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The autonomous region of Kurdistan is one of the less visited tourist destinations in the world. The sole mention of “Iraq” is enough to make most people reconsider traveling there.
But say you are one of these people who wants to visit little-known places or destinations that are a bit off the beaten track or maybe want to visit every country in the world.
Read on because this is the complete Iraqi Kurdistan backpacking guide that will help you plan and prepare for your visit.
Table of contents
Is Iraqi Kurdistan safe?
Probably the first question on anyone’s mind when the country of Iraq is mentioned. Make a distinction though! The Kurdistan region in the north part of Iraq is an entity de facto operating as an independent state.
Most of the things you’ve heard over the years about Iraq probably don’t apply to Kurdistan.
They have their own military, the Peshmerga, they operate their outer borders with Turkey and Iran, the Iraqi military and police have no jurisdiction there and anyone entering from the rest of Iraq undergoes extensive scrutiny. I had more than a brief encounter with them.
During my stay there I felt safe 100% of the time and there never was a moment when I had doubts about my security.
Succinctly – it’s safe.
Do I need a visa?
However, most nationalities can get a visa on arrival at both the Erbil and Sulaymaniyah international airports and the land borders. You can check the latest list of nationalities that can get a visa on arrival here.
The visa costs 75$ but is payable in Iraqi Dinars (100.000 IQD). There is a currency exchange service at all entry points and the rate is close to the market one, so don’t bother exchanging beforehand. Note that a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan is not validfor the rest of Iraq.
If you get your visa from the rest of Iraq though (say if you land in Baghdad), it is valid for Kurdistan.
Getting into Kurdistan
There are two international airports – in Erbil and in Sulaymaniyah. There are frequent flights from Istanbul, Ankara, Dubai, and Qatar, to name a few.
I was in Southeastern Turkey (in Midyat to be precise) when I decided to jump over to Kurdistan. There is only one border crossing – Khalil Ibrahim, close to the small Turkish city of Silopi.
I strongly advise you to take an overnight bus from Diyarbakir, Mardin, Batman, or Cizre to Duhok, Erbil, or Sulaymaniyah. You can find their schedule and book online at obilet.com.
The reasons for that are that buses arrive at the border late at night when the border is much calmer and you can kind of go with the flow and not worry about where to go next. There are a few checkpoints along the way and it’s very convenient to have a crowd around you.
The first checkpoint is on the Turkish side and it was seamless. They exit stamp your passport and that’s it.
The next one is a luggage x-ray check, then on the Kurdish side, you have to show your vaccination certificate. You could otherwise do a PCR test before arrival and use it instead. If you’ve done neither – what are you doing traveling in 2023? Go get vaccinated!
Seriously though, they test people at the border, but I cannot confirm if this is available for foreigners as well or just Iraqi citizens.
After that you pass by Asayish, the “secret service” of Kurdistan, who will check your passport and give you a card. Present this card to the next desk where they will ask you to pay 100.000 IQD for the visa.
In the room next door, there’s a guy who works at a currency exchange where you can obtain cash with dollars or euros. You can also exchange British pounds and Turkish lira there.
Pay your visa, get a stamp and you’re good to go.
Leaving Kurdistan through this border is also easy using an overnight bus, although it takes much longer, as the customs checks are very thorough on the Turkish side.
It took me about 1 hour to pass all the checks coming in and more than 5 hours going out. Plan accordingly.
The Money Situation
Kurdistan is heavily cash-based. You will hardly be able to find a place to use your card (maybe in some high-end hotels) and ATMs are sparse – you can find them in bigger cities, in the malls, and next to a bank.
They dispense both USD and IQD but keep in mind all the ATMs charge a commission (around 3 USD) and some cards are not even accepted. Revolut is not supported in Kurdistan.
You can exchange almost any currency in the centers of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok, but it’s obviously smart to have USD, GBP, TRY or EUR on you. USD and IQD are actually pegged, so 1 USD is always 1460 IQD, although exchange offices might give you slightly lower rates (they have to eat too, right).
Where it gets interesting is that there are two types of exchange offices in Kurdistan. The normal, “Western” style ones you are probably familiar with – a small walk-in store with a desk, see-through windows, and a small hole to exchange money. Nothing extraordinary.
