What can I say about Kurdistan that I haven’t already said?
Despite being such a tiny, unknown region located in the heart of the Middle East and belonging to an Arab country named Iraq, which has been in the most absolute chaos and war for the last couple of decades, Iraqi Kurdistan is a country, or place if you prefer, with incredible touristic potential and plenty of amazing sites:
From dramatic and mind-blowing mountain scenery to historical villages, archaeological sites and just crazy adventures.
After scrolling down to the end of the article, I am sure that you will be more than surprised, if not excited to make a trip to this remote and off-beat region which has been extremely safe for the last few years.
This article shows you all the places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan, which I have split into a 2-week itinerary.
For all the practical information, including visas, money, etc. don’t forget to read my 50 Useful tips for traveling to Iraq
In this Iraqi Kurdistan itinerary you will find:
- Day 1, 2 – Erbil
- Day 3 – Visit a Syrian refugee camp
- Day 4, 5 – Sulaymaniyah
- Day 6 – Halabja & Ahmadawa
- Day 7, 8 – Aqrah
- Day 9, 10 – Soran & Rawandiz
- Day 11, 12 – Amedi
- Day 13, 14 – Dohuk
- Day 15 – Lalish
Why visit Kurdistan
There is no single week when my email inbox does not get swamped with, at least, a couple of emails from great travelers who wish to go to Kurdistan, yet, aren’t entirely sure about their safety, meaning that they are a little bit afraid.
It’s perfectly understandable.
I was also a little bit afraid the first time I went there, back in 2016 but, during my second visit in 2018, having more knowledge about the region, I was not worried at all and truth is that I was more afraid of getting robbed or assaulted when I went to Mexico in January 2018 than hitchhiking and camping in random places around Kurdistan. True story.
Kurdistan is a volatile region, nobody can deny that but, it has been safe for the last few years. If you want to know more, read: Is it safe to travel to Iraq?
On the other hand, despite being safe, Kurdistan may not be a country for everybody.
You should know that there is very little tourist infrastructure and, whether we like or not, it is a military country, with endless checkpoints and occasional random restrictions on foreigners.
During my trip, I was once arrested by the Peshmergas, I was forced to camp on the outskirts of a town because I couldn’t find a hotel and, on many occasions, I had to hitchhike because there was no public transportation and taxis there were very expensive.
To be honest though, Kurdistan isn’t as wild as Pakistan or Afghanistan, but just be aware that you may have to face some adventurous situations.
However, if you are not sure about traveling independently, many people travel around with a local guide.
If you want to read my personal experience, check: Tales of backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan: What it is like
Travel Insurance for Iraqi Kurdistan
Another very important point is that you should be careful when choosing your travel insurance.
You should know that, most companies, and that includes famous ones like World Nomads, don’t provide with coverage for Iraq.
Therefore, I highly recommend to buy IATI Insurance, a company that will give you full coverage.
It has loads of different plans for all types of traveler, at a very competitive price.
Moreover, the readers of Against the Compass can get an exclusive 5% discount.
What to visit in Iraq Kurdistan – 2-week itinerary
Most likely, your Kurdistan itinerary will start in Erbil.
However, from an efficiency point of view, it would be better to start in Sulaymaniyah. The city has an international airport, so if you find any cheaper flight, perhaps you should fly in there.
Nevertheless, it is just a couple of hours from Erbil, so it won’t be a big deal if you fly to the capital instead.
If you are crossing into Iraq from Iran, Sulaymaniyah may also be your first destination. That’s what I did.
Anyways, let’s assume you start your journey from Erbil.
Map of the 2-week itinerary in Kurdistan
Click on the image to see the full interactive map
Day 1, 2 – Erbil
It is one of the oldest cities in the world, experts claim that first remains date back from the 28th century BC; today, however, Erbil is a pro-Western, modern capital.
From Erbil’s Citadel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, to the Christian district of Ankawa and plenty of bazaars and epic teahouses, you are going to love Erbil and wish to have more days to spend there.
Top things to do in Erbil
I wrote a full city guide, which you can read here: Things to do in Erbil, a complete guide
Where to stay in Erbil
Super Budget – Layli Baghdad – The cheapest hotel charges around 15,000ID for a single room. You can’t book it online but it is in Bata Street, West of the bazaar. Location: 36.188962, 44.007374
Budget Hotel – Fareeq – This hotel is slightly more expensive than the previous one but it can be booked online and it’s better. It has a good location and comments from everybody are just great.
Nicer – Erbil View Hotel – A very-well rated hotel and the perfect mid-range option. Good breakfast and awesome staff.
