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.
Kars is one of the highest cities in Turkey, situated at an altitude of about 2000 metres over the sea level. Complemented with the distance to the sea, this makes the climate of this area the harshest in Turkey with winter temperatures regularly below -30 C at nights (and no warmer than -15 C during the day). There is not a real summer season in Kars, only a short spring in July and August (this is also the wettest season) and a long, bitterly cold, and heavily snowy winter during the rest of the year. Keep in mind that nighttime temperatures can fall below zero degree (Celsius) in any time of the year (even in August).
The setting of Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow is Kars.
By bus - 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.
By train - there is also a train station in Kars, with a daily service from Istanbul's Haydarpaşa station (Doğu Express), and another daily service from Ankara (Erzurum Express) . (Update, 2012. Due to major reconstruction works all over Turkish railway network, it's currently impossible to take a train out of Istanbul. Doğu Express keeps operating but its western terminus is now shifted to Ankara.)
By plane - Anadolujet offers regular flights from Ankara to Kars airport. Prices start from 59TL including all fees.
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.
Kars Castle - situated on the side of the hill facing the city, Kars Castle is 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. Open from 9:00 to 16:00, admission is free. The castle was built in 1153 A.D. later destroyed by Mongol invaders and rebuilt in 1579.
Russian/Baltic architecture along the grid of old town's streets, realized during the Russian occupation of the city in 1878–1918, singles out the city in Turkey. Fethiye Mosque (Fethiye Camii) in the city centre, originally built by Russians in the occupation period as a church, is the only mosque in Turkey having that distinctive architectural style.
The Church of Apostles just below the castle, now known as Kümbet or Kethuda Mosque (Kümbet/Kethuda Camii), is also well worth a look. The building was originally an Armenian church built in 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.
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.
- Yağmurcu Cafe Bar, Yusuf Paşa Mh. Küçük Kazımbey Cad. Kent Kulüp Altı. No:3. Kars (On the corner of Küçük Kazımbey Cad. and Gazi Ahmet Muhtar Paşa Cad.), ☎ 05389571810. 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 Lira per night. (Mar 2016)
- Hotel Bizim (1), Faikbey St 198 (main street in Kars), ☎ +90 474 212-28-00. All rooms with TV, wifi and breakfast included (delicious soups). Single room TL 20-30, double room TL 40-60.
- Hotel Bizim 2, Faikbey St 198 (main street in Kars), ☎ +90 474 212-28-00. All rooms with TV, free but very slow Wi-fi, free hot water (reception). Rooms warm (in winter), but quite dirty and noisy. No breakfast at all. The hotel staff can arrange taxis to Ani. Limited English spoken. Be sure to write the price before hand, since the staff may try to increase it when you check out. Single room TL 20-30, double room 40₺ (shared bathroom), 50₺ (private bathroom).
- Hotel Kent, Hapan Mevkii 12, ☎ +90 474 223-19-29. Boutique hotel recently undergone renovation, 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 travelers to organize an excursion from. Taxi drivers know it. 60 TL.
- Hotel (Otel) Temel, Yenipazar Caddesi, ☎ +90 474 223 1376. (In Lonely Planet) 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, ☎ +90 474 212-16-16. Boutique hotel housed in an old Russian building. € 99.
- Miraç Otel, Cengiz Topel Caddesi 19, ☎ +90 474 212-37-68. Clean centrally located Hotel, decent free Wifi. Staff doesn'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 Room 50 TL incl. breakfast (September 2013).
Most hotels and many cafés and restaurants offer free Wi-Fi.
A visit to Eastern Anatolia is not complete without a visit to the ruins of the ancient Armenian City of Ani, which is situated 45 km east of Kars. It is best to charter a taxi (100 Lira, 2016) or get a guide. (Entrance Fee 8 Lira)
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₺ 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 2km 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₺, about 1h30.
Artvin and Hopa
Bus every morning 9.30am to Artvin and Hopa from the minibus station (city center). About 45₺. 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. If the bus from Kars to Hopa does not run, first go to Ardahan by minibus and, from there, take the 12h30 to Hopa (35₺).