Best 21 Things to Do In Erbil (Travel Guide) · Iraqi Kurdistan

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Moving to a new country every two years

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Welcome to beautiful Erbil, the biggest city of Iraqi Kurdistan!

Based on my experience of living for two years in one of the most ancient cities in the world Erbil (also called Hawler in Kurdish), I’ve made this comprehensive Erbil travel guide.

You’ll learn about the top 21 must-dos while in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, plus the best places to eat, do groceries, how to get around and the best things to buy. Yalla!

Table of Contents

Things to do in Erbil · Explore the Ancient Citadel and bazaar

Among things to do in Kurdistan and Erbil, visiting the ancient Citadel is number one on the list!

Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s a city full of history and cultural gems, and the Citadel is undoubtedly the most famous part of the city. 

The Citadel of Erbil dates back more than 6,000 years. It is one of the oldest places in the world where people have always lived, so it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

There is still one family that actually lives inside the old fortress to keep the world record!

Check out my cinematic travel video for an impression of this fascinating area.

This famous site is full of Mesopotamian history. It has seen the rise and fall of many cultures, making it an archaeological treasure. The form of the Citadel is a mix of different building styles, which shows how different cultures have affected the area over time.

The most accessible place to park, if you’re by car, is the parking area near the back entrance of the Citadel (Costs: 1000 dinar which is 75 cents). After parking, you can walk up to the rear entrance and start your trip.

Once inside the Citadel, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into an old middle eastern movie.

The Citadel also has several museums that tell more about the area’s history. Inside the Citadel is the Kurdish Textile Museum to see beautifully made fabrics and learn about traditional weaving methods passed down from generation to generation.

The Erbil Civilization Museum is also a must-see. It has items that show how the city has changed over time.

Next to the Erbil Civilization Museum, you will find an old souvenir shop where you can buy money used in the time of Saddam. It’s an incredibly unique area.

On the other side you will have an amazing view over the Erbil main square, the center of Erbil. I absolutely loved walking around there right in the heart of Erbil.

Check out my full post about the area of the Citadel in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. (Coming Soon)

Location Parking:

Things to do in Erbil · Meet the Kurdish locals

One of the most extraordinary things about traveling is meeting locals. They can give you new perspectives and share information you will not find anywhere. The Kurdish people are among the most friendly, open, and welcoming people I’ve ever met.

In the city of Erbil, you’ll meet friendly people happy to tell you about their lives and customs.

When you walk around the old center, locals will surely come up to you, ask where you’re from, and perhaps take a picture with you. They are always kind and interested.

Talk to the locals at the busy bazaars, the cute tea shops, or while you’re visiting the historical places. If you spend time getting to know the people of Erbil, you’ll learn a lot about their history, habits, and way of life.

The people from Erbil are very proud of how well they make tourists feel at home, going above and beyond to ensure they have a great time. I’ve had several occasions when complete strangers said: “If you need anything, just let me know!” or they would offer me a bottle of water, for example.

The kindness and friendliness of the locals will stay with you forever, from the traditional Kurdish meals they serve to the heartfelt talks they share.

The Citadel in Erbil in Kurdistan is one of the best locations to meet locals, much easier than in many other countries in my experience.

Things to see: Visit the Jalil Khayat Mosque

When you’re looking for things to do in Kurdistan, besides the Citadel, one of the most interesting structures in Erbil is the Jalil Khayat Mosque.

It is the largest mosque in the city.

The mosque is open for visitors and tourists outside of praying hours. It was actually built as a tourist attraction in mind, I’ve been told.

Among things to do in Erbil, Kurdistan, it is worth a visit when you are in Erbil. When I was visiting the mosque, it was closed, but someone was so kind to us to open the mosque and gave us a tour. I was allowed to take pictures and walk around in this vast empty mosque. It shows again how friendly the Kurdish people are.

The inside was beautiful; there were stunning colors and details on the ceiling and walls.

I’ve also been to the massive mosque in Oman called the Sultan Qaboos Mosque and the blue mosque in istanbul. Those are a lot bigger, but the Jalil Khayat Mosque in Erbil is in an excellent second or third spot, at least.

It is best reached by car and parking is free like almost everywhere in Erbil.


what to do in Erbil: Hiking!

In Kurdistan, there are several traditional activities on weekends; one of the most famous is, hiking!

The closest mountain to Erbil is Safeen (or Safin). It is about 45 minutes driving from Erbil, depending on where you park.

You can drive all the way up the mountain or park your car at the bottom and hike to the top, which is the most fun way!

A photo with a Barzani (Kurdistan President) scarf is mandatory on the top of the mountain!

