From ancient Roman ruins and mosaic encrusted churches to bygone rural villages and the fairy-tale landscapes of Cappadocia, here are our top experiences in Turkey.


Turkey is a country steeped in history. The centre of both a Christian and Islamic Empire it has been at the crossroads of east and west for millennia. Ancient Roman and Greek ruins littering its landscapes tell of its Christian past while towering Mosques and buzzing marketplaces indicate an Islamic present.

But it’s not all about the past. The remarkable fairy-tale landscapes of Cappadocia, slow rural villages and overwhelmingly friendly people are the texture to the tapestry that is Turkey; a beguiling land just made for travel.

Here are our top experiences from a month-long road trip around Turkey.

OUR TOP EXPERIENCES IN TURKEY

PAMUKKALE / Watching a magical sunset over the travertines of Pamukkale

AYA SOPHIA / Learning about the intertwined history of Aya Sofya and Istanbul

EPHESUS / Exploring magnificent frescoes in the Roman terraced houses at Ephesus

CAPPADOCIA / Drifting over other-worldly Cappadocia in a hot air balloon

WHIRLING DERVISH / Watching the Whirling Dervishes whirl up a storm in Istanbul

BERGAMA / Sitting alone by the temples and theatres of Pergamum

CHORA CHURCH / Admiring the intricate mosaics in Byzantine’s Chora Church

KAPIKIRI / Experiencing rural Turkey life amongst the farm and ruins of Kapıkırı

TEMPLE OF APOLLO / Being dwarfed by the gigantic columns of the Temple of Apollo

HIKING IN CAPPADOCIA / Getting lost in the red and rose rock canyons of Cappadocia

1 / WATCHING THE SUNSET OVER THE BLUE AND WHITE TRAVERTINES OF PAMUKKALE

People have been soaking in the thermal bliss of Pamukkale for centuries. The hot water springs that dot the area range from 35 to 100 degrees Celsius and were thought to carry healing powers. But remedial bathing is not the only reason people come.

The mineral-rich waters from the springs have slowly dripped down the mountainside creating a solid calcium carbonate as they cool and mix with carbon dioxide. The effect is a surreal landscape of glistening white mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and – as you may have spotted on Instagram – terraced basins.

We arrived in the afternoon and strolled around the nearby ruins of Hierapolis, a sprawling impressive complex of ancient buildings set in high, dried out grasses. Weary from the heat, we made our way down to Pamukkale’s signature showpiece, the white terraces clinging to the side of the hill with sweeping views underneath. It wasn’t as perfect as represented on Instagram, but that didn’t matter. Sitting watching one of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen over such a unique landscape was one of our top experiences in Turkey.


Travertines & Hierapolis / Entrance is from 8:00 – 19:00 Apr-Oct; 8:00 – 17:00 Nov-Mar; but you can exit at any time | Price: ₺35.

2 / LEARNING ABOUT THE INTERTWINED HISTORY OF AYA SOFYA AND ISTANBUL

Aya Sofya has long told the story of Istanbul. Built by the Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century CE it became the pre-eminent Christian Church at the heart of the Byzantine Christian Empire. However, when the Ottomans invaded and captured the city a millennium later, it was converted into a mosque and became the centre of an Islamic Empire and Caliphate. It remained that way until being declared a museum when the secular government of Atatürk came to power after the First World War.

We entered late in the afternoon as the crowds were starting to diminish. Our eyes were drawn through the gigantic space, up the towering walls to the colossal dome.

Ancient Christian mosaics recall the biblical stories of a protracted Christian Empire. Muslim calligraphy proclaims the names of Mohammed and the early caliphs during the time of the Ottomans. Etchings by Viking mercenaries scratched high in the upper galleries, and the tomb of Dandolo the Venetian Doge tell of wars and crusades.

Wandering the aisles, the history of Istanbul comes alive. Past rulers and their beliefs are immortalised on the walls, on the art and in the architecture. Their collective presence a reflection of Istanbul and it’s story. With late afternoon beams of light flooding in, we stood in awe and wondered who will write the next chapter in the life of this remarkable building.


Aya Sofya / 9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr | Price: ₺40 and another ₺30 for the overpriced audio guide, which if you have a decent guide book, you should skip.

3 / EXPLORING MAGNIFICENT FRESCOES IN THE ROMAN TERRACED HOUSES AT EPHESUS

Caesar Augustus made Ephesus the capital of Roman Asia Minor and money and power flooded into the city. The result is possibly the greatest collection of Roman ruins in the world. Foremost are the bas-reliefs and statues covering the façade of the Library of Celsus, the iconic image of Ephesus. But a short walk away is a lesser-known wonder.

We paid the extra entrance fee and ventured into a gigantic shed that looked a bit like an unfinished indoor cricket pitch. Inside were a series of excavated Roman terrace houses that had been covered for centuries by the dirt and rock of earthquakes. Glass walkways run over, around and through these ancient dwellings offering us a window into the interior decorating styles of past civilisations.

