From cheese museums and Russian architecture to the ruins of an ancient Armenian kingdom; here are the best things to do in Kars!

Ride the Eastern Express across the Anatolian plains, and you’ll find yourself in the little-visited city of Kars. This is Turkey’s eastern frontier, a place far removed from the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast or the well-trodden streets of Istanbul, but brave the long rail journey (it’s a 26-hour train ride from Ankara) and you’ll find crumbling Armenian ruins, Russian blockhouses and the best cheese in the country.

Kars is at the crossroads of east and west. Once part of an ancient Armenian kingdom, the city was conquered by the Byzantines and the Seljuk Turks. The Russians took Kars from the Ottomans in the 19th century, building Russian-style blockhouses that give the city a distinct architectural style you won’t find anywhere else in Turkey. They even introduced a unique type of cheese that draws in Turkish tourists from across the country (Kars Gravyer), and this cheesy heritage is now celebrated in the brand new Kars Peynir Muzesi (Kars Cheese Museum).

If you’re planning a trip to Eastern Turkey, then keep reading, as I countdown the best things to do in Kars.

Best things to do in Kars

“People are visiting Kars to see the Russian buildings, the castle and to ski in the mountains. A proper Kars trip needs at least 3 days to see everything,” I was told by Can Yolac, a freelance tour guide working for the Turkish Tourism Board. “And the cuisine of Kars is famous too. The cheese is super, super famous! And it’s interesting, because the cheese culture in Kars was inherited from the Russians.”

Yolac was explaining why the icy streets of Kars, overlooked by Russian blockhouses and restaurants carrying names like the Pushkin, was so busy. I was surprised, because the first time I explored this distant city in the little-visited east of Turkey in 2016, it had felt as if I was the only tourist there. Times have clearly changed, and with the burgeoning popularity of the Eastern Express (Kars is the final stop on the famous train ride from Ankara), the city’s tourism industry is booming.

Now, tour buses crowd the car park next to Ani, where you can stroll through the ruins of a former Armenian capital, the cheese shops in Kars were packed with tourists and Lake Çıldır was buzzing with sleds and snowmobiles in winter. You can visit Kars year round, but seriously, there’s nothing that’s quite so emphatic as a winter trip. Just get in quick, before the rest of the world discovers Turkey’s next big destination!

The author enjoying the brisk winter weather in Kars, Turkey.

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1. Enjoy the view from Kars Castle

Kars Castle, a striking fortress perched on a hilltop overlooking the city, is the best place to start your journey. Dating back to the 12th century, the castle was built from basalt on the orders of the conquering Turks. This imposing structure has changed hands on many occasions, reflecting the region’s turbulent past, and from the lofty ramparts you’ll see Orthodox and Armenian churches mingling with Ottoman mosques on the streets below.

The castle’s strategic location provided a commanding view of the surrounding area, making it a crucial defensive site during various conflicts, including the Russo-Turkish Wars. Today, the vantage point from Kars Castle offers panoramic views of the city and the surrounding plains. Kars Castle stands as a testament to the city’s historical significance and enduring legacy as frontier city.

Kars Castle looms over the city’s Old Town.

2. Explore the ancient Armenian ruins of Ani

Ani, once a thriving medieval Armenian capital, lies in ruins near the Turkish-Armenian border, about 45 kilometres from Kars. Known as the ‘City of 1001 Churches’, Ani flourished between the 10th and 11th centuries, serving as a major hub of commerce and culture along the Silk Road.

The ruins are some of the most impressively well preserved I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Among its notable structures are the Cathedral of Ani, designed by the renowned architect Trdat, and the Church of Saint Gregory, both showcasing remarkable Armenian stonework and intricate carvings. Despite centuries of abandonment and seismic activity, Ani’s ruins still evoke a sense of its former grandeur and historical importance.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, Ani offers a profound glimpse into the medieval Armenian civilisation, and they’re reason enough to make the long journey to Kars!

