Van stands near the eastern shore of Lake Van (Van Gölü), a soda-salt lake also known locally as Van Denizi ("the sea of Van"). This lake, the largest in Turkey, lies 1640 metres above sea level and is ringed by high mountains, so the area has a harsh continental climate. An active tectonic boundary runs beneath, so earthquakes are not uncommon, and the nearby volcano Mount Nemrut is considered dormant, not extinct.
The region is historically important as the centre of the Urartu — established in the area between the 9th and 6th centuries BC by an Iron Age people, naming their country Biainili, the origin of the modern name of Van — and Armenian kingdoms. It later came under the rule of Byzantines, Seljuks and then the Ottomans. At its dramatic lakeside setting just beneath the striking rock of the castle, multicultural Van of the olden times was known as one of the most beautiful cities of "the East", and was especially famous for its jewellers' bazaar on the Silk Road and fine silverwork. During World War I, it changed hands several times between the Ottoman Empire, mostly supported by the local Kurds and other Muslims, and the Russian Empire, mostly supported by the local Armenians and other Christians. At the end of the conflict, the old city was devastated and many of its residents were claimed by massacres. The remaining inhabitants relocated to the city's present location, 5 km further east inland. What's left of the old walled city was done away with in the meantime by multiple strong earthquakes, most recently in 2011, and, except for a couple of reconstructed mosques, was reduced to the mounds of rubbles seen today.
Local people mainly speak Turkish and Kurdish. The national language is Turkish, while the native language, Kurdish, is also very common. People, especially the young generation, understand some basic English.
On a trivial note, if you need to practice your rusty Urartian, a language that was unrelated to any other, except for the also extinct Hurrian that was spoken in the surrounding area and written in the cuneiform that they imported from their Mesopotamian neighbours to the south, one great opportunity to do so is to meet Mehmet Kuşman, the retired security guard of the Urartu-era Sarduruhinili Castle (in the village of Çavuştepe 25 km southeast of Van), and one of the 30 or so people in the world proficient in the near extinct language. He is self-taught in the language, and has no academic degree in history or linguistics.
Buses run several times a day to Ankara (19 hours), Istanbul (25 hours) and all major cities in Turkey, some involving a change to a connecting bus: see Kamil Koc website for times and prices. Buses run from the Otogar, 3 km NW of town centre. Free shuttle buses run from the main ticket offices in the town centre, but allow at least 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
Frequent dolmuşes run from town centre to Tatvan (100 km, 2 hrs) via the south lake shore, Highway D300. There are no direct services around the north shore. Dolmuses also run north to Doğubeyazıt (185 km, 2½ hrs).
The border crossing to Iran, 100 km away at Kapikoy/Razi, is open for light vehicles, but (as of 2016) no buses or dolmuşes cross by this route: instead go to Dogubeyazit to travel into Iran via Bazargan.
Van is the western terminus of the railway from Iran. A train departs on Monday at 21:00 with a lengthy stop at the border to reach Tabriz by 05:15 Tuesday and Tehran at 18:20 that evening. The westbound train leaves Tehran at 09:30 Sunday and Tabriz at 22:30 to reach Van around 08:00 Monday. Other trains link Tabriz and Tehran but this is the only cross-border service, with modern sleeping cars. A ferry plies across the lake between Van and Tatvan, which has a twice-weekly train to Ankara. There is no railway around the lake but lots of buses and dolmuşes run along the south shore highway.
- 1 Van railway station, İstasyon Cd.
Van has daily flights to Istanbul, Ankara and other major Turkish cities from Ferit Melen (Van Airport) located 5-10 km SW of the city.
Outside the airport there are taxis to the city costing 20 TL, but you can also walk for the main road where dolmuses stop and take you to the city only for 1 TL. A new bus run by the municipality now serves the security entrance to the airport (past the taxis and towards the main road).
To get to the airport from the city centre, dolmuşes marked Hava Alani leave nearby Hotel Akdamar (Kazim Karabekir Caddesi), and take about 15 minutes.
The ferry across the lake to Tatvan takes 4 hours and costs 5 TL. There are three sailings a day, at irregular times.
Lake Van Monster
There have been claims of witnessing a sea serpent inhabiting the Lake Van almost constantly since the days of the Urartians, and associated myths throughout the history. There is even a video allegedly captured the monster taken by a professor from the local university in 1997, which led to highly sensationalized news broadcasts on national TV channels. But no-one is quite sure whether the Lake Van Monster (Van Gölü Canavarı) exists or not. Some claim the alleged sightings are just those of local buffalos taking a dip in the lake mistaken for something less familiar, while others say it is all a hoax to boost tourism in the relatively underdeveloped and remote area. The municipality of the lakeside town of Gevaş decided to honour the legendary serpent by putting up a 4-metre statue of a dinosaur-like creature in the middle of a roundabout.
- The castle or fortress stands on a 100m-high bluff near the lake shore, with great vistas over the town and lake. Take a dolmuş to Kale (2 TL, 20min), from anywhere in town centre. Kale means castle but also refers to the sprawling suburb north of it, so get out at the castle fence before the dolmus dives into the back streets. Or you could, on a cool day, walk 3 km here from the centre, but there’s still another 1½ km to walk along the lane to the official entrance, and later to walk back. From the entrance a broad track zig-zags up through barbicans to the summit. Locals often take a short-cut, and dodge the 5 TL entrance fee, by slipping through the fence near the dolmus drop-off, and following a rough path up the north side of the bluff. This isn’t altogether safe, and isn’t recommended for visitors.
