Where to go in Turkey
Where to go in Turkey
Our Guide on Where to Visit in Turkey
Turkey is vast and varied: an ever-changing landscape of ancient cities, soaring mountains, sparse steppes, and majestic coastline. Geographically it marks the transition from Europe to the Middle East and Asia and culturally is a crossroads between Persia, Anatolia, Arabia, and Russia. In short, it’s quite the melting pot!
All tours of Turkey start in – where else? – Istanbul. The city is Turkey in microcosm, famed as sitting half in Europe and half in Asia. Approximately 3,000 years old, this remarkable settlement has been the capital of three major civilizations – Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman – and has also served as one of the world’s great port cities, marking a vital waypoint between continents and waterways. All told it’s an astonishing city, steeping in stories and dripping in historical treasures, and rightly lists high in any intrepid traveler’s all-time favorites.
Several millennia of trade, migration, and competing civilizations have left their mark all over the peninsula, with Turkey boasting some of the world’s great cultural treasures. Historical sightseeing here competes with anything in Greece, Egypt, or the Middle East, with tantalizing glimpses of the ancients seen in the ruins of Ephesus, Pergamon, Aphrodisias, and Troy.
Turkey is a land of natural wonders too: take in the unmissable fairy caves of Cappadocia – best viewed on an unforgettable hot air balloon flight – or the enchanting calcium terraces of Pamukkale. In Turkey’s rugged interior and far-flung east you’ll also find majestic mountains: gorgeous hikes abound in the Kackar region, while Turkey’s ‘Easter Island’ can be viewed in mysterious Mount Nemrut.
And to top it all, you have the coast: ringed on three out of four sides by the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black Seas, Turkey is a sand, sea, and sailing wonderland. The high point comes along Turkey’s world-renowned ‘Turquoise Coast’: a string of jewels running through Izmir, Bodrum, Fethiye, Kas, and Antalya, offering beautiful beaches, fantastic food, and off-shore adventures.
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Best places to go in Turkey
Here is a summary of some of the best and most popular areas to visit.
The world’s only city that straddles two continents, the Turkish capital is a place where East meets West, with one side of the Bosporus Strait in Asia and the other in Europe. Its culture reflects that divide, providing an enchanting mix of grand palaces and majestic mosques, an ancient market overflowing with colorful spices and a diverse array of incredible cuisine. Istanbul possesses a rich and complicated heritage as the former capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, leaving behind many iconic landmarks and a unique blend of architecture. Walking down the street you might see a modern glass skyscraper next to a Byzantine church or a bazaar backed by a bustling shopping mall. The narrow strait that cuts the city in two connects to the Black Sea in the north and the Sea of Marmara in the south – from the water, you’ll see a skyline of soaring towers, steeples, and domes.
Lying along the southern Aegean coast, Bodrum may be a modern resort town, but it’s home to the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Toppled by a series of earthquakes between the early 12th and early 15th centuries, the polished stone and marble from the massive monument were reused to build a castle on a site that’s been fortified for over 3,000 years, sitting on a promontory east of the harbor. Nearby is the 4th-century B.C. Greek-style amphitheatre that’s still used today for cultural events. Many visitors come to enjoy the beaches in the summer with a public stretch right in town and many others that are particularly outstanding like Bitetz, a Blue Flag beach with shallow, warm, and clear blue water. Bodrum is also one of the top spots for summer nightlife, attracting Turkish celebrities and famous DJs for dancing until dawn.
The Cappadocia region is a fairytale-like place in the Anatolian plains. A bizarrely beautiful landscape, it’s almost otherworldly, with hundreds of astonishing rock formations rising from the ground. Interspersed among the limestone pillars and spires are churches and cave dwellings carved right out of the rock – some are even available for rent as cave hotels and homes. The town of Göreme houses some of the most incredible structures in a complex of fresco-filled churches and monasteries called the Göreme Open Air Museum. This area is also famous as a destination for hot-air ballooning, with rides especially popular at sunrise, bringing a bird’s-eye view of the remarkable landscape under the early morning light. Simply watching from the ground is a breathtaking experience as dozens of colorful balloons fill the sky. Horseback riding and hiking are also popular and history enthusiasts will find plenty to love too, but it’s the stunning panoramas that are most memorable.