Most people though, change their money at the street vendors. Wait, don’t imagine a shady guy with an oversized coat and loads of cash tucked in his inside pockets, ready to scam you in a dark alley. It’s all perfectly legal and quite normal.
You can find small stands or cards full of money in all the big cities that act as currency exchange. They look like this:
Most of them stick to the official rates but always ask beforehand. Show them a banknote and they will show you the amount in IQD on a calculator or something. If it’s lower than the official, haggle. If they don’t budge, go to another one.
I didn’t have to haggle in Sulaymaniyah as they always gave me the official rate there, but around the Citadel in Erbil the vendors are Arabs and some try to screw you. Have the rate written down beforehand and don’t settle for less!
Surprisingly, mobile internet is pretty good in Kurdistan. There’s 4G in the big cities and satisfactory coverage in smaller ones. There’s even a connection in some offroad regions.
Of course, you can use an e-sim, like Airalo. It’s a bit more expensive, but also more convenient as you won’t have to go out searching for an office and will have internet immediately.
The cheapest option is Fastlink. They are sold at almost any street currency exchange vendor in little plastic rectangular boxes with the sim card inside. It automatically comes with 7 days validity and a 3GB welcome package and you don’t have to register or present your passport – just plug it in and enjoy.
I bought two of these during my stay – the first one cost me 5000 IQD / 3.1 EUR in Sulaymaniyah, but the second cost 3000 IQD / 1.9 EUR through a friend. Even at 5k, it’s an amazing value!
You can obviously add a package after validity (instead of buying a new one) but they cost upwards of 15000 for 30GB or more and sometimes they only work in the city you bought it in. Ask before you buy!
Where to stay in Kurdistan?
If you’re reading this, then you’re probably a backpacker and we backpackers travel on a small budget. For Kurdistan – forget about booking online. You can find accommodation on Booking, but it’s too pricey.
Instead, go around the hotels in the centers of the bigger cities and ask them for the room rate and to show you the room. Always haggle, always! Below I will share some tips for each city and where I stayed in each.
Also called Slemani or Suli, is the most modern of the cities in Kurdistan if I say so myself. I went there first, because I figured I would be traveling in a bus the whole night, might as well get off after sunrise, not in the middle of the night (as if I had gone to Erbil or Duhok like most people do).
It also saved me a trip to Suli and back, as I was going to get back to Turkey afterward anyway. But I digress.
Slemani has the only hostel in all of Iraq – the Dolphin Hotel and Hostel. The rates for a dorm are around 16-22 eur (depending on the season, I guess), which I feel it’s a bit on the expensive side, but it’s totally worth it in this case.
The hostel is clean and tidy, in a top-notch location in the center, has superb internet, breakfast included and the manager is super helpful. I was given a single room for the same price, although I had booked a dorm but I didn’t complain as I needed some alone time anyway.
The manager is a well-traveled fellow himself and has Revolut, so he offered to give me IQD cash if I sent him EUR or USD on Revolut, which was so, so convenient. If you’re not using Revolut (or any of my other personal finance apps) as a backpacker, what are you doing with your life?
Erbil’s cheapest hotel on Booking is at 30 EUR per night and at least a 45-minute walk from the Citadel, which adds another 5-6 eur per day if using taxis (and no, there’s no public transportation. Check the transport section).
Instead, go to the Citadel area and circle the bazaar. You will find many hotels, usually run by Arabs and they cost between 15000 IQD (10 EUR) and 35000 IQD (24 EUR).
Layali Baghdad, right next to the Citadel is a good clean option, but it costs 35000.
There are some hotels, which are in terrible condition and they don’t budge from the 20000 price tag.
Walk a bit away from the Citadel and you will find hotels for the same price with cleaner rooms. Still, don’t expect luxury.
Most hotels are NOT on Google Maps, nor on Maps.me. I don’t even know the name of the hotel I stayed in, but it was 20000 IQD and relatively clean. You can find it at these coordinates: 36.185173, 44.008866.
As with the other cities – go around the center, near the bazaar, and ask the hotels to see a room and for a price. Always haggle.
I first tried Hotel Duske (it’s on Maps.me) and the manager brought it down from 40000 to 30000, but I was sure I could find a cheaper one.
