After travelling to Kurdistan, I was asked a lot of questions about my experience, especially as a solo female traveller in Kurdistan.
So I decided to answer all of the questions in this post, I share all you need to know before visiting Kurdistan in Iraq.
Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north of Iraq and has borders with the Kurdish regions of Iran, Turkey and Syria. This region is run by the Kurdistan Regional Government. It has its own parliament, flag and military forces.
The history of Kurdistan is a long and complex one, marked by various conflicts and resistance. Despite the challenges they have faced, the Kurdish people continue to hold onto their identity and their dreams of a free and independent Kurdistan.
Growing up in Iran, I had some exposure to the Kurdish culture but it wasn't until I visited Kurdistan that I truly got to experience the region's rich history and vibrant culture.
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Is Iraqi Kurdistan Safe to Travel?
Initially, I was a bit nervous about exploring Kurdistan alone, but I quickly discovered that it's a safe and welcoming destination for travellers. Despite the recent past tensions in the country, most travellers visit Kurdistan trouble-free, and it is by far the safest region in Iraq.
Foreign visitors are warmly welcomed in Kurdistan, and you'll find that the locals are friendly, hospitable, and eager to share their culture with you. However, it's always a good idea to do your own research and check for updates on the security situation before your trip.
Keep in mind that travel advisories can change quickly, so it's important to stay informed.
History of Kurdistan
The history of Iraqi Kurdistan is one of survival and resistance against numerous invaders and conquerors, including ancient Persians, Alexander the Great, Muslim Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Ottoman Turks.
The Kurds have traditionally retreated to the mountains for sanctuary, which has allowed them to maintain their distinct ethnic identity. However, this has also led to almost continuous conflict and repression as they sought autonomy and independence from various ruling powers.
During World War I, the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France sought to carve up the Middle East into nation-states and spheres of control. The Treaty of Sevres, which provided for a referendum on Kurdish independence, was rejected by the new Turkish Republic, and the Treaty of Lausanne gave control of the entire Anatolian peninsula to Turkey, dashing Kurdish hopes for autonomy.
After years of struggle, the Kurds in Iraq gained autonomy in 1992 with the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a secular government modelled along the lines of a modern independent nation-state. In 2003, the Peshmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, joined in the fight to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and after his removal, the new Iraqi constitution recognised the KRG and the Kurdistan Parliament.
Do you need Visa to visit Kurdistan?
If you are a citizen of the EU countries, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Iran, and Turkey you can get a visa on arrival upon entering Iraqi Kurdistan by land or air. It cost 75 dollars. Alternatively, the government of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has introduced a new e-visa process that you can apply before your trip.
It's important to note that your Iraqi Kurdistan visa is only valid within the borders of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. With this visa, you cannot enter the rest of Iraq including Mosul or Kirkuk.
Make sure your passport is valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of your entry.
How to get to Kurdistan?
The most convenient way to get to Kurdistan is to take a flight. There are two international airports in Kurdistan, one is in Erbil the capital and the other one is in Suaymaniyah.
As you can imagine, there is no direct flight from London or other European cities to Kurdistan, but Turkish Airlines has daily flights from Istanbul. The other option is Fly Dubai, which has regular flights from Dubai to this region.
Alternatively, you can travel overland to Kurdistan from either Turkey or Iran. And of course, if you are already in Iraq, you can easily visit Kurdistan.
The Best Time to Visit Kurdistan
Kurdistan has a semi-arid climate with hot summers and cold winters. The best time to visit Iraqi Kurdistan is during the spring, from March to May and autumn from September to November. In Springs and Autums, the temperatures are mild and the weather is generally pleasant.
Keep in mind that the Kurdish new year is in March and if you experience something unique, I highly recommend you to travel to Kurdistan during the Norouz celebrations, and make sure to be in Akre on the 21st. For more information, you should watch my video about the Norouz celebration in Akre.
Sim Cards and Internet in Kurdistan
If you are like me and want to stay connected during your trip, you should buy a sim card. Buying a sim card with data is pretty easy and affordable. Upon arrival at Erbil Airport, you will find different providers selling sim cards. If that is not the case, you can find phone shops in the cities.
While some hotels offer free WiFi to guests, not many restaurants and cafes provide WiFi.
Language and People in Kurdistan
The population in Kurdistan primarily consists of Kurds, and the Kurdish language is the predominant language spoken in the region. While the majority of Kurds in Iraq are bilingual in both Kurdish and Arabic, some are solely fluent in Kurdish.
In the cities, younger generations are likely to speak or understand English, but in rural regions, you need to use Google Translate or your body language skills.
Religions in Iraqi Kurdistan
The majority of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan are Sunni Muslims, but the region is also home to various other religious communities, including Alevi Shi'a Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Yezidis.
