Packed to the brim with ancient monuments left over from a parade of conquerors and endowed with showcase scenery that never fails to impress, Turkey is a dazzling destination that straddles Asia and Europe. Its vibrant culture, famous food, and vast history wow all who venture here, while its glorious landscapes – from the sun-soaked Mediterranean to the mighty mountains and arid steppe – are highlights in themselves. Whether you want to lap up the Byzantine and Ottoman glories of Istanbul on a city break, laze on the beach, delve into history wandering through ruins such as Ephesus, or see some of the world’s most surreal panoramas in Pamukkale and Cappadocia, this country has attractions galore.

1. Aya Sofya

Renowned as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the spellbinding Byzantine glory of the Aya Sofya Museum (Hagia Sophia) is not only one of the top things to do in Istanbul, but also in Turkey. The staggering bulk of its exterior is rimmed by the delicate minarets added after the Ottoman conquest, while the sumptuous and cavernous frescoed interior is a grand reminder of old Constantinople’s might and power. This famed monument is a must-do for every tourist visiting the country.

2 Ephesus


Not to be missed, the mighty ruin of Ephesus is a city of colossal monuments and marble-columned roads. One of the most complete, still-standing Roman cities in the Mediterranean region, this is the place to experience what life must have been like during the golden age of the Roman Empire. A sightseeing trip here will take at least half a day to cover the major highlights and longer, if you really want to explore, so make sure that you plan your visit so you don’t feel rushed.

3 . Cappadocia

The surreal swooping rock valleys of Cappadocia are every photographer’s dream. Cliff ridges and hill crests are home to rippling panoramas of wave-like rock or wacky-shaped pinnacles that have been formed by millennia of wind and water action. And if you don’t feel like hiking for the views, this is one of the world’s top destinations to take a hot air balloon ride. If the lunarscape isn’t enough to tempt you, nestled in these valleys are the frescoed rock-cut churches of the Byzantine Era, when this area was an important early Christian site.

4. Topkapı Palace

Sumptuous beyond belief, the Topkapı Palace takes you into the fantastical, opulent world of the sultans. It was from here that the sultans of the Ottoman Era carved out an empire that would extend up into Europe and down through the Middle East and into Africa. The interiors, with their decadently exuberant tiling and lavish jeweled decor, are an unforgettable peek into the Ottoman’s power base. The surrounding public gardens were once the sole domain of the Royal Court but are now open to the public and provide a tranquil, green respite from the city streets.

5. Pamukkale

One of Turkey’s most famous natural wonders, the pure white travertine terraces of Pamukkale (“Cotton Castle” in English) cascade down the slope looking like an out-of-place snowfield amid the green landscape. Although the travertines are themselves a highlight of a Turkey trip, the vast and rambling ruins of Roman Hierapolis, an ancient spa town, lie on the top of this calcite hill, providing another reason to visit. For the best photographs, come at dusk when the travertines glow as the sun sinks below the horizon.

6. Sumela Monastery

With its stunning, lonely setting, built into a cliff face, Sumela Monastery (Monastery of the Virgin Mary) is the star attraction for visitors along the Black Sea Coast. Wandering around this abandoned religious complex, with its church interiors crammed with dazzling and vibrant frescoes, is a must for anyone who makes the long journey to Turkey’s northeast region. The monastery first opened during the Byzantine era and was only closed in 1923. Today, wandering its empty cells, it’s easy to imagine the isolated lives of the monks who once lived here.

7. Mount Nemrut

8. Ani

 

The derelict buildings of the powerful Silk Road city of Ani sit abandoned on the plains close to Turkey’s modern border with Armenia. Once the Armenian capital, Ani’s golden age came to an end in the 14th century after Mongol raids, earthquake destruction, and trade route tussling all played their part in the city’s decline. The beautiful red brick buildings still crumbling away amid the steppe grass have a mesmerising effect on all who visit. Don’t miss the Church of the Redeemer or the Church of St. Gregory, with their elaborate stone masonry and fresco remnants still visible.

9.   Aspendos

Just south of Antalya, the jaw-dropping mammoth bulk of the Roman Theater of Aspendos celebrates the pomp and ceremony of Marcus Aurelius’ rule. Considered the finest surviving example of a classical age theater still standing in the world, it is one of antiquity’s star attractions. Although the theater is the main reason for a visit here – and for most visitors on a half-day trip from nearby Antalya or Side the theater is all they see – there are more ruins to explore over a vast hilly area if you have time.

