It’s cliché to say but Turkey really is a gorgeous country. From the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul to the ancient underground labyrinths of Cappadocia, Turkey has it all. To say Turkey’s history is rich is like saying the Marianas Trench is a bit deep. Its roots stretch all the way back to Mesopotamia and extend through to the Romans, the Byzantines and of course the Ottomans. This history is reflected through its army of culturally significant cities that dot the landscape. With history comes a beauty that flows like the waters of the river Kizilirmak. So join me on a journey to Eurasia as I show you ten of the most beautiful Turkish cities that have to be seen to be believed!
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Istanbul – Continental Crossover
Starting with where East meets West, the megacity of Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus. This city rose from humble beginnings to become the capital of three great empires (via a few name changes).
There is a staggering number of sites to see here but you can’t go wrong with a trip to the Hagia Sophia. I could describe it in great detail but all I’m going to say is that there’s a reason this Byzantine marvel has been referred to as the 8th wonder of the world.
If royal palaces are more your thing then luckily for you Istanbul contains two former residences of the Sultan. Topkapi Palace represents a more traditional Ottoman affair with a Haram and a Divan. Meanwhile, the more modern Dolmabahce Palace showcases a more western style of opulence.
If you have a head for heights, then Istanbul is happy to provide with a duopoly of towers. The 12th century Galata tower gives you a spectacular panoramic view of the eponymous district. The Maidens tower might be much smaller, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in its enchanting, isolated location in the Bosphorus.
Top Tip: For a more comprehensive look at what Istanbul has to offer check out this list!
Hagia Sophia: Daily 9am-7pm (closes 5pm in winter)
Maidens Tower: Daily 9am-7pm
Topkapi Palace: Wednesday to Monday 9am-5pm
Galata tower: Daily 9am-7pm
Dolmabahce Place: Tuesday to Sunday 9am-4pm
Bodrum – Beach Beauty
One for the thalassophiles of this world, Bodrum is a beach paradise. Situated on the county’s west coast, Bodrum certainly makes the most of its Aegean location. The nearby Bitez Beach is the closest thing to utopia this side of the Taurus mountains. Golden sands and turquoise waters await here, let your troubles float away in the warm waters of the Aegean.
After you’ve finished soaking up the sun, you may be interested to check out the numerous archaeological sites that surround the area. The Museum of Underwater Archaeology is home to priceless treasures sourced from the wreckages of ill-fated ships around the Aegean. In terms of sites in a more ‘natural habitat’, the Mausoleum and Theatre of Halicarnassus will make the day of any classicist.
Top Tip: If Medieval history is more your thing, then don’t miss out on a trip to the Castle of St Peter.
Museum of Underwater Archaeology: Tuesday to Sunday 9am-4:30pm
Mausoleum of Halicarnassus: Tuesday to Sunday 8am-5pm
Theatre of Halicarnassus: Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am-7pm (closes 5:30pm from 1st October to 1st April)
Derinkuyu – Subterranean City
The crown of the Cappadocia region in the East. Unlike the other cities in the list Derinkuyu isn’t packed with landmarks but it does have something very unique that more then compensates. An underground city!
Cappadocia is home to over 36 of these cities (with an estimated 160 more that have yet to be discovered) but it is the one found in Derinkuyu that is the most extraordinary. It is the deepest in the country and its size is such that it held over 20,000 inhabitants in its prime.
Though it’s origins are shrouded in mystery it is thought that Derinkuyu was built around 8BC by the Phrygians. Throughout the century’s it served as a subterranean safe haven until finally being abandoned in the 1920s. It was discovered by accident by a resident, who while doing DIY in 1963, tore down his basement wall only to meet face to face with the ancient metropolis.
Top Tip: If your claustrophobic you might want to skip this one!
Derinkuyu underground city: Daily 8am-7pm (closes 5pm in winter)
Ankara – Culture In The Capital
Ankara is unusual in that it’s a capital city that often finds itself overlooked by tourists who would rather spend time with its cool younger brother, Istanbul. This is a crying shame because Ankara can more than hold its own.
If you wish to understand modern Turkey, then you must understand its founding father. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Atatürk is a comparable figure to the likes of George Washington or Simon Bolivar in terms of his continued role in the nations psyche. It’s no surprise therefore that his mausoleum, known as the Anıtkabir, is so grand in scale. As you enter this tomb fit for a God note the mosaics inside that chart the history of Anatolia from the Hittites to the Ottomans.
After you’ve paid your respects to the father of the Turks you should unwind with a stroll through the gorgeous Gençlik Park. This 275,000 m/s open space contains inviting pools, luscious green space, ornate fountains, and even an amusement park.
Top Tip: Visit Gençlik Park at night to enjoy the luminous displays at the pools.
Anıtkabir: Daily 9am-5pm (closes at 4pm in winter)
Gençlik Park: Daily 24 hours
Antalya- The Classics
Located on Turkeys south coast, Antalya watches over the Mediterranean like a hawk. If you enjoyed the beaches and archaeological heritage of Bodrum, then Antalya has all of those plus cable cars that ascend 1,700 meters! How does the saying go? The only certainties in life are death, taxes, and cable cars making everything better. That sounds about right to me.
After you’ve finished surveying the city from your perch atop Tünektepe, it’s time to see some sights! The Antalya Archaeological Museum should be your next port of call. Its exhibits span the length of human history, but as you would expect for an Anatolian city there is a strong focus on the Greeks, Byzantines and Ottomans.