The hotel next door (Hotel Aram, but it’s not on Google Maps, nor on Maps.me) offered 40000 and I haggled it down to 25000. It was quite clean, the room was nice, and the WiFi – reliable.
As far as I am aware, there’s only one hotel in Soran – Zagros Hotel. There may be more, but since Zagros looked clean and only cost 15000 I didn’t even check elsewhere. You can find it both on Google Maps and Maps.me.
Other travelers have mentioned Azadi Hotel as the only option in Akre, however, I found it completely empty when I arrived. When I say empty, I mean “The Last of Us” empty.
Upon asking in the pharmacy next door, I was told that it was no longer a hotel – closed down. He told me to check Laween Motel (it’s on both maps) where the people really seemed to like me.
Unfortunately, they first said they were closed, then it turned out they were merely full. I left my backpack to go to Akre Castle and then they said there was an available room after all.
The manager wouldn’t budge from 35000 though so I decided to go sleep in Duhok instead. Still, he was a very helpful and friendly guy.
Zakho, Amedi, Ranya, Dokan, and Halabja are the other relatively big cities in Kurdistan. I haven’t stayed in either of them and can’t give you useful info. They may have a hotel, but I wouldn’t count on it as they are quite small and not touristy at all.
Couchsurfing is actually quite popular in Kurdistan. Kurdish people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and you should have little problem finding a host in the major cities and maybe one of the smaller ones as well. I myself stayed with a Kurdish family for three days in Qaladitza.
I can also recommend two Facebook groups where you can meet locals and travelers. The first is Kurdistan Region Travel, as the name suggests – only for the Kurdistan region and the second is Iraqi Travellers Cafe which is for all of Iraq.
Both groups have many people ready to give you useful information and meet you in different parts of Iraq and Kurdistan.
Transport in Kurdistan
This is where things get tricky. There’s some form of public transportation within the three big cities, but it can be unreliable and confusing to use. There’s more than one bus station (called “garage” by the locals), it’s not always clear where they are on either map and don’t get me started about the lack of any information about routes or timetables.
It’s just not meant for tourists. Still, if you ask any local on the street, they will most likely point you in the right direction.
Between cities, people use minibuses or shared taxis. Minibuses cost a bit less, but they depart only after they are full (about 20 people) or at a set deadline sometime in the afternoon, which is usually not ideal.
Shared taxis are what they sound like – 4 people share a taxi to the same destination. They also depart when full, but it’s much easier to get 4 people than 20.
Routes like Slemani to Erbil (10000 with bus, 15000 with shared taxi) and Erbil to Duhok (same prices) are common and you won’t have a problem getting a ride.
Less popular routes are just a confusing mess though.
On several occasions, I asked a local to call the shared taxi for me and inform them that I wanted to go somewhere, then waited until the taxi came to pick me up. It’s just a bit random in Kurdistan, that’s the way it is. Best advice: ask the locals.
On the topic of transport… Kurdistan is safe, but it’s still heavily militarized. There’s a saying among the Kurds that they have “No friends, but the mountains“, but let’s not go into the geopolitical situation at the moment.
On the roads every 30-40 kilometers there are military checkpoints. Most of the time they don’t even check the IDs of the passengers, sometimes they check everybody’s ID or passport, other times they will single out and check only you (because you stick out like a sore thumb), and yet other times they will ask you to get off the vehicle with your luggage and undergo a thorough inspection.
That’s what happened to me because I am a tad suspicious, I guess. I presume it was because I was traveling a route not usually frequented by other tourists (Ranya to Soran).
They searched all my luggage, checked my laptop and its files, and even went through the Turkish museum tickets that I keep as souvenirs. I think they thought I was a Turkish spy. You can read the full story here. It was a memorable experience.
This happens really very rarely (I was told by locals and other travelers) and even when it happens the Peshmerga are very friendly and treat you well. I was even fed some bean soup while they were searching through my luggage. The Kurds man, gotta love those people.
Where to go and what to see when backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan?
Go to the Slemani Museum (archeological findings in Kurdistan) and then go to the Red Prison (Amna Suraka, translated to “Let’s not forget”) Museum.
Both are on the maps, they are walking distance from each other and about 30 min walk from the city center. Entrance is free for both.
The Amna Suraka museum is a must-see as an introduction to the recent history of Iraqi Kurdistan – the Saddam era genocide and the war against ISIS.
