In September 2019 I decided to travel to Kurdistan as part of my big trip through the Middle East. After my trip to Syria and visiting Lebanon and Jordan flying to Erbil, Iraq was a perfect stop on my itinerary, although I flew through Istanbul. In this Kurdistan blog I will tell you all about my experiences traveling to Kurdistan, Iraq.
Surely I could understand all the questions when I said I was going to visit Kurdistan Iraq. Most Westerns think Iraq is one of the most unsafe places to travel, but I already knew for quite a while that a trip to Kurdistan was not really risky or dangerous. I guess going off the beaten path is in my nature and traveling to these kind of destinations makes me excited.
In this Kurdistan travel blog I will give you as many travel tips as possible and also show you the best things to do and places to see, some background information and some accommodation tips. Find it all in this complete Kurdistan travel guide.
1. Is it safe to travel to Kurdistan Iraq
From my experiences is a trip to Kurdistan completely safe. Keep in mind that things can change overnight as this still is a conflict area. Although over the last years the Autonomous region of Kurdistan has been doing an amazing job to make Kurdistan safe for travelers.
The Kurdistan Tourism Board claims that in the first 6 months of 2018 over 1.3 million tourists had been traveling to Kurdistan, most of them being Iraqis.
My experiences traveling Kurdistan were very laid-back so when you ask me if it is safe to travel to Kurdistan, I say: YES! The first couple days I spent in Erbil and felt completely safe. A laid-back city to roam around in. The city center is filled with friendly locals and in the Ankawa district you can go out till late and walk home safely. Erbil is safe in 2020!
When you visit Kurdistan there is no need to worry about anything getting stolen. Kurdistan sees very little crime. You can leave your phone and bag on the table while you order locals say. I would personally never do that, but according to locals it is common to do and nothing ever happens.
I also rented a car and went on a 4-day road trip. Roads are actually pretty ok, but definitely watch out for unexpected speed bumps and so now and then some potholes on less maintained roads. I drove around Northwest Kurdistan but avoided Mosul. I did not come across any problems or unsafe situations whatsoever on my road trip. Language barriers are real though, but people are very friendly and super helpful. When traveling to Kurdistan a road trip if one of the best things to do.
The last 3 days I decided to travel to Sulaymaniyah, the shared taxi was pretty convenient and as I was hosted by a local in Sulaymaniyah I even got to see the city from a locals perspective. Not a single time did I feel unsafe or uncomfortable.
2. Kurdistan Iraq history
It is quite impossible to write in brief about the Kurdistan Iraq history in this travel blog. This region of the world has been fought over since the days of Karel the Great and still is a place of conflict until today. Kurdistan has had an extremely turbulent past and only in the last 30 years already they had to deal with a genocide, war against the Saddam regime, multiple humanitarian crises, fighting for independency and only recently the war against ISIS of course.
In this blog I want to focus on Kurdistan travel tips rather than its turbulent history. Though one of the best things to do in Kurdistan is to visit the Amna Suraka Museum in Sulaymaniyah. Definitely don’t miss this when traveling to Kurdistan Iraq. It is an amazing history lesson!
3. Do I need a visa to travel to Kurdistan
Most Western countries can visit Kurdistan Iraq visa free. Your passport will get stamped and you are allowed to stay up to 30 days. This only counts for the autonomous region of Kurdistan, you are NOT allowed to travel to Iraq.
4. Is Kurdistan a real country
Kurdistan is NOT an official country! Kurdish people are considered the biggest ethnic group in the world without their own country. They are spread over 4 countries: Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Only in Iraq Kurdistan is considered an autonomous region. In Iran, Turkey and Syria Kurds don’t have a special status.
Kurdistan became an autonomous region within Iraq since 1998 and this status was reconfirmed in the Iraqi constitution in 2005.
5. Language in Kurdistan
The official language spoken in Kurdistan is Kurdish. It is related to Turkish and Farsi (Iran) and therefore many Kurds also speak Turkish. Most of them also understand/speak Arabic, but do rather not use the Arabic language.
Kurds and Arabs are not each others best friends, but live in peace together nowadays… let’s put it that way!
When traveling to Kurdistan you may want to download a translate app or use Google Translator as most local people don’t speak English at all. In touristy places, hotels, restaurants there is always someone that speaks good English though. The younger generation speaks pretty ok English.
Watch all of my daily videos of my trip to Kurdistan on my Instagram highlights.
6. Religion in Kurdistan
The majority of the Kurdish people are Sunni Muslims, like in Saoudi Arabia. That said it felt like Kurdistan was pretty liberal and not that conservative as in other places in the Middle East. There are also some minorities like Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians.
