Welcome to Baghdad, Iraq! Located along the banks of the Tigris River, Baghdad is a captivating destination that combines a rich history with a vibrant modern culture. From its awe-inspiring architectural wonders to its bustling markets and lively street life, this city has something to offer every traveler.
From the ancient ruins of Dur-Kurigalzu to the vibrant markets of Al-Mutanabbi Street to the tantalizing flavors of traditional dishes like masgouf, kahi, and bagila bil dihin, Baghdad is a treasure trove of adventure.
Though Baghdad is often portrayed as a dangerous and scary place where Americans are hated, I saw none of that during the time I was there in September 2022. Instead, I met generous and friendly locals who extended nothing but warmth and kindness everywhere I went. My guides Jafar and Ali at Bil Weekend took me on an adventure I’ll never forget. These are the top things you must experience in Baghdad, Iraq!
On my first morning in Baghdad, my guide Jafar took me to try a traditional Iraqi breakfast of kahi (a popular Iraqi pastry made with phyllo dough and sugar syrup) and geymar, a thick water buffalo cream. The kahi was hot, sugary and full of thin, crispy layers, somewhat similar to a sweet paratha.
I could see why they pair it with the geymar, which is thick, rich, and creamy. It’s the perfect complement to the lighter, flakier kahi. I learned that kahi is often eaten during Eid and isn’t consumed daily.
We finished with piping hot Iraqi tea with a layer of sugar at the bottom. I learned during my time in Iraq that, like in India, they love their tea boiling hot. It’s also usually very sweet, so be prepared!
In the city center of Baghdad, Iraq is Al Rasheed Street, a renowned road lined with cafes, street food stands, mosques, and Madrasa al-Mustansiriyya, an ancient school that focused on three subjects. Nearby is Al-Mutanabbi Street Market, a one-stop shop for everything locals need!
Inside are vendors selling scarves, street food, spices, perfumes, fruits, nuts, jewelry, games, prayer beads, and a peculiar natural gum derived from tree sap. Indulge in some aroog (Iraqi kababs cooked on a tawa) or kebda (liver sauteed with herbs). If you have more of a sweet tooth, check out the Turkish delights!
Inside the shops are kind, friendly vendors who graciously welcome foreigners with open arms. The vendors are the same way. One falafel vendor graciously offered us some of his scalding hot chickpea fritters fresh out the oil! I also recommend trying bagila bil dihin, a dish made of bread soaked in boiling fava beans, along with tomatoes, scrambled eggs, and pickled chilies. Also, try the makhlama, which is scrambled eggs with lamb, tomatoes, and herbs.
Back out outside on Al Rasheed Street, you’ll find vendors selling nuts, dates, fish, and produce. I learned there that dates should never be eaten in even numbers in Iraq before trying some torshi (pickled ginger). Also, don’t miss the Safafeer copper market, where every shop is dedicated to copper craftsmanship. You can find antique pieces and modern creations like lamps, plates, shoes, and small trinkets!
Another market in Baghdad, Iraq I recommend is Souq al-Saray, a famous indoor market. You can find clothing, school supplies, briefcases, and exquisite leather products. But the highlight is Kubba al-Saray, a small café with a rich history dating back to 1930.
There, we indulged in kubba saray, a savory grain ball stuffed with lamb and minced onions, served with a tomato-based animal bone broth. The dish was not only visually stunning but also incredibly moist and juicy. Adding date sauce provided a delightful sweetness that complemented the flavors perfectly.
Another highlight is Al Shahbender Café, one of the oldest cafés in Baghdad, Iraq. Outside the café is a vendor selling fresh pomegranate juice. Inside, adorning its walls are captivating photos from the 1950s and ’60s. Their specialty lime tea is great, and if you’re up for it, give their apple shisha a try. When in Rome, right?
Bagila bil dihin, a dish made from boiled fava beans, soaked bread, and topped with eggs, is a popular Iraqi breakfast. I enjoyed some on my second morning in Baghdad, Iraq, as well as kabab tawa. The bagila bil dihin had an incredible texture and flavor, which I enhanced with some of my David’s Been Here hot sauce.
The kabab tawa was like a crispy meat fritter, which I ate in a sandwich with bread, basil, and tomatoes. On the side, I had makhlama, a sour condiment called amba, cucumber and radish pickles, and a sour and smoky yogurt drink called kashk. We also had some delicious, breaded chicken, which the restaurant owner fed me enthusiastically. The hospitality of the Iraqi people knows no bounds!
