From touring the Hagia Sophia to sailing the Aegean Sea, you won't find a shortage of activities to do in Turkey.
With thousands of years of history, incredibly diverse landscapes, and a rich cultural heritage, there’s something for everyone in Turkey. Whether your idea of a great vacation is touring archaeological sites, swimming and sunbathing at a coastal resort, hiking into remote mountains, or savoring gourmet meals, this historical crossroads has a lifetime’s worth of experiences to offer. These are 25 of the best.
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Marvel at the Masterful Sülemaniye Mosque
With more than 300 mosques, palaces, and other 16th-century buildings to his name, Mimar Sinan was the greatest Ottoman architect, and the Sülemaniye Camii in Istanbul’s Fatih district is among the master’s masterpieces. Perched atop one of the city’s historic seven hills, the beautifully restored mosque lacks the vibrant tile work of the better-known Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) but exceeds it in architectural harmoniousness and scope, with a massive, light-filled central dome and a grand surrounding complex of buildings that once served as school, library, hospital, bathing, eating, and lodging facilities. The peaceful gardens have a spectacular and much-photographed view over the rooftops of Eminönü and across the waters of the Golden Horn to the Galata skyline.
Glimpse Ottoman Glory at Topkapı Palace
Entering the inner sanctums of Topkapı Palace was once a privilege available only to a very few, and passing through the series of magnificent gates and courtyards to reach the sultan’s private quarters still evokes the intended feeling of awe. The grandeur of one of the world’s most powerful empires is reflected throughout the palace complex, from the jaw-dropping collection of enormous jewels, sumptuous imperial thrones, and opulent gifts in the Treasury to the massive kitchens in the Second Courtyard that could turn out feasts to feed 10,000 guests.
Gaze in Wonder at the Hagia Sophia’s Dome
Byzantine church, Ottoman mosque, and now world-famous museum, a visit to the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish) is a spiritual experience no matter your religious persuasion. Its towering golden dome—built in the 6th century and not surpassed until St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was completed in the 17th century—appears to float high above the building’s marble floor, always full of visitors craning their necks to see the recently uncovered angel mosaics in each corner of the ceiling.
Feast on Meze, Fish, and Rakı
WHERE: Istanbul/Aegean Coast/Mediterranean Coast
As much of a social ritual as it is a meal, a night at a meyhane is an unmissable part of any trip to Turkey. Start with a table full of meze—small dishes of vegetables, dips, and fish and seafood, generally featuring a lot of olive oil—before moving on to a perfectly grilled whole levrek (sea bass) or çupra (sea bream), served simply with fresh leaves of spicy arugula, rings of raw red onion, and a lemon to squeeze over it all. Anise-flavored rakı, mixed with water and ice, is the traditional accompaniment to this classic meal, served with style at Istanbul restaurants like Karaköy Lokantası and all along Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean coast.
Get Lost in the Maze of the Grand Bazaar
Often described as the world’s oldest mall, Istanbul’s 550-year-old Grand Bazaar is a labyrinth of shops, filled with thousands of vendors hawking carpets, scarfs, handbags, souvenirs, and Turkish delight. It can be overwhelmingly hectic and unbearably touristy, but there are still some handcrafted treasures to be had, as well as fascinating glimpses into the past in some of the bazaar’s dustier corners, where a few remaining leatherworkers and jewelry makers still ply their trade in crumbling hans (caravanserai) seemingly unchanged over the centuries.
Windsurf on Turquoise Aegean Waters
With its broad, shallow bay, steady winds, and sparkling sea, the Aegean town of Alaçatı is renowned among windsurfers, playing host to segments of the Professional Windsurfers Association World Tour in years past. The instructors at the schools along the sandy beach will have even complete beginners feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their face as they glide across the water in no time.
See the Fairy Chimneys from Above
The sight of dozens of colorful hot-air balloons floating above the fantastical volcanic-rock formations (known as “fairy chimneys”) of Cappadocia has become an iconic image of Turkey. And what’s already beautiful from the ground is stunning from the bird’s-eye view of a basket 3,000 feet above one of the country’s most magical places. Flights take off each morning (weather permitting) around sunrise and should be booked well in advance.
Tour an Underground City
It’s not for the claustrophobic, but the descent into Derinkuyu or Kaymaklı—underground cities believed to have been able to shelter thousands of people each—is (pardon the pun) deeply impressive. During times of war and invasion over the centuries, the people of the Cappadocia region retreated eight levels or more below the earth into these and dozens of other subterranean cities that include areas for stabling horses, storing wine, and cooking food.
