With an unimaginable magnitude of cultural diversity, Turkey is a land of stark contradictions with its imposing Ottoman and Byzantine structures on one side and glittering swanky nightclubs on the other. The wonderland where East meets West, Turkey is truly blessed with the stunning natural landscape, mountain ranges, beautiful valleys and the gorgeous coastline. Not to forget, the lip-smacking local cuisine and warm, friendly locals eager to host a visitor in their country. Between the sounds of hawkers calling their wares in colourful bazaars in the alleys and calls-to-prayer from city mosques rising above the city—Turkey will steal your heart with it old world charm. Bridge between Asia and Europe, Turkey is surrounded by eight nations, separating the two continents by the Turkish Straits (Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara, and Dardanelles). One of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world, Turkey has both modern and ancient elements at its best, making it arguably a unique travel destination under the sun.
With 16 UNESCO listed world heritage sites into its lap, the crossroad of civilizations and distinct cultures—Turkey— has antiquity at every nook and corner but the pulse of this amazing country lies in its largest city —Istanbul. The magnificent transcontinental city in Eurasia Istanbul hosts approximately 14 million foreign visitors every year and is regarded as the European Capital of Culture, making this vibrant city fifth-most-popular tourist destination in the world. A trip to Turkey can easily be categorized into two—Istanbul on one side and the rest of Turkey on the other. If you have been wondering about the places to see in Turkey and what to visit in Istanbul, here’s a Turkey Travel Guide to some must-see places in a country that can take even the most experienced of travellers by surprise.
What to visit in Istanbul?
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia)
Constructed in 537, Aya Sofya was a church converted into an imperial mosque, which currently is a museum. Aya Sofya in Istanbul is not just of an embodiment of the innovative architecture and a place of great historical and religious importance but is extraordinarily beautiful too.
The Blue Mosque
Attributing its nickname as the Blue Mosque to the blue tiles adorning its walls, Sultan Ahmed Mosque is a magnificent structure creating a perfect photo opportunity for photography enthusiasts. The mosque with splendid interiors also has Pope Benedict XVI as a visitor making it a historical event in itself. It was only the second papal visit to a Muslim place of worship in history.
Travel Tip:Beware of random people approaching you as guides at the Blue Mosque. They will heckle you for an unreasonable fee at the end of the tour. It’s a guide scam.
Once the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans, Topkapı palace has fascinating stories buried under its regal roof. Ridiculously rich and lustful sultans, heartbreakingly beautiful and ambitious concubines and devious eunuchs, all lived in this very palace for almost 400 years. Peep into the lives of its occupants through palace’s magnificent pavilions, the sprawling Harem and the treasury full of jewels. You can’t miss visiting Topkapı Palace on your trip to Turkey or Istanbul in particular. The palace is also one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
Kariye Museum (Chora Church):
One of the most stunning and the finest surviving example of Byzantine church, Kariye Museum was converted into a mosque before finally declaring it open as a museum. Famed for the fascinating mosaic works and frescoes, Kariye Museum or Chora church is one of the most popular tourist sights in Istanbul.
The largest mosque in Istanbul and city’s most famous landmark, Süleymaniye mosque is not just a popular tourist site but it’s a unique experience of city’s opulent and golden era. Designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famed of all imperial architects, Süleymaniye mosque is one of the grandest and most beautiful heritage structures in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar
After you are done exploring the heritage of the city, head to the Grand Bazaar to feel the pulsating nerves of Istanbul. Located at the heart of the Old city, this many centuries old magnetic, chaotic yet extremely vibrant bazaar was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461. Not just an amazing market place to find some of the most enticing things, the bedesten with warren laneways is an experience to remember. You can also watch the artisans crafting their masterpieces in the narrow, hidden alleys of the Grand Bazaar.
Travel Tip: Don’t rush to buy something at the first sight. Take a look around, compare prices and don’t forget to bargain. It’s obligatory to drink lots of tea offered by shopkeepers and vendors.
Visiting a Hamam
Visiting Turkey or Istanbul and not visiting a Hamam is simply unimaginable. Indulge in the relaxing experience of the Turkish version of Roman or Sauna bath with a message. In Istanbul, you can find at least one historical hamam in each neighbourhood.
Travel Tip: Make sure you check the cleanliness of the hamam before entering one, it can vary from one to another.
Some more places to see in Turkey:
Apart from Istanbul’s historical gems and eclectic bazaars, here are some more must-visit sights in the rest of Turkey.
Ishak Pasa Sarayı
A rare example of finely erected Turkish palaces, Ishak Pasha Palace is located in Ağrı province of eastern Turkey, just across the Silk Route. This architectural marvel is one of the most symbolic structures of Turkish history and rich heritage.
Orthodox Monastery of Sumela
One of the popular tourist attractions in Turkey, Monastery of Sumela is located at Trabzon Province in modern Turkey. Dramatic in its appearance, built on the steep cliff of the Pontic Mountains, the Byzantine monastery has a great cultural and historical significance.
Famous around the world as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—the Temple of Artemist—Ephesus is an ancient Greek city, now in Izmir Province of Turkey. The Roman ruins in this ancient city are simply not to be missed in Turkey.
An outlandish mountain-top in south-eastern Turkey, Nemrut Dagı was once the royal tomb. A large number of statues and faces erected on this mountain top is a sight you will never forget, nor will you see anywhere else in the world. The tomb from the 1st century BC is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Roman Theatre at Aspendos
Mesmerizing and grand, the Roman theatre at the ancient Greco-Roman city of Aspendos is located in the Antalya province of Turkey. One of the largest and best preserved Classical theatre in Turkey is famous for an opera and ballet festival every summer.
Picturesque Kaçkar Dagları is a mountain range standing tall and raising above the Black Sea with lakes and jagged peaks creating an exquisite panorama. The gorgeous granite mountain range is also Turkey’s premier trekking, hiking, mountaineering and heliskiing site.
Turkey is not only about cultural and historical heritage, it is also a country blessed with the most amazing coastlines along the Mediterranean and Aegean sea. And out of all it’s sun-kissed beaches, 18-km long Patara beach is one of Turkey’s best aquatic escapes.
Entertainment: Istanbul has a fairly exciting night life with nightclubs all over the city. District of Beyoğlu is the most (in)famous for its Live music, bars and cafes. If your trip not just restricted to Itanbul, don’t miss the hot-air ballooning experience over Cappadocia, whereas in Istanbul, don’t miss the Tophane Nargile Cafes tucked behind the Nusretiye Mosque. It is the best place for tea, nargile (hookah) and snacks.
Food: Turkish food is a scrumptious blend of Mediterranean, Caucasian, Arabic and Central Asian cuisines. Rich and spicy, the best of local cuisine are often served in small eateries. There are plenty restaurants in Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. However, the most expensive restaurant doesn’t really guarantee the best food as well. Try small doner restaurants at the Istiklal Street in Istanbul for the best food experience. Beef is the main meat and rice is a staple in Turkey. Balık-Ekmek (Fish and bread sandwich), Hamsi (fish) and Patso (a sandwich of hotdog and French fries) are must-try local food items. Turkish coffee is famed all over the world for its taste and rich aroma. Turkey’s sweetest gift to the world Baklava is not just a dessert but a treat for your taste-buds.
Travel Tip: Don’t get hassled by the over enthusiastic staff standing outside their restaurant pestering you to get inside. For street food, check prices first. It the items are overly priced, just walk up to another stall.
Transport: All major cities of Turkey are well connected by airlines. However, buses and trains are less expensive options to move from one city to another in Turkey. Buses are faster than trains. For local commute, taxis, minibuses (dolmuş) or renting a car are preferred options. Cycling is not a great choice to commute locally in Turkey as there are hardly any cycling lanes. Walking around is one of the best options to explore the neighbourhood. Ferry is one of the common modes of transport too. Try not to hitchhike in Turkey.
Be careful of the taxi scam in Istanbul. You may be taken for the longest ride of your life to keep the meter running. The meter can also be tampered by the driver. Sit in the front seat and be watchful of the driver’s actions to avoid getting tricked. Don’t keep your luggage in the taxi boot and if possible know the routes at least theoretically (names) before hopping onto a taxi.
Where to stay: All major Turkish cities, including Istanbul has various staying options available from five-star hotels to youth hostels. However, the prices may greatly vary. There are also guesthouses and camping options with reasonable charges. In Istanbul, the European side has some great staying options in Sultanahmet, Taksim and Harbiye.
Things to remember:
Turkey is predominantly a Muslim country, therefore don’t make any comments on veiled women or traditionally dressed men. Respect their culture. Be conservative in your dressing and don’t offer to shake hands to a local woman unless initiated by her. Maintain a physical distance with men and women both. Cover your head and dress appropriately (fully covered) while visiting a mosque.
Beware of Scams: Although, Istanbul is one of the most wonderful places to visit, it is also notorious for various scams. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘Friendly’ group of young men and women inviting you to a great nightclub they happen to know. It’s a scam and they are trying to find someone to pay exorbitant bills for almost nothing. The women travellers must be very cautious of stalking locals. Beware of the over-friendly shopkeeper, guide, or someone who may look like a foreign traveller too. Never disclose to any local where you are staying in Istanbul. And then comes the mother of all scams—the Shoe Brush Scam in which the shoe brush will be dropped purposely and when you will inform the local about it, he will insist on polishing your shoes. You say yes and you are the latest victim. Be ready to pay the hefty price for the simple polishing of your shoes. Just be a little attentive to avoid any scam for a vacation to remember—for the right reasons.