Iraqi Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region between Iran and Turkey. The region has its own government, the Kurdish Regional Government. The city Erbil is known to be their unofficial capital, which I visited in December 2018. When flying to Erbil from Turkey, you’ll be able to see the natural border between Iraq and Turkey.
The visa policy is different in Kurdistan region compared to the rest of Iraq. A lot of nationalities are allowed a free visa-on-arrival at Erbil Airport for 30 days. You’ll be able to visit a large part of Iraq that is ruled by the Kurdish Regional Government. The official Iraqi visa, which allows you to go to Mosul and Baghdad, is known to be very expensive and difficult to obtain from the embassy. This article will only discuss my trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, which I visited with a visa-on-arrival.
Countries that are entitled to the Iraqi Kurdistan visa on arrival (Source: Wikipedia)
While some parts in Iraq might not be safe to visit, the situation in Kurdistan is fairly safe. However, I do advise you to check the latest news before going because the safety level might change. The strong presence of Peshmarga forces in Kurdistan keeps the region as safe as possible. Mosul is possible to visit if you get the right paperwork done but is less safe because of the presence of sleeper cells.
I felt completely safe travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan. You’ll encounter a few checkpoints during your travels, but everyone is very welcoming and friendly.
Where to sleep
Kurdish people are very hospitable. You might be interested to use Couchsurfing to meet people and stay at their place. If you prefer a hotel, you can find many of them on Booking.com. I stayed at Erbil View Hotel, which was recommended by a friend as it has a nice view of Erbil. On top of that, it is right in front of a mosque, so you’ll have a wake-up call in the morning.
How to get around
Kurdistan has a beautiful nature and culture you would want to discover. As those places are fairly remote, you can get a tour guide to get you around. Erbil is perfectly do-able independently. If you need to do long distances in Erbil, I’d recommend taking a taxi. I advise you to bring screenshots with you because most taxi drivers hardly speak any English. I had a hard time to explain where I wanted to go. I guess I did not learn my lesson in China, hah!
If you are looking for a guide, I would like to recommend Haval Qaraman. I contacted him on Facebook just to arrange the tour. You can tell him what you’d like to visit and he will arrange it. On top of that, he is an amazing guy who knows his country by heart and loves his own culture. On the photo below, you can see me and Haval at one of the many beautiful Canyons in Kurdistan. This is not a paid advertisement. He has a lot of positive reviews because he is so passionate about his job. If you prefer to cut the costs, you can share the tour. I shared the tour with another travel blogger, Krystal Kelly.
Currency and money situation
The currency in Kurdistan is Iraqi Dinars. ATMs are not reliable. Your best bet is to take an international strong currency. You can easily exchange from British Pounds (GBP), US Dollars (USD) and Euro’s (EUR). The average cost for a good hotel is 40 to 60 euro. The food is very cheap, except if you eat at your hotel. Hiring a driver costs about 120 to 150 euro a day, depending on the driver and the car.
Things to do
Sightseeing in Erbil
- Visit the Citadel of Erbil
Wander around the UNESCO World Heritage Citadel of Erbil which is 6500 years old and has amazing sunset views.
The citadel is next to Erbil’s main square. You’ll have a nice view from the citadel on the square.
- Shop in the souqs
Erbil is full of shops. Make sure you stroll around the souqs to spot Currency Exchange offices, traditional products, local drinks and local food!
- Visit a (nargile) bar/café
Kurdistan without tea wouldn’t be Kurdistan. Kurdish people love to drink tea and coffee. Make sure you visit a traditional tea/coffee bar.
- Try the local food in restaurants
The Middle East is famous for its lovely food. Mezze is a great way to share small portions of different types of food. Kebab is great for a quick bite. I love the food and every time I make the same mistake of starting to eat without taking a picture, hence why some photos are with half plates.
- Look for the “I Love Erbil” sign
Visit the Holy Site of Lalish
Lalish is a small mountain village in Northern Iraq and contains the holiest temple for Yazidis. It is a very interesting place to visit and to get to know more about the Yazidi faith. Follow the rules to respect the holy place. You’ll have to walk barefoot inside the temple.
Visit one of the Sadam Palaces or other Urban Exploring spots
As most of the palaces of Saddam are destroyed or abandoned, it is an interesting place to visit, especially if you like urban exploring. My guide brought me to one in the Gara mountains with a spectacular mountain view and another one in the town Qaddish, where a lot of excavation occurred to find a treasure of gold, hidden by Saddam. Keep in mind that there are still some mines.
If you haven’t had enough of urbexing at the Saddam Palaces, you can ask your guide to bring you to other abandoned locations. One of the coolest abandoned spots is a hotel close to Amedi village.
I saw many gas flares from the roads, as the oil business is currently booming in the whole country.
Walk around in Amedi Village
Amedi Village is a nice place to stroll around. One of the must-sees in Amedi is the citadel with the Badinan gate. The citadel and the gate were built during the Bahdinan Emirate (14th to 19th century). This is the period when Amedi became a village where Muslims, Jews and Christians could live next to each other in peace. The gate is also called the Mosul gate.
Visit beautiful monasteries near Mosul
Two monasteries you should definitely visit are Mar Mattai Monastery and Rabban Hormizd Monastery. Mar Mattai Monastery is recognized as the oldest Christian monasteries in existence! It is located in Mesopotamia.
Embrace the beautiful nature in Kurdistan
Kurdistan is full of wonderful natural places. It is full of green canyons, rivers and waterfalls. Floods can happen during wintertime, but this should not stop you to go. The waterfalls are visibly bigger during the winter. My favourite places are by far Bekhal Waterfall and Rawandoz Canyon. The rain can also be fun in Kurdistan though!
Visit the Red Prison Museum in Sulaymaniyah
Amra Suraka or the Red Prison was a prison that was used to torture and kill thousands of Kurds. It is very sad to see the details of such a genocide. The prison is completely intact and you can see how the prison cells used to be.
I was very sick for the last two days in Kurdistan due to food poisoning so I just walked there like a zombie, not even being able to bring up the energy for taking a photo. I recommend you to read more about the museum on AtlasObscura.
My video on YouTube