Turkey is a huge, diverse country, stretching from Europe and the Meditteranean, and far across Anatolia towards the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Persia. It’s an ancient land, a country that saw the rise of the first Hellenistic civilizations thousands of years ago, a place that was colonised by the Romans, ruled by the Byzantines and then conquered by the Ottomans, and there’s a fascinating yet convoluted history waiting to be uncovered in the most intriguing places to visit in Turkey.
From the busy streets and bazaars of Istanbul in the west to the crumbling ruins of Armenian kingdoms in the east, there are a lot of places to visit in Turkey. Beach lovers can sun themselves on the sands of the coast, hikers can venture out into the valleys of Cappadocia, and intrepid travellers can get off the beaten track and explore the Kurdish provinces in the south-east.
There are some captivating places to visit in Turkey, and here are the best of them!
Travelling Around Turkey
Don’t underestimate the size of Turkey when you’re planning your travels. From Istanbul to the far eastern city of Van, it’s a journey of at least 20 hours and that’s only if you don’t stop. It’s a vast country, and you’ll encounter different languages, religions and ethnicities as you move from one place to the next.
Istanbul has always been the main point of entry into Turkey, and you’ll even find that they have a brand new, purpose-built airport to cater to air passengers. From Istanbul, there are bus and train connections across the country, ranging from comfortable overnight sleepers to packed minibuses connecting small towns.
While the land border with Syria has long been closed, you can still travel from Diyarbakir to Iraqi Kurdistan overland. In the east, the border with Armenia has also been closed for a very long time, but on the Black Sea, you can easily cross the border from Sarpi to Batumi to visit Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous – and if you have time and patience – then in the Mediterranean, you can take the ferry from Turkey to Northern Cyprus, or you can find ships heading across to Lebanon, and to the Greek Islands.
Do I Need a Visa to Visit Turkey?
Depending on your nationality, you may well need a Turkey visa to gain entrance to the country. This is a relatively simple process, but in most cases, you do need to ensure that you do it in advance to avoid any problems at immigration.
To make things more efficient though, you can apply for your e-visa Turkey online, in a cheap and easy process. For United Kingdom nationals like myself, we are currently granted multiple entry visas, whereby you can stay for up to 90 days in Turkey within a 180 day period.
Although the entire system is supposed to be electronic, it’s best to make sure that you also have a hard copy of your e-visa one it’s issued. While not a problem at big hubs like Istanbul, if you are crossing more remote borders – such as ferry ports, or land borders – a printout, in my experience, will save you time and hassle.
Places to Visit in Turkey
There are a lot of potential places to visit in Turkey. Istanbul can easily be visited on its own as a classic city break, but heading further afield will require time and a bit of planning, due to the distances involved. On the Mediterranean, you can spend weeks travelling along the coast, exploring beaches and uncovering ancient Romand and Greek ruins, while in the far east there are forgotten Armenian kingdoms and vast, empty landscapes to explore.
The following list of places to visit in Turkey barely scratches the surface of the country’s potential, but these are all destinations that I personally visited and that gripped me with their history, their sheer natural beauty, or in most cases, both.
No article on the best places to visit in Turkey can ever be complete without including Istanbul. While it’s not actually the nation’s capital – that award goes to distant Ankara – this is the largest city in Turkey and one of the most historic locations in the world.
Formerly known as Constantinople – for many, many centuries, in fact – Istanbul was seen as a more Turkish name when it was changed in the 1930s. The city has stood on the Bosphorus, at the crossroads between east and west, for thousands of years. Thought to date back to at least the 6th century BC, this was the capital of the Byzantine Empire before it was captured by the Ottomans in 1453.
It then became the heart of the Ottoman Empire, and while Turkey’s government may now be based in Ankara, Istanbul has never lost its magnificence or heritage. It’s an enormous city, and you can visit famous sights such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque or gorge on fish sandwiches while you watch the ferries cruise along the waterway that separates Europe from Asia.
There are few other cities like it in the world, and Istanbul is certainly one of the best places to visit in Turkey.
Istanbul can be chaotic, uncompromising and of course, touristy, and if you are looking to get off the beaten track in Turkey but to still visit somewhere close to the city, then a trip to Princes’ Islands is in order.