Red and white frescoes, expertly restored and still glowing with abundant colour, decorated the walls. Blue and white mosaics adorn what would once have been stylish patios. Vibrant paintings of emperors, giants and gods reveal the wealth of past owners with a flair for the dramatic. It’s rare to find residential Roman ruins, so well preserved, painting the most detailed picture of what life was like two thousand years ago. An exquisite Turkish gem.


Ephesus / 8:00 – 18:30 Apr-Oct; 08:00 – 16:30 Nov-Mar | Price: ₺40 + ₺10 parking at south gate +₺20 extra for Terraced Houses (which close at 18:00)

4 / DRIFTING OVER OTHER-WORLDLY CAPPADOCIA IN A HOT AIR BALLOON

The sun peaked over the horizon. Rays gradually pushed back the night, illuminating the towering rock faces of Cappadocia. Hundreds of brightly coloured hot air balloons dotted the sky above us, each gently rising and falling on an almost windless day.

The early morning chill on our faces was replaced with the heat of a gas burner blowing to life above our heads. Slowly, we joined the other balloons drifting over the remarkable landscapes of Cappadocia. Cut by years of wind and water, half-domed white rocks cling to valley tops, rippling red and rose canyons scar the earth and phallic rock formations reach for the sky. It’s a staggeringly beautiful place.

And what a way to see it. One moment we glided within inches of treetops through valleys no wider than the balloon itself. The next we found ourselves 800 metres up, with a birds-eye view of the whole of this remarkable landscape.

With impressive skill, our pilot landed the balloon on a trailer attached to the back of his jeep, only inches wider than the balloon itself. The whole experience left us speechless; the beautiful scenery, the skill of the pilot, the excess of champagne that followed.


Hot Air Balloon Ride / We booked our balloon ride from Voyager Agency. (No.11A, Belediye Caddesi, 50180 Göreme) | Cost: EUR 140 each (payable in cash)

5 / WATCHING THE WHIRLING DERVISHES WHIRL

The Mevlevi order is an Islamic religious order based in Konya, in central Turkey. However, most know them as the Whirling Dervishes. Every Sunday at the Galati Mevlevi Museum in Istanbul, they perform their Sema (ritual dance) to enthralled if slightly confused guests.

We sat in a small octagonal building around a central performance space. The low murmur of the crowd ceased when a couple of musicians in the balcony above the stage announced the start of the ceremony with a tinny din. Soon, they were joined by a lone voice warbling above the racket. It was a meandering and less than promising start.

But slowly the Dervishes took to the floor. Their movements, at first little more than bowing and solemn handshakes, began to build. With eyes closed and arms extended they swayed and swirled to the beat of the music. Their graceful feet spiralled around the floor with their long robes creating a mesmerising trance.

So light, so peaceful, so uplifting. The once restless crowd were transfixed, as were we.


Mevlana Museum / The Sema is at 17:00 on Sundays at the Mevlana Museum in Beyoğlu. Tickets must be purchased in advance from a man sitting at a table just outside the Museum on Saturday morning | Price: ₺70 each.

6 / SITTING ALONE BY THE TEMPLES AND THEATRES OF PERGAMUM

Tourists flock to the ancient streets and temples of Ephesus. Sitting on a low plain it proclaims the might and power of the Roman Empire at its peak. But a short drive to the north lies Bergama (Pergamum) the Roman capital of Asia Minor before Ephesus claimed its crown.

Perched on a hill, Pergamum reflects not just the might of Rome but the defensive fortresses of the ancient Greeks. It was late afternoon when we took a cable car up to the summit. We waved goodbye to the cable car guy, unaware that he would be the last person we would see for two hours. Also unaware that we wouldn’t see him again either.

We walked alone staring up at the towering columns of the Temple of Trajan. Sat alone on the seats of the dramatic theatre embedded deeply in the hillside. Scrambled alone through the weeds and overgrown grasses surrounding the Temple of Dionysus. Joined a tortoise staring at the rocky ruins of the Pergamum Altar before sitting alone on an ancient column. Warm breeze in our faces, we surveyed the surrounding countryside as birds lifted by thermal air swirled overhead.

We were so alone at Pergamum that even the cable car guy forgot we were there. We arrived back after a fantastic experience exploring the sites to find our ride home retired for the evening. Bemused by our predicament, a souvenir vendor gave us a cup of tea and drove us back down to the town.


Pergamum Acropolis / 8:00 – 18:45 Apr-Oct; 8:00 – 16:45 Nov-Mar | Price: ₺20; ₺20 more for the cable car (no refunds if they close it before you leave but you will be a free ride down in a car)

7 / ADMIRING THE INTRICATE MOSAICS IN BYZANTINE’S CHORA CHURCH

Our metro sped alongside the ancient city walls which defended Istanbul for almost a thousand years. We jumped off and navigated our way through the back streets on foot. Well away from the centre of the city, it was difficult to believe there was going to be anything here to see. But around a corner and down a hill, a Byzantine masterpiece sits tucked in Istanbul suburbia.

