Previously also known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the place where the east meets west. One can easily spend 3 days in this beautiful city. There is so much history and so many stories here, I wondered how the city absorbed all this into its wake and evolved itself over the centuries. The city ticks like clockwork. The infrastructure is great to accommodate around 15 million people, which is one-fifth of Turkey’s population. There are numerous places to explore in Istanbul. I’ll try to list the most prominent ones here:
1. Hagia Sofia/Ayasofya:
Hagia Sofia, or ‘Holy Wisdom’, as it is called in Latin is a complex in the heart of Istanbul that served as the principal church of the Byzantine Empire for 1000 years, before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. It is a magnificent and grand structure that has now been converted into a museum. It is as beautiful from inside as it is from the outside. When Ottomans converted it into a mosque, they concealed everything related to church. Slowly, those sculptures and inscriptions are being uncovered. This presents a view that you can probably not see anywhere else in the world. Under the same roof, one can see Christianity’s angels as well as Islamic Mihrab, pointing towards Mecca. Along with lots of religious paintings and sculptures, the artistic beauty of the complex is stunning.
2. Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmad Mosque:
Right across the Hagia Sofia complex is the Blue Mosque. The Ottomans built it in the seventeenth century. At the time it was constructed, the Sultan Ahmad Mosque was the only mosque to have 6 minarets, besides the Mecca mosque. Since then, more minarets have been built in Mecca. The Blue Mosque is equally elegant as Hagia Sofia. The interior of the mosque is plastered with blue stones. Some say that the Ottoman Sultan built it to prove that their architectural mastery was no less than the Christians who made Hagia Sofia.
3. Sultanahmet Square:
The area where both Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque are situated is known as Sultanahmet square. Along with these magnificent structures, it also has some other historical monuments going dating back to the Ottoman era. There are also many food joints and shopping avenues nearby.
It is a coastal city in the south of Turkey on the Mediterranean coast. It has some of the best beaches in Turkey. Relaxing on the beach with Mediterranean food is an amazing feeling. Antalya has a pebble beach, called Konyaalti Beach, which is a popular tourist spot. Another beach is Lara beach, at the other end of the town. Antalya also had some museums for history lovers that can be explored as well. There are also big markets in Antalya, as it is a large city.
4. Underground city:
Many underground cities have been discovered in Cappadocia region. Some of the biggest ones have up to 7 levels under the surface and are thousands of years old. It is not surely known who lived in these cities, but it is widely accepted that they lived underground to escape detection from enemies on the surface. The cities are such designed that ventilation reaches even till the 7th floor under the surface. Yet another piece of beauty Cappadocia has to offer.
Open Air Museum
There are flights from Istanbul to Kayseri and Nevsehir to reach Cappadocia. Nevsehir is relatively near than Kayseri from Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is huge in area. For tourists, the locals have divided the sightseeing zones into number of zones. The most prominent ones are the Green Tour and the Red Tour. I would advise you to join one of those guided tours. They take you in a comfortable mid sized bus and provide a guide. You also won’t have to worry about buying tickets at each place and about the lunch. The guides are very friendly and patiently explain the historical significance of each monument.
Pamukkale – Kusadasi – Ephesus:
The next stop is Ephesus. This is a stretch you should cover by bus, because midway on the way to Kusadasi is Pamukkale which is very popular for huge ‘Travertine’ or calcium carbonate slopes with natural hot water springs. The surface might make one think that it is a huge snow mountain, but it isn’t. Pamukkale is also known as the cotton castle, due to the splendid views, especially during the sunset. You can spend half a day here. Alongside Pamukkale hot water springs, there lies Hierapolis. It is an ancient city that was built there due to its proximity to the hot water springs. There is also a museum near Hierapolis that has artifacts about the ancient city.
2. Fairy chimneys:
These are structures built over millions of years by volcanic activity in the region. They have a cylindrical shape with a dark cone at the top. People used to live in these chimneys because they provided protection from weather. They also sliced out places of worship in these chimneys. Most prominent ones are around 10 kms from Göreme. Some of these can also be seen in the Open Air Museum in Göreme.
4. Bosphorus Strait:
It is the stream that divided the Asian and European part of Istanbul. The best way to appreciate this is to take a cruise. The cruises are very comfortable, having food and beverages onboard. They also have a guide, who is describing the monuments on both sides of Bosphorus. The cruise takes 3-4 hours and passes under the beautiful Bosphorus Bridge and Galata Bridge. If you are visiting Istanbul on New Year’s Eve like I did, these cruise companies host New Year’s parties on the cruise. It is a great experience and definitely worth trying.
