Eastern Turkey is an incredibly beautiful, diverse, vibrant and fascinating place to explore. Most people who travel to Turkey tend to stick to the western half of the country. However, those who venture further east are undoubtedly rewarded. Although if you’re reading this Eastern Turkey itinerary, then I’m assuming that you already know that.
Turkey is a huge country. It spans across two continents and has an incredibly diverse cultural and historical landscape. Yet, tourists tend to hang around the western part of the country which is home to the beautiful city of Istanbul, the Mediterranean coastline and famous sights like Cappadocia and Ephesus. On a map, the vast area that stretches further east from Cappadocia may just seem like a void between Europe and Asia. Whereas, in fact, there’s so much to see there.
I have put together this Eastern Turkey itinerary for anyone planning a trip based on my own experience in the region. Whether you have a couple of weeks of vacation or you’re planning on heading to Turkey as part of some longer overland adventure, this blog post will help you cover the best of Eastern Turkey in two weeks.
Why you should go to Eastern Turkey
If I haven’t already convinced you, then you might be wondering why go to Eastern Turkey at all.
Istanbul, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, Antalya, Fethiye… most of the places you’ve probably heard about or seen photos of are confined to the western half of the country. For many people, Cappadocia is as far east as they go but this means that you miss out on so much more.
If you prefer less visited places or obscure destinations that are “off the beaten track”, then Eastern Turkey is definitely for you. This doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to travel around though, with a very similar efficient bus network that you find in the more popular western region.
Eastern Turkey is also incredibly rich in culture and history. All of Turkey is littered with archaeological sites and fascinating stories from various bygone empires. However, many of Turkey’s best historical sites are actually found in the east, but these are far less visited than places like Ephesus and Pamukkale in the west.
You’ll also find a vastly different cultural and ethnic mix of people in the east. Southeastern Turkey has a Kurdish majority and, although this has meant a complicated and often violent history, it makes for a really interesting experience. Kurds are incredibly hospitable and friendly people.
Eastern Turkey certainly has a more Middle Eastern vibe with golden baked plains, rugged terrain and pretty, stone villages. At the same time, if you head up to the northern area around the Black Sea coast, you’ll find lush green hills and attractive summer vacation towns. So, no matter what you’re after, there’s something to interest everyone.
Where to start your Eastern Turkey itinerary
There are two cities which are perfectly placed to start your Eastern Turkey itinerary; Adana in southern Turkey and Erzurum in eastern Turkey. They are great cities to anchor your Eastern Turkey trip and this itinerary has you starting from one and ending in the other.
These cities operate as transport hubs with well-connected airports and bus stations. For example, you can get flights from as little as $30 one way from Istanbul to either city.
If you want to avoid flying for a more environmentally conscious trip, then there are also long-haul buses running from most major cities in Turkey to Adana and Erzurum. Adana is closer to popular western Turkey destinations and might be easier to reach to start your trip. If you find yourself in Cappadocia or even near Antalya on the coast, it’s quite easy to get a bus to Adana.
Turkey has one of the greatest bus networks I’ve ever used, so there’s no problem in preferring to take the road. You can get some really comfortable VIP coaches, as well as, local minivans known as dolmuses. They are all relatively organised with schedules and set prices.
How to use this Eastern Turkey itinerary
This itinerary is really designed for independent travellers. If you like to travel by bus and public transport and organise your own day trips and sight seeing along the way, then this itinerary is for you.
I’m recommending this route and these stops based on the reliable bus and minivan (or locally known as dolmuses) network between the towns and cities. If you follow these stops in order then you won’t have too much problem working out how to get from A to B as there are frequent bus services.
You can find some of the major bus services and routes with tickets prices and times on CheckMyBus here. However, it’s still best to just physcially go to the bus station (“otogar” in Turkish) and buy your ticket there.
Alternatively, you can always arrange private transport if you prefer. Depending on the hotels you decide to stay in, they may be able to organise day trips and private transfers between places but this will obviously cost a lot more.
Two week itinerary for Eastern Turkey
This itinerary can be done in either direction. I have it starting from Adana and ending in Erzurum, but it can easily be done vice versa.
Fly or take a bus to Adana to begin your Eastern Turkey trip. The city is not a huge tourist spot, but you can easily spend the night and use the spare time to see some of the old architecture and beautiful mosques.
Top Adana sights include:
- Stone Roman Bridge
- Sabanci Merkez Mosque
- Buyuk Saat or Clock Tower from the 19th century
- Grand Mosque
Then, you’ll want to get your bus ticket for Sanliurfa organised, which is your first stop on this itinerary.
Optional extra night: You can also stop in Gaziantep for the night in between Adana and Sanliurfa. The buses run through Gaziantep anyway, so it’s easy to jump off. It’s an underrated city that has a state-of-the-art Archaeological Museum worth seeing, as well as, an incredible covered bazaar, considered one of the best in Turkey.
Take a bus from Adana to Sanliurfa, or sometimes referred to as just Urfa, for a one-night stay. It’s known as the birthplace of Prophet Abraham and is a city visited by pilgrims all year round. It’s a pretty place with a few sights to keep you busy for the day.
The main highlight is Abraham’s Cave, which is in the Dergah Mosque Complex. There’s also a pretty park and old bazaar around the complex. Urfa is easily walkable so you don’t need to travel far to see the main highlights.