A trip to the Eastern edge of the city to the ancient Greek ruins of Perga is also a must. This classicist paradise encompasses a necropolis, an agora, and Roman baths among other things. One of the best things about Perga is that new finds are constantly excavated. So, don’t be surprised if in a few years yet more priceless treasures are unearthed.
Top Tip: If it’s natural beauty you’re after then a trip to the nearby Duden Waterfalls is well worth your time.
Archaeological Museum: 9am-6:30pm (April to October), 8am-5pm (November to March)
Perga: Daily 8:30am-5pm
Bursa – Silk Road
In a city full of Mosques, it really says something when one can stand out. Fortunately, the Grand Mosque of Bursa does just that. This Seljuk inspired place of worship is a 600-year-old work of art. Its importance reflecting that of the 1st capital of the Ottoman empire. The attention to detail here matches, and even outdoes that of the Hagia Sophia in some cases. Its Minbar, for example, is made up of exactly 6,666 slotted together pieces of walnut wood. No nails or plaster here, just good old-fashioned geometry. To put the cherry on top of this Islamic cake, the number of pieces involved is supposed to represent the number of verses in the Quran.
As an important stop on the ancient trading route known as the silk road it’s unsurprising that the silk industry is a celebrated one in Bursa. This is echoed by the presence of both the Living Museum of Umurbey Silk Production and the Silk House. The former is an interactive experience that teaches you about the art of silk production. The latter meanwhile is a mind-blowingly beautiful shop that sells the best made handicrafts in the city. Truly this is the only place you need to go for souvenirs.
Top Tip: If the Grand Mosque wasn’t enough Islamic beauty for you then check out the Green Mosque as well.
Grand Mosque: Daily, dawn till late evening
Trabzon – Black Sea Base
The port city of Trabzon is based contentedly south-east of the Black Sea. Or to give it its other name, the Mediterranean, for people who drink IPA’s. Like Bursa, Trabzon was also a vital cog on the silk road. This coupled with its coastal location made it the most important city in the Black Sea region south of Crimea!
The definition of a melting pot, Trabzon’s role in trade has meant that people of all religions and nationality have inhabited the city for thousands of years. As expected in an old Anatolian city there are numerous sites of significance. Trabzon’s Byzantine castle is the obvious highlight within the city limits.
If you are willing to travel just half an hour away however you will become acquainted with the remarkable Sumela Monastery. This late Roman construction is tucked precariously onto a cliff ledge and is one of the most unique monasteries in the world precisely because of this!
Top Tip: Trabzon has its very own Hagia Sophia, although it doesn’t look much like its Istanbul counterpart it’s still well worth a look.
Trabzon Castle: Daily 24 hours
Sumela Monastery: Daily 8am-7pm (closes 5pm in the winter)
Sanliurfa – Sacred Ground
Also known as Urfa, this south-eastern city is home to important religious sites, not just for Islam but for humanity. This is because just outside the city lies Gobeklitepe, thought to be the worlds oldest religious temple. At 12,000 years old Gobeklitepe makes the various Greek and Roman ruins in the other cities on the list look futuristic by comparison. It is not an exaggeration to say the discovery of Gobekitepe in the 1990s was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in human history.
But what is there to do in Sanliurfa, I hear you ask. Well, how about a visit to the Dergah complex. This sprawling site is home to two places of great religious significance. The first is the Mevlid-I Halil Cave, better known as the alleged birthplace of the prophet Abraham. The second is the elegant Mevlid-I Hail Mosque where Muslim pilgrims congregate to seek blessings before the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Top Tip: Remember to feed the sacred carp if you pass by Halil-ur-Rahman Mosque.
Gobeklitepe: Daily 10am-4pm (closes 5pm on the weekends)
Izmir – 7 Wonders
Let’s double back to the Aegean coast for our penultimate entry. The picturesque city of Izmir is home to the charming Kemaralti Market. A fixture of the city since the 1600s, this bazaar is well worth a browse if you want to pick up some delightful local crafts.
If Kemaralti is too modern of a market for you then you might prefer the ruins of the Izmir Agora. Located in the heart of the city this ancient Greek marketplace will make you feel more like Herodotus then a typical tourist.
Once you’ve explored Izmir to the fullest you have to take a day trip to the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. This former member of the Ionian League contains some of the best-preserved classical buildings outside of Italy. The Roman theatre and Library of Celsus are two highlights but the whole area is worth exploring in depth. Finally, look out for a singular inconspicuous column. For it was here that the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood.
Top Tip: Don’t worry if you don’t have a watch, Izmir’s iconic clock tower provides!
Kemaralti Market: Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm (times vary on Sunday)
Izmir Agora: 8:30am-7pm
Ephesus: Different sections are open at different times. Click here for the timetable
Göreme – Natural Wonderland
If you prefer natural wonders to manmade ones, then Göreme is the place for you. To start with the nearby national park is home to the otherworldly fairy chimneys. These mystical rock formations are the direct result of volcanic eruptions and erosion. They look like the result of mother nature becoming briefly possessed by the spirit of Salvador Dali.
To emphasise how important the caves were to the history of Göreme all you must do is look around. Churches, houses and even a fortress have all been built into the surrounding caves, seamlessly blending the natural and artificial worlds.
To top it all off if you decide to stay the night (and why wouldn’t you?) you can book accommodation inside the caves! Trust me, you’ll never stay in a place like this again.
Top Tip: Book yourself a hot air balloon ride for a truly unforgettable experience.
Göreme National Park: Daily 8am-8pm
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