Known in Turkish as Adalar, Princes’ Islands comprises a small archipelago in the Sea of Marmara. You can take a ferry from Istanbul, which is a wonderful journey in itself and a chance to enjoy the iconic skyline of the city from the water.
The largest island is Buyukada, but it’s hardly large in any relative sense. The first thing you’ll notice is the sense of peace, as there are almost no motorised vehicles on the islands. It’s pure escapism in comparison to Istanbul. On Buyukada, you can stroll from one end of the island to the next at a leisurely pace, or you can hire a bicycle to get around quickly. Take in the scenery, gaze out to sea, and then enjoy some Turkish coffee or some fish sandwiches when you get back to the harbour.
Pamukkale and Hierapolis
The unusual scene of Pamukkale’s ethereal travertines is one of the most mesmerising sights in Turkey. Pamukkale translates into English as ‘Cotton Castle’, because this is essentially one giant mountain of calcium carbonate.
The travertines are layered on the side of a hill, and vibrantly blue water flows through these swimming pools. It’s quite a sight. On top of this white mountain though, you’ll also find the equally impressive sight of Hierapolis, an ancient Greek, then Roman city that lies in ruins.
You can walk through the abandoned city, explore old homes and buildings and even sit in the vast expanse of the open-air amphitheatre that has somehow survived in most of its former glory.
Tourism has always been big here, and citizens from across the Roman Empire would travel to Hierapolis in search of the healing hot springs. Even today, you can still bathe in these natural hot springs, which are built into the ruins themselves.
To travel to Pamukkale and Hierapolis, you first need to make your way to the town of Denizli. There are overnight bus connections between Istanbul and Denizli, I travelled with Metro Bus. From the bus station in Denizli, you can make the short minibus journey to Pamukkale.
Fethiye and the Lycian Way
Turkey has an exceptional coastline along the Mediterranean, with beaches, bays and lagoons that can easily rival anywhere in Greece or Italy. Many of the towns and cities on the coast are dedicated to tourism, and you can find plenty of resorts and all-inclusive packages to book into.
If you are looking for something a little more eventful than lounging around on the beach all day though, then head to Fethiye, where you can find the start of the Lycian Way. This area was once known as Lycia, and it’s thought to have been one of the oldest civilizations in the Meditteranean.
In Fethiye, you can explore the old rock tombs of the Lycian kings, and you can sit out on the beach and enjoy a cocktail in the sun too. Fethiye is also the start of the Lycian Way, a long-distance hiking trail which can take you 300 miles along the coast to the city of Antalya.
I gave it a go and got injured after 7 days of hiking, but don’t let that stop you. It’s an epic hike, and you can camp or stay in local homestays along the way. You’ll pass through ruined villages, along dramatic cliffs and see a side of the coast that few ever venture through.
Oh, and if you love paragliding, then you can take a trip to the top of Mount Babadag. The mountain overlooks the resort town of Oludeniz, which is one of the top places to visit in Turkey, purely because it looks so good. It’s quite the experience. I ended up crashing twice on my paragliding flight in Oludeniz, so just be careful…
Kayakoy is part of the Lycian Way, but even if you aren’t hiking the trail then it’s definitely one of the best places to visit in Turkey. Kayakoy is an eerily abandoned village. It’s not far from Fethiye, and it’s very much a contrast to the touristy beaches found along the coast.
In fact, it’s a rather dark and depressing place to visit when you look into the history. But it’s also fascinating, and if you want to gain a more detailed picture of the turmoil that Turkey went through as a country in the early 20th century, then there are few better examples than Kayakoy.
After World War I, Turkey was in turmoil as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. Kayakoy was actually a Greek village but in the aftermath of the brutal civil war, hundreds of thousands of Greeks were relocated to Greece, while hundreds of thousands of Turks were relocated to Turkey from Greece.
These population exchanges changed the ethnic and religious makeup of Turkey irrevocably, and in the process, many towns and villages across the country were left abandoned. Kayakoy is one of the most striking demonstrations of these tumultuous events.
One of Turkey’s most enduring destinations, Cappadocia never fails to hold the imagination of those who travel into the rocky plains of Anatolia.
Cappadocia is one of the best places to visit in Turkey for many reasons. For starters, it’s stunning, it’s dramatic and it’s almost otherworldly. Vast landscapes are punctuated by rocky valleys and mountains, in one of Turkey’s most moving locations.
More than this though, Cappadocia is a cultural and historic find like few others. The rocky landscapes proved incredibly malleable, and for centuries, Cappadocia was used as a hideout by persecuted people looking to escape the world. Christians built caves and churches in the rock, while entire cities were constructed underground.
Today, the towns and villages are still built into the rocks, and you can spend your nights’ sleeping in hotels and hostels that are carved from the mountains of Cappadocia.
At the same time, hot air balloons float over these endless landscapes, and you can strap on your boots and head out hiking into the dense network of interconnected valleys that stretch through Cappadocia. You can join horse riding treks across the plains, you can hire ATVs to race off-road, and you can explore the region’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There’s history, there’s great food, and Cappadocia is one of the top places to visit in Turkey!
Cappadocia has become increasingly touristy over the last few years, but it’s still a remote destination. It’s a long way from Istanbul, but you can fly in or take overnight buses to the main transport hub at Kayseri.
If you’re looking to get even more remote, then you can travel from Cappadocia to Mount Nemrut. This little known part of Turkey is found to the south-east of Cappadocia, and could well be the most overlooked UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country.
Mount Nemrut is the site of an ancient king’s attempts to preserve his name and legacy in truly Ozymandian fashion. A huge artificial mound was constructed sometime around the 1st century BC, although it’s unclear exactly when. Enormous stone statues of gods and kings were carved and hauled to the top of Mount Nemrut.
Unfortunately for the king who ordered the construction, their name has been lost to time. The giant statues remain though, and in particular, giant stone heads that have rolled from their stone bodies are the most dramatic sight that welcomes you when you climb the mountain.
Mount Nemrut is at an altitude of well over 2000 metres, and for much of the year, the area is closed off due to heavy snowfall. From April through to October the area is open for tourism and despite being in a difficult to reach location, it’s certainly one of the best places to visit in Turkey.
Yes, you read that correctly. There’s a city in Turkey called Batman. The mayor even tried to sue Warner Brothers a few years back for stealing their name. Batman is just about as off the beaten track as you can get in Turkey, and I’ll be honest, there’s not much to see in the city itself, although it’s easy to keep amused just by wandering around and seeing all the Batman shops, hospitals and universities.
Batman is far in the east of Turkey, and the city makes for the perfect base to visit another of the country’s hidden, historical relics, and one that may not be there for too much longer. Hasankeyf is just a short journey away from Batman, and this ancient town on the banks of the Tigris River is thought to be almost 12,000 years old.
That’s exceptional, and it’s easily one of the most historic destinations in Turkey. Unfortunately though, Hasankeyf is set to be submerged. You’ll want to get there quick because the Turkish government are hell-bent on sending Hasankeyf underwater when they complete a hydroelectric project upstream.
The far east of Turkey is predominantly Kurdish in language and culture, and you’ll see distinct differences on this side of the country in comparison to the more visited areas on the Meditteranean and even in Anatolia.
Lake Van is the largest lake in Turkey, and it’s surrounded by historic cities and incredible scenery. The main hub for the region is Van, a city that can trace its origins back over 3000 years, if not more. Van is today a Kurdish city, but around the lake, you’ll find the remnants of the Armenian kingdoms that once ruled these lands.
On Akdamar Island, in the middle of Lake Van, you can find one of the last Armenian churches in Turkey. Up until the First World War, the area was mostly occupied by Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, but they were forced out during the conflict.
Take a boat across to Akdamar Island, to see the church itself, which dates back almost 1000 years to the 10th century and which was, until the start of the 20th century, a main focal point for the Armenian church in the region.
Another reminder of the far east of Turkey’s long and diverse history is the ruined city of Ani. Located right on the border with Armenia – a border which has been closed for years due to political reasons – Ani was once the capital of a powerful Armenian kingdom which ruled over 1000 years ago.
Although once the centre of trade and politics in the region, Ani was destroyed by successive waves of Mongol invaders and unfortunate natural disasters, and by the 13th century lay in ruins.
Today, an impressive number of churches have been preserved, in varying states of repair. It’s one of the most dramatic destinations in Turkey, but it’s not easy or quick to travel to, and you might just find that you’re the only tourist there.
To visit the ruined city of Ani, first travel to the city of Kars. From Kars, you can then arrange private transport to the ruins themselves, on a day trip.
All Words and Photos by Richard Collett