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Home : Holidays : Europe : Turkey : Where to Go in Turkey

Where to Go in Turkey

Straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey has enormously diverse scenery, with rolling central plains, soaring mountains, desert and orchards, white sand beaches and towering sea cliffs. The Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Selçuks, Ottomans, Armenians and a host of smaller civilizations have all added intricate layers of architecture, art and culture, creating a mosaic as rich as any of the gilded Byzantine glories. Today, Turkey's thousands of kilometers of magnificent coast, sunshine and fine food have turned it into a major tourist destination. Much more than that, it is still fascinating culturally - a modern, westernised country, with a largely Muslim population, cautiously spanning the divide between religions and cultures.


Istanbul

The only city in the world to span two continents, Istanbul is a bustling, cosmopolitan place, officially founded by Emperor Constantine in AD 326 on the back of a much older village. It remained capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires right up until 1923, its illustrious past leaving a rich legacy of mosques, churches, museums and magnificent palaces, coupled with bustling bazaars and a vibrant street life. Istanbul is made up of three distinct cities. The old city of Istanbul is decorated with parks and gardens.

Amongst hundreds of fascinating sights, the main attractions include Topkapi, the sumptuous palace of the Ottoman sultans overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus; the delicately decorated Blue Mosque, the only mosque in the world with six minarets; the vast dome of Aya Sophia, built in 536 as a Byzantine cathedral, later a mosque and now a museum and, underground, the Yerebatan Sarayi, a vast Byzantine cistern supported by 336 Corinthian columns. Nearby, the commercial heart of the city, the Grand Bazaar, is still a captivating sight for shoppers and window-shoppers alike, while further along the narrow inlet of the Golden Horn, the Kariye Camii has some of the finest Byzantine mosaics to survive today.


Across the Golden Horn, 'modern' Istanbul, Beyoglu, dates back to the foreign cantonments of the 13th century. This is where you find the restaurants, hotels, and modern shops, while the truly modern areas around Taksim are home to cultural centers, exhibition halls and office blocks.

The Bosphorus

The shores of both old and new cities lie along the northern, European bank of the Bosphorous, the narrow strait that divides Europe from Asia. Two massive suspension bridges now span these overcrowded waters, in which tour boats, ferries, supertankers and fishing vessels vie for space in the overcrowded waters. From all of them you see the Istanbul skyline, one of the most dramatic in the world. Tours up the Bosphorous include several notable buildings, including the Sultans' 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace.

On the far, Asian shores lie Uskudar (Scutari), where Florence Nightingale nursed the sick during the Crimean War; the charming Ottoman summer palace of Beylerbeyi; and a whole series of delightful villages full of fish restaurants and fine old mansions, built by the 19th-century aristocracy. Looming at each other across the water are several Byzantine and Ottoman castles, including Anadoluhisar and Rumelihisar.

The Sea of Marmara

West of Istanbul, the provinces of Thrace and Marmara embrace the Sea of Marmara, while the towns of Gelibolu and Çanakkale mark the entrance to the Dardanelles, the narrow straits leading through to the Mediterranean. This was the site of the infamous Gallipoli landings during World War I, which led to the deaths of nearly 250,000 British, Turkish and Anzac troops and shot Turkish General Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk) to fame. Inland, the cities of Edirne, in Thrace, and Bursa, in Marmara, are both fascinating historic towns with a wide range of magnificent architecture, such as the Selimiye Camii in Edirne, said to be the masterwork of Turkish imperial architect, Mimar Sinan.

Just outside Bursa, the Uludag National Park is a wonderful forested mountain reserve, with excellent walking in summer and skiing in winter. A short way south of Gallipoli are the ruins of ancient Troy. Of the nine levels of the excavated settlement mound, the sixth is supposed to be the Troy depicted in Homer's Iliad.

The Aegean Coast

The magnificent coast of ancient Ionia, a crucible of western civilization, boasts fine beaches and many important historical sites. The attractive tourist towns of Ayvacik, Ayvalik and Behramkale are good places from which to visit the magnificent Temple of Athena at Assos. Further south lie the ruins of the great city of Pergamum (modern Bergama), famous in antiquity for its splendid library. It is here that you will find the Sanctuary of Asclepieion and two fine temples, the Acropolis and the red-brick Basilica. Izmir, the birthplace of Homer, is Turkey's third city and an important port. It is a modern metropolis set in a curving bay surrounded by terraced hillsides.

As a result of earthquakes and a great fire, there are only a few reminders of old Smyrna - Kadifekale, the fourth-century fortress situated on top of Mount Pagos. The fortress affords a superb view of the city, and of the Gulf of Izmir, the Roman agora with some well-preserved porticos and Statues of Poseidon and Artemis. Çesme is one of the many popular resorts in the Izmir region. It has excellent beaches, thermal springs and a 15th-century fortress. The port of Sigacik, the ruins of the ancient Ionian city of Teos and the sandy beach at Akkum are all between Izmir and Çesme. A short way inland is another fine Graeco-Roman city, Sardis (modern Sart), with a beautiful Marble Court, Temple of Artemis and a first-century AD synagogue.

The remains of the Hellenistic and Roman city of Ephesus (modern Selçuk), rumoured to have been founded in the 13th century BC, lie at the foot of Mount Pion. Carefully restored and now one of the most spectacular ancient cities in the world, top sights within the huge archaeological area include the Grand Theater, where St Paul preached to the Ephesians, the second-century Temple of Serapi, the elegant façades of the Temple of Hadrian and the Library of Celsus. The site of Meryemana, reputed to be the house of the Virgin Mary, lies very close to Ephesus in the small vale of Mount Bulbul Dagi (Nightingale Mountain). It has become a world-famous shrine, attracting thousands of pilgrims each year. The nearby town of Selçuk is home to the Ephesus Museum and Basilica of St John, said to be the last home of John the Baptist. The ruins of Priene, Miletus and Didyma are also of great interest and, like Ephesus, are within easy reach of Kusadasi, an attractive resort surrounded by sandy bays. Inland are two more fine historic cities, the atmospheric Heraklea ad Latmos, and Aphrodisias.

Southwestern Turkey

This magnificently scenic and historically fascinating area, where the southern Aegean meets the Mediterranean, is known popularly as the Turquoise Coast, due to the intense color of the sea. Tourism in the region is dominated by several major beach resorts, each with a series of satellite villages, and a great many large hotels. Rocky cliffs are interspersed by lavish white sand beaches. Each small town and fishing harbor has a variety of pleasure boats, fish restaurants, bars and nightlife, while the larger hotels offer a wide range of watersports.

And if that is not enough, the area is densely packed with ancient cities, and there is excellent walking in the hills behind the coast. Bodrum (birthplace of Herodotus, known as the father of history) is dominated by the magnificent 15th-century crusader Castle of St Peter, now home to a fascinating Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Both Bodrum and Marmaris, set in a deep fjord-like inlet, have wild, noisy nightlife and a wide variety of boat trips for daytime hangover cures. Destinations include the Greek islands of Kos (from Bodrum) and Rhodes (from Marmaris). From Marmaris, you can also reach the charming fishing village of Datça, the ruins of Knidos, and the reedy ruins of Kaunos, near the small resort of Dalyan.

Further along the Mediterranean coast are the small port town of Fethiye, with its imposing Lycian rock tombs, and Öl¨? Deniz, a stunning crystal-clear lagoon with a beautiful beach, surrounded by pine-covered mountains. The lagoon is protected from rampant commercial development by its status as a national park, although the surrounding valley is completely overwhelmed by tourist development. Continuing east along the coast, there are several relatively small and charming resorts such as Patara, with its 18km (11 mile) beach; charming little Kalkan; Kas, one of the most upmarket resorts on the Turkish coast; Olympos, a backpacker's paradise and home of the chimaera, a living flame erupting eerily from rock; and Kemer, where mass-market all-inclusive hotels hold sway. Between them are a wide range of historic sights, including the ancient cities of Patara, Xanthos, Myra and Phaselis.

Inland, there is excellent walking at Saklikent and in the Olympos National Park. Further away, other worthwhile stops include the pretty old town of Mugla, the carpet-making center of Milas; and Pamukkale, near Denizli, famous for its spectacular calcified waterfall and thermal waters, used since Roman times for their therapeutic powers. Pamukkale also contains the ruins of the Roman city of Hierapolis.

The Mediterranean Coast

With sunshine for most of the year and a magnificent coastline, the western Mediterranean Coast is a popular holiday area. It is also a region steeped in history and legend, dotted with important sites and great medieval castles. Situated on a cliff promontory, Antalya is a popular resort, boasting a picturesque walled old town and harbor, Kaleiçi, the monumental Hadrian's Gate, Kesik Minare and Yivli Minare mosques and Hidirlik Kulesi, the round Roman tower, and a superb Archaeological Museum. With its mix of charming small guest houses and modern hotels, it is the ideal starting point for tours to the outlying Roman cities of dramatic Termessos, in the mountains behind the city; Perge, a well-preserved and atmospheric place with tall Hellenistic walls and streets which still bear the marks of chariot wheels; and Aspendos, home to a remarkable second-century AD amphitheater, still used for live performances during the annual festival. Turkey's finest Roman aqueduct lies to the north of the city. Belek, 30km (19 miles) east of Antalya, has two championship golf courses, is the habitat of hundreds of species of birds, and one of several local breeding grounds for the rare leatherback turtle. In Side, now a thriving seaside resort, the Greek enclosure walls are still virtually undamaged. The town also boasts an exquisite fountain, a theater, two agoras and Roman baths, great beaches and lively nightlife.

Nestling at the foot of a rocky promontory and crowned by a Selçuk fortress, the town of Alanya has some fine beaches and a great many large resort hotels. A spectacularly scenic road connects Anamur, striking for its wave-swept Selçuk castle and ancient city, and Silifke, dominated by yet another vast fortress. The museum in ancient Silifke contains finds from the many archaeological sites in the vicinity. Mersin, built on a site dating back to Paleolithic times, is a major port. Nearby, parts of Tarsus date back to biblical times, when St Paul was a child here and Anthony met Cleopatra in the main square. The prosperous city of Adana, in the middle of the flat Cukurova plain, is the center of Turkey's cotton industry, and home to an imposingly huge modern mosque. The massive Taskopru Bridge, built by Hadrian in the second century, the ancient covered bazaar and nearby Crusader castles and Hittite settlements are all interesting sites. The road from heavily polluted Iskenderun leads through the Belen Pass to Antakya, the biblical city of Antioch, where St Peter founded the first Christian community. The grotto where he preached can be seen just outside the town.

The Black Sea Coast

This rugged, mountainous region of Turkey has a wild beauty, but lacks the wealth of historical and climatic attractions of the rest of the country, while the thunderous main road leading west from the CIS destroys much of the local atmosphere. Despite the variable weather, there are several coastal resorts with good, sandy beaches. These include, from west to east, Kilyos, Sile, Akcakoca, Sinop (also very interesting historically), Unye, Ordu and Giresun, many of which are sadly tacky, catering to the poorer end of the home-grown tourist market. There are also several fascinating historic towns such as Safranbolu, a short distance inland, whose traditional Ottoman architecture has been deemed worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Status; coastal Amasra with Hellenistic walls, Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, and 14th-century Genoese fortresses; and Amasya, a dramatically sited town which was capital of the short-lived Pontic Kingdom (founded in 120 BC) and has a wide range of ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman buildings, including the rock tombs of the Pontic kings.


Keep to the side roads if you want charm, between the two regional centers of Samsun and Trabzon. Samsun has an important place in modern history as the War of Independence began here in 1919, which is reflected by one of the finest monuments in Turkey, though little remains to testify to its ancient origins. In Trabzon (the sadly shabby Trebizond of history), the ruins of a Byzantine fortress can still be seen, together with many fine buildings including the Fatih Camii, built as a cathedral during the 200-year rule of the Comnene family (11th-century upstarts who overthrew Byzantine rule and carved themselves a small kingdom). The spectacular 14th-century Monastery of the Black Virgin at Sumala, 54km (34 miles) from Trabzon, is set into the face of a sheer cliff, 300m (1000ft) above the valley floor, and contains some magnificent frescoes.

East of Trabzon, there are few large towns and tourism concentrates on the fascinating lifestyle of the small Laz and Hopa peoples, hiking in the remote, beautiful Kaçkar Mountains and the region of Artvin, once the center of Turkish Armenian culture and home to several magnificent century churches dating from the ninth to the 11th centuries.

Central Anatolia

The hub of this vast, central plateau - the cradle of the ancient Hittite and Phrygian civilizations - is the modern metropolis of Ankara. Kemal Atat¨?rk supervised the construction of Ankara, a capital to replace Istanbul, in this hitherto underpopulated region during the 1920s and 1930s. Since then, it has grown into a thriving, trendy city with a population of nearly three million that has grown to rival Istanbul's sophistication, and is much more interesting than is often imagined. The Anitkabir, Atat¨?rk's solemnly imposing mausoleum, dominates the new city. Ankara was, however, built on the site of more ancient settlements and it is fitting that the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, built under the ramparts of the Citadel, should house a magnificent collection of Neolithic and Hittite artifacts. There are also reminders of the area's more recent past as part of the Roman and Selçuk empires. More modern additions to the cityscape include the huge, elegant Kocatepe Mosque and the Atakule, a high tower with a sightseeing platform and restaurant.

Southwest of Ankara are Afyon, center of the legal opium industry, and a fine old Ottoman town; Yazilikaya (Midassehir), home of the legendary golden king and his giant mausoleum; Kutahya, an attractive old city at the center of the Turkish ceramic trade; and the 'lake district', a pretty, green area of interlocking fresh and brackish lakes that are an excellent birding habitat There are several interesting small towns along the lake shores, such as Isparta, famous for its roses, and Egirdir, founded by the Hittites, but with a fine collection of Ottoman and Greek houses. Ruined cities of note in the area include Antioch ad Pisidia, the recently reconstructed Sagalassos and Kremna, where the earthworks built by the Roman siege are still clearly visible. Due south of Ankara, past the vast salt lake of Tuz Göl¨?, Konya is a former Selçuk capital and one of the great religious centers of Turkey, home of the Mevlana Tekkesi, the monastery and mausoleum of Mevlana Celâddin Rumi, one of Islam's most celebrated mystics and founder of the Order of Whirling Dervishes. Other places of interest include the 13th-century Alâeddin Mosque, the Karatay Medrese (now an excellent Ceramics and Tile Museum) and the Iplikci Mosque, Konya's oldest structure.

South of the city, Catalhöy¨?k is the second-oldest town in the world, dating back to the sixth millennium BC, while to the east, Binbirkilise is an area stuffed with '1001' Byzantine chapels and churches, most now sadly in a desperate state of repair. East of Ankara, the Hittite state archives were found in Bogazkale (Hattusas) in 1906, and contained within the Bogazkale-Alacahöy¨?k-Yazilikaya triangle are the most important sites of the Hittite Empire. Sungurlu is a good base for visitors to this fascinating but underdeveloped region.

Cappadocia

Southeast of Ankara, Cappadocia is a spectacular, almost surreal landscape of rock and cones, capped pinnacles and fretted ravines. Dwellings have been hewn from the soft, volcanic rock since 400 BC, and the elaborate cave systems have sheltered generations of persecuted settlers. Today, it is a fascinating mix of truly magnificent scenery (as beautiful in the winter snow as in summer), an excellent destination for outdoor activities from mountain biking and hiking to hot-air ballooning, and one of the most compelling historic and artistic regions in this culturally rich country. Many people still live, at least partially, in cave dwellings and in the main tourist centers, there are several charming small hotels with cave rooms. The main towns in the region are Nevsehir and Urgup.

Göreme is probably the biggest attraction, with over 30 magnificently frescoed Byzantine rock churches open to the public. Zelve has a huge, somewhat eerie underground monastic complex. The villages of Ortahisar and Uchisar, clustered around rock pinnacles and crowned by citadels, offer excellent views. There are over 400 underground cities in the area; two of the biggest and most exciting are Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, with up to eight floors and complex systems of apartments, public rooms and streets that could house literally hundreds of people. In the northern part of the area, Avanos is a pretty little town with a thriving local ceramics industry.

A short distance west of the main area of Cappadocia, the 10km- (6 mile-) long Ihlara Canyon is another Byzantine religious hideout, with around 60 churches, many of them still painted, carved into the walls of an idyllic green Shangri La.

The Eastern Provinces

The vast, empty expanse of eastern Anatolia differs profoundly from the rest of the country. The landscape has a desolate beauty, with ochre red plains and fertile valleys, lakes, waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and, in the far south, dusty deserts. This again is a fascinating cultural and historic area, stuffed with Biblical and Islamic history, Kurdish and Armenian cultures, fine mosques, palaces and monuments. The region has suffered a degree of political instability and lack of security for several years and is only just reopening to tourists, who should take up-to-date advice before visiting the area. It is far less developed for tourism than western Turkey; accommodation can be very basic and is often hard to find. Eastern Turkey can be said to begin along a rough line from Samsun, on the Black Sea Coast, through the Anatolian towns of Sivas and Tokat, noted for their Selçuk architecture, to the busy industrial town of Gaziantep in the south.
Erzurum, the largest town in the northeast, was one of the eastern bastions of Byzantium for many centuries, and has mosques and mausolea from the Selçuk and Mongol eras, Byzantine walls and two Koranic colleges characterized by minarets and finely carved portals. The frontier town of Kars, to the north of Erzurum, is dominated by a formidable 12th-century Georgian fortress. The ruins of the 10th-century Ani lie east of Kars.

On the eastern border with Armenia, Agri Dagri is the biblical Mount Ararat where, according to legend, Noah's Ark came to rest. Below it lie the imposing palace and mosque of Ishak Pasha at Dogubeyazit. The walled town of Van, on the eastern shore of the immense Lake Van, was an important Urartu fortress from 800-600 BC. The citadel dominates the ruins of Selçuk, Ottoman mosques and many rock tombs. On the island of Akdamar, in Lake Van, is the enchanting 10th-century Church of the Holy Cross.

Further south, the twin rivers Tigris and Euphrates, cradle an agriculturally rich oasis within the desert. This is Biblical Mesopotamia and, some say, the original Garden of Eden. Today, the GAP Project is creating an enormous series of interlinked lakes and canals to create hydro-electricity and irrigation, to the fury of neighboring countries who also rely on the water, and the local Kurkish people who see their homeland slipping from their grasp forever. Its centerpiece, the Atat¨?rk Dam, is the fourth-largest in the world.

The southeast is filled with ancient cities, traditional cultures and compellingly beautiful, if often forbidding, landscapes. Places of note include Sanliurfa, site of the ancient pools of Abraham; the strange beehive houses of Harran, from where Abraham decided to move to the land of Canaan; Nemrut Dagi, the home of the colossal stone statues erected by King Antiochus I in the first century BC; Diyarbakir, built in the fourth century and surrounded by forbidding triple walls of black basalt; and the white-colored medieval architecture and Roman citadel of Mardin.



Ski Resorts

Turkey may not be the obvious ski destination, but it does have a number of winter sports resorts, generally located in forested mountains of average height. The core season is from January to March. The following ski centers are easily accessible by road or Turkish Airlines domestic flights:

Erciyes: 25km (15 miles) from Kayseri (Cappadocia); Koroglu: on the Istanbul-Ankara highway, 50km (30 miles) from Bolu and the Black Sea coast; Palandoken: 5km (4 miles) from Erzurum (central-eastern Anatolia); Saklikent: 48km (30 miles) north of Antalya, in the Bakirli Dagi mountain range (Mediterranean Coast); Sarikamis: near Kars (far eastern Anatolia); Uludag: 36km (22 miles) south of Bursa (Marmara).