- The ancient Armenian church of Ahtamar or Akdamar stands on a small island in Lake Van. The church has been re-opened after an extensive restoration, making its impressive frescoes possible to see. Small boats take visitors there from a marina just west of Gevas on the main highway D300, about 50 km west of Van. The return boat ride costs 7.50 TL per person; you don't have to take the same boat back, spend as long as you want on the island. A private boat costs 100 TL. A dolmuş signed Gevas /Akdamar runs from Van minibus otogar in the north-east of the city, to the marina, or dolmuşes to Tatvan will drop off & pick up here.
- The old city of Tuşpa a few kilometres west of the city, was the Urartian capital.
- 1 Varagavank Monastery (Yedi Kilise) (10km east of Van in the village of Bakrachli). The once large and impressive Armenian monastery of Varagavank was partially destroyed during World War I, and swallowed up into a Kurdish village with homes built up against it. What remains however is worth a visit, with a nice entrance with a series of unique crosses carved into it, and the interior with a couple of remaining frescoes.
- 2 Arter Monastery (charter boat). On an island a little northwest of Akhtamar Island and Monastery is the island and Armenian monastery of Arter. Of the two churches that were built, only the Surp Asdvadzadzin Church remains. It is visible from the lake shore. A boat must be chartered to visit, as there is no regular ferry.
- Mount Nemrut and the Ahlat tombs: but Tatvan is the better base for these, see that page.
Van Shopping Center is located in the city centre: it offers shops, restaurants, cafes, and cinemas.
- Urartu Halı (handmade carpet), Van edremit yolu 9.km (5 miles after Van airport), ☏ . If you would like to see beautiful handmade carpets and kilims, you could stop for this free presentation. If you are going to buy, you need to bargain to get a reasonable price.
The city is famous for its breakfast halls (kahvaltı salonu), in which for about 10 TL, you are served a really filling breakfast including locally produced cheese (different types) and honey among many other stuff. The price usually includes an unlimited amount of tea. Look around.
- 1 Cafe Şehr İ Sıla Bistro, Feribot Yolu, 4, ☏ . All-day bistro and café beautifully situated at the harbour.
Plenty of hotels around the northern end of the bazaar.
- Otel Şehrivan, Just off Sihke Caddesi (South of Sihke Caddesi close to Cumhurriyet Cd, opposite of Hazreti Ömer Mosque. Second street to the left coming from Cumhurriyet. Look for the big sign of the Çaldiran Hotel, the Şehrivan is just behind it.), ☏ . You can walk pretty much anywhere in 10 min, minibuses to Akdamar and the Kale are even closer. Rooms are small but clean, powerful showers, decent WiFi, no breakfast. Staff doesn't speak English but is rather helpful. There is a big mosque very close that has even longer and louder calls to prayer than usual in the morning. You may not be able to sleep through them. 40 TL for double room ensuite.
- Hotel Emre, PTT Caddesi (One street west of the main drag of Cumhuriyet Caddesi, one block north of Hotel Yakut), ☏ . A simple hotel with trivial hot showers in the morning. A little noisy outside during the day, but night is silent and with decent staff. No breakfast and no English, but the location is near everything and it's by far the best budget option after the earthquake. 30-40 TL per person.
- Hotel Ipek, Cumhuriyet Cad. 1. Sokak No: 3 (Close to the big downtown mosque, around the corner from the old Hotel Aslan, which was destructed during the earthquake), ☏ . Simple basic hotel, a bit noisy but with friendly staff. No breakfast. single without/with shower 25/30 TL.
- Hotel Asur beside the tourist office, offers clean rooms with attached bathroom. Single 60-80 TL, Double 110 TL including breakfast. The staff speak English and are very helpful.
- 1 Otel Bahar, Ordu Caddesi, Carsi Polis Karakolu Ustu (east of Cumhuriyet, near the big green mosque), ☏ . Good location, clean rooms, decent WiFi. No breakfast and staff is grumpy. No lift. 40 TL for double room ensuite (May 2015).
- 2 Merit Sahmaran Hotel, Yeniköy mevkii. Sahil cad.12 KM. No:60 Edremit. A 4-star hotel near the Van Lake
The countryside to the southeast is dotted by a series of historic and natural attractions, on and off the highway to Hakkari. 1 Çavuştepe is the site of an Urartu-era castle with extraordinarily long and well-preserved Urartian cuneiform inscriptions. Further away, 2 Hoşap (in the village of Güzelsu) is an impressive medieval castle on an outcrop. East from there, Albayrak is worth heading off the highway to visit the ruins of the Armenian 3 monastery of St. Bartholomew, believed to be built on the site of the martyrdom of Bartholomew the Apostle. The glyphs over its intact portal are especially attractive. Long off-limits as part of a military base, the site is open for visits since 2013. Further east, towards the Iranian border is the village of Yavuzlar, overlooked by a group of "fairy chimneys" similar to those found in Cappadocia far to the west, earning the area the monicker of 4 Vanadokya, "Van's Cappadocia".
Çavuştepe and Hoşap are both on the highway to Hakkari (D975), so they are easy to visit by self-driving or taking the buses to Başkale or Hakkari. Albayrak and Yavuzlar are both off the highway, so you need to self-drive or arrange a taxi from Başkale to visit them.
- Doğubeyazıt 185 km north is the main border gate to Iran. (Be sure to have your visa in advance, there are no visa facilities in this area.) Even if you don't intend to cross the border, Doğubeyazıt itself is worth a visit for the nearby attractions of the stunning İshak Pasha Palace, and the legendary Mount Ararat, the highest mountain of Turkey. Doğubeyazıt has good bus connections to other destinations in Eastern Anatolia. If time allows, take the detour to the Muradiye Waterfalls, off the highway between Van and Doğubeyazıt.