The 10 Best Things to do in Baghdad, the Capital of Iraq
Updated October 2023, The 10 Best Things to do in Baghdad, the Capital of Iraq was originally published in June 2022
Planning to travel to Baghdad as part of your greater Iraq itinerary? Well, look no further, I’ll give you all the details to help you plan your trip and get the most out of your visit to Baghdad.
Baghdad has a long history stretching back several millennia, founded by the Abbasids in 762, a little north of the Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon. But the history of the general area surrounding Baghdad goes back to 3000 BC, hosting civilizations such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians. Baghdad was named Madinat al Salam at its foundation, meaning city of peace.
In more recent history, Baghdad was heralded as one of the most dangerous cities in the world owing to the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, and the 2003 US Invasion of Iraq and subsequent Fall of Baghdad, and later the rise of ISIS. These days Baghdad (as well as a decent amount of the nation of Iraq) seems to have turned a new leaf, becoming a bit more secure in the past few years.
With that said, things can and do still happen in Baghdad, so a visit is not without any risks- it’s just improved and become a lot less dangerous than it has been in the past 30+ years.
Starting March 2021, Iraq introduced a visa on arrival scheme for several nationalities entering Iraq at Baghdad, Basra, and Najaf International Airports, making visiting Iraq easier than it’s ever been in decades.
So, continue reading my Baghdad travel guide to find out the best things to do in Baghdad as well as where to stay, what to eat, and more.
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Things to do in Baghdad
The Iraq Museum is well worth putting in the effort to visit as it houses some of Iraq’s most impressive and important artifacts. Sadly, the museum was looted following the 2003 invasion, but the Iraq Museum opened its doors again in 2015 and is slowly gaining some pieces back.
The museum features countless displays belonging to different Mesopotamian (Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian), Persian, and Islamic civilizations. The most impressive section of the museum (in my opinion) is the Assyrian Gallery.
Entry, hours, and getting to the Iraq Museum: Getting access to the Iraq Museum isn’t exactly easy as it’s not really open to the general public. The easiest way of securing entry is by making advance plans with a guide who can get you in. You will need them to schedule a time with the curator.
The Iraq Museum is one of the few things to do in Baghdad that isn’t within walking distance of Central Baghdad, so grab a Careem or taxi here.
Al Mutanabi Street
Al Mutanabi Street forms part of Baghdad’s historic center, a pedestrianized street and among the oldest in Baghdad. The street is named after Al Mutanabi, a famous 10th century poet who originally hailed from Kufa.
Al Mutanabi Street is lined with bookstores, stationery shops, and cafes, nodding to its legacy as the center of Baghdad’s intellectual and literary scene, dating back to Mutanabi’s heyday and the times of the Abbasid Caliphate. You can even find the Statue of Mutanabi at the end of the street overlooking the Tigris River.
One cafe not to miss in Baghdad as you meander along Al Mutanabi Street is the over century-old Shabandar Cafe. Another Al Mutanabi Street monument you can’t miss is the Ottoman era Qishla Clock.
Al Mutanabi Street Hours: Officially the street is open any time but almost all of the shops, stalls, and cafe close by 3 pm and is essentially a ghost town after that. The best hours to visit are between 9 am and 1 pm when things are hopping.
Plop down on a bench and put in an order for a glass of chai or qawa (coffee) and maybe even some nargilé (hookah/shisha) and watch the afternoon roll by among Baghdad’s intellectuals.
Shabandar Cafe opened its doors on Al Mutanabi Street in 1917, over 100 years ago, and has served as a meeting point for the scholars and thinkers of Baghdad. Before the building served as the Shabandar Cafe, it was the printing press of merchant Abdel Majid Al-Shabandar.
The current owner, Mohammed Al Khashali took over Shabandar Cafe in 1963 but unfortunately lost his sons and grandsons in a car bombing that took place on Al Mutanabi Street in 2007.
