Welcome to Mosul, Iraq. Mosul is a gem hidden in plain sight in the Upper Mesopotamia region between the Syrian Desert to the southwest and the Zagros Mountains to the east. It’s the second-largest city in the country after Baghdad. The terrorist organization ISIS seized control of the city from 2014 to 2017, and scars from those years are still present. Despite them, UNESCO is restoring parts of the city, bringing beauty and life back to its architectural wonders and historical sites.
In Mosul, you’ll Immerse yourself in the dynamic energy of the bustling markets and tantalize your taste buds with the aromatic flavors of local cuisine. From the street food of Nabi Yunus Bazaar to the iconic Al-Nouri Mosque, each moment in Mosul is an opportunity to delve into the depths of its storied past.
I explored the city of Mosul, Iraq in September 2022 with my guides Jafar and Ali from Bil Weekend. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, a cultural connoisseur, or an intrepid explorer, Mosul welcomes you with open arms to discover its extraordinary charm. Let’s embark on this captivating adventure together and unravel the treasures of Mosul, Iraq!
There’s something about the tantalizing smells and electric energy of street markets that makes me feel alive. I seek them out everywhere I travel, and in Mosul, that meant taking a trip to Bab Al-Jadeed, a bustling street market in Mosul’s Old Town. It’s renowned for its diverse food offerings, including a local favorite called pache.
Pache is an earthy meat dish that consists of a mix of sheep organs, including the brains, intestines, and tongue. I met a friendly pache vendor there who took a liking to me, feeding me handfuls of tender sheep tongue and intestines.
My guide Jafar and I also enjoyed a bowl of the savory innards with some sheep broth. I loved the tender meat—the cheek and tongue were especially great! You’re supposed to tear up pieces of bread and add it to the broth, which makes it even heartier! It’s the perfect dish to warm you up in Mosul, Iraq!
If sheep innards are a bit too extreme for you, never fear! Bab Al-Jadeed has many other food options better suited for Western palates. Another of my favorites was the array of kebabs sold along the street. I ordered a mix of liver, fat, kidney, and lamb kebabs with a platter of fresh vegetables and fruits, and sweet zabib juice.
I also had an delicious, sweet, and crispy Mosuli knafeh. The cheesy filling was creamy and fluffy on the inside. It also came doused in a generous amount of sugary syrup! Elsewhere, you can find a crispy pizza-like dish called lahm bi ajeen, made with ground lamb.
Elsewhere in Mosul, Iraq, you can find nutty pistachio halwa and traditional raisin juice. The mann al-sama is a doughy Iraqi taffy containing walnuts or pistachios. It’s great for when you have a sweet tooth!
Another popular market in Mosul, Iraq is the bustling Nabi Yanus Bazaar. This bazaar is the perfect place to enjoy a traditional Iraqi breakfast before exploring the city. We encountered friendly locals and drool-inducing dishes at every turn. The qeema (chickpea stew) with samoon bread was one of my favorites. The savory blend of curry powder, cumin, garlic, za’atar, and beef bone marrow perfectly balanced the tartness and sweetness of the pomegranate syrup they added.
Elsewhere in the market, I tried makhlama made with eggs, onions, tomatoes, and a mix of beef and intestines! There were also vendors offering lamb kebabs, falafel, fried eggplant chips, knafeh, chicken with rice and noodles, and more. The lamb kebabs with onions, tomatoes, and parsley were a major highlight for me.
The market is not only a place for food but also for unique finds! I met an older gentleman selling rings he had chained together. I even ran into a guy who was watching one of my YouTube videos!
You can’t visit Mosul without stopping by the Great Mosque of al-Nouri. Renowned for its leaning minaret, al-Hadba, it’s believed that the mosque dates back to the late 12th century. The mosque was destroyed during the Battle of Mosul in 2017, but has since undergone a massive reconstruction effort to return it to its former glory.
The reconstruction, supported by the United Nations, United Arab Emirates, and UNESCO, has uncovered a prayer hall and four additional rooms from the 12th century. It’s a great place to learn about Mosul’s rich historical heritage and the resilience of the city and its people!
As we continued exploring Mosul, Iraq, my guides told us about a local specialty we needed to try, called Kubba Mosul. This dish is a variation of kubba, a type of rice and potato fritter filled with meat. Also known as kibbeh, it’s extremely popular throughout the Levant. But Kubba Mosul is more of a pie, consisting of tender minced meat inside a flat, crispy crust.
To try it, we visited a restaurant inside a traditional house, complete with a central courtyard and separate dining areas. We enjoyed our Kubba Mosul with dolmas with pomegranate syrup, lamb stew, eggplant, fried chicken, biryani, fasolia, and more. But the Kubba Mosul was the standout with its crispy texture and flavorful lamb filling. I loved adding fresh parsley and tomatoes to add a refreshing element to it!
History is one of my passions. I crave knowledge about the past, and when in Mosul, history lovers should visit Bashtabiya Castle. Also known as Bash Tapia Castle, this historic landmark stands on the western bank of the Tigris River. It dates back to the 12th century, when it served as one of seven castles within Mosul’s city wall. Unfortunately, it was partially destroyed by ISIS in April 2015, but its ruins are still open to the public.