The ruins of Ani would be heaving with tourists if they were located on Turkey’s more popular Mediterranean coast.

3. Go cheese tasting

Cheese, cheese, cheese, and more cheese; Kars is all about the cheese. In Istanbul, everyone I’d spoken to about my journey east had told me to try the cheese. In Erzurum, a city fours hours train ride to the west of Kars, my guide Zehra’s eyes had lit up when I’d asked how good the cheese was. “Kars is famous for its cheese,” she’d exclaimed. “You have to try it!”

Many Turkish travellers make the long journey east just for the cheese, but luckily, you don’t have to try very hard to find the local specialities when you arrive in Kars. Take a stroll down the main street leading towards Kars Castle, and you’ll find that every other shop in the city offers cheese tastings. Just walk in and ask for a taster.

Kars is renowned for its high-quality cheeses, with Kars Gravyer (Gruyère) being the most celebrated. This cheese, named for its Swiss counterpart, boasts a rich, nutty flavour and a firm, yet creamy texture, owing to the specific grazing conditions of the local cattle in high altitude pastures. Sampling sessions often include a variety of cheeses, such as Tulum, a crumbly, tangy cheese aged in goat skins, and Kaşar, a semi-hard cheese with a smooth, slightly salty taste.

A plate of Kars cheese just begging to be eaten.

Read more: 14 Best Things to Do in Ankara, Turkey

4. Visit Kars Peynir Muzesi (Kars Cheese Museum)

The Kars Peynir Müzesi, or Kars Cheese Museum, offers a fascinating insight into the dairy traditions of the Kars region. Situated in an old military bunker that’s been completely repurposed, the museum is dedicated to the diverse cheese-making heritage that has shaped the local culinary landscape.

Inside, you can explore a variety of exhibits detailing the unique processes involved in local cheese production, from the milking of local cattle to the aging techniques that give Kars cheeses their distinctive flavours. The museum highlights the famed Kars Gravyer (Gruyère), showcasing its nutty taste and creamy texture, alongside other regional varieties like Tulum and Kaşar.

Most intriguingly of all, you’ll discover how the Russians brought modern cheese making techniques to Kars when they occupied the city from 1878 to 1917. “The Russians built the first cheese factory in Kars, and they’d store the cheese in the bunkers,” I was told by the museum’s curator, Birol Aydin. “The Gravyer was introduced by Russian Molokans. After World War I, when the Russians left, the cheese making was taken up by Turkish cheese makers who preserved the traditions.”

Wheels of cheese on display inside Kars Cheese Museum.

5. Learn how to make Kars Gravyer in Boğatepe

If you’re interested in learning more about local cheese production, then you have to take a trip to the nearby village of Boğatepe, which is around 40 minutes drive from Kars. The village was originally settled by Molokans in the 19th century, a Russian religious sect (the name literally means ‘Milk Drinker’) which was exiled to the Russian Empire’s distant frontiers.

The Molokans brought with them cheese making techniques, and these were later refined by a Swiss cheesemaker who was sent here by the Russian Czar in the 1880s. “Kars Gravyer can trace its origins back to the Swiss cheesemaker,” said ‘Master Cheesemaker’ Çagdas Koculu, whose family run one of Boğatepe’s most famous cheese factories. “The local people learned the techniques we still use today.”

Koculu’s family revived the village’s cheesy fortunes in the 2000s, when things were stagnating, and they popularised Kars Gravyer across Turkey. Efforts to revive and promote this heritage have led to the establishment of initiatives like the Boğatepe Environment and Life Association. This organisation works to preserve traditional cheese-making techniques, support sustainable farming practices and promote the cultural significance of cheese in the region. You can visit their local museum, take a tour of the cheese factory annd try the famous ‘Cheesemaker’s breakfast’ at Boğatepe Koyu.

‘Master Cheesemaker’ Çagdas Koculu at work.

