Our first ever guest post is by no other than Jonny – a real life vagabond who truly defines what it means to get off the beaten path, and leave your own trail!
Jonny started the popular backpacker’s resource Don’t Stop Living, which is by far the best travel blog going ’round. Unlike most travel blogs out there, Jonny provides readers with a unique, enticing publication of his journey around the globe, as he dares to visit places most people didn’t know was possible – such as Iraq!
Yes, Iraq! I’m happy to introduce the readers of Backpacker Adventures to Jonny, since it was Don’t Stop Living that inspired the creation of this site. Hands down, no other travel blog is as interesting, genuine, or helpful as Jonny’s – so after reading his amazing post about backpacking through Iraq, check out his site and connect with him on social media!
Here we go!
Jonny, from Don’t Stop Living
Touring and sightseeing in Iraq is not your normal backpacking adventure, nor would you want it to be. While Iraq hits the headlines normally for the wrong reasons – war, politics, bloodshed etc. I thought I’d give the country a try as a long term traveller and I was completely surprised by it. The northern part of Iraq that borders Turkey, Syria and Iran is the safest part of the country to visit, and is also an autonomous region known as Iraqi Kurdistan. A visa on arrival can be obtained by flying into Sulaymaniyeh or Erbil international airport. The main city in northern Iraq is probably Erbil, which is very friendly and welcoming to tourists and indeed there is a small expat community there and even a Christian region on the edge of the city, known as Ainkawa.
As a point to note, Erbil is often also called Hawler and can also be spelt Irbil and Arbil. Officially it’s the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Locally the Kurds refer to this region as Kurdistan and don’t like the mention of Iraq. Officially they live in Iraq. Politics aside for the basis of this article I aim to be neutral and will refer to the region as Iraq, Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan in equal measures, as realistically it’s all three.
My Top 10 Sights in Erbil, Kurdistan, Iraq
These are my recommended top sights in Erbil. I’ve narrowed this down to a top 10 for you, you’ll need about 3 days to tick these all off properly so bear that in mind and chill out – Erbil is a cool city and is not dangerous for travelling in for the most part.
1. Erbil Citadel
This is the main centrepiece of the city and in reality shouldn’t be missed out. It is quite simply an ancient fortress on a hill, and easily the highlight in terms of major sights in Erbil. The Citadel sits high on a hill overlooking the city’s modern and changing skyline. Erbil Citadel dates back around 8,000 years and sources reckon it is the oldest continuously inhabited place on earth. In reality you can’t miss it when you’re backpacking in Erbil. Entrance is free – just walk around at your leisure and enjoy the views! There’s a textile museum, a shop and a mosque inside its walls.
2. Erbil Square
At the bottom of the Citadel is a square with lots of fountains. It’s a really cool and prosperous place to hang out and meet the locals. The locals mingle here all the time, taking photos, smoking shisha and drinking tea. There are fountains and the place has a modern happy vibe. This is not the Iraq you thought about. This is a cool place.
3. Erbil Bazaar
Bazaars and the Middle East go hand in hand and the area is one of my favourite parts of the world for markets. Erbil’s Bazaar has had an incredible facelift recently, making it one of the nicest Bazaars in the region and even better – one bereft of backpackers, tourists and people trying to sell you stuff. You can bargain things down and pick up some totally awesome Iraqi and Kurdish souvenirs, including Saddam Hussein banknotes, coins, stamps, football scarves and flags.
4. Kurdish Parliament
Security is tight at the Kurdish Parliament and they won’t let tourists inside at all, or even to take photos of the outside. We took a few photos from across the road and walked round its perimeter but please be discreet and don’t forget – Iraq is still a warzone.
5. Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park
The Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park is a massive park in Erbil which is dedicated to the KRG deputy Prime Minister, who was horrifically murdered in a 2004 suicide bombing. The park tries to forget the past and you can relax here if you want. Families and children alike all head here to this leafy park to chill out.
6. 2004 Obelisk Memorial
While you’re in the Martyr Sami Abdul-Rahman Park you should try and visit the 2004 Obelisk Memorial which commemorates the 98 people who died in that horrific 2004 suicide bombing. It’s a poignant and quiet memorial with all the names of those who died written on it, plus the words “Freedom is Not Free” on a stone on the way in.
7. Jalil Khayat Masjid/Mosque
While in Erbil, you have to visit at least one Mosque and the one I recommend is actually the new Mosque which was only opened in 2007. It’s by far the best Mosque in the city in my opinion. With its colourful and intricate design, mosaics and loud call to prayers at dawn and dusk, this is one you need to visit. You might hear it before you see it.
8. Erbil Civilisation Museum
Iraq and the Mesopotamia area are often known as the “cradle of mankind”, so you should check out the Erbil Civilisation Museum which is free to enter and gives a good insight into the history of the region.
8. Minare Park
Iraqis and Kurds love to chill out and this is yet another cool park – this place really does surprise you. An entrance arch which looks similar to Universal Studios in the USA greets you and within the park there is an outdoor path of local heroes and some almost Roman looking pavilions and theatres. The park includes the Sheik Chooli Minaret, which was once destroyed.
9. Shanidar Park
Shanidar Park is another cool park in Erbil, and is opposite Minare Park. It features a modern, cable car ride which offers views of the city. Inside Shanidar Park is also a really trendy arts centre – this is a rare place to pick up postcards and posters from Iraq. From the Pavilion lookout point, it offers great views over the city of Erbil from a distance.
10. Erbil Football Stadium
While Anthony is a fellow football (soccer) fan like me he will appreciate a visit to the home ground of Unofficial Football World Cup Winners!! Indeed the football stadium in Erbil, Kurdistan hosted the 2012 Unofficial VIVA World Cup (for teams not recognised as countries by FIFA). Kurdistan won it. In terms of real FIFA World Cups, Iraq qualified once, in 1986, losing all 3 of their group games.
So that’s my top 10 sights in Erbil, which is a cool spot to check out!
Jonny Blair is a long term hardcore backpacker from Northern Ireland. He doesn’t believe in setting limits or boundaries and he doesn’t like using the word “can’t”. Jonny writes about his adventures as he travels and has visited over 80 countries spanning the last 11 years and has visited every continent. Jonny’s main stories appear on Don’t Stop Living with side projects also running called Backpacking in China and Crossing World Borders. Jonny is also on Facebook and Twitter.