Summit Rugged Kaçkar Dağı
The highest point in the rugged Kaçkar Mountains range above the Black Sea coast, the 3,900-meter (12,900-foot) summit of Kaçkar Dağı offers stark, sweeping views of rocky peaks and alpine lakes. Covered with ice and snow much of the year, the summit can be reached in a single day during a short window of time in late summer without technical equipment, though a guide is recommended. The easiest approach is from the Dilberdüzü base camp near the village of Olgunlar in Artvin province. A tougher trek starts from the scenic frontier settlement of Yukarı Kavrun in Çamlıhemşin, Rize province.
Trek the Lycian Way
Turkey’s first long-distance trekking route, the 540-kilometer (335-mile) Lycian Way along and above the Mediterranean coast, is still its most popular. And there’s no need to come fully kitted out and ready to hike for weeks to experience its natural splendor. Dozens of day hikes along the trail, which extends east–west from Fethiye to Antalya, take in rural villages, archaeological ruins, coastal towns, secluded swimming coves, and spectacular scenery in every direction.
Walk in Ancient Footsteps at Ephesus
The heavy hitter among Turkey’s wealth of archaeological sites, the ancient city of Ephesus boasts the towering, elaborately carved façade of the Library of Celsus; a 40,000-seat outdoor theater; and the lavishly decorated “terrace houses.” Perhaps most moving and evocative, though, is simply walking down the city’s grand thoroughfares, their paving stones worn smooth as glass from all the footsteps that have trod on them over the centuries.
Savor the Beauties of Aphrodisias
WHERE: Aydın province
Aphrodite was the ancient Greek goddess of beauty as well as love, and this city built in her honor is surely one of the beautiful archaeological sites in Turkey. Centered around the 1st century B.C. Temple of Aphrodite, the ruins of Aphrodisias—including a massive stadium—sprawl across green fields dotted with poplar trees in the tiny village of Geyre. The fascinating museum is full of strikingly lifelike marble sculptures and friezes that once adorned the site.
Explore the Abandoned City of Ani
Perched on a lush plateau above the steep ravine that marks the closed border between Turkey and Armenia, the medieval city of Ani is spectacularly sited and deeply haunting. Remote as it seems today, this was once the capital of a 10th-century Armenian empire and an important crossroads of trade before invasions and a devastating earthquake provoked its decline. Abandoned for 300 years, the “city of 1,001 churches” fell into ruins, but what ruins they are: the towering, fresco-laded churches and other buildings seem to rise out of a vast landscape that could take days to fully explore.
Tour the Vineyards of Urla and Thrace
The history of viniculture in the lands that now comprise Turkey dates back some 7,000 years but the country’s winemaking industry is not exactly a household name. Enterprising vintners in the Urla area near İzmir and the Thrace region around Tekirdağ have banded together to try and change that. The wine-tasting routes they’ve set up take visitors through bucolic landscapes to their small boutique wineries, which pair local wines, cheeses, and other culinary treats with Turkish hospitality and Napa Valley-like views—without the Napa-like crowds.
Join the Festivities at a Camel-Wrestling Match
WHERE: Selçuk/Aegean Coast
Roving musicians playing drums and horns, meat cooking over smoky grills, boisterous rakı-drinking locals picnicking all around… and that’s just on the sidelines. The main attraction at deve güreşi matches are the namesake pairs of wrestling camels, massive beasts decked out in colorful, banner-adorned saddle blankets who lumber at each other in the ring until one asserts its dominance. The Selçuk camel-wrestling festival in late January is the largest and most popular of these events, held all along Turkey’s Aegean Coast over the winter months.
Watch Greased-Up Wrestlers Grapple
The first oil-wrestling tournament was held in Kırkpınar in the mid-1300s, as Ottoman troops fought to capture the nearby city of Edirne for their new capital, or so the story goes. Six-and-a-half centuries years later, hefty men wearing only leather trousers and a thick coating of olive oil still gather to grapple on a grassy field in Kırkpınar, though now they’re watched by thousands of spectators. The championship tournament, held each year in early summer, is the culmination of a season full of slippery sparring and results in one man being named Turkey’s top wrestler.
Laze on Beautiful Beaches
Two of the finest stretches of sand along Turkey’s stunning Turquoise Coast can be found near the sleepy towns of Patara and Dalyan. Stroll through the atmospheric ruins of ancient Patara—a important Lycian and Roman port city—to Patara Beach’s seven miles of sand dunes and solitude. The approach to five-mile-long İztuzu Beach is equally breathtaking: a boat ride through the winding, reed-lined inlets of the Dalyan River, with Carian rock tombs carved into the cliffs high above. Both beaches are nesting grounds for the endangered Caretta caretta sea turtle and efforts to protect its habitat have left these spots blissfully free of major seaside development.
