The regions of East Turkey are not very well-known among international travelers. But this is precisely what makes it a wonderful adventure if you’re looking for one. Unlike the other more popular places around Turkey, the Eastern region is much colder, and bares a different side of Turkey historically. Due to its location bordering Armenia, Georgia, Iran and Syria, all of these different influences can be seen integrated in the culture, architecture and history of this region.
East Turkey can be reached from Istanbul easily using the many direct flights available, and the same goes if you plan to come from the Turkish Riviera. I began my exploration of the Eastern area by taking a flight from Antalya to Van, a beautiful town located to the largest lake in Turkey, covered in snow.
1. Explore the beautiful Akdamar Island and marvel the old Armenia Cathedral
The first thing I’d recommend doing upon your arrival in Van is to visit the Akdamar Island. Good weather is extremely crucial to get the most of this experience, so I recommend going as soon as the weather allows you to. You can take a taxi or rent a car and drive to the xxx jetty, where boats are available to take you to this island located in the middle of Van Lake. The boats have no fixed schedule – they go when the occupants are full.
Akdamar Island used to be a retreat of the Armenian kings back in the day, and as you approach its shores you’ll see first and foremost a beautiful, ancient Armenian church located on top of the hill. I went on a snowy day, and it was the most beautiful place, covered knee-deep in fresh white powder. Seagulls fly freely over the skies, wild hares gallop from one large rock to another, and there is a small café with proper toilets for your vanity.
The Armenian church is a spectacular piece of architecture and very much different than other churches other parts of Turkey. You should take time to explore in and around the church grounds, as every angle is beautifully constructed, complimenting its surroundings. You’ll need at least half a day for this, and maybe even longer.
2. Calm your soul by the serene Van Lake
Van Lake is the biggest lake in Turkey and Armenian highlands, formed by tectonically-induced subsidence (sorry, but I’m a geologist and I can’t help but say nerdy things like this). There is only one type of fish that inhabits these waters, and it is actually a saline lake.
Especially beautiful during winter when the shores are covered in snow, be sure to bask in the serenity of the lake. There are plenty of small parks and stopovers available for you to do this. One day, it snowed early in the morning and it was just extremely beautiful to sit in the café of my hotel and watch the white flakes float about in the wind, with the cold, calm waters of Van Lake in view.
3. Feast on a proper Van breakfast
I’ve been to Turkey twice and to many places, and I have to say that a Van breakfast is one of the most memorable dining experiences I’ve had. More specifically, an all-day breakfast menu at a small restaurant called Matbah-i Van (instagram: @matbahivan). The place is lovely and cosy and warm from the cold outside, the service is friendly and helpful, and the food celebrates all the local produce Van has to offer. From local honey to home-made fruit preserves, white-as-snow goat’s cheese to a delightful liver omelet, different types of warm bread and fresh salads, everything on the table was a feast for the senses.
Although none of the staff speaks English, with the help of Google Translate it is possible to spell out an order, and I highly recommend ordering what the waiter suggests for you, according to their specialties and local supply.
4. Climb up Van Castle and enjoy the spectacular view
An early morning hike up the hill that houses Van Castle should definitely be on your list. If it’s snowing, ensure that your footwear is suitable, as the path up and down is extremely slippery. But all that trouble pays off when you get to the grounds of the castle, a beautiful, gothic-like structure encircled by flocks of crows in the chilly wind.
Built by the ancient Urartus (who were ancestors to modern-day Armenians), it overlooks the town plains and Van Lake, and on the beautiful snowy day I was there it really felt like I was at the top of the world. There is also an old ancient mosque perched within the castle walls, although it is now no longer used for prayers.
Bring snacks or a hot flask of drink if you wish, and you’ll need a few hours to really enjoy the splendors of the castle and its surrounding areas.
5. Check out the exclusive Van cats
I’ll be honest. This is a weird one, and not even something I thought of doing prior to my arrival in Van.
However, a very prominent thing you’ll realize about Van is how much the people love their cars. They. Love. Their. Cats. You’ll see pictures of their cats in frames hung in restaurants and shops, embodied in fridge magnets and souvenirs, and imageries of Van citizen doing daily routines with – yes, you guessed it – their cats in the background.
You see, Van cats are a very special breed. A type of long-haired sub-species, they are as white as snow, with most of them having either blue eyes or mismatched coloured-eyes. They are also notable for loving water, known to have swam around in Van Lake.
Over the years their numbers have diminished, and a large research center has been dedicated in learning and breeding them again. You can in fact visit this research center, and for a very small entrance fee you can play with them and visit the many cat gardens and cat facilities in the area. They’re extremely cute and fluffy, and strangely enough, I think this is definitely a place you should visit for an hour or two if you’re in Van.