In the city center, take a walk around the bazaar and try some of the local food. You can also go to Chaviland (45 min walk or ~3000 IQD for a taxi), but keep in mind that it is heavily dependent on the unreliable electricity in Iraq.
A brief tangent – the national electricity grid in Iraq provides high amper electricity, but it’s not available 24 hours (political reasons, probably corruption also, let’s move on).
The rest of the time there is “private” electricity, created using petrol engines, that has low amperage, not enough to power heavy-use electronics like the AC, let alone a cable car.
Also, don’t go there during the day if it’s summer – it is too hot and people don’t go out, hence the park doesn’t work either. So I was told at least. I went at 3 PM and it looked dead. It was like taken out of Chernobyl, totally barren.
Anyway, if you take the cable car (I was told 8000 IQD ticket) you can get very nice views of Slemani from the Goizha mountain viewpoints.
As a possible day trip from Slemani, you can go to Halabja, about an hour away by shared taxi. Get the shared taxi from the Sharazur Terminal here. It costs 6000IQD.
In Halabja visit the memorial complex for the more than 10000 killed in the biggest chemical attacks against civilians in history. Truly a horrible moment in Kurdish history.
From there you can go to Ahmad Awa waterfall, but you have to either get a taxi just for yourself (about 20000 both ways) or hitchhike, which could be unreliable if you want to get back to Slemani. There isn’t much more to do in Halabja though.
I found Erbil to be a bit dull, to be honest. It desperately wants to be Dubai of Mesopotamia and to some extent that’s true, but only for local Iraqi Arabs and rich Kurds.
The city is organized in concentric circles where the center is dominated by the Citadel, surrounded by markets and bazaars and the farther out you go, the more modern the neighborhoods become.
About 5 km from the center are the new, up-and-coming, hip parts that the young people go to, like Ghazali Street. A taxi to take you there costs between 3k and 5k, depending on your bargaining skills and charisma.
Of course, you have to visit the Citadel. It’s free to enter every day from 9:00 to 18:30. It’s pretty hot and there’s no shade at the top, but you can get some respite in the two museums inside.
Most of the buildings are in disrepair and except for the main street, most side streets are barred and you can’t roam around.
As you enter from the main (south) entrance, the Gems Museum is on your left. Honestly, this one is not worth it. It’s only a 1000 IQD entrance fee, but the collection is really small and there’s little information. Still, if you’re a fan of rocks, by all means, enter.
On the right is the Kurdish Textiles Museum. It also costs 1000 IQD to enter and is totally a must-see. There is a collection of carpets, traditional hats, clothes, and information about beliefs, lifestyle, and the Kurdish ethnicity in general.
You will learn a lot from this museum, give it at least an hour.
Right next to the Citadel is the main square where you can get some tea from the countless roaming vendors or indulge in something sweet from one of the pastry shops in the old bazaar. I really liked the trilece that they make, but avoid the kunefe – it’s horrible.
Other places to visit in Erbil include Sami Abdulrahman Park, a big public park with loads of alleys and at least some shade, Minaret Park where you can see the very old Mudhafaria Minaret and take an aerial lift to Shanadar Park, and the beautiful Jalil Khayat Mosque, the biggest in Kurdistan.
That’s the biggest lake in Kurdistan. The two cities that you can use as a base here are Dukan and Ranya. Keep in mind there isn’t much to do at the lake. There’s no vegetation, and bare rocks everywhere, and the water level is at an all-time low because both Turkey and Iran constrict the amount of water that flows into Kurdistan.
Rawanduz valley and Gali Ali Beg Waterfall
Rawanduz is about 5 km away from Soran. To get there you will have to either walk, get a taxi (3-5k) or hitchhike. Hitchhiking is rather easy in this region and you won’t have to wait long but keep in mind some that stop will still expect payment, so settle this right after entering the vehicle.
The Rawanduz Valley is breathtaking and quite a sight.
A good idea is to combine visiting the valley with the two waterfalls in the vicinity. About 8km from Rawanduz is Bekhal Waterfall. Again, you can get a taxi or hitchhike. I chose to walk half the way as the views were pretty good and then hitchhiked the other half.
Bekhal waterfall is pretty average, but you can get something to drink or eat and relax a bit there.