3. Hot Air Balloon ride:
The best of Cappadocia can be seen from a hot air balloon ride, which is very popular in Göreme. These rides are organized early morning at Sunrise time. They take you above the fairy chimneys and then over the clouds. I visited Turkey in December. It was a cold and a cloudy day, but the moment our balloon rose above the clouds to see the sun was one of a lifetime experience. I could see many colorful balloons along with the shining sun that spread it’s light over the dark clouds which then shone like a sunflower.
After spending half a day at Pamukkale, you can start for Kusadasi, which is a city near Ephesus. You can stay overnight in Kusadasi and explore Ephesus the next day.
Ephesus is an ancient Greek city, around 2500 – 3000 years old. It is a protected site and provides a glimpse of how the cities were built in those times. There is a theatre for performances, a library, rooms where people stayed, a street market etc. Although much of it is in ruins now, but still is a very interesting site for historians.
It is a small village near Kusadasi, which is popular for local wines. The villagers produce wine in their local wineries. Wines can range from very cheap to expensive.
View from Hot air balloon in Cappadocia
It is a town where tourists stay before taking any of the tours. This beauty of the place cannot be described in words. You have to be there to experience it. It has lot of comfortable stay options as well as many restaurants and pubs. There is a sense of mysticism and at the same time, serenity in the air of Göreme. The host in our hotel was so warm and friendly. He even took us for showing the town in his own car. After the energetic and dynamic Istanbul, Göreme is the place you can come to relax and unwind yourself. This is also an Open air Museum which has some fairy chimneys and a very old church.
Konyaalti - Antalya
Dervish show at Hodjapasha
5. Topkapi Palace:
Yet another glorious complex is the Topkapi Palace, which served as the residence of Ottoman Sultans. It is very close to Sultanahmet Square. Visit Topkapi Palace to experience the Ottoman living styles and architecture.
6. Grand Bazaar:
It is a huge covered market with more than 4000 shops in numerous streets. It has everything: Turkish dry fruits, spices, clothes, carpets, souvenirs etc. If you are shopaholic, you can easily spend half a day here.
After exploring Istanbul, the perfect way to relax is to go for a Turkish bath or Hamam. It is available at a number of places in Istanbul, but I would advice you to go for the one in the AyaSofya complex. It might be a little expensive than the other but it is worth it. The others might not be very clean.
Christian Angels and Islamic Mihrab under the same roof
8. Dervish Dance show:
Also known as Whirling Dervishes, it is the Sufi dance of Turkey in which the artists circle as well as rotate around a circle in order to meditate and connect with God. Their local band plays the music and it is very soothing to the ears. Must visit if you wish to get a local flavor of Turkey’s culture. These shows are mostly held in Istanbul or Antalya only. In Istanbul, cultural centre or Hodjapasha, organized these shows.
Places to visit: Istanbul, Cappadocia, Göreme, Antalya, Kusadasi, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Sirince
Day 1: Land in Istanbul
Day 2-3: Head for Cappadocia. Flights available till Kayseri/Nevsehir Airports, both of which are near Göreme in Cappadocia. Nevsehir is closer than Kayseri
Day 4: Antalya by flight
Day 5-6: Leave for Pamukkale by bus. Buses run till Denizli. From Denizli, Pamukkale is 15 minute away. After seeing Pamukkale, start for Kusadasi from Denizli by bus. Stay in Kusadasi. Explore Ephesus the next day
Day 7-8: Flight from Izmir Airport near Kusadasi to Istanbul
Things to keep in mind:
- It is important to plan your travel here. Rail and roads are not so good means of transport here and might take a lot of time. It is better to book cheap flights in advance. Pegasus is a low cost airline operating in Turkey
- The sequence of Travel is important in Turkey. I would suggest starting from Istanbul, then Cappadocia, then Antalya and finally Kusadasi before flying back to Istanbul. This will make sure you’re not unnecessarily wasting time in flying back and forth to Istanbul because almost all the flights are connected through Istanbul
- If you are traveling in winters, make sure to carry proper thick woolen clothing. Temperature can drop in minus here
- I would suggest you to keep Istanbul visit for the last 2 days because then you won't have to rush to Istanbul for your flight back home
Turkey is a mystical land, a land where Eastern and Western civilizations meet and melt. When I planned to go to Turkey, lot of people asked me, “Why Turkey?” I guess I am going to answer that question in this blog post. Turkey might not be popular as the European destinations in the region, but is equally (if not more) exotic. From cosmopolitan Istanbul to mesmerizing Cappadocia, to Mediterranean beaches in Antalya, Turkey has it all. The best part about Turkey is indeed its people, who are so friendly and warm. I have never come across such warmth in any other country before. Some of them are willing to go out of their way to make your stay comfortable and memorable. Not to forget the Turkish tea (çay), which binds them together.