Iraq isn't on many people's travel radar. Most folks are likely considering it to be unstable and unsafe. It is true that the last few decades have been very bad for this country with the country seemingly lurching from crisis to crisis, but it is not actually true of all the country. Northern Iraqi Kurdistan is actually safe and very rewarding to visit. Iraq occupies the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and is the classic site of the "Cradle of Civilisation."
So many empires have risen and fallen over these lands including some of the oldest known to man - like the Akkadians and Sumerians. It is the land of ancient Babylon and it is home to the all-important rivers of the Euphrates and the Tigris.
Today northern Iraq is home to the Kurdish people who have the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. This region has been able to maintain relative stability and has been welcoming tourists from around the world for years. People here are very hospitable and will be very glad to see you visiting their country.
One caution though, if you visit Iraq and you are not an American or Canadian citizen, then you will no longer qualify for America's visa waiver program. Tourists to America will then need to get a visa in advance plus all people entering America are likely to be questioned by Homeland Security.
Iraqi Kurdistan: The Facts
- Capital And Largest City: Erbil
- Currency: Iraqi Dinar (In Practice For All Larger Transactions USD)
- Religion: Majority Muslim
When To Go And What To Understand
Iraq is a very hot country and in the summer it can be very sweltering. So it is advisable to go in the spring or autumn to miss the sometimes scorching heat of summer.
Some things to understand with etiquette is that while Iraqi Kurdistan is open and tolerant - especially by comparison to other parts of Iraq - there are some things travelers should be aware of. For men, it's ok to wear shorts here (something that is forbidden or offensive in some other parts of the Middle East). Women do not need to wear any head covering, but they should dress modestly and cover their shoulders and knees. It's fine to drink alcohol here.
Getting In And Getting A Visa
The visa situation is a little complicated as Iraqi Kurdistan is part of Iraq and for Iraq, one needs a visa. But in practice, the Kurdish regional government controls the ports of entry and allows almost all Westerners to visit visa-free for 30 days. But you are only permitted to stay in the Kurdistan autonomous region.
- Visa Requirements: Iraq In General, Visa Required
- Visa Requirements: In Practice Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Only - 30 Days Visa-Free/Visa On Arrival
- Getting In Option #1: Easiest Way The Two International Airports At Erbil And Sulaymaniyah
- Getting In Option #2: Optional By Border With Turkey
Erbil is the capital and largest city of the autonomous region. There is plenty to see and do in this city. In the center, you can visit the ancient citadel of one of the oldest cities in history. You can try traditional Kurdish food and shop in the impressive bazaar located in the heart of the city.
Erbil is centrally located and is likely to be your central base for exploring the wider Kurdish region. Erbil is a modern city complete with modern shopping malls and everything you are likely to need. You can also find a very large ex-pat community.
- Population: 3 Million
- Visit: The Citidel Of Erbil, and The Euphrates River
- Walk Around: Erbil Main Square
- Shop At: Qaysari Bazaar (A Large Covered Bazaar Next To Erbil Main Square And The Citidel Of Erbil)
- Do: Chat With The Local Kurds!
Sulaymaniyah is perhaps Iraq's most progressive city and it sits nestled amongst the Iraqi mountains and boasts some stunning driving and hiking. The variety of the Kurdish language people speak here is different from that spoken in Erbil and many can't understand each other.
Sulaimani Museum: The Largest Museum In The Iraqi Kurdistan Region And Covers Kurdish Struggles And Genocide
Lalish is an absolute must-see if you visit this region. Lalish is the holiest temple of the Yazidi people (the Yazidi are a unique ethnoreligious group in Iraq who are of the Yazidi religion). Visiting this site is one of the most powerful things anyone can do while in Iraq. Here you will see their unique and often untold story and their unique beliefs including that of the "Peacock Angel."
Yazidis are incredibly hospitable and welcoming people - so much so that sometimes it's embarrassing. It is recommended that you hire a translator or guide, you may struggle to find people to speak English to here and it is helpful to have someone explain the etiquette of this holy site.
- Entrance: Free
- What to See: Holiest Temple Complex To The Yazidi
These are just a few of the many things to see and do in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is safe and truly one of the most welcoming places on earth for visitors. But don't expect a lot of developed tourist infrastructure here!