Kars is a city in Eastern Anatolia. It is most frequently visited as a jumping off point for travelers going to Ani, but it is a viable destination in its own right for its 19th-century Russian imperial buildings, and, of course, its role as the setting for Orhan Pamuk's famous novel Snow.
|Climate chart (explanation)|
Kars is one of the highest cities in Turkey, at an altitude of about 2000 metres over the sea level. This, coupled with its lack of maritime influence, causes the city to experience a hemiboreal climate, with short, mild to warm summers and long, frigid and snowy winters. It also features a storm season from April to June, which tends to be much more severe than other places in Turkey. It's also one of the only cities in Turkey that's both far from the Black Sea coast and gets year-round, frequent precipitation.
Summers are short, and fairly warm during the daytime, and therefore the best time to visit the city. Despite this, nights are chilly, sometimes even cold, and nighttime temperatures can fall below 0°C even during summer. Rain is frequent but brief during this time of year, falling for around 15 days a month, even if it's usually a brief shower.
Winters are frigid with average night-time temperatures below -15°C (5°F), which means the average night-time temperature is colder than the coldest recorded temperatures of most temperate climates. Furthermore, temperatures vary a lot throughout winter making night-time temperatures below -25°C quite a common occurrence. Contrary to most Turkish climates, winter is the driest time in Kars, with occasional and fairly light snows distributed along the season. Nevertheless, the constant low temperatures allow Kars to accumulate massive amounts of snow, making travel in winter a rather tough task.
Spring and fall are short, chilly seasons, as March and November are basically extensions of winter. During spring, especially from May to mid-June, Kars enters its storm season, when afternoon showers and thunderstorms can erupt every day, with an average of 20-25 days of showers during May. This, coupled with its high altitude, makes Kars a very hail-prone city.
Kars is the setting of Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow (ISBN 0-375-70686-0).
Anadolujet offers regular flights from Ankara to Kars airport. Prices start from 59TL including all fees.
Most companies serve Kars - though you might need to change bus at either Erzurum or Igdir, depending on where you come from. Be sure to check whether there are services available.
There is a daily bus leaving Hopa to Kars at 10:30am. It costs 50 Lira and takes between 7-8 hours with a stop for lunch.
The Instagram Express
Seeing that the exchange rates were rarely in their favour to achieve the everlasting dream of a Eurotrip on rails, many young Turks realized that their country has passenger trains, too, and, beginning from as early as 2016, but most intensely in 2019 and early 2020, started flocking, often in groups, into the Doğu Ekspresi (Eastern Express) for a night and day of fun, followed by a couple days of more fun in Kars and its surroundings, sharing umpteen pictures of their foray into the undervisited, vast eastern hinterlands on their social media accounts, and generating an ever increasing demand for doing, experiencing, and perhaps above all, sharing the same among others. A winter-themed decoration of the compartment the journey would be spent at, and calling ahead the local kebab shops in Erzurum for ordering a meal, warmly packaged and right on time to be handed at the station, became obligatory rituals of the phenomenon. The trip had become so insanely popular that the sleeping cars in particular were often fully booked months ahead, especially during January and February, when the universities are on a winter break.
With an eye towards exploiting the unexpected market formed by an unprecedented passenger surge in one of its services running at a loss (as most conventional passenger lines in Turkey are), as well as fulfilling its foremost duty of providing subsidized transportation to those who really need it, the Turkish State Railways decided to decouple the sleeping cars with single- and two-occupant compartments (but not four-occupant couchettes) from the Doğu Ekspresi, and re-arrange them into the Turistik Doğu Ekspresi, a tourist train scheduled to maximize daylight hours spent at the most scenic parts of the route, with a couple of lengthened stops for sightseeing tours, but having a much heftier fare that would likely be a bit out of range for the average Turkish university student.
This was right before Covid-19, and it remains to be seen whether any of this sudden, social media-driven popularity would survive when the pandemic measures are fully lifted.
The Doğu Express departs Ankara daily at 18:00, reaching Kars 24 hours later. The return train leaves around 08:00. There are couchettes and a buffet. Main stops along the route are Kayseri, Sivas, Erzincan and Erzurum. Buy tickets online from Turkish Railways.
There's also a more expensive "tourist" version of this train, running daily year-round. It makes long stops for sightseeing eastbound at İliç, Erzincan and Erzurum; the westbound train makes long stops at Divriği and Bostankaya. Total travel time Ankara-Kars is 30 hours, and you're tied to the train schedule without flexibility of stopover. The accommodation is in standard sleeping cars, which have been purloined from the conventional train, so the travel experience on that has been degraded.
Turkey’s rail link via Kars to Georgia and Azerbaijan opened in 2017 for freight only. As of late 2021, passenger services between Ankara and Baku, via Kars and Tbilisi, initially planned with just one train a week, haven't started yet.
- 1 Kars railway station (Kars garı).
There are a few taxis serving the city centre. It's a pretty small place so it's quite possible to cover it by foot.
- 1 Kars Castle (on the side of the hill facing the city). 09:00 to 16:00. one of the few sights to see within Kars. It's a short climb from the city centre, and is worth climbing for the view of the city. The castle was built in 1153, destroyed by Mongol invaders, and rebuilt in 1579. Admission is free.