You’d be surprised about the rich nature of the area. As you climb up the trails of Mountain Safeen, you’ll see fantastic views that will blow your mind. In the distance, you will see the town of Shaqlawa, and even further, you will see snow-peaked mountain tops. Snow in Iraq!

With its beautiful green grass, rocky rocks, and colorful flowers (during spring), Safeen is a feast for the eyes that will surely make you feel better. It feels more like being in Austria than in Iraqi Kurdistan.


Mountain Safeen is where you can escape the busy world and find peace and quiet. This area is the perfect place to relax and recharge because it is quiet and hasn’t been touched by humans.

If you’re thinking about what to do in Erbil; this is one of the best places to visit in Erbil.

Best location for driving up the mountain:

Best location for parking to hike up the mountain:

When is the best time to visit Mountain Safeen?


Hiking on Mountain Safeen during winter time is actually a great and unique experience. In winter time during the day, it is usually around 8 degrees. When you go hiking to the top, it will be around 0 degrees. Most of the time, days are sunny, which are perfect hiking conditions.

Bring some BBQ equipment and do a winter BBQ!


The mountain’s flora and fauna will be at their peak during the brief spring season (about March to June). You will see an enormous variety of flowers and plants, salamanders, and butterflies.

If you want to spot more wildlife like vultures and mountain goats, you will have to go to mountains a bit further away like mountain Barzan.


This will be the longest period of the year and also the hottest. If you prepare well, bring enough water, and take it easy, it is doable to hike in the mountains. Personally, I find it too hot.

Try to avoid weekends!

Something I learned along the way, avoid the weekends! And that’s not Saturday and Sunday like you will probably be used to, but Friday and Saturday. In most of the middle eastern countries, the weekend is on Friday and Saturday. You can compare Friday to Sunday, like in most Western Countries when everybody is off from work and visits family.

But, one thing many people do on Friday in Kurdistan, and I mean MANY people, is go hiking and picnicking. So, if you want peace of mind and just drive relaxed to the mountains, try going there from Monday to Thursday or Sunday.

The traffic jams on Friday especially are crazy; everybody goes out of the city to picnic with the family. Going on a Friday is an adventure in itself, but if you want to have the most relaxed experience, avoid going on a Friday.

Preparing to hike on Mountain Safeen

  • Tell someone about your hike plans and when you think you’ll be back for safety.
  • If possible, go with a local who knows the area.
  • Plan your trip based on the weather and make sure there aren’t any warnings or limits.
  • Bring along essential things like water, snacks, a first-aid kit, and a map of the paths.
  • Respect the environment by following the Leave No Trace principles, which say you should only take memories and leave nothing behind.
  • Avoid street dogs. Most of them are harmless, but when you’re out in the mountains with nobody around, it’s always good to be extra careful and not approach them.
  • BBQing is allowed everywhere.
  • Bring some coal, lighter fluid, Turkish coffee, and a Turkish coffee pot to make delicious Turkish coffee on top of the mountain.
  • Finally, people are super friendly. If anything might happen, they will help you, provide water or assist you in any way they can.
Read my full post about the Majestic Mountains of Kurdistan.

Erbil's closest town: Shaqlawa

The closest village near Erbil is Shaqlawa. It’s on the foot of Mountain Safeen. When you’ve been hiking for a day on the mountain, it’s a great opportunity to visit Shaqlawa and the busy market and streets.

Erbil has a certain international touch to it; Shaqlawa is 100% local, which is nice to experience.


Hiking: Mountain Korek or Barzan

If you have more time than the mountains, Korek or Barzan are a must-see. But! This area is not safe to visit solo.

You need a local guide that knows the area. You are entering terrain close to Turkey and Iran’s border, which is unsafe, so please be careful. Korek is the safer option of the two but Barzan has the upper hand on wild life.

That said, both areas are incredible. I never expected there to be so much nature, green, and wildlife. It’s just completely different than the image I had in my mind when I moved to Iraq. These areas are one of the most epic things to visit in Iraq.

I stereotypically expected a lot of sand; boy, was I wrong. But that’s the beauty of traveling to get new perspectives and insight into countries and cultures.

View the city from rooftop bar Dusk

Back to the city!

If you’re looking for things to do in Erbil, such as going out. This bar has one of the best views in the city. It’s a rooftop bar that can open and close its roof; how awesome is that? They have fancy cocktails, nice snack food, and Hookah. The panoramic view is incredible; you’ll be able to see the city and the mountains.

Try some of the famous Iraqi Shisha, or Hookah as it is also called. Tip for starters: go for the lemon-mint flavour! It’s the mildest one.

Keep in mind that visiting the bar is only allowed for couples or groups including women. Guy groups are most of the time not allowed.

Be amazed by the wedding photoshoots at Empire World

If you want to learn more about Kurdish culture, you must visit Empire World. It is the number one area for wedding photoshoots. You will see at least between 3 and 6 wedding photoshoots at the same time during the entire day.

Why is this interesting to see? Well, everyone is fully dressed in traditional clothes. The wedding dresses are purple, blue, gold, white, and red and are accompanied by golden necklaces.

The brides are wearing typical Kurdish make-up, and the guys have their hair done in a traditional Kurdish way. It’s one of the most authentic things you’ll ever see. If you are looking for things to do in Erbil than this has to be on your list.

You can have a drink at one of the bars and restaurants and watch the Kurdish folks celebrating a beautiful wedding day.

Unlike avoiding Mountain Safeen on Friday, this area in Empire World is perfect for visiting on a Friday. You will see a lot of wedding photoshoots with entire families. Sometimes it gets so crowded that there are wedding photoshoots on the side of the road. It’s a truly fascinating experience!

Read my full post about Kurdish weddings.

Shopping: Gulan Mall and Family Mall

If you are looking for things to buy in Erbil and do some shopping, then there are two main malls in Erbil. The most luxurious mall is Gulan Mall. It’s a shopping mall focused on brands and more high-end stuff. On the top floor, you will find an excellent food court with sushi, pizza, salads, and kebab.

Family Mall feels more local and is a more fun experience.

If you want to park in the parking garage below the mall, security guards will check your trunk, so keep that in mind.

Gulan Mall:

Family Mall:

Walk around at Sami Abdul Rahman Park

Sami Abdul rahman Park is not in my top favorite things to do in Erbil, but it is relatively easy to visit, and it is pretty big. The thing is, there are several power generators running on gas in the park that can pollute the air quite a bit.

But it is an interesting area to visit. You can get some Turkish coffee, picnics, and go horse riding, there is a running track and a cable cart, but I’m not sure if it works.

Across the street, there is this dystopian abandoned building, that was never finished, with a huge Pepsi sign on it. As a photographer, I find this quite the fascinating image.


Buy BBQ equipment and go picnicking in the wild

As I said, hiking and BBQing are the one of the most famous things to do in Erbil, and perhaps all of Kurdistan. So, you will find many little shops that sell BBQ equipment. You can BBQ in the park or take the car outside the city and find a nice quiet place.

Go to Mountain Safeen or drive right behind Shaqlawa, where you will find a vast valley where there is plenty of space to BBQ or to drink some chai.

You don’t even have to bring a BBQ! A roster, some coal, and lighter fluid are enough. You can easily build a BBQ from big rocks lying around, living an adventurous life, BBQ’ing the Kurdish way!

Visit the small town of Akre

About 1,5 hours drive from Erbil is the small Kurdish town, Akre. It is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world. It is famous for its massive event during Kurdish New Year’s Eve.

You can visit the market and walk up to the most famous restaurant in the town, where they serve the best Kurdish food you will find.

I recommend going there with someone who knows the area so that you don’t get lost.

Read my full post about visiting Akre.


Nightlife in Erbil: Go to The Spot

If you are in Gulan Mall, then make sure to have a quick stop at The Spot. This bar is an international bar with live music. Many people that visit Erbil are surprised by the modern surroundings, and this bar is part of that.

Attached to the bar is the German Bottle Shop, where they sell German bottles; who would have guessed? You can buy imported German beer but also anything ranging from Corona to more strong beer and many different kinds of wine. The prices are actually really reasonable!

It’s fascinating to find all these international locations in Erbil.

Many of my friends are expecting surroundings like in Baghdad or like they have seen in documentaries in Iraq. Erbil is quite different; you’d be surprised about this modern city.


Nightlife in Erbil: Basilis

There are quite a lot of clubs and bars in Erbil. The nightlife in Erbil is very much alive , but many of the clubs are entirely commercial and more focused on Arabic music. In Ankawa, there are a few more underground clubs that have a bit more of a Berlin vibe.

One of them is Basilis. During the week, it’s a bar that also serves very delicious pizza, but on Thursday night, it is a proper club with one of the best vibes in town.

If you want to go out clubbing, I recommend this place.


Top things to do in Erbil: Take a Taxi!

Now this might not sound like one of the top things to do in Erbil, but in my experience, it is! Traffic is kind of crazy in Erbil, to say the least.

Taking a cab in Erbil is like diving headfirst into the chaos and getting a feel for the city’s rhythms. The city’s traffic is an ever-changing mixture of horns, swerving cars, quick pedestrians, trucks, scooters, people selling stuff on the road, and so on.

As soon as you step into the taxi, you’re part of the cab’s (Poethic mode on: ) “lively symphony of motion” Oh yes.

Taxi drivers know the streets and how and when to brake, avoid holes, or when they get priority on a roundabout, for example. But, for you, it will feel like the taxi driver has lost his mind, and you’re on a rampage…

There are no rules on the road! So, to sit in the front chair of a taxi is something only for adventurous people.

Make sure to always book a taxi with the app Careem.

Read more about what it’s like to drive a car yourself in Iraq.

Go to bars near Dream City

Near the famous area, Dream City is one of the biggest bar areas of Erbil. This area is more of a commercial site and less’ local.’ Nevertheless, it is pretty fascinating to visit it, especially during the evening when the muscle cars come out and Kurdish folks are dressed traditionally.

Although this area is not a Christian area where alcohol is allowed, most bars sell beer. If you are looking for a place to have some food and drinks, this is one of the best.


Check out the huge MTV Cribs style villas

In Erbil and most of Kurdistan, the gap between the poor and rich is quite big. You can see incredibly tiny houses where entire families live or gigantic villas with only two people. There are several areas where you can see villas that will blow your mind.

If you are in Empire World, you can easily walk to Dream City, where you will see many huge villas. Other areas are New Azadi and Aram Village. These houses are MTV cribs worthy for sure.

Visit Ainkawa Christian Neighbourhood

What I like about Erbil is the mix of different people and religions. Ainkawa is a Christian suburb where you will see various churches and other Christian symbols.

In many middle eastern countries, alcohol is not allowed, but in Erbil, in the Christian areas, you will find many liquor stores. Muslims and Christians live happily together.

During Christmas times, you will even see many Muslims buying Christmas decorations for their house. I love this beautiful mixture of culture and traditions.

It is also one of the few areas where you can walk around more easily. You will need a car for most of the Erbil areas, but in Ainkawa, you can just wander around. It feels a bit more European.

Best restaurants in Ainkawa are Well Done Bowl (Asian), the Armenian Restaurant, and Manolo (Pizza). Both of them are next to the American Consulate area, which is also quite fascinating to see because of the gigantic walls and intense security.


Relax at a rooftop pool

A kind of hidden location is the rooftop bar with a pool at the Erbil International hotel. I only found out about this place after living in Erbil for six months.

The entrance fee is relatively high, around 30 dollars, but it is one of the few locations where there is a pool. So, if you are looking for an excellent location to cool down, this is the place.


Have dinner at the Catholic University

My personal favorite location to have dinner is Erbil! This restaurant is part of the catholic university. It’s behind the university on a wide field of grass. The area has tables with enough space for at least a few hundred people.

The surroundings of the restaurant make you feel like you’re at a big wedding.

The food is incredible, and there is a very relaxed atmosphere.


Festival on top of a mountain

If you have a car, a special area to visit is the Haibat Sultan Mountain near Koya, where several times a year a festival is held. This is one of those things that you would never be able to find during a holiday. It’s a rather secret location in an area that only a few tourists visit.

I’ve heard this festival is possible because it is being organized by one of the sons of the leader of the area. It’s awesome to see this kind of progressive event in Kurdistan.

It takes place during winter and summer time. It’s possible to camp on the festival site.

You will have to go through a checkpoint because you are leaving the Erbil area and entering an area that is being ruled by a different leader.

On the mountain you will also find this odd looking carnival. It looks like it hasn’t been used for a while. Perfect photo opportunity!

Check out my 2023 Camera bag

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Final thoughts on the top 21 things to do in Erbil

For two years long, I’ve been living in this diverse, strange, and fascinating city. Honestly, before I moved here, I had never heard of Erbil. Therefore, I came here open-minded, which is the best way, I think to approach a new city and a new culture.

I’ve learned a lot about this place on a cultural and political level but also as a tourist. Especially the amount of beautiful nature surprised me, and the friendliness of the local people.

There are still many locations that are on my list that I want to explore; Shanidar Cave, Dukan Lake or the old Erbil Observatory.

Location Observatory:

Location Shanidar Cave:

Location Dukan Lake:

Erbil is a very diverse city, and unlike other parts of Iraq, like Baghdad, it is very easy to visit. You can get a visa on arrival for around 70 dollars.

Nevertheless, countries like the USA still see Erbil as part of Iraq, which means that if you want to visit the USA after visiting Erbil, you might have to provide more documents about why you have visited Erbil. Please keep this in mind. For the latest info, check out:

Things to buy in Erbil

Because Erbil is such a historic rich city there are many incredible items to buy in Erbil. 

The president of Iraqi Kurdistan is the Barzani Family. They are known for their red scarfs. On every market you can find these scarfs and buy them which is a typical Kurdish item.

Buy some old money! Around the citadel it is possible to buy old money from back in Saddam times. This is such an incredible unique item. One billet costs 1 dollar.

Another item are these incredible Middle Eastern lanterns. These lanterns are used to hang in front of the door of a house during events like Ramadan or Eid al -Adha. But they can also be used all year around.

Especially around the citadel you wil find many second hand and antique shops. Gold is relatively cheap and there are many hand crafted items to be found like a handcrafted carpet with beautiful colours. Don’t forget to bargain!

When is the best time to visit Erbil?

In my experience, the most pleasant temperatures are in the months of October until April/May. But, during wintertime, it can get quite cold! There were several nights when the temperature dropped below zero, and there was some snow as well.

Most houses don’t have central heating, only ACs that can produce warm air. This works fine, but the floor can get super cold; it will even hurt my feet if I’d walk on bare feet in the house.

During the short period of spring in March and April, the mountains and almost all of Erbil are green, lush, and vibrant. That’s the perfect time for hiking, I would say.

Where to stay in Erbil?

The most well-known hotels are Divan, Arjaan Rotana, and Hyatt. I recommend booking a room at one of the more known hotels for safety. Hyatt is located in one of the more fun areas where you have some international and local restaurants, and it is close to Gulan Mall.

These hotels are more expensive than many other options, but most buildings run on gas power generators and lack safety precautions.

Top 10 places to eat · The best restaurants in Erbil

After living in Erbil for two years, these are my top ten restaurants in Erbil. Making a reservation is unnecessary unless you want to go on Friday night, which is the most busy night.

Also, if you go around 6 or 7 pm, it will not be crowded, but after 7, it will be more challenging to get a table. You can wait in line at most restaurants until a table becomes available.

By the way! Ordering food and having it delivered to your door is also possible. Use the app Lezzo or Talabat and pay cash to the delivery guy. It works perfectly.

  1. CUE: Catholic University Erbil

My favorite location and number one of the best restaurants in Erbil.


  1. Kebab Yassin

Probably the most famous restaurant in Erbil.


  1. Dusk (Bar and snacks)

Amazing view!


  1. Defermo

Great food and service, hectic, but that’s part of the experience.


  1. Fuul w humous

Small restaurant but really tasty food.


  1. Gourmet Italiano

A surprisingly good Italian restaurant in Erbil!


  1. Manolo



  1. The Vinery

A more luxurious and slightly more expensive place, but it is one of the best places for beers and pizzas. Try the Quatro Fromage!


  1. Well Done Bowl

The best Asian restaurant in Erbil, in my opinion.


  1. Armenian Restaurant Nazeli

Located on the right of Well Done Bowl is an Armenian restaurant. They have some special meals.  


Supermarkets in Erbil

Carrefour and the Holland Bazaar are the most well-known supermarkets in Erbil. There are a lot of these stores all around Erbil. You will find most of the Western products here imported from Europe or The States.

There are also many local supermarkets with cheaper prices.

Make sure to bring cash, cash is king!

Useful websites

Hopefully this comprehensive travel guide will help you to experience Erbil to its fullest.

If you have any questions about Erbil, please leave a comment!

F.AQ. Erbil

Erbil is the capital of Kurdistan, a fascinating region with some of the friendliest people on earth. It is known for the old citadel which is one of the oldest inhabited places on earth.

Wearing shorts or flip flops is no problem at all in Erbil. Although most people are dressed rather neat, wearing shorts is perfectly fine.

Many Kurdish people speak English quite well. Especially at the bigger shops and hotels.

Life in Erbil is rather cheap. The average wage per month is around 500 dollars. Flight tickets can be more expensive than other countries because there is a certain geopolitical instability. Airlines have to pay a higher fee for insurance and the supply in airlines is lower.

The Textile Museum in Erbil is a small but fascinating museum that exhibits beautiful Kurdish textiles.

Erbil is home to numerous attractions such as historical sites, museums, parks, and vibrant markets. The city is surrounded by beautiful mountains.

Discover what it's like to live in Erbil
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About the author

Chris Oberman is the founder and author of Moving Jack and has been traveling the world for over 20 years to 40+ countries.

He lives in a different country every two years which allows him to gain unique in-depth insights and experiences in new places abroad.

Quoted on, NRC Newspaper, Vice,and Feedspot.

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