Cheap flights to Iraq? What’s there to see and do in Kurdistan

The war may be officially over, but Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Well, that is, most of Iraq. The northern enclave of Kurdistan is, in contrast with the rest of the country, relatively peaceful and safe for travellers (we emphasise the world relatively). In fact, as of writing there are no FCO restrictions on travel to the Kurdistan Region (For US readers, at time of writing the State department describes the Iraqi Kurdistan Region as “more stable relative to the rest of Iraq in recent years”, but threats remain.)

The featured image is by Kurdistan Photo كوردستان.

Naturally, Iraqi Kurdistan’s challenging nature makes it attractive to the adventurous traveller. The absence of foreigners and western culture as a whole, the bemusement of locals upon seeing a foreigner, the myriad of security checkpoints, the sense of discovery – all these are reasons why a traveller might be willing to take on the marginal risks of exploring this region of Iraq.

What makes Kurdistan different from the rest of Iraq?

The Kurdistan enclave in northern Iraq is semi-autonomous. Ruled independently by its own government, the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan gained de facto independence after an uprising in 1991. The region’s autonomy is now enshrined in the Iraqi federal constitution.

Arabs largely populate Iraq, but this portion of the country is populated by Kurds, a different society marked by its own language, culture and approach to religion. Kurdish people inhabit not only Iraq, but also portions of southern Turkey, Syria and northwestern Iran. Many Kurdish people claim the sum of the territories as a Kurdish State.

Given its de facto independence, the region was untouched by the 2003 conflict that enveloped the rest of the nation.

What’s there to see and do in Kurdistan?

Beautiful mountainous landscapes, ancient cities (there are settlements dating more than 9,000 years, and the city of Erbil is said to be one of the oldest inhabited cities in history), bustling bazaars and incredibly friendly, curious and welcoming Kurds.

How to get there?

Independent travellers can keep costs down by crossing the border from Turkey (see this well-written, albeit slightly dated account, by an American on Lonely Planet’s forum). We highly recommend reading travel blogger Wandering Earl’s extensive guide covering visas, accommodation, food, transportation, fees and internet service.

Alternatively, adventure travel companies have begun are offering expensive all-inclusive tour packages to the region (this UK company offers trips with, and without, flights from the UK).

Warning

Kurdistan does still experience pockets of violence, particularly in disputed territories. Independent travellers should do detailed research into which areas are safe before travelling.

Always consult with the FCO (or State Department) website before travelling anywhere in Iraq or other dangerous territories.

Great Mosque, Erbil, Kurdistan

Great Mosque, Erbil, Kurdistan. Photo by james_gordon_losangeles

Shanidar Cave, an archaeological site in the Bradsot mountain, Zagros Mountains in Erbil Governorate, Kurdistan

Shanidar Cave, an archaeological site in the Bradsot mountain, Zagros Mountains in Erbil Governorate, Kurdistan. Photo by james_gordon_losangeles

Firûzan village, Kurdistan

Firûzan village, Kurdistan. Photo by james_gordon_losangeles

Shanidar Cave archaeological site, Zagros Mountains, Erbil, Kurdistan

Shanidar Cave archaeological site, Zagros Mountains, Erbil, Kurdistan. Photo by james_gordon_losangeles

Kurdistan

Kurdistan. Stitched panorama by Blaise*

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…