Chora Church has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The current crusader version was reconstructed from the 11th to 14th centuries and it looked like it was being reconstructed again. Scaffolding covered the outside, but the inside was a different world.

Golden mosaics of kings and saints glitter the walls and the ceilings. Painted frescoes detail biblical stories from a time gone by. Some are complete, others made more evocative from the bits that are missing. Fragments of the past, reaching out to us, telling us their story and the story of this remarkable building.

The sweet tea from the café tucked under the trees beside this Byzantine gem capped off a Turkish delight we won’t forget.


Chora Church / 9:00 – 18:00, 15th Apr-Sep; 9:00 – 16:00, Oct –14th Apr | Price: ₺15

8 / UNCOVERING RURAL LIFE AMONGST THE FARM AND RUINS OF KAPIKIRI

The village of Kapıkırı is off the beaten track. In fact, it’s so far off the beaten track there is barely a track at all.

We strolled up and down the narrow paths that wind through the village. Each turn reveals a deeper insight into rural Turkish life. Kapıkırı is subsistence farming; chickens, goats and cows freely amble the streets. Friendly locals leant against crumbling walls in the shade, reviving themselves from backbreaking work. It harked back to an age that so much of Turkey seems to have left behind.

The village is beautifully set. Hidden in the hollows of the hillside, lush green slopes are broken by large erratic boulders and backed by mountains. The path drops down to Lake Bafu which contains the pick of the ancient ruins of Herakleia still standing on a small island in the middle.

We jumped into swim trunks and swam out to explore. The water was warm but refreshing, washing away the heat and dust from the day. Back on shore, we slumped down on a couple of chairs accompanied by a rickety table. A family offers us some beers from their little fridge as we sit there taking in the beautiful setting.

9 / STARING UP AT THE GIGANTIC COLUMNS OF THE TEMPLE OF APOLLO

Just outside Ephesus lies the sad remains of the temple of Artemis. One of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World it was the largest temple in the world. Its platform measured 137m long, 69m wide and 18m high and was supported by over 127 columns. However, all that stands today is a single column artificially constructed from the rubble lying on the ground.

But an hour’s drive to the south is the Temple of Apollo. Only three columns are still standing with a pediment across the top of two of them. It is not particularly ornate, nor does it have a dramatic location. But as we venture into the temple, the might of Apollo descends upon us.

The temple walls, metres thick and almost 30m high, are simply massive. Wide columns stretch like mighty redwoods into the sky. One fallen column, lying on its side, still stands 2.5m high, well above our heads. Little people, in a world built for giants and gods.

The original platform was over 5,500 meters square which held 122 of these massive columns. Yet, this was only the fourth largest temple in the ancient world. Standing here in awe of a monument of such power and might we could only imagine how big the Temple of Artemis once was.

TOP EXPERIENCES / ALL OUR TOP EXPERIENCES


Temple of Apollo / 08:30 – 18:30 Apr-Oct; 08:30 – 16:30 Nov-Mar | Price: ₺10

10 / GETTING LOST IN THE RED AND ROSE ROCK CANYONS OF CAPPADOCIA

We were completely lost, although I denied it to Paul. My thinking was that he was so preoccupied photographing this beautiful location, that he hadn’t noticed we passed this place twice already.

We were hiking in the Rose Valley at Cappadocia. Or perhaps it was the Red Valley. The signage was either non-existent or as misleading as a Brexit campaign – a plethora of information covering makeshift signs, all contradicting each other.

The path split and with supreme confidence that had no basis in past performance, I directed us to the right. We climbed up a slope and suddenly arrayed before us was the view I had been looking for. A bright blue sky, a green-topped valley and an ocean of rippling red and white rock cascading out before us. It was quite possibly one of the best views we had ever seen.

We found a comfortable looking rock and opened a flask of coffee, dipped some bread we sequestered from the breakfast bar into a well-travelled jar of Nutella and stared off into the distance. It was a magical moment, but the only thought running through my head was “how the hell will we get home.”


Red and Rose Valley Walk / To help you not to get lost, read our Hiking in Cappadocia article.

INSPIRED? HERE’S HOW TO PLAN YOUR OWN TURKEY EXPERIENCES

Firstly, read our 2-week Turkey Itinerary that collects our top experiences with all the information you need to start booking. Secondly, get more inspiration by reading our top experiences in Cappadocia, or our thoughts on the current political landscape in Istanbul. Driving in Turkey was pretty straight forward but it’s a good idea to read through some of our tips here.

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From ancient Roman ruins and mosaic encrusted churches to bygone rural villages and the fairy-tale landscapes of Cappadocia, here are our top experiences in Turkey.

From ancient Roman ruins and mosaic encrusted churches to bygone rural villages and the fairy-tale landscapes of Cappadocia, here are our top experiences in Turkey.

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