“There’s no evidence the Trojan Horse ever existed,” Fatih, our local leader tells us, much to the group’s surprise.
I’m nearing the end of my Turkey Encompassed tour with Intrepid Travel, and I listen as Fatih, without skipping a beat, proceeds to explain how the symbolic statue that ended the Trojan War is actually a myth. His knowledge of Turkey’s history and sites is downright impressive. Fatih knows about every town and its local background, food, civilization, and history, which he enthusiastically demonstrates during the two-week long trip.
Turkey is unique, the only country with a city spanning two continents. It’s not European and it’s not Asian. It’s somewhere in between. It’s this ever-changing culture, woven with a rich and diverse history, which makes Fatih’s job as a storyteller and tour leader a fascinating one.
Fatih grew up in Aydın, a small city just an hour east of Selçuk. His love for the great outdoors started at a young age, and while he loves leading all types of tours, his favorites are ones that involve an element of outdoor adventure like biking or hiking.
Fatih is also passionate about challenging (negative) misconceptions about Turkey, which he says many travelers arrive with. Travelers often tell him that they expected more of a culture shock, particularly due to Turkey’s location. Yet, they leave surprised by just how safe and hospitable Turkey truly is, both to visitors and locals alike.
I sat with Fatih one day and listened as he told me about his adventures as a tour guide, his passion for Turkey evident as he showed me photos of his favorite spots in the country. They included a mix of hidden gems and popular cities, but all of them had one thing in common: they’re must-visit destinations.
These are some of Turkey’s must-visit spots, according to a local leader:
Whether it’s your first time in Turkey or your tenth, you can’t visit this beautiful country without spending at least a few days in Turkey’s largest city.
Istanbul spans both Europe and Asia and this duality is present in more than just its physical location. In some parts of Istanbul, you can you can travel back through time, marveling at sites such as The Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the lesser-known Basilica Cistern, which was built during the Byzantine Empire. In other neighborhoods nearby, you can sip coffee at a trendy café, then get lost in mazes of urban street art.
What’s the coolest area of Istanbul that tourists don’t visit, according to Fatih? Beşiktaş, a waterfront neighborhood just past Taksim Square. It’s filled with art and culture, with architectural gems such as Ortaköy Mosque and Dolmabahçe Palace. It’s also home to Yıldız Park, one of the largest green spaces in Istanbul. For visitors looking to experience a more local side of Istanbul, Beşiktaş is not to be missed.
Translating to “Saffron City,” Safranbolu was once an important stop on the East-West trade route. It’s located in the Black Sea region of northern Turkey, about five hours from Istanbul, and saw many caravans during its heyday. Now, the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to the unique Ottomon houses.
What’s more, locals still keep their traditional lifestyle alive, spending the summer months in the area previously known as the “Vineyards” and winter months in the “City.” Visiting Safronbolu will truly take you back in time.
If you’re a foodie, it’s worth noting that Safronbolu is the only place they grow saffron in the country, and Turks say it’s where the best quality saffron in the world is produced. If dessert is more your thing, be sure to try the Turkish delight there. Fatih claims it’s the best in the country, thanks to the natural mineral water in the area.
Out of all the cities in Turkey, Cappadocia is one of the few that deserves to be called “otherworldly,” according to Fatih. It’s so unique and enchanting, there are hardly words to describe it (or perhaps, there are too many). Watching the hot air balloons rise in unison is breathtaking, but the landscape caves, fairy chimneys, and rock formations sometimes get glossed over in the rush to enjoy the colors gracing the sky every morning.
In Cappadocia, there’s no shortage of underground cities, caves, and oddly shaped rock formations, thanks a combination of weathered volcanic rock and thousands of years of wind and rain. This is where you can marvel at and visit (multiple!) underground cities and carved-in caves.
So while it’s easy to brush over Cappadocia in a day or two, the longer you stay, the more you’ll be fascinated by the bizarre landscape, and the more you’ll want to hear about the stories of the ancient civilizations that built these dwellings.
Last but not least is Izmir, which Fatih said I should add to the list because it’s simply beautiful. Of course, that’s not the only reason to visit Turkey’s third largest city. Izmir was founded by the Greeks, but has been home to many civilizations and religions over the course of its history, making the present-day culture incredibly unique. That, combined with the fact that half its population is under 30, makes Izmir a cosmopolitan city where art, culture, and history meet.
Located along the Aegean Coast, you’ll have access to plenty of stunning beaches in Izmir, but don’t miss some of its cultural and historical sites as well.
Of course, you can’t miss the Konak neighborhood, with its iconic Ottoman-Style clock tower and beautiful waterfront promenade. It’s a popular hangout spot, thanks to busy outdoor cafes and bars, where you can truly enjoy the beauty of Izmir – and its perfect weather.
Another highlight of Izmir is Kemeraltı, the bazaar district. It’s home to maze-like streets consisting of artisan shops, cafes and restaurants, mosques, and more. While it’s easy to get lost in this area, be sure to seek out Kızlarağası Han, a market in a restored caravanserai.
Despite living in and traveling throughout Turkey extensively, Fatih told me he still has plenty of places he’s eager to discover. In a country with such a sizable history, that comes as no surprise.
Ready to experience this incredible country through the eyes of a local? Check out Intrepid’s range of Turkey trips.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Pixabay, Sally Elbassir x3, Pixabay, Sally Elbassir, iStock/tunart.)