I arrived with little to no knowledge of Turkey. Now, after two weeks of apple tea drinking, ancient ruin visiting, city-hopping and coastal chilling, I’ve compiled a list of some of the best places to visit on a trip to Turkey.
I was lucky enough to spend the start of October travelling through Turkey’s many world-renowned destinations. Starting in the buzzing hub of Istanbul and finishing in the wide-open spaces of Göreme, stopping at history-laden sites and serene Mediterranean beaches, I think it’s safe to say that Turkey has an itinerary for every traveller.
This blog was inspired by my adventure on Intrepid’s 14 day Turkey Uncovered tour. Our small group was made up of avid adventurers aged between 23 and 73 from Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. As strangers, we met in Istanbul, but after two weeks of rubbing shoulders on buses, sharing change for the WCs and translating Turkish menus, most of us departed Cappadocia thick as thieves.
Our adventure was led by local Intrepid guide Kübra who ensured a seamless adventure as we navigated private and public buses, vans, cars and trains, covering over 1,382km (859 miles) in 14 days.
The Blue Mosque
The first stop of our Istanbul day was at the famous Sultan Ahmet Mosque, fondly known as the ‘Blue Mosque’. Even before 12, the line was out the door and after winding our way through the marble courtyard and passing the Wudu/Ablution cleansing area, tying our headscarves on, and removing our shoes, we were inside.
With just one glance up, all that waiting was worth it. Every surface has been carved, painted or gilded with a multitude of patterns and colours. Bright blues and reds fill the overhead domes, intersected with jewel-toned stained-glass windows and lit from underneath by intricate black chandeliers.
Almost every head is turned upwards, looking their fill at the many sub-domes and balconies. Those with heads turned down were bathed in sunlight streaming through the floor-level windows, deep in prayer.
Arriving in Turkey, I knew we would be visiting a few mosques and the famed bazaars of Istanbul; what I didn’t expect was to descend from street level and emerge within a Chamber of Secrets-esque cavern, complete with water dripping from the ceiling and ever-changing dramatic lighting.
The Basilica Cistern operated as a water reservoir in the 6th century. Today it is one of the most excavated remnants of the cistern system and a highlight to any Istanbul tour.
After wandering a few flights downstairs, you’re invited to walk over the water, through the pillars and past a varied collection of statues. If you roam far enough, you’ll find a frightening bust of Medusa in the corner.
The Spice Bazaar
If you somehow haven’t bought anything in Istanbul yet and have a hankering for a deal, the nearby Grand and Spice Bazaars will be just what the doctor ordered. Luckily, they’re only a short walk from each other.
Inside both markets, shopkeepers will tempt you over with samples of their brightly coloured Turkish delight or an offer of soft silken shawls. Don’t be surprised if they offer to show you a room downstairs, usually filled from floor to ceiling with more wares. Just be sure you tell your friend where you’ve gone (sorry, Emily).
Although both are worth visiting, my personal favourite was the Spice Bazaar. Particularly the Ottoman-style interior and brightly coloured stalls of dried fruit, spices and hilariously-named tea mixes (looking at you ‘Love Tea’).
Now for a bit of history. The Gallipoli campaign was the first major military action of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs). As one of the bloodiest conflicts of World War I, the Gallipoli site holds great significance, especially to Turks, Australians and New Zealanders.
A visit to ANZAC Cove and the surrounding sites of Lone Pine, the Nek and Chunuk Bair is a sobering moment of reflection. As you walk through the many cemeteries, memorials and still-standing trenches, you can start to gain an understanding of why this battle is forever etched in our history books.
Before my departure to Turkey, I was told by my family in Australia that I had a relative who fought in Gallipoli. Upon arriving, our Turkish guide Kubra shared with us that she has a great-grandfather who is ‘sleeping’ here, although they don’t know where.
Nicknamed the ‘Turkish capital of tourism’, Antalya is a vibrant seaside destination. This popular holiday spot bubbles to life each night with international eateries and local restaurants stocked with street-side stalls of fish. Framed by Hadrian’s Gate, the Old City is perfect for idle shopping and spectacular views of the marina and surrounding mountains.
Whenever you get too hot, a cliff-side beach club is usually only a few minutes away. You could also consider stopping by one of Turkey’s best museums, the Antalya Museum.
Filled with artifacts of gold coins, pottery, mosaics, jewellery and more, their marquee attraction is the Hall of Gods: a series of larger-than-life godly sculptures of Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis and other figures from history and mythology.
As we’d just visited a few of those ancient cities, seeing the smaller everyday items really brought the story full circle, especially the sarcophagus and inscribed poem that a woman from the 3rd century had made for her beloved dog.
