Van (pronounced vahn in Turkish, wahn in Kurdish) is a city in Eastern Anatolia, Turkey. For Turks from the other regions of Turkey, it has a surprising beach resort feel in an area where their country is farthest from the sea. For Armenians from all over the world, it's sort of a homecoming, where they reconnect with their long-lost heritage. For Iranians from just next door, it's a quick breath of fresh air, where they freely and happily flout the Islamic fiat enforced in their homeland. For all of them, and for everybody else, Van is the highlight of travelling in eastern Turkey, with great historic sites and equally great lake and mountain vistas.
Van is near the eastern shore of Lake Van (Van Gölü), a soda-salt lake also known locally as Van Denizi ("the sea of Van") for its size – it's the largest lake in Turkey. The lake surface is 1640 metres above sea level and 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 only dormant, not extinct.
The region is historically important as the centre of the kingdom of Urartu – established in the area between the 9th and 6th centuries BC by an Iron Age people who named their country Biainili, a word which eventually morphed into "Van" – and later of the Armenians. Afterwards, Van was ruled by the Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans. At its dramatic lakeside setting just beneath the striking rock of the castle, the multicultural Van of old was known as one of the most beautiful cities of "the East", and was especially famous for its fine silverwork and the jewellers' bazaar on the Silk Road. During World War I, it changed hands several times between the Ottoman Empire, mostly supported by local Kurds and other Muslims, and the Russian Empire, mostly supported by local Armenians and other Christians. By the end of the war the old city had been devastated, and many of its people massacred. The remaining inhabitants relocated to the city's present location, 5 km further east inland. What was left of the old walled city was later reduced to rubble by strong earthquakes, including a 7.1-magnitude quake in 2011. Only a couple of mosques have been rebuilt.
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.
In case you need to brush up your rusty Urartian, an extinct language written in the cuneiform imported from Mesopotamia to the south and not closely related to any other (perhaps except also extinct Hurrian once spoken in the surrounding area), one great opportunity to do so is to meet Mehmet Kuşman (b. 1940), the retired security guard of the Urartu-era Sarduruhinilli Castle in his village, Çavuştepe. While discussing with the scholars visiting the site, he was fascinated by Urartian and self-taught himself in the language without any academic degree in history or linguistics, thus becoming one of a handful of people in the world proficient in it.
Buses run several times a day from Ankara (19 hours), Istanbul (25 hours) and all major cities in Turkey, some involving a change to a connecting bus.
Frequent dolmuşes run to town from Tatvan (100 km, 2 hrs) via the south lake shore, Highway D300. There are no direct services around the north shore. Dolmuses also run from Doğubayazıt (185 km, 2½ hrs) to the minibus terminal next to the otogar. Buses leave at 07:30, 09:00, 12:00, 14:00 and 16:00. 150TL (Oct 2023).
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.
1 Van Otogarı is at the highway junction 3 km northwest of town. Your inter-city ticket should be valid for the shuttle buses to town, check when booking.
Van is the western terminus of the railway from Iran, but the weekly train from Tehran and Tabriz has been suspended since 2019. Van railway station is locked up.
Outside the airport there are taxis to the city, but you can also walk to the main road where dolmuses take you to the city much more cheaply. A bus run by the municipality 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 Alanı leave from near Hotel Akdamar (Kazım Karabekir Cd), and take about 15 minutes.
Ferries across the lake from Tatvan sail infrequently and irregularly and take 4 hours.
Dolmuşes and taxis take you anywhere beyond walking distance, such as the castle.
Lake Van Monster
There have been claims of witnessing a sea serpent inhabiting Lake Van almost constantly since the days of the Urartians, and associated myths throughout history. There is even a video, allegedly of 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 lakeside town of Gevaş honours the legendary serpent by putting up a 4-metre statue of a dinosaur-like creature in the middle of a roundabout.
