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Beautiful Kurdistan: Everything You Need to Know Before Your 2024 Tour

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4 months ago

Where to begin with beautiful Kurdistan? In my opinion, Iraqi Kurdistan offers the best of the Middle East. With thousands of years of history, vibrant Kurdish culture and excellent food.

But when I tell people I am visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, I am always met with the same questions: but isn’t it part of Iraq? Can I really just go to Iraq for vacation? Is Iraq really safe? Can woman travelers go to Kurdistan?

Erbil citadel in Iraqi Kurdistan
The UNESCO world heritage Erbil Citadel

This complete guide covers everything you need to know before visiting Iraqi Kurdistan in 2024. 

Iraq v Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is as an autonomous region of Iraq. For travelers, this means that Iraqi Kurdistan has a completely separate immigration system and is effectively separate from the rest of Iraq.

Jalil Khayat Mosque
interior painted ceiling erbil beautiful kurdistan
The painted ceilings of Erbil’s Jalil Khayat Mosque

For example, if you start your trip at the Iraqi Kurdistan airports of Erbil or Sulaymaniyah, or you cross by land from Türkiye, you will only be granted entry to Iraqi Kurdistan. This means you will need a new visa if you are planning on visiting Federal Iraq (Baghdad, Mosul or Basra).

martyrs monument in baghdad iraq
The iconic Martyr’s Monument in Baghdad

Don’t worry though; this is very easy to arrange and can be done once you are on the ground. For example, if you take a domestic flight from Erbil to Basra, you will be able to purchase the Federal Iraq visa at Basra Airport (as if you had arrived internationally). For more details on visas to Iraq, make sure to read our comprehensive guide to visiting Iraq.

Can Americans visit Iraqi Kurdistan? 

Yes, Americans can easily visit Iraqi Kurdistan. 

kurdish traditional clothes man in erbil market

If you are flying into Iraqi Kurdistan (Erbil or Sulaymaniyah), you have the option to arrange an e-visa before your trip. The process is extremely straightforward and you will usually have your e-visa within anywhere from a few minutes to 24 hours. The visa costs IQD 100,000 (about $76). You can also get your Iraqi Kurdistan visa on arrival at Erbil or Sulaymaniyah airport – although I always prefer having the e-visa done beforehand (and skipping past the lines).

There are currently no direct flights from the United States to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, there are countless one-stop options via Europe or the Middle East.

akre village
The mountaintop town of Akre

Do I need a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan? Can I get a tourist visa upon arrival in Erbil or Sulaymaniyah?

Most Western travelers can obtain either an e-visa or purchase the visa on arrival option at the airport. For most Western nationals (British, EU, Australia), the visa costs IQD 100,000 (about $76).

mar mattai church beautiful kurdistan
Christian frescoes in the ancient monastery at Mar Mattai

Where is the most beautiful place in Iraqi Kurdistan? 

Each city and region of Iraqi Kurdistan really has a different atmosphere and a unique character! Sulaymaniyah is set in the mountains and has historically been considered the liberal and cultural capital of Kurdistan, bustling with new ideas and an avant-garde contemporary arts scene

skyline of sulaymaniyah city in iraq with mountains
The magnificent skyline of Sulyamaniyah

Erbil sits at the political heart of Iraqi Kurdistan, centred around the UNESCO heritage listed Erbil Citadel. The surrounding market is full of cafes, spice shops and felafel stands, offering one of the most beautiful places to spend an afternoon.   

fountains erbil citadel
Erbil’s fountain square, with the imposing Erbil citadel in the background

Duhok is set further north and can sometimes be a little cooler, offering an ideal base for visiting the Yazidi Holy City of Lalish and the ancient Christian monastery Al Qosh. 

the yazidism holy city lalish shrine kurdistan
The holy temples of the Yazidi people at Lalish

Do I need a guide to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan?

You can easily travel independently or even go backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, if you are planning to visit any tourist attractions outside of the major city, you’ll want a guide.

Amedi village in Iraqi Kurdistan, where any good Iraq Tour Guide will take you beautiful place
The remote hilltop village of Amedi

For example, important sites like the Holy City of Lalish or the monastery of Al Qosh cannot be reached by public transport. Kurdish culture and history is extremely interesting and to really get the most out of your holidays in Kurdistan, I always recommend arranging a guided tour (if even for a few days).

yazidi light candles kurdistan
Yazidi priests light 365 candles every day at the temples of Lalish

Together with our local contacts, we have been arranging tours in Iraqi Kurdistan for many years. For more information on visiting Kurdistan, please reach out.

Is Kurdistan safe?

pile of iraqi dinar in erbil bazaar
With extremely low crime rates, money exchange stalls in Erbil keep thousands of dollars of cash out in the open

Iraqi Kurdistan is an extremely safe region, with very low rates of crime. Even at the peak of the war against ISIS, with Mosul only 1.5 hours away, Kurdistan was more or less unaffected by terrorism.

What is the best time of year to visit Iraqi Kurdistan? 