Day 3 – Visiting a Syrian refugee camp
One of the most rewarding travel experiences I ever had, not to say the best, was visiting a Syrian refugee camp.
Being able to help, even if it was on a very small scale, those people who are directly suffering the worst humanitarian crisis from the 21st century, was seriously amazing, to the extent that I just can’t explain it in words.
I went to the local bazaar to buy a huge load of toys and distributed them among as many children as I could.
I ran out of toys in a matter of minutes and dude, it was beautiful…
As you may imagine, there are many refugee camps across the region but I went to Darashakran, as you don’t need to apply for any special permit.
That was in back in 2016 but, in 2018, I also tried to visit the camp in Aqrah but, unfortunately, you do need a special permission to get there, so I couldn’t get in.
Anyways. Visiting one of those camps is a must thing to do in Kurdistan, so if you want to read my full story, check: Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
How to get to Darashakran from Erbil
As you can see in the above map, Darashakran is around 45km north of Erbil. There is obviously, no public transportation, but you need a car.
You could try but I personally wouldn’t go in a regular taxi, basically, because it is recommended to enter with a local friend, as he will have to talk to the military standing in front of the gates and I doubt a random taxi driver will know what is going on, if that makes sense.
Just try to find an English-speaking guide or a friend. You can ask your hotel or on Couchsurfing.
Day 4, 5 – Sulaymaniyah
If the open-mindedness of Erbil surprised you, especially after strolling down the streets of Ankawa, only to see liquor shops, churches and quite some expats everywhere, be prepared when you get to Sulaymaniyah, because this is the most westernized city in Iraqi Kurdistan and, of course, in Iraq.
Despite being a predominantly Sunni Muslim city, you won’t see many women wearing hijab but, what surprised me the most is that in all the bars I went into, I always saw mixed groups of both local women and men, something rarely seen in the Middle East.
By the way, you will see that everybody pronounces and writes the city name in a different way: Sulaymaniyah, Slemani, Suli, As Sulaymaniyah, Sulemani, etc. Don’t ask me why.
Top things to do in Sulaymaniyah
Red Security Museum (Amna Suraka) – A must. Basically, this is Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors. It portrays, in a very sobering way, the genocide against the Kurds when Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Kurdistan.
The museum is in what used to be the headquarters of Saddam’s regime and you can still see some of its military tanks and weaponry, as well as the cells where they locked up the Kurds. Moreover, there is a brand-new Islamic State horror section.
Main bazaar – Of course, you can’t miss the city’s bazaar.
Mount Goyzha – A very popular spot among locals, this is a viewpoint from where you get the most amazing views of the city.
Where to stay in Sulaymaniyah
Backpacker Hostel – Dolphin – The only hostel in Iraq is in Sulaymaniyah. Basically, all backpackers stay here. The Wi-Fi is great and the owner organizes different tours and activities.
Nicer – Khan Saray – Top mid-range option in town. Great location and facilities and a super value-for-money option.
Luxury – Hotel Ramadan – Apparently, this was the first 5-star hotel in Iraq and, today, the best one in Sulaymaniyah.
How to get to Sulaymaniyah from Erbil
Despite being quite close to each other, all buses and taxis take the longer mountain route, basically because the fastest road passes by Kirkuk, a not very safe city and, in any case, off-limits for tourists.
The longer route takes a couple of hours.
Local shared taxis – They cost 15,000ID (12.50USD)
Mini-vans – They cost 10,000ID (8.40USD). They are much slower though, especially because they take time to get filled.
Day 6 – Halabja and Ahmadawa
Halabja and Ahmadawa are within Sulaymaniyah’s district and can be visited on a day trip, even by public transportation.
In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranians took over a small town named Halabja and, in response, Saddam Hussein organized a massive attack with the use of chemical weapons, which killed thousands of people in a matter of seconds, mainly Kurds.
The attack was condemned by many worldwide tribunals as a crime against humanity and a real genocide.
Today, Halabja is just a normal town where you find a memorial to the victims of the attack and a museum, which is nothing else than Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors Part 2.
The museum is at the entrance of the city and it opens from 9am to 12pm and from 13pm to 5pm.
How to get to Halabja – From the terminal in Suli, local shared taxis cost 6,000ID (5USD) per person.
Ahmadawa is a mountain village and a major local tourist spot, the top attraction being a waterfall. It’s around 30km from Halabja and I think the best way is to hitchhike.
It took me around 3 rides to get to the village and, from there, the waterfall is just a couple of kilometers away.
The trail that goes up to the waterfall is filled with tourist shops and cafés.
It is nothing outstanding but I find interesting to visit crowded touristic sites in Iraq.
How to go back to Sulaymaniyah
You need to hitchhike back to a larger town named Khurmal, just a few kilometers after Ahmadawa. There is a tiny taxi station but, if it’s late in the afternoon, around 4 or 5pm, there may not be taxis to Suli. Instead, I took a shared taxi to Sadiq Said (2,000ID) and, from there, I paid 3,000ID for a direct one to Suli.
Day 7, 8 – Aqrah
Surrounded by beautiful nature and composed of a good-looking old city and houses, Aqrah (or Akre) is a pretty, photogenic town and one of the most beautiful places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Its history is a bit uncertain and I never found much information about it, but it’s a pleasant place to walk around and meet some nice locals.
I actually met there a very interesting man named Ramzi, a 50-something-year-old dude who had lived in Austria for many years, yet, he had to come back because Saddam Hussein threatened to kill his family if he didn’t come back. He also told me a recent sad story about the Islamic State killing his brother, in revenge because he was working as a translator for the Americans.
If you want to know more about him, read my Tales of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Ramzi is a man with many interesting, yet sobering, stories to tell and it turns out that he also works as a guide in Aqrah. You can contact him at +9647507560154.
I don’t know if he will remember me but you can tell him my name and nationality, no problem. I met him in April 2018 and I am the guy who was, for no reason, kicked out from the Aqrah Refugee Camp director’s house.
If you say this, perhaps he will remember me.
In Aqrah, I just walked around the old city and hung out with Ramzi, who also showed me around. There are plenty of hiking opportunities as well, including a few hours walk to an ancient Christian monastery but I just stayed in the village.
Where to stay in Aqrah
Well, in Aqrah, I actually camped just outside of the city. The locals told me about two hotels, both of them shown on maps.me, but they were closed.
Then they told me that there was a third one named Azadi, which should be open but it was too far and it was already too late, so I just planted my tent in front of a grocery shop and left early in the morning. This Azadi Hotel is right next to the Aqrah refugee camp. Here: 36.73196, 43.869507
How to get to Aqrah
If you are in Suli, you will first need to go to Erbil and, from Erbil, there are local shared taxis that charge 10,000ID (8.40USD) per person. By the way, the road from Erbil to Aqrah passes by Darashakran refugee camp and we actually stopped there to pick up one Peshmerga.
Day 9, 10 – Soran and Rawandiz
Home to the most dramatic mountain scenery, composed of lush green valleys, high mountains, and epic roads that go through them, Soran is a relatively big town, not very interesting to be honest, but the base to go to Rawandiz, a tiny settlement built at the edge of a striking cliff that forms an even more striking canyon.
This place is seriously impressive, mind-blowing and drop-dead gorgeous, like nowhere else you have seen in the region.
Once you are in Soran, you should quickly get to Rawandiz, which is about 7km. You can hitchhike or pay a 5,000ID taxi.
Just hang around, meet friendly locals and go to the edge of the village to see the cliff. Then, get out of town in the opposite direction of Soran, towards Bekhal waterfall, another spot crowded with local tourists. You will have to hitchhike because it is quite far. The location is on maps.me.
The waterfall is all right but if you continue for one more kilometer, you will find a very random beer shop and, in my opinion, the best perspective and view of Rawandiz Canyon. Just buy a beer and enjoy the views. I also continued walking for a few more kilometers and got other beautiful views as well.
Rawandiz is one of the best places to visit in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Where to stay in Soran
In Rawandiz, you only find expensive resorts and hotels but, in Soran, there is a budget hotel named Zagros Hotel, very close to the center in the main roundabout. It was pretty decent and they were asking for 20,000ID but I bargained it down to 15,000ID. This was the location: 36.654925, 44.539426.
How to get to Soran
From Aqrah, there are direct shared taxis which cost 10,000ID.
Day 11, 12 – Amadiya
Amadiya (or Amedi) is my most favorite place in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Basically, it is a 5,000-year old village located on the top of a flat mountain, super gorgeous, and the ancient stone gate to the village is still there, very well-preserved.
Amedi is rather small but there are plenty of things to do around, like hiking to the surrounding peaks to see the village from above because, otherwise, you can’t really appreciate its composition.
The village has been inhabited by several civilizations, including Persians, Christians, Jews and Assyrians and, today, it is a Muslim Sunni village, even though there are a few Christians living there, as there is one liquor store.
For more information, read my guide to visit Amadiya
Where to stay in Amadiya
There are no hotels inside the village but outside, a few kilometers away.