From Bekhal it’s another 10 or so kilometers to Gali Ali Bag waterfall, the one that features on the 5000 dinar banknote. Again, there are some spectacular views on the way and hitchhiking should be rather easy.
Once at the waterfall prepare for a crowd especially if it’s Friday or Saturday (the weekend in most Muslim countries). There’s an entrance fee of 1000 IQD. Keep in mind the whole area is flooded permanently.
I couldn’t quite figure out if it’s intentional or bad planning and construction, but you should probably take off your shoes and walk barefoot or carry some flip-flops with you.
I am not sure Akre is worth a whole day’s visit, but if you’re passing by, it’s a beautiful location. The old part of town is around 5 km from the new part where any taxi or minibus will drop you off. My advice is to take a taxi there for 2000 and walk back.
There isn’t much else to do in Akre besides that. Hotels are scarce – check the accommodation section.
Lalish is the holy city of the Yazidis. It really is a unique place and a must-see while you’re in Kurdistan. Unfortunately, there’s no transport that goes there, so your only option is to take a taxi or to hitchhike.
Some say that there is a shared taxi going from Duhok to Al-Shikhan, but all the locals at the garage said there wasn’t and directed me to a private taxi. It cost 15000 one way, but in hindsight, I didn’t haggle and I probably overpaid. You can easily get there for 10k, maybe even less.
It’s important to note that you must be wearing long pants while in Lalish and no shoes are allowed past the entrance. I saw people walk in socks and this is a smart option if you visit in the summer as the stones get quite hot.
There’s no entrance fee – it’s a holy place and a village after all. You will see real Yazidi people just living there, going about their business – eating, studying, sleeping, etc.
I strongly encourage you to ask some of the locals to explain to you what you’re seeing. There are a ton of small and odd rituals around Lalish and if you don’t know them it will seem like a pretty boring place.
The main place to visit is the temple. The front door is “guarded” by the Peacock – the messenger of God according to the Yazidis and on the right you can see a black snake – another symbol of protection.
The Yazidi faith is a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity, and even Judaism and this has gotten them in a lot of trouble throughout the centuries. The inside of the temple is quite dark and has a cavelike feeling.
Some portions are off-limits for non-Yazidis. In the halls, there are some mini-games like trying to throw a piece of cloth on a small pedestal. Succeeding at least once in three attempts will bring you hope and luck.
Getting back from Lalish to Duhok is just as hard. You can hitchhike (usually to the junction to Ba’adra, then another car to Duhok) or negotiate a taxi beforehand. Remember that random cars can still expect money. I paid 2000 to get to the checkpoint at Ba’adra, then got picked up by another car that I paid 5000 to get to Duhok.
Not much to do in Duhok, I’m afraid. There’s a bazaar, but you’ve already seen two in Sulaymaniyah and Erbil and this one isn’t even any better. The only thing resembling a tourist attraction you can visit is the Charsteen cave on the hill overlooking Duhok Dam.
There’s a 1000 IQD entrance fee, some ruins on the way, a beautiful waterfall, and an ancient prehistoric cave. Hike a bit more than the trail suggests and you can have nice views of Duhok Dam.
Other notable sites
Amedi – an ancient city located on a cliff;
Gali Sherana waterfall – ice-cold water you can swim in, beautiful scenery, and an awesome spot for a picnic;
There are a few cultural differences to keep in mind while in Kurdistan. I write from the perspective of a male, a woman will definitely have a few extra things to observe.
If you’re ever invited to someone’s home and are their guest, you will be made to feel at home. Which probably means you have to do what they do.
Take off your shoes at the entrance – that should go without saying;
If another person enters the room, stand up and greet them;
Do NOT shake the hands of girls and women, just a small wave from a distance is enough with them;
Wear long pants even inside;
Never show any nudity apart from your hands, arms, and neck. When taking a shower, have all your new clothes with you, change inside, and then walk out dressed;
If you’re sitting on the ground (as many Kurdish homes do not have furniture to make more space for big families), do NOT sit with your legs straight and the soles of your feet pointing at someone. It’s considered rude. Instead, cross your legs or fold them towards you;
Do NOT lie on the ground when there are other people in the room;
Say “Dasrhosh” (extra polite thanks) and “Spas” (thanks) when given something or someone buys something for you.