Nearly everyone who visits Kars does so to see the nearby ruins of Ani, some 40 kilometers to the east. But Kars is a unique city that’s a worthy destination in its own right. And it can easily be explored on foot in a single day. In the following Kars guide, we’ll be covering the historical buildings and landmarks that you shouldn’t miss while in town.
Every city in Turkey contains architecture from a variety of eras and civilizations, but Kars is home to a particularly unique collection. The oldest buildings in the city date back to the 10th century when it was the capital of Bagratid Armenia. Later, the Seljuk Turks and their vassals, the Saltukids, took over and constructed numerous mosques and fortresses.
The Ottomans later added a number of structures, while Kars is one of the only cities in Turkey to have been controlled by the Russians. The Russian Empire ruled Kars from 1878 – 1917, and numerous Neoclassical buildings from this time remain standing.
Today, Kars’ 70,000 inhabitants mostly consist of Muslim Turks and Kurds.
At over 2,000 meters above sea level, the city is noticeably chilly. If you’re averse to the cold, it’s best to avoid the winter unless you’re coming to ski.
As for transport and accommodation, check the very end of this Kars guide for more info.
Approaching the Castle
As we’ll cover shortly, the main attraction of Kars is Kars Castle, visible from much of the city center. But at the base of the hilltop fortress, you’ll encounter a plethora of important buildings from the Armenian, Seljuk and Ottoman periods.
As you get closer to the castle, one of the first historical structures you’ll encounter is the Citadel Tower. Built in 1153, it’s one of seven towers which surrounded Kars Castle, though there were likely up to 22 of them originally.
It was established by the Saltukid Turks, an offshoot of the Seljuk Empire that controlled much of Anatolia at the time.
The hexagonal structure appears to be currently in use as a mosque.
The largest religious structure in the area is the Ottoman-era Evliya Cami built in 1579. It’s most notable for housing the tomb of an 11th-century Persian Sufi saint named Abu al-Hassan al-Kharaqani.
The saint was among the first to promote Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, in Anatolia. In fact, he lived over two centuries before Rumi would found his Sufi Whirling Dervish order in the Seljuk capital of Konya.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, banned all Sufi orders in an attempt to secularize the nation. Nevertheless, tombs of Sufi saints throughout the country have continued to attract pilgrims.
After extensive restorations, this impressive multi-domed mosque officially reopened for worship in the year 2000.
The Cathedral of Kars (Kümbet Cami)
The Cathedral of Kars, also known as the Apostles Church, was built in the 930s when Kars was still capital of Bagratid Armenia. Not long after, they’d move their capital to neighboring Ani.
When the Seljuks took over the region in 1064, they converted it to a mosque. Presumably, it was reconverted to a church when Christians regained control of the area in the 12th century.
The Ottomans later converted it back to a mosque in the 16th century. And when the Russians took control of the area centuries later, they once again changed it to a church.
It was later used as a secular building throughout much of the 20th century, even functioning as a warehouse for some time! And most recently, in 1993, it was reopened as an active mosque, officially known as Kümbet Cami.
Despite all of these changes over the past thousand years, the structure maintains its sleek, minimalist appearance. Architecturally, the church consists of a central dome surrounded by four apses, a design based on a 5th-century church in Mastara, Armenia.
Today, there’s little to distinguish it as a mosque other than the bell tower that’s been converted to a minaret. As for Christian iconography, carvings of the twelve apostles adorn the top of the dome, while all crosses have been removed.
The Old Hammams
Before heading straight to the castle, walk west, where you can find a couple of Ottoman-era hammams, or bathhouses. They’re immediately distinguishable for their domes.
The Muradiy Hammam, the closest to the castle, was built in 1774. The rectangular structure features a balcony and two domes. Neither hammam is in use and both are currently under restoration.
The Stone Bridge
In between the two hammams is an elegant stone bridge. Built by the Ottomans in 1580, it’s still functional today, having been recently restored in 2013. The bridge, which stretches out to over 53 meters long, also provides a great perspective of Kars Castle up above.
