Erbil: a guide to Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital

Everyone had raved to me about Sulaymaniyah. However, it was actually Erbil that I came to really like. 

The city is Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The central citadel has been continuously lived in for 7000 years, and is now a built up, manmade hill jutting out of the city centre, as one generation after another have built and rebuilt the city after foreign invasions.

The square and bazaar around the citadel were always buzzing with activity but at around sunset the place really came to life. I met so many people who just wanted to come and talk to me. I met market vendors who wanted their photo taken, I was interviewed by local UN staff for a film project, I had a conversation with a college student for his English assignment, I was bought water and chai and coffee, I had young girls shyly ask for a selfie and I returned evening after evening to be waved at by the same people like an old friend. It was a really incredible city to be in and I could have stayed longer to just walk the bazaar one more time and sit in the central square one last evening. 

Here is a part guide and part personal experience of my time in Erbil.

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Erbil main square and citadel
Erbil main square

Erbil’s citadel

Officially recognised under UNESCO in 2014, the old, walled city is seeing a revitalisation that will likely take years. From the outside, it’s an impressive sight and dominates the centre of the city, as most of modern Erbil spreads outwards from the citadel itself. It is free to enter and roam around inside, however, most of it is under construction and there really isn’t much to see other than crumbling old houses and construction workers.

The main gate provides a great panorama of the city and main square, and is particularly popular at sunset.

There are, however, some good museums inside and it’s clear that they’re trying to turn the city into a real cultural hub for tourists to one day come and explore Kurdish history. The best museum and worth the small 1500 dinars (AUD$2) ticket, is the Kurdish Textile Museum. It was opened way back in 2004 and is housed inside a renovated mansion inside the citadel. The displays are beautiful and written in English. Even if you’re not interested in carpets, it’s a great introduction to Kurdish culture.

Textile museum Erbil
Erbil main square

Main Square

The main square is in front of the citadel and beside the main bazaar and with its water fountains and numerous street vendors, it’s impossible to miss. It comes to life at sunset time, when tourists, families and locals all go to sit, drink chai and ponder life.

Around the afternoon and evening, there is also a small side walk market run by men on the east side of the main square near the clocktower. There is always a crowd there bargaining and discussing over mostly prayer beads, but also clothes and antique watches. I walked up and down through the small market a couple of times each night and I could not get over how friendly the men were. They always wanted photos and to know where I was from and what I was doing in Erbil. I always left in the evening back to my hotel with a happy heart.

Erbil market vendors
Erbil market vendors
Kurdish prayer beads

Tea culture

The one thing you’ll notice in Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil is the insistent tea drinking culture. There are coffee and tea shops everywhere, some just being a small street side vendor with short stools to sit on. There are also plenty of people walking the bazaar and main square selling tea and coffee out of flasks. I drank plenty of tea in Erbil, mostly because I had people pour me a cup without even asking and I’m almost certain I never had to pay for a cup. It was a part of the Kurdish hospitality.

The most famous tea shop is on the edge of the main square, underneath the main gate of the citadel and next to the only group of souvenir shops I saw in Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s called Machko Cafe and always has tea drinkers spilling out onto the pavement. It’s considered potentially the oldest, continuously running tea shop in the city and is now run by the grandson of the founder. It’s been open since the 1940s and it’s claimed every important person, dignitary, intellectual, writer and activist have sat to drink tea there at least once. It’s also one of the only tea shops where women and men can drink tea side by side and people are extremely friendly.

Kurdish tea culture

Bazaar

The bazaar reminded me of the ones I had strolled around in Iran; a large covered area selling everything from sweets and dried fruits to clothes and headscarves to Kurdish flags and knock-off Nikes. Plenty of the traders were friendly and some even spoke enough English to ask where I was from and explain what they had for sale. I spent nearly an hour inside a large shop tasting all the sweets, dried fruits, chocolate and nuts for sale. And of course, he bought me a cup of tea as well.

Kurdish sweets
Erbil bazaar

Jalil Khayat Mosque

I stumbled across this mosque when I was walking back into the city from an ATM (see below why!) and it is incredibly beautiful. Relatively new, it was opened in 2007 after being built by a wealthy local family and it can hold up to 2000 worshippers at prayer time. It’s a worth a look if you have time.

