Erbil is Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital and 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 and I had young girls ask for a selfie. 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.
Everyone who visits Iraqi Kurdistan comes to spend at least a day in Erbil. While there might not be as many things to do as in Sulaymaniyah, I definitely suggest allowing a couple of days to soak up this incredibly fascinating place and its friendly locals. Here’s my guide to Erbil, for any tourists hoping to visit Iraqi Kurdistan.
How to get to Erbil
Erbil is home to Erbil International Airport, which is the main airport in Iraqi Kurdistan. It has regular flights to Europe, Asia and other destinations in the Middle East.
If you’re travelling around Iraqi Kurdistan, then Erbil is easily connected to most places by taxi and shared minivan.
If you’re coming from Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in Kurdistan, then there are two road options.
The quicker option takes the road that goes close to Kirkuk and unfortunately, it is not possible to take this route as a foreigner. Kirkuk is still not entirely safe and it is under control of the Iraqi government which means you need an Iraq visa to use the road.
The better option is to take the Khalkan-Dukan Road. Shared taxis and minivans leave from the General Bus Station or otherwise known as Baghdad Terminal in Sulaymaniyah for Erbil. They leave when full which is quite regularly throughout the day. Most locals will know that you need to go via Dukan, so they’ll point you to the right vehicle.
In Erbil, shared taxis and minivans depart from Garaj Sulaymaniyah, which is slightly to the south of the city centre in Erbil. This is where a congregation of vehicles are waiting to fill with passengers.
A minivan between Erbil and Sulaymaniyah via Dukan will cost around 10, 000 dinar (AUD$12) per seat (a shared taxi will be more expensive). The trip took around 4.5 hours with a lunch stop and four military checkpoints where ID is checked along the way.
From the north west of Erbil, Duhok is the third largest city in Iraqi Kurdistan. Most minivans and taxis travel via Mosul between Duhok and Erbil. For foreigners this can be a problem, if you don’t have an Iraq visa as the city is still unstable. However, most drivers will know this and they tend to stay on the outskirts of the city anyway.
There are shared taxis and minivans leaving from Duhok’s main garaj or Bus Station in the middle of the city.
Travelling in the other direction, Erbil’s main bus station and transport hub is known as Erbil Terminal, next to Shaykh Ahmad and Family Fun Mall. From here, you can take buses and shared vans to cities in Northern Iraq, as well as, international buses to Turkey.
Where to stay in Erbil
There is plenty of accommodation to choose from in Erbil. While I wanted too stay close enough to the main bazaar area so that I could walk around, many foreigners choose to stay in Ankawa neighbourhood to the north of the city centre. This is where you can find many foreign offices and aid organisations, wand has traditionally been known as the Christian neighbourhood in the city.
Some of my hotel recommendations for Erbil include:
Janet Bludan Hotel || This budget hotel 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. I loved my stay here, as the staff were extremely friendly and I could walk to most places. Check availability here.
Fareeq Hotel || One of the most popular budget options in Ankawa area 5km away from the bazaar, this hotel is common amongst foreigners. The staff are super friendly and will help you with your stay in Erbil City. Check their availability here.
Erbil Quartz Hotel || For something nicer, this hotel is located close to the city centre and is a nice 4-star hotel with an indoor pool, Wi-Fi and a restaurant. Very convenient place to stay and foreign tourists have said the staff are lovely. Check availability here.
Things to do in Erbil
All the exciting action happens in the main bazaar and city centre. It’s dominated by the impressive Citadel and main square, which is where people congregate every evening. While there’s not a whole lot to do in Erbil, it’s worth spending some time to soak up the energy of the place.
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 just above the main square provides a great panorama of the city, 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.
The main square is in front of the citadel and beside the main bazaar. 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 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 smile on my face.
Tea culture and cafes
The one thing you’ll notice in Iraqi Kurdistan and Erbil is the tea drinking culture. There are coffee and tea shops everywhere, some just being a small street side vendor. 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 any of it. It is 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 claims that 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.
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.
Jalil Khayat Mosque
I stumbled across this mosque when I was walking back into the city from an ATM (see below) 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.
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.
Finding a bank and ATM in Erbil
ATMs are hard to come by in Iraqi Kurdistan and it’s truly still 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 to see 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 that accepted foreign cards 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 opting to take the long walk back into the city and stumbled across the Jalil Khayat mosque on the way, so it was worth it.)
I met a US citizen who was working in Erbil 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!
Exploring more of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Check out my other posts about Iraqi Kurdistan:
- Best Things to Do in Sulaymaniyah
- Why You Should Explore Akre, Lalish and Alqosh
- A Complete Guide to Travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan