The city of Basra is a significant Iraqi port city nestled along the Shatt al-Arab River, formed at the meeting place of the legendary Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The city of Basra in southeastern Iraq is the country’s main port and boasts an enchanting history and cultural side.
Basra is far less known than other Iraqi locations like Baghdad, the Iraqi Marshes, and Babylon. But it offers a mesmerizing blend of ancient culture and modern allure. From its bustling bazaars to its architectural wonders, Basra’s blend of tradition and innovation beckons intrepid travelers.
Whether you visit the eclectic Hassun Restaurant and Museum or explore the site of the legendary Garden of Eden, every day in Basra city is an unforgettable adventure.
I visited Basra in September 2022 with the help of my friends at Bil Weekend. They arranged my entire itinerary through the country, including a stop in Basra in Iraq. With them, I got to see a side of Iraq that’s rarely seen in the West. That continued in Basra, a beautiful city that’s as charming as it is underrated. These are the top things you must do in Basra, Iraq!
While it’s hard to tell where the legendary Garden of Eden once stood, if it ever existed at all. Many believe it lay just outside Basra, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Of course, the Garden of Eden is where, in the Bible, God created Adam and Eve, who were later tempted by the Devil to eat fruit from a forbidden tree, committing the world’s first sin.
Some believe that an ancient tree that stands along the riverbank is that very tree! The area is beautiful and well-kept, so it’s clear that locals believe it has major significance. It was amazing to be in a location that’s said to be so important to human history, and I highly recommend it when you visit the city of Basra, Iraq.
Once you enter Basra proper, there are a number of places to explore right away. Because I was famished by the time we arrived, my first order of business was getting food. We stopped at a shop selling leek sambousak sandwiches with various sauces. Sambousak is a type of fried, savory pie, similar to Indian samosas and Uzbek somsas.
I also recommend visiting Basra’s local spice market, where you can find a wide array of spices, sweets, and nuts. There, my guides and I tried a pressed apricot candy called amardeen. It was quite tasty! I also enjoyed the halkun, a sweet almost identical to Turkish Delights. The vendors in the market are quite friendly, so don’t be surprised if they let you try free samples.
But one of my favorite ways to explore Basra isn’t on foot. If you head to the shore around sunset, you can take a boat tour on the Persian Gulf! It’s quite a short tour, but it allows you to see Basra from the water as the sun sinks below the horizon. You may even get a glimpse of Saddam Hussein’s capsized boat offshore!
I’ve never been much of a sweets guy, personally. Maybe it’s the cloying, almost unbearable amount of sugar in many American candies, but I’ve always preferred savory dishes. But that tends to go out the window when I travel to places like Iraq, where their sweets put the ones in America to shame!
When my guides took me to Beriyah, a popular sweets shop in Basra, Iraq, I was surprised. This shop specializes in confections made with dates, which I absolutely love. One of my favorite sweets there was the madgooga (date balls covered in coconut, seeds, and nuts). The compressed dates were just sweet enough, the and nutty, savory element balanced the flavor nicely. Buy some to take home with you when your sweet tooth strikes!
Because of its proximity to water sources, it’s not surprising that the Iraqi people have perfected the art of making vibrant seafood dishes. And as someone who could live off of seafood, that’s perfect for me! On my first night in the city of Basra, Iraq, my guides took me to a local favorite called Al Hassun Restaurant.
There, I ate some of the most delicious food of my life! Their dolmas–grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat–were great, but the seafood took the cake. The shrimp with basmati rice was light and flavorful, but the hearty shrimp with sauce had me craving more. The tender, perfectly cooked shrimp came down in a thick, rich, brownish sauce that was so flavorful, I wanted to lick the bowl clean! It’s a must when in Basra!
Every morning while traveling should begin with a hearty breakfast. My favorite breakfast spot in Basra, Iraq is a unique and delightful spot called Al Hassun Restaurant and Museum. As you might guess from its name, it’s part restaurant and part museum, where you can browse a fascinating array of antique items in Bassora.
The incredible chef, a friendly man named Hidar, treated us to a scrumptious spread in Basra. He prepared a lamb omelet, fried eggs with dibis, and kubba infused with an assortment of spices. The makhlama, baked in ramekins, and dibis fried eggs were unreal and had the perfect blend of sweetness and saltiness. The kubba, served in a thin gravy, had a crispy exterior and a tender interior that blew my mind.
