Most travelers to Turkey explore the west side of the country. And for good reasons, of course. Istanbul and its beautiful architecture, the turquoise beaches of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, and the millennia-old history in sites like Ephesus. But with such a massive country, there is obviously more to see, and East Turkey has plenty to offer!

We traveled this part of Turkey as we crossed from Iran, and really enjoyed discovering a different aspect of the country. Let’s explore!

And if you are looking for ideas and what to see as part of a classic Turkey itinerary, or simply what to see in Istanbul in 3 days, we got you covered!

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East Turkey or Anatolia?

In the same way, it is confusing to think whether Turkey is in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, so is understanding how to call some of the regions within Turkey. Are we talking Anatolia? Or East Turkey? To help you figure it out, here are some explanations!

The region of Anatolia is traditionally defined within the borders of today’s Turkey, minus the two regions of Southeastern and Eastern Anatolia. The word Anatolia means “sunrise” or “east” in Greek and was given to the Asia Minor peninsula approximately in the 5th or 4th centuries B.C.

However, today there are three regions in Turkey that are called Anatolia. The  Central Anatolia Region is probably the best known, with Ankara being not only the largest city of the region but more importantly the capital of Turkey. The other two Anatolia regions are Eastern Anatolia and Southeastern Anatolia.

After the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1922, the area called the Armenian Highlands or Western Armenia was renamed “Eastern Anatolia” in 1941 as part of the seven geographical regions of Turkey. Eastern Anatolia borders Georgia in the north, Iraq in the south, and Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia in the east. The Eastern Anatolia region converges with the Caucasus mountain plateau.

Southeastern Anatolia borders Syria to the southwest, and Iraq to the southeast – the gateway to Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization.

So East Turkey would actually cover Eastern Anatolia and Southeastern Anatolia.

Top Things to See in Eastern Anatolia

So now that we covered how to situate yourself on a Turkey map, let’s dig in on what to see in East Turkey.

Mt Ararat

Located close to the border town of Doğubeyazıt, the famous 16,854-ft (5,137m)  Mount Ararat (Ağrı in Turkish) is hard to miss with its snow-covered summit. The dormant volcano is a favorite for climbers. However, given its position close to the Iran and Armenia borders, climbing Mount Ararat requires special permission. Indeed, a special Ararat visa and the hire of an official guide from the Turkish Federation for Alpinism are compulsory.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat

Mount Ararat is also considered to be a “holy mountain” for the Armenian people, who believe Noah’s Ark to be hidden on the mountain top.

The city of Doğubeyazıt is a good starting point for visiting Mt Ararat and is well deserved by buses from different areas of Turkey. While in, make sure to visit Ishak Pasha Palace, a 17-18th-century complex that offers stunning views of the Armenian Highlands in the background.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Ishak Pasha Palace

Ishak Pasha Palace

Kars

The Kars region is famous for its nature and wildlife, the area being home to Lake Kuyucuk, the most important wetland in the country and home to over 300 bird species. Wildlife such as Syrian brown bears, Causasion lynx, and Indian wolves can be spotted with some luck in the Sarıkamış-Allahuekber Mountains National Park.

There is no shortage on the historical front either, with the 9th-century Cathedral of Kars, also known as the Holy Apostles Church, and the ruins of the medieval Armenian city of Ani and its 10th Church of St. Gregory of the Abughamrents.

Van Turkey

Nestled by the lake of the same name, the main attraction to Van City is actually Akdamar Island. Indeed, visiting the 10th-century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island is a must-do while in Van. Accessible via ferry across Lake Van, the medieval Armenian Apostolic Cathedral of the Holy Cross is simply stunning. Inside and outside are magnificent, with detailed artworks all around. Make sure to walk around, to see the old tombs, and take in the incredible views of the Armenian Highlands mountain range.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Lake Van

Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Lake Van

Things to see in Van include the Muradiye Fall, the massive medieval Hoşap Castle by the village of Güzelsu, the 8th-century Çavuştepe fortress (Haykaberd in Armenian, meaning “Fortress of Hayk), Varagavank an Armenian monastery by Mount Erek.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Van Fortress

Van Fortress

Things to do in Southeastern Anatolia

Southeastern Anatolia is split between a Middle Euphrates Section (Gaziantep, and Şanlıurfa), and a Tigris section (Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Hasankeyf), following the two major rivers of the same names that flow from Eastern Anatolia snowy mountains.

