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Two Weeks in Turkey Isn’t Enough

Turkey—where Europe meets the Middle East—deserves a high position on your list of places to visit. A vibrant Western country with many stories to tell, it has a long and rich history and a diverse landscape that embraces pristine beaches and the honeycombed hills of Cappadocia. 

Now is a good time to go. Tourism declined a few years ago, following violence along the southeastern border, but it’s again on the rise—up 30 percent from 2017 to last year. With the first phase of Istanbul’s new airport having opened in 2018 and nonstop flights available to that city from several points in the U.S., Canada, and England, travel to Turkey is relatively easy. 

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Before making the journey, though, do your homework: study the country’s history and hire a reputable guide. With so much to see, you’ll need to make many decisions about what to prioritize. 

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Tourism has declined substantially since the country’s 2011 revolution, but those who do visit find warm welcomes and a rich history.

Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey with a population of 15 million, is the obvious place to begin. It is divided by the Bosphorus Strait, which also serves as the border between Europe and Asia. The narrow strait connects the Black Sea and Marmara Sea. 

The Hippodrome in the oldest part of the city dates to third century Byzantium. Here, chariot races were held along a U-shaped track. When Constantine the Great moved the government from Rome to Byzantium, he put his mark on the Hippodrome by expanding it to accommodate 100,000 spectators. 

Surviving monuments are located in what was the middle barrier of the racecourse. Constantine and his successors brought works of art from all over the Roman Empire to adorn the newly named Constantinople (now Istanbul). Monuments here include the Serpent Column, which dates from the fifth century B.C., and a pink granite Egyptian obelisk, from the 15thcentury B.C.

Don’t miss the Hippodrome, which is part of Sultan Ahmet Square. The Square also includes Hagia Sophia museum and Basilica Cistern which, along with Topkapi Palace and Suleymaniye Mosque, make up Istanbul’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sultan Ahmet Mosque is also in the square. The square, museum, and mosque are framed by a beautifully landscaped park that tourists and locals frequent. 

Grand bazaar shops in Istanbul. Photo Adobe Stock
Grand bazaar shops in Istanbul. Photo Adobe Stock

Be sure to visit one or more of Istanbul’s bazaars. The Grand Bazaar, which dates from the 15th century, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 4,000 shops. Between 250,000 and 400,000 people visit it every day. Another bazaar—this one covering 384 city blocks—is the Spice Market. Mounds of paprika, saffron, cumin, leaf pepper, and curry line the fronts of stalls, inviting you to stop and shop. In addition to spices, you can buy cheese, tea, candy, and souvenirs.

If you enjoy nightlife, you’ll love the Beyoglu district, which has everything from rooftop bars and dance clubs to basement jazz cafes. This is a great area to visit in the daytime, too. Located on the north bank of the Golden Horn, it has a pedestrian mall, coffee shops, and restaurants. 

Cappadocia is about an hour east of Istanbul by air. It is known for its natural beauty and interesting human history. Wind- and rain-carved tuff spewed from ancient volcanoes into gorges and pinnacles, creating the region’s unusual appearance. When early settlers realized they could chisel the volcanic rock, they made cave-like structures that served as houses, storerooms, stables, and churches. Many are still in use. 

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Photo Adobe Stock

At the Goreme Open-Air Museum, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’ll find a vast collection of churches, chapels, and housing that monks inhabited a thousand years ago. Because sunlight and rain didn’t penetrate some of the sanctuaries, many of the frescoes portraying Christ and religious saints that decorate the caves remain brightly colored. The only damage is from the vandals who marred the frescoes before the site was protected.

At Kaymakli, one of Cappadocia’s underground cities, you’ll encounter tourists crowded into limited space; this attraction isn’t for the claustrophobic. First carved out in the eighth to seventh centuries B.C., these cities were expanded by Christians to hide from Romans and later Turks persecuting them. They stayed underground for days or weeks, until it was safe to surface. 

The cities were used until the beginning of the last century to escape waves of Ottoman persecution. Tunnels branch off into living spaces, storage areas, wineries, and kitchens. Tunnels that are only about four feet high and narrow connect many rooms. 

