A Quick Guide to Iraqi Kurdistan Travel
Updated January 2021, A Quick Guide to Iraqi Kurdistan Travel was originally written in May 2019
This is the Iraq you probably won’t see on the news– Welcome to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region located in the far north of Iraq sharing borders with both Iran and Turkey. And if you’re envisioning arid desert and ISIS or Al Qaeda militants you’re dead wrong.
What if I told you that Iraqi Kurdistan is lush & green, mountainous, safe, and home to some of the friendliest people on Earth? Would you believe it?
Well, it is.
Likely if you ended up here you’re curious about Iraqi Kurdistan or even planning a visit. After visiting Iraqi Kurdistan in April 2019 I have compiled a list of everything you need to know to travel Iraqi Kurdistan.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Why Travel Iraqi Kurdistan- Iraqi Kurdistan has a wealth to offer travelers looking to get off the beaten path. With jaw-dropping sceneries, vibrant culture, hospitality that knows no bounds, serious trekking potential, and a scattering of historical sites, Iraqi Kurdistan has much to offer.
What Is Kurdistan- Kurdistan means land of the Kurds. This land sits in northern Iraq, northern Syria, southeastern Turkey, western Iran, and a small sliver of Armenia. At one point in time, Kurdistan was its own country but after the end of British rule in the Middle East the Brits drew up the borders and that did not include an independent Kurdistan.
Kurdish Is The Main Language- Specifically the Kurmanji dialect. To my surprise, there are some similarities to Farsi, and I was told to Turkish as well.
English Is Popular- Especially among the younger generation, but you’ll likely find Kurds of all ages that can speak some English. Many road signs are written in Kurdish and English.
Best Time To Visit- Summer is boiling hot in Iraqi Kurdistan (temperatures can easily reach 40ºC/104ºF and higher) and winters are downright freezing and very snowy in areas. Spring (April-May) and fall (Sept-October) are the best times to visit.
Religion In Kurdistan- The majority of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan practice Sunni Islam, followed by Shia Islam and Yazidism.
Visas For Iraqi Kurdistan
Several Nationalities Can Visit Iraqi Kurdistan Visa Free For 30 Days- EU Citizens, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Qatar, San Marino, South Korea, Switzerland, UAE, USA, and Vatican City. Iran and Turkey only get 15 days visa-free. Click here for more.
Nationalities Not Mentioned Above Must Get An Iraqi Kurdistan Visa Or Evisa- Which can be difficult and expensive to get. To apply head to your nearest Iraq embassy or for more information contact [email protected]
You Need A Separate Visa To Visit Arab Iraq (Southern Iraq)- For travel to the remainder of Iraq, you will need to apply for a visa in advance. Note that these visas can be very difficult to acquire. At present this also includes the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul which are now under Iraqi control.
Getting Into Iraqi Kurdistan
By Air- Iraqi Kurdistan has two international airports, one in Erbil and one in Sulaymaniyah. Both airports have the most connections with Istanbul and Dubai.
By Road- You can enter Iraqi Kurdistan from both Iran and Turkey. I personally entered Iraqi Kurdistan from Iran at the Tamarchin/Haji Omaran border crossing.
To cross the border at Tamarchin/Haji Omaran- This is the border crossing you’ll likely select if traveling between Tabriz and Erbil. There are daily buses that depart from Urmia, Iran.
I departed on a 9:15 am bus, but I was told there are buses departing at 6:00 am and 8:00 am as well. I paid 1,000,000 IRR (Iranian currency fluctuates wildly so at the time of travel in April 2019 that was roughly $7.25 USD). In all the journey from Urmia to Erbil took 10 hours 45 minutes.
I had read online that there are buses from Tabriz to Erbil as well, but I found this not to be true as everyone I spoke to insisted there were no buses from Tabriz and only from Urmia. Click here to read about my border crossing experience at Tamarchin/Haji Omaran.
To cross the border at Bashmaq/Penjwen- This is the border crossing you’ll most likely use if traveling between Tehran or Iranian Kurdistan and Sulaymaniyah. You’ll have to do it in legs using a combination of shared taxis and a bus.
Since I did not do this crossing on my own I will send you over to Joan of Against The Compass who has done this border crossing and written a detailed guide on how to do it. If you’re looking for information on the opposite direction from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iran, read this by Diana from The Globetrotting Detective.