Shabandar Cafe hours: 8 am to 6 pm.
Located near the Safafreer Copper Market and not far from Al Mutanabi Street is the 13th century Mustansiriyah Madrasa. The madrasa (an Islamic university) is among the oldest in the Islamic world, founded by the Abbasids. It is laid out in the typical four iwan pattern.
Entrance to Mustansiriyah Madrasa: Mustansiriyah isn’t really open, but it’s not really closed either. If the doors are shuttered and you can’t find anyone to open them, you can admire it from the outside at least.
Souk Al Safafreer
Just off of Al Mutanabi Street is the over 300 year old Souk Al Safafreer. Here you can find beautiful copper lamps, trays, plates, and more. If you are planning to make some purchases, it would be wise to go with someone that knows their copper as mass-produced replicas imported from other countries in the region are common.
Souk Al Safafreer hours: Much like the stalls on Al Mutanabi Street and Al Rashid Street, you’ll find almost all the stalls in Souk Al Safafreer hours will be shut by 3 pm, so it’s best to visit between 9 am and 1 pm when most everyone is still open.
The Baghdadi Museum is dedicated to the local history of the city. It features wax figures that depict different periods of Baghdad’s history as well as local traditions. Full disclosure though: I didn’t visit the Baghdadi Museum myself (was too museum’d out).
Baghdadi Museum opening hours and entrance: The museum is open from 9 am to 2 pm and is closed on Tuesdays. Entry is 1,000 IQD.
Al Rashid Street
Al Rashid is another historic street in Baghdad that meets up with Al Mutanabi Street. Here you can find just about anything being sold out of the shops and stalls that line the street. There are also many cafes along Al Rashid, making it great for a lunchtime stroll.
A famous shop on Al Rashid Street that you must visit is Haj Zebala Juice. Haj Zebala was been a prominent Baghdad fixture for over 100 years, serving up, you guessed it- juice. Most locals will say to get the (raisin) grape but I preferred the pomegranate (though, both were quite good so you can’t go wrong). The owner, Haji Mohammad Abdel Ghafour is the third generation of hands the establishment has been in. A glass will cost you 1,000 IQD.
Impossible to miss as you meander your way down the street is beautifully tiled Haydar Khana Mosque worth a pause to snap a photo or two as you pass by.
Opening hours for Al Rashid Street shops: Most shops on Al Rashid close by 3 pm, so best to visit earlier in the day.
Tahrir Square is the largest public square in Baghdad, located in the Al Rusafa Neighborhood. Tahrir means liberation in Arabic and was named so to commemorate the formation of the Republic of Iraq in 1958.
A prominent feature of Tahrir Square is the Nasb al Hurriyah Monument (Freedom Monument), depicting historic events in Iraq using bas-reliefs mounted to a slab of travertine.
Another cool monument not to miss near Tahrir Square is the Tahrir Square Murals painted by artists during and following the 2019 Iraqi Protests. They are located in the tunnel that leads from the square to the southeast toward Firdous Square.
Firdous Square is another famous Baghdad landmark, surrounded by several well-known buildings like the 17 Ramadan Mosque and the city’s most famous hotels- the Palestine Hotel and the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel, both of which garnered their fame serving as the bases for the foreign correspondents that flooded into Baghdad, following the 2003 invasion.
Firdous Square did house a much more prominent Baghdad landmark until it was toppled over in 2003- the 12 meter tall Saddam Hussein Statue. Fittingly, he was replaced with a garbage can.
Al Shaheed Monument
Al Shaheed, also known as the Martyr’s Monument is the famous blue-tiled somewhat egg-shaped structure that was built to commemorate those that lost their lives in the bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The monument itself is pretty impressive when you’re up close and actually get a sense of how large it is.
Downstairs underneath is a not to be missed museum and library.
