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The Ultimate Guide for Your Tour to Basra, Iraq

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1 month ago

The home of the legendary Sinbad the Sailor, I find the vibrant streets of Basra to be something straight out of an Arabian nights story. Set on the grand (yet extremely calm) Shatt al-Arab river, Basra is the gateway for your tour in southern Iraq.

Whether you are spending a few days in Basra en route to Kuwait, or beginning your tour to Iraq in Basra before heading north towards Mosul and Kurdistan, you may find yourself with some time to spare in Iraq’s third-largest city. If you are planning a longer trip to Iraq, you will want to make sure you have read our comprehensive guide with everything you need to know before visiting Iraq.

shanasheel architecture of basra - one of the best cities for architecture in the middle east
Basra’s world heritage shanasheel architecture makes it one of our favorite cities for architecture in the Middle East

In this ultimate guide, I’ll share some of my favorite things to do in Basra and the best places to try Iraqi traditional food in the city.

Where to stay in Basra

I love being within walking distance to the Basra corniche. After a long day of sightseeing, there’s nothing like stretching your legs on the Basra shoreline. So, for me, the Zenat el-Hayet is the obvious choice. But if you are looking for something a little fancier, the Grand Millennium is unquestionably the best hotel in Basra and an excellent hotel (even by international standards).

friendly iraqi man on Basra corniche
Basra corniche is an ideal spot for an evening walk

Top Things to Do in Basra

5. Admire the original minaret at the Khatwa Imam Ali Mosque

The Khatwa Imam Ali mosque is a little out of the center (about a 20 minute drive or so). While the mosque itself may be less impressive than others in Iraq, it’s far more important for its historical significance.

Khatwa Imam Ali Mosque with palm trees in basra iraq

This mosque is often cited as the third oldest mosque in the world, after only Mecca and Medina (which non-Muslims cannot visit). Islamic armies came to the Basra region about 57 years after the Prophet Muhammad. It was from here that Islam was brought to Iraq.

original minaret of Khatwa Imam Ali Mosque mud brick basra iraq tour to

This area is the original old Basra, but around the 11th century (during the Mongol invasion) the local population moved from here to the area we know today as Basra. Today, you can see the ruins of the original minaret. The newer mosque next door is also extremely photogenic with a huge grand chandelier.

chandelier mosque ceiling islamic calligraphy Khatwa Imam Ali Mosque tour to iraq basra

4. Enjoy a boat ride on Shatt al-Arab

The Shatt al-Arab is the combined great rivers of Iraq: the Euphrates and Tigris. You can easily arrange a boat at the pier by the Basra corniche. Tell the driver you want to take a look up to Saddam Hussein’s Palace.

boat driver shatt al arab with boat in traditioanl iraqi clothes in basra

Saddam Hussein always built multiple palaces in one city, so you never knew which one he was sleeping in.

As your captain takes you by his palace complex, you should be able to count five palaces in the complex.

close up. of boat details with shatt al arab river

I always recommend doing this trip just before sunset, when the hot Basra days give way to the most beautiful sky of oranges and purples. Make sure you are positioned for those perfect photos with Basra’s iconic Italian bridge.

view of italian bridge architecture in basra
The best views of the Italian Bridge are taken from underneath

3. Drink Caramel Coffee

Iraq is home to some of the most unique drinks in the Middle East. And without a doubt, caramel coffee is my favorite one! The only way to describe this drink is a thick mixture of caramel, coffee and condensed milk, all topped with fresh chocolate crumbs, walnuts and pistachio.

caramel coffee in basra with chopped pistachios

For the best caramel coffee in Basra (and perhaps even all of Iraq), find Bayet 8 on the Basra Cornice. The cart often moves around, but you can usually find them at this location.

After tasting caramel coffee around Iraq, I stand by my call that Bayet 8 is the best in the country. With a not-too-watery, not-too-thick consistency and a generous topping selection of mixed hazelnuts, walnuts and chocolate crumbs!

