made by Saddam. The original one can be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Lion of Babylon – This 2600-year-old statue representing a Mesopotamian lion standing above a human.
Babylon dragons – Dragon-shaped divine creatures associated with Marduk, the god of the city. They can be seen on many walls.
Ishtar Gate and the eternal debate
The original Ishtar was actually smuggled – yes, smuggled – out by German archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century, with the help of local Sheikhs in a time when Iraq was under Ottoman rule. During the 21st century, Iraq has unsuccessfully attempted its repatriation on different occasions, Germans claiming that the gate is safer in Berlin. As a war-torn country ruled by some of the most corrupt politicians in the world, many people believe that, if it weren’t for the Germans, this gate wouldn’t exist today, while others claim that its fate should have been decided by the Iraqis themselves. Do all these artefacts belong to all humanity, or just to the country where they have been found? Personally, I don’t really know.
How to get to Babylon from Baghdad
To go to Babylon, you must first get a shared taxi to the city of Hillah.
For that, shared taxis leave from Allawi South Garage, and cost around 10,000IQD.
Babylon is located 10km from Hillah city center. You’ll have to take a private taxi, which should cost a maximum of 5,000IQD.
Overlooking the Euphrates River, Saddam Hussein built a massive, luxurious palace for himself with the best views of Ancient Babylon, making it the most bizarre place to visit in Iraq.
Today abandoned, this palace still features a pretty impressive painting on the ceiling of the main hall, as well as a Communist-like mural at the main entrance.
This is one of the more than 60 palaces that Saddam Hussein had across Iraq. If you are interested, there’s another one you can visit is in Gara Mountain, near Amedi in Kurdistan. While the palace itself is not as impressive, it has great views, plus it’s been turned into a Peshmerga base. For more information, check my Kurdistan Itinerary.
How to get to Saddam Hussein Palace from Babylon
The palace can be seen from the archaeological site, located 2 kilometers away.
After visiting the palace, I recommend going to Karbala, and the reason is that evenings in Karbala are absolutely lively, something one must experience.
How to get to Karbala from Babylon
In Hillah, ask for Karbala garage. A shared taxi should cost no more than 2,000IQD.
Let me tell you a story concerning Islam, from a non-Muslim perspective, meaning that it will probably be pretty basic.
When the Prophet Mohammed passed away in 632 CE, there was a huge disagreement over who should be his successor.
Some people claimed that the successor had to be chosen by the Islamic elite, while others believed he had to be someone from the Prophet’s family, Imam Ali, the prophet’s son-in-law.
This last group of people became known as the Shiat Ali, the followers of Ali or just Shia.
That’s when the great divide between Shia and Sunni started.
Karbala is one of the holiest cities in the world for Shia Muslims, and the reason is that here you find two shrines with the tombs of Imam Hussain (Ali’s son) and Abbas (Hussain’s half-brother).
Similar to Hajj in Mecca (Saudi Arabia), Arba’een is one of the largest pilgrimages in the world, taking place forty days after Ashura, and commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. During this pilgrimage, millions of Shia pilgrims visit Karbala within a period of 2-3 days.
The center of Karbala – where you find the two main shrines as well as most restaurants and hotels – is surrounded by a security perimeter, where they check your bags and all that stuff.
Be aware that Karbala is as holy as Mecca, hence people are very sensitive to any sort of non-Muslim behavior.
In one of our expeditions, one of our participants had a bottle of vodka in his bag (don’t ask me why) which they found when x-raying it upon entering the pilgrim area. He was held for a few hours, while our local guide expected the worse but, other than taking his fingerprints, nothing happened to him eventually.
On the other hand, women visiting Karbala must wear a chador – or an abaya with a hijab – that covers from head to toe, and it’s recommended to buy one in Baghdad.
Read our female travel in Iraq for more info.
The two shrines are located one next to other and they are open 24/7. Entrance is free and remember that DSLR cameras are not allowed, but you can leave them near the entrance, where they keep your shoes.
