Bordered by eight countries and straddling two continents, Turkey is a land of contrasts. Cosmopolitan yet full of antiquity, it has ties to the ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. With so much to see and do, travelers often wonder where to even begin exploring this cultural capital.
Here are our picks for where to go in Turkey, beyond just Istanbul (which is also amazing and a definite must-see).
Cappadocia: Above and Below Ground
Cappadocia looks like something out of a sci-fi movie with all the character and quirkiness to go with it. The nature of the area seems like it was designed specifically for hikers while still maintaining a sense of authenticity of the region's history. Famously know for its stunning sunrise hot air balloon rides, Cappadocia also offers unique cave hotels you can explore and even stay in. Be sure to at least visit one of the cave dwellings because what’s underground is just as impressive as what’s above ground, and will give you a firsthand look into Ottoman life.
What to See: Check out the fairy Chimneys near Goreme. Formed from volcanic activity over the years, these "hoodoos" provide stunning landscapes that are truly unique in the region.
What to Do: Sunrise by Balloon. No visit to Cappadocia, or Turkey in general, is complete without catching the incredible landcape by air.
What to Eat and Drink: Testi Kebab and Menemen
Izmir: History and Modernity
The second major city in Turkey, Izmir is a place that’s largely overlooked but full of history, style, and cuisine that give it a distinct identity. From a cultural standpoint, it’s the most important city although you may not know it from its youthful and liberal slant. Izmir appeals to westerners with its modernity and if you plan to visit Greece on the same trip, it’s a great place to depart from. Ferry service is relatively inexpensive and it’s an easy place to experience the contrast between the two countries separated by the Aegean Sea. Troy, anyone?
What to See: Kordon, the promenade by horse carriage, which should only cost about 20 lira.
What to Do: Shop the Kemeralti Market. It rivals the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul without being quite so overwhelming and is truly the heart of Izmir. If you're into leather, this is the first and only stop you need to make in the region.
What to Eat and Drink: Kumru and Boyoz
Ankara: Capital Distinction
Some lists will intentionally leave off a country’s capital, but Ankara is worth seeing. This is where modern Turkey began and in places like Istanbul, you'll notice a distinct contrast between the conservative and liberal Turkish people. This is a direct result of the push for independence and western values that started in Ankara, who just swore in Turkey’s first democratically elected president. Granted, it’s major city, but look under the surface and you'll find a vibrant nightlife, unique shopping experiences, and some of the best street food in the world.
What to See: Ankara Castle has truly stood the test of time. Held by the Romans, Byzantine, Turks, and Crusaders, this structure is steeped in history and remains well preserved today.
What to Do: Anitkabir. The Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, is a national treasure that also houses the remains of Ismet Inonu, the second president of Turkey. You'll immediately notice it's similarity to a certain memorial in Washington D.C.
What to Eat and Drink: Donor kebap
Antalya: Beach Dreams
A playground for those in search of sun and sand, beautiful ruins provide a backdrop for luxury resorts, but don’t let that deter you. Millions flock to the city by the sea, but not the city itself. The Antalya Old Town is full of vibrancy with plenty of culture for anyone looking to get away from the beach crowd. With the longest coastline in Turkey, Antalya revolves around water so be sure to walk along the stunning seashore and grab a boat ride if time permits.
What to See: Aspendos was once a Greco-Roman city that still houses the best-preserved Roman theater in the Mediterranean.
What to Do: Take a Gulet cruise along the coast. Turkish wooden sailing boats, they’re relaxing and nostalgic vessels, giving you that "pirate ship" feel.
What to Eat and Drink: Raki (alcohol) and seafood
Bodrum: Seaside Escape
Located in Southwest Turkey, the port city of Bodrum is uniquely different than Izmir or Antalya. Once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Mausolus, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 13th century A.D. It was also the birthplace of Herodotus, ancient Greek historian and the "father of history." What you'll find today is a relatively quaint fishing town, perfect for a weekend getaway. With no real nightlife to speak of, you'll enjoy few crowds, delicious meals, and Turkish hospitality unlike anywhere else on the coast.
What to See: The remnants of the Mausoleum at Halikarnassus. Although largely pillaged and destroyed, you can still see where this archeological treasure once stood.
What to Do: Visit the Bodrum Castle. Built by the Knights Hospitaller in the 15th century as a stronghold, it now plays host to the Museum of Underwater Archeology, but is still a shrine to stunning excavations and history.
What to Eat and Drink: Ot Kavurmasi and keskek