Parks

The Middle East really does love a good park. Most cities have a few of them, which can be a nice escape after the concrete jungles that are Middle Eastern cities. Erbil’s most popular park is Sami Abdulrahman Park, which is also built on top of a former military base like Azadi Park in Sulaymaniyah. It’s a huge green area that is popular for picnics and exercising.

Cash Erbil
Currency exchange market

ATMs and money

ATMs are hard to come by in Iraqi Kurdistan and it’s truly a cash economy. In Sulaymaniyah it is possible to find a couple within the city centre, however, in Erbil it’s basically impossible. I spent an entire morning trying to find an ATM and I only found one that didn’t accept foreign cards. I decided to just go inside a bank to ask where I could find an ATM. I immediately had all the friendly security guards asking me what I needed and when I said ATM, they began discussing the whereabouts of one. After none of them actually knowing anything about ATMs, they finally said, “Just go see bank manager.”

So I walked into the bank manager’s office, who I was delighted and proud to say was a woman, and she was holding a meeting with a couple of people. She ushered them out and then proceeded to call a number of banks to see where an ATM I could use would be. I suggested an Iraqi bank because that was what I had used in Sulaymaniyah. So she grabbed a customer who was doing his own business at the bank and told him to drive me to the Bank of Baghdad, a few kilometres outside of the city.

I jumped into the car with him, he was a teacher and happened to speak good English. He drove me out to the bank and I told him I would find my own way back as I was already overwhelmed with how much people were going out of their way to help me. (I ended up taking the long walk back into the city and stumbled across the Jalil Khayat mosque on the way.)

I found a US citizen who was working in Erbil also there at the ATM and we laughed together about how ridiculous it is that there’s so few of these machines and they just so happen to be way outside of the city centre. But, just ask for help and you will get it in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Jalil Khayat mosque Erbil
Jalil Khayat Mosque

Restaurants 

As in Sulaymaniyah, the local restaurants all offer the same affair; meat, bread, rice, beans and maybe, eggplant if you’re lucky. I ate mostly at one of the restaurants on the outside of the bazaar, facing the main square and they were always happy to see me, “My friend!”. However, in Ankawa neighbourhood, the predominately Christian area of the city, you’ll find restaurants and bars serving all sorts of international cuisine, as it’s where the city’s large expat community mainly resides. Some locals hate the area, but if you’re not on a ‘budget’ then as a foreigner you’ll likely end up there.

Erbil food
Local restaurant near the bazaar

How I got in

I took a minivan from Sulaymaniyah that went via Dukan rather than Mosul. To take the road via Mosul you need to have a proper Iraqi visa and not just a Kurdistan stamp, and people have been caught out without a proper visa and had to turn back. The trip took 4.5 hours and cost 10, 000 dinar (AUD$12).

The driver was so nice to me (he’d paid for my lunch and bought me water and chai) and when we arrived in Erbil he got me a taxi to take me to the hotel I’d booked.

You can read about my time in Sulaymaniyah here.

Where I stayed

Janet Bludan Hotel which was USD$25 per night for a double room, single occupancy. It included a very nice breakfast and decent Wi-Fi. It’s the most popular budget option for foreigners as it is just 10-15 minutes walk from the main square. Yusef, who works in reception, speaks fluent English and is a very nice person who will help with anything. He is a Syrian refugee and told me his story over the course of my stay there. His entire family is still in Damascus and he hopes to one day soon find his way to Europe; a dream unfortunately many of them have and which is extremely difficult to realise in the current world climate.

Another option for people willing to pay a bit more, is Fareeq Hotel which is in the Ankawa (Christian) area of the city and a popular place for foreign tourists.

How I got out

To get to Duhok, Kurdistan’s third largest city and my last destination, I did something quite unusual for me. I booked a private transfer through a local tour guide which included a stop in Akre, Lalish and Alqosh on the way. To see the three places as individual day trips using public/shared transport would have taken a lot more time and effort and with the cost of shared taxis it probably would have cost me the same money in the end anyway.

So I contacted Haval, one of two known tour guides in Iraqi Kurdistan (they are both active on Facebook, WhatsApp and Tripadvisor), and although he wasn’t available himself, he arranged a driver for me. The entire day took 10 hours with the three stops included and it cost me USD$125.

Otherwise, there are shared minivans and taxis from Erbil to Duhok available.

You can read about this day trip I did here.

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