In July 2017 I spent a few days in Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent tourist.
I got my visa on arrival without any concerns (Irish passport). I flew into Sulaymaniyah and departed from Erbil.
Accommodation: I stayed at Dolphine Hotel (basic but recommended) in the middle of Sara Square market (which is an experience in itself).
Amna Suraka (Red Security): Free entry. I’m generally not into museums, but this place is definitely worth checking out. It is housed in one of Saddam’s old torture facilities and the buildings are pretty much bullet-holed shells. Be sure to walk around the entire compound as it’s not well sign-posted and seems much smaller than it actually is. It is incredibly well preserved and I was the only tourist here.
Azmr Mountains: These mountains are fantastic and where I spent every evening. So many locals hang out here drinking, smoking and eating. It’s definitely a popping spot and the views are unreal. Some areas of the mountain are apparently infamous for certain activities, which many people laugh about and mention when you say you’re going there!
If you walk a couple of kilometres along the road you will eventually reach a place that sells drinks and has a cable car down to an amusement park (Kurdish style, obviously), which is close to the centre of town again.
I loved Sulaymaniyah and it was the highlight of my trip to Kurdistan. I rarely felt unsafe and the very few minor uncomfortable experiences I had tended to be when in taxis alone (shared are fine).
I also spent some time in Park Azady walking around. It is near lots of popular sheesha places where I spent a huge portion of my time.
I only had a short stay in Erbil, however I really loved my time there. I got there by shared taxi from Sulaymaniyah, which departs from a station called Baghdad Station (although most people will direct you towards Baghdad city when you ask for directions!). It was slightly difficult to organise this as communication was challenging, but I eventually managed. Note: people refer to Erbil as “Hawler”. The journey took approx. 4 hours (stopping mid-way at a restaurant, where I was questioned by some smiley official briefly). I asked to be dropped off at Erbil Citadel (with my basic Kurdish/Arabic!).
I was there in early-mid July; a few days before the referendum and although tensions were high, most of it was positive.I was greeted by this demonstration the day I arrived in Erbil. My bag was checked numerous times and it was chaos! It was a family event though and did not really feel threatening.
Some snapshots of the vegan food I ate in Kurdistan:
Kurdistan is an extraordinary place to visit and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is a very misunderstood nation and I feel that I made a lot of true friends there. I did not take photos of the best moments as I was too busy enjoying myself. Good luck!