ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - In a country that bears the scars from decades of war and economic sanctions, the city of Arbil in the heart of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region is a popular holiday spot.
With its modern shopping malls and lush parks, Arbil is a welcome break for Iraqis still plagued by bombings more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The city is also the proud home of the Citadel, one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world.
Arbil’s blend of old meets new, from its mosques to its rollercoasters, appeal to both the young and old.
Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most out of a 48-hour visit to the city.
8 p.m. Check into ChwarChra, one of Arbil's best known hotels, located near the Citadel and the Franso Hariri sports stadium. The hotel has a stately appearance and is suitable for business and pleasure. It has free wi-fi and a beauty center with a sauna and Turkish bath. (www.chwarchrahotel.com)
If you prefer to be closer to the airport, then a good alternative is the relatively new five-star Rotana hotel, which is also situated by the Sami Abdul Rahman Park. (here)
9 p.m. After settling in, start your trip with dinner at ChwarChra’s restaurant, a popular weekend spot for families, friends and business associates. Relax in the garden and enjoy a mix of fresh fruits and kebabs and drink traditional tea while being serenaded by local musicians. Alcohol is also served.
Or catch a cab to Iraqi Touch at the recently opened Tablo Mall. This chic, modern restaurant serves traditional Iraqi meals like dolma, which consists of vegetables and vine leaves stuffed with meat, rice and tomatoes. A rice and meat dish called Quozi is a tasty alternative. (iraqitouch.com/)
10 a.m. After a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread and cheeses at the hotel, head out for a tour of the Citadel before the heat of the midday sun.
The Citadel, believed to be 6,000 years old, is situated on a high artificial mound in Arbil and has breathtaking views of the city. Take your time to wander through more than 11 hectares of meandering alleyways, past mosques, graves and a maze of residential houses from the Assyrian, Akkadian and Babylonian eras.
A must-visit while at the Citadel is the Kurdish Textile Museum, which showcases woven tribal handicrafts. Entrance is free and the gift shop sells traditional jewelry and Kurdish clothes, including brightly-colored long dresses for women and handmade shoes. (www.kurdishtextilemuseum.com)
12 p.m. Take time out to freshen up and have lunch in your hotel around midday during the extended Friday Muslim prayers. ChwarChra’s giant chicken sandwich is a good bet.
3 p.m. Sporting events are held regularly at the Franso Hariri stadium and if you’re in town and a sports fan, watching a soccer game live in Iraq is a must. The atmosphere is as electrically charged as at any other stadium in the world.
Thousands of soccer fans from across Iraq descended on Arbil in September to watch Iraq take on Jordan in the second World Cup qualifying soccer match to be held at the stadium since the 2003 invasion.
Even though the Kurdish zone has been relatively autonomous for 20 years and was less affected than other parts of Iraq by the war, security checks are still conducted, so get to Franso Hariri a couple of hours before kick-off to avoid hassles.
7 p.m. S&I Fast Food near the stadium is a good place for dinner after a game or to relax until the throng dissipates.
The restaurant has a variety of fast-food dishes like hamburgers and schawarmas, a wrap containing chicken or meat with salad. Smoke a traditional shisha water pipe while making use of free wi-fi to watch replays of the game.
10 p.m. Head downtown to one of the cafes at the foot of the Citadel for some chai (tea) or ice cream. The area is packed at night as people flock to see some of Arbil’s many waterfalls.
10 a.m. After breakfast, get a taxi to see the Mudhafaria minaret, Iraq’s answer to Italy’s leaning tower of Pisa. Around 800 years old, the minaret is the remainder of what was believed to have been a big mosque built by Arbil’s sultan of the time.
11 a.m. Visit the Aqua Tarin water park and fitness center for some fun in the sun. The center has water slides, pools, gardens, cafes and parks. (aquatarin.com/index.php)
1 p.m. Head to the Sami Abdul Rahman park for some relaxation time. The park has numerous small lakes and cafes and is one of Arbil’s most popular family-oriented parks.
4 p.m. Arbil has many shopping malls, but the main one to visit is the Family Mall. It has famous international clothes boutiques like Levi Strauss & Co., and main attractions include an ice skating rink and a gaming arcade.
7 p.m. Grab a pizza or try some Turkish food at Baydoner in the Family Mall’s food court before venturing outside to an amusement park attached to the shopping center.
The Family Fun park is popular among locals and has lots of rides, including a Ferris wheel and dodgem cars. Indulge in candy floss and popcorn and be sure to try traditional Turkish ice cream. The park stays open until midnight.
Direct flights to Arbil are available from a number of European cities including Amsterdam, Athens, Munich, Stockholm and Vienna, as well as Istanbul, Dubai, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Beirut. Allow plenty of extra time before your flight at Arbil airport due to security checks. (www.erbilairport.net/)
Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi, editing by Paul Casciato