From Byzantine citadels and Seljuk madrasas to mountain ski slopes and the epic Eastern Express; here are the best things to do in Erzurum, Turkey.

The snow was ankle deep on the platform when the Eastern Express pulled into Erzurum. At a lofty altitude of 1890 metres, mountains, ski jumps and Byzantine citadels overlook Turkey’s highest, largest city. Located deep into Eastern Anatolia, Erzurum has long sat at that crossroads of east and west. Founded in antiquity, the city has been conquered by Armenians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Russians, and Ottomans alike throughout its long, and often turbulent existence.

In Erzurum, Seljuk mosques stand alongside brutalist apartment blocks. Located on the route of the famous Eastern Express, Erzurum is Turkey’s winter sports capital. Palandöken is home to Turkey’s most popular ski slopes, and when the snow melts in spring, hikers trek out in force to tackle the mountain trails. There are ancient ruins, an excellent archaeological museum and even thermal hot springs to visit in Erzurum. To inspire your trip to Eastern Turkey, here are the best things to do in Erzurum.

Things to do in Erzurum

“There aren’t so many foreign tourists in Erzurum,” I was told by Fatma Zehra, a local tour guide who showed me around the city. “It’s mainly Turkish tourists that visit. We get lots of skiers, and the Eastern Express has made the city so popular in recent years.”

Zehra was right; there aren’t so many foreign tourists in Erzurum, and the city – despite having an exceptional ancient history and an abundance of Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman monuments – has somehow managed to stay off radar. As the Eastern Express surges in popularity, though, Turkish tourists will no doubt soon be mingling with international visitors, as Erzurum makes for an excellent night’s stop on the rail journey between Ankara and Kars.

That’s why I visited in January 2024, as part of my journey on the Eastern Express. The city, was a convenient stop to stretch my legs and spend the night in a comfy hotel, rather than the reclining seat on the train, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Already, though, I’m planning a longer return trip (again, in Winter) to check out the slopes of Palandöken Mountain next winter.

1. Explore the Citadel of Erzurum

We trudged through snow to reach the Citadel of Erzurum (or the Kale, or castle, as it’s called in Turkish). “the citadel has a history dating back to the 6th century BC,” I was told by Can Yolac, a guide who works for the Turkish tourism board and who also accompanied me on trip through Eastern Turkey. “Erzurum has always been a frontier city, since the Byzantine era, and every other conquering civilization used this same place to build their fortifications.”

Now the Citadel of Erzurum is a museum, and its tall walls, gatehouse and towers were draped in winter snow. Yolac explained how the citadel was used for much of its history as a garrison, holding the frontline against the Seljuk advances (although they conquered the city in the 13th century) and then against Russian advances into Ottoman territory in the 19th century. “So many empires have ruled Eastern Turkey,” added Yolac, as we walked through the stronghold, snow crunching beneath our feet. “It was so important, because it’s in the middle of the Silk Road. This was the entrance to Europe from Asia.”

At the top of the slightly leaning watchtower built by the Seljuks, we were battered by an icy wind sweeping down from the surrounding mountains. The views though, were glorious, and before us, all of Erzurum was arrayed across the valley. Exploring the Citadel of Erzurum is certainly a highlight of any tour of the city.

The view from the Citadel of Erzurum.

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2. Admire the twin minarets of the Çifte Minareli Madrasa

Opposite the Citadel of Erzurum, the twin minarets of Çifte Minareli Madrasa loomed through the snow. An iconic work of Seljuk architecture, this Islamic place of learning was constructed in the 13th century AD, and a crowd of Turkish tourists, fresh off the Eastern Express, were happily snapping group photos outside the arched entranceway.

“There are very few examples of Seljuk architecture left in Turkey,” I was told by Zehra as we peeked inside the open-air courtyard, which was piled high with snow. “This is the finest example. It’s why Erzurum is so busy with tourists, because in Istanbul, you only have Ottoman, rather than Seljuk architecture.”

The Çifte Minareli Madrasa exemplifies the architectural brilliance of the Seljuk era, the nomadic people who conquered much of Anatolia and were the forerunners to the later Ottoman Empire, who ruled from Constantinople. Constructed under the patronage of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad I, the façade features intricate stone carvings and elaborate geometric patterns, showcasing the Seljuk artisans’ mastery.

Erzurum’s glorious double minaret madrasa.

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

3. Visit the Yakutiye Madrasa

It might only have one minaret, but the Yakutiye Madrasa is equally as important a work of Seljuk architecture as Çifte Minareli Madrasa. Located in the centre of the city, we slipped our way over icy streets to visit this 14th century religious and educational compound built from sturdy stone blocks.

The madrasa now houses the Turkish-Islamic Art and Ethnography Museum, which exhibits artefacts from the region’s Islamic history, including calligraphy, manuscripts and traditional clothing. Built in 1310 by the Ilkhanid ruler Sultan Olcayto, the madrasa is distinguished by its impressive portal adorned with intricate stone carvings and an array of geometric and floral motifs. The structure exemplifies the classic Seljuk architectural style, featuring a large rectangular courtyard surrounded by vaulted rooms and a central domed hall.

