BAGHDAD (Reuters Life!) - Home to what many call the Cradle of Civilization, and whose capital was later immortalized for its splendor and sensuality in tales of the “Arabian Nights,” Iraq has millennia of rich history to offer tourists.
But while violence is down to lows not seen since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, insurgents are still capable of launching attacks, making Iraq a highly dangerous destination for all but the most adventurous of tourists.
In March, Iraq actually received its first group of Western tourists since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but in August, attacks across the country and in Baghdad killed some 393 people in one of the bloodiest months of the year.
If the violence dies down and security improves, tourists with a keen interest in the Middle East would find Mesopotamia, the old Greek name meaning the “Land of the two Rivers” for what is now Iraq, a fascinating place to visit.
Below, a Reuters correspondent with local knowledge helps you make the most of your stay. If you don’t speak Arabic, it would be ideal to travel with an English-speaking Iraqi driver who has local knowledge of the security situation.
Women should dress conservatively generally, and on some occasions, especially when visiting religious sites, will need to wear a headscarf.
Noon - Once the capital of a medieval caliphate, Baghdad has been home to many notable Arab poets and novelists. Pay them homage by visiting the book market, open every Friday, on al-Mutanabi Street, named after a renowned 10th century poet.
The Ottoman-era street was once the center of Baghdad’s rich intellectual life. Hunt for literary treasures in the maze of bookstores.
2 p.m. - Take a break from book shopping to drink syrupy sweet Iraqi tea and smoke a fruity waterpipe, or “narguileh,” at Gahwet Al-Shabandar, a haven for Iraq’s intellectuals.
5 p.m. - For some colonial history, head to the Bab al-Shorji district near the Armenian cemetery where the “Queen of Baghdad,” Gertrude Bell, is buried.
Appointed as Oriental Secretary, the British traveler, writer and linguist was credited with drawing the boundaries of modern Iraq after the Ottoman Empire’s fall at the end of World War One. She died in 1926.
7 p.m. - Back in the capital, head to any one of many restaurants in the central upscale Karrada district in Baghdad for a dinner of quzi, a traditional Iraqi dish of stuffed roast lamb and rice.
9 p.m. - Visit The Bridge of the Imams, which connects the Adhamiya and Khadhimiya neighborhoods of Baghdad, named for the medieval Sunni and Shi’ite holy men whose landmark shrines lie on opposite sides of the Tigris. Visit the Khadhimiya shrine and the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya, hugely symbolic religious sites in Baghdad.
The bridge reopened with great fanfare in late 2008 after rumors of a suicide bombing in 2005 caused thousands of Shi’ites crossing the bridge for a pilgrimage to panic, triggering a stamped that killed 1,000 people.
9 a.m. - Visit the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon, the home of the Hanging Gardens, one of the original wonders of the ancient world.
Though its treasures have been plundered by looters and European imperial powers long ago and U.S. troops and coalition armies have parked tanks on the site, there are still some ruins remaining.
Officials are working on preserving Babylon, a place that gave birth to milestones of civilization like agriculture, writing, codified law, and the wheel.
10 a.m. - While you’re taking in the ruins, take a tour of a palace that Saddam Hussein built in 1988 that sits on a man-made hill overlooking the ancient city. The ostentatious palace boasts marble halls, views of the Euphrates river and carved wall panels. Many parts of it have been neglected because of the war, but its guest house is receiving guests and the gardens have been well-kept. Rooms can cost up to $170 a night.
1 p.m. - Back in Baghdad, head to the upscale al-Mansour district in western Baghdad for lunch at Zarzour restaurant, which specializes in Iraqi kebab.
3 p.m. - Head down to Shorja Market, the largest outdoor market in Baghdad, famous for selling a large array of Indian spices, ceramics and craftware souvenirs. Also popular is traditional Arabian garb with intricate hand-stitching.
Nearby, is the “Copper Market,” selling a wide variety of copperware - trays, bowls and water vessels. Note that you’ll pass by al-Rasheed Street on your way to the market, one of the oldest streets of Baghdad.
5 p.m. - Take a stroll down the eucalyptus tree-lined Abu Nawas street, named after a famous 8th century poet of Persian and Arab descent. The street, overlooking the River Tigris, is lined with fish restaurants, nightclubs and a park.
8 p.m. - Choose one of many riverside restaurants on Abu Nawas street serving Iraq’s contribution to the culinary world, mazgouf, a traditional carp dish roasted over a wood fire.
8 a.m. - Pay a visit to the Askari shrine in Samarra, about an hour’s drive north of Baghdad.
The bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, also known as the Golden Mosque, in February 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq that has only abated in the last 18 months. Extensive work has been done to restore the mosque.
The mosque was built in 944 and is one of Iraq’s four holiest Shi’ite shrines. The dome of the sanctuary was completed in 1905 and had been covered by 72,000 golden pieces.
Also nearby is the spiral minaret known as the “malwiya,” one of Samarra’s most distinctive features dating back to the Abbasid caliphate.
12 p.m. - Back in Baghdad, visit Zawraa park in the city center, which has emerged as one of the most popular places for Iraqi families to meet and lovers to date. The Baghdad Zoo is there and so is a relatively modern amusement park. Rent a boat and paddle across a man-made lake, perfect for watching Iraqis’ lives unfold normally once again.
Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas and Suadad al-Salhy, editing by Paul Casciato