6. Eat the famous Kars goose

Kars goose, or ‘kaz’, is another culinary speciality deeply rooted in the traditions of the region. I didn’t try this, as I don’t eat meat, but like the cheese, almost everyone I met told me it was a must-eat. The dish is particularly popular during the winter months, when the mountains are draped in snow. The preparation of Kars goose is a meticulous process that begins with rearing the geese in the high-altitude pastures, where they feed on natural herbs and grasses, imparting a unique flavour to the meat.

The traditional method of cooking involves salting and drying the goose for several weeks, a technique that enhances its rich, savoury taste. It is then slow-cooked, often in its own fat, resulting in tender, succulent meat with a crisp, golden skin. Served with pilaf or bulgur, Kars goose is a beloved delicacy that reflects the region’s agricultural heritage and culinary ingenuity.

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7. Visit the Military History Museum of the Caucasus Front

The Military History Museum of the Caucasus Front is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the military history of the region, particularly during World War I, when Kars ultimately changed hands and once more became Turkish. Housed in a historic bunker, which itself bears witness to the strategic importance of Kars, the museum offers an in-depth look at the conflicts that shaped the Caucasus region.

The museum’s exhibits include a wide array of military artefacts, such as uniforms, weapons, maps, and photographs, providing a detailed account of the military campaigns and the harsh conditions faced by soldiers. Special attention is given to the battles between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, highlighting the strategic significance of Kars as a military stronghold.

The Military History Museum of the Caucasus Front in Kars.

8. Delve into local history at Kars Museum

For history lovers, a visit to Kars Museum is one of the best things to do in Kars. The Kars Museum is a repository of the region’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Established in 1959, the museum houses an extensive collection of artefacts that span multiple epochs, reflecting the diverse influences that have shaped Kars over millennia.

You can explore exhibits ranging from the prehistoric era to the Ottoman period, including Armenian relics, Roman artefacts, and Byzantine mosaics. The museum’s ethnographic section showcases traditional clothing, household items, and tools, providing insight into the daily lives and customs of the local people.

One of the highlights is the collection of artefacts from the ancient city of Ani, including architectural fragments and religious icons. The Kars Museum also features detailed displays on the region’s diverse cultural history, including the Armenian, Russian and Turkish influences that have defined the city’s modern character.

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9. Explore Kars’ Russian past at the Fethiye Mosque

Fethiye Mosque is a unique historical structure that exemplifies the city’s diverse architectural heritage. Originally built as a Russian Orthodox church during the Russian occupation of Kars in the late 19th century, the building was later converted into a mosque following the region’s reintegration into Turkey.

The mosque’s architecture reflects its origins, showcasing a distinctive blend of Russian and Ottoman styles. The exterior features characteristic Russian design elements, including domes and intricate brickwork, while the interior has been adapted to Islamic worship, incorporating mihrabs and minbars.

You can explore the city’s rich Russian architectural heritage in other ways too. The distinct architectural style, characterised by its unique blend of Eastern Orthodox and Western European influences, is evident in several notable buildings throughout the city.

The Governor’s Mansion, now housing the Kafkas University Rectorate, is another prime example of Russian architecture. This impressive building, with its ornate facades and grand design, reflects the opulence and administrative importance of the era. Additionally, the old Russian bathhouses near the Kars River offer insight into the daily lives of the Russian inhabitants. These structures, with their distinctive brick and stone construction, highlight the integration of Russian and local architectural styles.

Walking through the older districts of Kars, visitors can observe numerous residential buildings from the Russian period. These houses often feature steep roofs, intricate woodwork, and large windows, providing a glimpse into the domestic architecture of the time. The historic building of the old Russian Consulate, now repurposed, showcases typical Russian administrative architecture with its robust and symmetrical design, standing as a relic of the city’s geopolitical significance during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kars is known for its distinctive blend of architectural styles.

