The bustling city of Istanbul, the fantastic rocky shapes of Cappadocia, the ancient ruins of Ephesus, and the sparkling shores of the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea are Turkey’s biggest draws, but every region of the country has something something different to offer.
The diversity of landscapes, heritage and culinary culture will surprise those who are only waiting for mosques, beaches and kebabs. Even though Turkey is easy to get around, the country has too much to see and do to do it all in one trip. Since most domestic flights go through Istanbul, spend at least a few days in this vibrant global metropolis before heading to one of our other top places to visit in Turkey.
One of the biggest cities in the world, Istanbul should be on every traveller’s must-see list. Must-see sites such as the great Byzantine Basilica of Hagia Sophia and the opulent Topkapı Palace of the Ottoman Sultans bear witness to the city‘s centuries-old history as the capital of powerful empires. But also set aside time to discover Istanbul as it is today. Go to cafes or bars in the trendy Kadıköy district, stroll through the lanes of more conservative Fatih or browse contemporary art in Beyoğlu. Don’t forget the simple pleasure of drinking sandbank (tea) on the ferry while enjoying spectacular views of the city.
Cappadocia is a geological wonderland in central Turkey. The story of Anatolian early Christians comes to life at the Goreme Open Air Museum and other rock churches and underground cities scattered throughout the valley. Romance blooms in the area’s cozy cave hotels and restaurants, not to mention the hot air balloon rides at sunrise with a champagne toast. Adventure awaits amid lush green valleys and rolling rocks for hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners.
Yes, Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline between Fethiye and Antalya is full of beautiful places for a vacation in the sun, sea and sand, but it is also dotted with evidence of the ancient civilizations that once populated the region. The seaside ruins of Patara (which also has one of Turkey’s best beaches) and Phaselis are particularly picturesque, and the rock tombs of Myra are particularly impressive. The Antalya Museum offers a good overview of the history of the region. Explore by sea on a schooner cruise, walk along the Lycian Way hiking trail, or along scenic (but winding!) coastal roads.
Eastern Black Sea and Kaçkar Mountains
The choppy, cold waters of the Black Sea aren’t particularly appealing, but turn your gaze inland, where verdant valleys flow down to the coast from the high peaks, to see the allure of the region. . The lower elevations are home to most of Turkey’s tea and hazelnut production, while the highlands (yaylalar), like Pokut, which were once used as summer pastures for cattle, are becoming popular with tourists looking for scenic views and a taste of traditional Black Sea culture and cuisine. Higher up, the Kaçkar Mountains offer spectacular hikes in the summer for experienced hikers. Trabzon, home to the cliffside Sumela Monastery, is the region’s main hub for air transport.
The often overlooked Southeastern Anatolia region is one of Turkey’s cultural and culinary stars. The towns of Gaziantep and Antakya (Hatay) are renowned for their gastronomy, and both also have museums with incredible collections of Roman mosaics. The picturesque and well-preserved old town of Mardin is also an ideal base for exploring the surrounding monasteries and Roman ruins. The world’s oldest religious site, Göbeklitepe, is located just outside Şanlıurfa, which has its own archaeological museum and bazaar.
Datça and Bozburun peninsulas
Relaxing and getting back to nature is the order of the day on the remote Datça and Bozburun peninsulas in the southern Aegean Sea. Instead of the bustling nightlife of Bodrum and nearby Marmaris, you will find miles of spectacular rocky coastline, quaint rural villages and quiet little resorts and seaside towns. The Caries trail long-distance hiking trail encircles both peninsulas.
Turkey’s Far East
The vast landscapes of Turkey’s Far East have a distant roughness unmatched elsewhere in the country. Perhaps best known to travelers as the terminus of the Doğu Ekpresi (Eastern Express), a popular and scenic overnight train journey from Ankara, the border town of Kars retains striking architecture from its outpost years. Russian in the 1800s. Nearby are the vast and evocative ruins of Ani, an ancient Armenian capital, classified by Unesco.
A three-hour drive south will take you to the secluded İshak Paşa Palace, passing the legendary Mount Ararat (Ağrı Dağı) along the way. Continue to Van, where you can refuel with one of the city’s famous elaborate breakfasts before visiting the city’s beautiful museum and taking a day trip to Akdamar Kilisesi, a church and a masterfully decorated Armenian monastery on a small island in Lake Van.
Gallipoli and the North Aegean Sea
Cemeteries dedicated to tens of thousands of soldiers who died in bloody battles on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I are scattered around bucolic hills, all the more poignant amid such serenely beautiful landscapes. The region is also the gateway to Turkey’s northern Aegean coast, a more relaxed alternative to the Mediterranean where you can leisurely visit pleasant seaside towns like Ayvalık and Foça, the island vineyards of Bozcaada, the ancient city of Troy (with its new museum) and the spectacular acropolis of Bergama on top of a hill.
Named for the saffron which has been cultivated and traded here for centuries, Safranbolu is popular today with visitors who come to soak up its ancient Ottoman atmosphere. Many of the town’s historic half-timbered mansions have been restored and turned into the perfect boutique hotels, cafes and restaurants. If everything is starting to seem a little too cute to you, the canyons, waterfalls and woods of the nearby Yenice Forest are a natural tonic.
Pamukkale’s crisp white terraces are surely one of Turkey’s most photographed landmarks, incongruously sparkling above the rural town like freshly fallen snow. The hot mineral water that runs through them was the basis of the ancient spa town of Hierapolis, the vast remains of which stretch along the hill next to the famous travertines. Pamukkale also makes a good base for visiting other nearby ancient sites like Laodicea, Tripolis and – most notably – the magnificent ruins of Afrodisias with its impressive collection of Roman marble sculptures.