Iraqi Kurdistan: The Ultimate Travel Guide
Updated: Nov 11, 2019
Where and what is Iraqi Kurdistan?
Iraqi Kurdistan, officially called the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by the Iraqi constitution, is an autonomous region located in northern Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is also referred to as Southern Kurdistan, as Kurds generally consider it to be one of the four parts of Greater Kurdistan, which also includes parts of southeastern Turkey (Northern Kurdistan), northern Syria (Rojava or Western Kurdistan), and northwestern Iran (Eastern Kurdistan).
Is Iraqi Kurdistan safe?
Although Iraq is notorious for instability, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is not. Even during the American invasion of the country and constant turmoil in the rest of Iraq, the region enjoyed security and stability protected by the regional military, the Peshmerga (separate from the Iraqi military).
Within the region, general street crime is relatively low and crime against tourists is even lower. Extremism has been well-handled by the Kurdish authorities and general tolerance of other religions and ethnic minorities has prevailed, as seen through the prosperity of its Christian, and Yazidi communities.
Iraqi Kurdistan is also a safe destination for women to visit. The region enjoys high rates of equality when compared with the rest of Iraq and surrounding countries. In addition, women do not need to wear head coverings and may local women do not wear one themselves.
Top Things to do in Iraqi Kurdistan
1) Erbil Citadel
The Erbil Citadel, locally called Qelat is a tell or occupied mound, and the historical city centre of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is possibly the oldest continiously inhabited place in the world. Once atop of the citadel, you have a great view of the city below.
2) Hamilton Road
In 1928, Archibald Hamilton traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, having been commissioned to build a road that would stretch from Northern Iraq, through the mountains and gorges of Kurdistan and on to the Iranian border.
Now called the Hamilton Road, this was, even by today's standards, a considerable feat of engineering and remains one of the most strategically important roads in the region.
3) Mount Korek
Mount Korek is a mountain in town of Rawandiz, Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, 50 kilometers from the Iranian border.
4) Jalil Khayat Mosque
The Jalil Khayat Mosque is a Sunni Islamic mosque in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan; the largest in the city.
5) Zawa Mountain
This mountain gives you a spectacular view of the city of Duhok below.
Amadiya is an Iraqi Kurdish town and popular summer resort and Hill station along a tributary to the Great Zab in the Dahuk Governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan. The city is situated 4,600 feet above sea level.
6) Saddam’s Palaces
Over the course of the dictator’s 24 years in power, he built dozens of palaces and homes all across Iraq - many of them located in Iraqi Kurdistan.
7) Halabja Monument
The monument, which pays tribute to the 5000 victims of the Halabja chemical attack.
8) Red Prison Sulaimaniyah
Red Prison, now a museum, was a place of torture and death for hundreds of Kurds. The prison was in fact the headquarters of Iraq’s secret intelligence agency (Mukhabarat) and played a central role in Saddam Hussein’s government’s planned genocide of the Kurdish people known as the al-Anfal Campaign.
9) Rawanduz Canyon
See Iraqi Kurdistan’s nature at its very best.
Lalish is a mountain valley temple situated in the Shekhan District of Iraq since 1991. It is the holiest temple of the Yazidis. It is the location of the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a central figure of the Yazidi faith.
Adventure Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan
The Kurdistan Region is known for having valleys, mountains, forests, as well as small and large rivers. Tourists can enjoy mountain climbing at Halgurd, Pera Magrun, Korek, Bradost, Sheren, and Saffen mountains.
A state-of-the-art cable car has recently opened on Korek Mountain, and takes visitors up to its peak to enjoy wonderful views of the surrounding areas. Visitors can also take tours through the region's valleys, rivers and caves. Skiing is also becoming more popular.
There are a great number of caves and mountains to discover across the region, many of which are still unexplored. Many of the caves are of unknown depth and some mountain peaks have rarely been seen.
The Guardian ranked Kurdistan in its top international destinations for adventure tourism in 2015.
Religious Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan
The coexistence of different religious and ethnic groups in Kurdistan Region, paired with its security and stability, has helped the religious tourism sector develop by attracting a large and increasing number of religious tourists from around the world.
Foreign tourists who have traveled to Kurdistan Region and visited the religious attractions appreciate efforts made by the Kurdistan Region's leadership to create a safe and secure environment.
While the existence of many ethnic and religious groups in the region gives color, variety and an image of a multicultural identity locally, it has also been a major of attraction for foreign visitors.
The reason behind these developments in the religious tourism sector are the security, stability and economic development and the region’s welcoming character.
Religious tourists can visit temples, mosques and churches in all governorates in the Kurdistan Region.
Statistics from the Kurdistan Regional Government's Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs show that more than one million tourists visited the Region's religious attractions, including Islamic, Christian, Yezidi and Kakai sites.
Political Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan
Many local and foreign authorities have ruled the Kurdistan and many conflicts in the wider region have been fought and settled on Kurdistan land.
Perhaps one of the most well known was the Battle of Gaugamela, between Alexander the Great and Darius I, which occurred near the city of Erbil in 331 BC.
Other notable conflicts that took place on Kurdistan soil are Islamic attacks, as well as occupation by Iraqi, Mongol, Ottoman and British forces. The ruling palaces of Kurdish princes, from Medes to Sheikh Mahmod, are still popular tourist attractions.
In recent history, the people of Kurdistan experienced a very different form of suffering at the hands of the Ba'ath party and its methods of governing in Kurdistan, including many political and military crimes against the Kurds.