Steets will mostly be filled with men and you won't see that many women out on their own. In Sulaymaniyah things are changing slowly though and you see women out and about on the streeets. I know you are wondering... No you don't need to wear a head scarf as a woman!
7. Weather in Kurdistan
Be prepared for extreme temperatures when traveling to Kurdistan in summer. It can get up to 50 degrees celsius in July and August. Winters are short but cold and snowfall in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah occurs from time to time. The mountains see a lot of snow every winter.
8. Best time to travel to Kurdistan Iraq
The best time to visit Kurdistan is in spring and autumn when temperatures are moderate. Best months are March and April when the countryside is green and heavenly with waterfalls all around. October and November sees great weather with clear blue skies guaranteed.
When I was visiting in mid September it was still 35+ degrees (95+), nights were pretty nice with 22 degrees (71). Pretty damn hot during the day though so visiting the more mountainous areas was the best thing to do in Kurdistan at that time.
9. Money in Kurdistan
The local currency is the same as in Iraq: the Iraqi Dinar (IQD). The Iraqi Dinar has been very stable in the last 5 years and the going rate is around $1 USD = 1,200 IQD. It is wisely to bring at least some cash money as there are exchange offices everywhere and they charge only a small fee.
10. ATM’s in Kurdistan
International ATM’s are not common, so bringing some cash when traveling to Kurdistan is advisable. The cash machines at Erbil International Airport weren’t working on my arrival so again bring cash to exchange. Later I found a good working cash machine for Visa and MasterCard at Nobel Hotel in Ankawa.
Most ATM’s don’t accept international bank cards. Those who do sometimes limit the amount to $50,000 ($42). Pretty annoying as in my case I get charged $5 per transaction from my bank! This happened to me at Byblos Bank and therefore I would suggest you to not use that one.
11. Credit cards in Kurdistan
Most of the places I have been didn’t accept international credit cards. The car rental company did. I rented a car from Europecar and they accepted a credit card.
12. Buying a sim card in Kurdistan
Upon arrival at Erbil Airport you will find 4 shops selling sim cards straight away Korek, Asiacell, Zain and Fastlink. It is pretty simple to determine the best prepaid Kurdistan sim card for tourists as only Fastlink can offer you a 4G connections. Unforunately Korek, Asiacell and Zain only offer 3G and I can tell you that is not what you want in a modern age.
Buying a sim card at Erbil Airport is slightly more expensive, but easy, quick and convenient. However Fastlink is not open at night! :(
The downside of Fastlink is that it only works for internet so you can’t call or text. However I never do that anyway, so for me this Kurdistan sim card was the best one anyway. As I needed to buy a sim card in Erbil anyway to find to best deal for Fastlink Kurdistan I shopped around. There are uncountable phone shops but they offer different value.
A Fastnet sim card costs 10,000 IQD ($8.5) and I found a mobile phone shop that gave me 18 GB for 15,000 IQD ($12.5). Amazing deal and it worked absolutely amazing, 4G around the whole country.
13. Prices in Kurdistan
Traveling in Kurdistan is not super cheap. Budget hotels start from $30 per night and getting around is not cheap either. As there is no public transport, taxis are the way to go. Restaurants in Erbil charge around $6 for breakfast and lunch, dinner is around $8-$10 per person. A beer in a restaurant is around $2-$3, a cocktail or mix drink around $5.
When backpacking Kurdistan you will probably like to go to the cheaper local restaurants where you can already find shawarma and kebabs for $1. But you can also find skybars in Erbil where a beer is $7, but these places are rare.
14. Drinking alcohol in Kurdistan, Iraq
Since Kurdistan is predominately Muslim, most places in Kurdistan don’t serve alcohol, but especially in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah it is super easy to find alcohol and to get drunk.
In Erbil you will need to go to Ankawa, the Christian Quarter. Here you will find multiple liquor stores and also restaurants that serve alcohol. Beers in a liquor store cost $1 (Corona, Heineken, Efes, etc.). International hotels often have a license to sell alcohol as well, but are expensive.
In Sulaymaniyah finding drinks is like anywhere in Europe. Pretty much every bar/restaurant serves alcohol and prices are ok.
For some reason Kurdistan Iraq is one of those few countries in the world where Corona is the cheapest beer on the menu! Definitely a reason to travel to Kurdistan, right? ;)
15. Prostitution in Kurdistan
Yes, yes! You would probably not expect it from Kurdistan, Iraq but in Sulaymaniyah I found a red light district. Not that I got a taste of it, but I stumbled upon it and was very surprised to see decriminalised prostitution in Kurdistan. Not throwing it out here because I think it should be mentioned as a Kurdistan travel tip, just willing to take away misconceptions. Apparently Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan Iraq is not that strict Muslim as we may think it is.
