Location: 3 hours south of Dohuk by shared taxi and 2.5 hours away from Sulamaniyah
Population: 1,300,000 (approximate)
As the official capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and the largest city in the region, Erbil is full of life and activity. It is also growing quite rapidly as new construction projects are currently underway all over the city. There is even a modern western-style shopping center (Majidi Mall), a well-equipped international airport and even some nightlife (although I doubt you would travel here for the bar scene). And of course, travelers will find no shortage of opportunities for exploration within the city limits. Erbil is an easy place to stay for a few days, especially considering the impressive Erbil Citadel (Qalat) in the city center. It’s also a perfect central base for visiting the rest of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Most budget accommodation in Erbil can be found below the main entrance to the Citadel, along the side streets that branch off of Qalat Street and surround the main bazaar. Hotels range from very shabby to very nice and even budget travelers should have no problem finding a good room for a decent price. Upon arrival in the city, it may be best to take a taxi to the Samra Miss Hotel (see below), a large, well-known quality option that is located in the middle of the hotel zone. From here, a few minutes walk in any direction will lead you to dozens of more accommodation options.
Here is a list of several hotels…
Qandeel Hotel – Directly opposite the main gate of the citadel, this hotel offers okay rooms with television. Not all rooms have a private bathroom and you do have the option of paying less for a bed in a shared room instead of paying for a private room. Rooms cost approximately 20,000 ID and a bed in a share room normally runs 10,000 ID.
Zheen Hotel – Tucked down a small lane off of Bata Street, this is a no-frills hotel with plenty of budget rooms that have private bathrooms and windows. Room rates begin at 25,000 ID per night. They also have share rooms for around 15,000 ID per bed.
Hotel Shahan – Nothing fancy, but a somewhat comfortable hotel with good-sized rooms (2 beds in each), private bathrooms and television. Located on the main Qalat Street, and while visible from the street itself, you must walk into a small collection of shops to reach the entrance. Rooms start at 25,000 ID per night.
Shakhan Hotel – The small, but modern and spotless rooms may be a little overpriced but you can’t really complain given it’s perfect location below the main entrance to the citadel. Rooms cost 40,000 ID (single) and 60,000 ID (double).
Hotel Bekhal – Almost always recommended by travelers who stay here, this hotel offers clean rooms, reliable hot water, perfect location and a friendly atmosphere at a bargain price of around 25,000 ID per night.
Samra Miss Hotel – With super-friendly staff and excellent rooms, this place is often sold out, and for good reason. It’s location is ideal, it’s clean and the prices are reasonable for what you get. Rates are typically 40,000 ID – 60,000 ID per night. (If this hotel is sold out when you arrive, there are many options on the same street – Bata Street – including the Shakhan Hotel, the Hotel Bekhal and at least 5 other decent options.)
Erbil International Hotel (aka “The Sheraton”) – While not officially a Sheraton, it’s local nickname fits given the more upscale atmosphere and expensive rooms. This hotel offers much of what you might expect from a relatively high-end hotel, complete with international restaurant, bar and travel agency. All you need is to dish out about $200 per night and you can have a room!
Things to Do (in the city):
Erbil Citadel: Considered to quite possibly be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (dating back at least 6,000 years), this hilltop citadel in the center of current day Erbil marks the original boundaries of this community. All but one family was evicted in 2007 in order for the government to carry out extensive restoration work, yet visitors can enter the settlement and wander through the eerily deserted neighborhoods and even climb to the rooftops of many of the empty homes.
Kurdish Textile Museum: Located inside the citadel, this museum is worth a visit for a glimpse into the local culture.
Minaret Park: The main focus of this park near the center of the city is the Mudhafaria Minaret (aka Choly Minaret), a 36m high minaret that is over 800 years old.
Erbil Bazaar: This covered (Qaysari) market is one of the largest traditional markets in Iraqi Kurdistan, located just below the citadel and consisting of a significant maze of alleys full of shopkeepers and vendors.
Ainkawa: Located on the outskirts of the city center, this is the Christian Quarter of Erbil, a collection of neighborhoods that offer a different perspective on life in Iraqi Kurdistan. Walking down these streets one will find a variety of restaurants, shops, bars and of course, churches.
Things To Do (Around Erbil):
Khanzad Castle: Less than 20km north of Erbil lies this hilltop stone castle that was built during the Soran period of 1816-1835.
Shaqlawa: This Christian-majority town is a popular tourist destination for Iraqis who want to get away from the summer heat (it is 1000m above sea level). Located at the foot of Safeen Mountain, it is surrounded by beautiful green scenery.
Salahaddin’s Fortress (Dwen Qalat): Located near the town of Shaqlawa, this site is home to the ruins of a 1000- year old castle believed to be associated with Salahaddin, a Kurdish Muslim who led the opposition against European Crusaders during the 12th century.
Rabban Beya Monastery: An approximately 1 hour hike from Shaqlawa leads to this 4th Century monastery that was built into a rock crevice close to the top of a mountain. The somewhat difficult hike is also rewarded with incredible views over Shaqlawa and the valley below.
Hamilton Road / Gali Ali Beg: A journey along the Hamilton Road passes through some dramatic limestone landscapes as you travel within the Gali Ali Beg canyon. In the middle of the canyon lies Iraqi Kurdistan’s most well-known waterfall, the Gali Ali Beg waterfall. This road leads all the way up to the border with Iran.
Bekhal Waterfall: Another waterfall located within the Gali Ali Beg canyon.
Choman: The town of Choman offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in all of Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, the mountains in this region offer several hiking opportunities for travelers. If you do plan to hike, it is recommended that you have a local guide or that you follow the advice of local villagers. Several of the mountains are heavily mined as a result of the Iraq-Iran War.
The center of Erbil is very walkable although you will need to take a taxi to reach the outskirts of town or the Ainkawa Christian neighborhood. The usual cream and orange taxis are everywhere and the standard rate is 3000 Iraqi Dinars to destinations within the Ring Road that surrounds the city center and 4000 Iraqi Dinars to places beyond the Ring Road but still within the city limits (such as the airport, Directorate of Residency or Ainkawa).
How To Get To Erbil:
Shared taxis from both Dohuk and Sulamaniyah run often throughout the day, ensuring that Erbil is well connected with the rest of the region. Rarely will you have to wait more than 15 minutes for a shared taxi to depart. For shared taxi fares to/from Erbil, please visit the “Getting Around” page.
If you are flying into Erbil International Airport (and are traveling independently), once you pass through immigration and customs you will be required to board a shuttle bus that will take you to a small parking lot a few minutes away from the terminal building. Taxi drivers will be waiting in the parking lot to take you into the city. (To save some money, you could walk 10 minutes down the airport’s entrance road, away from the airport, until you reach the main street. From here you can flag down any taxi and the price into the city center will be much cheaper.)
For a more detailed map that includes additional destinations and travel routes, check out “Maps & Itineraries“.