TURKEY: Top 5 sites in Kars City – YOUR COMPLETE GUIDE
After completing our 2 week Black Sea road trip, I wanted more of Eastern Turkey! I have always has a list of places to visit, but due to some crazy COVID restrictions, it’s put us behind on our travels. COVID has forced us to last minute travel plan, and I have to say… I am loving it. Our Black Sea Road Trip was Road Trip was planned just a mere 10 days before we left. And this trip was somewhat similar!
Each winter we try to get to a more ‘wintery’ area, wether it’s been Germany for Christmas or Uladağ with friends. I love my warm winter Izmir but it’s fun to go play in the snow and ski for a few days a year!
Over 2019 Christmas, our family headed up to Uludag to ski with some friends. We plan to do the same this year but there wasn’t any snow in Uludag yet! We still had the itch, ok – more so Catie did, and we decided to head out east instead! This way we can see more of Eastern Turkey AND get our ski fix in!
Our 2020 trip to Uludağ with friends didn’t pan out this year, leaving us wide open to exploring other locations. Some other friends of ours are prolific skiers and they suggested we look into ski resort over near Erzurum and Kars. So we did!
And of course… in usual ‘Catie’ fashion, we can’t just ‘go skiing’! We wanted to see some of the other sites around Kars as well!
IMPORTANT: This post covers only the city of Kars. A second post covering day trips from Kars City will be coming! Here are the Kars blog post:
- Part 1 – TURKEY: Your Guide to Skiing in Turkey – Sarıkamış/Kars
- Part 2 – TURKEY: Top 5 sites in Kars City – YOUR COMPLETE GUIDE – THIS ONE!
- Part 3 – TURKEY: Top 3 Day Trips from Kars
Now on to Kars Guide!
- Where is Kars?
- Little bit of history
- Top 5 Sites
- When Should I Go to Kars
- Getting There
- Must Try Foods
- Nearby Kars
- Videos and extra links
Where is Kars:
Kars is the capital of the Kars province is located in the far northeast region of Turkey. Situated on a plateau 5,740 feet (1,750 metres) above sea level on the Kars River, the city of Kars is only an hour drive to the border with Armenia (which, by the way, you can not cross).
Little bit of history:
The city’s name of Kars is said to be derived from the Armenian word hars, meaning “bride” or possibly the Georgian word kari meaning “the gate” since it was a border stronghold.
Historically, the region around Kars was part of the Armenian kingdom in antiquity and contains a number of sites dating from that period. Ani, east of Kars city and near the Armenian frontier, was the Bagratid capital in the 10th century.
As well, Kars is in the center of several major historical turning points: Byzantine-Selcuk wars, the Ottoman-Russian Wars 1877-1878, and almost 40 year Russian Occupations. The Russian legacy can still be seen in much of the town’s architecture.
After a defeat by the Russians in 1918 (still pre-modern Turkey at this point), Kars was not left to the Ottoman Empire but actually to Britain. Later in late 1920, CommanderKazim Karabekir Pasha liberated the city and finally reached its independence in Turkish lands.
One of the most interesting points of the Russian occupation was the Malakan immigrant community, which settled around Kars during this period. This communities love for dairy farming and cheese initiated the start a now famous Gruyere cheese made in very areas of the world due to the picky climate needed to culture it. Although most of the Malakans returned to their own lands or migrated to other places, cheese making cultural heritage has continued until today.
On to modern day Kars, this city of 80,000 (2012 stats but now it’s maybe over a 100,000 by now) is still an important military station, its location is linked by rail and road with the main Turkish cities such as Ankara. The Kars province in Turkey is important as a centre for trade in livestock and cheese. Other known products are coarse woolens, carpets, and felts.
Personally, Kars surprised me!
I loved that it wasn’t overly touristy – easy to explore and enjoy local cuisine. It caters mostly to Turkish tourist, but everyone loved that we were visiting from our home city of Izmir! (Plus, they loved that we spoke Turkish!) Plus, it was the perfect location to take several fun day trips.
If you go by our guide, you will get to enjoy the city and get to see the more extensive province like we did all in 4-5 days trip (which is perfect if you are going in the warmer, non-skiing months!).
Keep on reading to learn about some of the Kars’ historical buildings you should check out when you go!
Here are you TOP 5 Sites to see in Kars, Turkey:
1. KARS CASTLE:
The most notable site in Kars City center, Kars Castle, is an old citadel overhanging the river right in the middle of the downtown historical area. Once a strong military post built by Bagratid Armenia in A.D.1153, Kars Castle has defended its people used over and over against Mongolian, Georgian, Persian, and Russian forces. In the early 19th century, it was later severely damaged during the Russian occupation of Kars.
Kars Castle was built out of basalt masonry and originally boasted its 22 towers, only seven of them remain intact today. In terms of its architecture, it features a small mosque, barracks, tombs, mansions, and an ammunition depot – most of which was hardly distinguishable if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings and signs. The castle also had four gates, two are still in use.
To get to the castle one can walk up the front side stairs that overlooks the city and Kümbet Camisi. It can seem a bit of a climb, but, once you reach the top, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the city of Kars and the river. Since we weren’t familiar with this route, we drove the small road via the back side of the mountain parking at the top of the castle for quicker access. There is a cafe up here as well that one can stop for a quick tea, restrooms, warm up, and/or enjoy the sunset.
NOTE: If you go in winter, the walk up can be super windy(as you will see in our video!) and stairs can be icy. There is nothing to hold onto. If you decide to take the stairs to the top, be sure to walk slowly and watch your feet.
2. TAŞ KÖPRÜSÜ – OLD STONE BRIDGE
Just beside the Kars Castle on the narrow strait of Kars River, a 15th century stone bridge with three vaulted arches were created completely made of smooth cut basalt stone. The bridge collapsed during a spring flood of 1715 and later reconstructed by in 1719.
During the years of Russian occupation, they Russians in an attempt to erase all traces of the Turkish, destroyed the inscription on the bridge. The bridge was also significantly damaged during this era as well. Eventually, the stone bridge was restored later.
There was only a couple of individuals on the bridge during our quick stop. Jason and I were able to enjoy a peaceful and relaxing walk with a winter view of the river on both sides (with Sofia peacefully sleeping in the car within eye sight of course!)
The area around the bridge is being built up for visitors to stroll and enjoy a sit while taking in the scenery around it. I was very impressed with the efforts they are taken to keep this area inviting for locals and newcomers.
3. KÜMBET CAMISI
Located downtown, Kümbet Camısı, also referred to as the iconic Armenian Church of the Apostles, is a church converted into a mosque. Built by King Abbas in the 930s A.D. in the period of the Bagratid kingdom, the church has steep-angled roof with a floor plan that resembles a quatrefoil. Bas-reliefs representing the twelve apostles (hence the name) in rather stiff poses, ring the exterior drum of the dome.
Later in 1064, this church was converted into a mosque under Muslim domination and renamed the Kümbet Mosque. Then later, it was used as a Russian Orthodox mosque during the region’s Russian domination.
Like most churches turned mosques turned back to churches, this historical site was converted into the Kars museum storing historical artifacts in 1964 until 1981. But again in 1993, it has been used as a mosque.
As it is a mosque, it is free to enter. Visitors are asked to be respectful by removing their shoes and women covering their heads.
Note: The nearby Fethiye Cami is also worth a visit. As we were short on time and it was cold, we skipped it this visit.
There are 2 must-see museums to see in Kars: See our video about these 2 here – skip to 13 minutes.
Kars Archaeological Museum: The Kars Archaeological Museum on İstasyon Street is small but mighty, containing archaeological finds are displayed on the first floor, ethnographic artifacts on the second floor, and stone artifacts in its garden. Some of our favorites were the beautiful wood-carving doors and bell from an old church, an excellent collection of coins found in the surrounding region, and its distinctive collection of local kilims and carpets. Best part? Admission is free! But it is closed on Mondays.
Kafkas Cephesi Harp Tarihi Müzesi: I’m sad to say we almost missed this. This well maintained building was MUCH more impressive than the Kars Archeological Museum, highlighting the early wars of the area. Creatively displayed weaponry, hospitals, prisoners depicted not only on the conditions of the war, but why the wars happened. Tickets are 12.50 TL (2022).
5. CHECK OUT THE RUSSIAN and BALTIC ARCHITECTURE
The Ottoman-Russian Wars 1877-1878 and almost 40 year Russian Occupations left a major imprint on the city of Kars. The Russian legacy can still be seen in much of the town’s architecture. A few examples are the Hotel Cheltikov and Katerina Sarayı Otel(more info below), Kars Belediyesi, Ticaret ve Sanayi Odası, Kars Defterdarlığı and Kars Valiliği (these last 3 are by Attaturk Park and some of the best examples!). Just take a stroll around town and see! See some of these buildings in our video – skip to 12 minutes.
