Turkey is a country well worth exploring for its vibrant cities, breathtaking landscapes and incredibly rich history. Let us take you on a trip around all the best, unmissable places
Turkey is so much more than seaside resorts — it’s a huge, diverse country with marked prominence in the history of European civilization. If you’re thinking of taking an extended trip this year, consider this itinerary beginning in Istanbul in the far west, and continuing deeper inland on a discovery tour of the very best that the nation has to offer.
What better city in which to begin your Turkish trek than Istanbul? It’s Kiwi.com’s fourth most booked destination ever, after all, so it must be somewhere worth seeing! Istanbul is a bit of an air transport hub, so chances are you’ll arrive at one of the two big and bustling airports in the city: the imaginatively-named Istanbul Airport on the European side, or Sabiha Gökçen Airport on the Asian side.
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Once you arrive, you’ll soon become aware of the fact that Istanbul is huge. Really huge. Its population of nearly 16 million makes it considerably bigger than any city entirely in Europe (and indeed, any others that are half-in-half-out). But don’t let this intimidate you — the bigger the city, the more unforgettable experiences there are to be had, right?
Right. With Istanbul’s turbulent history stretching back centuries and centuries, the relics are copious, positively all over the place. One that you absolutely can’t miss is the Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-back-to-mosque built in 537 CE, and the pièce de résistance of the city. Another is Topkapı Palace, one opulent residence of the Ottoman sultans. There’s Dolmabahçe Palace, a later center of Ottoman rule. There’s the Column of Constantine, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Walls of Constantinople, the Grand Bazaar — the list goes on. If you want to get around everything at a relatively leisurely pace, you ought to spend a week here.
If you’re looking for something quirky, head to the district of Balat. You’ll know you’re there when you start seeing lots of cats, and you find yourself wandering down narrow streets of tall, disjunct, colorful houses — an endearing polychromatic treat. Dive into little antique stores and cafés to break up your rigorous sightseeing itinerary, and wind down later at a hammam, a traditional Turkish bathhouse.
That’s your lot as far as European Turkey is concerned (it accounts for just 3.4% of the country’s land area, although 15% of the population live there) — we’re now heading south to our first stop entirely on Asian land: the coastal city of İzmir. It’s Turkey’s third-largest city, the Pearl of the Aegean, and it’s definitely worth visiting.
Compared to Istanbul, İzmir has a contemporary, laid-back vibe. There are lots of sandy beaches, where locals and tourists alike bask in the beaming sunshine and let go of their everyday stresses. You can even take a boat trip — sit back, relax, and take in the beauty of the surrounding bays and caves.
Make sure you find Asansör, one of the city’s main landmarks. Asansör means ‘elevator’ in Turkish, and that’s exactly what it is: an elevator built in the early 20th century, its original purpose being to ease the movement of people and goods between the coast and the clifftops. Trundle up the tower and you’ll get an incredible view over the city, and of the jagged topography on the horizon.
Alsancak is one of the city’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan areas, fantastic for shopping, and packed with trendy hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs. Walk along the picturesque promenade and dine on fresh mussels stuffed with rice (a popular local delicacy) before partying the night away in warm, welcoming company.
Finally, if you’re missing your history fix after being in Istanbul, fear not — İzmir has plenty of it as well. The Agora of Smyrna, a site of Ancient Roman ruins, is bang in the middle of the city. The same can be said of the Kızlarağası Hani — a grandiose Ottoman-built inn revived in the 1990s as a bazaar. And Ephesus, the Unesco-protected remains of an Ancient Greek settlement, is particularly special. It’s around 80 kilometers south of the city, so you could stop by on your way to the next destination…
Pamukkale is still in the west of the country, but further inland; you can get there from İzmir or from Ephesus by bus, train or car. Although the journey doesn’t take all day, it’s still quite a stretch, but the spectacular natural wonder at the other end is very worth it.
The town of Pamukkale — “Cotton Castle” — takes its name from the overlooking white travertine terraces formed by the flow of mineral-rich geothermal water. The terraces are part of another Unesco World Heritage Site, and rightly so — you probably won’t have seen anything like it before (unless you’ve been to Egerszalók in Hungary).
