What it's like to visit an oft-misunderstood country.
Following several decades of war and instability, Iraq is experiencing an era of relative calm. The threat of ISIS has been mostly pushed beyond the borders, daily life has regained a sense of normalcy, and tourism is becoming a booming business. Travel advisories, however, are slow to change. It could take years before the world sees Iraq as the bucket list-worthy travel destination it has become. But the streets of Iraq are safer than they have been in a very long time. The numerous military and police checkpoints prove that the Iraqi government has taken extensive protective measures to keep things that way. Tourism is in its infancy, and so is the infrastructure to accommodate travelers, but it’s steadily growing.
My personal experience in Iraq as an American woman was profoundly positive. Yes, I had to follow the conservative customs expected of women in the region, but at no point did I feel unsafe or unwelcome in the country. Please note that my experiences and recommendations may not encompass what others may experience in the country, especially the LGBTQ+ community or BIPOC travelers.
INSIDER TIPShould you decide to travel to Iraq, follow the U.S. State Department’s advice, which includes security information, including enrolling in the STEP program for emergencies.
Iraq Is the Cradle of Civilization
Iraq is littered with ancient Sumerian and Mesopotamian structures, with some dating back more than 4,000 years (the same age as the Great Pyramids of Giza). Iraq’s historical significance is unrivaled—the first laws, written language, and civilizations were recorded here—but you don’t have to be a historian to appreciate Iraq’s rich tapestry of historical and archeological sites.
The electric blue Ishtar gate of Babylon welcomes visitors to the ancient city. Surrounded by barren desert, you’ll find the perfectly preserved Ziggurat of Ur, 4,200 years old and adjacent to the still-standing home of biblical Abraham. Hatra. Samarra, the Erbil Citadel, and Shanidar Cave are just a handful of impressive structures worth visiting in Iraq. Currently, only six structures and landscapes in Iraq are protected by UNESCO, but that number is bound to grow.
Think Iraq Is all Desert? Think Again
Iraq is wildly diverse. Sure, the expanse of the Arabian Desert cuts across the middle of Iraq, but north and south of the barren yellow sands offer a vastly different landscape. The southern wetlands, high peaks of the Zagros Mountains, deep rutted red canyons, and thousands of acres of lush green farmland surprise many travelers. While visiting Iraq, you can travel through several different ecosystems in a single afternoon.
You Can Canoe Through the Ancient Marshes of Mesopotamia
Near the Southern border of Iraq is a dwindling, tranquil reservoir of water protected by a thicket of marsh reeds. Gliding along in an outboard motor-powered canoe, you’ll navigate the seemingly endless maze of Iraqi marshland. This unique landscape is UNESCO protected. It’s the real-world location of the “Garden of Eden,” the world’s most extensive inland delta system and a piece of Mesopotamian history. You can tour this spectacular water city with the help of Bilweekend, a local tour operator connecting travelers in Iraq with the Marsh Arabs still living in reed homes on the water. Float through the pastoral landscape while visiting homes for fresh buffalo curd and getting to know the inhabitants. You can even arrange to stay overnight for a more immersive experience.
It's Home to One of the Most Scenic Road Trips in the World
Equipped with well-maintained roadways, a plethora of dramatic viewpoints, and plenty of hotels found in quaint mountain villages, a road trip through Iraqi Kurdistan is easier than you might think (and astonishingly beautiful). From the capital city of Erbil, you can meander through the farmland, arid desert, and snow-dusted mountains of northern Iraq to far-flung destinations only accessible by car. Amedi, Akre, Dore Canyon, Rawanduz, and Gomi Felaw are just a handful of the impressive destinations you should add to your itinerary.
