|The city's newly renovated downtown area, with the ancient Erbil Citadel in the background. Mariwan Salihi for The National|
Erbil is the Iraq you don't know about from the news. Spared from the carnage seen elsewhere in the country, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region calls itself - with a mix of aspiration and optimism - "the second Dubai", because of the many new shopping malls, five-star hotels and skyscrapers under construction.
But, unlike Dubai, humans have lived here for nearly 10,000 years, making it one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited cities. Erbil has also been capturing the world's attention for all the right reasons, with National Geographic and The New York Times both listing Kurdistan as a top travel destination for 2011.
The city's heart is Erbil Citadel (www.erbilcitadel.org), sited on a naturally defendable 10-ha plateau, which explains why the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Sassanids, Medes, Romans, Abbasids, Ottomans and others have all based themselves here. The citadel is undergoing renovation with assistance from Unesco, ahead of a projected World Heritage Site listing, but parts remain open to tourists.
A comfortable bed
The latest entrant in Erbil's five-star market is the Park Hotel (www.divan.com.tr; 00 964 750 128 5908) opposite Sami Abdulrahman Park on Gulan Road. Scheduled to open next month, it will be home to QH 21 Sushi and Grill Bar (the first of its kind in Iraq), Seasons World Cuisine (with live cooking stations), Chopin Piano Bar and Saray Pastries, among others. It will also house the biggest in-hotel spa and gym in Iraq. Rooms are projected to cost from US$255 (Dh937) per night, including taxes.
Nearby is the Erbil Rotana Hotel (www.rotana.com; 00 964 66 210 55 55); its restaurants offer international, Italian and Lebanese cuisine, a piano bar, and a swimming pool for the summer months. Prices start from $410 (Dh1,506) per night.
For those on a tighter budget, the three-star Dim Dim Hotel on 30 M Street (00 964 750 445 8372) is close to the ancient citadel. Double rooms cost from $117 (Dh671), including breakfast, internet and taxes.
Find your feet
Most of the city's downtown area is easily explored on foot. After seeing the citadel's main attractions, including the Kurdish Textile Museum (www.kurdishtextilemuseum.com), head to the Qaysari Bazaar in the downtown area, which has been recently reconstructed using traditional architecture, for organic Kurdish cheese or honey and to buy souvenirs such as kalash (hand-made white Kurdish shoes). Cool down at the fountains in the Parki Shar (City Park), then visit the famous Machko Chaykhana, the historic teahouse located at the foot the citadel), which has been a traditional meeting point for the city's intellectuals and journalists.
The city's rich history is chronicled in the small Erbil Civilization Museum on Salam Barzani Street (admission free; open from 9am to 1.30pm, closed on Friday). Frustratingly, the 3,500 artefacts are housed in inadequate display cases, often with mislabelled and misspelt English labels. The staff act bored and appear ill-informed.
On the way to the airport is the suburb of Ainkawa, with a predominantly Assyrian Christian population who speak neo-Aramaic, and an Assyrian museum.
Meet the locals
Erbilis love to picnic in their city's many large parks. The sprawling Sami Abdulrahman Park, with rose gardens, lakes, restaurants, cafes, a large public library and several large statues of famous Kurds, is one of the most beautiful in the Middle East. Minaret Park (named after the ancient Mudhafaria, or Choly minaret, located inside the park) is a place to share a cabin on the Erbil Teleferique (cable car) with the residents and head to the adjacent Shanidar Park. A one-way ride costs around $7 (Dh26) per cabin and takes only 15 minutes - enough to learn some Kurdish phrases.
Book a table
Erbil's multi-ethnic population is reflected in its dining, with specialist restaurants spanning the culinary spectrum. Kurdish-Iraqi food is itself a mix of influences from Turkey, Persia, India, Greece, Lebanon and Syria. Erbil considers itself the kebab capital of Iraq, and you can judge the veracity of that at Abu Shahab City (near Naz City, on Gulan Road), a large complex with several buildings that offer fast food and local cuisine. Its Iraqi grill (kebab, chicken tikka and more) is delicious, but nothing beats their famous speciality, quzi sham, a biryani dish with meat and chicken, all covered with a layer of fried pastry. A meal for two usually costs around $50 (Dh184).
Retail-therapy options range from the 13th-century bazaar to five swanky, Dubai-style malls. Family Mall on 100 M Road has Iraq's first Carrefour hypermarket, while the newly built Majidi Mall (www.majidimall.com) on Koya Road has the broadest range of international brands. Another 20 malls are planned for Erbil, which aspires to be one of the top shopping destinations in the Middle East.
What to avoid
Erbil is secular and liberal, and probably one of the more tolerant areas in the wider Middle East. But, as throughout the region, it's still wise to dress modestly.
Surprisingly for many first-time visitors, Erbil offers an unforgettable nightlife experience in Ainkawa. Order shisha and drinks at the Mamounia Sky Bar at Noble Hotel (www.fairouz-group.com) while taking in the breathtaking night panorama of Erbil's modern and ancient skyline.