To finish up, we enjoyed Iraqi chai with sugar, adhering to the Iraqi tradition of beginning and ending breakfast with tea. It’s a must, especially if you’re starting a new day in Basra city, Iraq!
If you want to get a feel for Basra’s past, its historic Old City is a great place to start. The Old City is a testament to Basra’s significance as a cultural center in the 8th and 9th centuries. It has witnessed the city’s evolution from a military encampment to a thriving trade hub, making it a living chronicle of Basra’s past. Its winding streets, vibrant marketplace, and traditional buildings offer a glimpse into Basra’s storied past.
While I was in Basra, I learned that UNESCO is currently reviving the area. The buildings here are gorgeous, especially its facades. I got to visit a large, old home with a beautiful courtyard, which was in the middle of a restoration project at the time. I could tell it could be stunning once the restoration is complete!
If you’ve followed me for a while, you might know that visiting local bazaars is one of my favorite ways to get a feel for a new destination. At the main bazaar in Basra, Iraq, I met a vendor selling an assortment of sweets, including baklava. He even fed me a piece, which was fantastic.
In Basra, you’ll also find butchers who are cutting up lamb carcasses and various vendors selling seafood, fresh produce, shoes, clothing, jewelry, and antiques. The vendors in Basra are all very friendly to foreigners, so feel free to browse and buy things you want. Some vendors in Basra may even encourage you to sample their goods, including dates, fresh cheeses, and other produce!
My favorite purchase in Basra was a new Kuwaiti-style turban in the traditional Iraqi colors of red, black, green, and white. It cost me 5,000 dinar ($3.42 USD) in Basrah and is now a proud addition to my collection of turbans from the Middle East!
With two legendary rivers running through it and the Persian Gulf to its southeast, it should come as no surprise that fish is a major part of Iraqi cuisine in Basra. My favorite fish dish I tried in Basra, Iraq is zubaidi, made by scoring, salting, breading it with flour and turmeric, and pan-frying it to perfection. It comes with saffron-infused white rice, biryani, lemon wedges, and sides of fasolia, okra, and hummus.
The zubaidi fish in Basra had a meaty texture and buttery flavor, complemented by the unique turmeric crust. The fresh, creamy hummus and silky baba ganoush with pomegranate seeds in Basra were equally incredible. On the side, enjoy some zesty tabbouleh, bamya (okra stew), fasolia (white bean stew), and refreshing sour pomegranate juice.
Another of my favorite elements of the meal in Basra was the fattoush, a Middle Eastern dish I’d also tried in Lebanon. This unique salad contains mixed greens, radishes, and tomatoes and comes topped with crunchy pieces of flatbread and tart pomegranate syrup. It’s one of the best salads you’ll try in the Middle East!
If you’re a football fan visiting Basra, Iraq, you’d be remiss if you didn’t visit its world-famous soccer venue, Basra International Stadium. Opened in October 2013, this massive complex cost a whopping £550 million to complete. It features a main stadium that seats over 65,000 spectators, a secondary that holds another 10,000, four Five Star hotels, and other sports facilities. Surrounding the main stadium is a large, manmade lake shaped like the map of Iraq.
It serves as the home venue for the Iraqi National Team, Al-Mina’a SC, and Naft Al-Junoob SC in Basra. I got a private VIP tour of this incredible stadium and even got to kick some balls around on the pitch with the Iraqi Army! Being on the pitch was an electrifying feeling, especially as someone who has loved football my entire life. It’s an experience I’ll never forget! I can only imagine how incredible it would be to experience a match there!
Basra may be off the beaten path when it comes to traveling through Iraq, but it’s a wonderful city to experience. I had nothing but fun and enriching experiences there in Basra, and all of it is due to the kindness and generosity of its people.
Forget what you’ve heard about Iraq—that it’s dangerous and that the people there hate Americans. From my own experience in Basra, not only is it not true, but it’s quite the opposite. The food and sights in Basra were great, but the lovely, beautiful people really made my trip the life-affirming experience it was. Book a trip to Basra, Iraq from the United States to experience it for yourself!