Yakutiye Madrasa, one of the best places to visit in Erzurum.

4. Go skiing at Palandöken

“This is the best place in Turkey for skiing,” said Zehra, who is a keen skier herself. “Because of the altitude. We have the most snowy days in the year. 70 days is the national record.” Erzurum is home to one of Turkey’s premier ski resorts, Palandöken. The mountain rises to a height of 3271 metres, and with ski lifts and resorts readily accessible from the city, Palandöken has transformed Erzurum into Turkey’s winter sports capital.

With its long ski season, excellent snow quality and modern facilities, it attracts winter sports enthusiasts from across Turkey, and increasingly, international visitors too. The resort offers a range of slopes for all skill levels, making it a great destination for both beginners and experienced skiers. Best of all, it’s a budget ski destination, and Zehra told me that a day’s skiing, including passes and rental gear, costs no more than 1000 TL (around £25).

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5. Hike to the summit of Palandöken in summer

In summer, hiking in the mountains surrounding Erzurum offers an invigorating escape into the natural beauty of eastern Turkey. The region boasts rugged terrain, picturesque landscapes and a variety of trails. The towering peaks of the Palandöken Mountains, renowned for their winter sports facilities, transform into lush, green havens in the warmer months, providing an ideal backdrop for outdoor adventures.

One of the most popular hiking routes leads to the summit of Mount Palandöken, where trekkers are rewarded with excellent panoramic views of Erzurum and the expansive Anatolian plateau. The trails wind through alpine meadows, past glacial lakes, and across diverse flora and fauna, offering a tranquil retreat from the city below.

Erzurum’s mountains are best explored once the snow has melted, unless you’re here to ski.

6. Relax in Erzurum’s thermal hot springs

After all that skiing or hiking (depending on the season), you’ll want to make a beeline for one of Erzurum’s thermal springs, because the region’s geothermal activity has given rise to thermal springs renowned for their therapeutic properties.

Located about 40 kilometres east of Erzurum, Pasinler is one of the most popular thermal spring destinations in the area. Known since ancient times, these hot springs offer waters rich in minerals, believed to help with various ailments, including rheumatism and skin conditions. The facilities at Pasinler include indoor and outdoor pools, private baths, and wellness centres, making it a perfect spot for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Situated closer to Erzurum city centre, Ilıca is another well-known thermal spa destination. The waters here are similarly rich in beneficial minerals, and the facilities cater to visitors seeking therapeutic and leisure experiences. The spa resorts in Ilıca provide a range of services, from traditional Turkish baths to modern wellness treatments.

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7. The Atatürk House Museum

The Atatürk House Museum in Erzurum holds significant historical importance as the site of the Erzurum Congress, a pivotal moment in Turkey’s struggle for independence. The building, originally a stately mansion, was where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrades convened in July 1919 to discuss and outline the framework for Turkey’s national resistance against occupying forces. The decisions made during the congress laid the foundation for the Turkish War of Independence and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Today, the museum meticulously preserves this heritage, with rooms dedicated to Atatürk’s stay and the congress sessions. Visitors can explore exhibits featuring original documents, photographs, and personal belongings of Atatürk and other key figures. The Atatürk House Museum not only commemorates the critical events of the congress but also offers a profound insight into the early 20th-century national movement that shaped modern Turkey.

The Erzurum Congress was held in the city in 1919.

8. Dig into ancient history at the Erzurum Archaeology Museum

The Erzurum Archaeology Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the rich historical tapestry of eastern Anatolia. The museum houses an extensive collection of artefacts that span from the Paleolithic era to the Ottoman period. Located within a historic building, the museum’s exhibits are meticulously arranged to guide visitors through the region’s complex past.

Highlights include prehistoric tools, ancient pottery, and an impressive array of Urartian artefacts, reflecting the advanced civilisation that once thrived in the area. The museum also features Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine relics, showcasing the diverse cultures that have influenced Erzurum over millennia. Notable exhibits include intricately crafted jewellery, coins, and religious items, offering insights into the daily lives and spiritual practices of ancient inhabitants.

The Erzurum Archaeology Museum not only preserves the region’s archaeological heritage but also educates visitors about the historical significance of this crossroads of civilisations. It is a must-visit for history enthusiasts and curious travellers alike.

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9. See the Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, a prominent landmark in Erzurum’s city centre, stands as a tribute to Ottoman architectural and cultural heritage. Constructed in 1562 by the distinguished Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the mosque is named after Lala Mustafa Pasha, an influential military leader and statesman of the Ottoman Empire. The mosque’s design features a large central dome flanked by semi-domes, characteristic of Sinan’s architectural style, and it stands in contrast to the earlier Seljuk architecture the city is better known for.

The interior is adorned with exquisite Iznik tiles, calligraphic inscriptions, and intricate woodwork, creating a serene and contemplative atmosphere. The spacious courtyard, surrounded by a colonnaded arcade, provides a peaceful retreat for worshippers and visitors alike. The mosque also includes a madrasa (Islamic school), reflecting its role as a centre for both religious and educational activities.

