Visiting Baghdad: 4 Days in Iraq’s Capital (+ Babylon Visit)

British Gentlemans Club Iraq 1
British Gentlemans Club Iraq 1

The idea of visiting Baghdad is understandably not everyone’s preferred destination of choice.

The troubled city has of course been the focal point of violence, war and unimaginable suffering in recent history, but there is so much more to Iraq’s capital than the sad reality of its name simply representing a synonym for misery.

Baghdad was one of the most industrious and important cities in civilisation during the Islamic Renaissance of 750-950. Centrally located between Europe and Asia, scholars came together to exchange ideas and make great scientific discoveries making it globally known as one of the most advanced cities in the world during its heyday.

If you’re considering visiting Baghdad in its present-day form, you will still be able to explore remnants of this compelling chapter, mixed in with more modern features of its charming culture.

Here is what I packed into a 4 days Baghdad trip, including a couple of answers to logistics regarding the trip.

Me at Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument

Day 1: Al Tahrir Square

Iraqi man

Al Tahrir Square, also known as Liberation Square, tips its hat to the establishment of the Republic of Iraq in 1958. The artwork above the square depicts key events that gave birth to the country and it was opened in 1961.

This is an ideal introduction to Iraq, with curious locals staring and making pleasant small talk in broken English. Get used to it. Iraqis are generally warm and curious people, up there with the quintessential Middle-Eastern hospitality that I have grown to love since day one of travelling in that part of the world.

As I like to point out all sides to travel, it’s important to point out that shortly after visiting Baghdad this place was used as the main base for a series of anti-establishment protests, dubbed the “October Revolution.”

Sadly, an alarmingly high number of people were killed in this square during the movement and the Square was closed, it has now reopened as locals aim to go back to a normal life, but travellers to this city should keep an eye on this situation.

Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument

A visit to a striking monument dedicated to the memory of the Iraqi soldiers who died in the 1980 Iraq-Iran war will leave you in awe, as will the beautiful, complex mind behind the guy who designed it. Check out this quote of substance from the creator, Ismail Fatah Al Turk:

“I insisted on having a large, open space. Big monuments are originally from the East – the pyramids, the sphinx, the obelisk, minarets … the Earth is flat, so these monuments can be seen from all directions. In the beginning, I had the idea of having a martyr bursting from the centre. But I did not like it, it was too theatrical. Then, the idea of life versus death began to form. The two pieces moving together towards martyrdom and fertility and the life stream. I moved the pieces until I got the interplay I wanted.”

Al Shaheed Martyrs Monument
When you’re good mates, but you want that singular photo…

Gates of Baghdad

Built in 762 AD, the structure was once an impressive rounded city, which was created to defend Iraq from foreign invasion.

Some of it was destroyed first by The Ottoman Empire in 1917, then time, toll and the stresses of war destroyed the majority of the gates. Most of the Gates of Bagdad now is referred to as an area, paying homage to this part of Baghdad’s history.

Still, there is enough preserved and still standing for you to saunter around and let your imagination run wild about a different time.

The Golden Domes of Al-Kadhimiya Mosque

The Al-Kadhimiya Mosque is a holy shrine to notable Shi’ite Imams, impossible to miss at night time with its 4 striking golden domes.

It’s hard to imagine how much of a battering the place has taken in the last 15 years. The last attack, killing 21 and seriously injuring 45, was claimed by ISIS so the security is seriously tight; no phones, cameras or digital watches are allowed in this sacred building.

Travellers should be careful here as one woman in our group had $200 USD pickpocketed inside the mosque.

Day 2: The Ancient City of Babylon

Ancient City of Babylon

A visit to The Ancient City of Babylon was every bit of a raw travel experience as I had hoped. Witnessing the four-thousand-year-old Mesopotamia marvel, home to one of the ancient wonders of the world (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon), is right up there with my travels in the last decade.

It’s a shame that it hasn’t drawn as many appreciative visitors as it deserves, due to the continuous unrest in the region.

A big chunk of Babylon has decayed, but a lot of it has been refurbished thanks to the old tyrannical leader by the name of Saddam Hussein. Unsurprisingly this was not for altruistic reasons, he took a shine to the place as a view from one of his Palace (which we visited later on that day).

At the gates of Babylon
Hanging at the Gate of Babylon

Saddam Hussein’s Palace of Babylon

Breathe in the deserted residence of the former Iraqi leader, which the current government keeps as a low-key monument. At the moment there are no well-kept artefacts with propaganda from either side, it’s completely devoid of text or glass units and tactically placed pictures.

It’s raw, slightly vandalised with graffiti, it’s dirty and gritty and I absolutely love that. It gives the place an authentic feel and your mind wanders to places it probably wouldn’t (for better or worse, probably the latter) in a dull, characterless museum.

Saddam Hussein’s Palace

Borsippa

Borsippa

Some religious scholars say that Abraham was born here, some say he was born in Ur of the Chaldees and was brought straight here. I’ll leave that open to religious scholars to debate, one thing that is for sure is that a visit to this ancient temple just before the sun goes down is an ideal way to wind down a fantastic day trip from the capital before going back to visit Baghdad some more.

Day 3: Iraqi National Museum

Day 3 took us on a trip to the Iraqi National Museum. I don’t think I’m a complete philistine, I have the ability to appreciate what I don’t truly understand or care for. But I struggle to even pretend to be having a good time when in most museums.