To cross the border with Turkey- The only border crossing I could find any info on is the Habur/Ibrahim Khalil that connects the cities of Sliopi and Zakho. To read about this border crossing go over to The Globetrotting Detective, as Diana has taken the Diyarbakir- Erbil bus. From what I had read in a couple of forums, it sounds like there are shared taxis available from Sliopi to the border and from the border to Zakho and vice-versa too.
Money & Iraqi Kurdistan Travel Budget
The Currency Of Iraqi Kurdistan Is The Iraqi Dinar- As of January 2021 the current exchange rate was $1 USD = 1,460 IQD.
ATMs Are Available- You will find them at the airport, in larger cities, and in shopping malls. Do not expect to find them in smaller towns or rural areas.
Bring USD, Euro, Or GBP To Exchange- You’ll Find Money Exchangers In Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and other places. Or in my case, the chaikhana just across the border will let you pay for your kabob in with $100 USD and will give you the change in Dinar at the market rate…
Traveling In Iraqi Kurdistan Will Likely Be Expensive- Especially if you have been traveling in Iran prior.
But Don’t Worry, You Can Still Do It On A Budget- Couchsurfing is popular, shared taxis connect the main cities, shwarmas & falafels are cheap eats, and did I mentioned Kurds are probably the friendliest people in the world? Don’t be surprised if you’re invited at least 5x a day to stay with a local family and invited to giant Kurdish meals.
Traveling With A Tour Guide Is Expensive But Rewarding- Many of Iraqi Kurdistan’s best bits aren’t accessible by public transport and having someone to explain the sites and translate Kurdish can enhance your travel experience. Plan for $150 per person, per day for guide (including transport, accommodation, and meals).
I met Haval Qaraman in Iraqi Kurdistan who has been guiding for 9 years and he invited me out on his day off with his family to Gomi Felaw and Barzan, he’s a wealth of knowledge on Iraqi Kurdistan and an excellent guide.
For A General Budget Idea-
- Decent simple hotels run $25-50 USD/night
- Shwarma or falafel run $1-2
- Kabob & rice in a decent restaurant will cost about $5-7 USD
- Taxi rides within cities $3-7 USD
- Shared taxis between cities $7-12 USD
- Car rental $40 USD per day (if planning to self-drive)
- Local guide $150 per day
Getting Around In Iraqi Kurdistan
Shared Taxis Connect Main Cities & Towns- The best way to get around in Iraqi Kurdistan for backpackers. Most shared taxi rides will cost between $7 and 12 USD depending on the destination.
Minibuses Also Connect Main Cities- Marginally cheaper than shared taxis, depart less frequently and can take much longer.
Car Rentals Are Available- Expect to pay about $40 USD per day for a rental car. Driving in Iraqi Kurdistan is a bit aggressive, but nowhere near as crazy as in Iran.
Hitchhiking Is Possible- I didn’t do it myself as I didn’t have heaps of time to explore but other travelers have traversed Iraqi Kurdistan by thumb.
What To Wear
For Female Travelers- When it comes to clothing you’ll see it all traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan. Outside of cities, the overwhelming majority of women (young, middle age, and older) all wore the traditional Kurdish dress with and without headscarves, while in cities I noticed you’d see women out and about in the traditional outfit as well as skinny jeans and tight tops.
Personally, I wore my plain black abaya (let’s face it, it was comfy), a long dress, as well as a traditional Kurdish dress I was gifted to wear by Haval’s family. I didn’t have many options in the way of my clothes as I had been traveling Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iran prior to Iraqi Kurdistan on this trip, so my outfits were pretty modest.
For Male Travelers- Nothing special to note here dudes. As with many other Muslim-majority areas shorts above the knee are generally frowned upon.
Traditional Kurdish Clothing- No you don’t have to wear it, but I figured I’d take the time to describe it to you. Women typically wear a slip with a silk long-sleeved, floor-length dress over top.
The sleeves have strips of fabric that are extremely long (like floor-length) and you’ll see many women tie these behind their backs. I did ask and no one had an explanation as to why the sleeves are long and what the purpose is. This dress is usually paired with a short vest and optionally a headscarf.
Men wear a chogah, which is an open jacket with a shirt underneath. The chogah is tucked into the rank, which are baggy pants. An extremely long piece of fabric is then wrapped around the waist and tied as a belt. This outfit can be worn optionally with a turban.
