What’s the first thing you think of when someone mentions Turkey? Is it groups of colorful hot air balloons rising over the unique landscapes of Cappadocia? Or perhaps it’s the enthralling architecture of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
My knowledge of Turkey was limited to these two most popular destinations, but after spending two weeks visiting a dozen Turkish towns on Intrepid’s Turkey Encompassed tour, I discovered that there’s much more to this beautiful Mediterranean country than meets the eye.
In fact, Turkey has a place (and a landscape) for everyone. Small and large towns alike will impress and enchant you. If you’re visiting Turkey, these are six places you must visit besides Istanbul and Cappadocia:
Pamukkale, which translates to “cotton castle,” is a small UNESCO World Heritage town well worth a visit to experience the natural mineral hot springs formed amongst the bright calcium bicarbonate deposits. Formed over thousands of years from underground hot water sources, these pools are said to have healing powers, especially for those with digestive and circulation problems. The pools are too shallow to swim in, but you can walk around in them barefoot or even don your swimsuit and dip your entire body in! How else would you take full advantage of the healing power?
Pamukkale had been on my bucket list for ages, and I was really excited to visit. To be honest, it was way more crowded than I’d expected. In fact, I was initially hesitant to walk through the pools, simply due to the sheer number of people. Do I think it’s still worth a visit? Absolutely. But just know it won’t look the way it does on Instagram.
That being said, one of the coolest things about Pamukkale is that the pools are adjacent to the larger ancient city of Hierapolis. Although the city is now in ruins, it’s pretty well preserved, with an incredibly impressive restored theatre and extensive necropolis. Many people skip this area and spend all their time in the pools, but you should definitely make a point to visit Hierapolis as well.
As the birthplace of Sufism and home to the whirling dervish, it astonishes me that more tourists don’t visit Konya. While it is a tad more religiously conservative than the rest of the cities in Turkey, it’s easily one of the most fascinating places I visited on the Turkey Encompassed tour.
The main reason people visit Konya is the Mevlana Museum, the former dervish school turned museum. It also houses the mausoleum of Rumi, the most famous Sufi of all, known today for his poetry and his contributions to Sufism. It was fascinating to see groups of Turkish pilgrims praying and admiring various aspects of the museum. One of the coolest items was the glass case holding a box that is said to have hairs from the Prophet Muhammad’s beard in them. Religious scripture says that he always had a pleasant smell, and tourists and pilgrims alike could catch a whiff of flowers coming from the hole in the glass. Pretty amazing!
Despite being home to a religious pilgrimage city, Konya is surprisingly modern and cosmopolitan. It’s a university town with beautiful outdoor parks and a bustling central plaza. I walked all around the town during the evening and saw groups of friends and families alike enjoying the fresh air, picnicking, and shopping. While there’s really only about a day’s worth of sites to be visited in Konya, it’s certainly a worthy city to visit while traveling in Turkey.
While the majority of tourists use Selçuk as a departing point for nearby Ephesus (three kilometers away), it certainly holds its own in terms of unique historical sites. This charming and somewhat sleepy town is famed for the remains of The Temple of Artemis, one of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although just a single column out of the 127 original ones remains, Selçuk has several other historical sites for the history buff in you as well.
Most notable are the remains of the Basilica of St John, where the youngest apostle is buried. Despite a century of restoration, the basilica is still very much in a state of ruins, although certainly worth a visit, especially with a local guide. Plus, there’s the added bonus of the views from the Basilica – you can see all of Selçuk and beyond from up there.
Located just three kilometers from the city of Selçuk, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a truly excellent example of a well-preserved Roman port and city. While it has plenty of incredible structures, the most notable are the Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre. The Library is easily the most beautiful building in all of Ephesus and the theatre is actually the largest amphitheater in Turkey.
The Romans did not mess around when it came to conquering the ancient world and Ephesus is easily one of the most impressive examples of just how far the empire stretched.
One particularly memorable local experience was an evening excursion to the tiny town of Sirinçe, a short 15-minute drive from Selçuk. Although the town is known for wine tasting, it has plenty of charm for non-drinkers as well. With hilltop views, ancient churches, and plenty of handicraft shops, Sirinçe was a delightful surprise. Our local guide, Fatih, really undersold it.
My favorite part? Watching local shopkeepers make Turkish coffee in hot sand – definitely not something you see everyday.
Located on the Mediterranean Coast, Kaş was easily the most charming of the places we visited in Turkey, one I would have never discovered without a local guide. This quintessentially Mediterranean summer spot has everything you’d expect from a Turkish beach town: cute boutique shops lining the main road, spectacular seafood restaurants and miles of beautiful coastline.
We stayed in Kaş for two days, one of which was spent on a boat exploring both Kalekoy Castle and the Sunken City of Kekova as well as swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. It was unforgettable and one of my favorite activities on the tour.
Kaş is truly local, with the majority of tourism coming from within Turkey itself. Its lively vibe and beachfront restaurants made this one of my favorite stops in Turkey. That, combined with the best seafood we ate on the trip, makes Kaş a must-visit destination in Turkey.
Ready to explore the wonders of this incredible country? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours in Turkey.
(All images taken by Sally on her Turkey Encompassed tour with Intrepid Travel.)