The small, out-of-the-way town of Kekova combines the beauty of an aquamarine coast, a quaint seaside village, an imposing 4th-century castle and the intrigue of a centuries-old sunken city. The best way to see the sights is on board a boat with a captain who knows all the best spots to jump in for a swim.
An unexpected highlight of our day in Kekova was the homemade meal served on the family-owned boat that hosted us for the day. I think most of the members of our group, myself included, labelled this as the best meal of the trip.
For warm Mediterranean waters, umbrella-laden sand and a host of beach-side catering, consider the three-kilometre stretch of the Oludeniz coast and neighbouring Blue Lagoon.
Sitting in the southwest corner of Turkey, this beach-lovers dream can be enjoyed on the water, in the water or even above the water. Yes above! From nearby Babadağ Mountain, paragliders take to the air. Some brave flyers were entertaining us with death-defying loop-de-loops.
With the mesmerising movements of the gliders overhead, a few hilarious pirate ships docked to the shore, and some of the most beautiful swimming conditions I’ve ever experienced, this beach is definitely a highlight.
A special shout-out here to a member of our tour group who, in her sixties, took to the skies paragliding. After touching down safely, she was overjoyed and insisted with the biggest smile on her face that we should all do it at least once. Manreet, you’re my hero.
It’s not every day that you get to walk the worn-down marble roads of a two-thousand-year-old city, but at Ephesus, you can do that and more.
Ephesus has a pretty impressive resume. It was first constructed during the Roman Imperial Period; then, at some point in time, served as the most important city for the ancient Greeks; after that, it was a sacred site for early Christians and lastly, it housed one of the seven wonders of the world – the Temple of Artemis.
Nowadays, it’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most significant ancient cities that still stands today.
With all that impressive lineage, the modern-day allure of the city can be chalked up to several of the incredibly excavated and restored buildings, namely the Library of Celsus, the Grand Theatre, the Temple of Hadrian and the lengthy Harbour Street.
I can guarantee your camera roll will be full of intricate marble columns and decorative carvings of gods and goddesses, not to mention some of the furry residents who lounge about these ruins without any care for their history. In terms of must-see ancient cities, Ephesus should probably be high on the list.
The Turkish translation reads ‘cotton castle’, and one look at the rise of white carbonite mineral is all you need to see why. From street level, it could be confused for a ski slope, but getting closer, you’ll notice the clear blue pools and the gentle streams of water.
While it’s an unmissable site at any time of the day, the colours of sunrise and sunset turn the whites of the travertine terraces ablaze with vibrant oranges, pinks and yellows.
Take a barefoot hike from the base of the site to the upper viewing platforms. You can wade in the water as it’s generally not very deep, although there is still a lot to be seen before descending as there so happens another of Turkey’s ancient cities just behind the picturesque pools.
With its Gate to the Underworld and Grand Theatre capable of seating up to 12 thousand people, you’ll surely feel like you got your money’s worth at the Hierapolis and Travertines National Park.
The memory of Göreme feels incredibly fresh in my memory, and not just because it was the last stop of our trip. With rock-hewn settlements passing us on the left, a far-reaching valley to the right and fairy chimneys seen from the front window, even our bus drive in felt climactic.
The biggest draw to Cappadocia is arguably the sunrise hot air balloons. While that is likely an incredible experience, even missing out on it as we did due to weather concerns, we weren’t entirely forlorn with disappointment.
We filled our days hiking the Göreme National Park, hunkering down in the Derinkuyu Underground City, gazing out at Pigeon Valley, climbing the Uchisar Castle and watching a traditional pottery demonstration.
We were also encouraged to try an Anatolian speciality meal called testi, or ‘pottery’ kebab. Usually a meat dish, this delicious stew is cooked in a clay pot and opened in front of you by tapping with a hammer to release the lid.
So, while the lack of balloons was a bit of a bummer, Göreme lifted our spirits in other ways and was a fantastic final destination for our two weeks in Turkey.
My adventure through Turkey would not have been as memorable if not for the many companions on the tour. We shared the experiences of the included itinerary moments but then would often come together at the end of a day and talk through our solo adventures. Truly a great way to travel.
It also wouldn’t have been the same without our local leader. Kübra was so passionate about her country, and her dedication to sharing it with us gave us a different insight into the destination than we might not have otherwise had.
She even gave us some unexpected highlights and last-minute additions, such as a stop at the Ancient City of Troy and a panorama café serving Turkish coffee while overlooking the Ortahisar Castle. It was here that she gave me a traditional Turkish coffee reading, which was one of my favourite experiences of the trip.
She loved to teach us about the cultures and people that make up Turkey, with so much to share about history, religion and, most importantly, food. One of her funniest moments was when we were talking about the trickster ice cream vendors who like to play games with tourists by pretending to give you the cone but then quickly pulling it away. Kübra told us that once, she got so fed up with one that she told them, “Just give it to me. I’m Turkish.”