Why Go to the Kurdistan Region?
The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has an impressive history and a formidable culture. The Erbil Citadel, for one, is the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. You can find many archaeological places of interest in the Kurdistan Region: such as the remnants of the Battle of Gaugamela or the Aqueducts of Jirwan and Khanis, probably built around 700 BC. Kurdistan is also much appreciated for its pristine nature: rivers, mountains, lakes! Everything is beautifully wild in the Kurdistan Region. Last but not least, the Kurdistan Region has a mixed society that gathers Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans Christians, Assyrians, Turkmens. You will find a mixture of languages, religions, and ethnicities that is quite unique.
Is it Safe to Travel to Kurdistan?
The region is stable and safe, having an extremely low crime rate. The Kurdistan Region was not invaded by IS and it has remained a stronghold of security in the Middle East. There are checkpoints in the region and security is very tight all over Kurdistan, particularly at the airport.
Having said that, as in every large city such as Erbil, there is always the risk of minor crimes like pickpocketing.
How to Get to Kurdistan
You can travel to the Kurdistan Region either by air or by land.
- By Air
From Western Europe and other parts of the Middle East, you can easily fly into Erbil and Slemani, the two biggest cities of the Kurdistan Region, which respectively have two international airports. Austrian Airlines has a direct connection to and from Erbil every day. Some airlines will connect via Istanbul and Dubai.
- By Road
Kurdistan has several borders with Turkey, Iran and Syria. Those who do not need a visa for Iraqi Kurdistan can enter through these borders. These are the land borders that are still open:
Turkey – The main crossing is at the Ibrahim Khalil/Habur border. From Turkey, there are regular shared taxis leaving from the town of Silopi which will take you through the border and into the town of Zakho in the Kurdistan Region.
Iran – The popular border post is the Haj Omaran crossing located along Hamilton Road that leads from Iran directly to Erbil.
Syria – The border crossing if found between the two cities of Al Bukamal in Syria und Al-Qaim in Irak.
How to Get a KRG Visa
Most nationalities can enter the Kurdistan Region of Iraq without a visa, including US, Canada, Australia, and EU passport holders. For other nationalities, you will need an e-visa to enter the Kurdistan Region. In order to do so, you should contact the nearest KRG representation to you and find out how to apply for one. Here is a list of KRG representantations around the world.
Note: the e-visa will only grant you access to the Kurdistan Region and is valid for 30 days.
When to Travel to Kurdistan
Spring, specifically May, is the best time to travel to the Kurdistan Region. It’s when all the landscapes in mountainous Kurdistan become lush and green. Temperatures are also mild and pleasant, around 25° C in the day and 15° C at night.
Kurdistan can be extremely hot in summer (between June to September) with temperatures rising to almost 50° C. Winter can also be very cold, with snow in many mountainous areas.
For travel throughout the Region, bring some comfortable shoes and clothes. In general, though, try to make sure to cover your shoulders and knees.
Where to Stay in Kurdistan
Accommodation in the Region is generally quite affordable and comfortable, offering good value for money. Most hotels have really good Wi-Fi.
Couchsurfing is also very popular in the Kurdistan Region. There are hundreds of active profiles in big cities like Dohuk and Erbil, and Kurdish hospitality is legendary!
What to Eat in Kurdistan
As with many other Middle Eastern cuisine, Kurdish food is mostly about meat. Grilled meat is the staple in Kurdistan and you’ll find shish kebab restaurants everywhere. In a casual sit-down restaurant, you should expect to pay around 3000-5000 dinars (US$3-5) for a meal.
Kurdish dishes include dolma (stuffed grape vines), shila u brinc (the Kurdish national dish made of chicken and rice), and okra bamiya (a tomato-based stew). The best places to try these foods are usually in private homes. Kurdish hospitality is famous, so don’t hesitate to say yes if you get invited to peoples’ home.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan, you should not worry. Kurdish cuisine have plenty of meat-free or dairy-free food: grilled vegetables, rice with almonds and raisins, and especially freshly made naan with hummus or baba ganoush and much more.
Of course, expect to drink a great quantity of tea, or chai, and be careful with the amount of sugar!
How to Connect in Kurdistan
Internet is fast and easily available in the Kurdistan Region and several foreign operators have roaming contracts with local companies. You can easily get a SIM card that has 4G data, but it will not be super cheap. You can get mobile signal almost everywhere (even on the top of a mountain).
SIM cards as well as phones are easily available at the airport and bazaars (especially the one in Erbil). Kurdistan’s main telecom companies are: Asiacell, Korek, and Zain.
However, the vast majority of hotels has free Wi-Fi that is fast and stable. Some shisha cafes or tea houses might also have free Wi-Fi.
How to Pay in Kurdistan
The currency in the Kurdistan Region is Iraqi dinars, just like in the rest of Iraq. There are ATMs at the airport and also in some of the bigger hotels. They are however not easy to find outside of the big cities, so it is always advised to bring cash.
The best solution is to bring some USDs to exchange at the Citadel or in the hotel. You can easily exchange USDs and Euros in Erbil and Slemani, mainly in the Citadel and other parts of the city centre. Also, if you pay in US dollars, you will receive change in Iraqi dinars.
The Region is relatively cheap: expect to pay around US$30-50 per night for a single room in three-star hotels, and $5 for a proper meal with meat and rice, or a shawarma/falafel sandwich for just $1-2.
What to Do at Night in Kurdistan
The big cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Slemani have a very active nightlife. It is not uncommon to see groups of people spend time in restaurants and cafes. In the summer, hotels often open rooftop bars which are populated by young people until late night.
How to Behave in Kurdistan
As in many situations with foreign culture, showing respect and courtesy at all times and expressing gratitude for hospitality is the best way to go. Kurds are very welcoming, so it is not uncommon to get invited into people’s homes for lunch or dinner. Drinking alcohol is not prohibited, but only few restaurants serve alcohol and this can be quite expensive.
How to Communicate in Kurdistan
The Kurdistan Region is officially bilingual, the two languages being Kurdish and Arabic. However, it is not uncommon that especially young generations will only be able to speak Kurdish. There is a great variety of Kurdish dialects, but Standard Kurdish, which is spoken in Erbil, is the Sorani dialect. People in the Erbil Bazar, in shops as well as in hotels and restaurants will most likely be able to speak English.
Find out more:
Kurdistan Board of Tourism: http://bot.gov.krd/
AUA daily direct connections to Vienna-Erbil: Austrian Airlines Erbil