- Tuşpa, the ancient Urartian capital, was at the same site with Old Van. Save for some cobbled roads and the occasional ruin of stone buildings, it is now a massive expanse of empty land extending from below the fortress to the lake. Don't confuse it with the metropolitan municipality of Tuşba, which governs the northern half of the modern city.
- 1 Van Fortress (Van Kalesi) (take a dolmuş to "Kale" (20min) from anywhere in the town centre.). Daily 08:00-17:00 (last ticket 16.30). The fortress stands on a 100 m-high bluff near the lake shore, with great vistas over the town and lake. 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 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. 70 TL.
- Van Museum (Van Müzesi), Yalı Mh Kale Sk 2 (right at the entrance of the Van Castle complex. As few dolmuş pass right by the entrance, to return to the city center you may prefer to walk a couple of hundred metres to the bus shelter by the park on Melen Cd.), ☏ , email@example.com. 08:00-17:00 (Closed M). The museum includes relics and archaeological items from the different people who lived in the area throughout history, with an emphasis on the Urartians, plus a large section devoted to woven works typical of the region. 70 TL.
- 2 Meher Kapı (on the side of the outcrop northeast of the centre). An Urartian sanctuary from the 9th century BC cut into the cliff face. Rituals here likely involved animal sacrifices.
- 3 Akdamar (Aghtamar) (Small boats sail from a marina just west of Gevaş on highway D300, about 50 km west of Van, or from another jetty on the highway a little further west. You don't have to take the same boat back, so spend as long as you want on the island. A dolmuş signed Gevaş/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, also at the more western highway port which is a shorter boat trip.). Daily 08:00-17:00. The 10th-century Armenian church of Surp Khach or the Holy Cross on Akdamar/Aghtamar Island in Lake Van is one of the highlights of any trip to the area. It's adorned with impressive (albeit somewhat faded) frescoes within and amazing rock-cut reliefs on the exterior. A liturgy is held annually about a week before the Feast of the Cross, on whichever date falls on Sunday around Sep 5–10, open to all. Facilities on the island include a small mosque, a small cafe and toilets. Return ferry: Gevaş 65 TL, western highway port 40 TL (Oct 2022); entrance: 290 TL.
At the other abandoned monasteries listed below, don't expect any tourist facilities – or good roads or even signposts towards many of them.
- 4 Arter Monastery (charter boat). On Kuş Island a little northwest of Akhtamar is the small 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.
- 5 Karmravank Monastery (Garmravank, "Red Monastery") (a dirt track branches off from the road north of Göründü, after the road bends around two tiny peninsulas). 10th century Armenian monastery built by King Gagik, 12km west-northwest of Akhtamar Island on the mainland.
- 6 Saint Thomas Monastery (Tovma Monastery, Kantsaga Surp Garabedi Vank, Altınsaç Kilisesi) (up a hairpinning dirt track branching off north of Altınsaç from the road to İnköy). A monastery from the 10th-11th centuries on a scenic site overlooking the lake near the village of Altınsaç. Renovated by Tovma Aghtamartsi in 1671 and Catholicos Hovhannes in 1801. Partially ruined today.
- Mount Nemrut and the Ahlat tombs on the western shore of the lake: Tatvan is the better base for these, see that page.
- 7 Ktuts Monastery (Gıduts Manastırı, Çarpanak Manastırı) (on Çarpanak Island; charter a boat from nearby Çitören or from the harbour of Van, 1h 40min from the latter). Ktuts is among the best preserved Armenian monasteries in the area, although its decoration is incomparably simpler than Aghtamar. Rebuilt after an earthquake in 1703 and abandoned after 1915, it was cut off from the mainland after a sudden increase in the water level of the lake in the 19th century. The rest of the island is closed to visits as it's the hatching ground of an endemic gull species under protection.
- 8 Lim Monastery (Lim Manastırı) (on Adır Island). Another small and ruined Armenian monastery on a lake island.
- 9 Devil's Bridge (Şeytan Köprüsü) (about 85 km away; turn off D975 at the signpost past Muradiye). A 19th-century, single-arch stone bridge spanning over a gorge. Probably not worth a special trip but a brief pit stop if you happen to be nearby would do no harm.
