I have to admit – I have a soft spot for Sulaymaniyah (sometimes spelt Sulaimani). I’ve spent nearly three years living and working in Iraq and Kurdistan recently, but the year I spent in Sulaymaniyah was one of the best.
The city is often overshadowed by the Kurdish capital of Erbil to the north, however Sulaymaniyah is fascinating, friendly, but also complex. The politics of this city is vastly different from that of Erbil – something many foreigners, even those living and working in the region – are not totally aware of.
It’s also a city that wants to open it’s doors to tourists, and is trying – albeit amidst a backdrop of political turmoil, war and upheaval. Yet this city has done a good job of creating a safe haven in a tumultuous country, and while security threats do still exist, they are nothing compared to city neighbor Kirkuk, or Iraqi capital Baghdad.
A guide to Sulaymaniyah – Kurdistan’s second city
Things to do:
Probably the most popular day trip for Sulaymaniyah locals. Here you can find the biggest Ferris Wheel in the Middle East (at least according to Chavy Land). The amusement park is built at the base of the Goizha Mountains and offers a nice view of the city of Sulaymaniyah. You can even take a cable car to the top of the mountain.
Amna Suraka, also known as the Red Prison, functioned as the headquarters of the northern division of the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s notoriously cruel Secret Intelligence Agency. The Mukharbarat used this place for the state’s torture and imprisonment of Iraq’s Kurdish population. Visiting this museum is definitely an experience that will be remembered.
Hiking around Sulaymaniyah
There are opportunities to hike the mountain ranges that surround Sulaymaniyah, and if you are staying at a hotel you should ask staff for advice. I have done some routes around the city, but many are makeshift, and right out in the countryside landmines still exist due to decades of war. The landscape and the views are fantastic, but take care and hire a hiking/walking guide if you don’t have friends in the city. Don’t walk long distances in summer – temperatures are well over 40 Celsius during the day.
Visit the central market
A bustling, crowded affair, Sulaymaniyah’s central market is a real experience. Haggle for fruit, socks, tourist trinkets – whatever you want, this market has it. Go here for a proper local feel.
Where to eat:
Fancy: Chalak’s place offers great atmosphere, sometimes live music and excellent food, cocktails and all types of alcohol. The prices are a bit higher, but you will definitely have a wonderful evening in Chalak’s charming restaurant. Find it on Salim Street, 100 meters down the road from City Star.
Casual: Fairouz Café opposite Rand Gallery is a unisex shisha-cafe located on Salim street. Here you can also find decent wifi and an English menu. This is also an excellent place for Shisha in Sulaymaniyah – where you can get also get fresh shisha as well. Friendly staff and a relaxed atmosphere.
Cheap: In the area between Bardikhan, Ali Naji and Salim Street you will find cheap, but delicious street food. Here you can get local shawarma, soups, pitabread stuffed with an array of meats, vegetables, and even sheep brain – basically ‘streetfood’ Kurdish style.
I spent a year working at one of the local news organizations here, and can say with confidence that the region and the city’s politics are complex, nuanced, and in many ways can only be properly appreciated and understood by a Sulaymaniyah local whose experiences are very different from those of a visiting foreigner. However let me give a quick, and admittedly rather crude, guide to Sulaymaniyah politics.
To understand Sulaymaniyah, you must also understand Erbil, which is run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Barzani family. In turn, this means the security apparatus in Erbil (Peshmerga, police and so on), are KDP-affiliated. This is not the case in Sulaymaniyah. Following the Kurdish Civil War in the 1990s, the south and north of Iraqi Kurdistan became politically divided. The south, with Sulaymaniyah at it’s core, came under the governance of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the Talabani family.
Posters and political graffiti in Sulaymaniyah then, are often in support of the PUK, and can often be anti-KDP and anti-Barzani. The opposite is true in Erbil.
There’s a lot of animosity towards the KDP and Barzani in the city, stemming from deals made between Masoud Barzani and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – a man who attempted genocide on the Kurds in the city of Halabja to the east of Sulaymaniyah, killing tens of thousands with a horrendous chemical attack. The Halabja Chemical Attack remains one of the darkest days in Kurdish history. Animosity also spreads to the day to day running of the region, with a lack of electricity (most homes have just a few hours a day), corruption, and inability to pay public service wages (teachers for example have spent months without wages in recent years).
So while praising Masoud Barzani as a “strong leader” will likely make you friends in Erbil, it probably won’t be welcomed in Sulaymaniyah.
In general, people in Sulaymaniyah welcome the idea of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, but are concerned over the influence the KDP and thus Barzani family may have over it – indeed the recent war against ISIS elevated Barzani’s status in the world, with many world leaders positioning him as the leader and spokesperson for all Iraqi Kurds, something many in the south of Iraqi Kurdistan do not see as true.
People in Sulaymaniyah will be more than happy to talk politics, and I believe tourists should learn and listen.
Take the opportunity, if you get it, to get a real in depth look at this region and city by asking questions – and not making assumptions.
You can see the difference in politics very clearly through reading the news produced by media organisations based out of both Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. For example Rudaw and Kurdistan24 – both based in Erbil and are pro-KDP – will often report on news and events in a very different way from Sulaymaniyah-based NRT – a self-styled “independent” news organization that is highly anti-Barzani.
Arriving at Sulaymaniyah Airport
As long as you have a visa, or are from a country where you will get a visa on arrival (such as the U.S. or EU bloc) you will be asked very few questions (or none at all) at border control at Sulaymaniyah Airport. It can take a while to get through the passport control line, and if you are traveling alone it is quite likely that the guards will let families with young children skip ahead in the queue.
Outside the terminal you have two choices for getting into Sulaymaniyah.
The first is to get an airport taxi from directly outside the terminal – expect to pay upwards of 15 or even 20 dollars (20-25,000 IQD) to get into the city.
The second, and cheaper option, is to get a free bus from outside the terminal to the security checkpoint a few hundred meters away. This is where the airport parking lot is, and where cheaper taxis are usually waiting. From here, expect to pay no more than 8000 IQD (6 USD) to the city. If you’re good at haggling, you could get lower. If you have a hotel pick-up, this will probably be where your hotel car will pick you up – double-check with them beforehand.
Remember to take cash with you – there is one ATM at Sulaymaniyah Airport, but it doesn’t always work. If you haven’t been to Iraq before then you won’t be able to get Iraqi Dinars beforehand – it’s a closed currency only obtained within Iraq’s borders. However you can take US dollars – taxi drivers and hotels will be happy to take USD as payment.
If you arrive and have no cash on you, ask a taxi driver to take you to a “Sarif- Ali” (ATM machine) – be warned though, ATM’s and their use are not common in the city, or Iraqi Kurdistan in general. There are only a few in Sulaymaniyah, and they are frequently out of order. The most reliable one is located in City Star Mall or Rand Gallery (both on Salim Street). However many flights get in after these buildings are closed for the night. At worst, ask your hotel to pay the taxi and add it to your bill.
Hotels in Sulaymaniyah
If you are traveling as a couple it can require a little research to find the right hotel. Because especially local hotels can be very specific and strict with their requirements. The Mihrako Hotel & Spa which is local, but quite fancy and trying to be ‘western’ is a good choice for staying in the same room as an unmarried couple.
If you’re staying in the chain hotels in the city such as the Ramada you definitely won’t have a problem, but it will also cost you a bit more. If you want to stay in a really spectacular place, you should definitely go for the Grand Millennium Hotel!