Columns in ancient Troy. Right, near Goreme at sunset. Photo Adobe Stock
Columns in ancient Troy. Right, near Goreme at sunset. Photo Adobe Stock

Tell your guide you want to visit a few villages and explore other attractions in the area, including the fairy chimneys, pigeon valley, and Red Valley, a popular sunset location where it’s a party every night.

The highlight of any trip to Cappadocia is a hot-air-balloon excursion. Every day, more than 100 colorful balloons paint the sky just before sunrise and sail over villages cut from the rock and natural formations. If you don’t take a flight, at least watch one morning from your hotel window.

Although Canakkale is a vacation destination for Turks, it is relatively unknown to foreigners. Located four hours west of Istanbul by car, Canakkale is a city of just under 200,000. It is on the Dardanelles strait connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. The city is the gateway to Troy, Gallipoli, and Aegean Sea islands.

Dating back more than 5,000 years and serving as a key influence on Homer’s Iliad, Troy is among the world’s best-known archeological locations and one of the most mysterious. This is the site of theIliad’s Trojan War and famous Trojan horse. 

When the Greeks launched a thousand ships to recapture Helen of Troy, their destination was present-day Turkey. After years of warfare, the Greeks pretended to surrender and built the wooden horse as a supposed gift to the Trojans. No one knows what portion of this story, if any, is true, but the legend lives on.

New in 2018 is the Troy Museum, located at the entrance to the Troy archeological site. Several exhibits outline the city’s history, including the Bronze Age of Troy, the Trojan War, and the Ottoman Period.

 Just across the Dardanelles from Canakkale is Gallipoli. It is most associated with the battles that took place here during World War I between Allied and Turkish troops. The peninsula forms the northern bank of the Dardanelles, which provides a sea route to the Russian Empire, an Allied power during the war. Russia's allies—Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and France—launched a naval attack, followed by an amphibious assault. The goal was to capture Istanbul. After eight months the land battle was abandoned. You’ll see memorials to fallen soldiers and markers that pay tribute to military heroes on both sides of the conflict. More than 100,000 men lost their lives. 

A beach on the island of Gokceada. Photo Adobe Stock
A beach on the island of Gokceada. Photo Adobe Stock

Gokceada, Turkey’s biggest island, is known for its unspoiled landscape, sandy beaches, and Greek-influenced culture. You’ll find tiny villages with streets barely passable by car, amazing views of the sea, and beautiful beaches. There are a few hotels, so you can stay overnight here if you wish.

You’ll find the atmosphere on Bozcaada Island very different with its medieval castle, charming village of about 2,000 residents, and inviting beaches. 

During Ottoman rule, Greeks and Turks resettled here, and today the village is literally divided between the two groups. Each has its religious institutions—mosques on the Turkish side and churches on the Greek side. The houses are architecturally different in the two districts as well. The grid-planned Greek district has restaurants, galleries, and hotels along its cobblestone streets while the Turkish quarter is mostly residences.Mini-busses that depart from the square next to the castle entrance can take you to Ayazma or Habbele beaches. 

On a two-week vacation, you can probably find time for at least a brief stop at most of the places mentioned in this article. But many of them deserve longer visits, as do some attractions we haven’t even mentioned. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself pondering a return trip before you even leave the country.

Photo Adobe Stock
Photo Adobe Stock


8 Must-See Historic Attractions

Hagia Sophia Photo Adobe Stock
Hagia Sophia Photo Adobe Stock

1. Hagia Sophia. Once the world’s largest cathedral, it was constructed in the sixth century and converted into a mosque when the Ottoman military conquered what is now Istanbul. Today it’s a museum and a symbol of its city’s diverse religious and political history.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Photo Adobe Stock
Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Photo Adobe Stock

2. Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Also known as the Blue Mosque, this 17thcentury structure is Istanbul’s most popular attraction. 

The Basilica Cistern Photo Adobe Stock
The Basilica Cistern Photo Adobe Stock

3. The Basilica Cistern. Built in the sixth century to provide water to Istanbul in case of siege, this underground labyrinth is lined with wooden walkways set between ornate pillars, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples. 

Topkapi Palace Photo Adobe Stock
Topkapi Palace Photo Adobe Stock

Topkapi Palace. This Istanbul museum is also the world’s largest and oldest palace. It served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans from the 15thto 19thcenturies. 

