Kurdistan is a region covering the border areas of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and the Kurdish people are not Arabic, not Persian but Kurdish. Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region that has its own distinct government and military. Despite being a part of Iraq, the vast majority of people in this area are ethnically Kurdish and speak their native language – Kurdish; more similar to Farsi than Arabic. Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
Iraqi Kurdistan Highlights
- Erbil Citidel
- Erbil Nightlife
- Iskan Street
- Qaysari (Grand) Bazaar
Erbil has a continental Mediterranean climate (yes, you can have Mediterranean climates other than the Mediterranean Sea) which means it has hot and dry summers with cool rainy winters; July being its hottest month while January its coolest. Late summer or autumn are the best times to visit as its dry but not as hot as the middle of summer. Ideally you’ll need at least two to three days to see the sights in the city and try to time your trip to visit Erbil on a weekend to enjoy the best nightlife in the region.
During their bloody campaign ISIS / ISIL / Daesh took claim to Mosul and pushed on in an attempt to take Erbil. However, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi army and Iraqi militias were able to defend Erbil and keep ISIS forces away from the Kurdistan capital. The city is still impacted by the aftermath of the war with ISIS and many people you meet in Erbil have come from neighbouring areas to escape the war.
Things to Do in Erbil
The Erbil Citadel is located in the middle of Erbil and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world. The Citadel is one of Iraq’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and was built over 8,000 years ago. Inside the 15 metre walls you’ll find cobbled streets, traditional architecture, a museum, mosque and souvenir shops.
Erbil Main Square
The Main Square is the beating heart of Erbil that’s full with people from all ages day and night. There are markets, shisha cafes and restaurants surrounding the square. After walking around the square yourself you can relax and watch others do the same.
Surprisingly there is some great nightlife in Erbil, certainly the best in Iraqi Kurdistan. I ended up going on a bit of a pub crawl around Ainkawa before heading to Inferno Club which lasted into the morning.
Mars Rooftop Lounge
One of the fancier bars in Erbil with views over the city. The bar is located on the rooftop of Ladera hotel and one of only a few places I saw other foreigners.
Assyrian Culture Club
Large outdoor venue that has live music with a family type of atmosphere where everyone is welcome.
The Original T Bar
T-Bar feels more like a nightclub with its strobe lights, smoke machine and loud music. There is a long bar on one side of the club where you can sit and chat to other people. I met a guy from Mosul who told me what life was like living under ISIS rule and like most people had been directly impacted by ISIS. Unfortunately he had lost most of his family, he told me about the public executions and how ISIS solders would make sure that he didn’t cover his sons eyes when they attended the public executions.
I ended up at Inferno nightclub and after a few drinks it becomes very blurry. The club is big, loud and feels like a typical nightclub. Drinks are expensive but people are open and you’ll see both sexes dancing and chatting. After a long night out, I woke up in my hotel room but couldn’t remember getting back that night. I went down to the lobby and the receptionist explained that I’d gotten a taxi back to the hotel but didn’t have any money to pay for the taxi so I left my phone with the driver while I got some money from my room. After waiting for a while he told the receptionist that I’d gone upstairs but hadn’t returned. She kindly paid the taxi driver and got my phone from him so I was so grateful. Yes, I should be more careful.
I’ve heard that there are now underground parties being hosted in the surrounding mountains.
Qaysari Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar
Qaysari bazaar is an important commercial center and has been the primary marketplace of the city for centuries. The historic Qaysari bazaar is considered one of the oldest markets in the Middle East and a place where locals can purchase anything from spices, jewellery, household items, to clothes and locally-made crafts. The bazaar is surrounded by restaurants and traditional cafes where you can find plenty of local cuisine.
Jalil Khayat Mosque, The Grand Mosque
The large Mosque is the most impressive in Erbil and has a 45 metre tall dome with two 65 metre minarets either side. The Mosque honors Jalil Khayat, a prominent figure in the region who served as an officer as well as a mayor of the city. Jalil died in 2005 during construction but his sons oversaw the rest of the project until its completion in 2007. The Mosque is huge and can hold approximately 1500 people at a time.