Just a heads up: any one time, there are always certain areas of the mounds that are deemed too delicate to be stepped on, and so are cordoned off to visitors. Moreover, the spring water on the terraces is too shallow to bathe in properly, and this is where the Scared Pool comes in.
The Sacred Pool is in the neighboring Roman spa town of Hierapolis (which is, incidentally, very slightly higher up than Pamukkale). Confusingly, the pool is also known as the Antique Pool, as it’s surrounded by ancient ruins; and as Cleopatra’s Pool, as Mark Antony supposedly gifted it to her. Whatever you choose to call it, be sure to take yourself there to swim among real Roman columns and soak up all that mineral-y good stuff.
The historical region of Cappadocia is right in the center of Turkey. The most straightforward way to get there from Pamukkale is on an overnight bus. But what for? Well, simply put, it might just be the closest experience to a trip to the moon.
Cappadocia is best known for its striking, out-of-this-world landscapes. The region’s expanse of soft volcanic rock has, over the millennia, been carved by the elements into unusual, intricate peaks known as fairy chimneys. ‘Fairy’ is the operative word here, as undoubtedly, there’s nowhere else in the country that looks more mystical.
Civilizations have long taken advantage of the geological versatility of the rock, making the moon-like peaks into houses and churches. Some people still live in them today, though many have been converted into hotels. This should absolutely be your choice of lodging, by the way.
The must-do in Cappadocia is a ride in a hot air balloon. Taking in the views from the ground is awesome enough, but seeing the region from above is nothing short of phenomenal. Book your place for early in the morning to capture the sunrise bathing the formations in dazzling hues of pink and orange.
And this isn’t the only great experience to be had. The region has much more on offer, including hiking trails, horseback riding, open-air museums and wine tasting. If you want to do everything, you’d need to stay for at least four nights. However long you plan to be in Cappadocia, though, aside from a hot air balloon ride, another thing you shouldn’t miss is the chance to see an underground city.
We’ve gathered at this point that Turkey is a country completely saturated in ancient history, and Cappadocia is home to several subterranean settlements built thousands of years ago — again, a process made easier by the softness of the rock. Two of the most visited are Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı, where guided tours take you through tens of tunnels leading to rooms used for living, schooling, animal-rearing, worship, and every other daily activity. It’s seriously cool (literally as well — bring a jacket), and oddly, an experience akin to that of being inside a big sponge.
Around 280 kilometers away from Cappadocia (which is pretty close in Turkish terms) is Ankara. It often gets overlooked by tourists, but the cosmopolitan capital is certainly worth a visit, even if just for a day before you fly home. It’s known for its historical sites (there’s a surprise), modern shopping malls, as well as for being more green, relaxed and orderly compared to Istanbul.
Arguably the most attractive area of the city is the Citadel, where cobblestone streets lined with quaint cafés and arty boutiques inevitably lead you to Ankara Castle and its walls. The national flag flies proudly at full-mast from the Castle top, and the grounds are a spot favored by talented buskers performing their renditions of traditional Turkish folk songs. You know, just in case you manage to forget where you are.
If you have time, pay a visit to Anıtkabir — the mausoleum of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and president until his death in 1938. Check out the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations — one of the most important and comprehensive attractions in the country, showcasing artifacts right from the Stone Age to the present day. And just before you head to the airport, take a stroll through the sprawling Gençlik Park, stopping for a beer to unwind, watch the world go by, and reflect on what an incredible country Turkey really is.
Honorable mentions: Trabzon and Dalaman
Trabzon on the Black Sea coast is perhaps a tad too out of the way for this itinerary, but regular flights from Istanbul or İzmir will get you there pretty quickly, if you’re so inclined. Nestled in among looming mountains, this city of around 300,000 people owes its multicultural influences to its place on the old Silk Road. Trabzon is a charming place in and of itself with its laid-back vibe and friendly locals, and it’s also a great place to be if you love eating fish. But its main attraction is the nearby Sumela Monastery — an eerie-looking Greek Orthodox construction built into the side of a steep cliff, at a height of around 1,200 meters. Having been built circa 386 CE, the Monastery is maintained regularly so that it can accommodate visitors, so don’t worry — it’s perfectly safe to be up there!
Lastly, if you’re simply sun, sea and sand-seeking, of all of Turkey’s coastal resorts, we highly recommend the Dalaman area. Click here to find out more about what makes it so wonderful.
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