Tea, Tahini, and Tannour
There are few meals more evocative of Iraqi culture than sweet black tea served in small glasses, silky smooth fresh-ground tahini, and thick date syrup served alongside Tannour bread (perhaps alongside a fresh cup of deep purple raisin juice). Middle Eastern cuisine doesn’t always get the kudos it deserves in the West. Pita-like bread cooked inside a clay Tannour oven stays fluffy and light with the perfect toasty crunch on the outside. Dipped in tahini and date syrup, this is the standard Iraqi breakfast. But every meal in Iraq will be equally delicious. Piles of fragrant spiced rice, flame-cooked fish known as Masgouf, with shawarma and falafel on every corner; Iraqi food is worth enjoying.
Iraqi Mosques Are Some of the Most Beautiful Man-Made Structures on Earth
With a diverse blend of Sunni and Shia-style mosques, Iraq undoubtedly has some of the most intricate shrines on earth. Solid gold tombs, bejeweled ceilings, and painstakingly hand-carved or hand-painted details are standard. These structures would easily sit alongside famous tourist sites like the Taj Mahal. They have spared no expense in their construction. Whether you share in their religion or not, Islamic architecture is worth seeing in person. With nearly 1,000 mosques in Baghdad alone, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when deciding which to visit. Al Yassin Mosque, Firdous Mosque in Baghdad, and Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil are some of the most impressive and embellished.
Few Cultures Can Rival Genuine Iraqi Hospitality
The Middle East has distinguished itself as one of the most hospitable and kindest world regions to travelers. It’s not uncommon to be invited in for a free meal or an overnight stay, or be welcomed to join a fun family outing. You’ll share tea with strangers several times a day. Iraqi citizens take this generous attitude toward foreigners to a new level, thanks to a cultural custom called Taarof. Iraqi people will try to give you everything for free, and although you shouldn’t always accept, it’s often genuine and meant to make you feel at home. This custom is borrowed from their Persian neighbors but widespread within the country. Even outside the customary Taarof offering, Iraqi people are some of the friendliest and most welcoming locals you’ll encounter, eager to share their traditions, histories, and culture with any travelers they meet.
Visit the Holy Cities for a Crash Course on Religion
Karbala and Najaf are two of the holiest cities in Islam. Every year tens of millions of devotees make the pilgrimage from surrounding countries to these shrines. Visiting Iraq is an easy and immersive way to understand the complexities of the Muslim religion. In these two destinations, you can see three incredible Shia Muslim shrines and the world’s largest cemetery. Even if the history of the religion holds little interest, the astounding architecture will captivate you.
You Won't Have to Fight Crowds of Tourists (For Now)
No one likes crowds. Not when you’re trying to photograph a particularly spell-binding landscape and not when you’re trying to visit a local museum. Iraq is not yet a popular tourist destination. This means not only will crowds be uncommon; you’ll often be the only tourist at a given attraction. But once tourism becomes well-established in Iraq, crowds will come, prices will increase, chain restaurants will eek their way into the fabric of Iraqi cities, and some of the country’s unique cultural will be lost. For now, you can enjoy traditional Iraqi food on every corner without the often negative influence that mass tourism brings. You won’t have to wait in lines, and you’ll always have the perfect photo opp.
Your Visit Helps to Support Iraqi's Rebuilding Post War
Over the past three decades, Iraq has been through the wringer. But the unbreakable Iraqi spirit has emerged triumphant. Tourism done correctly can bring vital economic relief to the locals and support small businesses as they get back on their feet. Even among the wreckage of Mosul, the last ISIS stronghold of 2017, citizens have begun to rebuild. And tourists can learn a lot by visiting these powerful places. In exchange, we help break harmful stereotypes and contribute financially to the reconstruction of their communities.
Iraq Is a Destination for Real Adventure
Adventure is difficult to define and nearly impossible to seek out. It usually occurs when plans go awry far from the guided tours and careful shuttling of visitors from destination to destination. But Iraq guarantees adventure. With little to no tourist infrastructure, you’re pretty much left to your own devices when navigating the country. You’ll uncover cliffside caverns and mountain monasteries, sleep in reed homes, and road trip through the formidable mountains. Iraq is one of the rare destinations left in the world where you can still feel the high of true exploration.