Iraqi Kurdistan is quickly becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations in the Middle East. Owing to it’s historical sites, beautiful mountainous regions and incredibly hospitable locals, more and more tourist are choosing Kurdistan as their next ‘off the beaten track’ holiday destination.
Iraqi Kurdistan is an area of Southern Kurdistan that occupies the northern part of the Republic of Iraq. It is home to 5.1 million people, a million of which reside in the region’s capital city of Erbil. Kurdistan gained official autonomous status from the Republic of Iraq in 2007, and is working hard to gain complete independence in the near future.
YPT has been running organized group tours to Kurdistan for many years now, so we are considered experts in the region. We have access to the best guides and have extensive knowledge on all there is to see in the region.
Here’s our guide to this fascinating part of the Middle East.
Why Visit Iraq Kurdistan?
The Kurdistan Region is a vastly different place from the Republic of Iraq. Since the region gained autonomous status, terrorist activity has been at an all-time low and foreign investment is at an all-time high. There have been some huge economic developments in the region, including some insane investments and development of infrastructure and tourism. Subsequently, Kurdistan is fast becoming a “gateway to Iraq”, and a must-see stop on any itinerary to the middle east.
Kurdistan is blessed by untouched mountains, waterfalls, rivers and lakes and has long been known as an area of outstanding natural beauty in the middle east. Kurdistan is also littered with ancient citadels, holy cities, Saddam Hussain’s old palaces and even ski resorts so there really is something for everyone.
Things to do in Kurdistan
We’ve been running tours to Kurdistan for years, so we think we’ve got the best itineraries nailed down. Here are some of our must see things in Kurdistan.
The Erbil Citadel is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world and has been inscribed on the World Heritage List since 2014. The earliest evidence for occupation of the citadel dates back to the 5th millennium BC, but it’s probable that the actual date could be much earlier. This is a must-see spot in Erbil!
Saddam Hussein’s former palace
This is truly an amazing site. It is estimated that Saddam Hussein built up to 100 palaces during his 24 year reign, and his mountain top palace is one of the finest. Although still surrounded by hundreds of land-mines, the palace remains open to anyone who knows how to get there – we do! It was looted during the Kurdish uprising against Baghdad rule in 1991 and has remained idle ever since. It offers spectacular views of the Amedi Valley; so much so that it’s been nicknamed the “Kurdish bird’s nest”.
Sulaymaniyah Red Prison
Located in Kurdistan’s second city of Sulaymaniyah, the Amna Suraka, or Red Prison, is a must-see site. It functioned as the headquarters of the Iraq’s secret intelligence agency. The prison was used as the location for the state’s torture and imprisonment of Iraq’s Kurdish population. Thankfully these days the torture has stopped and you can visit the old prison and torture cells. There is also a part of the museum dedicated to the very recent war against ISIS which is well worth checking out.
Halabja was the scene of a mass chemical attack on the Kurdish people, perpetrated by the Baathist regime in 1988. Mustard gas was used in the attack, along with other unidentified nerve agents in the persecution of thousands of innocent civilians. The attack is still the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history. These days, you can pay your respects at the Martyrs’ Monument and Cemetery which serves as a monument and cemetery for the innocent Kurdish lives that perished, but also a place for eternal remembrance of the crimes committed against the Kurdish people.
How to get to Iraqi Kurdistan?
The easiest and most convenient way to get into Iraqi Kurdistan is by plane. Iraq Kurdistan is served by two international airports: Erbil international Airport and Silamani International Airport. However, most passengers will arrive in Erbil as it has the most connections. There are daily flights from Europe and Turkey as well as other Middle Eastern cities, such as Beirut, Dubai and Amman. YPT can also organise overland transport from Iran, Turkey and the Republic of Iraq.
What to eat in Iraqi Kurdistan?
You can read our dedicated blog on Cuisine in Kurdistan here. In short, lots of meat, carbs, vegetables and of course black tea served by the litres!
Nightlife in Iraqi Kurdistan
As with most Muslim countries, drinking isn’t a huge part of the culture. Fear not though, YPT know all the best spots to share a beer or six with locals and tourists alike. Alcohol is readily available in Kurdistan, which makes it unique to most other countries in the region.
There is a surprisingly nice mix of bars and clubs to be found in Erbil. You’ll find everything from jazz bars to full-on nightclubs and everything in between. In fact, it’s said that there are more nightclubs being built in Erbil than mosques! Shisha bars are also a staple in the region, so you can kick back with a couple of beers and smoke some of the most flavourful shishas you’ll ever taste.
When is the best time to visit Iraqi Kurdistan?
Kurdistan benefits from year-round sunshine, so it is possible to visit at any time of the year. However, we’ve found that running tours in the spring and the autumn yield the best balance between not being too overcrowded with tourists and avoiding the unreasonable scorching hot days the summer would bring..