Over the past two decades, tourism in Turkey has been steadily rising. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, it was the 6th most popular tourist destination in the world, and the 4th within Europe, in 2014. Much of the tourism in Turkey revolves around historical sites and seaside resorts. Even though Istanbul is the most well-known city, there are so many things to do in Turkey that you will need at least 12 days to experience the country in its entirety. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about planning a 12-day trip to Turkey, don’t worry — this article will help you plan an itinerary (including where to go and what to do) for your adventure.
Day 1 - 3: Istanbul
As the largest and most populous city in Turkey, Istanbul serves as the country’s economic, cultural, and historical center. It is also one of the most-popular tourist destinations in the world. With Turkey’s most number of flights going in and out Istanbul, chances are this is where you’ll be flying to, which is why your 12-day trip will start here.
1. Walk through the Grand Bazaar
Completed in 1461, the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. It is home to over 60 streets and close to 5,000 shops, attracting as many as 400,000 visitors daily. Known for its jewelry, ceramics, carpets, spices, and lanterns, people love to just walk around each street to explore the unique Turkish culture. It was ranked #1 in a list of the world’s most-visited tourist attraction in 2014 by Travel + Leisure magazine, and is a must-see for anyone in Istanbul.
Address: Beyazıt Mh., İstanbul, Turkey
Official Website: Grand Bazaar
2. Soak in the history and architecture of Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is a structure that has a lot of cultural and historical significance to Istanbul. Formerly built as a cathedral in 537 AD, it became an imperial mosque (1453–1931) before it became a museum in 1935. Its name means “holy wisdom” when translated in English. Its dome structure is said to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture. However, in terms of historical significance, Hagia Sophia is also the perfect fusion of both the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires and the effect they had on the city. The entrance fee to Hagia Sophia Museum is 40 TRY (13.60 USD).
Address: Sultanahmet Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı, Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Official Website: Hagia Sophia
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3. Visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is more famously-known as the Blue Mosque, named after the blue tiles on its interior walls. The grandeur of the mosque will be nothing like you could have ever imagined. Even though it is one of Istanbul’s most well-known tourist attractions, it also still serves as a mosque. Because of this, it is closed to non-worshippers for around 30 minutes, five times a day, for prayer. One important thing to note: as it is a place of worship, visitors should dress and behave appropriately when visiting the Blue Mosque. Both men and women should not be dressed in revealing clothes, and you will be asked to remove your shoes and remain quiet while inside.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Address: At Meydanı No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Website: Sultan Ahmed Mosque
4. Take a ferry ride across The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is the strait that separates Istanbul, and connects Europe to Asia. This is what makes Istanbul so unique — it is the only city in the world to span two continents. While there are multiple boat cruises that can take you down the strait and stop at various tourist spots, that method of sightseeing will cost more and waste more time. Unless that is something you really want to do, it is recommended to just take a ferry ride directly across the strait one way for the experience. Ferries depart every 15 - 20 minutes, and the duration of the ride is 25 minutes.
5. Learn about Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. As the sultans began to spend more time in their new palaces along The Bosphorus, Topkapi Palace slowly lost its significance. Since 1924, when it was transformed into a museum, it has served as a tourist attraction displaying examples of Ottoman architecture. The palace was once home to as many as 4,000 people, hence the complex consists of four courtyards and many small buildings. Admission to the museum costs 40 TRY (13.60 USD) and it is open every day, except Tuesdays.
Address: Sultanahmet, Fatih / ISTANBUL
Website: Topkapı Palace
6. Climb to the top of the Galata Tower
Standing at 67 meters (219 feet), Galata Tower is the tallest and one of the most striking structures in Istanbul. Built in 1348, the medieval stone tower is shaped as a tall cone-capped cylinder that stands out against the low-rise buildings of the skyline. It offers a panoramic 360-degree view of the city via an elevator ride and a short climb. The cost is 19 TRY (6.50 USD). There is also a restaurant and café on its upper decks, allowing visitors to enjoy a meal or a drink with a stunning view of Istanbul and The Bosphorus.
7. Take a traditional Turkish bath
A Turkish bath, also known as a hamam, is an adaptation of the traditional Roman bath. As a major part of Turkish culture, hamam focuses on both cleansing and relaxing the body. While various services are offered, a traditional Turkish bath package includes a process of washing, body scrubbing, a foam wash, and a massage. To get the full traditional experience, you can choose to be completely naked, as the Turks have been doing for centuries. However, if you are not comfortable with that, most baths provide visitors with a thin towel to cover themselves. Some of the most popular baths that you may want to go to are Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam, Cağaloğlu Hamam, and Çemberlitaş Hamam.
8. Spin with the Sufi Dervishes
The story of the Whirling Dervishes began in the 13th century when Mevlana, a Sufi master, decided that Sufis could gain a closer relationship with God through a whirling dance. Performed within the Sema (a worship ceremony), the dance was never intended as a performance or tourist attraction, but rather as a religious practice. However, nowadays it has become a popular activity for visitors in Istanbul. The most famous Whirling Dervish performances are held only on Sundays, in the Galata Mevlevi Museum, for 50 TRY (17 USD). It is a unique experience and a mystical adventure into Sufi spiritualism that should not be missed.
Day 4 - 5: Cappadocia
Cappadocia is a historical region located in Central Anatolia. With at least 15 flights a day and a short flight time of 1.5 hours, flying there from Istanbul is an obvious route to take. However, unlike Istanbul, Cappadocia isn’t a city. Instead of buildings, its landscape consists of high plateaus and volcanic peaks at an altitude of over 1,000 meters (3,281 feet). If your first thought is that there can’t be anything to do amongst rocks, you should reconsider because there are, in fact, a lot of things to do in Cappadocia.
1. Ride a hot air balloon
Home to one of the most surreal landscapes in the world, Cappadocia has become a popular destination for hot air balloon rides. Flights leave at the crack of dawn, so prepared to be up very early. There is no doubt that you will be awed by the spectacular views from the air, from Cappadocia’s rocky terrain to its distinct valleys. Expect the price for a standard 1-hour flight to start from 140 EUR (462 TRY / 156.70 USD), but it may be cheaper if you pre-book it online. Deluxe flights cost more, but will have a longer flight duration and less people per balloon. It may be an expensive adventure, but it is also an unforgettable experience that will be worth every penny.
2. Visit the Göreme Open-Air Museum
The Göreme Open-Air Museum is a historical monastic complex consisting of rock-cut churches, chapels, monasteries, and frescoes from the Byzantine Empire. As one of the first two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Turkey, it is a mandatory stop for every tourist in Cappadocia. For just 20 TRY (6.80 USD), you can experience the museum’s rock architecture. The highlight of the museum is Karanlik Kilise (the Dark Church) as it holds some of the finest examples of Byzantine art. Entrance to the Dark Church is an additional 10 TRY (3.40 USD).
Goreme Open-Air Museum
Address: Museum Road, Goreme / Nevsehir
Opening Hours: 0800 hrs - 1900 hrs (April to October) 0800 hrs - 1700 hrs (November to March)
Contact: +9 0 (384) 213 42 60
3. Admire the iconic fairy chimneys
Cappadocia is known for its landscape of rock formations, particularly fairy chimneys. As one of Mother Nature’s gifts to the world, fairy chimneys are mushroom-like rocks that stand as tall as 40 meters (130 feet). They are a result of a natural geological process involving volcanic lava that began millions of years ago. While you will be able to observe them from a ride in a hot air balloon, you will need to look at them up close to truly admire them. You can even stay in one of the unusual formations through the Fairy Chimney Inn Cave Hotel, or through Airbnb.
