What to see in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan

By Iraqi standards, Sulaymaniyah is a very young city. It was founded in 1784 by Ibrahim Pasha Baban, a Kurdish prince to be the capital of his principality. Since then it has been Iraqi Kurdistan’s cultural capital and home to philosophers, poets and writers. Its importance is not limited to Iraq, but for the whole of the Kurdistan region, which also encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria and Iran.


Slemani, as it is also known, attracted many Sorani-speaking Kurdish linguists and writers, and here Sorani literature was developed. These writers and poets are today revered with statues and busts in many parks and squares around the city.


The local population are known for being more open-minded and tolerant than in the rest of Kurdistan, and this is something I could perceive in the few days I spent in the area. Something that surprised me in Kurdistan, especially in Slemani, is that women seem to be more independent. In the Arab world women tend to seem quieter, overshadowed by their male relatives when in public, and never start a conversation with a stranger. Here,  for the first time ever, I had local females starting a conversation with me on the street and in restaurants.

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The city is described on the Lonely Planet guide as a “cosmopolitan gem” and “a place to be discovered”. It is quite nice, I totally agree, but to me those words are an overstatement. From a visitor’s perspective, while it still has many places of interest,  I found the city short of landmarks. The heart of the city is the old town, which despite the name, looks rather modern and it is deliciously chaotic as any medina in Morocco, for inistance. The old town is dominated by a large open bazaar, which occupies several blocks. It is a market place selling mainly food, vegetables and clothes, and is buzzing from early morning to late afternoon. Right in the middle of all this is the Grand Mosque, which is open for visitors. In the area I found many small family run restaurants serving simple, tasty and inexpensive food.


There are a few museums, two of which should not be missed. The first, and most disturbing one, is Amna Suraka, the War Crimes Museum, based in the building with same name, used by Saddam Hussein to torture Kurds suspected of being a militant. Visits are guided and most guides speak excellent English.


The other one, more on the lighter side, is Slemani Museum, with an exhibition of archaeological artefacts, some dating back to 100,000 years. This is Iraq’s most important museum at the moment, as Iraq National Museum in Baghdad is currently closed. Entrance is free in both museums.


I also had the chance to visit the city’s largest park, Azadi Park, which is just a few minutes walk from the bazaar. It is huge and has a giant mast with the Kurdish flag fluttering. Here you can enjoy amazing views of Azmar mountain and there are some small olive groves, playgrounds, artificial lakes and a lot of young couples doing things their parents would not be too happy about, like hugging in public.


My favourite park, however, was the small Bakhi Gishti, just outside the old town, near Sulaymaniyah University. It is full of tea drinkers, youngsters killing time, musicians and has an avenue of heads, with busts of famous poets.


Unfortunately few people in the city speak English – and even Arabic, for that matter -, which made my trip quite lonesome. On my last day, however, I met Hozhar, who at the age of 18 walked all the way to Greece in search of a better life. He spoke perfect English and showed me many places I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The most intriguing of them was a bar. A simple bar. Who would have thought there are proper bars selling alcohol at daytime in Iraq? The place was fine, not a pick-up joint or anything to be wary of, and I had a beer while he told me about the time his family, like many others, ran away to Iran, escaping Saddam’s persecution of Kurds. I tend to find interesting, genuinely hospitable people in most places I go and meeting him really helped me wrap up my visit to the city on a high note.


Tasting local food, visiting markets, museums and parks are a way to discover and understand a place and its culture. But to me people take the travelling experience to a whole new level. And Hozhar and everyone else I met along the way, despite the language barrier, helped to enhance my Sulaymaniyah experience. After all, people is also culture. Right?

32 Responses

  1. Laura Schmidt

    Wow, Iraq? It's interesting how people overrate risks and dangers in places around the world. I had never heard of this city but I see from this post that it's safe. I hope you'll tell us more about this trip… 🙂

    • Pedro @ Travel with Pedro

      Hi Laura, you&#39;re right, especially the Middle East gets the bad press. I agree there are reasons for that in many places, but Iraqi Kurdistan feels like another country altogether.<br /><br />Thanks for your visit!

    • Pedro Richardson

      Hi Tom, i went to Iraq because I really enjoy discovering places less visited, even if they’re considered unsafe. This part of the country is totally dare and people are amazing.

