When you think of Iraq you may well think of smoky battlefields, cruise missiles, and charging tanks. Years of conflict have besieged this country, and while Iraq continues to struggle with political strife, there is much to see here other than just the scars of war. This country is one that is covered in natural beauty, such as the winding waterways of the mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is often known as the Cradle of Civilization and this is a reference to its ancient Mesopotamian cities that are famed for their innovations in science, writing, literature, medicine, theology and law.
This is also the old home of Babylonia which used to be the stomping ground of Alexander the Great. Mysterious towns like Ur mix with Ottoman relics and famous mosques along the borders and you will also find stunning canyons that carve out large crescents in the fertile plains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Iraq:
The 7,000 year old citadel of Erbil has an illustrious history and can be compared to other greats like Cadiz and Byblos.
The massive castle in the center of the city is the great highlight here, and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other places not to miss include the Erbil Civilization Museum and the Kurdish Textile Center which are a great way to find out all about the history and culture of this amazing part of the world.
Ur is known for its Biblical tales of epic floods and fearsome Babylonian kings, and is also known for one of the most beautiful ancient ruins in the region.
Located in the southern Iraqi deserts, Ur is the home of the Ziggurat, a tall structure with high walls and steep staircases that would have been used in the days of old to worship the Akkadian moon gods.
Certainly this is one of the oddest and most mysterious sights in Iraq.
It goes without saying that the city of Baghdad has suffered in recent times due to incessant bombing and attacks by insurgent groups.
To enter the Green Zone of the city you will need to get a special permit, but there is hope that one day soon people will be able to visit this city once more.
When they do, they will find copper bazaars, Assyrian treasures in the National Museum, and monuments such as the Unknown Soldier.
Many people know the name Basra as it was the location for one of the most pivotal battles that happened during the Iraq War.
If you scratch below the surface of this city, however, and you will find one of the most fascinating destinations in the entire country.
The area is covered in palm forests and the city sits on the Shatt al-Arab River which is lined by the sunny Corniche al-Basra where you can walk along and enjoy the cool evening breeze.
This is also the spot where you will find some of the most famous shrines of Islam’s first imams.
This town may not sound like much but it is actually the place where 30 million pilgrims make their way every year.
The area is sacred to Shiite Muslims because of the Imam Husayn Shrine which is the final resting place of the martyr Husayn ibn Ali who died in 680 AD during the Battle of Karbala.
It is also said to be the spot that the archangel Gabriel prescribed as one of the most sacred places on earth.
As such, every year this town sees thousands of devotees arrive for the Ashura Day of Atonement.
Sitting in the dusty deserts of western Iraq are the towering columns and ornate temples of Hatra.
As a result, this place is known as one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the entire country.
Here you will get to glimpse wonders of the Parthian age at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, although in recent years some of this area has been destroyed and it remains to be seen how much of Hatra is still intact.
The ancient abandoned ruins of Dur-Kurigalzu date back 3,500 years and this part of Iraq used to be the heart of the Cradle of Civilization of southern Mesopotamia.
Close to the mighty Euphrates and Tigris rivers, this was the home of the Kassite kings of old who built the Ziggurat in the 14th century.
This can still be found here in the form of striking stonework and mud-brick walls that rise into high towers above the desert and this would also have been used as a marker for camel caravans en route to Baghdad.
This is one of the most welcoming and relaxed cities in Iraq and is deemed safe to visit by some foreign governments.
Sulaymaniyah is located on the rugged mountains in northern Iraq and has a cool climate compared with many other cities in the country.
It also has a thriving arts scene and is famous for its wealth of delicious eateries where you can enjoy toothsome spiced kofta as well as biryani and an array of other delicacies.
If you want to take in the oases towns and valleys of the Goyija and Azmer ranges then this is also a great place to base yourself before venturing further afield.
The name Babylon conjured up images of ancient empires, hanging gardens, and epic battles between Alexander the Great and Persian kings.
It is fair to say that restoration and preservation have rather taken a back seat here in recent times, but you can still take in some of the majestic castles here as well as the vast remains of Homera.
As you explore Babylon, know that you are walking in the footsteps of great emperors of this part of the world, and you can marvel at artifacts such as gracefully crumbling lion statues and imagine how the Hanging Gardens of Babylon would once have looked.
15 Best Places to Visit in Iraq
In the middle of the 4th century BC, Ctesiphon was a small Persian settlement on the banks of the limpid Tigris River.
In the 1st century AD however it became the Parthian capital and grew to include the city of Seleucia.
This meant that Ctesiphon became one of the biggest cities in the region by the 7th century and this is where the Arch of Ctesiphon was built.
Also known as the Taq Kasra, this is a Sassanid dome that is one of the largest of its kind in the world and one of the most important archeological sites in the region.
Unfortunately the name Mosul has become synonymous with some of the worst destruction in Iraq to date.
For several years the town had been under the control of insurgents and it is now a battleground for the Iraqi military forces.
The hope is that Mosul will soon be liberated and that this city that has over 2,000 years of rich history will once again be a place that people can visit.
There are some truly amazing sights to be seen here including the crumbling ruins of the Umayyad Mosque that dates from 640 AD as well as the cobalt-blue marble work of the Yahya Abdul Kassem Mashad.
The Kurdish town of Dahuk sits in a small dusty valley in northern Iraq and is just a short bus journey from the Turkish border.
This means that this is one of the easiest places to visit in Iraq and perhaps for this reason it also has a reputation for being one of the friendliest and most welcoming.
The town has a wealth of cafes and teahouses and as this is the home of the University of Dahuk there is a strong university town atmosphere here.
There are babbling waterfalls located nearby as well as colorful Kurdish marketplaces where you can buy local products like spices and carpets.
Kirkuk straddles Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country proper and is also famous for its rich oil supply.
This means that this part of Iraq has seen a lot of violence and turmoil, and some of its main sights are all things that allude to its tragic past.
These include its vast, smoldering oil fields located at Baba Gurgur, as well as ancient citadels which are now crumbling from neglect and the scars of prolonged battles.
This used to be the Biblical epicenter of the Assyrian Empire and was made famous by the prophet Jonah, making this an important spot in theological history.
Unfortunately much of this city has been ransacked over the years, but you will still find beautiful ruins such as Kuyunjik as well as some ancient gates of the city.
Zakho is a border town nestled close to Turkey and for this reason it has a clutch of good restaurants and hotels and is one of the most accessible places in Iraq.
It is also said to be the original spot where Christian missionaries first settled in the country and some of its highlights include the pretty Delal Bridge that stretches over the Little Khabur as well as the haunting ruins of Zakho Castle.