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Turkey is a fascinating country with incredibly hospitable people, amazing cuisine, diverse landscapes and lots to see and do. But few people are truly aware of just how much it has to offer let alone exactly where to go, other than its most famous city of Istanbul. If you’re planning to visit Turkey consider some of these especially amazing places to visit for your itinerary.
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The town of Göreme lies in the region of Cappadocia, set among stunning “fairy chimney” rock formations. Hundreds of the astounding formations rise from the ground and are interspersed with the villages and homes. What makes them especially unique, its that some have been transformed into magnificently decorated churches, with homes and underground cities throughout the region. Göreme also houses some of the most stunning structures in a complex of churches and monasteries known as the Göreme Open Air Museum. This area is also renowned as the place to go for one of the most breathtaking hot air balloon rides in the world. If you go up, you can enjoy an amazing bird’s eye view of the landscape, or watching from the ground, you may see dozens of colorful hot air balloons fill the sky.
Located in northern Turkey, the small city of Amasya boasts one of the most dramatic settings in the world, sitting in a narrow valley along the Yeşilırmak river against a backdrop of jagged mountains. On one side of the water, there are dozens of classical Ottoman buildings accentuated with dark brown wood and ivory contrasts that jut above it, and above them, are sharp cliffs home to a castle and ancient tombs. While the other side of the river is more modern, it still has lots of character, with a river walk lined with bronze statues of famous people from Amasya’s history, as well as paddleboat eateries.
This is the very spot where one of the most famous tales of Turkish folklore was set, Ferhat and Sirin. A legend says that Ferhat was in love with Şirin, a beautiful princess, and dug tunnels underneath the mountains to bring water to her father’s palace so he could win his favor. When you step foot into this town, you’ll quickly see how this romantic tale could have taken place.
The little village of Uzungöl is situated on the edge of a beautiful lake with the same name, at the bottom of a lush, green valley in the mountains about an hour from the city of Trabzon. One of Turkey’s most unique places to visit, it’s a striking contrast from the typical image of the country that’s often seen as a solely coastal, Mediterranean nation. Here, you’ll see traditional Turkish homes among the Swiss-like views, as well as soaring minarets of a mosque. If you want to stay awhile, you’ll find a number of accommodations in the Uzungöl Highlands. If you can, try to be here in the early morning, when a soft mist envelops the surroundings creating an especially surreal sight.
Turkey’s largest and best-known city is, of course, a must-visit. It offers the chance to see some of the country’s most spectacular, well-preserved architecture and landscapes. Located along the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, there is a striking contrast between the bustling city and the tranquil blue waters. In this place where East meets West, culturally and geographically, you’ll enjoy experiences you can’t find anywhere else. Walk through the Grand Bazaar, taking in all of the sights and sounds of the local merchants haggling with locals and tourists, taste local cuisine and pick up authentic souvenirs. Be sure to take a Bosphorus cruise while you’re there to get a perspective of the city from the water, and possibly spot bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoise.
Izmir sits along the Aegean coast on a wide bay under a range of high hills. The big city has a long history and a wealth of things to see and do. Its large Konak Square features a 1901 clock tower and is considered the spiritual heart of the city, and arguably of modern Turkey, with the fight for independence in the wake of World War I beginning here. From the square, it’s just a short walk to the seaside promenade known as the Kordon, which is lined with cozy cafes, as well as the Konak Pier that was restored and transformed into a chic shopping center. Kadifekale, which translates to the Velvet Castle, is a must-see, and from the site, you can also enjoy an amazing panoramic view.
Nearby, the ruins of Ephesus includes a large Hellenistic theater as well as terraced houses with intact, ancient frescoes. The Celsus library is particularly admired – it was the third largest of the ancient world holding 12,000 scrolls and also the sarcophagus of the Roman senator Tiberius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus.
Side is a beautiful coastal city on the Mediterranean that not only offers impressive scenery but with a wealth of Roman and Hellenistic ruins, it’s a place not-to-be-missed for history buffs. The original Roman amphitheater is still located right in the heart of the town, contrasting with its modern houses, bars, and day-to-day bustle. The dramatic ruins of the Temple of Apollo are located near the shoreline and are especially stunning under the fiery glow of the sunset. Flanked by two stretches of golden sands and surrounded by the dazzling sea on both sides, just soaking up its beauty makes it worth visiting.