The Suleymaniye Mosque Photo Adobe Stock
The Suleymaniye Mosque Photo Adobe Stock

The Suleymaniye Mosque. This grand Ottoman mosque, built between 1550 and 1557, crowns one of İstanbul's seven hills and offers spectacular views from its terrace. 

Goreme Open-Air Museum Photo Adobe Stock
Goreme Open-Air Museum Photo Adobe Stock

Goreme Open-Air Museum. There are 11 refectories in this large museum in Cappadocia, which contains frescoes, as well as furnishings and other features carved from porous rock.

Troy Photo Adobe Stock
Troy Photo Adobe Stock

Troy. Because the ruins span several incarnations of the city, it can be difficult to know what you’re looking at. Built and inhabited from Troy I (3000 to 2600 B.C.) until Troy IX (85 B.C. to A.D. 500), the site is a mixture of walls and rocks.

Bozcaada Castle Photo Adobe Stock
Bozcaada Castle Photo Adobe Stock

Bozcaada Castle. When Fatih Sultan Mehmet II conquered the island of Bozcaada in 1455, he rebuilt this large castle, which had been demolished in the 14th century. 

Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: Turkey (population, 82 million) is in Europe and Asia, bordered by Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria; the island nation of Cyprus is 75 miles to the south. The country is surrounded by water on much of three sides: the Aegean Sea to the west, the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. The largest city is Istanbul. The capital is Ankara.

CLIMATE: The coastal areas bordering the Black Sea have warm, wet summers and cool to cold, wet winters. Mountainous areas experience sharply contrasting seasons, including winters with temperatures plunging to 40 degrees below zero. 

WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Because of the political climate, check travel advisories before visiting. (The U.S. State Department posts these at travel.state.gov.) Credit cards are widely accepted in the country, but you should also bring currency in small bills. Bazaars and attraction vendors in Istanbul, Cappadocia, Canakkale, and other major tourist sites will quote prices in dollars, euros, and Turkish lira. In remote areas only Turkish lira is accepted. 

GETTING THERE: About 35 international airports in Turkey—including Istanbul Ataturk, Nevşehir Kapadokya, and Canakkale—welcome private jets. Airlines that serve Istanbul AtaturkAirport with direct flights from the U.S., Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa include Turkish Airlines, Air Canada, and Air France. 

GETTING AROUND: Istanbul traffic can be heavy, especially during morning and late afternoon. Although taxis are readily available, other public transportation might be a better option. Metro, tram, and funicular lines in the city center are well maintained and supervised by security personnel. Although it isn’t necessary to travel with a group and many Istanbul residents speak English, you’d be wise to employ a guide who can navigate rural areas where English isn’t often spoken and public transportation is limited. Two tour companies, Travel Atelier and KD Tours, serve the entire country. Many parts of Istanbul and Canakkale are handicap accessible; most historic attractions are not.

Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS: Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul (A+), a five-star hotel overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, offers impeccable service, lovely public areas, and lavish accommodations. Argos in Cappadocia (A+) is a cave hotel in Old Uchisar Village.On the site of an ancient monastery, Argos restored historical dwellings, underground tunnels, and caves to offer guests a unique perspective on the area. Kolin Hotel (B-) in Canakkale is a convention-style facility in a remote area of the city overlooking the Dardanelles. 

DINING: Meze by Lemon Tree (A) is an excellent small restaurant in Istanbul’s Beyoglu district opposite the Pera Palace hotel where Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway were guests. Reservations are suggested and can be made at mezze.com.tr. Tugra Restaurant (A), in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul hotel,serves exceptional food. Terrace seating offers views of the Bosphorus. Old Greek House (B+) in Mustafapasa (Cappadocia) is as much about atmosphere as food; both are memorable. Seki (A+) in the Argos in Cappadociahotelprovides fresh, locally sourced ingredients and wine along with beautiful views from its terrace. Zeytin (B) in the Canakkale Kolin hotel serves international and Turkish cuisine in attractive surroundings.


For her visit to Turkey to research this article, Marilyn Jones was a guest of Turkey Tourism, and Turkish Airlines provided transportation. —Ed.

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