I have to stress that visiting the ruins can be unsafe. If you want to make your way up to the main part of the castle, you’ll have to navigate steep ruins, boulders, and precarious gaps. As an adventurous spirit myself, I couldn’t say no to channeling my inner Indiana Jones and leaping across the gaps in the walls. But I highly advise against it—don’t get hurt or worse trying to be an action hero!
You’ve probably seen shawarma before. Savory meat cooking on a vertical spit by a roaring fire, which allows the juices to run down into the meat as it cooks. In my opinion, it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures, and it’s easily one of the most popular dishes throughout the Middle East. But in Mosul, Iraq, my friends and I came across a friendly vendor preparing a massive chicken shawarma. But instead of vertical, it was horizontal!
The two-meter-long chicken shawarma popped and sizzled over hot coals. The cook fed me bits of it as I marveled at it. He served it with pomegranate syrup, ketchup, and potato salad. I also had the option of having it by itself or wrapping it in fresh flatbread and having it grilled. It was a delightful combination of savory, sweet, crispy, and fresh.
On the side, we had yellow rice, chicken shorba, hummus, noodles, and cabbage salad. But the highlight was undeniably the shawarma, which had a rich, smoky flavor from the charcoal underneath it. The hummus was silky and creamy, and blew my mind. It was beyond incredible and a highlight of my time in Mosul, Iraq!
During my time in Mosul, Iraq, I took a day trip to the town of Bahzani. Bahzani is home to four distinct religions, including Christianity and two sects of Islam. My exploration began at a distillery, where I saw the unique process of making a spirit called arak using ingredients including dates, nutmeg, anise, and fennel seeds.
Unlike grape-based versions, the arak produced here is date-based and is enjoyed by Christians, while Muslims abstain from alcohol. The production involves fermenting dates, followed by boiling and distillation, with a second distillation round incorporating the aromatic ingredients. The resulting product, Arak 007, is known for its potency and is typically diluted with 80% water. Referred to as “the milk of lions,” a bottle of this distinctive arak costs only $3 USD.
While in Bahzani, I visited a Yazidi temple. There, I learned about the ancient Yazidi religion, the oldest existing religion in Iraq. The temple’s intricate design and a remarkable black serpent carving left a lasting impression on me. I even saw local men hanging out in a cool cave and trying to climp up the steep rock faces!
During my visit to Bahzani, just east of Mosul, Iraq, I had the pleasure of experiencing the warm hospitality of a local man who hosted us for breakfast. The meal included fried eggs, homemade tahini, olives, cookies, and chai.
The combination of tahini with eggs, cheese, and yogurt was remarkable, and everything was homemade, which added to its deliciousness. I was particularly impressed by the freshness of the bread and the creaminess of the cheese and yogurt.
I also learned about their tradition of cooking food for the poor every Friday. They also have their own on-site tahini factory! They produced bottled tahini, date syrup, olive oil, and olive oil soap. I got to see the process of pressing sesame seeds into tahini and even sampled a fresh batch. There’s nothing quite like the nutty flavor of fresh tahini!
The factory’s operations involved cleaning and drying the sesame seeds before roasting them in vats. It was evident that their dedication to quality and tradition was integral to their production process. The experience gave me a deeper appreciation for the cultural significance of food and hospitality in the Mosul, Iraq area.
One of the more moving experiences I had in the towns outside of Mosul, Iraq, was my visit to Qaraqosh. This town is home to the Syriac Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception, a beautiful house of worship that stands as a testament to resilience and faith. Destroyed by ISIS, it was rebuilt, beginning in 2018. Pope Francis even visited in 2021 to hold a prayer there.
My guide through the church, Father Amar, shared that it is the largest church in Iraq. He told me that reconstruction finished just days before Pope Francis’ visit. The painstaking process included the restoration of damaged columns and the creation of stunning stained glass windows portraying Jesus’ life, crafted by a generous artist. The church also houses a poignant icon of the Virgin Mary gifted by the Pope.
While fully restored, remnants of the original damage, including a damaged corner and altar, have been preserved as powerful reminders. Notably, the chair used by Pope Francis during his visit stands as a cherished relic, bearing carved Aramaic script reading “I am the good shepherd.” It’s quite beautiful, and the time I spent there was one of the highlights of my time in Mosul, Iraq.
There’s no doubt about it—Mosul, Iraq was one of the most impactful cities on my itinerary. As was the case everywhere in Iraq, the people were kind and generous. That always makes a trip easier and more fun. But seeing their resilience in the wake of unimaginable hardship and terror is what truly moved me.
The twinkle in their eyes and their zest for life had been unbroken by the horrors of their recent past. They were rebuilding, stronger and better than ever. That alone brought tears to my eyes. But when you add a vibrant culture and mouthwatering food to the mix, it’s a truly special combination. Go visit Mosul, Iraq if you can. It may be one of the best things you ever do.