As one of the top pilgrimage destinations in the world, Karbala has hotels for all budgets.
Backpacking budget – Next to the shrines, there are many hotels priced at $10-$15 for a private room. Don’t expect much, but they are good enough for budget backpackers. I stayed at Hotel Rawan.
Budget – Hotel Al-Eshaiker – Nothing fancy, but better than most cheap options around the shrines.
Mid-range – Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya Hotel – A slightly better option located next to the shrines.
Best hotel – The Baron Hotel – The best 5-star hotel in Karbala, relatively well-priced for what you get.
After lunch, I recommend going to Nasiriyah. Direct shared taxis depart from the garage in Karbala. It’s a 300-kilometer ride. The checkpoint upon entering Nasiriyah is one of the toughest ones in Iraq. For more information, read the checkpoint section of my Iraq travel guide.
Should you visit Najaf?
Najaf is the other super holy place to go in Iraq, another top pilgrimage place. The reason I didn’t add it to this Iraq itinerary is that we don’t include it in our Iraq expeditions and that is because I didn’t personally love it. I mean, it’s an interesting city with a nice bazaar and a beautiful shrine but it can’t compete with Karbala. If you have the time, do visit it but, if you have to choose one, stick with Karbala.
On day 5, I recommend going straight to the Marshes from Nasiriyah, and leave your Nasiriyah visit for the following day.
For many, the Mesopotamian Marshes, or Arab Marshes, are the best place to visit in Iraq, a wetland ecosystem in south Iraq, an aquatic landscape in the middle of the desert, home to a distinct cultural group named the Marsh Arabs.
Occupying an area of 10,000km2, the Marshes house many different species of animals and plants, including a large population of water buffalos, which you will certainly cross into during your boat trip.
The Marshes are also dotted with hundreds of islands, many of them inhabited by the Marsh Arabs, who traditionally live in sarifas, a peculiar house entirely made of reed.
Marsh Arabs living in the islands are particularly conservative, so be careful when taking pictures, or walking around their settlements.
The best way to experience the Marshes is on a local canoe, sailing across the entangled, natural pathways formed by the vegetation.
For that, the easiest is to be on an organized tour, but you could but you can do it independently too, that’s what I did during my first time.
For that, wake up extra early in the morning and take a shared taxi from Nasiriyah to Chibayish, the main town in the Marshes.
The taxi will drop you at the main bazaar, which is around 6km from the point where boats depart from, so you’ll need to get a private taxi. The boat departure area is right next to the floating mosque and the Monument of Martyrs, just here.
The Marshes receive a significant number of domestic tourists, so don’t be surprised by the large number of locals offering you a boat ride. Most of those boat owners are young Iraqis in their twenties wearing normal clothes but, for a true experience, choose one of the older, bearded men with traditional clothes.
If there aren’t any, ask for Abu Hayder, an authentic Marsh Arab who has become quite a celebrity in the area, not only because he is a charismatic singer, but because he has hosted quite a few YouTubers with a large audience.
The boat ride costs around $20-$25 for 2-3 hours.
If you have the time, staying in a traditional house in the Marshes is quite an experience.
During my first visit, Abu Hayder offered to let me stay at his house for $30, including dinner, breakfast, and his lovely hospitality.
When I came with the group expedition back in March 2022, we stayed on one of the local islands with a local family. For intrepid travelers, it was a unique experience, but be aware that they still don’t understand the concept of tourism, so there was no kind of facility; it was just as they lived.
In any case, staying on an island is something you must arrange in advance with a travel agency.
Nasiriya is one of the largest cities in Iraq, popular among tourists for being the getaway to the Mesopotamian Marshes.
It’s also known for being a high-security city, home to the American-built Al-Hoot prison, a maximum-security prison today filled with ISIS fighters.
