Traveling in Iraq is a novelty. A place that is off the beaten path. Most people don’t think to themselves, “let’s go to Iraq.” After years of war, dictatorships, and occupation by both ISIS and the United States, Iraq travel isn’t common for westerns. Unless you are Shite Muslim and your purpose of travel is pilgrimage, Iraq is likely not on you radar. Yet, despite this I am here to tell you that you can travel to Iraq and it’s relatively stable and safe. After coming back from a 10 day stay, I would 100% recommend traveling to Iraq.
Planning an Iraqi Vacation
Knowing where to go and when is always important. As Iraq is in the Middle East, summers are hot, and winters can see a drastic swing in temperatures. While visiting in March we enjoyed warm days in the 80s and cool nights in the 50s. As we ventured north towards Mosul some days never reached above 60 and nights hovered right around freezing. Springtime and Fall would be recommended travel time. As it’s not to hot, nor cold. Yet beyond weather, when planning for Iraq you need to decide where to visit. Iraq is a larger country then it looks with tons of historical significance.
Where to Visit
First, note that Iraq is one country with two very separate administrations and cultures. Federal Iraq vs Kurdish Iraq. Kurdish Iraq is the Northeastern part of Iraq with the largest city of Erbil. Federal Iraq is the rest of Iraq. Depending on where you go, will depend on what visa you will need. Check out my experience getting an Iraq visa on arrival. I did not have time to visit Kurdish Iraq on this trip, however two of my friends did and had a great time.
Next, plan your visit. Iraq has tons of historical sites. Both important to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. With both the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flowing through Iraq, civilization as we know it started in Iraq. You can of course start off in Baghdad and there’s plenty to see. Yet going beyond Baghdad is where the real treat lies.
You can visit the ancient cities of Babylon or the modern city of Najaf. Najaf is the most religious and the holiest cities to Shi’a Muslims in the world bosting beautiful mosques and tons of history.
Other ancient sites include the Great Ziggurat of Ur and the former capital of Mesopotamia during the Sumerian time. The site includes Abraham House, Sholgi Palace, and the oldest arch of its kind at the entrance of the Dub-Lal-Makh Temple. This site is so holy that even the Pope recently visited Iraq and came to Ur.
Want to see other old places? Check out the visit The Ziggurat of Borsippa. Also known as the “Tongue Tower.” This was an important ancient city of Sumer and is nearly 4,000 years old! Stroll around the ruins and turn over rocks boasting ancient writing and shattered tablets.
Still not sold? The best part of visiting Iraq is the ancient sites, you’ll be among the only tourist there. As Iraq is not yet on the travel map outside of business and religious pilgrimage, Iraq has many untouched ruins. There’s not fighting the crowds, enjoy the peace and quite and really take in the sights.
As you head south, consider checking out the Marshes. Once drained by Saddam Hussein, the marshes are back and the wild life is returning too. Take a boat trip through the Marshes and see how the locals live off the land.
Is Iraq Safe
Iraq is relatively stable currently. The government has the support of the people and traveling through Iraq is fairly safe. Although Iraq is open to tourism, the tourist infrastructure is very much lacking. Iraq is a place where you really do need a guide. Especially if going beyond Baghdad. While driving through Iraq, or even walking through Baghdad you’ll encounter several security check points. Trying to get the weekend market? Expect all bags to be searched several times. In addition, you’ll be patted down and checked for explosives and weapons yourself several times. The same is true whenever visiting an important mosque. As you approach, you will go through at least one security check, if not several. The largest mosques even have TSA style security with metal detectors.
As you drive beyond Baghdad there are security check points every 20-40 miles. Along the highway there are military outposts between check point. Iraq is heavily armed and different militias control different regions. The militias are mostly backed by the Iraqi government. Despite this, they will check passports and ask questions at each stop. As most people do not speak English, it is vital to have a guide who knows how to navigate Iraq and the check points. My advice, just stay quiet and smile. Your guide will do the talking. They will check your visa and passport at each stop, but that is the worse of it. Just expect a few minute delay at each check point.
Otherwise, Iraq felt very safe to me. Many Iraqis also seem to love Americans. Throughout my visit I was stopped every day for photos and to ask where I was from. The younger generations want to practice their English with Americans and the older generation want photos with Americans or their kids with Americans. People were excited to learn I was an American on holiday in Iraq. Many times, we had to politely argue to pay our bills. Everyone from taxi drivers to hookah bars and restaurants wanted to treat us and wave our bills. Welcome to Iraq! They would say over and over again. I now have many new friends via social media, all who stopped me on the street or along the way of my travels. Iraqis are overly friendly. So is Iraq safe to travel, I would say very much so.
Iraq is a beautiful country with a rich history that locals want to share with the world. Iraq was nothing that I thought it would be. It was more modern and in a better state than I thought before visiting. Mosul is still in disarray, but the people are bouncing back, rebuilding their city each day. The younger generation is more secular and progressive. For example, in Baghdad, we even visited a gay bar! Iraq has so much to offer and is often overlooked. Yet, it’s inexpensive and culturally vibrant. Do yourself a favor and get off the beaten path. Visit Iraq!