Our other tips for this area:
When to go:
Kars is one of the highest and coldest towns in Turkey. It is a great winter destination, but make sure to BUNDLE UP and wear lots of layers!!! We added it onto our ski trip to nearby Sarıkamış Ski Center which is why we went while it was cold. Plus we got to enjoy Lake Çildir as it was frozen. I’m sure it would be a lovely summer destination as well since it doesn’t get to hot. Plus, exploring Ani is warmer weather would be so much more pleasant.
- For our trip, we flew a 2.5 hour direct flight from Izmir to Kars on SunExpress Airlines and drove a rental car for our first few days while we explore Kars city and the nearby area. Upon returning our rental car to the airport, our hotel offered a free shuttle to the resort an hour away in Sarıkamış.
- If you are going to come directly to Sarıkamış by plane, the nearest airport to you is Kars Harakani Airport. The center of Sarıkamış is also a 43-minute drive from Kars Airport. Before buying your flight ticket, we recommend that you compare the ticket prices of different airline companies. Both Pegasus Airlines and Sunexpress offer direct flights from Izmir but not daily. You can always find connecting routes to Kars with layovers in other airports.
- Alternative options: The historic Doğu (Eastern) Express is an alternative option for those with a bit more time on their hands. Passing through Kayseri, Sivas, Erzincan, Erzurum and Sarıkamış, it arrives at the last stop, Kars. Coming to Kars with the Orient Express is an experience that must be experienced in itself. It’s a bit difficult to figure out the ticketing system and times (and it’s usually sold out) but if you are able to figure it out, go for it! This article is a bit old but it’s a great start!
- Cheltikov Hotel, YUSUFPAŞA NEIGHBORHOOD : The hotel, which is currently operated as the Cheltikov Hotel, is actually the mansion of the Russian Cheltikov family, built in 1894. The building has found many purposes over the years – an opera house, a maternity house, a depot and a doctor’s house, eventually became a hotel. It is situation within walking distance of the main tourist area of town and the castle. But int the winter it can be really cold and icy!
- We originally had a small double room but it was so tiny that we couldn’t put up Sofia’s travel cot. The staff was so amazing. Seeing our dilemma, they upgraded us to the 2 bedroom suite! The breakfast was ok. They provided a pre-made breakfast plate with some extras available everyday on a nearby table.
- Hotel Katerina Sarayi: Set on the Kars River on the back side of the Kars Castle, this 1879 stately hotel in a stone-built building was originally built as a Russian military hospital. While we stayed most of our time at the Cheltikov, I had heard from friend to stay at leave 1 night here. The cost is a little bit more than what we paid for Cheltikov (although I think our upgraded room at the Cheltikov would have surpassed it!) We had a 1 big bedroom room with a king bed and a twin bed. It started to snow as we arrived covering the trees and building, turning everything into a serene beauty with its white magic. Everything was fabulous here! The staff was kind and quick to respond to any request. The breakfast was a fantastic buffet and free parking available on site. Check out this video to see our stay here.
If you are curious about skiing near Kars then check out our post for skiing in nearby Sarıkamış.
Must Try Foods:
- Kaz (Goose): Of course, the signature dish of Kars could be none other than the Kars goose. The geese, which are fed with grass in the spring months, are fattened by giving barley close to slaughter in the winter months. Goose cooked in a tandoori is served smashed over bulgur.
- Piti: My FAVORITE! The mixture of fatty mutton and chickpeas is cooked in a casserole pottery with vegetables. Served in a big flat bowl, bread forms the base with the juices and rest of the yummy ingredients.
- Hangel: Hangel or khingel is actually the empty and leafy form of Turkish mantı or ravioli. The dough is cut into squares and boiled in water, served with garlic yogurt and oily sauce on it. After skiing on the slopes, it’s a great carb loading meal.
- Gruyere (Gruyère) Cheese: This originally Swiss organ gruyere is the yellow and perforated cheese (think of the legendary cheese in every episode of Tom and Jerry). Due to the strict requirements of production conditions, this quality cheese is only produced in a few countries around the world, including the Netherlands, Georgia and Kars in Turkey. Kars owes its world-famous taste to the Malakans, who were settled here after the 1876-1877 Ottoman-Russian Wars, bringing their love of milk products and dairy farming culture with them.
Even though it was off season and kinda COVID times, we still made reservations every night for the restaurants due to capacity requirements. We would suggest you do the same! The first 3 restaurants listed below were our favorite and we think they should not be missed!
Also, another fun note, Kars retains a strong heritage of folk songs and dancing, and a few of the restaurants below even have evening performances for their customers. Once again, make sure to call ahead and check if what nights there are performances, then reserve a good table!