Honestly, there’s not a lot to do in Nasiriyah, but it’s more like a transit town for going to other places so, unless you know local people to hang out with, I don’t recommend staying here for very long.
Archaeology fans agree that experiencing Ur is the best single thing to do in Iraq.
Ur is perhaps one of the oldest cities in the world (3800 BCE) – even older than Babylon – and believed to be the birthplace of Abraham.
It is located around 20km from Nasiriya, making it the perfect few-hour trip from Nasiriya. There is no public transportation, but you can easily go there in a private taxi.
Entrance fee is 25,000IQD.
After visiting Ur, go back to Nasiriyah and take a local shared taxi to Baghdad, located 5 hours away, a bit more if there’s traffic upon arriving in Baghdad.
Spend the night in Baghdad.
Note: Unless you have very strong contacts, independent travelers can’t visit Hatra, since a special permission is required, plus it’s located in the middle of the desert. Moreover, travelers moving around by public transportation will find it difficult to visit Samarra and then go to Mosul on the same day, since there’s no direct transportation from Samarra to Mosul. To make it even more complicated, know that it’s not allowed to stay overnight in Samarra. Therefore, independent travelers should visit Samarra on a day trip from Baghdad, go back to Baghdad and then take a shared taxi to Mosul on the following day. Hatra can be visited on a day trip from Mosul, as long as you hire a local guide who can get you the necessary permit.
The UNESCO World Heritage city of Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, the third caliphate to succeed the Prophet Muhammad.
Independent travelers will find visiting Samarra particularly tough.
Back in 2006, the city of Samarra was affected by a suicide bombing targeting Al-Askari mosque, one of the holiest shrines in the world for Shia Muslims.
Since then, the armed group and Shia militia Sarayat Al Salam has taken control of Samarra, establishing checkpoints all over the city. They are a paranoid group, suspicious of everyone, especially foreigners. If you come to Samarra by yourself, without a local Iraqi, chances are that you can be waiting at the checkpoint all day before they let you through.
I visited Samarra with two local Iraqis actually from Samarra and even with them, we had to wait 15-20 minutes at each checkpoint before they let us through.
Things to do in Samarra
The iconic minaret of Malwiya: The reason why many travelers come here, a jaw-dropping 52-meter-tall spiraling minaret that is part of the Grand Mosque of Samarra. The mosque was built in 851 and at that time, it was the largest mosque in the world. Entrance fee for the minaret is 25,000IQD
Al-Askari mosque: The third holiest mosque in Iraq after the shrines in Najaf and Karbala, a very important pilgrimage place for Shia Muslims.
Dar al-Khalifa (Palace of the Caliph): he Governmental palace during a significant period of the Abbasid Caliphate, today in excellent condition. Independent travelers will have a hard time getting in – I was not allowed to enter during my first visit, even though I went there with two locals from Samarra – but join one of our Iraq expeditions and you won’t experience any problems.
Where to stay in Samarra
Staying in Samarra is not allowed.
How to get to Samarra from Baghdad
Local shared taxis leave from the North Allawi Garage and cost 15,000IQD, 130km.
Hatra is the one place you can’t miss in your Iraq travel itinerary, outstanding.
Hatra is one of the most amazing places to visit in Iraq, an extremely well-preserved 2,000-year-old fortress located in the middle of the desert.
The cherry on top is that Hatra was used by ISIS as a base or training camp, the heritage of which is still visible in the many graffiti painted on its walls.
The fortress used to be a caravan city located between the Roman and Parthian empires, famed for its fusion of Greek, Mesopotamian, and Roman architecture. At first, it does look like a Roman temple, with many similarities to Palmyra, but it’s not.
Interesting to mention is that Hatra was the first place in Iraq to be listed as a UNESCO Heritage site.
How to visit Hatra
As a former ISIS training camp, Hatra is located in a sensitive area, a place that witnessed a pretty fierce battle during the liberation from ISIS. There are tanks and the few buildings that used to stand here are just rubble.