By day, Iskan is a typical street with modest eateries and stores. However at nightfall the atmosphere takes on an entirely new character, food carts fill the area creating a vibrant hub of Kurdish culture that draws in people (mostly men) from across the city. Iskan street is in the south of the city near the Hawler Museum and is best visited anytime after dark.
Ainkawa is a neighborhood in the north of the city. Ainkawa is a predominantly a Christian neighbourhood so you can find bars and bottle shops which seemed so strange to me after coming over from Iran. There are a variety of international restaurants available in this area; you can find American hamburgers, German beer, Indian curry’s, pizza, pasta and Middle Eastern dishes.
Due to the war against ISIS many refugees from Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan arrived in Erbil looking for safety. The northern area of Ainkawa received a lot of these refugees who sought any type of work they could find. I didn’t know this when I first arrived to Erbil but many of the people in Ainkawa, which is where I was staying, were Syrians who’d come across the border to escape ISIS.
Shanadar Park & Sami Abdurrahman Park
These two parks are located 40 minutes from each other and both offer an escape from the busy city centre. Sami Abulrrahman park is much bigger but both parks have cafe’s, lakes and even cable cars. Both parks are within 40 minute walk from the Citidel.
Seeing other parts of Kurdistan
Travelling to other cities in Kurdistan is easiest using shared taxi’s that leave from Erbil Terminal located next to Shaykh Ahmed cemetery. Just show up and ask around for where you want to go and you’ll soon be in a taxi waiting for it to fill up. You can also take mini-vans but they run less frequently and aren’t that much cheaper.
Getting to the Erbil International Airport
The easiest way to get to the airport is either by taxi or Careem. Both will drop you off at the arrival terminal and you have to take a shuttle to departures. I paid US$15 from Ainkawa but fares will be slightly higher from areas closer to the Citidel. Although security is pretty tight at the airport there were hardly any travellers at that time so things moved very quickly.
Where to Stay in Erbil
Erbil has many hotels catering to all budgets but no hostels at the time of writing. Surely though, with the security situation improving in Erbil and Iraq in general, there will be some hostels opened. I stayed at the Fareeq Hotel in Ainkawa which was fantastic, it had everything I needed but the best part were the staff.
Getting Around Erbil
Walk – I always prefer to walk as much as i can in a city and Erbil is relatively flat which makes walking ideal. Walking from Ainkawa to the Citidel will take approximately an hour. It’s usually hot though so you’ll likely want to stop regularly and grab a drink.
Taxi/Careem – Taxi’s are pretty cheap around Erbil and most distances you’ll be travelling are short. Going from one side of the city to the other will cost approx. 6000ID ($US4). Careem’s are also easy to arrange using the app and are similarly priced to taxis.
Although Erbil is a safe city it’s recommended to take out travel insurance and it’s particularly important to read the fine print when travelling to places like Iraq. Some travel insurance companies will not cover you in places where your government has advised not to travel. For example, when I went to Iraqi Kurdistan (and Iran) the Australian government, via their smartraveller website, categorised Iraq and Iran as ‘Do Not Travel’.
When the Australian government categorises a place as ‘Do Not Travel’ it means they will not provide support to you if you run into trouble. It also means that most insurance companies will not cover you. However, Iati Seguros do cover you in these countries and were the insurance company I used. Thankfully my trip went as planned and I didn’t need to contact them.
Travel Resources for Visiting Erbil
Viator – Huge selection of activities, tours and experiences with great cancellation and price match policies.
Get Your Guide – Great selection of experiences from sea, land and air.
SkyScanner – The best place to start looking for flights. They compare prices from a huge amount of airlines.
Hostelworld – Thousands of hostels with millions of reviews. You can also contact other travelers before you arrive.
Travel Insurance – None of us plan to fall off motorbikes or break a leg snowboarding but if it happens make sure you’re covered.
Booking.com – One of the best accommodation booking pages available. This is my benchmark before searching for a better deal (which often can’t be beaten).
AirBnB – Huge range of home to rent across the globe and discounts for longer stays.
RentalCars.com – The best site for renting cars while travelling, they find the best rates and provide great insurance options.