After crossing the border from Iran, my first destination was Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second largest city. I had heard that Sulaymaniyah was a very modern, almost European-like city… whatever that really means. However, I can see how people would describe it in this way. It has high rise buildings for miles and luxurious hotels and fancy restaurants, so it’s probably not what many foreigners would expect. And surprisingly, there’s plenty of things to do in Sulaymaniyah for tourists.
It’s certainly a very rich city (thanks to oil and gas reserves controlled by the Kurds) and before the war against ISIS, it was emerging as the Middle East’s most booming city. Although it certainly had the highest concentration of luxury cars that I’d ever seen in one place, it wasn’t all glitz and glamour. It’s not called the Kurdish cultural capital for nothing, and if you spend most of your time around the central bazaar (like I did) then you’ll still get to see the traditional side too.
The name of the city can also be confusing as it seems to be spelt in many different ways, including: Sulaymaniyah, Slemani, Sulaimani or Suleymani. Just know that it’s all the same. But if you’re heading to Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s definitely worth spending at least a couple of days in the city. This guide will outline all the best things to do in Sulaymaniyah, so you can plan your time.
How to get to Sulaymaniyah
Sulaymaniyah International Airport is around 12km outside of the city centre with both domestic and international arrivals and departures. It’s quite a modern and organised airport controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
However, many visitors arrive by road, either from Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan or from across the border in Iran. I came from Iran and crossed the border at the Bashmarq/Penjwen crossing, close to Marivan in Iran. You can read my guide to crossing the Iran-Iraqi Kurdistan border, if you plan on travelling overland.
Otherwise, there are two ways of travelling between Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. The quicker option takes the road that goes close to Kirkuk and unfortunately, it is not possible to take this route as a foreigner. Firstly, Kirkuk is still not entirely safe and secondly, it is under control of the Iraqi government which means you need an Iraq visa to use the road (and yes, there are checkpoints along the way).
The other option is to take the Khalkan-Dukan Road, which is a longer but safer option. When you arrive at the garaj (bus station) in Sulaymaniyah or Erbil, make sure that you say via Dukan, although locals should know that as a foreigner you need to go that way.
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 from Erbil to 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.
If you’re travelling in the other direction, from Sulaymaniyah to Erbil, shared taxis and minivans leave from the General Bus Station, sometimes called Baghdad Terminal in Sulaymaniyah.
Where to stay in Sulaymaniyah
Without a doubt, most travellers find themselves staying at Dolphin Hostel/Hotel. It’s owned by Shah, a man who’s travelled to over 60 countries, so he understands tourists and their needs. The place is very clean and although the budget rooms are small, it’s good value (for Iraqi Kurdistan). He has free tea, coffee and water available 24/7 and all his staff are extremely friendly.
He’s happy to provide information and recommendations for travel throughout Kurdistan and he has just started the Facebook group Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is helpful for new travellers.
Best things to do in Sulaymaniyah
There’s enough to keep you busy for at least a couple of days in Sulaymaniyah. It’s a great city, with a nice blend of culture and modern attractions, plus plenty of friendly locals to meet.
Bazaar and central market area
The bazaar area occupies the central part of the city around the Great Mosque. There are a couple of covered markets as well as open air shopping streets where you can find anything that you could possibly want to buy. It’s busiest in the late afternoon and early evening when fruit vendors also pour into the streets to sell their produce.
For me, this is also the best area to explore the Kurdish culture and meet friendly people. I walked around the same streets multiple times over consecutive days, just to observe everyday life. There are young kids selling water bottles out of boxes, older men sipping chai on small stools on the side walk while playing checkers, women gazing at the windows full of gold jewellery and students stopping for ice cream at one of the many juice stands.
Amna Suraka Museum or Red Prison
Perhaps one of the most moving and memorable experiences in Kurdistan is a visit to the Amna Suraka or Red Prison, known by the Kurds as the House of Horrors. From 1979 until 1991, Saddam Hussein’s secret intelligence service, the mukharbarat, used the facility as their headquarters and centre for torture and imprisonment during the al-Anfal Campaign, known as the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people.