10.  Cruising the Mediterranean

Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline has ruins galore and bags of things to do, but for many people, it’s all about soaking up the sun while enjoying the gorgeous coastal views. Cruising on a yacht is the number one activity for visitors to Bodrum and Fethiye for good reason. The steep forest-clad slopes, hidden coves sporting tiny white sand beaches, and hundreds of scattered islands are the perfect place for exploring by sea. Even diehard landlubbers will be impressed. One of the most famous trips is known as the “Blue Cruise” and travels from Fethiye south down the coast until disembarking near Olympus, home to the famous natural phenomenon of the Chimaera.

11. Pergamum

Turkey has an abundance of Greco-Roman ruins, but none can be so romantically placed as ancient Pergamum in modern-day Bergama. Once home to one of the ancient world’s most important libraries, Pergamum’s remaining temple remnants now preside dramatically on a hilltop. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place to explore, with an Acropolis area and a theater cut into the hillside with sweeping panoramic views from its top seating tiers. This is a great place to visit if you want to get a real feel for life in the Roman era.

12. Ölüdeniz

Impossibly turquoise-blue water. Check. Lush green forest tumbling down a cliff to a white sand beach. Check. The sheltered inlet of Ölüdeniz, just a short journey from Fethiye, is Turkey’s most famous beach, and with scenery that might as well have fallen off a perfect postcard, it’s easy to see why its popularity hasn’t waned. If the beach gets too crowded, it’s time to take to the skies and experience the stunning aerial views on a tandem paragliding dive off the summit of mighty Babadaǧ Mountain, which rises up behind the shore. Oh, did we mention that Ölüdeniz is one of the world’s top paragliding destinations? Check.

  1. Many of the best attractions are completely free.

Explore the sensory overload that is Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Look up to take in the intricate tile work of the Blue Mosque. Admire the baklava, dripping with honey, piled three feet high in window displays on bustling İstiklal Caddesi. Or beach-hop along the Mediterranean from sophisticated Bodrum to turtle-inhabited İztuzu; Brit-crazy Fethiye to secluded Patara; resort-heavy Antalya to the endless sandy expanse of Alanya. You won’t spend a lira.

2. You can stuff your face with summer’s bounty for pennies — without leaving your beach towel.

In Turkey, the street food comes to you. Whether you’re sprawled under an umbrella in Bodrum or joining the locals for a nightly picnic in İzmir’s seaside Kordon park, you can’t escape the musical call of the street vendors.

Start with a cone of sesame- and honey-glazed peanuts, then move on to midye dolma — stuffed mussels, served up for 30 cents a pop from massive round trays, and carried on the vendor’s head from customer to customer. Pay attention as the midyeci shows you how to use the top shell as a spoon for scooping out the aromatic rice that’s been flavored with a dash of cinnamon and a squirt of lemon juice.

Flag down the roasted-corn-on-the-cob cart, or watch the procession of seasons as the plum cart’s stock transitions from tiny, tart, green yeşil erik in May to plump, juicy, purple tatlı erik by July. Whatever you sample, save room for a slice of honeydew kavun, deftly carved in front of your eyes. The sweet, juicy flesh tastes even better after a long, hot day of sightseeing.

3. Your summer vacation photos will double as indisputable evidence that you’ve been to Mars.

There’s no other way to put it: Cappadocia is wildly out of this world. The Star Wars-meets-Flintstones landscapes of soft, twisted rock makes for incredible hiking. Wander long enough in any direction and you’ll find fresco-decorated cave churches almost 1,000 years old.

Start the day early with a hot-air balloon ride at sunrise. Later, hike down the Güllüdere I (Rose Valley I) to the abandoned cave village of Çavuşin, scramble up the towering rock formations of “Love Valley,” and then take shelter from the heat of the day in the cool relief of your cave hotel.

4. You can follow Turkish “Highlanders” on their annual migration to greener pastures.

In the deep-valley hamlets of Turkey’s Black Sea region, the start of summer means time to take the cattle up into the mountains so they can graze on the fresh, untouched grasses that sprang up during spring. You can watch this seasonal tradition, which ends in July with the Vartovor festivities, when people celebrate by playing instruments that look (and sound) strikingly similar to Scottish bagpipes.

