How to visit Karbala: Travel guide

Karbala Travel Guide


Visit Karbala

Karbala is an important city in Iraq, as it is one of the country’s holy cities, and more specifically for the world’s Shia Muslims. In this travel guide you will find information about accommodation, how to get there, how to visit the city and places to see in the surrounding area.

Spirit Travelers Iraq
© Tom – Spirit Travelers / My visit of Karbala


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Why visit Karbala

Karbala is a city you should include on your itinerary in Federal Iraq, as it is one of the country’s must-see destinations. This ancient city of Babylonian origin is home to the shrine of one of the 12 Imams of Shia Islam, Hussain (grandson of the Prophet Muhammad), as well as that of his half-brother, both of whom died there, killed by the Umayyad dynasty during the Battle of Karbala.

To this day, Karbala is a holy city for Shiites from all over the world, who go there by the thousands on pilgrimage. To visit Karbala is to be immersed in an atmosphere filled with fervour. If you’re interested in Iraqi and Muslim culture, then consider making a stop here. What’s more, Karbala is 45 km from Babylon, a major tourist destination in Iraq.

Places to visit in Karbala

1. Imam Hussein Mausoleum in Karbala

Imam Hussein Mausoleum in Karbala
© Tom – Spirit Travelers / The Imam Hussain shrine in Karbala is a place of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims

As mentioned above, visiting the shrine where Imam Hussain’s tomb is located is the main reason for visiting Karbala.

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Information to visit

For your visit to the sanctuary, it is essential to dress modestly if you are a man. This means “neutral” clothes and classic trousers. Shorts are not permitted. Women must wear a chador, which is easily obtained on site for the duration of the visit. There is no entry fee for non-Muslim foreigners.

2. The Abbas mausoleum

The mausoleum of Abu Abbas in Karbala
© Tom – Spirit Travelers / The mausoleum of Abu Abbas in Karbala

Abu Abbas is the half-brother of Imam Hussain and his shrine is just a few steps away from the latter, located in the same compound.

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2. Discover the Ashura celebration

Ashura à Karbala en Irak
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / An example of Ashura in Bahrain

Ashura is a Shia celebration commemorating the death of Imam Hussein. The faithful perform various ceremonies and processions during their mourning. Tatbir, a ritual practice practised by some members of the Shia community, involves flogging the body to share the Imam’s pain as a sign of absolute devotion. In Karbala, the faithful inflict a wound on the skull with a blade . In Iran and Afghanistan, it’s more likely to be the back, while in India, devotees slice open the skin on their backs with a long sword: this is the most extreme form I’ve seen, where Shiites literally walk in pools of blood. Tatbir only takes place on one day during Ashura, which lasts around 3 weeks.

For Sunnis, Ashoura marks the parting of the Red Sea by Moses and the salvation of the Israelites. It is celebrated with festivities and fasting. The dates of Ashura fall between July and August each year.

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3. Al Tar Caves

Al Tar Caves in Karbala
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / The caves of Al Tar are spectacular

30 km from Karbala

The caves of Al Tar are almost never mentioned in travel guides. However, this exceptional site is well worth a visit. Situated 30 kilometres from Karbala, Al Tar is an important archaeological site with many troglodyte tombs. To date, little is known about the enigmatic civilisation that built these caves and the tombs they contain, but a Japanese excavation and study in 1975 revealed many things, including the dating of artefacts and pieces of pottery from several periods:

  • Medio-Assyrian (1000 BC)
  • Neo-Babylonian (600 BC)
  • Abbasid (800 AD)

The site has long been in danger of being demolished to make way for residential development. Don’t miss it if you get the chance. Find the results of the Japanese excavations in a PDF document in the link below. Finally, what could be described as a desecration excavation, but the studies are still fascinating:

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🔎 Documents about the excavations in 1975

4. Ruins of the Al-Aqiser church

Al Aqiser church in ruins near Karbala
Photo credit: Mohammed Sawaf / Unfortunately, the ruins of the Al-Aqiser church threaten to collapse at any moment

56 km from Karbala

Al-Aqiser is an archaeological site of great importance located in Ayn al-Tamr, in the Governorate of Karbala. The church is known to be one of the oldest in the East. It was frequented by Chaldeans (of the Catholic Church). The site is in a critical state of deterioration and unattended.

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5. Al-Ukhaidir Fortress

Visit the fortress of Al-Ukhaidir
Photo credit: Mohammed Sawaf / Al-Ukhaidir fortress in the Karbala governorate

Entry fee: 25 000 IQD
49 km from Karbala

The fortress of Al-Ukhaidir is an Abbasid palace and a notable historical site in Iraq located in the governorate of Karbala, 49 kilometres from its capital. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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5. The ruins of Babylon near Karbala

Babylon Travel Guide
Tom – Spirit Travelers / Located just a few dozen kilometres from Karbala, Babylon is a place not to be missed in Iraq.

Entry fee: 25 000 IQD
50 km from Karbala

Babylon is one of Iraq’s most important historical sites. It is a must-see for every traveller to the country. The ruins are located on the outskirts of the city of Hillah, the capital of the province of Babylon, around 50 kilometres from Karbala.

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🔎 Babylon Travel Guide

How to get to Karbala

How to get to Karbala from Baghdad

From Baghdad, go to the Alawi bus station. From here you can easily find a shared taxi to Karbala. The fare is 10,000 IQD per person. When I went there, several taxis for this destination were parked opposite the bus station compound, on the other side of the road.

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How to get to Karbala from Najaf

From Najaf bus station, you can take a shared taxi which costs between 7,500 and 8,000 IQD for about an hour’s drive.

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Where to stay in Karbala

There are lots of hotels all around the Imam Hussain shrine. I didn’t book anything in advance and looked directly on the spot. Many of them were fully booked and I had to do several, but it didn’t take me long to find one. However, you should definitely book accommodation in advance if you plan to visit the holy city during a special period such as Ramadan, Eid, Ashura or Arba’in.

Single rooms are generally available from 30,000 IQD, but you can find them for 20,000 if you look hard enough if you’re travelling on a tighter budget.

How to travel to Iraq

Find a complete travel guide for visiting Iraq on your own. You’ll find all the information you need to make your stay in the country as easy as possible:

Must see places – formalities – visas – safety – getting around – where to stay (…)

🔎 Iraq Travel Guide

Visit other places in Iraq

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About the author

Picture of Tom Spirit
Tom Spirit
Hey, it's Tom! Welcolme to Spirit Travelers. I'm a nomad traveler for several years and I share my experiences by publishing content and travel guides on this blog. Find some of the most popular countries to visit but also off the beaten track destinations.

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