I moved to Europe over 10 years ago, and, before even setting foot on the continent, I already had my “must-visit” list ready. While I managed to check off most of my top picks in my first two years living in Spain, only recently was I able to tick off a destination that I had in my top three. The destination in question? Turkey.
Why Turkey? While completing my B.A. and M.A. in History, I learned about the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Istanbul was once Constantinople, as the song goes. My curriculum covered battles such as the Trojan War and Gallipoli. What do all of these eras and events have in common? The country now known as the Republic of Turkey. Surely, there would be a ton of varied and interesting art, architecture, and historical sites to see, and indeed there was.
I recently spent eight days in Turkey. Here is my day-by-day Turkey itinerary, which includes stops in Istanbul, Ankara, Cappadocia, Pamukkale, and Efeso.
Day 1: Istanbul
Istanbul is huge! I felt it was important to get my bearings before exploring specific parts of the city. What is the best way to get your bearings in a new city? A free tour, of course! Our tour guide was excellent and gave me a feel for the main sites in the Fatih neighbourhood, the tourist area of the city.
The tour allowed me to check off some sites that do not require paying an entry fee, all staples in a standard Turkey itinerary: The Blue Mosque (unfortunately, I was not able to enter because they were removing the scaffolding from recent renovations), Hagia Sophia (I entered on my way home in the evening as the line was shorter), the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the Obelisk of Thutmose III (3,500 years old!), the Walled Obelisk, and the Serpent Column.
After a quick lunch stop, I explored the Grand Bazaar (note: closed on Sundays). You could easily spend an entire day getting lost in the 60+ streets that the Grand Bazaar occupies. There is haggling to be done here, but you can find better deals outside the confines of the market, given that it is a tourist trap. Yet it’s still worth seeing and worth wandering through to get free samples of delicious Turkish delight (lokum) and baklava.
Next, I meandered through the streets of the more manageable Spice Market (also closed on Sundays). Here, allow your senses to take in the aromas of teas, spices, dried fruits, and more Turkish delight!
I crossed the Golden Horn Bridge and spent the evening exploring the streets of the Galata neighbourhood. Here you will find a lot of hipster coffee shops, (all on the more expensive end), and a ton of street art lining the walls of the buildings. I ended the first day of my Turkey itinerary with a wonderful seafood dinner at Balıkçı Kemal. The food was not only delicious, but also reasonably priced.
Day 2: Istanbul
I split my morning between two sites: the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace. The Basilica Cistern is an underground water tank built by the Romans, which dates back to the 6th century. It’s a remarkable place to visit because it looks more like a cathedral than a water tank. Worth seeing are the columns with the head of Medusa on their bases. Currently, the Basilica Cistern is used to display modern art. It was one of my favourite places in Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace was the Ottoman sultans’ primary residence from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The palace is immense, so give yourself lots of time (at least three hours) to get your money’s worth. The entry is not cheap and you have to pay extra to see the Harem, but it’s worth it to include a visit in your Turkey itinerary. A highlight is the lovely gardens. The tiles which line the walls of the interiors of the buildings are beautiful, and the visit will paint an accurate picture of how past Sultans actually lived.
Post lunch, I visited two mosques: Süleymaniye Mosque and Rüstem Pasha Mosque. Both lie closer to the Bosphorus River and are less crowded than Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Süleymaniye is at the top of the Third Hill of Istanbul, and offers great city views. Rüstem Pasha, in my opinion, was the prettiest of all the ones I visited on this trip. Its blue tiles are spectacular. I spent a good 30 minutes sitting on the rugs, contemplating its beauty.
Falafel Köy provided a cheap and delicious dinner after wandering up to Taksim Square and meandering through the streets of Galata once again. I returned to Fatih via the Galata Bridge – worth crossing to see all the fishermen fishing over the side.
Days 3 and 4 – Ankara and en route to Cappadocia
The trip from Istanbul to Ankara takes around five hours by bus, so if you want to make the most of your Turkey itinerary, it’s best to leave as early as possible.
I visited the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, which houses original prehistoric artifacts dating back to the Paleolithic era in the Anatolian lands. As I am a big fan of museums, I enjoyed the exhibits of gold, silver, glass, marble, and bronze objects. Personal favourites were the marriage and divorce contracts etched in stone.
Then, I was off to perhaps one of the most important sites in all of Turkey: The Mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. Arrive early to beat the crowds. Do make sure you stay for the changing of the guard; well worth seeing as the guards undergo a rigorous selection process.