In my opinion, October to November and February to May are the best times to visit Iraqi Kurdistan, with pleasant and warm daytime temperatures and crisp evenings. Over December and January you can expect days to be quite cold (with occasional snow in the mountainous areas) but still relatively pleasant.

bazaar erbil kurdistan flag
Erbil bazaar

The summer months can get particularly hot. From June to September, temperatures often rise as high as 43°C/110°F in Erbil. In Sulaymaniyah you can expect a few degrees cooler (especially in the evenings).

rawanduz canyon in iraqi kurdistan
The magnificent Rawanduz canyon is a great option if you do brave the Kurdish summer

Can women travel solo in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Yes. There aren’t any legal restrictions on visiting Iraqi Kurdistan as a woman.  

Do women need to wear abayas or headscarves in Iraqi Kurdistan?  

No. There are no rules governing how a woman dresses in Iraqi Kurdistan.  

contemporary artist gallery in sulaymaniyah iraq
Don’t miss out on the vibrant contemporary art scene in Sulaymaniyah

Travel tip: If you are planning on visiting any major mosques, like the Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil, you will be required to wear a headscarf.

Unlike Federal Iraq, it is far more common to see women in Iraqi Kurdistan without headscarves, especially in the liberal city of Sulaymaniyah.

Can unmarried couples, same-sex couples or friends share a room? 

Yes! No questions asked. Despite being a Muslim-majority region, Kurdistan is extremely secular.

mosque in akre kurdistan
The beautiful mosque of Akre in Kurdistan.

Can I visit Iraqi Kurdistan if I have an Israeli stamp or visa in my passport? 

The prohibition on arriving in Federal Iraq with Israeli stamps explicitly states that this prohibition does not apply to arrivals into Erbil or Sulaymaniyah airports (Iraqi Kurdistan). In short, proof of travel to Israel is not an issue if you are flying into Iraqi Kurdistan and not going to Federal Iraq.

tamarind juice seller in erbil fountain square

The reality is that they may still attract some attention and questions at the airport. We have brought guests with Israeli visas into Kurdistan – this usually results in some curious questions at immigration but nothing beyond that.

Can I buy alcohol in Iraqi Kurdistan? 

Yes, in Iraqi Kurdistan alcohol is freely available. Erbil and Sulaymaniyah may be some of the few cities in the Middle East where alcohol is openly advertised and people drink in the streets.

bottle alcohol shop iraqi kurdistan
Alcohol store in Iraqi Kurdistan

Do I need to bring my passport everywhere? 

When you are walking around the major cities, there is no need. I would generally advise to keep a photocopy handy.

man selling meat with knife fresh market kurdistan

However, if you are traveling between cities – even if just for a day trip to Lalish – I would always recommend carrying your passport with you. The Kurdish peshmerga maintain checkpoints as you pass between provinces.

Can I ask people about the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein or ISIS? 

The Kurdish experience of the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein and ISIS was often dramatically different to the rest of the Iraq.

halabja genocide memorial
An art installation at the Halabja Genocide Memorial

Many Kurds will be keen to share their experiences. But there are many who will not. Many have heartbreaking stories of immense tragedy, for example: they may have lost loved ones in Saddam’s chemical massacre against the Kurds at Halabja or spent years living in refugee camps.

sulaymaniyah terror museum
A room for reflection with broken mirrors at Sulaymaniyah’s Torture Museum

In particular, many Yazidis were directly impacted by the ISIS campaign of extermination against them, with thousands of Yazidi women being trafficked as sex slaves across the region.

martyrs cafe in dohuk iraq
The Martyrs Cafe in Dohuk dedicated to those killed in the War against ISIS

Before you ask questions, take a moment to consider how and why you want to interact with Kurdish people. I recommend the following approach to conversation: 

1. Listen actively: Let the people you are speaking with offer information, their thoughts and feelings. Avoid interrupting or judging their narratives. For example, for many Kurds in Iraq, the American invasion was greatly welcomed and enhanced their autonomy and prosperity.

2. Avoid political discussions: War often involves complex political and historical narratives. No matter how much you have read, as the visitor this is not your story to tell. In Kurdistan, questions of independence or Baghdad’s oversight can often reignite old traumas.

akre alleyways iraq beautiful place

3. Respect privacy: Some Kurdish people may not want to discuss their wartime experiences.

4. Ask open-ended questions: This will encourage those you are speaking with to guide the conversation as they wish. For example, ‘Can you share more about your experiences of life in Kurdistan in the 1980s?’ rather than ‘did any of your friends or family get killed by Saddam?’. You will very quickly get an idea of whether the person is willing to share their experiences.

bazaar inside erbil with kurdish flag

How long before my flight do I need to be at Erbil Airport? 

I would recommend being at Erbil (or Sulaymaniyah) Airport at least 2.5 to 3 hours before your flight. Iraqi airports have multiple levels of security, including a number of car and bag checks before you even enter the terminal.

masgouf fish in sulaymaniyah restaurant
Masgouf fish, one of the quintessential dishes of Iraqi cuisine is also served across Kurdistan

In Erbil, you will need to pass through two car checkpoints before being left at a first terminal. From here, you will be bussed a further few kilometres to the main terminal, where, you guessed it, you will pass through security again.

sulaymaniyah kurdistan poets park
Statues dedicated to the national poets and authors of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah

If you are traveling during the busy time slot of late at night / early morning when many of the Gulf and Istanbul flights leave, give yourself extra time for the checkpoints!


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Greg

Saturday 16th of March 2024

I've been to Iraqi Kurdistan twice and it's so cool! I love this guide.

For anyone who is worried about safety... I really felt quite relaxed there! Just go.