16. Tipping in Kurdistan
It is not super common to leave a tip in Kurdistan. Just paying the bill and leaving small change is normal practice and will already be appreciated. However the more popular places, especially were they serve alcohol they already add 10% tip to the bill.
17. Getting around Kurdistan
There is no organized public transport so when traveling around Kurdistan you will have to make use of taxis. The cheapest way to go from A to B are shared taxis who depart from several places around the city. If you for example want to get from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah then a shared taxi can be found from the Bagdhad Terminal in Erbil. A shared taxi from Erbil to Sulaymaniyah and the other way around cost 15,000 IQD ($13) for a back seat and 20,000 IQD ($17) for the front seat. It takes about 3-4 hours depending on traffic.
Getting around cities
Within cities it is best to grab a taxi and the going rate is somewhere in and between 2,000 ($1.5) and 5,000 ($4). From one side to the other in Erbil was 5,000 and it took about 25 minutes. Taxi drivers were friendly and easy going and never over charging.
From Erbil Airport to the city
Don’t take a taxi straight on arrival. These guys will charge you $30 set fare, although Ankawa for example is only 10 minutes by taxi. There are very limited taxis allowed at the arrival hall exit. But there is a bus that takes you Arrival terminal. Almost everyone will take this bus, so follow the crowd. Then grab a taxi here that is dropping off passengers. In the middle of the night when taxis were very rare I found a taxi for only 8,000 IQD ($6.5) to my Airbnb in Ankawa.
Renting a car in Kurdistan
The best way to travel around Kurdistan is by renting a car. There are some really cool places to visit in Kurdistan, but it is fairly impossible to get there by shared taxi or public transport. Renting a car in Erbil was $60 per day and that was over the weekend, so I guess you can find it cheaper during the week.
18. Checkpoints Kurdistan
When traveling in Kurdistan you will have to go through to several checkpoints. It weren’t that many as I lately had on my trip to Syria but there are a few. You can mostly just pass by smiling and waving, although some want to see your passport. It is pretty easy and there is no need to worry for them when visiting Kurdistan. It is all about your attitude, just be smiley, be happy, these soldiers are mostly happy to see tourists in Kurdistan.
19. Kurdistan tour guide
There are a bunch of Kurdistan tour guides you can find online, but they are pretty expensive. When you are backpacking Kurdistan Im sure you don’t want to even approach them as they charge up to $150 a day for a guide/driver and when there are more people in the car they charge even more. STUPID!
When I inquired I was straight away put off by this practice as that shows it purely is a money making thing, not serving tourism. Some don't even have English speaking guides, so what is the point. So if you are looking for a Kurdistan tour guide, I am not the one to ask, because I think most of them are rip offs. At least the ones I have been in contact with.
I was lucky I got toured around in Sulaymaniyah by my online friend from Instagram (@baderkhanamerbadran). I even stayed with his family and was treated like a family member. An amazing local experience!
20. Kurdistan tours
A great alternative is the Facebook Group called Rock Ur Bones. They organize Kurdistan tours and you can just join them. Most trips though are over the weekend, but I am sure that if you drop your request here some people are able to help. This Facebook group is amazing for ideas/inspiration for when you travel to Kurdistan, Iraq. Also great for when backpacking Kurdistan and looking for fellow travel buddies.
21. What to wear in Kurdistan
Kurdistan is predominantly Muslim and therefore for women it is advised to cover shoulders and knees at all times. Erbil is much more conservative than Sulaymaniyah and while going out in Sulaymaniyah I saw girls in skirts and heels, but only in high end bars and restaurants. As a woman you don't need to wear a head scarf like in Iran. In 2014 I travel there, it was amazing, check my Iran travel guide.
For local men it is not common to wear shorts, but for tourists it is totally excepted. I always wore my short jeans, a t-shirt and my flip flops. In Sulaymaniyah even some local young men were wearing shorts. I must say though that walking around the streets of Kurdistan Iraq I always felt underdressed. But since it was 35/105 degrees I couldn’t really be bothered.
22. Where to stay in Kurdistan
Finding accommodation when traveling in Kurdistan can be a pain. It is not that easy to book hotels online, especially outside the bigger cities. A Kurdistan travel tip is to go old school and find accommodation while on the road. During my Kurdistan road trip I found out it was very easy to book hotels/motels on the spot. Just walk in, ask for the price, see the room, negotiate and reserve. I think this is the best way to travel Kurdistan.