Located on a wide bay beneath a range of high hills on the Aegean coast, Izmir was once the ancient city of Smyrna, with a long, rich history although it’s now modern and developed. Turkey’s third-largest city and second biggest port is full of life, home to tens of thousands of university students and offers plenty to do after dark and during the day. The Kordon is a seaside promenade lined with enticing cafes, while Konak Pier now serves as a chic shopping center. The spiritual heart of the city is Konak Square with its 1901 clock tower, the site where modern Turkey’s fight for independence began in the wake of the First World War. From Kadifekale, the Velvet Castle, one can enjoy a jaw-dropping panoramic view over it all. Nearby, the ruins of Ephesus include terraced houses with ancient intact frescoes and a large Hellenistic theater.
Translating to the cotton castle in Turkish, the formation of this remarkable landscape took place after a series of earthquakes. Chalk white travertine terraces developed, shaped over millennia by mineral-rich springs. In the late 2nd-century BC, an ancient city, Hierapolis was established here, with the ruins of baths, temples, and other monuments still visible today. The snow-white limestone and stunning turquoise thermal pools have been attracting visitors since the classical period, but in the mid-20th-century considerable damage was caused when hotels were built over the ruins while motorbikes were allowed to zip up and down the slopes. After it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, the travertine terraces were made off-limits, the hotels demolished, and artificial pools were constructed for visitors to use. The opportunity to soak among magnificent surroundings, view the impeccably preserved Roman ruins and explore the on-site museum make it well worth a visit.
A coastal resort town, Kusadasi is a popular cruise destination with long, sandy beaches for sunbathing and swimming, while restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops are never far away. There are some stretches of sand right in the city, with the most popular, Ladies Beach, just south of its center. Many other uncrowded stretches can be found within a short drive, like Pamucak Beach. There are outstanding options in Dilek National Park, Cape Yilanci, and on Pigeon Island, you’ll find swimming beaches with a view across the bay to the city’s harbor. The small peninsula jutting out into the Aegean Sea also houses a Byzantine castle, Kusadasi’s top tourist attraction. Near the waterfront, the ‘downtown’ area offers many shops and an open-air bazaar with goods ranging from the usual type of souvenirs to Turkish rugs and fine jewelry. Nightlife is lively, with everything from cool jazz joints to Irish-themed bars.
Set along the Turquoise Coast, also known as the Turkish Riviera, Marmaris is one of the region’s most popular resort towns, located in southwest Turkey. History buffs, sun worshippers, and partiers enjoy its prime location, scenic beauty, and an “anything goes” kind of atmosphere. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, shops with fantastic bargains, and a high-tech club scene. Just opposite the bazaar, Bar Street is known for its massive outdoor dance venues. Families will find lots to do as well, from boat trips to water parks. Daily cruises can bring you along the mountainous shoreline, around the turquoise coves, and to a cave that can only be reached by water. Jeep safaris are yet another option, traveling into the mountains that surround Marmaris, visiting waterfalls, beaches, and villages. Visitors of all types are sure to appreciate relaxing at a traditional Turkish bath (hammam), many of which offer massages too.
Located along the Turquoise coast about four hours south of Izmir, Fethiye was once called Telmessos, one of the Lycian civilization’s most important cities. It’s a fabulous destination for beach and history lovers, with many gorgeous stretches of white sands as well as crumbling ruins from its ancient culture that dates all the way back to around 200 BC. You’ll find many monuments scattered throughout the city, but the most renowned is the Tomb of Amyntas just south. As you climb the hill towards the tomb, you’ll see Lycian sarcophagi along the way. The Romans also left their mark, with a 2nd-century BC theater that once sat 6,000 spectators an ideal place for a spectacular view across the town and out to the sea. Ölüdeniz, the most famous beach in all of Turkey is just over nine miles away, boasting calm turquoise water with white sands rimmed by a pine forest.
One of the best ancient sites in the world and one of the Roman Empire’s most important cities, visiting Ephesus is like traveling back in time to the grandeur of Rome. An archaeology showpiece, the incredibly well-preserved ruins were rediscovered in the late 19th-century and excavations have been ongoing ever since. You’ll see grooves in the marble-paved streets that were made by chariot wheels along with partially reconstructed monuments and buildings like the pillared façade of the Library of Celsus. At the theater where the Apostle Paul once spoke, you can test the acoustics for yourself. Strolling through and reflecting on this city that was once second only to Rome is a must for any visit to Turkey. Portable audio guides are available providing important insight as an inexpensive alternative to tourist guides, which are available in the parking lot, or you can join a tour from Izmir or Kusadasi.
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