Diyarbakir

This city is the biggest in the region, with city walls surrounding the old town.

Mardin

A lovely historical city on a hilltop, and known for its Syriac churches and the stonework of the many complexes. We really enjoyed the city, with narrow streets, and sweeping views over the Mesopotamia valley up into Syria.

A must-see in Mardin is the Syriac Mor Hananyo Monastery, nicknamed nickname, the “Saffron Monastery” thanks to the stone of the same colors. The structure was a fortress under the Romans but transformed at the end of the 5th century into a monastery.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Orthodox Mor Hananyo monastery in Mardin

Orthodox Mor Hananyo monastery in Mardin

Hasankeyf

The ancient town is known for its 2,000-year-old cliff dwellings (Mağaralar) along the Tigris river, where houses, churches, and mosques were carved by the local inhabitants. The other sites of importance are the Old Tigris Bridge built-in 1116, and the Citadel (Kale) sitting high in the village for incredible views around the area.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // 12th-century Old Tigris Bridge in Hasankeyf

12th-century Old Tigris Bridge in Hasankeyf

Unfortunately, since then, Hasankeyf has been flooded upon the completion of a dam project as of early 2020. And today, the Old Tigris Bridge, which was built mid-12th century by the Turkmens, is now submerged with the rest of the old city. The villagers have been relocated to new houses at higher ground, but the historical sites are now underwater.

Urfa

Officially called Şanlıurfa, the city is referred to as Abraham’s birthplace. Urfa is known for its architecture and an impressive archaeological museum. Outside Urfa, the 9,000 BCE Göbekli Tepe site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring detailed stone works like the Vulture Stone. Another trip worth considering is Harran, known for its beehive adobe houses, which was an important village in Upper Mesopotamia under the name of Carrhae.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Urfa

Urfa

And talking about Urfa, you might want to check their popular Urfa Kebab, one of Turkey’s most famous kebabs!

Mount Nemrut

The ancient mausoleum built by King Antiochus I of Commagene around 63 BCE is famous for its high statues and heads, some of them around 27 feet (9 meters) high, and a reason why the ruins are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Best of East Turkey: Mt Ararat, Van, Sanliurfa, Mount Nemrut, and Gaziantep // Taurus Mountains

Taurus Mountains

Mount Nemrut or Nemrud is at 7,001 feet (2,134-metre) high in the Taurus Mountains. As we visited in mid-February, the higher grounds were snowed in, and unfortunately, the trail was not accessible. We tried to reach it as high as we could but the trek was not feasible within the day and would have required winter gear.

There are several interesting sites to visit around, like the 3BCE Arsameia (Eski Kale), the Roman Cendere Bridge, the Hittite-era Aslantepe Palace, and more.

The village of Kahta is the best hub to plan an excursion to Mount Nemrut.

Gaziantep

Known by its old name, Antep, the large, modern city features a couple of interesting sites, like the Gaziantep castle initially built by the Romans, and the Zeugma Museum, home to stunning mosaics from nearby Zeugma, among several other museums (Medusa Glass Museum, Dervishes Museum, and Martyr’s Museum)

When to visit Eastern Turkey

Be prepared for long hot and dry summer days, and cold and rainy winter months, with snow at a higher elevation.

Spring and Falls are usually the best time to visit Turkey, as summer months tend to be particularly hot and crowded. However, given the higher elevations of some of the areas in Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia, late Spring and early Falls are probably recommended for warmer temperatures. As we visited end of February, places like Mount Nemrud were not accessible due to the high snow levels.

We hope you found this Turkey travel blog useful. If you are looking for other Travel Turkey blog posts, check about our other Turkey experiences.

Do you have any other travel tips for Turkey to add? We would love to hear from you in the Comments section.

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