When backpacking Kurdistan I would suggest you to make use of Couchsurfing. I did not use Couchsurfing for more than 5 years, but because of a friend’s recommendation I tried it again on my trip to Kurdistan. It was a winner!!!! Wow what was I lucky with my couchsurfing host in Erbil. I ended up staying 4 nights with my host and afterwards we rented a car and went on a road trip together with another friend. We ticked off some of the most amazing things to do in Kurdistan, the road trip was epic!
In Sulaymaniyah I was equally over the moon as I got to stay with a local friend. Not directly through couchsurfing this time, but through Instagram. His family treated me like one of them and I got a real local Kurdistan experience. Thanks a million!
There are some great Airbnb places for the grab in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil but outside the cities there are very few options. I used Airbnb for two nights. Grab here my $30 free Airbnb credit, simply by creating a new account. I do it all the time! The easiest way to safe money when traveling.
Booking Kurdistan hotels online
The same counts for Kurdistan hotels on online booking sites. While on our road trip we hardly found hotels in Kurdistan online, but while driving through towns there were always a bunch of hotels or motels for the grab.
23. Things to do in Kurdistan
This Kurdistan travel guide wouldn’t be complete without the best things to do in Kurdistan. Northern Kurdistan is known for its amazing natural beauty with deep canyons, lakes and green mountains. On top of the places to visit in Kurdistan that I will mention in this travel blog there for sure are a bunch more but I want to focus on the main tourist attractions in Kurdistan.
24. Visit Erbil
Let’s start with the capital of Kurdistan: Erbil. As I said before I definitely liked hanging out in this city but I wouldn’t name it on my top 10 places to visit in the Middle East. Erbil is a typical Middle Eastern city where you find modern buildings next to outdated or unfinished buildings. Make sure to walk around the main square before sunset and feel the local vibe. Sit down in one of the cafes and have a tea or stroll through the bazaar.
Also see if you can arrange a visit to the Jalil Khayat Mosque and get a sneak peak inside: fabulous!
Another amazing place to watch the sunset when you travel to Erbil is the Loft skybar located at the International Hotel.
Watch my Instagram Story videos here: Iraq 1.
The Erbil Citadel is a UNESCO World Heritage site but pretty disappointing to visit to be honest. There is no entrance fee so just walk in and see it for yourself. There is a stones & gems museum, and the Kurdish textile museum, which all ask $1 entrance fee. In the middle you will find an impressively huge flag of Kurdistan.
25. Visit Sulaymaniyah
The second biggest city in Kurdistan, Iraq is not so conservative as Erbil. It definitely is more open and feels much relaxer and more modern. Where in Erbil you will mostly only see men on the streets in Sulaymaniyah also groups of girls go out by themselves. It is still not really common, but slowly slowly it is becoming a much more open society.
When visiting Sulaymaniyah don’t miss the busy city center where you will find many markets with endless food stalls to sample from. Fresh fruits, crepes, nuts, tea and coffee bars, barbecue places and many more. It is best to visit in the evening when the streets are packed and people watching while sipping a traditional Kurdish coffee is one of the best things to do in Sulaymaniyah.
When visiting Sulaymaniyah make sure you don’t miss a sunset! There are numerous viewpoints around. Don’t miss the sunset from the Goizha Mountain where you can get by taking the cable car up. This is also where I am going to paraglide next time I visit Sulaymaniyah. Families gather along the ridge of the mountain and there are places where you can buy food and drinks.
My other favorite place to visit in Sulaymaniyah is the Roman amphitheater in the Hawary Shar Park with amazing mountains views.
All about my videos about visiting Sulaymaniyah can be found in my Iraq 3 Instagram stories.
26. Amna Suraka (Red) Museum Sulaymaniyah
This museum for sure is among the best places to visit in Kurdistan. Housed in the former intelligence office of the Saddam regime this is were you will find all about the recent Kurdistan history: the 1988 Anfall genocide, the days of the Saddam Hoessein regime and even about the war against ISIS. Prepare for an emotional journey as the Red Museum in Sulaymaniyah will give you goosebumps.
Here are some of the photos I took from the Amna Suraka Museum in Sulaymaniyah.
This small mountain village is one of the best places to visit in Kurdistan when you love the outdoors. Surrounded by mountains and deep canyons there are a ton of viewpoints, one already 10 minutes walk on the North side of this sleepy little town. To get here you will need to rent a car, but it is definitely one of my Kurdistan travel tips to write down.