In particular, Kurdistan has the largest population of Yezidis among all regions in the world. You can visit Lalish and its temple to learn more about Yezidis.
Money and ATMs in Kurdistan
The official currency of Kurdistan is the Iraqi Dinar, and cash is the preferred mode of payment. In larger cities, such as Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Duhok, there are currency exchanges on the streets where you can easily exchange major currencies like US Dollars, Euros, and Pounds.
Some hotels, shops, and even taxis accept US Dollars or Euros. Make sure to have cash with you at all times, since paying with cards is not an option in most places.
In big cities, you can easily find ATMs that accept Visas and Mastercards, but that is not the case in small towns or rural areas, so make sure to withdraw enough cash if you are travelling out of the cities.
Accommodation in Iraqi Kurdistan
There is a wide range of accommodation options available in Kurdistan, catering to various budgets and preferences, from budget-friendly to luxury 5-star hotels. While not all hotels are available online or on booking platforms, you can often walk in and book a room in Iraqi Kurdistan and sometimes you can bargain.
As a solo female traveller, I preferred to book my accommodation in advance, and I typically stayed in 4-star or 5-star hotels. The prices are not as high as in other places in the Middle East, but they are not the cheapest either.
Even though I booked my accommodations on Booking.com, I found that many hotels could not accept online or card payments and required cash payment upon check-out. Again, I want to emphasise that you need to carry cash with you.
Where to Stay in Erbil
Erbil Quartz Hotel is a 5-star hotel in Erbil, located not too far from the centre. I actually stayed in this hotel for a few nights. The hotel has an indoor swimming pool and a hot tub, which I didn't get a chance to use it. It also has an ATM in the lobby, which I found very helpful.
Erbil View Hotel is one of the best hotels in Erbil. This 4-star hotel offers an airport shuttle and a good breakfast.
Syros Hotel Erbil City Center is located only 450 yards from the Citadel and 450 yards from Erbil Square. This 3-star hotel is a great option for those who are looking for more budget-friendly accommodation.
Where to Stay in Sulaymaniyah
Khan Saray is a 4-star hotel, located in the heart of Sulaymaniyah. It is just a short walk from the traditional bazaar.
Slemani Rotana is another great 4-star hotel in Sulaymaniyah, offering a free car park, a fitness centre and a restaurant.
How to go around Kurdistan in Iraq
The most efficient way to travel from city to city in Kurdistan is by taking a shared taxi. You can find these taxis at designated terminals located throughout the cities. Shared taxis usually accommodate up to four passengers and will only start the journey once all seats are full.
If you are in a hurry or prefer more space, you have the option to pay for the empty seats. Alternatively, you can negotiate with other passengers to share the cost of the empty seats.
However, there are some destinations, such as Lalish, that can only be reached by private taxi. The cost of a private taxi can vary depending on the distance and the driver's rate, which is often negotiable. It is recommended that you have some bargaining skills to ensure that you get a fair price for the ride.
In the city of Erbil, you can use the Careem app, which is similar to Uber. I found the taxis on the Careem app much cheaper than the ones I got on the streets.
What to Wear in Kurdistan
While Kurdistan is generally considered more relaxed compared to other Muslim countries, it is still important to dress modestly and respectfully as a sign of cultural sensitivity.
This means covering your shoulders, chest, and legs when in public spaces. Additionally, it is best to avoid revealing clothing, such as shorts and tank tops, and to dress more conservatively when visiting religious sites. It is good to carry a scarf if you plan to visit mosques.
Things You Must Know When Visiting Kurdistan
Carry Your Passport at All Times
It is important to carry your passport with you at all times, especially when travelling between cities or when planning a day trip outside of the city. There are numerous checkpoints throughout the country where officials may ask to see your passport for identification purposes. Therefore, it is recommended that you carry your passport with you at all times to avoid any inconvenience or delays.
Be Flexible with Your Travel Plans
It is important to remain flexible during your travels in Kurdistan, as you may need to adjust your plans on short notice. Kurdistan is not a typical tourist destination, and the region has experienced its share of challenges in recent years. It is possible that some roads or attractions may be closed to visitors for a day or longer. Therefore, it is essential to be adaptable and open-minded and to go with the flow of any unforeseen circumstances that may arise.
Kurdish Food and Sweets
Kurdish food is known for its delicious and affordable cuisine. Be sure to try some of the local sweets as they are a popular treat in the region.
Additionally, tea culture is an important part of Kurdish hospitality, and you may find yourself invited for tea by locals during your stay.
Last but not least, the Kurdish people are very friendly and hospitable. I always felt welcomed in Kurdistan.
For more insights, you can watch my Kurdistan travel series on YouTube where I share more details about each destination in the region.