Last, I stopped in Saratli, a subterranean city that served as a refuge for early Christians fleeing the brutality of the Romans. It has seven floors, but only three are open to the public. You can see how the early Christians lived (kitchen, toilets, bedrooms) and how they defended themselves when attacked (the doors had holes for shooting arrows through, and large rocks were used to trap the attacking Romans in tight tunnels where they later suffocated). It’s definitely an eerie and interesting place to wander.
Day 5 – Cappadocia
You must have seen the emblematic pictures of the sky filled with hot air balloons soaring over the rock-laden valleys of Cappadocia. I must say that besides getting lost in Istanbul, what I was most looking forward to during my Turkey itinerary was seeing this visual spectacle. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate. But, hot air balloons or not, Cappadocia didn’t disappoint.
The Göreme National Park is filled with stunning rock formations created by erosion. The rocks take the form of chimneys and, during the Middle Ages, were hollowed out and used as houses, churches, and underground cities. The churches still boast original, albeit restored, wall paintings. They are absolutely beautiful.
I continued with a visit to Uçhisar, a town known for its rock-carved horses, Paşabag, where you can get lost roaming through the most famous fairy chimneys in all of Turkey, and finally to the Valley of Derbent, where you will see camels, tigers, snakes, and even the Virgin Mary in the rock formations.
My day ended earlier than other days, so I could explore the town of Urgup, where I was staying. If you find yourself in Urgup, visit Suzan & Bülent Silversmith. All the pieces are one-of-a-kind, reasonably priced, and sized at the moment. The ring I bought is my favourite souvenir from this trip.
Day 6: Pamukkale
The journey from the Cappadocia region to the salt terraces of Pamukkale is long and tedious. 10+ hours on a bus. If you do not want to lose a day on the road, I suggest a night bus or flight to Izmir.
En route to the salt terraces, I stopped at Sultanhan Caravanserai. Caravanserais served as meeting points, inns, and trading points along the ancient Silk Road. This is one of the best-preserved ones in Turkey and provides insight into the lives of ancient merchants. It made a memorable stop for my Turkey itinerary.
I arrived in Pamukkale and enjoyed a walk through the thermal waters of the salt terraces (there is an area you are allowed to wade through). Adjacent to the terraces are some magnificent ancient ruins. The Hierapolis has one of the most intact amphitheaters I have ever seen, well worth the walk to the top of the hill.
Day 7: Ephesus
The UNESCO site of Ancient Ephesus is one of the most pristine sites in all of Turkey. It was the second-largest city in the Roman Empire. An important Greek city, it served as a trading point in the Mediterranean region. Moreover, the city has connections to Christianity. It is said that the apostle Paul lived and preached there.
I strolled through the old ruins, visiting the Temple of Artemis, the Temple of Hadrian, the public baths, and the immense and impressive theatre. In ancient times, gladiators fought for their lives inside its walls. The most spectacular of the ruins was the Library of Celsus. It towers above the rest and was the third-largest library in the world in ancient times. Also of interest are many of the carvings found on the stones: one resembles the modern Bayer company logo, and another is of the goddess Nike, said to be the inspiration for the Nike swoosh.
Day 8: Istanbul
I spent the last half day of my Turkey itinerary in Istanbul just “being” in the city and eating traditional Turkish goodies. I ate lokma, which is like a donut, fried on the outside, soft on the inside, and coated with sugary syrup, on the pier by the Bosphorus River. The donut distracted me from my original culinary goal, balik ekmek. This fish sandwich doesn’t look like much but is quite tasty. You can grab one from any of the stands along the river. It is a grilled mackerel filet in a bun with onions, lettuce, tomatoes, and a spritz of lemon. Don´t leave Istanbul without trying one.
My evening (and Turkey itinerary) ended in a restaurant I had spotted on my second day in the city. While wandering the streets of the Galata/Karaköy district, the facade of an establishment riddled with post-it notes caught my eye. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that each note contained a thank you from many satisfied customers. It was a kebab restaurant called Bilice. Both the service and the food were excellent. The large lamb kebab plate I devoured was my favourite meal of the entire trip!
It would be easy to spend months in Turkey. There is something for everyone. From the bustling markets and big city vibes of Istanbul, to historical ruins along the ancient Silk Road, to the breathtaking and unique landscapes of Cappadocia, and the delicious and varied cuisine, Turkey is sure not to disappoint. I could only scratch the surface on my 8-day adventure, but I really hope it won’t take me another 10 years to make it back.