In the city of Sanliurfa, often referred to as Urfa by the locals, you’ll be able to marvel at many historic buildings that have connections with both Islamic and Christian tradition, though the general atmosphere and feel are quite Middle Eastern. You’ll see lots of traditional yellow stone and arched architecture along with locals in Middle Eastern dress. The town is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham by Muslims and Christians, and one of its most important attractions is the carp-filled fish pool know as Balikli Gol or the Pool of Abraham. This is believed to be the place where Nimrod threw Abraham into the fire, God changed the flames into the water and the wood into fish in order to protect him. Overall, Urfa is a surprising blend of the old and new, with Turkish, Arab and Kurdish peasants who come from the countryside to haggle in the traditional bazaar, while young techies hustle between offices and shops that line the modern downtown section.
The capital city of Ankara offers a wealth of attractions, enough to keep any visitor busy for at least a week. Just one of its highlights is the lavish Mausoleum of Atatürk. The extravagant memorial and tomb are important to the city as it was the revolutionary founder and first president of the new Republic, Atatürk, who designated Ankara as the nation’s new capital city. Wander the streets of the historical Old Quarter, with its narrow, twisting and turning lanes revealing thick fortified walls, old red-roofed Ottoman homes and cluttered shops, and while you’re in the area, be sure to visit the Ankara Citadel to take in impressive views of the city. It surrounds Old Ankara and is free to enter and explore. If the chaos of Ankara gets to be too much, visiting the Ottoman village of Beypazari on its outskirts will offer pleasant relief.
Kaş is a charming seaside village that is nestled at the foot of lush hills along the Mediterranean coast. It’s become a wildly popular tourist destination for its natural beauty, well preserved historic remains, outstanding diving opportunities and wonderfully relaxed pace. The cobbled streets are lined with whitewashed houses that have pretty details like wooden shutters and large amounts of pink bougainvillea. Its pebble beaches remain unspoiled despite their popularity, though the highlight here is considered to be under the water. Just offshore there is an incredible array of colorful fish, sea turtles and other marine creatures waiting to be discovered, along with several fascinating shipwreck sites.
Butterfly Valley is one of the world’s most extraordinary places. The “secret” cove on the Mediterranean coast is tucked between towering cliffs and is accessible only by boat, or an extreme trek that requires shimmying down a relatively steep, rocky incline on ropes that are already there in place. The valley is home to roughly 100 species of butterflies, including the endemic orange, black and white Jersey Tiger, and it becomes the insects’ breeding ground in late summer. A waterfall cascades from the 1,148-foot-high canyon wall, eventually becoming a gentle river, watering the lavender-flowered native chaste trees that are the butterflies’ natural habitat.
Safranbolu, located in Turkey’s Black Sea region, is a detour off the typical tourist route, but it’s well worth a visit. Its name is derived from saffron, a precious spice made from flowers native to the area. It also offers an extraordinary number of historic sites and well-preserved old homes, 17th-century mosques, Turkish baths and more than 1,000 historical artifacts, including tombs. Wander around the labyrinthine alleyways of Old Town, soaking up the atmosphere, and be sure to stop along the way to check out the many bazaars that are jam-packed with everything from textiles and leather to sweet treats and just about anything your heart desires. If you want to enjoy a beautiful view from above, make your way up Hidirlik Tepesi, the hill accessible from Old Town.
Van is famous for being home to Turkey’s largest lake, Van Lake, as well as its ruins of old Armenian churches. It sits in a green, fertile oasis amid rocky mountains in the country’s Eastern Anatolian region. In addition to the lake and church ruins, the ancient castles that stand guard over the hills and the Turkish Van cat are two of its other highlights. The rare breed of feline is distinguished by its “Van pattern,” where its color is found only on the head and the tail, while the rest of the cat is white, and often has different color eyes.
The Castle of Van is easy to reach between the city’s center and the lake, and from its perch at the top of the peak, you’ll enjoy a magnificent view of the highlands. You can also tour Cavustepe Castle, located just a few miles south of the city. Other not-to-be-missed attractions include the 10th-century Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the island of Akdamar.
This tiny jewel in the Aegean Sea managed to escape modernization, retaining the majority of its original architecture to offer a glimpse back in time. Bozcaada Island surrounded by Turkish grape vines; dotted with restored, whitewashed houses and filled with delectable Mediterranean-influenced food, in addition to boasting an impeccably preserved 15-century castle built on the ruins of several former palaces that dominates the island’s skyline. The island is known for its Turkish wines, offering the chance to taste the likes of Talay, Corvus and Çamlıbağ right in the city center. Rent a bike and explore Bozcaada’s natural beauty, including the charming winding streets lined with traditional seaside caves, and be sure to enjoy a break at one of the soft and sandy beaches that sit at the edge of the clear blue sea.