Entry, hours, and getting to Al Shaheed Monument: Entry is 3,000 IQD per person and opening hours are 8 am to 3 pm daily. Al Shaheed Monument is located about 4.5 kilometers northeast of Tahrir Square, so order a Careem or hail a taxi to get here.
Al Kadhimiyah Mosque
Al Kadhimyah Mosque, also known as Yassin Mosque is located northwest of central Baghdad, so grab a Careem and head this way. On arrival, female travelers wishing to go inside can pick up an abaya (the all-enveloping curtain that women must wear inside the shrines and mosques around Iraq), at the giant souk that sprawls out from the shrine (you’ll have to walk through the souk anyway, also grab yourself a sweet treat here too!).
Al Kadhimyah Mosque is an important religious complex for Twelver Shia as it houses the tombs of Imam Musa Al Kadhim and Imam Mohammad Al Jawwad, the 7th and 9th imams. The interior architecture is quite exquisite, though if you’ve been to neighboring Iran and visited many shrines there you will see some definite similarities between the shrines of both nations.
I visited in the evening (around 8 pm) and can say it was quite beautiful to see Al Kadhimiyah lit up and dazzling in the dark, though it’s worth mentioning that shrines are also nice to visit in the early morning too.
Entry and getting to Al Kadhimiyah: As this is a functioning religious site there is no fee for entry and is open 24 hours. To enter the mosque women must don the abaya/chador (can be purchased in the souk for 5,000 IQD) with hair covered and shoes removed and men must be wearing full-length pants and no shoes.
Women should avoid wearing makeup as they will make you wash it off before you enter (I have heard this from numerous female travelers here), though if yours is light you’ll likely be fine (I think all of us were wearing mascara at most and we weren’t asked to clean it off).
You cannot bring in electronics including phones and cameras but there is a desk where you can check them and pick them back up after you’re done.
Al Kadhimiyah Mosque is located far from Central Baghdad in the Kadhimiyah District on the northwest of the city, so you’ll want to get a Careem or taxi.
Where to Stay in Baghdad
There are a scattering of hotels to choose from in Baghdad to fit most budgets. The hotel I’ve stayed at every time I’ve been in Baghdad had been the Shanasheel Palace, a popular option for midrange travelers.
Another decent midrange hotel just a couple of blocks away is the Oscar Hotel. A friend of mine stayed there and said it was pleasant enough and comparable to the Shanasheel.
For budget travelers, the Palm Beach Hotel and Restaurant comes recommended. You can call them at +9647400106827 or send an email to [email protected].
Best Restaurants in Baghdad
If you’re like me, then you usually have no problem finding food while you’re traveling 😂. Baghdad shouldn’t be any different, as the city offers plenty of cafes, restaurants, fast food, and food stalls.
Of course, given where Baghdad is, you can expect a lot of dishes popular around the general Middle East region, which if you’re like me and Middle Eastern is one of your absolute favorites, then you’ll find Baghdad to be a delicious city (ate my way across it, no lie).
Midrange Restaurants in Baghdad
If you want some recommendations here are places I ate in Baghdad at that I thought were great: Darbuna Restaurant, Dar Al Atraqchi Heritage Cafe, Al Faisaliya Restaurant & Cafe, Shmesani Restaurant, and Saj Aleef Restaurant (note that these are all midrange restaurants, so expect a meal with a drink to cost around 15,000 IQD).
Budget Restaurants in Baghdad
As for people trying to get by on a more strict budget, there are numerous cafes and fast food shops scattered all around Baghdad, including popular areas like Al Rashid and At Mutanabi Streets. So many so that I am not going to bother listing them all.
One unique dish to Iraq to try in Baghdad (and other cities in Iraq too) is masgouf, a traditional Mesopotamian fish dish that is often considered the national dish of Iraq. Baghdad prides itself on grilling up the best masgouf in Iraq, so a visit wouldn’t be complete without trying some.
