Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan: Top 10 Things to see and do in Sulaymaniyah

sulaymaniyah gates iraq

At the entrance to the main city of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, Iraq.

As part of my ongoing reports from backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan I now report on my time in the city of Sulaymaniyah. After seeing the impressive mountain village of Amadiya, touring Duhok and Sulav, we headed way out east towards the Iran border, to the city of Sulaymaniyah which is astonishingly a city of over a million people (metropolitan area) and far and away the most westernised city in all of Iraq. Sulaymaniyah is a really cool city and I’ve listed and limited this to a top 10 for you to make it simple and easy for you when you take your backpack here. We spent two days in the city before heading back to Erbil via Kirkuk.

backpacking in sulaymaniyah

Sulaymaniyah, the most “westernised” city in Iraq.

Once you’ve got your Iraqi Kurdistan Visa, toured Erbil and had some Iraqi Kurdistan breakfast, it’s time to hit “Sulay”. Here’s my top 10 things to see and do there.

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Backpacking in Iraq, flying the Northern Ireland flag in Sulaymaniyah with a hotel owner whose wife is IRISH!

1. Amna Suraka, Red Security Museum
I’m putting Amna Suraka first on this list, because if you don’t read the rest of my list, then this is the absolute must see if you are in Sulaymaniyah. That’s right – an absolute must see, and probably, despite the horrific nature, the strongest memory I’ll have from my time in Iraq.

amna suraka iraq kurdistan

Hall of Mirrors inside Amna Suraka, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Let’s get to the fact – Amna Suraka (also known as the Red Security Complex) is a completely disturbing, horrific and inhumane place. Innocent Iraqis and Kurds were imprisoned, tortured and murdered here. Saddam Hussein’s Baa’th regime ran the place – it was his northern base in Iraq run by the Mukhabarat (Saddam’s Iraqi Intelligence Service). In short – it’s a place of death.

amna suraka iraq

Images of Torture and death at Amna Suraka – Red Security Museum in Iraqi Kurdistan

Amna Suraka became Iraq’s first war crimes museum in 2003 and is the standout memory for me in the country. Yes, it’s gory, it made my 5 most horrific places to go backpacking in but you need to see this if you’re in Iraq.

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A solemn pondering moment at Amna Suraka in Sulimaniya Iraq

I wrote a full and thorough guide on it almost immediately after my visit:
A full guide to Amna Suraka Red Security Saddam Hussein’s House of Horrors

amna suraka iraq

Horrific images inside Amna Suraka, Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.

2. Slemani Museum
After the horrifying experience of the Amna Suraka, check out this cool museum which takes on a completely different and more refreshing direction. It’s free entry of course.

slemani museum

Ancient relics and artefacts in the Slemani Museum.

It has relics from ancient times and serves as an archaelogical guide to ancient Iraq. Don’t forget that this area, Mesopotamia is often referred to as the cradle of mankind.

slemani museum iraq

The Slemani Museum in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.

3. Sulaymaniyah Municipal Park
There are a few parks in Sulaymaniyah, and a few tributes. Despite what you may have heard on the media about Iraq, places like the Municipal Park here are incredibly chilled out zones to relax in. There is no danger here.

municipal park sulay

Memorials in Municipal Park, Sulaymaniyah.

There are head statues of famous Kurdish poets in the park.

iraqi kurdistan backpacking

Backpacking in Sulaymaniyeh, Kurdistan, Iraq.

4. Sulaymaniyah Bazaar
When you tour Turkey, Iran and Iraq, you will get used to “Bazaars” and I got well accustomed to them. The one in Sulaymaniyah is known as the “Grand Bazaar” and that’s because it’s simply massive.

shops in market sulaymaniyah

Souvenir hunting in the Grand Bazaar in Sulaymaniyeh, Iraq.

You can buy almost anything here from curtain rails to Barcelona flags to Iraqi souvenirs to cheese. I loved collecting souvenirs while in Iraq and picked up a few gems here!

sulaymaniyah cheese

Checking out the cheese in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

And here is the result of my entire souvenir hunting in Iraq during my 10 days in the country:

backpacking souvenirs iraq kurdistan

My souvenirs from Iraq – I was busy in this country!