However, if you have time, take a half day trip out to Gobekli Tepe from Urfa. This archaeological site is still under excavation and ongoing research but it’s open to visitors. It’s considered the oldest temple ever found in the world and it has altered many historians’ beliefs about the origins of humans and faith/religion.
Kahta and Mount Nemrut
From Urfa, your next destination is the incredible Nemrut Dagi or Mount Nemrut. The easiest place to base yourself for a visit to this standout sight of Eastern Turkey is a town called Kahta. From Urfa, you might have to first get a dolmus to Adiyaman, and then change for another dolmus to Kahta, but you can still easily do this in a day.
It’s relatively easy to organise a trip to Mount Nemrut from any of the hotels in Kahta. The trip is usually a sunset or sunrise visit, with the night spent in Kahta. The mountain is difficult to reach otherwise, with no public transport to the mountain, so an organised tour is best.
Read more: How to Explore Mt Nemrut and Sanliurfa
Take a bus east from Kahta to the capital of Kurdish-majority southeastern Turkey, Diyarbakir. This lively city is often considered extremely dangerous, but I found it to be a great insight into the Kurdish culture and worth a stop for a night or two.
There’s not a whole lot to do in the city but the bazaar area and old city walls are a great place to explore and do some shopping. It’s only considered danergous because there have been clashes between Turkish forces and Kurdish groups around the city. However, in the city centre things are pretty peaceful and it’s a bustling cosmopolitan place.
It’s easy to get one of the frequent buses down to Mardin from Diyarbakir. This honey coloured town perched on the top of a plateau and overlooking the Mesopotamia Plain is a charming place to spend time. You can easily spend two nights here, or even three if you want to really relax. It’s quite tourist-oriented with plenty of Turkish tourists heading there for holiday, but I still found it enjoyable with incredibly dreamy architecture and nice restaurants.
Don’t forget to take a day trip out to Midyat from Mardin. The old town in Midyat is similar to Mardin but I found it much quieter and a different look at this unique part of Turkey.
Option: From Mardin, you can hop over the border to Iraqi Kurdistan for a quick visit. There are buses heading to Duhok and Erbil in Northern Iraq that pass through Mardin. You can read my Iraqi Kurdistan-Turkey border report here.
Read more: 10 Best Things to Do In Mardin
From Mardin, it’s best to head back to Diyarbakir to get a bus onwards to Van. You should be able to make this trip in one long day. However, if you reach Diyarbakir late, you might have to spend the night there and take a bus to Van the following day (which is what I did).
Van is a youthful Kurdish-majority city on the shores of Lake Van. It’s worth spending two nights here to see the sights in and around the city.
The top sights around Van include:
- Akdamar Island on Lake Van
- Van Fortress
- Hosap Castle
Read more: A Guide to Lake Van and Dogubayazit
From Van, it’s logical to head to Dogubayazit for a night. The main highlight here is Ishak Pasa Palace, which is an impressive Ottoman-era palace complex with commanding views. However, a visit out to see Mount Ararat in its full glory is also a popular detour.
Ishak Pasa Palace is easily accessible from the town itself with a local shuttle bus or taxi. If you want to head out to Mount Ararat and where Noah’s Ark apparently came to rest then you’ll have to hire a local taxi for a couple of hours.
I actually visited Dogubayazit in one long day trip from Van which is also possible. However, for a more relaxing visit, I recommend spending the night in Dogubayazit and then travelling onwards from there to Kars.
Kars and Ani
From either Van or Dogubayazit, you can take a bus to Kars, a city in the far eastern side of Turkey. It’s best known as the gateway for visiting the ruined Armenian city of Ani.
You’ll probably need two nights in Kars. The bus trip from Dogubayazit to Kars will take most of the day and then you need a full day to get out to see Ani and back.
Option: From Kars, you can hop over to Georgia if you want to extend your trip. There’s a bus that runs a few times a week from Kars to Tbilisi. You can read more about the border crossing here.
Read more: How to Visit Ani Ruins
The last stop on this Eastern Turkey itinerary is Erzurum. You can easily get a bus from Kars to Erzurum. It’s the largest city in Eastern Turkey and a huge transport hub for the region. It’s not overly touristy but if you have time to spare, the historic part of the city has some fantastic old buildings worth checking out.
From Erzurum you have a few options. You can head up to Trabzon and the Black Sea for an extra couple of days or take a long haul bus back towards western Turkey or fly out to another destination.
Add on option: Trabzon
If you have a little longer than two weeks, consider adding a trip up to Trabzon from Erzurum. This resort city on the Black Sea coast is a popular holiday destination for Turks. It has incredibly lush surroundings which is a striking difference from most of eastern Turkey which is filled with sun-baked, golden hills. You can easily take one of the frequent bus services from Erzurum to Trabzon.
From here, the real attraction is heading out to Sumela Monastery built into the rock face of the mountains, 45km south of Trabzon. The only downside is that the actual monastery itself is closed for renovations. It’s been this way for a few years now and projections put it at another two years (at least) before it will open again to visitors. You can still get to the monastery, just not inside, but some people say that it’s still worth a trip if you’re heading to Trabzon. I didn’t personally go out to see it, but when it opens again it will undoubtedly be a must-see in Eastern Turkey.
Option: From Trabzon, you can take a bus across the border to Batumi in Georgia. This is the most popular crossing between Turkey and Georgia and is often used by many travellers.