4. Explore the underground cities of Göreme National Park
Göreme National Park is located in the volcanic zone between Hasan Mountain and Erciyes Mountain. Apart from fairy chimneys and a landscape sculpted by erosion, underground cities are some of the park’s most interesting and unique features. These complexes are evidence of traditional ways that humans lived, dating as far back as the 4th century. Over the years, at least 100 underground settlements have been discovered in the area, but only a few are open to visitors. The most well-known ones are Derinkuyu Underground City and Kaymakli Underground City.
Day 6 - 8: Antalya
Antalya is the largest city on the Turkish Riviera along the Mediterranean coast. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular as a sea resort, known for its beautiful beaches. The easiest way to get to Antalya is to take a flight from Nevşehir (one of Cappadocia’s main cities) using Anadolu Jet, a small local airline and a trademark of Turkish Airlines. The flight time is an hour, but note that this route only flies 5 days a week. If you plan to travel on a day without flights, taking bus or car would be your only option.
1. Stroll through the historic city center, Kaleiçi
Up until the modern day, most of Kaleiçi was confined within its walls. Walking through the city will give you a glimpse of impressive architecture, dating back to the Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Ottoman, and Turkish Republican times. In addition, there are also a lot of shops within the old quarters that are fun to explore. Several points of interest in the city include Antalya Clock Tower, Hadrian’s Gate, and Hidirlik Tower.
2. Swim in the Mediterranean Sea at Düden Waterfalls
The Düden River runs from the Taurus Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea, creating two waterfalls known as Upper Düden Waterfalls and Lower Düden Waterfalls. Formed by water from a recycle station, Kepez Hydroelectrical Complex, these waterfalls have become one of Antalya’s prime scenic spots. With a natural cave behind the falls, visitors can sit there to enjoy the sound and sight of the cascades. However, the waterfalls are best explored by joining a boat cruise, which includes cave visiting and a swim at the waterfall. Expect to pay around 40 EUR (132 TRY / 44.80 USD) per person for a boat tour.
3. Learn about the history of Turkey at Antalya Archaeological Museum
With a display of 5,000 art pieces (particularly sculptures), the Antalya Archaeological Museum is one of the largest and most important museums in Turkey. Also known as Antalya Museum, it is home to works from various eras (Stone Age, Bronze Age, Byzantine Empire etc.), presented in 13 exhibition halls and an open-air gallery. The museum is open every day except Mondays, and the entrance fee is 20 TRY (6.80 USD).
Address: Cad. No:88, 07050 Konyaaltı/Antalya, Turkey
Official Website: Antalya Museum
4. Be awed by the ancient cities of Termessos or Perge
Termessos and Perge are two ancient cities within the province of Antalya. One of the best-preserved ancient cities in Turkey, Termessos is in the city of Pisidian, located 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north-west of central Antalya. There is a 5 TRY (1.70 USD) entrance fee for the city, where the Termessos Theater is the main point of interest. Similarly, Perge is an ancient Anatolian city just 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) east of Antalya. It is now an archaeological site of ancient ruins, home to an acropolis from the Bronze Age, and best-known for the huge ruined towers of the Hellenistic-Roman gate tower. Expect a visit to either city to take at least half a day (approximately 4 - 5 hours).
5. Take a breath and relax by the beach in Antalya
Antalya is especially known for its stunning beaches. Konyaalti Beach and Lara Beach are its two main beaches. Konyaalti Beach is the closest one to Antalya city, stretching for 7 kilometers (4 miles) from the Beydagğari Mountains, providing ample clean air for visitors. However, it is covered with more pebbles than sand, so it may not be the best option if you plan to lie on the ground for an extended period of time (i.e. for a tan). The other main beach, Lara Beach, is slightly further away and lies to the east of Antalya. Not only is the sand softer here, but it also has multiple beach clubs and amusement parks due to a heavy investment in tourism.
If you are willing to venture further out, you may want to visit Side Beach or Olympos Beach. Side Beach is a resort town 75 kilometers (46.6 miles) east of Antalya. It is known for its long and sandy beaches that surround the old city. It offers many water sports during the summer, such as parasailing and waterskiing. On the other side, Olympos Beach is located 86 kilometers (53 miles) west of Antalya. Known for its tree-house hostels, it is a secluded beach that is popular amongst backpackers.
