The Culture & History of Erbil in Iraq's Kurdistan

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Today, most people don’t put Iraq on their top 3 list of places to go for obvious reasons, but if you decide to go, you will inevitably land at some point in the city of Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region. It’s a thriving hub and ultimately where you get a real feel for Kurdish life.

Before I go on, it’s important to note that Erbil is often also called Hawler and interchangeably spelled Irbil and Arbil. On flight tickets and most places around the city, the spelling is Erbil but remember that for the most part, Kurds don’t want an association with Iraq.

erbil iraqi kurdistan

Getting to Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

erbil bazaar and gardens

1. By Air

Erbil has a fantastic state-of-the-art international airport, one where you won’t experience many queues on the way in or out and as you might have read, getting a visa for this part of Iraq is very simple upon arrival at the airport.

2. Overland

To get to Erbil or Iraq overland, you’ll more than likely have either come from Turkey or Iran. The borders to Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are not really easily accessible due to the political situation and Iraq is of course still a war zone. You’ll either be in Duhok (if you came from Turkey) or Sulaymaniyeh (if you came from Iran). From both Duhok and Sulaymaniyeh, head to the Garaj in either city and get a shared taxi. The cost for both journeys will be 15,000 Iraqi Dinars. Erbil is in the middle of Duhok and Sulaymaniyeh, so the time to get there is pretty much the same (roughly three hours).

duhok overland taxi

3. By Sea

Currently getting there by sea is not really an option!

Top Things to See & Do in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq

1. Erbil Citadel

This is quite simply a masterpiece, and probably the highlight in terms of major sights in Erbil. The Citadel sits high and proud overlooking the city’s modern and changing skyline. Erbil Citadel dates back about 8,000 years and apparently is the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. Entrance is free and there’s a textile museum, a shop and a mosque within its walls. (above credit top photo: sarkawtasabir.blogspot. com)

2. Erbil Square

At the foot of the Citadel lies a square with lots of fountains, and locals love to hang out here and socialize while smoking shisha and drinking tea.

3. Erbil Bazaar

The Middle East is one of my favourite parts of the world for markets, normally known in this region as Bazaars. Erbil’s Bazaar has undergone a face lift, making it one of the nicest Bazaars across the countries of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. It was here that I picked up a batch of Iraqi and Kurdish souvenirs, including banknotes, coins, stamps, football scarves and flags.

iraq souvenirs

4. Kurdish Parliament

Security is tight here at the Kurdish Parliament and they won’t let tourists inside, nor are you allowed to take photos of the outside building.  Be discreet in this area however, as you are surrounded by guards and soldiers from the Kurdistan government and tensions are still high as we are in Iraq.

5. Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park

Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park is a massive park in Erbil which is dedicated to the KRG deputy Prime Minister, who was sadly killed in a 2004 suicide bombing. The park itself tries to forget the past and you can relax here. Families and children alike all head here to chill out. Sports, a lake with paddle boats and outdoors cafes and tea shops make this an incredibly relaxing place.

park in erbil

6. 2004 Obelisk Memorial

While you’re inside Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park, you should try and visit the 2004 Obelisk Memorial which commemorates the 98 people who died in that 2004 suicide bombing. It’s a poignant memorial which not only includes those who were killed, but words that help us remember such loss: “Freedom is Not Free”.

obelisk memorial erbil

7. Jalil Khayat Masjid/Mosque

This is a new Mosque in the city of Erbil that was unveiled in 2007. It’s by far the best Mosque in the city with its intricate design, mosaics and loud call to prayer. A must visit!

main mosque erbil iraq

8. Erbil Civilisation Museum

With Iraq and Mesopotamia being known as the “cradle of mankind”, you should check out the Erbil Civilisation Museum which is free to enter. Loads of relics and artefacts from the past will take you on a historical and cultural journey to another time.

9. Minare Park

The entrance arch looks a bit like the one at Universal Studios in the USA, except that there’s also an interesting outdoor path of heroes and Roman looking pavilions and theatres.

10. Sheik Chooli Minaret

This is an old minaret from a Mosque which is no longer there however the minaret remains and is protected. The top of it has been damaged but the Minaret dates back to 1190 and is 36 metres tall.

minare park erbil minaret

11. Shanidar Park

Shanidar Park is opposite Minare Park and features a modern, working cable car ride which offers views of the city. Inside Shanidar Park, there is a fascinating arts centre, a rare place to pick up postcards and posters from Iraq.

shanidar park erbil

The park also offers quality views over the city of Erbil from on top of the arts centre.

shanidar park erbil

12. Erbil Football Stadium/Sport Club

Erbil has an excellent football stadium, this one hosted the unofficial World Cup Final (the VIVA World Cup). Kurdistan were the winners when the final was hosted here in 2012.

13. Outdoor Market

If you’ve already been to the Erbil Bazaar and want to check out another market, the outdoor market is slightly different. It’s more open and features a long road of endless stalls selling everything from football shirts to donuts to fruit to deodorant to toys to Kurdish political stuff. The market is located just behind the main square.

erbil markets iraq

14. Tea In the Square

The main square where the fountains are has loads of tea houses where you’ll only pay 500 Iraqi Dinars for a cup of tea, which is about 25 pence (UK Sterling).

erbil kurdistan tea

15. Erbil International Hotel

This five star hotel in the center of town has two security checks on the way into the hotel as well as one to the very interesting bar on the ground floor. You’ll also see USA, UK, Iraq and Kurdistan flags flying next to each other here.

international hotel erbil

Other things to note if you have time: check out the Kurdish Textile Museum, the Antikqala (Antique place) and a host of other Mosques.

Jonny Scott Blair
Jonny Blair is a self confessed traveling nomad who founded and blogs at Don't Stop Living. He sees every day as an adventure. Since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland ten years ago he has traveled to all seven continents, working his way through various jobs and funding it all with hard work and an appetite for travel. Don’t Stop Living, a lifestyle of travel' contains over 1,000 stories and tips from his journeys round the globe. He wants to show others how easy it is to travel the world, give them some ideas and encourage them to do the same but most of all he aims to constantly live a lifestyle of travel. He is currently based in Hong Kong and on Twitter @jonnyblair.
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