Why you should add Iraq to your Indie/RTW trip
Despite what you might have heard on the news, not every part of Iraq is at war or is dangerous.
- In fact, the northern region, Iraqi Kurdistan is very accessible and safe these days.
- Iraqi Kurds and the Kurdistan Tourist Board try to promote their region as "the other Iraq", sidestepping the "war zone" completely.
- Iraqi Kurdistan has some of the most friendly people you'll ever meet in the world. They are very welcoming and will want to stop by for a chat when they see a backpacker.
- There are no big brand name restaurants here, so the food is local, fresh, affordable and comes in vast quantities.
- You will rarely encounter other travellers, giving you a real and authentic insight into what Kurdish life is all about in this part of Iraq.
- To see for yourself that the media hype over war zones like Iraq always neglects to mention that parts of the country are safe, people are friendly and the range of things to do is impressive.
- You can pick up some unique Iraqi and Kurdish souvenirs, such as postcards, stamps, coins, banknotes and football scarves, all from the current and previous regimes in the country.
Indie Travel Tips
When travelling independently in Iraq, you will need to act sensibly at all times and respect the locals. Make sure you always have your passport on you - you will be asked for it at every checkpoint and in every hotel. This is just standard procedure and is nothing to worry about. Your bags may be checked occasionally as well.
- Eat in local restaurants and markets with the locals - you will find the people very friendly and the food surprisingly good.
- Try and avoid the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk as they are not considered safe for foreign travellers.
- Explore the Citadel in Erbil - it's believed to be the longest running continuous settlement on earth.
- Use shared taxis between cities. Safe, reliable and always a set price.
- Always carry your passport and be ready for checkpoints.
- Trust the prices of things. Locals here rarely try to rip you off.
- Try not to refer to the Kurdistan region as Iraq - the Kurds don't like it and they call it Kurdistan only.
- Avoid Southern Iraq until the political situation changes in the country.
OverviewWhile Iraq is currently still recognised as a war zone, it is completely open to backpackers and independent travellers venturing into the northern part - the Iraqi Kurdistan region. While still officially part of Iraq, in the Kurdistan region you will meet a lively mix of Iraqis, Kurds and even Christians. These days a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan is no longer a dangerous, crazy travel idea, but a reality.
Most travellers who do venture into Iraqi Kurdistan come away raving about it. The same cannot currently be said about the southern part of Iraq, which is sadly off limits unless you happen to be stationed out there or working there. However the entire country is still recognised as a war zone, so this is still important to bear in mind.
Getting a tourist visa for Iraq
Most Nationalities can get a visa on arrival, either overland or by air. This will be an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa and doesn't allow you to visit the southern part of Iraq, and the notorious cities of Baghdad, Al Basra or Babylon. The visa is issued free of charge to citizens of the UK, the USA, EU countries, Canada, Australia and Japan. A few other nationalities may also be included in this process. A good overview on the visa procedure on arrival is here: Getting an Iraqi Kurdistan Visa on Arrival.
Visas that cover the whole of Iraq are a longer and more stringent process at present.
What to see
Iraqi Kurdistan is a great place to explore and has more activities and sightseeing than you could imagine. Erbil Citadel, the mountain village of Amadiya, charming Duhok, the Christian Quarter of Ainkawa and cosmopolitan Sulaymaniyeh are five main points of interest. But there are many others.
Arguably the most significant sight however is Iraq's first museum, the Amna Suraka Red Security Complex in Sulaymaniyeh. This building was one of Saddam Hussein's "houses of horrors" and provides an honest yet shocking account as to the damage done to Iraq's Kurds during the Ba'ath party regime. A visit is not for the faint hearted, a detailed account of visiting Amna Suraka can be found here.
Aside from the sights, a mix of local tea houses and international bars give the Kurdish part of Iraq a much more worldly appeal than you'd expect. Alcohol is served readily and at decent prices in the main towns and cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Visiting the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the rumoured location of the Garden of Eden are currently off limits for most travellers to Iraq, as they are too close to the war zone, however this will hopefully change in the near future.
You have two main options for getting into Iraq as an independent traveller:
- Go overland from Turkey. These days, the border from Turkey into the Kurdistan part of Iraq issues visas on arrival to the nationalities mentioned above. The situation can change frequently so it is best to contact the Kurdish Government ahead of your visit just to check.
- Fly into either Erbil or Sulaymaniyeh International Airports. Both Erbil and Sulaymaniyeh have regular international flights and are easily accessible and booked through airline companies. Erbil is the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and also has the largest airport. There are direct flights weekly to Amsterdam, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Doha, Dubai, Adana and Istanbul.
Where to stay
Erbil and Sulaymaniyeh have an abundance of hotels, from budget to high end and the Parlaman Hotel in Duhok is the nearest thing Iraq has to a hostel. Most independent travellers just turn up and book their accommodation when they arrive, rarely finding a hotel to be full. Booking in advance or online isn't very common for any part of Iraq, and even the Kurdistan region fails to make it onto the list of many top hostel and hotel booking websites.