This is the reason why, unless you have very strong contacts, independent travelers can’t get to Hatra.
Visit Hatra by joining our upcoming Federal Iraq EXPEDITION.
Mosul is the most outstanding city to visit in Iraq.
Infamous for becoming the capital of ISIS from 2014 to 2017, the history of Mosul is rather long, one of the longest in the world in fact, dating back to 6000 BCE, and the area where the city of Nineveh was founded in 1800 BCE.
Mosul was liberated from ISIS in 2017, but that came with the high price of leaving an old city completely destroyed, once an open-air museum filled with architectural delights, an Outstanding Universal Value, according to UNESCO.
Today, life is coming back to Mosul, Iraqis are returning and a big UNESCO team is restoring and rebuilding many of its treasures.
With all the reconstruction, Mosul is living history, and experiencing it is the best thing to do in Iraq
For more information (safety, personal experience, etc.) read my Mosul travel guide.
Al Noori Mosque. The mosque where historical ISIS leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, self-declared the ISIS caliphate, the first and only time he ever appeared in public.
Mosul synagogue. It’s undamaged. Apparently, this is where ISIS used to hide all their weapons.
Mosul Museum. I managed to enter thanks to a local friend, but it’s currently closed to the public. The interior of the museum was destroyed by ISIS and today, there’s a team of European archaeologists trying to sort out all pieces.
Churches of Hosh Al Baya square. This area comprises 3-4 very old churches, from different Christian branches, all of them heavily destroyed, but they are being rebuilt by UNESCO. Pope Francis celebrated mass in the middle of the square.
Ummayyad Mosque. The oldest mosque in Mosul. It has received very little damage.
Bash Tapia castle. A 12th-century castle overlooking the Tigris River.
For more information, read my Mosul travel guide.
Note: The archaeological site of Nineveh is currently closed
Budget – Alsfer Hotel – Basic but pretty good and located in the old city. Best value-for-money option in Iraq, for which I paid less than 15€ a night.
Modern Palace Hotel – More expensive but nicer. They typically charge 30-40IQD per night.
Shared taxis leave from North Allawi Garage and cost 20,000IQD.
Bakhdida, or Karakosh, is revealing, and a place which not many include in their Iraq itinerary.
Home to 300,000 people, Bakhdida is the largest Christian city in Iraq and perhaps in the entire Middle East, the reason why Pope Francis had a special interest in visiting it back in March 2021.
The whole city was also occupied by ISIS but fortunately, all they found was an empty town, since the vast majority of people had left as soon as ISIS made it to Mosul, mostly seeking refuge in the Christian district of Ankawa, near Erbil
Nowadays, however, life is coming back in Bakhdida, and it does feel very Christian, visible in the abundance of churches, beer shops, and the relatively large presence of women.
In Bakhdida, you must visit the Catholic Church, the largest one in Iraq, and where Pope Francis celebrated mass. In our visit, we were lucky to be received by the main priest an extremely well-educated man who spoke good English and impeccable Italian, since he lived in the Vatican for quite a while.
He is a personal friend of the Pope too and showed us around the church, putting a strong focus on the recent history of ISIS.
The interior is fully restored because ISIS burnt it down, and the church’s courtyard was used by them as a training area. Heavy damage can still be seen, and bullets can still be found all over the place.
Near Bakhdida, there’s one Orthodox monastery named Mar Behnam, which shares many similarities with the recent history of Bakhdida.
I am sure there must be shared taxis going to those villages, but there are also quite a few checkpoints operated by different groups, and I don’t know what’s going to be like for independent travelers.
Interesting to mention is that one of the checkpoints is run by a Christian militia.
After Bakhdida, you can either go back to Mosul, or go to Kurdistan to start with your Kurdistan Itinerary.
Highlights, places I recommend:
Check our ultimate Iraqi Kurdistan Itinerary
You will also like our Libya travel guide.