5. Sulaymaniyah Grand Mosque
Mosques are a must when touring Iraq and you might as well go to the most famous and most popular one in the city. The Grand Mosque is situated on a Prominent Corner inside the walls and near the Grand Bazaar. It’s modernised and has turquoise domes.

sulaymaniyah iraq mosque

Admiring the Grand Mosque in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

6. Sulaymaniyah Post Office
As a keen sender of postcards – my brother Danny gets a postcard from every new country and almost every new city I visit – I had to hunt down the Post Office in Sulaymaniyah and get some stamps and a postcard posted.

iraq post office

Sulaymaniyah Post office, Iraq.

Postcards from Iraq are HARD to come by – the Art Centre in Erbil’s Shanidar Park has them, as do a few hotels, but in Sulaymaniyah I ended up getting a photo of the city made into a postcard. The dudes working there hadn’t seen a tourist for months so they invited me into the office, let me choose a load of cool stamps and stamp my own postcards!

Posting a postcard and buying stamps in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.

Posting a postcard and buying stamps in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq.

7. Duty Free Shop Visit
Duty free in Iraq? Yes, please. But it’s not as cheap as you’d think – still a lot of things can be picked up cheaper in Sulaymaniyah than other parts of Kurdistan or Iraq, so check out the many duty free stores.

kurdistan iraq duty free shop

A duty free shop in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, Iraq

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Duty Free Shopping in Sulaymaniyah Iraq

8. Ramada Hotel – Iraq’s First 5 Star Hotel!!
OK you might need to check the facts for me, but the Ramada Hotel in Sulaymaniyah is Iraq’s first 5 star hotel. Quite amazing, we didn’t stay there (beyond my backpacker budget) but we did have a look around – there’s a coffee shop and bar inside but they don’t come cheap.

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A 5 Star Hotel in Iraq.

9. Sport Bar Football
Honestly, as travel memories go, my visit to Sport Bar Football ranks up there with them. On a Sunday night, we headed into this cool pub which had a mix of locals and foreigners. Even better – beer on tap and live football. We watched Barcelona beat Elche 4-0 and also highlights of the Manchester United 1-2 Swansea City FA Cup tie!

football pub sulaymaniyah iraq

Watching Swansea v. Man United in the bar in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

Beer on tap and live football on a Sunday night in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

Beer on tap and live football on a Sunday night in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

I told a few mates I was just “you know, down the pub in Iraq watching the footy” and they were convinced it was a wind up. I’ve photo and video proof of course, but the memory will live for a long time! I included it in my top bars of Kurdistan post.

sulaymaniyah iraq football bar

Sport Bar Football in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

10. Admire the Sulaymaniyah Skyline
I was really impressed by the views in the Kurdistan part of Iraq. The skylines of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah are incredible. The countryside at Amadiya is inspiring and the roads in between can be a bit sad – as they have seen better days – remnants of a country torn apart by war linger on your journey.

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The impressive Sulaymaniyah Skyline from our Hotel.

But head up high and check out the skyline of Sulaymaniyah. There is Azmar Mountain, about 6 kilometres out of town for a good view, or like us, check them out from varying parts of the city, including your hotel room. We stayed in the Yadi Hotel which was average, but had breakfast included and Wi-Fi.

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Flags in a shop in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.

After a couple of days it was time to leave behind Sulaymaniyah, we took a shared taxi from the Garag on the edge of town and this headed to Erbil via Kirkuk, which is one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. My next reports on Iraq will probably included the more off the wall stuff – the countryside, the checkpoints and the days we passed through Mosul and Kirkuk, which are not classed as part of Iraqi Kurdistan, but are a hote topic of debate.

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Leaving Sulaymaniyah from the Garaj

On the roads in Iraq, there is still a sad sense of despair, reminders of war and a need to rebuild.

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Typical buildings on the roads between Iraqi cities.

One thing I have to say is that the people are fantastic – the Kurdish and Iraqis we met were all part of the “fuck the past”, “embrace the future” breed. It’s a positive thing.

I highly recommend taking your backpack to Sulaymaniyah when you tour Iraqi Kurdistan.

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