It was liberated in 1991 by the Peshmerga or Kurdish forces and was turned into a memorial and museum in the early 2000s. It’s free to visit and there are English brochures at the main office, as well as a few staff who speak English who are happy to explain how to explore the complex (as there are no signs indicating which buildings are open).
The first building you’ll be directed into is the Hall of Mirrors which was once the canteen for the Ba’ath party officials. It is now covered in 4, 500 light bulbs indicating the number of villages destroyed and 182, 000 pieces of broken glass for every Kurd killed during the al-Anfal Campaign.
Outside, the Iraqi army’s tanks and artillery left from when the Peshmerga liberated the prison are still scattered in the courtyard and you’ll notice that the buildings are still decorated in bullet holes from the conflict in 1991.
Other buildings also house displays such as one dedicated to Kurdish culture and the Peshmerga. The old prison and torture rooms have been mostly left as they were and are a chilling place to walk through, with graffiti and carvings still remaining on the walls done by the prisoners.
There is also another building explaining the al-Anfal Campaign, which documents the chemical weapon attacks on Kurdish villages through incredible images and film. Finally, a new museum has also been opened dedicated to the fight against ISIS and the Peshmerga’s role in defeating their advance in Iraq.
After two hours there (some people spend even longer), I was ready to leave with a heavy heart but also a much greater understanding of the Kurdish people and their history.
The Slemani Museum is the most important archaeological museum in the Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s the second largest museum in all of Iraq, and is divided into three galleries filled with artefacts from throughout Middle Eastern history.
It’s located walking distance from Amna Suraka Museum, so you could easily spend an entire day split between the two museums.
Chavi Land Amusement Park
Chavi Land is Sulaymaniyah’s amusement park and a huge attraction for families and Iraqi tourists. It’s situated on the hill north of the city centre and you need to purchase a plastic card to enter, pre-loaded with funds to spend on rides, if that is your intention.
My main purpose for going there, however, was the cable car that runs up the hill above the city to a beautiful viewpoint with a restaurant and cafe. It’s a beautiful way to spend an evening and I would highly recommend going at sunset for an incredible view over the city. You can simply pay just for the cable car which is what I did.
Hawari Shar Park
Despite, still being under construction, it is considered one of the biggest parks in the Middle East. When completed, the park will be vying for recognition as one of the largest urban parks in the world. Covering 1000 square kilometres, the efforts have planted around 3000 plants so far with ongoing works to landscape the entire place.
You can drive around the park in a vehicle or get out and head off on foot. There’s also a large Roman style amphitheatre where concerts and outdoor festivals are often held throughout the year.
Goizha Mountain Lookout
Goizha Mountain stands tall to the east of the city behind Chavi Land Amusement Park. The incredible mountain top offers one of the best views over the entire city. It’s a steep drive up there on a paved road, but it’s one of the most popular places for locals to watch the sunset and enjoy a picnic.
In the winter, the mountain is covered in snow, with locals heading up there to play in the fresh powder on a weekend.
Day trip to Halabja
From the Sharazwr Station near Family Mall south of the main bazaar area in Sulaymaniyah, you can take a shared taxi to Halabja for a day trip. Halabja is just 1.5 hours southeast of Sulaymaniyah close to the border of Iran. It’s known as being the site of the terrible chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein in the attempt to wipe out the Kurdish population in March 1988.
Halabja is now a quiet town, but you can find the Halabja Monument or Martyrs Monument at the start of town. It’s a memorial and museum dedicated to the crimes against humanity that Saddam committed in the region during the war. It’s a very saddening place to visit, but is another way to understand the history and plight of the Kurdish people.
To get back to Sulaymaniyah, ask people in Halabja for the garaj and they will point you in the right direction. Shared taxis leave for Sulaymaniyah when full. You can easily do this as a day from the city.
Exploring more of Iraqi Kurdistan?
Check out more of my posts on Iraqi Kurdistan:
- A Travel Guide to Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s Capital
- Why You Should Explore Akre, Lalish and Alqosh
- A Complete Guide to Travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan