Cosmopolitan Sulaymaniyah (Kurdish: Slemani) is Iraqi Kurdistan’s second-largest city, and the most liberal and Westernised city in Iraq. Founded in 1784, Sulaymaniyah is a young city by Mesopotamian standards, and that youthful vibrancy shows – by Iraqi standards this city is trendy, fashion forward, chic, sophisticated and free spirited.
Encircled by mountains, with a bustling bazaar and a run-down appeal, the lively city of Dohuk is arguably the most charming of Kurdistan's three largest cities. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the city feeling somewhat cocooned from the rest of the region and retains an old-town quality that some cities in Kurdistan lack.
All roads lead to Baghdad, the capital of Iraq and once the centre of the Islamic world. Baghdad’s very name once invoked images of golden domes, towering minarets, sunlight filtering through exotic bazaars and tales of Ali Baba, Sinbad and The 1001 Nights. Today, the harsh reality is that Baghdad is now a city in ashes, ravaged by nearly three decades of war and neglect.
Gali Ali Beg & The Hamilton Road
Prepare yourself for one of the most amazing sights in the Middle East. The northeast corner of Iraqi Kurdistan is an unheralded area of beauty marked by cascading waterfalls, soaring snow-capped mountains, deep gorges cut by raging rivers, rolling green hills and lush valleys. It is, without a doubt, the most beautiful and awe-inspiring place in Iraq.
The ancient Assyrian city of Akre – also known as Aqrah – is a cluster of colourful houses built between three steep hillsides. The picturesque city is famous for its Newroz festivities on 21 March, during which Kurds celebrate their New Year with bonfires, fireworks and a parade of men and women making their way down the hill with blazing torches.
The scenic town of Amadiya is an ancient city perched on top of a mountain, 1200m above sea level. Some claim it was the home of the biblical Three Wise Men. Amadiya – also known as Amedi – dates back to 3000 BC and is home to both Muslims and Assyrians, a religious mix that visitors will note in the presence of both mosques and churches.
About 50km northeast of Erbil at the base of Safeen Mountain is the resort town of Shaqlawa. At 966m above sea level, the cool temperatures and lush, green environment have long attracted wealthy Iraqi tourists from the hotter Arab regions of the country. Shaqlawa is a predominantly Assyrian Christian town with several new churches.
About 60km northwest of Sulaymaniyah, endless rolling hills – that turn bright green in the spring months – encircle the largest man-made lake in Iraq. The setting is the complete opposite of what the collective imaginary often thinks of when they imagine Iraq. In the warmer months families from all over the region flock to the banks of the river to picnic.
Even in Spring, temperatures in Kurdistan can be a bit of a challenge for those not used to the heat. The tiny mountain resort of Sulav is the perfect shady oasis of cafes, restaurants, rich vegetation and a seemingly endless water supply. Most of the restaurants have tables in the shallow brook where visitors happily dip their feet in while eating kebab.
Despite its culturally rich roots and ethnically diverse past, there is little left for tourists to see in Zakho. Located just a few kilometers from the Iraq-Turkey Ibrahim Khalil Border, it is only really worth stopping if you are passing through on your way out of Kurdistan. For lunch or dinner, stop at any one of the restaurants on Bederkhan St.
Karbala is one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites and of great significance to all Muslims. It’s best known for the Battle of Karbala in AD 680, whereafter Islam would forever be divided between Sunni and Shiite sects. The city attracts millions of pilgrims every year, particularly on the Day of Ashura.
Iraq’s third-largest city was once known as the ‘Venice of the Middle East’ for its canal waterways and location on the Shatt al-Arab River. The fictional voyages of Sinbad the Sailor began here, but modern reality is less inspiring. In the 2003 invasion, the British occupied Basra, where they repeatedly clashed with Shiite militias and insurgents.
Search online for Ahmad Awa and you're likely to stumble on news dating back to 2009 when three American hikers were arrested by Iranian border security for illegally crossing into Iran and accused of being spies. They set off from here, so be cautious of walking off the beaten path; Iran does not take kindly to surprise visitors.