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13 Best Places to Visit in Turkey

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Turkey's best places to visit run the gamut from relaxing beaches and towns on the Mediterranean coast to fascinating geological and cultural sights further inland.

My foray to Turkey began with Turkish Airlines' invitation to fly business class from New York City to Istanbul for a week-long trip.

When the work portion of my adventure was over, I declined the return flight, choosing instead to backpack solo for another five weeks.

And six weeks, my friends, wasn't even enough! As often is the case, I prioritized where best to spend my time, money, and energy.

This list is based on the most extraordinary places I went to in Turkey. I hope it serves you well to plan your trip when the time is right.

Where to Go in Turkey

1. Istanbul

Located in northwestern Turkey, Istanbul connects Europe to Asia and has played an essential role in trade and travel for millennia.

The Bosphorus Strait bisects this large city; the European side to the west, the Asian side to the right.

Istanbul's Old City, Sultanahmet, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, and Grand Bazaar are a few of the many incredible historical places worth visiting.

A sunset cruise on the Bosphorus will give you a different perspective on the city.

I also chose Istanbul as the place to experience a traditional Turkish bath.

See also: Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul

Dave in Cappadocia, one of the best places to visit in Turkey
Dave in Cappadocia

2. Cappadocia

If learning about ancient cave-dwelling societies or going for hot air balloon rides are your jam, then Cappadocia is the place to visit in Turkey.

Here you'll find fascinating landscapes full of fairy chimneys, stone spires that rise from the ground, and underground caves.

Stay in a cave hotel or hostel for at least one night to get the whole experience.

Hot air balloon rides are big business in Cappadocia, and for a good reason. They combine beautifully with the natural landscape, especially at sunrise.

Hot air balloons landing in Cappadocia
Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

I chose Cappadocia as the place to go on my first hot air balloon ride, an experience I was scared to undertake but did so nonetheless.

It was unforgettable, from the pre-dawn excitement of firing up the balloon and getting aboard to our rise through the clouds to see the morning sun.

And it's all done without the pilots being able to steer where you're going!

For safety's sake, do research and pay a little extra to ensure you're going with a company that has a strong safety record.

A week after I left town, I read in the news that a balloon had hit power lines, causing riders to get injured as a result.

If taking flight isn't for you, it's still possible to enjoy the sight of a hundred or more balloons flying over town as they prepare to start landing in fields.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus
The Library of Celsus

3. Ephesus

Ephesus was first inhabited by the Greeks as far back as the 10th century B.C. Later, the Romans used it until the 15th century A.D.

That's 2,500 years of human history!

Highlights include the Library of Celsus (pictured above) and a 25,000-seat stone amphitheater that once hosted gladiator fights.

“Little remains of the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the “Seven Wonders of the World,” which drew pilgrims from all around the Mediterranean.”

UNESCO

Also near Ephesus is a small stone structure discovered in the 19th century that is thought to be the Virgin Mary's last home.

The building now functions as a small chapel, so it's possible to go inside.

Pamukkale
Pamukkale

4. Pamukkale

A natural landscape derived from mineral deposits, Pamukkale (aka Cotton Palace) has fascinated travelers in western Turkey for over a thousand years.

The 200-meter tall outcropping features stepped terraces that can be filled with water, thereby allowing visitors to soak in them on their way down.

Go early in the day to avoid the crowds.

Trojan Horse model
Trojan Horse model

5. Troy

Canakkale is a city on the northwest coast of Turkey overlooking the Aegean Sea.

It's worth visiting for two sites, which you can combine to see in a single day.

Troy ruins
Troy ruins

First and foremost, there's the 4,000-year-old archaeological site of Troy, another of Turkey's UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Wander through the ruins on a guided or self-guided tour. There's not as much to see as at Ephesus, but it's still impressive.

The Troy Museum opened on-site in 2018 to offer further historical context and access to discoveries still being made today.

Turkish Memorial - Gallipoli
Turkish Memorial – Gallipoli

6. Gallipoli Peninsula

The second recommendation I have while staying in Cannakale is a half-day tour of the Gallipoli Peninsula, the scene of fierce fighting during World War I.

To weaken the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, and Russia lay siege to the Gallipoli Peninsula to control the Dardanelles Straits.

These waters offered direct access to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Australian Memorial - Gallipoli
Australian Memorial – Gallipoli

Over 250,000 people died during the fighting, which went on from February 1915 to January 1916.

Ultimately, the defending Ottoman forces prevailed, paving the way for Turkey's independence eight years later.

The tour includes visits to memorials and cemeteries for Turkish forces and soldiers from Australia and New Zealand.

The latter countries remember the fallen every year on April 25, Anzac Day.

The Temple of Trajan at Pergamon
The Temple of Trajan

7. Pergamon

It's about a four-hour bus ride south of Canakkale to reach the city of Bergama, home to the ancient city of Pergamon.

Pergamon was founded in the 3rd century BC as the capital of the Attalid dynasty.

Located in the Aegean Region, the heart of the Antique World, and at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, it became an important cultural, scientific and political centre.

UNESCO

Pergamon is built atop a 335-meter high hill, offering a commanding view of the surroundings. It's accessible via cable car.

Amphitheater at Pergamon
Theater of Pergamon

I had a wonderful time exploring Pergamon, and while I was there, it felt like I had the ruins to myself.

Highlights included the Temple of Trajan, the steep 10,000-seat amphitheater built by the Romans, and a cute white and black dog that kept me company.

Dave atop Mount Nemrut
Dave atop Mount Nemrut

8. Mount Nemrut

One of my most memorable adventures was a trip to Kahta in southeastern Turkey to see Mount Nemrut.

Perched atop a 2,134-meter-high mountain is Nemrut Dag, the royal tomb for Antiochus I, who reigned in the 1st century B.C.

A sizeable 49-meter mound of loose rock, known as a tumulus, helps protect the tomb.

Sculptures at Nemrut Dag
Sculptures at Nemrut Dag

At some point in its 2,100-year history, statues that surrounded the tumulus were beheaded.

Rather than reconstruct them, they've been placed upright on the ground, which makes them fun to photograph.

Mount Nemrut is covered in snow half the year, so you should plan to visit between April and October. I was there in June, and the weather was terrific.

Transportation to and from the mountain can easily be arranged in Kahta. Access to the ruins requires about a 15-minute walk up modern stone steps.

I flew into Kahta and took a seven-hour bus ride west to Capadoccia on my way out.

Konya, Turkey
Konya, Turkey

9. Konya

Following my time in Cappadocia, I traveled west by bus for about four hours to Konya, the province's capital by the same name.

Konya is the final resting place of Rumi, a 13th-century poet, and Sufi mystic.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

— Rumi

I read Rumi's poetry in my twenties. It was fortunate to learn he was entombed along my route to the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

Rumi's remains at Mevlana Museum
Rumi's mausoleum

“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames.”

— Rumi

Rumi's mausoleum is located inside the Mevlana Museum in central Konya. I stayed at a budget hotel a few blocks away.

If you choose to visit Konya for Rumi and want to tick another UNESCO World Heritage Site off your Turkey bucket list, there's Çatalhöyük.

Located a 40-minute drive southeast of Konya, Çatalhöyük is a 9,000-year-old Neolithic (New Stone Age) settlement.

The earthen ruins aren't as ornate or grand as what you'll see at Ephesus and Pergamon; however, they're some 7,000 years older.

Enough has been excavated and preserved to make for an enjoyable half-day trip.

Antalya marina
Antalya's Old City marina

10. Antalya

I left Konya for the city of Antalya on the Turquoise Coast, aka the Turkish Riviera. It took about four hours by bus.

I spent the rest of my time in Turkey exploring its idyllic coastline, a popular vacation and yachting destination for Turkish and international travelers alike.

Antalya was founded by King Attalus II of Pergamon in 150 BC and became part of the Roman empire soon after in 133 BC.

Hadrian's Gate is a notable structure built in 130 BC to honor the Roman emperor Hadrian.

It's in excellent condition, and you can still walk through it.

Beach in Kas
Beach in Kas

11. Kas and Kekova

Further west of Antalya is the small seaside town of Kas, one of my favorite places in Turkey and anywhere in the Mediterranean.

The coastline is dotted with beaches and inlets for swimming.

The highlight of my stay in Kas was a day-long boat tour for under $20 (lunch included).

Sign up for a tour at the port downtown and spend the day sailing and swimming through some of the prettiest blue waters you'll ever see.

Enjoy lunch on the boat before seeing disembarking to explore the ancient ruins of Simena, a 4th century B.C. Lycian city.

It's a short walk up a hill to reach Simena Kalesi castle and panoramic views of Kekova island.

Xanthos amphitheater
Amphitheater

Xanthos-Letoon

Halfway between Kas and Oludeniz, another beach town on the Turkish Riviera, are the ruins of the Lycian capital of Xanthos.

Xanthos-Letoon is a remarkable archaeological complex. It represents the most unique extant architectural example of the ancient Lycian Civilization, which was one of the most important cultures of the Iron Age in Anatolia.

UNESCO

If you're planning to spend time in either Kas or Oludeniz, it's worth a quick stop en route from one to the other to see Xanthos.

Paragliders above Oludeniz beach
Oludeniz beach

12. Oludeniz

When I was researching where to spend my time on the Turquoise Coast, one picture of Oludeniz was all I needed to see to add to my itinerary.

The sparkling blue waters of this long, albeit rocky, beach lives up to the coast's nickname.

Adventure seekers have the opportunity to go paragliding, taking off from a nearby mountaintop before drifting over the water and beach.

The landing site is smack dab in the middle of town, amidst the casual cafes and bars overlooking the beach.

It's about a two-hour drive from Kas to Oludeniz (or vice versa).

Bodrum, Turkey
Bodrum, Turkey

13. Bodrum

The last stop of my six-week backpacking adventure in Turkey was Bodrum, perhaps the best-known city on the Turkish Riviera.

It's a popular departure point for travel to Greece, whether by ferry (which I used to reach Rhodes), sailing tour, or chartered yacht.

Bodrum features two bays, separated by a small peninsula, home to the early 15th century Bodrum Kalesi castle.

Bodrum beach view
Bodrum beach view

The 45-foot tall Mausoleum at Halicarnassus is worth a brief visit. Constructed in 350 BC, it was one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

A series of earthquakes from the 12th to 15th centuries left the mausoleum in ruins.

Beyond visiting those ruins and Bodrum Castle, I spent my time in Bodrum sipping fruit smoothies and taking in the watery views.

I arrived in Turkey to promote Turkish Airways and came away in awe at a country full of ancient history and lost civilizations' ruins.

The best places in Turkey reflect its rich past and unique geography in the eastern Mediterranean.

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My initial flight to Istanbul and visits to Ephesus and Pamukkale were paid for by Turkish Airlines; the rest of my trip was at my own cost.

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