Prepare to immerse yourself in one of the most archaeologically rich places on the planet. With over 3000 archaeological sites in Iraqi Kurdistan alone, this country not only holds the remnants of the past; it is also unspoiled by tourism. Nature lovers will be pleased to discover breathtaking mountain ranges and backpackers may rejoice that there are plenty of outdoor adventures. Iraq is where you’ll find markets free of tourist gadgets, because why would a merchant carry these things when there are seldom tourists to buy them?
This dynamic country has two distinct regions: Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the northern, mostly independent autonomous Kurdish region, and the rest of Iraq as you know it. Although we hope to travel all of Iraq someday, thus far, we have only traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, which is easy to get to and safe to travel. The rest of Iraq is tricky to travel for a western tourist, particularly as visas are hard to obtain and the security situation is extremely volatile. Until things settle down, it’s safer to ignore the rest of the country and focus on Kurdistan. For now, the following information and all of our Iraq articles are about the gem of a region Iraqi Kurdistan, a place of unending beauty and home to the kindest people on earth, the Kurds.
Shia Muslim 75%
Sunni Muslim 25%
Yezidi, Jew, Other 2%
Region: Middle East
Capitals: Baghdad, Erbil
Population: 40 000 000
Languages: Arabic, Kurdish
The hospitality of Kurds is unmatched by any other culture we know. Dine, dance and converse with locals (even if you don’t speak the language).
The museum and memorial cemetery in the war-torn town of Halabja gives an unapologetic look into the reality of chemical warfare.
Walk barefoot as you explore Lalish, the holiest shrine and pilgrimage site of the elusive Yezidis.
The mountains and valleys around Amadiya are a sight to behold, not to mention the city itself, perched a rock plateau reminiscent of biblical times.
Costs in Iraqi Kurdistan are slightly higher than in Turkey. However, lack of tourist infrastructure will limit your spending opportunities and help you save money. A 1.5 liter bottle of water will cost you $0.4 USD, a simple shawarma meal will cost $0.85 USD and a meal at a sit down restaurant could be $5 USD. A taxi within town is usually $1.6-$4.18 USD, more if you’re going farther than 10 kilometers. Lodging is pricey, but not as expensive as some say, with a budget hotel room and private bathroom costing around $25 USD per night, with plenty of cheaper options available. Couchsurfing is a great opportunity here, both to meet locals and save some money. Cities generally do not have public transport systems, so taxis, shared taxis and hitchhiking are the ways to move.
Although flights into Baghdad are frequent, the danger of the region for western tourists is a deterrent. Not to mention getting a visa to Iraq is totally different than getting one to Iraqi Kurdistan. Stick to the latter. There are two international airports in Iraqi Kurdistan: Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The best flight deals usually arrive with Turkish Airlines and Pegasus. We caution against buying your flights months in advance just because the region has occasional flight bans that will disrupt your plans. In this case, we favor coming overland from neighboring Turkey. Visas to Iraqi Kurdistan may be obtained upon arrival for most western nationalities.
Despite the neighboring Iraq region being very unsafe for western tourists, Iraqi Kurdistan is safe. In fact, we’ve never felt safer and more protected in a country. People watched out for us, helped us, invited us to partake in their daily activities, and in general made us feel welcome. We felt comfortable hitchhiking and all of our encounters with locals, including police and military forces, were positive. If your faith in humanity is low, we recommend visiting Iraqi Kurdistan. Always drink bottled water and avoid uncooked produce unless you can peel it. Most travel insurances won’t cover you in Iraq, so think twice before you test your luck. Remain aware of the security situation prior to your arrival, including near the border and refrain from venturing into mountainous areas without checking with locals first. Rumor has it the PKK group lives in the outskirts of towns and Turkey happily bombards them without warning. Foreigners have been arrested by Iran for venturing too close to the border on foot.
When to go
We almost always recommend traveling on the tourist “off season,” because you can generally find more discount this way and explore sites without crowds. In Iraqi Kurdistan, there really is no tourist season except for religious holidays. Avoid June-early September as this is summertime and the temperatures can get uncomfortably hot. Fall (October-November) is a nice time to go when temperatures are lower but the rain and snow haven’t arrived yet. We traveled in Iraqi Kurdistan from late November-early December and days were getting increasingly overcast and sometimes rainy. March is said to be a great time to be in Iraqi Kurdistan because this is when people celebrate Nowruz, or spring equinox.
Why we love Iraq
Iraqi Kurdistan lends itself to some of our favorite aspects of traveling. It’s cheap, the people are friendly, the food is delicious, and it is off the beaten path. Being in this fertile region feels like being a kid in a candy shop. There are so many opportunities to see and do things that you never dreamed of experiencing! You get to interact with an ancient culture who is happy to educate you about themselves and their traditions. On a random hitchhiking pick-up some Iranian truck drivers taught us the difference between eating a pomegranate the Kurdish way versus the Iranian way. In Duhok a local taught us about traditional Kurdish music and took us to see musicians perform. In Sulaymaniyah two brothers we met broadened our knowledge of the Kurdish genocide and chemical attacks on Halabja by Saddam Hussein. This is a very special place that we will certainly return to next chance we get.