Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and with only one day to go to check out the things to see in Erbil, we were on a tight schedule. Now mention the word Iraq and people think you’ve taken leave of your senses – do your research to find out about the difference between Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan who are hoping for independence and have an autonomous parliament.
Erbil dates back to 6,000 years B.C. and has been inhabited, over the millennia, by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mongols and Ottoman Turks. Erbil is a very safe city to visit and expect to be greeted by warm and hospitable people.
Be in awe of the Jalil Khayat mosque
This Sunni Islamic mosque is the largest in Erbil. Jalil Khayat mosque features external and internal decorations. The internal walls and ceiling look like they could be mosaic but on closer inspection, they are decorated with colourful Zakhrafa (Islamic special painting), scripts of Holy Quran verses, and huge ceiling lamps. The mosque is a fusion of styles, reminiscent of the Muhammad Ali Mosque in Cairo, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
The historical Citadel of Erbil
Settled more than 8,000 years ago, Erbil Citadel is thought to be one of the longest continuously inhabited sites in the world developed over a tell (archaeological mound). The inhabitants were moved out in an attempt to rebuild the last remains of the fortified citadel which is now a UNESCO-designated world heritage site. There is a local guide there who will show you round the hammam and explain some of the history. There’s a rug museum and antique shop but generally the place is still under renovation as of November 2018.
Retail therapy in Qaysari Bazaar
Wander round the Qaysari Bazaar soaking up the atmosphere, marvelling at the Kurdish Delight sweets or select from the most intricate and beautiful hand-made rugs at fantastic prices. As with any of the bazaars, barter you way down to a reasonable figure. The bazaar is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, it dates from the Ottoman period.
Drink chai with the locals
You will see them dotted on most streets, enter the chai houses for a real Kurdish experience – it is only local men inside who play backgammon, smoke a lot and chat the day away, although it’s ok to go in as a woman too, you just don’t see local women in there. The tea is lava hot and they pour so quickly in such a way that you are sure a good scolding is heading your way. We met a local policeman with big guns who seems quite the celebrity in the city.
Kurdish cuisine is a party in your mouth
The Kurdish food is so flavoursome with the abundance of herbs. One seating can leave you stuffed between the kebabs, koftas, falafels, biryani, beans, rice, flatbreads, beet & meat soups, salads… need I go on? Being vegetarian could be tricky in Erbil, kebabs are a big thing in Kurdish culture.
Wander round Minare Park
It was winter when we visited but you can see the park would be buzzing in the summer with rides, cable car, outdoor fitness area. There’s a walkway to the lined with statue heads of previous presidents and prolific figures through the Kurdish history. Looks like renovations are in mid flow as many had a lump of plaster stuck to the end of their nose, hopefully awaiting shaping for their nose job. Muzzafariya Minaret dates back to the 13th century and was built during the reign of Muzzaffar al-Din Kokbari hence the name!
Ankawa, Erbil’s Christian Quarter
Just outside Erbil’s city limits you’ll find Ankawa, the Christian Quarter, with some gorgeous churches to check out. We were allowed to pop into St Joseph’s Church which was set up for a wedding. Ankawa is an expat area so has more nightlife and a row of off licences along the main street selling a full range of alcohol.
Erbil – The essentials
50 countries are able to get a free 30 day visa on arrival or apply online. The Kurdish visa, however, does not allow foreigners to travel to other parts of Iraq, beyond the KRG’s administrated areas. More information found here on the Kurdistan visa requirements.
Where to stay
Fareeq Hotel is a 3 star budget hotel located 5 km from downtown Erbil and Erbil Castle.
Erbil View Hotel is a 4 star venue located centrally and offers a restaurant, fitness centre, communal sauna and airport shuttle.
Ankawa Royal Hotel & Spa is a great place if you fancy splashing out on high end 5 star. Located in the Christian Quarter, a short walk from Syriac Heritage Museum, this hotel has an indoor pool and spa.