Off-the-beaten-track Turkey is hands-down one of the most underrated destinations in the world. The area is vastly untouched by “western tourism” and offers an eclectic mix of cultures that will simply blow you away.
I’ll admit this: I fell for the hysteria for a split second.
With a bus booked out of tourist hot-spot Cappadocia, it felt a little surreal. We were about to jump into the deep-end of deep Eastern Turkey, and jump we did. From seeing 50 kilometres over the Syrian border with my own eyes to being literally the only foreign tourist in town, Eastern Turkey was a real delight.
With the absurd government warnings and the lack of information on Eastern Turkey, we were a little overwhelmed when planning for this leg of the trip- so I figured that you might be too. There is just SO much to see, so where do you start?
Region: Central Anatolia
Konya is the heart and soul of Islamic Turkey. While it’s not technically in eastern Turkey, the city strays far off the tourist trail. Said to be the most traditional city in the country, Konya is one of Turkey’s oldest inhabited cities. It bursts at the seams with fresh food markets, pride and religious tourism.
It’s also the birthplace of Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi master (who incidentally is the best selling poet of modern day USA.. hmm).
I loved Konya. It was my first taste of Turkey off the beaten path, and it didn’t disappoint. The Turk khavesi (Turkish coffee) was cheap and delicious, the locals were friendly and curious and the city was charming.
The absolute highlight of Konya is the Whirling Dervish ceremony. The 800-year-old tradition is performed by Sufi Dervishes, as a ‘physically activated meditation’. The dance is a powerful expression of emotion and wisdom to their God. It’s performed free every Saturday night at 7pm, opposite the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel.
I highly recommend eating as much cig kofte here as you can- super delicious, fresh and cheap.
HIGHLY recommend Somatci Fihi Ma Fih Restaurant. It’s pricier than average Turkish food, but well worth the splurge.
Mevlana Museum is a wonder in itself- the historical site of Rumi’s tomb is a religious tourism hub. The real beauty of Konya lies in the atmosphere; take a walk through the markets, sip on the Syriac coffee and chat to locals. They’re super friendly in Konya!
There didn’t seem to be any hostels here, but hotel rooms are very cheap.
We paid 60 TRY / night for a nice enough hotel room in the centre.
Please be aware that some hotels may ask for proof of marriage if you travel as a couple. This is mostly for locals, however I have heard of foreigners being asked as well. We opted to stay somewhere that didn’t require a marriage certificate.
Region: Southeastern Anatolia
Known as the culinary king of Turkey, Gaziantep (better known as Antep) is world-famous for its gastronomy scene.
Meaning: YES! The food here is insane (unfortunately, it was insane for my meat-lovin‘ boyfriend. Vegetarians will find food here- but you’re likely to miss out on the real OOMP of the culinary scene)
It is a vibrant, colourful melting pot and has been at the crux of important trading routes for thousands of years- all the way back to the ancient silk road!
The region is famous for its pistachio coffee and baklava, and there is a huge ancient castle at the top of a hill- perfect for city views.
Antep was an interesting city- we saw no other western travellers and we were hosted by a Syrian man.
Aside from eating everything in sight, we spent our days in Antep wandering around the cobbled streets and piquing the interest of very confused locals.
Antep is a delightful city that should definitely be on your Eastern Turkey itinerary.
From the get-go, the locals were extremely welcoming (albeit confused as to why we were there) and willing to share their culture with us.
Eat literally everything you can. If you want to pig out ANYWHERE, it’s here.
Don’t be afraid to try some strange desserts, either (like the katmer at this place).
Also, try to stay in centre in a local neighbourhood. The centre is not the tourist hub, yet the old town is walking distance.
This is certainly not all- but some off our food highlights!
Menengic Coffee (Pistachio coffee) at Traditional Tahmis Coffee House
Anything at Orkide Pastanesi
Nohut Durumu (Chickpea Wrap)
Must – See
We had the best fun just wandering around here. You MUST go to the coffee shop mentioned above (it’s been around since 1643).
No trip to Gaziantep would be complete without a visit up to the castle- that view!
We opted to stay in an Airbnb in Antep- and we were delighted to find we would be hosted by a Syrian man!
Highly recommend staying local from here on out- it’s about to get damn interesting!
Region: Sanliurfa Provence
Now this is a destination you cannot miss.
Urfa certainly gives Konya a run for its money when it comes to being traditional.
It’s dubbed the city that ‘changed human history’, stemming from the idea that it was Haran, the ancient city in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Urfa is home to millions of Syrian refugees. Walking down the street, you will hear the hums of Arabic; a stark reminder that Turkey is an abundant melting pot of cultures.
It is a meeting point of religions; Christians, Muslims and Jews alike flock to Urfa, also known as ‘Anatolia’s Jerusalem’.
I wasn’t sure about visiting Urfa – but I am glad we did.
While it was a very confronting city to travel as a foreigner, it gave us an incredible insight into the customs of traditional Kurdish culture.
I highly, highly recommend visiting Urfa.
Try Couchsurfing here. Due to the abundance of Syrian refugees here, there’s a bunch of lovely European aid working expats living in Urfa who love hosting people.