- 2 Church of Apostles (Kümbet, or Kethuda Mosque) (just below the castle). also well worth a look. The building was built as an Armenian church in the 10th century, and upon capturing the city, Ottomans converted it to a mosque in 1579. Later, when Russians came over, it became a church again, this time serving Russian Orthodox believers. After the Turks took back the city, it served for non-religious purposes for a time (such as a warehouse), and in 1998 consecrated as a mosque again.
- Russian architecture (locally known as the "Baltic style") of the townhouses on the old town's grid formed during the Russian occupation of Kars between 1878 and 1918, singles out the city in Turkey. Fethiye Mosque (Fethiye Camii) in the city centre, built by Russians during that era as a church, is the only mosque in Turkey with that distinctive architectural style, although it lost its pair of copulas in the meantime.
Gravier cheese is delicious! You can enjoy having some from the shops near to castle. You can try the Soldier Souvenirs Passage on the main street with a lion statue sells stuff for rare collector's items.
A local speciality is goose (kaz), usually made into a stew.
- Ani Restaurant is a good local restaurant, located under Kar's Otel.
- Antep Pide & Lahmacun Salonu is popular with the locals, makes cheap and tasty pide.
- Yağmurcu Cafe Bar, Yusuf Paşa Mh. Küçük Kazımbey Cad. Kent Kulüp Altı. No:3. (On the corner of Küçük Kazımbey Cad. and Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa Cad.), ☏ . from 12:00 - 17:00 all hot and cold drinks half price. There is a rustic area at the entrance where you can drink and smoke. Inside is darker with tables, music and private rooms. 0.5L Effes 7TL, Nuts 5TL.
There are many hotels along the main street costing 30-45 TL per night. (Mar 2016)
- Hotel Kent, Hapan Mevkii 12, ☏ . Boutique hotel offering clean rooms with en suite bathrooms and comfortable beds. Lounge room with satellite TV and a refrigerator for guests. It's frequented by backpackers on their way to Ani, which makes it a good place for solo travellers to organize an excursion from. Taxi drivers know it. Double or twin 138 TL with breakfast.
- Hotel (Otel) Temel, Yenipazar Caddesi, ☏ . Clean rooms with singles, doubles and triples, some with a good view. Central location within a few minutes' walk to Kars Castle. Breakfast included and free WiFi in rooms. Some staff speak English. Laundry service relatively expensive. If you are a female be cautious of the creepy guy who only speaks Turkish at the front desk, as he has been known to grope. 60 L for a double, private bathroom.
- Hotel (Otel) Temel 2, Across the street from the other Otel Temel, on the side with shoe stores (not the main street side). Hotel Temel 2 is a nice hotel to stay in, with ensuite facilities, TV, and nice clean beds. It also comes with a breakfast, consisting of bread, cheese and honey. It's also suitable for the budget traveler. Somewhat unfriendly manager though, without any knowledge of English or any other language, but Turkish.
- Kar's Otel, Halit Paşa Caddesi 79, ☏ . Boutique hotel housed in an old Russian building. € 99.
- Miraç Otel, Cengiz Topel Caddesi 19, ☏ . Musty old place down a side street. Staff are helpful but don't speak English. Breakfast is a sad excuse with yesterday's bread, a few olives and some white cheese. And the Çay is weak! Double/Twin Room 70 TL (July 2018).
- Bizim Otel, Faikbey Caddesi 198, ☏ . Decent budget hotel on the main strip. Rooms are clean (some have balconies overlooking the road) with small bathrooms. The guys on reception don't speak English, but the owner Savaş does and is happy to help out. Twin room 70 TL per night (July 2018).
As of Dec 2020, Kars has 4G from all Turkish carriers, but there is no signal on the highways to town. 5G has not yet reached this area.
A visit to Eastern Anatolia is not complete without a visit to the ruins of the ancient Armenian city of Ani, 45 km east of Kars.
Daily bus departures from Kars in front of the Antik Cafe (corner of Faikbey Cd. and Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa Cd.) at 09:00 and 13:00. The bus returns from Ani at 11:30 and 15:30. Roundtrip 14 TL, 10 TL for students. See poster (May 2017).
You can charter a taxi (100 TL, 2016) or get a guide (entrance fee 8 TL). In summer, it is very easy to find travel mates to fill a taxi. In winter, you will most probably travel alone.
There is also an English-speaking entrepreneur in Kars who will organize shared buses (40 TL per person, September 2013) to Kars. I sadly can't remember the name, but most hotels hotels should be able to give you his number if you just say something like "Ani, Dolmuş, Ingilizce". (There are no dolmuş to Ani as of March 2016.)
If you're on a tight budget you can also try hitch-hiking to Ani. Walk about 2 km out of town to the cross section where the street heads towards Ani (There are enough street signs to find it). There is not a lot of traffic on this road but eventually a local will stop for you.
Several minibuses to Ardahan every day, every hour from 8am (at least 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am). Departs from the minibus station (city center). 15 TL, about 1 hr 30 min.
Artvin and Hopa
Bus every morning 09:30 to Artvin (45 TL) and Hopa (55 TL) from the minibus station (city center). The bus is run by Artvin Ekspres and departs almost everyday; check one day before just in case. This option is the best to reach Georgia through Batumi. As of July 2019, the price for the Kars-Hopa bus - on Artvin Ekspress - is 80 TL per person.