Karbala, Iraq: Ultimate Travel Guide

Welcome to Karbala, Iraq – a city steeped in rich history and spiritual significance. Located roughly two hours south of Baghdad, Karbala lies in the heart of Iraq. The city’s fabled Battle of Karbala took place in the year 680 between the Umayyad Caliphate and a small army led by Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Ali died during the battle, and Shia Muslims now make an annual pilgrimage to his tomb to honor him.

Exploring the sacred shrines and mausoleums that commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn is a must when visiting Karbala. Beyond its religious significance, Karbala offers a wealth of cultural and historical landmarks waiting to be explored. Whether you choose to stroll through the bustling markets of the Old City or unwind by the serene waters of Lake Milh, exploring the city is a jaw-dropping experience.

The Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq | Davidsbeenhere

I visited Karbala in September 2022 with the help of my friends Jafar and Ali at Bil Weekend. It was a moving spiritual experience I’m supremely grateful for, and one I’ll never forget. These are the top things you must do in Karbala, Iraq.

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Eat Traditional Iraqi Food

During a visit to Karbala, Iraq, we discovered a local restaurant specializing in delicious home-cooked-style meals. One of their popular dishes is tashreeb, a flavorful stew served with bread. We also had the opportunity to try madfoon, a stew made with onions, eggplant, tomato paste, rice, and pumpkin. The restaurant offered many other enticing dishes, including chicken biryani, lamb ribs, fasolia (white beans), roasted chicken, and a veg and bean stew called sabzi.

Tashreeb with lamb ribs and khubz tannour | Davidsbeenhere

Our meal began with rice topped with noodles and crispy almonds. The chef kindly offered us a taste of the mouthwatering madfoon, which left us craving for more. Next, they tore pieces of khubz tannour (an Iraqi flatbread) and placed it on the platter before spooning tashreeb and lamb ribs over it.

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Iraqi chicken biryani in Karbala, Iraq | Davidsbeenhere

At our table, we enjoyed the tashreeb by soaking the bread in the rich tomato juice and savoring the tender lamb. The onions, potatoes, and chickpeas added a delightful touch. The lamb ribs were succulent and easily fell off the bone.

Sabzi over rice | Davidsbeenhere

I also loved the sabzi dish and the incredible chicken biryani, which featured noodles, raisins, and aromatic spices. The tepsi baytinijan, an eggplant stew containing potatoes and vegetables, also blew me away. We ended on a sweet note with halawa halib – a thick milk-based dessert made with butter, flour, and sugar, topped with crushed pistachios. It was a phenomenal meal!

Explore the Pilgrimage Route in Karbala, Iraq

If you’re fortunate enough to visit Karbala, Iraq during the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage, I highly advise visiting the pilgrimage route. There, I came across a street vendor selling thousands of delicious dates, as well as others selling boiling hot Iraqi chai with cardamom and sugar.

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Vendors selling dates along the pilgrimage route in Karbala, Iraq | Davidsbeenhere

We also found vendors along the pilgrimage route making khubz tannour, kebabs, and w’rashi (sweet dates in a nutty tahini sauce). I also saw a three-meter shawarma and tried some refreshing apricot juice, sugar bread, and a refreshing drink called skanjabeel. This non-alcoholic drink contains vinegar, honey, mint, and sugar and is surprisingly refreshing!

Cooks serving tomato kaymak to people along the Arbaeen pilgrimage route | Davidsbeenhere

The highlight was a thick tomato kaymak stew with short-grain rice. There is a rivalry between Karbala and Najaf over whose kaymak is the best! I even got the chance to help pass it out to pilgrims passing through!

Visit the Shrine of Imam Husayn

The Imam Husayn Shrine, located in Karbala, Iraq, is a revered place of worship for millions of Shia Muslims around the world. It stands as a symbol of sacrifice and martyrdom, commemorating the tragic events of the Battle of Karbala while honoring Imam Husayn.

A crowd gathers at the beautiful Imam Husayn Shrine in Karbala, Iraq | Davidsbeenhere

Its magnificent golden dome, intricate architecture, and vibrant decorations are downright stunning in person. My visit to the Imam Husayn Shrine was a beautiful and emotional experience. Inside, I saw pilgrims crying and clearly emotional. Others rushed to lay a hand on the tomb to honor the fallen leader. Photography inside is prohibited, but it’s something I’ll never forget.

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Visit the City of Karbala, Iraq

The city of Karbala, Iraq is a traveler’s dream. Regardless of your religious affiliation, or even if you don’t have one, it’s impossible to visit the city and not feel its magic. It’s beautiful and emotional, and being among the people there was an unforgettable experience.

Enjoying a delicious Iraqi spread with my guide Jafar from Bil Weekend | Davidsbeenhere

Whether you’re visiting for the food, the culture, the people, or a mix of all three, you’ll have a profound experience in Karbala. Book a trip to Iraq today to get an authentic look at what this part of the world is really like!

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