- 10 Muradiye Waterfalls (Muradiye Şelalesi) (about 90 km away; off D975 a short distance north of the Devil's Bridge). A 40-m wide waterfall plunging about 20 m down from a basaltic cliff. In heavier winters it freezes into a dripstone-like curtain of ice.
- 11 Mount Tendürek lava field (Tendürek Dağı lav taşları). Mount Tendürek is an active volcano; it last erupted in 1855 when it diffused gas and ash. Its last lava eruption was about 2,500 years ago, and the viscous lava, similar to the material found in Hawaiian volcanoes, solidified into coal-black sharp boulders covering a huge swathe of land, 650 km2 (250 sq mi), twice the size of Malta. The section easiest to view is along D975 north to Doğubayazıt, just past the village of Soğuksu.
- 12 Varagavank Monastery (Yedi Kilise) (10 km east of Van in the village of Bakraçlı). 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.
The countryside further southeast is dotted by a series of historic and natural attractions, on and off the highway to Hakkari, D975.
- 13 Çavuştepe (30 km away). Daily. The site of the Urartu-era castle of Sardurihinilli with extraordinarily long and well-preserved Urartian cuneiform inscriptions. Free.
- 14 Hoşap (in the village of Güzelsu). Daily 08:00-19:00 (temporarily closed as of Nov 2023). An impressive 1643-built castle on an outcrop. A pretty, 1671-built stone bridge with three humps spans over the eponymous river ("beautiful water") just below the castle. Free.
- 15 Saint Bartholomew Monastery (Bartholomeus Kilisesi) (in the village of Albayraklar; northeast of Başkale). Albayrak is worth heading off the highway to visit the ruins of the medieval Armenian 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 has been open for visits since 2013.
- 16 Fairy Chimneys (Peri Bacaları) (in the village of Yavuzlar; northeast from Albayraklar towards the Iranian border). The village is overlooked by a group of hoodoos or "fairy chimneys", similar to those found in Cappadocia far to the west, earning the area the monicker of Vanadokya, "Van's Cappadocia".
Çavuştepe and Hoşap are both on the highway, so they are easy to visit by taking buses to Başkale or Hakkari. For St Bartholomew and the fairy chimneys, you have to self-drive or arrange a taxi.
- Beaches are found south of Edremit (sandy) and around Mollakasım north of Cape Çarpanak (pebble).
- Birdwatching — Lake Erçek (Erçek Gölü) 30 km east along D300 towards Kapıköy on the Iranian border is an important site for migrating waterbirds, about 180 species of them, several endangered.
Van Shopping Center is 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) where you are served a huge amount of food including local cheese and honey, and an unlimited supply of tea. Look around.
- 1 Cafe Şehr İ Sıla Bistro, Feribot Yolu, 4, ☏ . All-day bistro and café beautifully situated at the harbour.
There are 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 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 do not speak English but are 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.
- 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. Decent staff but no English. No breakfast but the location is near everything.
- Hotel Ipek, Cumhuriyet Cad. 1. Sokak No: 3 (Close to the big downtown mosque), ☏ . Simple basic hotel, a bit noisy but with friendly staff. No breakfast.
- Hotel Asur. beside the tourist office, offers clean rooms with attached bathroom. 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 are grumpy. No lift.
- 2 Merit Sahmaran Hotel, Yeniköy mevkii. Sahil cad.12 KM. No:60 Edremit. A 4-star hotel near Van Lake.
- Van Şişli Öğretmenevi.
Do not take an unofficial route into and up to the castle as it can be much more difficult and dangerous to get down again.
Van has 4G from all Turkish carriers, but only Turkcell has a signal on the highways around. 5G has not yet reached this area.
- Doğubayazıt 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.
|Routes through Van
|Malatya ← Tatvan ←
|→ Kapıköy/Razi → Becomes → Khoy
|Merges with ← Doğubayazıt ←
|→ Hakkari → Ends at