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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.