Ani ruins are considered an absolute must-see for anyone venturing out east in Turkey. However, the location, as far east as you can possibly get in Turkey and on the cusp of the closed border with Armenia, means not many people make it out there.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the old destroyed city, however, it certainly turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in eastern Turkey.
Here’s a guide for visiting Ani from Kars in Eastern Turkey as an independent traveller.
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What is Ani?
The area itself has been inhabited for some 2500 years. However, the medieval city of Ani was most notably the capital of the Armenian kingdom under the Bagratides during the 10th and 11th century. It prospered as a major city on a section of the Silk Road trade route until the invasion of the Mongols and then a devastating earthquake in 1319.
The Silk Road changed course and then the fortified city was basically abandoned by the 18th century. The remains of the city found at the complex today consist of various structures from the 7th century through to the day the city was abandoned and is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
One of the main reasons people visit this ruined city is the incredible atmosphere of the place right on the border of Armenia. It feels almost like a ghost city or even a film set and makes for a really unique experience in Turkey.
Exploring Ani independently generally means spending at least one night in Kars, the nearest large town.
Kars is certainly not an overly exciting place, however, it’s also not a bad base to spend the night. It has all the necessary amenities and decent hotel options. It does have an interesting cultural mix of Turkish, Kurdish and Azeri, making it distinctly different from the other towns I’d stayed in eastern Turkey.
How to get to Kars
From Van | There are a couple of buses per day that leave from Van to Kars. They both depart in the morning and I took the 10am service. It cost 100 TL (AUD$25) and took 7-8 hours. Read more about Lake Van and Dogubayazit here.
From Erzurum | This is one of the largest cities in Eastern Turkey. There are daily trains that run from Erzurum to Kars as well as buses. The journey time varies from 3-4 hours.
From Georgia | It’s possible to reach Kars from Georgia or vice versa. There is a bus company that runs from Kars to Tbilisi a few times per week. I took this bus in 2019 and have included more details at the end of this post about it.
Where to stay in Kars
Hotel Kent Ani | This is the main budget option on Booking.com. However, I met people who had just wandered the main street and found a cheaper hotel. Still, Hotel Kent Ani was one of the nicer places I’d stayed in Eastern Turkey and it was certainly a bit of luxury for me. It cost AUD$25 per night for a double room with a private bathroom.
Day trip to Ani from Kars
There is a tourist bus that goes from Kars to Ani and back. It’s by far the easiest way to visit the ruins independently and it leaves from outside Antik Cafe at 10am (on the corner of Faik Aksoy Caddesi and Gazi Ahmet Pasa Caddesi). A ticket costs 18 TL (AUD$4.50) for a round trip and the drive took just over an hour one way.
The bus then waits for two hours and it left Ani at 1.20pm to return to Kars.
In high season, I heard that they run two of these buses per day at 9am and again at 1pm, as opposed to just the one at 10am in quieter times. However, it’s best to check the current schedule as there is often conflicting information online. I would recommend asking the wait staff at Antik cafe because they see the bus every day and are likely to know the most up to date departure time/s.
The bus drops everyone at the entrance where you have to buy a ticket for 12 TL (AUD$3). Once inside, there is an obvious trail that loops around the whole complex and following it seems to be the obvious thing to do. However, it’s also a good idea to stray a bit off the main path every now and then as some of the more interesting smaller sites and viewpoints are not necessarily on the main trial.
There are some information boards at most main buildings, however, generally there’s not much in terms of signage or facilities inside the complex itself. There also seems to be constant reconstruction going on for some areas and so a couple of the buildings were fenced off, otherwise you can basically roam anywhere.
Be wary that the site is close to the Armenian border and you can actually see border guard posts just across the other side of the valley. I had heard that sometimes tourists stray a bit too far and are met with some not-so-friendly Turkish officials. So it’s best not to go too far off the trail.
The main buildings that are still somewhat intact are mostly Armenian churches and cathedrals as well as the main gate and wall at the front of the complex. There are also some remnants of old houses and the main bazaar which lie in ruin.
As I entered some of the cathedrals I almost felt as if they could come crashing down at any moment with visible cracks in the walls as though the earthquake had happened just yesterday. However, at a closer look I noticed plants sprouting from their open rooftops and birds flying in and out, and so I think they’ve remained the same for far too long now for much to suddenly change.
Apart from the ruins, the landscape is also striking. The deep cut valleys that run around the complex are impressive and the rolling hills make it a beautiful place to have built a city. People say that exploring the place is like walking through a ghost city, as if on a horror movie set, and I can understand why. Despite the bus having been full, the huge complex meant I was easily on my own a lot of the time and the eery silence only added to the strangeness of the place with a feeling that you really are out in the middle of nowhere in an abandoned city.
Although the bus allows just two hours to visit, you could easily spend longer, which is one of the reasons some people choose to hire a taxi instead so that you can spend as much time as you like. However, they generally charge at least 120 TL for the trip.
Kars to Tbilisi bus
From Kars, I wanted to cross to Georgia. Instead of using the main border crossing which is further north and generally crossed from Trabzon, I wanted to cross at the closer crossing for the convenience. I discovered that there was one bus company running services across to Tbilisi from Kars and so I went the day before to buy my ticket.
The company is called Kars VIP Turizm and their office is conveniently just across from Antik Cafe on Faikbey Caddesi. They run every few days to Tbilisi, probably more like every second day in high season but you would have to check in their office. A ticket costs 100 TL (AU$19).
The bus was meant to depart at 9am but when I arrived at their office at 8.45, they told me it had been delayed. The bus still didn’t depart until 2pm and we were very late getting to the border at 5pm and didn’t arrive into Tbilisi until 10pm.
Border crossing Turkey-Georgia
The border crossing was relatively quick and painless for most people as it was basically empty, except for me. I was held by Turkish officials and they didn’t want to let me exit, although none of them spoke English, other than the word “problem”, which they kept repeating as they pointed to me.
They made a few phone calls and then eventually stamped me out, but as I was about to walk through to Georgia they made me wait again until another official came who looked at his computer for a while until he finally said, “Okay, go.” I suspect it was because I had been in Iraqi Kurdistan and then spent all of my time in Turkey in the predominantly Kurdish areas. Turkey had also just started an offensive against Rojava, the Kurdish area in northern Syria, while I was there and I think they were just holding me on the principle that I was assumed to be sympathetic towards the Kurds.
On the Georgian side, I wasn’t asked any questions and I was stamped through (with no need for a visa) in a minute. There was an official money exchange counter near the Georgian immigration desk and I changed my Lira there to Lari before jumping back on the bus.
The bus stopped relatively close to the old town in Tbilisi, along the river, which was convenient, as most accommodation options are a short distance from there.
If you’re planning on travelling to Georgia, read: What you need to know before you go to Georgia