Roughly 45 minutes west of Baghdad, Iraq is Dur-Kurigalzu, an ancient ruined city that’s home to an impressive 70-meter-tall ziggurat. This Neo-Babylonian structure, dating back over 3400 years, was built as a temple and is one of the tallest ziggurats in Iraq. Despite its grandeur, the ziggurat, made mostly from hay and mud, is slowly deteriorating due to weather conditions. Pigeons even live in holes in the ziggurat meant for water drainage!
Beyond the ziggurat, Dur-Kurigalzu offers glimpses into ancient Iraqi civilizations. Homes and walls in the area are covered in cuneiform, the oldest known writing system in the world. Exploring further, visitors can access one of the four excavated temples on the site, dedicated to the god of air and storms. A platform within this temple was once used for animal sacrifices as offerings to the gods.
The rich historical significance continues outside the temple walls, with more cuneiform etchings found on stones scattered across the mud-brick floors. These etchings were made using reeds over 3000 years ago, showcasing impressive craftsmanship from ancient times. As a major history buff, the site is fascinating and well worth a visit during your time in Baghdad, Iraq!
You can’t visit Baghdad, Iraq without trying the national dish, masgouf. This is a popular and delicious dish that consists of fresh carp that is marinated in a blend of aromatic spices. The cooks then grill it over an open fire, making it a smoky and flaky fish dish that’s packed with flavor.
When I tried masgouf for the first time, it came served on colorful woven platters with amba (pickled mango), fresh basil, olives, onions, timman il-ahmar (red rice with tomato paste), jajik (yogurt with cucumbers), leben (smoked yogurt drink), dates, chai, and khubz tannour bread.
I recommend trying the masgouf by itself first to appreciate its smoky, slightly charred flavor. Then, load up your bread with a bit of everything for a crispy, buttery, briny flavor and texture sensation in your mouth! Just be careful of the bones!
Travelers with a sweet tooth should not miss out on the chance to visit Al Khassaki, the largest sweets shop in Iraq. It offering a wide selection of traditional and unique desserts, including baqlawa, borma, and jalebi with crushed pistachios. The jalebi, a favorite of mine ever since my first trip to India, was a standout with its crispy texture, syrupy sweet flavor, and nutty pistachios Another highlight was a triangle-shaped baklava, also filled with pistachios.
In addition to baklava, Al Khassaki also offers an array of cookies and tarts. They had a delicious orange jam cookie and an flavorful caramel pistachio cookie as well. For those seeking a richer, creamier treat, the coarse konafa (another name for knafeh) with cream is a must-try. Its crispy layers, creamy cheese filling, and pistachios is a clear winner. It’s a must when visiting Baghdad, Iraq!
If you’re out late in Baghdad, Iraq and want some delicious food options, look no further than Karada Street. This lively and bustling area is filled with shops and restaurants. The King of Dates offers sweets like honey, date syrup, and madgooga, a sweet and nutty date ball coated in sesame seeds. Nearby Zaytoun Sweets specializes in samoon, a freshly-baked, diamond-shaped Iraqi bread.
You can also find kiosks offering different varieties of coffee and freshly fried potato chips in various flavors. My favorite was the shop selling falafel sandwiches, which pile crispy chickpea fritters into fresh samoon bread, along with amba, lettuce, and tomatoes for a fresh, sour, and acidic kick!
One of my favorite experiences in Baghdad, Iraq, was visiting a local spot known for their kebabs. My guides Jafar and Ali, and my friend Tasos and I enjoyed some incredible Iraqi chai, beef ribs, chicken kebabs, lamb kebabs, arayes, samoon bread, grilled chicken breast, and grilled tomatoes.
I’ve tried kebabs all over the world, from Albania to Turkey to India, and these incredible kebabs are up there with the best I’ve ever had. The chicken kebabs were tasty and smoky, but the lamb was out of this world. It was tender, juicy, fatty, and full of flavor that had my mouth watering long after I finished. Try the kebabs in Iraq. I promise they won’t disappoint!
Baghdad may seem like a scary place when you look at the news. And while the city is not without its issues, the warmth, kindness, and hospitality I experienced there blew me away. Everywhere I went, people were excited to share their culture with me and lavish me with gifts. It was honestly overwhelming.
Forget what you’ve heard about Baghdad, Iraq. Let go of any preconceived notions you have about it. Instead, open your mind and heart, get on a plane, and visit this incredible city. I have a feeling it—and its people—will surprise you.