I actually asked a random dude if there was any guesthouse close by and he said that I could stay in the mosque, as many visitors are actually welcome there, so that’s what I did.
I went to the mosque and they told me that I could just lie on the carpet, right next to the entrance, no problem. However, when I had my sleeping bag already set up, some local students came and invited me to their student house, so I was very lucky.
How to get to Amadiya
I came straight from Soran, which is 170km away if you follow the mountain road.
There was, however, no public transportation or shared taxis and, according to a local, you should take a shared taxi to Dohuk and, from there, to Amadiya, which is a very long and expensive route.
Instead, I left the hotel very early in the morning and hitchhiked the 170km mountain road, which took me the whole day, as the road goes through loads of tiny villages, so had to take around 10 different rides, but I made it there just before the sunset.
By the way, on the way to Amadiya from Soran, there is a village called Barzan, which is the hometown of Mustafa Barzani, a national hero and one of the most prominent political Kurds ever.
In Barzan, you can find his tomb (he died in 1979) and memorial, which is also a very popular spot among locals. I was very lucky that one of the families I hitchhiked with wanted to stop there for lunch.
Day 13, 14 – Dohuk
Dohuk is the third city in Kurdistan and a transit spot for people going to and coming from Turkey.
To be honest, I feel that there is not much going on in Dohuk, especially if this is your last destination. I didn’t do much, besides wandering around to the old bazaar, which is very big, but I have already seen hundreds of bazaars around the world.
There is also a river which takes you to a dam and an artificial lake, the top tourist attraction in the city. It was a bit boring.
By the way, on the way from Amadiya to Dohuk, you can stop at one Saddam Hussein’s many summer houses, which is on the top of a mountain from where you get incredible views.
How to get to Saddam Hussein’s summer house
First, you need to go to a village named Sarsang, which is right in between Amadiya and Dohuk. From here, you take a 14-kilometer mountain road that takes you straight to the house. There is no public transportation and a round-trip taxi was charging too much, so I decided to hitchhike.
However, it was raining a lot and, after one hour, no cars passed by so I decided not to go, especially because it was too foggy anyways, so couldn’t have enjoyed the views. If you come on a weekend, you may be luckier.
Where to stay in Dohuk
Budget Hotel – Parleman Hotel – There are some budget hotels around the bazaar but they can’t be booked online. I actually Couchsurfed there but Parleman Hotel is the only one I’ve heard of.
Nicer – Christal Hotel Dohuk – This is the most frequented hotel by most mid-range travelers.
How to get to Dohuk
I hitchhiked from Amedi, stopped at Sarsang village to see if I could go to Saddam’s House and then took a second ride.
If you don’t want to hitchhike, from Amedi you can take a shared taxi which costs 6,000ID. If you are in Erbil, you can easily find both buses and taxis.
Day 15 – Lalish
The last day is reserved for the weirdest and most peculiar place in Kurdistan: Lalish.
Have you ever heard of Yazidism?
Yazidis are a religious group who mainly live across the Middle East, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Russia but Iraq has the largest population.
Their religion is monotheist and it is a mix of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianism, and Judaism. It is a bit complicated so I don’t want to enter into details and I don’t really know it anyways.
One of their holiest places is Lalish, a tiny village in Iraqi Kurdistan which has a very holy Yazidi temple.
The first thing you need to know about Lalish is that you can’t wear shoes but you need to walk around barefoot. At the entrance of the village, there is a police checkpoint and they tell you to leave your shoes there.
However, Lalish is not like those mosques which have very soft floors.
It is a village and the streets of Lalish are unpaved, full of rocks and very hilly.
Yazidis have many curious things. For example, they have one ancient ritual which consists of hugging a very ancient tree and, if you are able to surround it completely and touch your fingers, it means that you will find your true love. If not, you may die alone.
I was actually not only able to touch my fingers but could grab my own hands and, apparently, this means that I will have 4 or 5 wives at the same time. I don’t know, that’s what they told me.
Where to stay in Lalish
There are no hotels. I came here on a day trip from Dohuk.
How to get to Lalish
There is no public transportation either. You’ll have to hitchhike again. I personally took a taxi till the edge of Dohuk and hitchhiked from the highway. Luckily, people like to stop very quickly.
More information to complement your Iraqi Kurdistan itinerary
Are you going to Turkey? After Lalish, I went back to Dohuk and made my way to Turkey on the next day.
Are you going to Iran? Find the full border crossing report here
And find here all my articles and guides to Iran
And don’t forget to also check all my guides and articles to Kurdistan
And all my guides to the Middle East