Day 9: Bodrum
On the site of the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus, Bodrum is a port city located in the south-west of the Aegean Region of Turkey. Its most distinguishing feature is that it was once home to the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Flights to Bodrum require a layover in Istanbul or Ankara. It is, however, recommended to rent a car and drive from Antalya. It is the best way to see the country and you will have the freedom to stop at other towns along the way.
1. Don't miss a tour of Bodrum Castle
Once known as the Castle of St. Peter, Bodrum Castle was built in the early 15th century by the Knights of St. John. They used stones and marble columns from the original mausoleum to strengthen the castle’s foundation. Today, it is the site of the Museum of Underwater Archaeology. The museum takes you back in time to the building of the castle, and to discoveries of ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea. A trip to Bodrum would not be complete without learning about the city’s history.
Address: Çarşı, 48400 Bodrum/Muğla, Turkey.
Website: Bordum Castle
2. Get a photo-op at the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was a tomb built around 350 BC for Mausolus, a governor of the Persian Empire. Since most of the mausoleum was destroyed by earthquakes between the 12th and 15th centuries, only the foundation and a small museum still remain at the original site. Even though there isn’t much to see, the fact that it is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World should be sufficient to convince you to add it to your itinerary.
Day 10 - 12: Izmir
Izmir is not only the 3rd most populous city in Turkey, it is also one of its most westernized cities. Yet, it lacks the hype and popularity that other places (e.g. Istanbul, Cappadocia) have. In fact, it was deemed “Turkey’s most overlooked city” by Condé Nast Traveler. To get to Izmir from Bodrum, you will either have to continue driving or take a bus.
1. Walk along Kordonboyu and Konak Pier
Kordonboyu is the seaside promenade along the coast of the Aegean Sea that leads to Konak Pier. A walk down this path is extremely calming. Soak in the sea breeze, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the best view of the sea during sunset. There are also many cafes and restaurants along the way, in case you want to stop for coffee or dinner.
2. Get a great view of Izmir from Asansör
Asansör is a historical structure built in 1907 to enable traveling between the coastline of Karataş and the hillside. An elevator was built in the building to carry people and goods through the cliffs. In fact, the word ‘asansör’ is the Turkish translation for elevator. The elevator is no longer used for that purpose though; it is now used for visitors to get to the top for an amazing panoramic view of Izmir. The best part is that the ride is free, so there’s no excuse not to go.
3. Shop at Kemeralti Market
In essence, Kemeralti Market is a smaller version of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, with an array of interesting and exotic shops. Until today, it is still one of the liveliest districts of Izmir. In addition, it is also home to the city’s largest and oldest mosque, Hisar Mosque, which was built during the time of the Ottoman Empire. The mosque provides a serene atmosphere away from the hectic world outside, making it perfect for a short afternoon break.
4. Visit the Izmir Clock Tower (Saat Kulesi)
Decorated with Ottoman-style architecture, the Izmir Clock Tower is a 25-meter-tall (82-foot-tall) historic structure in Konak Square that was a gift from German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1901. It is now one of Izmir’s most famous landmarks, and is often said to be the symbol of the city. With a view of the sea behind it, the clock tower encapsulates the spirit of the city, and is definitely worth a visit.
5. Take a day trip to Ephesus
Ephesus is an Ancient Greek city that was once home to the Temple of Artemis, another one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, it was destroyed by a raid in 268 AD. Located a mere 1-hour drive away from Izmir, Ephesus is a perfect destination for a short day trip. Like the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, only the ruins remain on the original site, so you will just need a couple of hours to explore.