Those crimes will never be forgotten. During the genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds, chemical bombardment destroyed over 5,000 villages, killing 182,000 Kurdish civilians and leaving hundreds of mass graves.
The Halabja Monument and Peace Museum documents the genocidal use of chemical weapons against civilians in the city of Halabja, which killed 5,000 people. The remnants of many traditional and locally made weapons can be seen in Kurdistan's museums, including the Red Terror Museum in Slemani.
There are numerous monuments and graveyards remembering the genocide, along with statues of leaders and revolutionaries. Many historical books, journals and documentaries document the events in detail.
Cultural Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan
There are many different ethnic groups across the Kurdistan Region, including Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Chaldeans, Armenians and Arabs. Each of these groups has its own culture, clothing and dialect belonging to their district.
They also have their own agricultural tools, dishes and procedures for carrying out different activities and can be identified by their traditional dress, which includes unique clothing, gold and jewellery items.
These different cultures have their own ways of preparing traditional food and guests are always warmly welcomed to share in the delights.
The region's best-known arts and crafts are carpets and other textiles. These handicrafts can be seen and admired at cultural museums in the cities or Erbil, Sulaimani, Duhok and Kalar.
Archaeological Tourism in Iraqi Kurdistan
There are more than 3,500 archaeological sites in the Kurdistan Region. Some of them are significant in terms of tourism, such as the citadels of Erbil, Khanzaf, Dere, Sartika, Akre, Amedi, Rawanduz, Sherwana, Barzinja and others.
Other points of interest include engravings at Qisqapan, Khinis, Halamtan, as well as some engraved skeletons in Harir, Belola Darband, Gawir Darband, Mirqolyand and more.
Other historic sites in Kurdistan include Shanidar cave, where nine Neanderthal skeletons, dating back to 60 thousand B.C., have been found. There is also Chwar Astoon cave, which was the site of a Zardasht (Zoroastrian) temple.
Engravings can been found in several caves including Gundik, Bastoon Cave and Hawdyian, Chami Razan, Hazar Merd and Zarzi - where many other archaeological remains have also been found.
Heritage pieces in their hundreds can be studied and admired at the museums in the main cities of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaimani.
Agricultural life in Kurdistan started around 10 thousand B.C. in the village of Zawia and in 7 thousand B.C. in Charmo. Interested tourists can also see many ancient artifacts from these periods.
Why is Iraqi Kurdistan not in the U.N?
Iraqi Kurdistan is not an internationally recognized sovereign state, rather an autonomous region within Iraq. Therefore, it is represented in the United Nations through the Iraqi mission.
How do I enter Iraqi Kurdistan?
Iraqi Kurdistan is home to two international airports; Erbil International Airport and Sulemani International Airport. There are daily flights to Europe and Turkey, as well as other Middle Eastern and European cities, such as Beirut, Dubai and Amman, Istanbul, Vienna and Frankfurt.
Do I need a visa to enter Iraqi Kurdistan?
Citizens of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and all EU member states are automatically given a free 30-day entry stamp upon arrival.
It should be noted however, that this visa on arrival does not extend to the rest of Iraq and will require a visa. Most other nationalities must obtain a "Iraq - Kurdistan Region" visa in advance.
What currency do they use in Iraqi Kurdistan?
The primary currency of Iraqi Kurdistan is the Iraqi Dinar.
Is Iraqi Kurdistan a country?
Iraqi Kurdistan is not a country, rather and autonomous region of Iraq. The region is officially governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), with the capital in Erbil. The new Constitution of Iraq defines the Kurdistan Region as a federal entity of Iraq.
How did Iraqi Kurdistan gain autonomy?
Following the 1991 uprising of Kurds in the north and Shia Arabs in the south against Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Kurdistan's military forces, the Peshmerga, succeeded in pushing out the main Iraqi forces from the north.
Despite significant casualties and the crisis of Kurdish refugees in bordering regions of Iran and Turkey, the Peshmerga success and the Western establishment of the northern Iraqi no-fly zone following the First Gulf War in 1991, created the basis for Kurdish self-rule and facilitated the return of refugees.
As Kurds continued to fight government troops, Iraqi forces finally left Kurdistan in October 1991, leaving the region with de facto autonomy. In 1992, the major political parties in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, established the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
Today, Kurdish autonomy is recognized by the Iraqi constitution, although the region claims some territory still in the hands of the Iraqi government.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are a stateless ethnic group in Kurdistan (Iran, Iraq, Syria & Turkey). Numerically, the Kurds are estimated to number anywhere from a low of 30 million, to possibly as high as 45 million.
A large percentage of the Kurds also live outside of Kurdistan in countries such as; Germany, Austria, France, Sweden, the UK and the USA.
From a religious perspective, although the majority of Kurds belong to the Shafi‘i school of Sunni Islam, there are also prominent numbers of Kurds who practice Shia Islam and Alevism. A minority of the Kurdish people are adherents to Yarsanism, Yazidism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity.
What language is spoken in Kurdistan?
Kurds speak the Kurdish language and the Zaza–Gorani languages which belong to the Western Iranian languages branch of the Indo-Europeanfamily.
In addition to their native languages, most Kurds can also speak the language of their host countries in Europe and North America.
What is the Peshmerga?
The Peshmerga is the Iraqi Kurdish military. The operate completely autonomously from the federal military of Iraq and are responsible for the protection of the borders of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.
They have very successfully kept the region the safest in all of Iraq and have allowed the citizens to live normal lives even in times of crisis in other regions.