The Best of Turkey: Where to Go and What to See
To see the best of Turkey is to explore a country with a rich cultural heritage drawn from many influences over the centuries. It is to discover a rich timeline through many ruined cities and ancient landmarks. Whether you sign up for a tour with an official guide or just go independent, one thing is for certain and that is it will not disappoint you. Turkey has this uncanny knack of captivating all who set foot in the country.
Many holidaymakers become lifelong fans often returning year after year to learn more about places, food, the culture, and Turkish people. As the world’s 37th largest country, Turkey presents many places to visit. From the Kackar mountains rolling plateaux to the southern coast’s sandy beaches, it would take a lifetime to explore them all. So, in this article, we present the most popular places as ranked by visitor stats.
Best of Turkey: 5 Places to Visit
1: Istanbul: The Turkish King
Even though it is not the ruling capital, Istanbul stands tall and proud as Turkey’s hub for everything and anything including education, business, the economy, health, tourism, and travel. Every year, millions of people descend on Istanbul to discover many attractions and landmarks of historical and cultural importance.
Most start in Sultanahmet, former ruling district of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Here they tour well-known landmarks like the 17th century Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest domed building and Topkapi Palace from where Ottomans sultans lived and ruled over their lands.
Head over the new part, otherwise known as the Taksim and Beyoglu districts, and you will tap into Turkey’s best shopping and nightlife scene. Other attractions around here include Flower Passage, French Street, and serene Saint Anthony of Padua Church. Head further down towards the Galata district to visit the whirling dervish museum and take in an encompassing 360-degree view of Istanbul from the top of Galata Tower.
One unique way to explore Istanbul is from a Bosphorus ferry tour. Many sign up for dinner and live entertainment cruises but budget holidaymakers can buy a cheap ferry ticket from the Eminonu docks to cruise past small villages, expensive yali mansions and old Ottoman palaces.
2: Cappadocia in Central Anatolian Turkey
The central Anatolian region is unlike anywhere else in Turkey. A lunar-like landscape and fairy chimneys formed by thousands of years of wind erosion captivate and wow everyone from first sight. The main theme is to stay in an authentic cave hotel carved from the tufa rock and see ancient cave churches and monasteries of Goreme Open-Air Museum that hold fantastic 14th to 16th-century Biblical frescoes.
The second most popular attraction in Cappadocia is to wake up early and take a sunrise hot-air balloon tour to view weird landscape formations from a bird's-eye view. Although tickets are pricey, it is that once in a lifetime bucket experience.
From up high to down below, underground cities in Cappadocia run into the hundreds but the best one is Derinkuyu. Carved hundreds of years ago, by locals to protect themselves against invading forces, people used to live in them for months.
Derinkuyu stretching for many stories underground includes a chapel, food storage areas, animal quarters, bedrooms, school, and a place to lay the dead. If time allows, also visit Ihlara valley, the pottery making town of Avanos, the winemaking Urgup region, and Uchisar Castle, the highest point from which to look out over the marvellous landscape.
3: Ephesus: Best Ancient City
Hosting 14 million visitors a year, to visit Turkey and not see Ephesus is the equivalent of not seeing the Eiffel tower while in Paris. People adore Ephesus because had it continued its path of success, it would have rivalled even Rome itself. Its demise started when the sea edged away diminishing its importance as an Aegean trading port but it was also an important part of Christianity.
Saint John, Saint Paul, and the Virgin Mary all spent time here, and the famous Artemis riots took place in the large theatre. Other landmark buildings to tour include the Celsius library, once the ancient world’s third-largest, old roman houses, temples, agora street, and public latrines, where slaves used to warm up the seats for their owners.
While many visit Ephesus, then leave, we recommend spending at least two nights in Selcuk to see other main attractions like Saint John’s basilica, the Artemis Temple, one of seven wonders of the ancient world, and the Virgin Mary house, where she spent her last days. Although not verified, the Catholic Church runs it and many pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim make the journey every year.
4: Pamukkale and Hierapolis
Turkey’s many landmarks of natural beauty include the UNESCO World Heritage Pamukkale. Nicknamed the white cotton castle because of its appearance tumbling down the hillside, the water pools are formed by solidified calcium.
Throughout centuries, locals used the healing spa waters hence Hierapolis ancient ruined city sits next to them. Archaeologists completed much excavation and uncovered many landmarks including the ruined theatre and its marvellous front facade.
You need a full day to explore the pools and Hierapolis but two other places to visit include the museum holding many uncovered artefacts and Cleopatra’s pool. Get your swim costume ready for this one because the theme is to swim in spa waters covering fallen columns from Hierapolis. Both require an additional entrance fee but are worth it.
5: Antalya Region: Beachside Haven
The Antalya region, Turkey’s second most popular holiday destination that hosts millions of visitors every year comprises the main centre and smaller coastal holiday resorts. It boasts of being home to Turkey’s best beaches including Kaputas, Cleopatra, Lara and Konyaalti but there are lots more to do.
If time is short, stick to the main centre to explore sites like Kaleici, the old town of which the ancient Hadrian’s gate marks the entrance. Duden waterfalls are the main landmark of natural beauty but also visit Antalya Museum, one of Turkey’s best and Antalya aquarium, which is the world’s biggest tunnel.
However, if you have a week to spare, hire a car and complete a mini road trip to take in other sites like Aspendos, Phaselis ruined city and beaches, Mount Tahtali cable car and Myra, home to the church of Saint Nicholas who these days is better known as Santa Claus.
Also of Interest
While you are seeing the best of Turkey, these useful apps for travelling will help you, whether its language translation, figuring out money, transport links, or keeping in touch with loved ones back home.
This list of UNESCO sites in Turkey also makes a great bucket list. See them all on a whirlwind tour including Mount Nemrut heads, Bursa, Hattusa, the Hittite capital, and Troy famous archaeological ruins, one of the ancient world’s most famous cities.