Kurdish Meals Will Be A Highlight Of Your Trip- I guarantee you’ll be invited to someone’s house more than once for a gigantic meal. A typical home-cooked meal will include meat, rice, red beans, sabzi (greens), naan, and chai at the very least. Don’t be surprised if you’re fed dolma, eggplant mousse, and baklava too.
Kurdish Restaurants Exist, But They Can Be Hard To Come By- They can be few and far between but just ask a Kurd, they’ll likely direct you to one.
Picnicking Is A Serious Pastime In Kurdistan- I’ve never seen anyone picnic harder than the Kurds and the Iranians. Especially on Fridays & Saturdays, you’ll see people heading out of town and to local parks to picnic.
Shwarma & Falafel Are The Main Street Food- Trust me, you’ll find them everywhere.
If You Visit In Spring Try The Kufta Shnoe- This is a special Kurdish dish only made in springtime out of a vegetable called Kanger.
You Will Drink Chai- Just like the neighboring countries, chai is the most common drink.
Alcohol Is Legal In Iraqi Kurdistan- There are bars or you can pop into a supermarket and pick up a beer or two.
Budget Hotels Exist- However budget usually means $15-25 USD/night. Some can be booked online, others not. Search hotels in all budgets on booking in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok. I stayed at Janet Bludon Hotel in Erbil.
Couchsurfing- In the cities you’ll likely find hosts willing to take you in.
But Don’t Be Surprised If Locals Open Their Homes To You- On my final day in Iraqi Kurdistan I was invited to 5 homes to spend the night by friendly people I met walking around the Erbil Citadel, at a food festival at Sami Abdulrahman Park and in the bazaar– all the while I was already staying with a lovely family.
Where To Visit
Not sure where to go? Check out this 10 Day Iraqi Kurdistan Itinerary
Erbil- The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and greater Kurdistan. The city is both ancient and very modern. Don’t miss the UNESCO Citadel, the main square, bazaars, Jalil Khayat Mosque, parks, and chaikhanas.
Check out my Erbil Travel Guide and start planning
Sulaymaniyah- Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city in the far east of the region. No visit would be complete without a tour around Amna Suraka- once a Ba’ath Party intelligence headquarters and a prison where Kurds were held, tortured, and murdered. Amna Suraka illustrates Saddam’s genocide of the Kurdish people and his invasion into Kurdistan.
Sulaymaniyah is centered around a giant bazaar worth wandering with the Great Mosque at its epicenter. If you want an awesome view of the city, make sure to get to the top of nearby Mount Goyzha.
If you are in Sulaymaniyah it’s worth making day trips out to Halabja and Ahmedawa. Halabja houses a memorial and museum to the 1988 chemical weapon attack on the city during the Iran-Iraq War. Ahmedawa is a nearby mountain village from which you can visit a popular waterfall.
Amedi- Impossibly beautiful and set in a wide-open valley the village of Amedi rises straight up from the valley floor atop a short flat-topped mountain. Amedi has over 5,000 years of history and was home to the three wise men. For the best views, you’ll need to trek around the surrounding peaks.
Make sure and add gorgeous Amedi to your Iraqi Kurdistan itinerary
Alqosh- Famous for its gorgeous Assyrian monastery carved right into the side of the Alqosh Mountains. The monastery was carved by a monk named Hormiz and was completed in 640 AD.
See why visiting Rabban Hormizd Monastery in Alqosh is a must
Lalish- Is an important holy city for Yazidis and home to the holiest temple for the Yazidi faith. Yazidis have long been persecuted (especially in Iraq) as ‘devil-worshippers’ by other faiths albeit the religion being monotheistic and combining elements of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and ancient Mesopotamian religions.
When entering the village of Lalish you must take off your shoes and step over the raised doorways between every room when you are entering the temples (though some areas are off-limits to non-Yazidi). Ask around for a man named Luqman who can give you a tour of the holiest temple and explain a bit about Yazidism (he does speak English).
Everything you need to know before visiting the Yazidi holy site of Lalish
Dore Canyon- Near the town of Barzan sits Dore Canyon which bears quite a resemblance to Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. You’ll need to follow a track off-road to reach the best viewpoint where you can see the river snaking around the canyon below.