- Kars Kaz Evi: (Kars Goose House) For being a bit of a tourist place, it did not disappoint! This restaurant is known for it’s view of the Kars Castle and a place for all the flavors unique to Kars. The slow cooked goose and bulgar cooked in goose broth are a must try! But apart from that, everything from hangel to the Evelik Soup is perfect. One of our favorite restaurants in Kars. Check out the food here – skip to 8:50.
- Gastro Kars: We had our second dinner in Kars at the venue called Gastro Kars İpek Hanım’ın Çiftliği. It has a modern, elegant and mainly antique decoration of a long rectangular shaped with a unique stone intimate basements. With a mix of traditional and modern options, we enjoyed a variety of dishes but also a couple of unique ones, like Russian Piroschki, similar to stuffed meatball. At the end of the meal, they brought out a complimentary pudding dessert and small glasses of sweet pink şerbet. Check out our experience here – skip to 8:45.
- Puşkin Restaurant: If you want to try the local dishes of Kars, we would definitely add this to your list. We tried Evelik Aşı, lamb Piti, and empty ravioli Hangel. We loved all of them, but our favorite was the Piti. You can also taste Kars’s local halva, Umaç, here. This is the restaurant we ended up enjoying an evening show at! Check out our visit here – skip to 8 minutes.
- Kars Ayaz Restaurant: During non-covid time, I believe there are night performance every night. The dish that was recommended to us here was the pistachio beyti kebab and it did not disappoint! Plus the ayran was wonderful too, as Sofia will attest too.
- Anne Sofrasi Ev Yemekleri: This was a random stop for lunch in new town one day. Good food, small place, quick service.
- Carton Coffee Lab: We may have stopped here everyday to get out cup of joe and grab some beans for our next week out at the ski center. Great little spot!
- Gaziantep Katmer – We grabbed some Katmer to go from here. It was ok but not my favorite!
For more restaurant recommendations, the couple from BizEvdeYokuz always have great recs; just double check to make sure the locations are open as COVID has unfortunately cause temporary/permanent closures.
- In another post, I talk about all the day trips to visit Kars City, Ani Harabeleri, Lake Çildir, and Boğatepe Cheese farms are our recs! BUT all the links for the videos on these trips are below.
- Sarikamis (53 kilometers southwest of Kars) is a skiing center with resort hotels, setting of a scenic pine forest. I have a whole GUIDE TO SKIING IN TURKEY – KARS. It has the best powder snow in Turkey and is amazingly affordable.
- SouthEast about 3-4 hours by car or bus, you can brave the mountain passes through small villages to the small town of Doğubayezit, home to Ishak Sarayı and the famous mount Ararat.
- Northwest about 5 hours by car, Rize is home to Turkey’s famous tea fields and the Sümela Monastery.
- If you are able, the Georgian border is a 2 hour bus ride (5-6 to the drop-off point of Tbilisi, Georgia. We didn’t do this but we have heard it’s a popular option for tourists!
- Note: While Kars province borders the Armenia province, there is no land crossing. Just making sure you are aware! West-bound Ordu was one of our favorites: capital of hazelnuts, cable car rides, and miles of coastline!
Oh and by the way, I have researched the presence of Russians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds and Turks in Kars. The results are a confusing and intertwining connection throughout a historical time-line full of conflict. JUST LIKE MOST COUNTRIES AND CITIES WITH THIS MUCH HISTORY! These days, it is peaceful city, and we thoroughly enjoyed my time there.
If anyone tells you not to go to Kars, ignore them. It is culturally rich and a wonderful place to visit.
Overall, Kars is so amazing. Not the first place foreigners go to visit, but if you are a long-term expat like us then this is a must visit – especially winter time and skiing in nearby Sarıkamış.
You can check out our trip via video over on our Following The Funks YouTube Channel and see what all we did in our few days before skiing!
Comment below and let me know about some of the questions below:
- Do you want to travel to Kars now?
- Have you traveled to Kars before?
- If so, what did you love? What did we miss?!
Check out our other locations on this road trip! This is just a piece of our 8 part video and blog post series of our road trip.
- SPOILERS: Instagram highlights – Kars 1 and Kars 2 Skiing
- My top 5 tools video for how we planned our travels – VIDEO
- Part 1- FTFE098: Explore Kars, Turkey!
- Part 2 – FTFE099 : Ani Harabeleri near Kars, Turkey!
- Part 3 – FTFE100 : Frozen Çildir Lake near Kars, Turkey!
- Part 4 – FTFE101 : Boğatepe + Gruyere Cheese near near Kars, Turkey!
- Part 5 – FTFE102: Skiing in Turkey! (Sarıkamış)