Masgouf is simply a carp caught out of the river that is gutted and split down its back and spread into a single flat round. The masgouf is then covered in a marinade of salt, turmeric, tamarind, and olive oil before being propped up on an iron grill rack or on spikes next to a fire and cooked to crispy perfection. It usually takes about 60-90 minutes for the fish to cook.
There are a scattering of masgouf restaurants along the Tigris Riverfront on Abu Nawas Street, so this is the place to go if you’re looking to try some masgouf.
Arriving at Baghdad Airport
Arriving in Baghdad by air is surprisingly easy these days. In March 2021, Iraq began a new visa-free scheme for several nationalities. If you are one of the 38 eligible passports, then all you’ll need to do is pay the $77 fee on arrival at the window just before immigration. Once you have your visa sticker, continue through immigration and voilé, welcome to Iraq.
Getting to Central Baghdad from Baghdad Airport
After you’ve collected your baggage, you have two options for getting into Central Baghdad. The cheaper option is to take the white shuttle bus that comes by the arrivals hall to Abbas Ibn Firnas Square, located outside the airport security zone for 8,000 IQD. From there, order a Careem to your final destination (should cost about 15,000 IQD to Central Baghdad).
If you don’t want the headache of taking a shuttle and a taxi, there are taxis in the garage opposite the arrivals hall. You can expect to pay 30,000-45,000 IQD for a ride to Central Baghdad.
Money Exchange/ATM at Baghdad Airport
You can exchange money at the airport but you won’t quite as good a rate (the current rate as of October 2023 is 1,310 IQD to $1 USD) as you’ll get in the city, so I would recommend changing enough to get into Central Baghdad and then exchange the rest later. There were a couple of ATMs inside the airport but neither seemed to be working (this is the case in much of Federal Iraq, so bringing money to exchange would be wise).
Sim Cards at Baghdad Airport
Sims are relatively cheap and easy to pick up. You can grab one at the airport if it is open when you arrive and if not get one in the city.
Getting Around in Baghdad
Baghdad is a big sprawling city with nightmarish traffic (literally I think the worst I have ever seen). Luckily, most of Baghdad’s main sites are in Central Baghdad making it easy to get around on foot between them.
For outlying sites such as Al Shaheed Monument and Al Kadhimiyah Mosque use the Careem App to order taxis (more or less the same as Uber) to avoid haggling over prices with drivers on the street.
Getting Out of Baghdad
Getting out of Baghdad is relatively easy with frequent shared taxis departing to most cities around the country. Note that there are a couple of different garages around the city (garage is the word they use in Iraq in place of station or terminal).
Allawi Garage: You can find shared taxis and minibusses departing from Allawi Garage, but it’s important to note that it’s split into two with northbound transport leaving out of one side and southbound leaving out of the other. Go to the North Garage for transport to Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit, and most other destinations between them and go to the South Garage for transport to Hillah (Babylon), Karbala, Najaf, Nasiriyah, and Basra.
Alnahdha Garage: For northbound shared taxis and minibusses toward Iraqi Kurdistan (and that general direction) Alnahdha Garage is where you’ll want to go. The main destinations served from Alnahdha are Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah.
Baghdad Central Station: Iraq has trains surprisingly, though the only route really open is Baghdad-Basra. The trains only depart Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights and arrive the following morning. Read up more about the Baghdad-Basra train.
Safety in Baghdad
It’s no secret that Baghdad is not the safest city in the world, though it isn’t the most dangerous city either. With that said, you do need to exercise more caution in Baghdad than you would in most other destinations around the world.
Explosions, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and bombings all still do occur from time to time which is why most foreign governments advise against any travel to Baghdad as well as the remainder of Iraq. Personally, I felt safe while visiting Baghdad despite the complex situation the city is in. Just know that security can change rapidly with little to no warning.
If you are highly concerned about safety while visiting Baghdad I would suggest hiring a local guide or local tour company such as Safraty to set up your trip and take the edge off for you.
Have any questions about visiting Baghdad?
Ask in the comments section below.