Bonus: other Turkish cities and towns to consider
There are so many places to visit in Turkey that 12 days would not be enough to see the entire country. If you have more time to take a longer trip, you may want to consider adding some of these cities and towns to your itinerary. Alternatively, if any place mentioned earlier didn’t catch your attention, you could also substitute it with one of the following:
Located around midway between Antalya and Bodrum, Fethiye may be worth stopping by if you’re driving. In recent years, Fethiye has become an increasingly popular tourist destination for its climate, stunning scenery, and the hospitality of the locals. The Tomb of Amyntas, a Lycian tomb characterized by its size and beautiful carvings, is also located there. And if you wish to learn more about early civilization in that area, stop by the Fethiye Museum.
If you’re visiting Fethiye, why not make a pit stop at Kayaköy as well? Located just 8 km south of Fethiye, Kayaköy is a ghost town that has been preserved as a museum village with old rundown Greek-style houses. There is so much history to this town that its ruins are protected by the Turkish government, in order to ensure that its history is preserved.
Marmaris is another town en route from Antalya to Bodrum, around 125 kilometers (77.7 miles) away from Fethiye. Uniquely located between intersecting mountains by the sea, it is one of Turkey’s most popular seaside resorts. This port town is known for its vast choice of outdoor sports, from jeep safaris to hang gliding. However, it is most famous for sailing and diving, making it an ideal destination for any outdoor-lovers.
Situated 88 kilometers (54.7 miles) away from Izmir at the westernmost point of Turkey, Çeşme is a coastal town known for windsurfing and kite-surfing. In fact, it has been ranked one of the world’s best surfing resorts. If surfing isn’t your thing, you could explore Çeşme Castle, one of the town’s main attractions, to learn about the city’s past. Fun fact: ‘Çeşme’ is the Turkish word for fountain, in reference to the countless Ottoman fountains there.
Even though Istanbul is the country’s largest city, Ankara is actually the capital of Turkey. Even though it is not generally regarded as a common tourist destination, there are still numerous points of interest that make Ankara worth a visit. Some of these landmarks include: Anitkabir (Atatürk Mausoleum), Anatolian Civilizations Museum, Kocatepe Mosque, and Ankara Citadel. It also has the 4th busiest airport in Turkey, so you may want to consider flying in or out through Ankara instead of Istanbul.
Bonus: what to eat / drink
1. Döner kebab
Originating in the 19th century, this is a signature Turkish dish made from meat (usually lamb or beef) grilled on a vertical rotisserie. It is usually served with pita bread, vegetables, and yogurt sauce. You can also try a variation specifically from north-western Turkey known as Iskender kebab. The main difference is that the İskender is cooked with hot tomato sauce and served with melted sheep’s butter.
Usually eaten for breakfast, menemen is the Turkish version of scrambled eggs, and similar to the Israeli shakshouka. It is cooked with tomato, green peppers, and spices, and served with bread.
Börek is a baked filled pastry made with a thin flaky dough. Common fillings include feta cheese, spinach, potato, and minced meat. The top is typically sprinkled with sesame seeds. While its origins are unknown, it is believed that this dish dates as far back as the Ottoman Empire, and possibly even to Ancient Roman times.
This is a Turkish variation of meatballs. It is made from minced meat (lamb, mutton, veal, beef, or a combination), served over rice or in a pita, with a generous helping of yogurt or tahini sauce. There are various types of köfte, each with its own unique twist on this classic dish. Some popular köfte variations include Şiş köfte, Çiğ köfte, and Islama köfte.
5. Turkish coffee
Because Turkish coffee refers to the method of preparing unfiltered coffee and not the coffee itself, it does not require specific coffee beans. The process involves roasting and finely grinding coffee beans, before they are simmered in a pot. Because of its unique process, Turkish coffee has been named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The Bridge between Asia and Europe
Turkey is one of the most westernized nations in Asia and one of the most Asian-like places in Europe, making it both a literal (via The Bosphorus) and metaphorical bridge between the two continents. The possibilities are endless when it comes to where to go, what to see, what to do, or what to eat in Turkey. Filled with scenic beaches, striking landscapes, remarkable architecture, and a significant history that dates back to ancient civilizations, it is an ideal destination for any traveler and a place everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.
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