      Thanks for your visit!

  2. edna

    ola Pedro tudo bem eu gosto dos seus posts. Gostaria muito de ir a Sulaymanyia mas não sei como faço para conseguir os visto. ou como pegar o ônibus que ja li que existe em alguns blogs espero que possa me ajudar estarei aguardando. bjos querido

  3. Norman

    Hm..don’t take offense – but your report rather sounds like you were describing yet another city anywhere in the middle east. (which probably was your intent to start with)

    Then again this is sort of a good sign after all – western people often hold weird prejudices about Iraq or Iran – some of them true most aren’t.
    thx for sharing a report about well..normality!

    • Travel with Pedro

      Hi Norman, you’re right, there. People tend to think that Iraq and Iran are the nearest thing to hell or terrorists’ den. I really wanted to show how “familiar” and normal it is, since in all fairness, that’s what I experienced there. Normality. 🙂

      Thanks for the visit!

  4. Ariane

    Hola Pedro he visto tu blog y te felicito,
    Haces una vida genial, pues te dire que estoy en Kurdistan y vengo de Dominican Republic figurate cuando dije a mis parientes q venia se escandalizaron la gente cree que decir iraq significa guerra, aquí me siento de maravillas la gente es muy hospitalaria, honesta, son gente que han sufrifo mucho pero se estan levantando economicamente y culturalmente , pienso que es una ciudad donde podemos pasarla tranquilo

    • Pedro (The Author)

      Hola Ariane, ¿qué tal? ¡Qué bien que te esté gustando Kurdistán! ¿Estás ahí solo por turismo o tienes algún proyecto en la zona? Cuando estuve ahí tuve exáctamente la misma impresión, y tampoco me pareció tan exótico. La verdad es que pude ver más similitudes que diferencias.

      ¡Qué lo pases bien!

  5. Ilu

    As Sulaymaniyah, Iraq is a beautiful and normal city. Congrats on your amazing travelling experiences!

  6. Loka loka

    Hey pedro thank u to visitin kurdistan ! I hope u visit erbil this time !! Its very nice city n im from erbil!! Thank u

    • Pedro Richardson

      Hi there! I’ve also been to Erbil, which I really liked. The Citadel was very charming, the bazaar and the main square with all those fountains. And I loved the people, as well.

      Thanks for commenting and stay tuned, I’ll be writing a lot about Erbil.

  7. anna

    That market looks incredibly vibrant and colorful! Would love to explore more of the middle east! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Nicky

    I have to agree with you, it’s often the people that we’ve met on our travels that have made the experience the most memorable! It’s great to see that meeting Hozhar had a positive effect on your trip!

  9. Drew

    I’ve never thought of visiting Iraq, most due to the military situation, but I’ve heard great things about Kurdistan region. The language barrier would be a major challenge, but it sounds like it worked out for you in the end and you got to enjoy a truly unique travel experience that most people haven’t!

  10. Aileen Adalid

    Wow, this is one place that I would love to see! It’s interesting by the way to read about how you see Iraq. The photos you took absolutely look fascinating too!

  11. Melissa

    I love visiting places that are off the usual tourist track – this seems like one of those places. Great to see a positive story from this area of the world too – really glad to have read this post.

  12. Ticker Eats The World

    Really well written and I love how you break one myth after another about the region. It’s lovely to see and understand how people are around the world. Loved the architecture and the history of the place. It’s wonderful to hear that you were able to strike up conversations and the food looks to yum and exotic. Thank you

    • Pedro

      It’s a real pity the entire region, especially Iraq, gets such bad press, when not everything is actually true. I’m now planning on visiting the Arab part of the country.

  13. Skye Gilkeson

    Such an interesting article. So keen to explore this part of the world. I love that you found women to be more open and independent. That’s something I’m always curious about as a women myself.

  14. Travelwith2ofus

    I don’t know much about Iraq so it goes without saying that I have never heard about Sulaymaniyah. It looks like a peaceful place with some interesting highlights like the bazaar and both parks. Too bad you did not meet Hozhar earlier, you might of discovered more.

    • Pedro

      Definitely! It’s a place that, despite not being aesthetically beautiful, it’s has its appeal. And you’re right, Hozhar was really good and keen to show me around. Pity I didn’t meet him earlier.


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