28. Barzan viewpoint
With this name you will most likely find the best thing to do in Kurdistan. I was so extremely excited when I got to see this place with my own eyes. Luckily it is not mentioned in all Kurdistan travel guides yet and it is not easy to find either. The Barzan viewpoint looks like the horseshoe bend in Arizona, but then better because there are NO tourists.
The viewpoint can be found north of Rezan just before a little town called Dore. You can find it on Google Maps (36.8938876, 44.1304754).
Watch my Instagram Story videos (Iraq 2) about Barzan Viewpoint here. You will see for yourself how this is one of the best places to visit in Kurdistan.
29. Deralok Canyon
Another place you should definitely write down on your list of things to do in Kurdistan is the gorgeous canyon of Deralok. You will have to drive on a dirt road until you can’t go any further. Then cross the small river and climb up a little hill till you get to a man-made canal. Walk on the ridge for a s long as you can into the canyon. On your left hand side you will see the river and waterfalls of this oasis.
A pretty damn amazing photo spot, but not so interesting in itself to be honest. I drove through Amedi, but didn’t see anything interesting. Amedi is a village situated on top of a small hill. There are some waterfalls around, which are super touristy. Find a nice restaurant on the West side of the town and have lunch with an amazing view over Amedi.
This is the most holy place in the Yazidi religion, their Mecca or Jerusalem. There are very few Yazidis in the world who practice this monotheistic religion. This unwritten religion is taught on for generations dating back to the ancient Mesopotamians. It is often described as very mysterious and I kind a can confirm that. In Lalish you can find the clear water source related to where the Noah’s Ark stranded. Everyone is allowed to visit Lalish, but I would recommend you to fix a guide as otherwise you will be walking around not knowing what is going on here. It was an emotional, but also a very spirital experience.
Hard to express in words, may better you watch my Instagram Story videos (Iraq 3) about Lalish and this mysterious religion. In the link you find more details about the (tragic) story of the Yazidis.
32. Shanidar Cave
Coincidentally I stumbled upon the Shanidar Cave while on my road trip and I feel very lucky I did. When you travel to Kurdistan try to make it out here (36.8337579, 44.2209624). At first I was a little disappointed as there are a lot of fences around the cave because of an ongoing excavation project. There is no guide available but talk to the one of the archeologists and he/her will explain you that this is where they found the biggest group of Neanderthals remains in the world. Another reason to visit Kurdistan!
33. Sadam's Villa Amedi
Not really sure if I should mention Sadam's Villa nearby Amedi as one of the things to do in Kurdistan Iraq, but to me it was very interesting. It definitely is not a tourist attraction as it now is a military base for the Kurdish Army. While on our Kurdistan road trip we drove by to check it out and were friendly greeting by a man with a big gun. We had no clue it was a military base nowadays so we were a bit surprised. They let us in though, gave us a tour around the building and let us shoot some photos from the landscapes from the top of the building.
This is not a Kurdistan tourist attraction, but if you are adventurous then totally go and you might be lucky to be toured around. We were not allowed to take film and take photos in the building. Before we were told not to I filmed a little bit with my GoPro. Check it out in my Iraq 3 Instagram stories.
A small village in and between two hills just north of Erbil. It is a popular place to visit in Kurdistan on a weekend trip. Shaqlawa has some restaurants with good views and some hiking trails to the top of the hills. I wasn’t that impressed to be honest, but some Kurdistan travel guides rave about it. There is a female run bakery that serves delicious sweets too.
35. How to get to Kurdistan
There are two international Airports with direct flights to Europe: Erbil International Airport and Sulaymaniyah International Airport. This is the best way to get to Kurdistan, but you can also travel overland from either Turkey or Iran.
Kurdistan travel blog
I hope all the above Kurdistan travel tips were useful for your next trip to Northern Iraq. Apart from all the amazing things to do and places to see in Kurdistan I have to thank the people of Kurdistan just as much. These warm hearted people made my trip one to never forget! Thank you for your amazing hospitality and your endless smiles.
I will definitely travel to Kurdistan again and will then continue my trip into Iran crossing the border overland. But that is something for 2020. I have also traveled to almost all countries in the Middle East now. Syria was definitely one of my favorite trips. Click here for the best things to do in Syria.
Curious about more of my trips? Since December 2012 I am traveling the world continuously and have now been to more than 100 countries as of September 2019. Interested how people afford to travel the world all the time then click on the link to read my story. Or find out how to make money travel blogging in this link.
Enjoy your trip to Kurdistan and thank you for reading my Kurdistan travel blog.