We stayed with an awesome Italian and a Spaniard, and they had a lot of amazing insight into the bureaucracy of Urfa, the political situation in Turkey and the cultures there.
There were also a lot of lovely local people hosting on Couchsurfing, so if you’d prefer to stay local, you totally should!
Okay so listen up veggies: this is NOT your city.
Urfa was very difficult to find a vegetarian feed in, so make pals with your local cig kofte outlet and live it up.
This is a weird piece of advice from a vegetarian but, if you eat meat, try the cigerci (liver). It’s a local speciality- Kade loved it. Eat it on the street from a vendor!
For a gooood, traditional khavalti, try Zahter Kahvalti Salonu.
ALSO just a warning: I read a lot of reviews that said Gulhan Restaurant is super vegetarian-friendly.. it is NOT and the poor waiter was very confused.
Must – See
My favourite part of Urfa was hands down frolicking around Balikliogol, which is a beautifully kept park in the middle of the city. It hosts a religious landmark and is dotted with ponds filled with carp fish.
The atmosphere here is entirely worth the visit. The park is peaceful and cool, with a bunch of cute little cafes for all of your Turk Khave inhaling NEEDS.
Region: Mardin Province
I was eager to get to Mardin. The city boasted stunning, ancient architecture and it really tickled my fancy.
We spent three nights in Mardin, but unfortunately our stay was met with horrific weather.
Like, I’m talking severe thunderstorms and torrential rain- the kind of rain that actually puts a damper on your exploration plans.
Regardless, Mardin was a bit of a dream.
In the few hours where the skies cleared, Mardin on its delivered on its promised charm.
Nestled beside the famous Tigris River, the city is elegantly built upon steep slopes of carved calcareous rock.
OH BOY do I have a goodie for you- this definitely featured in the top five meals I had in Turkey.
Seyr-i Merdin will knock your socks off, legit. We sat there giggling and gawking at our meals, both times.
The flavours are so delicately designed and the food is cooked to perfection.
Oh, and I forgot to mention your favourite part.
THIS view right into Syria:
Must – See
Due to the weather, we didn’t get to the postcard picture destination, Midyat, But you definitely should!
The old town is also delightful to just wander around.
In Mardin we stayed with a local man on Airbnb. We really enjoyed having his input here in Mardin!
Region: Van Province
Way over in the East, Van is a special little city famous for its lake and the unique lakeside cats (with different coloured-eyes!)
It’s known for being a predominantly Kurdish city, with an urban, casual and young atmosphere.
During summer or winter it’s a hit. We visited on the crux of winter, and were greeted with gorgeous views of snow-capped mountains and barely any tourists.
I was aching for a swim in the beautiful blue lake, though!
Stay in the town centre. The lake is a groovy sight but the town offers an amazing insight into Kurdish culture.
One hot tip here: Breakfast Street (Kahvalti Street). Yes, it may be hot with the tourists but it’s also locally run and phenomenally delicious. I can’t remember the exact restaurant we frequented every single day (legit, it was that good), but look for the dudes luring people in with their red aprons and huge smiles. The restaurant we loved is also directly opposite a water fountain on Kahvalti Street.
Must – See
The lake- of course! If you’re not there in winter, the number one thing you’ll want to do is swim in Van lake!
Van Castle is also amazing (I got so bored of ruins after a while but still loved this one!). It looks over the lake and the mountains, which are completely gorgeous.
We Couchsurfed with the kindest man ever in Van. He was a Kurdish man who was intent on teaching visitors about the kindness of Kurdish hospitality. You absolutely have to stay local here, there is so much to learn about the region and culture and you’ll be treated like royalty. They are so beautiful.
Region: Kars Province
This one was a little special for me. My surname is Kars, and my family lineage traces back to this region. It was out of this world to walk where my ancestors walked.
Kars is a crazy beautiful region. If you have the time, explore the outer regions of the city. The landscape is phenomenal, especially on the crux of winter when the mountains are snow-capped.
The region is home to a complex and dark history. Here lies traces of Armenian, Russian, Mongolian, Kurdish and Turkish culture. While there’s a lot to unpack in terms of history, the region itself is mind-blowing.
Hire a car if you want to get out and explore the region – or better yet, make pals with a local and ride around with them! If you can’t hire a car then no worries – it’s absolutely not necessary and the city itself is walkable.
Food in Kars is unfortunately not the best, which was a surprise for us! It was the first place in Turkey where we didn’t really have any mind-blowing meals. Nevertheless, we ate some good cig kofte (and some very bad ones!).
The secret to eating well in Kars is to go to a local dinner party, we have since been told!
Must – See
Kars Castle is GRAND. It’s a complex building that is surprisingly very well-kept. The views from the top are absolutely gorgeous.
The other thing that should be at the top of your list: Ani. Ani is a spectacular ancient Armenian city of ruins located right next to the Armenian border. To get there, catch a 45 minute dolmus from the centre of town.
Staying local in Kars is your best bet. The Kars people are a little more hard to crack, but once they warm up to you, their hospitality is mindblowing. You can find a lot of local hosts on Airbnb or Couchsurfing.
And that’s a wrap! Are you planning a trip to Eastern Turkey? Let me know in the comments below!
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