2. Experience the sights and smells of the Fish and Bird Market

Set away from the main market of Basra (which in my opinion is a little less exciting), the Fish and Bird Market is a bustling hub of activity and a brief insight into the everyday life of Basra’s citizens.

basra fish market
Friendly faces at the Basra Fish Market

Local tip: As with all good markets, you want to make sure you get here in the morning, preferably before 2 pm.

scene of basra fish market fresh fish

The fish market is not for the faint hearted, with flies, fish glug (what else do I call it?) and scales coming at you in every direction. But, in my opinion, this is one of the most interesting fish markets in Iraq, with both river fish (from the Tigris and Euphrates) and sea fish (from the Persian gulf).

You can find the entrance to the fish market on Bashar bin Burd street.

iraqi boy selling chicken in basra fish market

The nearby bird market is particularly atmospheric, with colorful parrots and native Basra birds for sale.

bird cages for sale in basra during tour to iraq

1. Marvel at Basra’s shanasheel architecture

In my opinion, Basra is one of the best cities for architecture in the Middle East. Old Basra is famous for its collection of shanasheel architecture: an immaculate style characterised by carved wooden window screens and balconies. The shanasheel, as they are known, lets the cool air in, but provides a degree of privacy and shade from the Basra sun.

basra unesco world heritage architecture wooden balcony with design

The area of Old Basra was historically a mixed Christian, Jewish and Muslim area. Basra’s Jews fled in the early 1950s, and the neighborhood saw a Christian exodus after the fall of Saddam. Today, the easiest way to identify former Christian and Jewish homes is by the balconies.

While Islamic gender norms required closed or private balconies (for women to sit behind), the Christian and Jewish homes had open balconies.

saddam hussein palace in basra
You can also see shanasheel architecture in more contemporary buildings around Basra

Basra is often considered the birthplace of shanasheel.

But if you have traveled elsewhere in the Middle East, you will recognize this style everywhere from Morocco to Syria.

heritage home in basra iraq with antiques and ceiling hangings

As you explore the alleyways of Old Basra, pay a visit to the Al Hassoun Museum and restaurant. This is one of a handful of restored shanasheel homes, beautifully decorated with the owner’s collection of Iraqi antiques.

shanasheel architecture in basra iraq - one of the best cities for architecture

Top Places to Eat in Basra

1. Al Hassun Restaurant

Basra is responsible for over 60% of Iraq’s oil wealth, so there is no surprise that Basra is home to some of Iraq’s most glamorous restaurants. You enter Al Hassun Restaurant via a beautiful runway which feels something akin to entering a Lebanese drama TV set.

iraqi lebanese food mezze bread

Al Hassun offers an extensive menu with the standard selection of meats, rice, mezze, as well as pizza and pasta for those looking for a change from Middle Eastern food.

I recommend muhammara, the classic Lebanese mezze of ground grilled capsicum and walnuts. I know it’s only a mezze, but I just love the consistency of Al Hassun’s muhammara with a slightly spicy tinge.

copper coffee cups arab

2. Bait Al Kul Restaurant

Bait Al Kul could be the ‘fanciest’ restaurant I have ever eaten at in Iraq.

fancy restaurant iraq basra bait al kul

Your meal experience starts with some iconic free appetisers, including boiled almonds served in a bed of fresh ice. The menu consists of the usual array of meats, rice and mezze on offer. I always order the trio of hummus and the raqaqat jibneh (cheese cigars).

mezze platter at fancy restaurant basra iraq

Travel tip: If you are visiting with a big group you will want to reserve ahead – Bait Al Kul gets very busy!

eggplant fatteh levantine food best restaurant baghdad iraq yoghurt

I recommend the fatteh betenjen. It’s one of my favorite Syrian dishes which Bait Al Kul make to perfection. Crunchy pieces of fried pita and soft fried eggplant sit in a bowl of fresh yoghurt, all garnished with slivered almonds and hearty olive oil.

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