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque in Erzurum.

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10. Shop for souvenirs at Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai

When the snow got too much, I welcomed Zehra’s suggestion that we look around the Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai in the centre of Erzurum. Built in the 16th century by Rüstem Pasha, the grand vizier of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, this caravanserai served as a crucial resting place for traders and travellers. Constructed with sturdy stone blocks, the structure showcases traditional Ottoman architecture with its robust, functional design and expansive courtyard.

The caravanserai features a central courtyard surrounded by two-storey arcades, where merchants once stored their goods and animals. Today, the Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai has been restored and repurposed, housing a variety of shops and workshops selling traditional crafts, textiles, and local products. Zehra though, wasn’t convinced of the authenticity of the traders here: “They once brought goods here from all over the Ottoman Empire to trade,” she said, as we wandered through the corridors. “Now they trade fake jade and gems from Russia!”

The central courtyard of Rüstem Pasha Caravanserai in Erzurum.

11. Explore Üç Kümbetler (The Three Tombs)

The Three Tombs, or Üç Kümbetler, in Erzurum are among the most remarkable examples of medieval Islamic architecture in eastern Turkey. These tombs, dating back to the 12th and 14th centuries, are believed to house the remains of prominent Seljuk and Ilkhanid figures. The most significant of the three is thought to be the tomb of Emir Saltuk, founder of the Saltukid dynasty.

Architecturally, the tombs are cylindrical and octagonal structures capped with conical roofs, showcasing the Seljuk penchant for geometric precision and decorative detail. The exteriors are adorned with intricate stone carvings, featuring floral motifs, calligraphy, and other symbolic patterns, reflecting the artistic sensibilities of the era. Inside, the tombs are relatively simple, focusing attention on the grave markers themselves. A must see for any discerning traveller visiting Erzurum!

The distinctive architecture of Three Tombs, visible in this historic photograph.

12. Try Cağ Kebab

“Cağ Kebabs are the number one traditional food in Erzurum,” said Zehra, as we walked past a restaurant where a large, circular chunk of meat was slowly spit roasting. “The Cağ Kebab is so unique to Erzurum.”

I didn’t try the famed Cağ Kebab, because I no longer eat meat, but I’ll take Zehra’s word for it. She described it, in no uncertain terms, as the greatest style of Kebab in Turkey. This traditional Erzurum dish features marinated lamb or mutton, seasoned with a blend of herbs and spices, and skewered on a horizontal spit.

Slow-cooked over an open wood fire, the meat acquires a rich, smoky flavour and a tender texture. Slices are shaved off and served with flatbread, fresh onions, and sumac, creating a perfect harmony of flavours. Renowned for its distinctive preparation and taste, Cağ Kebab is a must-try for any meat-eaters visiting Erzurum (or so I’m told!).

The vegetarian version of the Cağ Kebab!

13. Taste local delicacies in a 300 year Erzurum house

There’s plenty of veggie food to go around, too in Erzurum, and when we’d worked up an appetite, Zehra took us to Eski Erzurum Evleri, where a 300-year old Ottoman-style home has been converted into a traditional restaurant near the castle.

Old flintlock rifles and copper pans hung from the wooden walls, bright rugs and cushions adorned the plush seating areas, and the smell of cinnamon drifted through the restaurant from a big vat of warm Salep (a hot Turkish drink that’s perfect on cold winter days). The owner explained how the Ottoman houses were built back to back for protection, and 11 families once lived under the wooden rooves were diners now gorged on local delicacies.

Zehra did the ordering, and soon enough, we were also gorging on Manti (Turkish ravioli) smothered in yogurt, Yaprak Sarma (a type of stuffed vine leaf) and Erzurum su Boregi, the local take on Burek. “In every city, there’s always a slightly different style of Burek,” said Zehra. “In Istanbul the pastry is thin. Here in Erzurum we have the ‘Su’, or ‘Water’ Burek’, because they rest the pastry in water before cooking.” For dessert, we dug into Kadayif Dolmasi, a local favourite similar in texture and taste to Baklava.

Eski Erzurum Evleri, a 300-year old Ottoman house-turned-restaurant.

14. Ride the Eastern Express

The Eastern Express, the sturdy steed that brings tens of thousands of tourists east from Ankara is a highlight of any trip to Erzurum. The Eastern Express (Doğu Ekspresi) is a super scenic train line connecting Ankara to Kars through a route traversing the heart of eastern Anatolia.

Covering approximately 1,300 kilometres, the journey takes around 26 hours, offering panoramic views of the Anatolian plains and mountains on its way east. Popular for its picturesque winter scenes, the Eastern Express has become a favourite among travellers in winter, and with a stop in Erzurum (around 20 hours into the journey), it’s best way to get to the city.

The author ready to board the Eastern Express!

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

Map of the best things to do in Erzurum

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

There you have it! The best things to do in Erzurum. When will you be visiting Eastern Turkey?