5. Turkish cuisine is reinventing itself, thanks to hot young chefs.

Fresh, delicious ingredients have always been central to Turkish food, but the newest generation of chefs in the country have turned the tradition to obsession, treasure hunting around Turkey for the finest regional products. Their creations (and those lucky enough to taste them) have benefited extraordinarily.

A few names to keep an ear out for include Mehmet Gürs, Didem Şenol, Civan Er, Arda Türkmen, and Kemal Demirasal. These artisans are consistently putting imaginative dishes on the table, from classics with a twist to totally original offerings. Most have signature restaurants with killer settings and accessible tasting menus.

6. No need for a watch tan line — ditch it and tell time by the call to prayer.

Though the exact time changes every day, the ezan is reliable enough to plan your day around. You’ll wake up just before daybreak for Sabah. Get up, see some sights, and right around Öğle it’ll be time to find some lunch. If you plan to visit a mosque, do it before the shadows cast by objects are equal to their height, or else you’ll arrive at İkindi — when non-Muslim tourists are denied entry. By the time Akşam rolls around you’ll be ready for dinner. And as the last rays of light disappear from the horizon, listen for the final warbling strains of Yatsı.

7. Turkey will prove you’ve been exfoliating wrong your whole life.

You don’t know clean, silk-like, summer skin until you’ve had your earlobes, pinky toes, and everything (yes, EV-ERY-THING) in between doused in citronella-scented bubbles and scrubbed down by a heavy-handed attendant armed with a gritty goat-hair kese. And this all goes down while lying on a heated marble pedestal in the middle of a 16th-century hammam.

8. Locals will welcome you into their kitchens.

You want to know what’s in the kofte? The waiter will happily bring you out back to the kitchen to meet the chef. Wondering how baklava is made? The woman selling it in İzmir’s massive Bostanlı Pazar (“BosPa” for short) won’t speak much English, but she’ll happily pantomime the day-long production for you.

And in Eastern Turkey, you can trade in the hostel for a homestay. That’s where you’ll get the best cooking lesson from the ultimate Turkish chef — a mom. Imagine rolling sarma with grape leaves picked off the very arbor you’re sitting under.

9. You’ll never be more than an arm’s length from a steady supply of hot, fragrant çay.

Even in summer, it’s never too hot for çay. Turkish coffee might be famous internationally, but for modern Turks drinking tea is second only to breathing. Each day begins with at least two tiny, tulip-shaped cups of çay, and it keeps flowing till bedtime. Large offices and factories employ a person to make and deliver tea, and workers get breaks specifically for drinking it. Regional buses offer free tea service. And some street corners are rigged with intercom ordering lines to the closest çayevi.

10. You might not be expecting it, but yes, Turkey has waves too.

None of Turkey’s shores touch open ocean, but at Alanya on the Mediterranean and Kerpe on the Black Sea, some crazy Turks are riding the waves. The Alanya Surf Team and Danube Surf House and Academy are two small communities where you’ll learn that there’s a certain subculture of Turks who are constantly checking weather reports and will jump in the car at a moment’s notice to jet to a remote seaside town where waves are going off, however briefly.

11. Walking through the calcium deposits and mineral springs of Pamukkale is like being in an alternate universe, where snow is warm and water glows neon.

These naturally formed, terraced thermal pools have been a destination for relaxation and recuperation since the 2nd century — and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.

12. Turkish ice cream doesn’t melt very fast.

Maraş dondurması is made with salep, a flour derived from orchid tubers, which creates a stretchy, marshmallow-like treat that melts at a controllable pace. So slowly, in fact, you can do as the locals do and order it sandwiched betweenkağıt helva wafers. You’ll find it all over the country, but you can also go straight to the source: Maraş, the city in southern Turkey famous for producing this Turkish version of the ultimate summer treat.

13. You can go on your very own “blue voyage.”

The gulet is a two- or three-masted sailing vessel traditional to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, particularly around Bodrum and Marmaris. In the mid-20th century, gulet cruising became popular among local and visiting artists and writers — today, there’s no shortage of Blue Voyage operators who can take you out on a multi-day cruise, on ships that resemble floating boutique hotels, within a landscape of pure turquoise.