This week, we wanted to dispel the misconceptions that surround the beautiful region of Kurdistan- first hand.
Located in the northern region of Iraq, Kurdistan is known for its friendly, multi-ethnic population. However, having endured difficult times as the target of Saddam Hussein’s attacks in the past, Kurdistan is highly misrepresented even today. Not only is it flourishing with economic development, but it has long veered from the narratives of war and terrorism that many people continue to associate it with. With mesmerizing mountains, intricate mosques, and mouth-watering lamb dishes, it’s also a place of healing.
Here’s how we spent 36 hours in Kurdistan.
36 Hours in Kurdistan
9:30 AM: Visit the Home of an Old Kurdish King
Built in the 1800s by Mohammed Pasha Jaff, the Kurdish King of the Ottoman Empire, the Shirwanah Castle served as both the private residence of the Jaff tribe, as well as the administrative center.
From time to time, artifacts would emerge following the heavy rainfalls dating back to the Sasanian, Umayyad, Abbasid, and Kassite eras. Look out for these artifacts as you explore the castle’s recently installed museum!
11.00 AM: Site of the Largest Chemical Attack Against Civilians
One of the most famous yet devastating incidents that occurred in the Kurdish city of Halabja was the chemical attack that took place on March 16, 1988. Also known as the Halabja Massacre and Bloody Friday, this attack was orchestrated by Saddam Hussein that killed over 5,000 people using poisonous mustard gas. The Halabja Massacre is regarded as one of the largest chemical attacks against civilians in history.
Today, the Halabja Monument is a significant landmark where people from all over the world gather to pay respect to the victims of the massacre.
12:00 PM: Explore the Old Headquarters of Iraq’s Secret Intelligence
Named after the red bricks that make up its walls, Sulaymaniyah’s Amna Suraka Prison, also known as Red Prison was once home to the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s Secret Intelligence Agency. The Mukhabarat played a key role under Saddam Hussein’s reign and contributed to the government-planned genocide known as the al-Anfal Campaign from 1986 to 1989. This included the gassing of Halabja.
Today, this site has been converted into a museum and is no longer the center of horrific scheme-planning. As you walk down the hallway of mirrors, notice the 4500 ceiling lights- one to represent each village that Saddam Hussein’s army once destroyed.
1:00 PM: Tasty Erbilian Kebabs and More!
Voted as the spot for kebabs, Kebab Yasin takes meat grilling to the next level. Not only are kebabs a favorite among visitors, but it’s also a staple of local Kurds. The history of this dish goes back to when Turkish soldiers used to skew large pieces of freshly hunted animal meat onto swords and grill it on open fires. The oldest known account of the kebab dates back to 1377!
2:30 PM: Slippery Waterfall
Take a drive to the mountainous region of Kurdistan and dip your toes in the gushing waters of the Bekhal Waterfall. This was by far one of the most instagrammable spots of Kurdistan, but be careful as you climb up the rocks because it can get slippery!
5:30 PM: See the Replica of A Neanderthal Cave
Located just south of the Erbil Citadel is Shanadar Park, a modern park known for its iconic rock cave that sits at the center, the fun play areas for children, and onsite local art exhibitions.
You might be wondering about the significance of the pile of rocks at the center of the park! After some research, we learned that it is actually a replica of the Shanidar Cave, a site in the Bradost Mountain where the skeletons of 8 adult and 2 infant Neanderthals were found!
In spite of being surrounded by city buildings, the nature and design of Shanadar Park make it a relaxing spot for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
7:00 PM: Lamb Soup and Hummus!
One of the highlights of Kurdish cuisine is the extravagant lamb dishes. In fact, lamb is the primary meat of Kurdish dishes and it is typically served with tomato and bean soup or sabzi (vegetables). We heard Abu Shahab City serves the best lamb in town, so we had to try it out for ourselves!
9:00 AM: See Hypnotic Painted Ceilings at the City’s Largest Mosque
The first landmark we’re bringing you to this morning is Jalil Khayat Mosque, a Sunni Islamic Mosque located in Erbil. Not only is it the largest mosque in the city, but it also has the most beautiful interiors.
You can’t leave Jalil Khayat without looking up at its ceiling full of intricately designed shapes and colorful patterns. The experience was hypnotic, to say the least. Make sure to snap a photo while you’re at it- it’ll look like you were looking into a kaleidoscope!
10:00 AM: Ride a Cable Car to a Mountain Spa
Perched on top of Mount Korek at 1690 meters is the hidden Korek Mountain Resort and Spa. To reach it, visitors need to ride a cable car that starts in Bekhal.
Tucked away in the trees of Mount Korek, this resort and spa offer cozy cottages as your home away from home and a variety of activities ranging from hiking and spa treatments to skiing.
12:00 PM: Try One of Iraq’s National Dishes, Quzi
One of the most popular dishes in Iraq is the Quzi, a rice-based dish topped with lamb, roasted nuts, spices, and raisins. It is then buried in burning coal for its distinctive smoky flavor.
The history of Quzi goes back to when Arab immigrants brought the technique to Turkey. Today, there are many variations of the dish such as madfoon in Yemen and shuwaa in Oman and UAE.
1:30 PM: Toys, Shopping, Family Fun and More
Family mall is exactly what its name entails, a place for the family to go where there’s something for everyone to do. From shopping, the movies, a child care center, and an endless selection of dining options, Family Mall is top-notch in terms of its ability to cater to each member of the family.
Family Mall is also known for its outdoor entertainment called Family Fun, which draws large crowds every Thursday and Friday night. We recommend arriving early to join in on the fun!
3:00 PM: Soak Up the Sun at Aqua Tarin
If the weather is nice, head to Aqua Tarin, the largest outdoor water park in Iraq for some afternoon water fun. Tackle the Black Hole ride if you’re a thrill-seeker, or float along the lazy river if you want to relax under the sun.
5:30 PM Hike To The Neanderthal Cave
Remember the replica of the Shanidar cave at the city Park? Today we’re bringing you to witness the real deal. Hidden in the Bradost Mountains is the very cave that Neanderthal remains from 10,000 years ago were found. To get to the cave, take a short hike, and enjoy the surrounding nature that Neanderthals once inhabited many years ago.
7:00 PM: Pizza & Ice Cream Because Why Not?
To unwind from our eventful last day in Kurdistan, we headed to Casper and Gambini’s for some delicious pizzas and ice cream desserts.
This one really hit the spot, 100%.
Leave Your Prejudice at Home
One of Kurdistan’s most unique qualities is the underlying tolerance of its people who come from many different ethnic divisions. Despite having undergone a series of trying circumstances in the past, Kurds are known for their love and affection towards visitors. After our sojourn through this part of northern Iraq, we can confidently say that Kurdistan is a place that expels all misconceptions! Far from the popular narrative of war, Kurdistan is a place of immense beauty and unparalleled kindness. We can’t wait to visit it for real.
How to get there
The easiest way to travel to Kurdistan is by plane. There are many affordable flight routes that run from other parts of the Middle East and Europe to Kuridstan. Additionally, you are also able to cross the borders from Iran and Turkey by car, but travelers should check whether the borders are open.
When to go
The best time to visit Kurdistan is in May when the mountains are green and the temperature is warm.
For the US, Canada, Australia, and EU passport holders, a visa to enter Kurdistan is not necessary. However, for other nationalities, an e-visa may be required. You should contact your KRG representative for more information and instructions on how to apply for one.
The national currency of Kurdistan is Iraqi Dinars, however, you will also be able to pay US Dollars at many places.
The official language of Kurdistan is Kurdish.
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