I was horrified a few weeks ago to hear about the bombings in Istanbul. I lived in Turkey for 2 ½ years and loved the opportunity to travel through this ancient crossroads. I definitely recommend you monitor US State Department warnings, or your country’s equivalent, but once it is safe for tourists, you must put Turkey on your bucket list!
Istanbul. You have to stop in Istanbul while in Turkey. I would recommend setting aside 2-3 days for your first trip in the city, but if pressed for time, if you are organized and determined you can hit the major sites in one very full day. I recommend you start your day at the Blue Mosque after breakfast. If you start at the Blue Mosque you will avoid conflicts later in the day with prayer time when tourists are not allowed to visit. Make sure you are wearing appropriate clothing for your visit to the Mosque. This means everyone should cover their shoulders/upper arms & at least past your knees; women should also bring a scarf to cover your hair. They will give you one if you forget but it will smell so badly of both body odor and strong perfume that you will swear you can still smell it the next day. Topkapi Palace should be your next stop. It is just across from the Mosque and if you are at the gate by mid-morning you will beat a lot of the crowds. While on the palace grounds it is worth spending the extra lira for a cup of tea and a snack in order to sit at the café and absorb the view. Of special interest is the Hall of Holy Relics where you can see David’s sword, Abraham’s sauce pan, and hairs from the beard of the prophet Mohamed. There is an extra fee to see the Harem, so if you are pressed for time or cash, I don’t recommend it. But, you came all this way, so see as much as you can. The Hagia Sophia is in the same area and is a natural next stop. Hagia Sofia began as a Christian basilica, was later converted into an imperial mosque under the Ottoman Empire, and in the 20th century transformed into a museum by President Atatürk, the founder and father of modern Turkey. It reflects a wonderful melting pot of religions, culture and history. Stop at the Hippodrome on your way to the Basilica Cistern. At the Hippodrome try to envision what it must have looked like in the 1500’s during the chariot races. The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to provide water for the Basilica. Not only is this a fascinating stop, it is mercifully cool during the summer heat. If this is your first trip to the Middle East, I recommend a quick stop at the Spice Bazaar. It will give you a wonderful flavor of the exotic. Of course the Grand Bazaar is a highlight of any trip to Turkey. Travel Tip: If you are pressed for time, make the Grand Bazaar your last stop of the day. You will miss some of the chaos and it is open several hours later than most of the other attractions. If you are traveling in a group, decide on a meeting time and location. I highly recommend you identity one of the numbered gates as this location as you will eventually be able to find it. I can guarantee that if you pick a store or another landmark, once you start to navigate the maze of the bazaar everything will start to look the same and you will end up losing someone or spend your entire visit continually trying to orient yourself. If you have the time, I also highly recommend a trip across the Golden Horn to Galata Tower and a trip on the ferry down the Bosporus. Travel Tip: There are tours down the Bosporus as well as the Ferry. I find the tours hard to hear and they don’t give you tons of information about what you are seeing. The ferry makes the same trip for a fraction of the price.
Cappadocia is unlike any place you have ever been or even imagined. It is a unique landscape dotted with “fairy chimneys”, unique rock formations, and underground caves. It is worth the expense and trouble to wake up one morning and take a hot air balloon ride. Make sure you stay at a cave hotel during your stay and visit an underground city as well as the Goreme Open Air Museum! The Open Air Museum is easy to do on your own, but you can book a tour to the underground cities through your hotel or go on your own and hire one of the guides hanging around entrance. To make this more frugal you can join forces with other tourists who show up around the same time. To get to Cappadocia, Istanbul has wonderful discount airlines and I would recommend independent travel by air (fly into Kayseri or Nevsehir) and renting a car to see Cappadocia. Make sure you are comfortable driving a stick shift because there are a lot of hills – I once had to have a stranger help me get up the hill but that is a story for another blog.
Izmir & Ephesus: I have seen the ruins of Rome and Athens but neither prepared me for Ephesus and coming down the hill seeing the Library at the end of the path. Even if you only have time for a lightening trip to Ephesus and fly in for the day on one of Turkey’s discount airlines (Sun Express, Pegasus, Atlas Jet or even Turkish Airlines has very cheap flights) you need to make the time. Travel Tip: If you drive on your own, you will park at what I consider “the end.” You can enter here but to save yourself a round trip walk back to the car, and more importantly to see the Library from the best perspective the first time, hire a cab hanging out in the parking lot to take you to the other entrance at the top of the hill. It is cheap and well worth it. Also if you drive yourself consider a stop at the Basilica of St John and Temple of Artemis. There is very little to see at the Temple of Artemis and it will only be a free 5 minute stop, but when one of the actual 7 Wonders of the Ancient World is that close, you have to stop. Additionally, for those who like their Bible to come alive and picture Paul’s sermons in Acts as he condemns the worship of Artemis you will get a visual for where the temple was in relation to the city. Both stops are on your right hand side as you are driving the final mile before you turn left to Ephesus. Even going slow you still might miss the turn and have to do a U-turn. The traditional spot for Mary’s house is also nearby and a favorite stop for tourists and pilgrims.
If you have time, take an extra few days/a week to explore the West Coast to see the battle sites of Gallipoli, the lost city of Troy, and the Seven Churches of Revelation. Turkey is also a wonderful place to relax on the beach whether you do that in Antalya or take the opportunity to fly to explore Cyprus (check out Sun Express or Pegasus Air).
Additional Travel Tips: Get the Museum Pass in Istanbul. Do the math because prices may change, but in the past if you plan to do both Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sofia you will break even, so with one additional attraction you will be ahead. If you are going to Cappadocia, wait until you arrive there to buy a lot of your typical souvenirs (bowls, rugs etc… – don’t take this advice if you find something special or one of a kind at the Grand Bazaar). Pay in Lira, as with other countries, tourist locations will often take dollars or euros but you will lose out on the favorable exchange rate. Don’t be afraid of the metro and tram. They are easy to use. Istanbul has two airports. Tickets are often cheaper into/out of Sabiha Goken; however, this is on the Asian side of the city and not near the tourist attractions. Make sure the savings are worth it because your trip to/from the airport will be long and more expensive. Turkish flights are one way, so don’t be afraid to mix and match airlines if you fly domestically. You may get more convenient travel times and spend less money.
Books: If you can find it (it is out of print), Scotch and Holy Water by John Tumpane is a hilarious account of Turkish life and culture. I also enjoyed Tales from the Expat Harem by Anastasia Ashman. 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley is a more serious, non-fictional historical look at the city. But if you read nothing else, I highly recommend you read a bit about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He is the pivotal figure in modern Turkish history and will significantly aid your understanding of Turkish culture and perspective.