Pay Respects to the Founder of Modern Turkey
Eighty years after his death, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk still casts a long shadow over Turkish politics and society. The founder of modern Turkey and the country’s first president, Atatürk is known for his military victory at Gallipoli and leadership of the successful 1919–22 War of Independence. Despite the many changes in the ensuing years, you’ll still find Atatürk’s photo and quoted sayings all over Turkey, but his massive mausoleum, Anıtkabir, in the capital city of Ankara is the best place to get a sense of just how monumental a figure he was.
Imagine the Pitched Battles of the Trojan War
One of the most fabled places in ancient literature, Troy is best known through Homer’s The Iliad, an epic poem about a lengthy war over the city, but archaeological excavations at the site in northwestern Turkey have uncovered nine layers of civilization dating back 5,000 years. A new museum, which opened in October 2018, brings all that rich history to life through interactive displays and some 2,000 artifacts, ranging from Bronze Age figurines to a hoard of gold jewelry to a massive sarcophagus carved with scenes from Greek myth.
Explore Sacred Sites and Spicy Cuisine
Though today’s Turkey is populated almost entirely by Muslims, the lands it contains have a rich and diverse religious history. The southeast city of Antakya (Antioch) was an important center of early Christianity and its cobbled streets still wind past active churches and at least one synagogue as well as mosques. A cave church on the edge of town where St. Peter is said to have preached is a site of pilgrimage for the devout. The city is also famed in Turkey for its spicy food and other dishes – including hummus and the decadent cheese-stuffed, syrup-soaked dessert künefe – influenced by the cuisine of neighboring Syria, to which Antakya once belonged. While you’re in town, don’t miss the majestic Roman-era mosaics on display at the Hatay Müzesi.
Sail the Mediterranean on a ‘Blue Cruise’
Swim? Snorkel? Curl up with a book? Pull out the backgammon board? Grab another beer? Or just lay down for a snooze in the sun? These are the kind of tough decisions you’ll face on board a “blue cruise,” a chartered sailing boat that plies Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast, stopping in pristine, uninhabited coves to swim and sunbathe by day and sleep under a sky full of stars at night. Trips depart from resort towns such as Fethiye, Bodrum, and Marmaris and can last for a few days or even a week, depending on just how much blissed-out relaxation you can handle.
Sample Black Sea Culture and Cuisine
Up in the mountains above the Black Sea coast and only accessible during the warmer months of the year, the yayla (highland pastures) of Trabzon, Rize, and Artvin provinces have a distinctive culture all their own. Corn, kale, and beans figure prominently in local dishes such as the fondue-like muhlama, karalahana çorbası (kale soup), and pickled beans with cornbread, while the sound of the bagpipe-like tulum echoes through the region’s lush valleys and hills. The tiny, charming village of Çamlıhemşin is a good jumping-off point for sampling yayla life—and the breathtaking trekking routes of the Kaçkar Mountains beyond.
Shop With the Locals at Weekly Markets
WHERE: All Around Turkey
Despite the increasing prominence of malls all around the country, for many Turks there’s still no better place to shop than the weekly pazar, neighborhood markets that fill the streets with temporary covered stalls selling everything from olives to underwear. Especially in small towns, but even in Istanbul neighborhoods, the pazar is a vibrant center of social life. Join the throngs to gaze at the colorful stacks of produce, sample street food, pick up snacks for a picnic, or just people-watch—it’s a truly local experience.
Clamber Up to Dramatic Rock Tombs
More than 2,000 years ago, the kings of the Pontic Empire presided over much of the lands around the Black Sea from their capital city, Amasya. These rulers’ majestic tombs still tower today above this pretty riverside town in northern Turkey, carved into the surrounding cliffs and accessible by easy walking paths. The more popular tourist destination of Fethiye boasts notable rock tombs of its own in the hills above town, equally old and enshrining important figures from the ancient Lycian civilization that once inhabited much of the Mediterranean coast. The Lycian tombs of ancient Myra, near Demre, are even more impressive, but only viewable from the ground level.
Visit a Remote Island Monastery
Created by a volcanic eruption, Lake Van in Turkey’s far east—the country’s largest lake—looks as dramatic as its origins suggest, with its bright-blue, mineral-rich waters surrounded by often-snow-topped peaks. Take a ferry from its shores to visit the uninhabited islet of Akdamar, where you’ll find incredible carvings and wall paintings of Biblical scenes adorning a 10th-century Armenian monastery.