But, if this is your cup of tea then power to you, museum your face off on the third day of your Baghdad trip. The same goes for the Armenian church that we visited straight after that. Wasn’t for me, being a European who went to a Catholic school – I’m very much churched out, but upon deeper thought, I was pleasantly surprised that Baghdad’s Armenian religious minorities had their own place of worship.

British Gentlemen’s Club

The religious right got their way and the remains are similar to Saddam’s Palace in the way that it leaves ample room for imagination.

The place is now all rubble, as you can see from my featured photo in this post.

Shahbandar Coffee Shop

One of Baghdad’s few remaining cultural cafés with the smell of shisha pipes and coffee so strong it’ll give neighbouring Turkey a run for its money.

The owner, Mohamad al-Khashali, defiantly strived to maintain the personality of the café, which fell prey to a suicide bomb attack that killed his four sons and one grandson.

Shahbandar coffee shop

“Despite the calamity that be­fell my family, I was keen on re­habilitating the place to make it once again appealing to its regular customers and clientele, though it bears a new name, the Shahbandar Martyrs’ Café,” Khashali said.

Bangkok Souk

Souvenir time.

The classier bunch of the group bought products from the very impressive Copper Market.

I bought a sword with a cobra head! All customs in Iraq, Maldives and Thailand saw it in my suitcase and were surprisingly ok with me travelling through with it.

I don’t know when I’ll ever truly need a cobra-headed sword. But on that fateful day that I do; I’ll be glad I went through the stress to get it home.

The Souk is a symbol of the character of the locals. War would easily have made this place a cultural graveyard, yet it still remains due to the persistence of those who keep it running.

Later on, we had dinner in the Karrada district, one of the most religiously diverse areas of Baghdad with a majority Shia Muslim and significant Christian presence.

Copper Market

Day 4: Baghdad Mall

Baghdad Mall

Wind down on the final day with a bit of modern-day Iraq. See how some locals are striving to live a “normal” life after the recent chaos the country has had to endure. Eat at the food court on the top floor and you’ll be greeted with either shy, curious looks as a tourist, or with friendly conversation from enthusiastic locals who want to chat.

How much did visiting Iraq cost?

The 4 days tour cost $1850 USD. It was worth every penny. We stayed in the Palestine Hotel, the tour did not include fights. I flew from Dubai with Fly Dubai.

Contact for a private tour in Iraq

My mate Johnny from OneStep4Ward.com is planning to run more tours in the future, so if the contact details below are out of date, feel free to contact him.

Name: Adam Jebrin

Phone Number: 07947138673 (UK number, so +47947138673 for Whatsapp)

Email Address: info@alwaseilahtours.com

Do you get travel insurance for Iraq?

Nope. I didn’t exactly fall off my seat with shock when my insurance company, SafetyWing didn’t cover me for a trip to a recent war zone. Although they have surprised me on other occasions and it’s only Iran, Iraq and North Korea that they do not provide cover for.

What’s the visa situation?

Getting a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan was easy-peasy – a simple visa on arrival. But “the real” Iraq is a bit of a different beast and I admittedly had the easier ride with Johnny taking on the heavy logistics as a tour leader.

I can’t speak for all nationalities, but I know that Brits, Americans, Irish and South Africans have to do the following (if you’re not any of those, don’t worry. The tour organiser will help you out):

  • Get a letter of invitation to visit Iraq. Easier said than done, but the point of contact will follow in this article and he’s very reliable and competent.
  • Once you have the letter of invitation, find your local Iraqi consulate and take your letter along with your passport and two passport photos. I paid 30 quid, but it differs amongst nationalities. Oh and make sure there are no Islamic festivals on the date that you go – I took the trip from Durham to Manchester during Eid and the place was closed for a week.
  • Say goodbye to your passport for up to 4 weeks, as the visa gets processed in Baghdad and sent back to your local Iraq consulate. This is not a trip that you want to miss out on because you left it until too late!
  • Receive your passport and start freaking out that it’s actually happening … you’re going to Iraq!

Is it Safe to Visit Iraq Now?

Iraqi man wearing 'ain't nobody got time for dat' t-shirt

When talking about visiting countries with higher rates of violence, recent war and crime rates – this is the eternal emperor of complex questions. As I did with my Papua New Guinea entry, I refuse to play down the security issues and often roll my eyes at those who bury their head in the sand at times like this. Your personal safety is your responsibility and you roll your own dice.

I knew the risks of going to Iraq and made peace with that before I arrived. I never felt unsafe in Iraq, but there was a nearby explosion, which killed several innocent civilians. If it’s the general people you are worried about – Iraqis generally fall into the typical category of warm and welcoming Arabic hospitality. However, it’s still Baghdad and you have to make this call yourself.

Why Go To Iraq?

Iraqi men making juice

Accusations of “war tourism” fly about when people visit such destinations and I totally understand valid concerns as I do see behaviour on my travels that often leaves me cringing.

I think it’s a little short-sighted to assume that locals don’t desire or need tourist visits and money from tourism and, on a personal level.

Locals’ views of recent events are just as complex as any other nation on Earth. All humans have differing opinions, hopes and concerns and Iraqis are no different in this case.

Iraq has been through hell and back, I’m always going to be delighted that I went and shared the experience with others who I met on the group tour and I truly hope that I live to see the day that Iraq gets over the hangover of its dark past.

Group of friends in Iraq
Photo by Ana, from theworldmyvillage.com
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Anthony Middleton

A former loser who took a risk. I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting over 100 countries. Stay tuned for the next challenge against that clock!
Ultra runner walking in desert

Hi, I'm Anthony!

In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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