Kars Castle, formerly used as a military base, had long been inaccessible to the public until fairly recently. But now that it’s open to all, it’s the city center’s most noteworthy attraction by far.
While there may not be a whole lot to see at the top, the basalt stone fortress offers excellent views of the city.
And at the time of writing, entry to Kars Castle is completely free.
According to records, it was originally built in 1153 by the Saltukids. But given how the Armenian Bagratids built their main cathedral just at the base of the hill, they likely constructed something up here as well.
Later, it was destroyed by Tamerlane and his army just after they ravaged nearby Ani. The Ottomans then repaired it in 1579.
The castle was damaged yet again in the mid-19th century during fighting between the Ottomans and Russians. Not long after, the two sides fought here again during World War I.
Making your way to the top, you’ll pass by a tomb of a man named Jalal Baba who died defending the castle from the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. You’ll then reach an open grassy area with little decoration other than an old cannon in the center.
The spacious castle complex contains an arsenal, barracks and a mosque, though there’s little signage indicating what’s what. While empty, a number of these structures are explorable. Unfortunately, the central and highest portion of the fortress is off-limits.
Elsewhere at the top are a cafe and public restroom.
The real reason to make the trek up to the castle is for the views. In addition to the landmarks mentioned earlier, you can see the entirety of Kars from here, along with the vast, open planes in the distance.
More Kars Architecture
The rest of the city center is worth exploring as well. As mentioned above, Kars was controlled by Russia from 1878-1917. And the architecture of the city, with its black basalt Neoclassical buildings, still reflects this.
Kars has a look and feel quite unlike any other city in Turkey. Its most similar neighbor would be Gyumri, Armenia, which was controlled by the Russian Empire during the same period.
As Kars is such a small city, you’re bound to come across several interesting buildings just by aimlessly wandering around. While some crumbling buildings seem to have been left untouched for decades, several others have clearly seen recent restorations.
Though only visible through a fence during my visit, look out for the Old Governor’s Mansion, the building where the Treaty of Kars was signed. The treaty saw the Soviet Union officially cede Kars and numerous other territories in eastern Anatolia to Turkey.
While a little out of the way, history and architecture enthusiasts should head south to see the Fethiye Mosque. It was originally a Russian Orthodox church and then used as an electricity distribution center.
Now, it’s being used as a mosque, and the two towering minarets in front of the classical Russian building look strangely out of place.
Construction was taking place outside at the time of my visit, and I couldn’t get a closer look. But this single building pretty much sums up the last two hundred years or so of Kars.
Normally, when visiting historical sites in Turkey, a trip to the local archaeology museum is essential, as this is where the most important artifacts are often kept. Sadly, for those visiting Ani, the Kars Museum is a disappointing exception.
While there are a few interesting Neolithic and Bronze Age artifacts on display, you’ll find almost nothing from Ani here. Furthermore, the historical information on the ancient capital is vague and misleading, presumably due to the grudges still held between the Turks, Kurds and Armenians.
If you want to see artifacts uncovered at Ani, you’ll have to travel to the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan. This is where many of the items salvaged from Ani in the early 20th century are now kept. But inconveniently, the land borders are closed.
The highlight of the Kars Museum would have to be its outer yard, which contains a plethora of interesting tombstones in the shapes of animals like horses and rams. They come from a myriad of Caucasian and northeast Anatolian cultures.
The museum can be reached on foot from the city center, but it’s out of the way for those visiting other locations in this Kars guide on the same day.
If you want to visit, I recommend having your driver drop you off here after your trip to Ani. Afterward, you can return to the city center on foot.
There are a few different ways to reach Kars. The city even has its own airport with flights from Ankara
Kars is also accessible from Ankara via Doğu Express trains. The 24-hour journeys are wildly popular, as one of the main appeals is the cozy train ride itself. From what I’ve heard, they tend to sell out very quickly.
But few foreign tourists visit Ankara to begin with, so most will be coming by bus.
There are direct buses in between Kars and Trabzon, with the journey lasting around 9 hours. Almost all of the buses on this route are night buses.
You could also spend some time in Erzurum, which would be several hours closer. Some people also visit Kars from Hopa, situated right near the border with Georgia.