10. Re-visit the city’s Armenian legacy at the Church of the Apostles (Kümbet Mosque)

The Kümbet Mosque is another remarkable historical site that exemplifies the city’s diverse architectural heritage. Originally constructed in the 10th century as the Church of the Apostles by the Bagratid Armenians, the structure later underwent several transformations reflecting the region’s dynamic history. When the Seljuks took control in the 11th century, it was converted into a mosque, and then briefly reverted to a church during the Russian occupation in the 19th century, before being restored as a mosque in the early 20th century.

The Kümbet Mosque’s architecture is notable for its unique blend of Armenian, Georgian and Islamic influences. Its twelve-sided exterior, crowned with a conical dome, features intricate stone carvings and detailed reliefs. Inside, the mosque retains a serene and spiritual atmosphere, with its layout reflecting traditional Islamic design principles. You’ll find the mosque at the base of Kars Castle, where it’s a popular draw with Turkish tourists not used to seeing such curious architectural blends elsewhere in their country.

The Kümbet Mosque.

11. Explore the frozen surface of Lake Çıldır

Located about an hour’s drive from Kars, Lake Çıldır is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Eastern Anatolia. During winter, the lake freezes over, and when I visited in January 2024, the frozen surface was a buzz of sleigh rides and snowmobiles.

“The lake is frozen for around two months of the year,” said Yolac, my guide. “The horses and sleighs are an old profession. They used to carry passengers across the frozen lake, from one side to another, in the winter months.”

While I didn’t necessarily agree with the horse drawn sleighs (I’m not too sure how well the animals are looked after), I did enjoy walking across the frozen lake (it’s quite an experience!). I visited the northern edge of the lake, where a local restaurant was serving glorious grilled fish (caught by local ice-fishers, no less!). In summer, you can hire boats and drink lakeside beers in the sunshine!

A horse sleigh charges across the frozen surface of the lake.

12. Enjoy a night of Caucasian dancing at Pushkin Restaurant

An evening at Pushkin Restaurant is a culinary highlight of any trip to Kars. Located within a Russian style blockhouse, the restaurant brings a taste of Russian cuisine to this historically diverse Turkish city.

The menu at Pushkin features a variety of traditional Russian dishes, prepared with authentic recipes and local ingredients. Diners can enjoy hearty borscht, savoury pelmeni, and rich beef stroganoff, among other delicacies. The restaurant also offers a selection of locally produced cheeses, including Kars Gravyer, and local delicacies like Kars Goose.

Adding to the unique dining experience is the Caucasian dancing, which takes place every evening. These performances showcase traditional dances from the region, adding a lively and cultural dimension to dinner!

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13. Tackle the slopes at Sarıkamış Ski Resort

Sarıkamış Ski Resort, located approximately 50 kilometres from Kars, is a premier winter destination in Turkey, renowned for its superb skiing conditions. Hidden away in the Allahuekber Mountains, the resort boasts some of the finest powder snow in the region, often compared to the famous snow of the Alps due to its light and fluffy texture.

The resort offers a variety of slopes catering to all skill levels, from beginners to advanced skiers. Its modern facilities include well-maintained ski lifts, rental services, and professional ski schools. The surrounding pine forests provide a stunning backdrop, enhancing the skiing experience with their scenic beauty.

The snowy landscapes of Kars make for some great winter sports action.

14. Ride the Eastern Express

Riding the Eastern Express from, or to Kars is one of the best things to do in Turkey. This long-distance train service, which travels between Ankara and Kars (terminating in Kars’ Russian-built railway station), has become increasingly popular for its picturesque route through Anatolia.

The journey takes approximately 26 hours, covering over 1,300 kilometres. You’ll be treated to stunning views of rolling hills, dense forests, rugged mountains, and biblical rivers like the Euphrates, with the winter season being the best time to travel. Just book your tickets in advance, or you could find it’s sold out!

The Eastern Express arrives!

Read more: The Eastern Express: How I Survived Turkey’s Epic 26-Hour Train Ride

Map of the best things to do in Kars

Here’s a map of the best things to do in Kars:

There you have it, the best things to do in Kars! What’s going on your Turkish bucket list?