Don’t miss beautiful Dore Canyon on your trip to Kurdistan
Rawanduz- Near the city of Soran and home to a gorgeous canyon and a village set right on the cliff. The surrounding area is pretty mind-blowing as well.
Gomi Felaw- Very close to the Iranian border, near the town of Choman on the legendary Hamilton Road. You’ll have to follow a dirt path that in some places is crumbling right off the hillside– but trust me, it’s worth it.
Gomi Felaw is a very small alpine lake set right on a valley edge, surrounded by blankets of kelly-green grass and with an unbelievable view of the snow-capped peaks on the opposite side of the valley. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful place in all of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Koye Sanjaq- A small town on the road between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Stop off here to check out the ancient Koye Bazaar, Qshla Koye Citadel, and Chwar Teqan Caravanserai.
Akre- A beautiful town set in the mountains north of Erbil, the main attraction is an old Christian monastery.
Mar Mattai- Just northeast of Mosul sits a lovely Syriac Christian Monastery, in fact, one of the oldest in the world. The monastery was founded in 363 AD by Mar Mattai, a hermit who had been escaping persecution under the Roman Empire.
Solo Female Travel In Iraqi Kurdistan
Get It Girl, Just Go- Guess who just returned from a solo trip to Iraqi Kurdistan? Yup, yours truly right here. I’m here to say, that yes- Iraqi Kurdistan is possible to travel as a solo female.
In general, Kurdistan is very safe to travel in, regardless of gender. In my experience I found Kurds to be extremely kind and friendly whether male or female that approached me.
The only thing I can say that I had been warned about was grab-assy taxi drivers (and yes, I did experience one that kept trying to touch me and I screamed at him and slammed the door in his face).
What To Do If You Are Harassed- Much like in neighboring Iran, make a scene! If a man tries to touch you inappropriately scream and yell– this will typically draw the attention of others.
In fact, recently a female traveler was in Kurdistan and a taxi driver touched her and she wrote about it in a Facebook group. Apparently, the police saw it, looked into the report, and ended up finding the offending driver and arresting him.
What Should You Wear- There is no strict dress code in Iraqi Kurdistan so you can likely wear what you’d feel comfortable in at home. I typically err on the side of more conservative when I’m traveling in the Middle East even in more liberal countries and cities to avoid unwanted attention.
I would recommend longer tunics (mid-thigh) and leggings as a comfortable option. It’s a good idea to keep a headscarf handy for popping into mosques for a visit.
Looking for more info on women’s travel? Read: Solo Female Travel in Iraqi Kurdistan
Safety In Iraqi Kurdistan
Is It Safe?- Surprisingly yes, at the moment Iraqi Kurdistan travel is quite safe. Crime rates are extremely low so I’m not saying let your guard down, but chances are things will be fine. But I should probably note here that Iraqi Kurdistan is located in a tumultuous region (surrounded by Arab Iraq and nearby Syria to name a couple of neighbors that are currently having issues) and the situation could change at any time so do research the security situation prior to your trip.
Military Checkpoints- When traveling Iraqi Kurdistan you will go through countless Peshmerga-run military checkpoints traveling between cities. Sometimes you get waved through and other times you’ll have your passport checked. Generally, foreigners should have an easy time going through these.
Drones Are Illegal- I had read this online in several places prior to visiting (though, I’ve essentially given up on my drone since it’s a gigantic pain in the ass), so leave your drone at home.
Internet & SIM Cards
Wifi- Most hotels will have decent wifi on offer.
Data- SIM cards are pretty easy to pick up. Plan to pay about $20 USD for a SIM and 5gb of data.
What To Pack
Consider The Season- Summers are hot, winters downright cold, spring and fall are comfortable and it can get quite chilly in the mountains regardless of the season.
There Are Modern Shops In The Cities- If you do forget something, you can likely pick it up in Iraqi Kurdistan, so fear not!
A Quick Packing List-
- Hiking Boots
- Tunics, Leggings & A Scarf For Women
- T-shirts & Jeans Or Trekking Pants For Men
- Windproof & Warm Jacket
- Tent, Sleeping Bag & Campstove
- Bradt Iraq guidebook
Have Any Questions About Traveling Iraqi Kurdistan?
Ask in the comments below!
Need Travel Insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan?
Start shopping plans over at battleface.