The Olu Deniz Beach area is a stunner. Its pristine sands fronted with a crystal blue sea eventually leads the way to the famous Blue Lagoon. The lagoon offers stunning crystal clear waters in hues of turquoise and aquamarine that make it ideal for swimming, diving, and a variety of water sports, or just gazing at it in awe. It’s also renowned for its paragliding opportunities, as one of the best spots on the planet for the sport due to its unique panoramic vistas and the exceptional height of Mount Babadag which stands at nearly 6,500 feet.
Konya is Turkey’s city of Whirling Dervishes and has been for 800 years. It’s steeped in history and is well known for its connection to Sufism and the great poet of Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervish order. Located right on the ancient Silk Road, it offers lots to see and do including the Mevlana Museum which shelters the tomb of Jalaluddin Rumi, who was known to his followers as Rumi or Mevlana and is considered to be one of the great spiritual thinkers and teachers of all time. Other must-sees include the 12th-century Alaadin Keykubat Mosque and the Ince Minare Mosque, as well as the Karatay Medrese, a former theological school that’s used today as a museum where Seljuk tiles are made.
Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia, is one of the prettiest cities in Turkey. The entire city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is remarkable for its many historic buildings that cascade down the hillside. At the top of the hill is the citadel, an old fortress transformed into a military zone which, despite being inaccessible to the general public, gives Mardin an especially impressive air. Ascent the alleys of the old city to get to as close as possible for an amazing view of the Mesopotamian plains lying below – but be aware that you should never to try to cross the heavily barbed wire, as locals say that would be suicide. The city also hosts several breathtaking mosques and churches, including the 12th-century Great Mosque with its towering minaret soaring above the winding streets, and the Deyruz-Zafaran monastery, one of the world’s oldest monasteries.
The UNESCO World Heritage site of Pamukkale was famous as a spa center during Roman times. Pamukkale literally means “cotton castle” in Turkish, and it can be found in the Denizli Province. The formation of the “castle” took place after a number of earthquakes and the emergence of hot springs rich with minerals. The calcium and hydrogen carbonate react to create calcium carbonate, or travertine, and limestone, which is what gives Pamukkale its whiteness and created the pools. The cotton castle can be accessed through a gate near Pamukkale, and the hike up takes about 30 minutes, offering numerous opportunities to soak in pools that are generally no more than a foot deep.
At the top of the Pamukkale travertines lies the ancient Roman city of Hierapolis. Once a large city, it was founded in the 2nd century BC and has a well-preserved Roman theater that could accommodate as many as 25,000 spectators. It’s in remarkable condition, so much so that it is even used today for theater performances, particularly during the Pamukkale festival. The town gates and main roads are remarkably preserved as well, and there are many preserved works of art representing ancient mythology. Hierapolis also features the Martyrium of St. Phillip, a pilgrimage site that is said to be the site where the apostle was martyred and buried. The church at the site is in ruins, but its foundations reveal an unusual octagonal plan.
Pigeon Valley, officially known as Güvercinlik, got its name from the many pigeon houses carved into the rocks and cliffs. The birds were important in Cappadocia as message carriers and were also used as food and for fertilizer. The stunning valley runs between the Goreme and Uchisar districts and is one of the longest valleys that reflect distinctive formations, drawing visitors in with its mystic ambiance. It’s an ideal destination for hiking among jaw-dropping landscapes.
Çatalhöyük was a very large Neolithic and Chalcolithic proto-city settlement that existed from about 7500 BC to 5700 BC and was at its peak around 7000 BC. It’s believed to be among the world’s oldest human communities, and as experts are still digging, what you’ll see can change dramatically from year-to-year. You can visit with an easy day trip from Konya; the site is open daily and there is no admission fee. Start with the museum, where you’ll see many artifacts from the site, and visit the recreated house near the site’s entrance. Once you explore these two buildings, you’ll be able to better appreciate the archaeological site itself, and the highly-skilled work the archaeologists are doing to uncover and visualize the past.
Pretty much everyone knows all about Troy, the legendary Trojan Horse, and the clever Greeks who used deception to enter and conquer, the up until then, unconquered city. Troy, also known as Truva or Troya, sits in what is now northwestern Turkey, made famous in Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad. According to the Iliad, this is the spot the famous Trojan War took place. Today, it’s a popular archaeology site, a Turkish national park, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Troy was rebuilt and destroyed nine different times, and remarkably, each of its nine layers has left something behind that can be seen today. While the site certainly doesn’t resemble the ancient city in any way, and it’s difficult to imagine what it might have looked like if you don’t have a tour guide, audio guides are available that will help to evoke visions of Troy during its peak.