Many travelers visit Kars from Doğubayazıt, the town closest to Mt. Ararat, or Ağrı, as it’s known locally. Unfortunately, there are no direct buses and you will have to transfer at a city called Iğdır.
From Doğubayazıt to Iğdır (about 1 hour), you will need to take a dolmuş, or minibus. The bus onward to Kars is not at the same dropoff point, but several minutes on foot down the same street. Be sure to check the Maps.me app, as they have accurate info on exactly where you need to go.
Buses between Iğdır and Kars (around 3 hours) leave every hour or so. Coming from Iğdır, you will likely end up at a small but central bus terminal which is labelled ‘The Village of Kars Bus Terminal’ on Google Maps.
But if you’re on a large coach bus coming from farther away, you might end up at the main Kars Otogar (bus terminal) which is several kilometers from the city center. From there, your only option into town may be taxi, unless the bus company offers some kind of free shuttle service.
In my case, on the journey from Trabzon, I noticed that we were taking the main road through the city center and just asked the conductor to stop the bus for me. I then walked to my hotel, and I’m not sure where the bus ultimately ended up.
When searching online, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of hotel options in Kars. But as I’d later discover throughout my travels, most hotels in Turkey don’t even bother listing themselves online at all.
I ended up staying at Hotel Kent Ani, which I booked through Booking.com. Despite the website being banned in Turkey, I was able to make the booking using a VPN (more below).
The hotel was a bit pricier than what I’d pay on average throughout my travels in Turkey, but I still recommend it. Even though I arrived very early, around 6:30 in the morning, they were kind enough to let me check in.
The room was clean and comfortable and the hotel price includes breakfast. The manager speaks good English, and it was easy to arrange transport to Ani through him. And he also gave me good suggestions on hotels to stay at in other cities I’d be going to, like Doğubayazıt and Van.
My main complaint was the constant smell of cigarette smoke seeping into my room from the rooms across the hall. Annoyingly, even in 2020, smoking is allowed in almost all Turkish hotels.
The nearest city to Ani is Kars, itself a former Armenian capital. Ani is about 42 kilometers east of the city, right on the border with present-day Armenia.
There are normally two options to reach Ani: bus or taxi.
Getting to Ani by Taxi
I arranged a taxi to Ani through my hotel and I paid 250 TL for roundtrip transport, including three hours of wait time. I was originally offered a cheaper price for just two hours, but I’m glad I went for three instead, as there’s just so much to see and explore around the site.
At the time of my visit, in the summer of 2020, 250 TL was a little over $30 USD. With the Turkish lira currently in free fall, online information about prices in Turkey can be misleading. Before my visit, I found some online source that said ‘Don’t pay more than 100 TL.’ But this was written in 2017, and after doing the calculations, I discovered that it’s roughly equivalent to what I paid in 2020.
Getting to Ani by Bus
At the time of my visit, given the low tourist numbers due to the coronavirus pandemic, bus services to Ani from Kars were entirely cancelled. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t run again for awhile.
In normal times, there’s a bus stop outside of Antik Cafe (the corner of Faikbey & Gazi Ahmet Pasa streets). While in the area, I stopped to check the signs and saw both 9:00 and 9:30 as listed times. But I’ve also read online that they normally leave at 10:00.
In any case, if buses are running again during your visit, you’ll want to check locally about departure times. If your hotel doesn’t know, try asking at the Antik Cafe itself. Also be sure to confirm the times of the return buses.
While the Turkish government isn’t quite as extreme as China when it comes to online censorship, you’ll probably want a decent VPN before your visit.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
Booking.com is currently banned in the country (at least when you search for domestic accommodation). However, there are actually quite a few Turkish hotels listed on there anyway. And many them don’t even appear on Hotels.com, which hasn’t been banned.
Over the course of my trip, I ended up making quite a few reservations with Booking.com and was really glad I had a VPN to do so.
Another major site that’s banned is PayPal. If you want to access your account at all during your travels, a VPN is a must.
While those are the only two major sites that I noticed were banned during my trip, Turkey has even gone as far as banning Wikipedia and Twitter in the past.