Turkey (now known as Türkiye) has always been an inspiring travel destination, especially Istanbul.
As kids, we loved to read the ancient stories of Türkiye’s history. Our minds were filled with stories of ancient Constantinople (now known as Istanbul). We marvelled at stories of the silk road or the battles of the crusades. Keen to see the ancient sites of Ephesus and Troy that were once occupied by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
But as New Zealanders, the modern history of the WWI battle at Gallipoli is foremost in our thoughts today. Turkey and New Zealand, once enemies, now share a history of their national identity from this tragic event.
Why should tourists visit Turkey?
Türkiye offers a unique travel experience. You can encounter:
- the hustle and bustle of Istanbul
- the plains of central Turkey
- the views traversing mountain ranges
- the sea breezes of seaside towns
- the Greek and Roman ruins
Like Romania, to visit Turkey is to travel out of your comfort zone.
Where should I go to Turkey for the first time?
- Istanbul – where the continents of Europe and Asia collide.
- Cappadocia – for amazing rock formations and hot air balloon rides
- Kaş – seaside village for swimming, island cruise, cafes and restaurants
We started our journey to Turkey in the melting pot of Istanbul.
How to Spend Three Days in Instanbul
Whenever we stay in big cities, like Istanbul, we book a three-night stay.
It gives a chance to explore the city at a more leisurely pace. We return to our favourite spots and see the city during the day and evening.
How many days is enough in Istanbul?
We spent six nights on our recent trip to Istanbul, but three nights is sufficient to get a good feel for this incredible city.
With around 18 million residents in Istanbul, popular places are congested when the city awakes late morning. For us, getting out and about at 6 am was an ideal time to see Istanbul without the crowds and the heat.
It allows us to adjust our pace to slow as we wander the city of mosques of endless shops while taking in views of the sea and life in Istanbul.
And one of the best ways to orient your view of Istanbul is to cruise on the Bosphorus Strait.
1. Cruise on the Bosphorus Tour
A great way to see more of Istanbul is to take a Bosphorus Tour.
The dock for this boat cruise is near Ito Parki and is a cheaper option for the hour and a half cruise. The ticket office is on the dock in front of the boat. (Cost 2022: Euro5 per adult)
You can pick up snacks and drinks on board, all at a reasonable price.
Places you will see during the cruise are:
- Dolmabahce Palace
- Suspension Bridge to Turkey Asia
- Rumeli Fortress
- Sait Halim Pasha Mansion
- Anatolian Fortress
- Beylerbeyi Palace
But of course, the reason most people visit Istanbul is to see the famous Blue Mosque.
2. Visit the Sultanahmet Area
This is the most popular area in Istanbul to visit by locals and tourists alike.
Allow at least a day to explore this area of ancient history, which includes the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
It’s an interesting area which was once a hippodrome for chariot races. The paving stones show the old racetrack.
Over the centuries, the hippodrome was adorned with:
- Serpent Column – Constantine the Great, in the 5th century, moved it here from the Temple of Apollo
- Obelisk of Thutmose III – Moved from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor in the 4th century AD
- The German Fountain – records the visit of German Emperor Wilhelm II to Istanbul in 1898.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern was being renovated during our visit, so we missed seeing this incredible piece of engineering.
It would have been fascinating to see the water filtration system that exists beneath the city. The underground chamber can hold 80,000 cubic meters of water with a ceiling supported by 336 marble columns.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Free to visit except half-hour before prayer time. Men and women must cover their legs, and women must wear a head scarf. Items for ladies are available before entry.
Visitors come to see the exquisite interior of 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles and the doorway of finely carved and sculptured marble.
In 2022, the mosque is accessible. However, the interior is under renovation, and there isn’t much you can see.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Camii)
Built as a Christian cathedral in 532-537, visitors can still view original frescoes as they leave the mosque. The interior is impressive with its height decorated with tiles.
Free entry from 9 am. Ladies will need a head scarf and knees covered. Items for ladies are available before entry. Shoes must be removed (not on the carpet) in the hallway before entering the mosque.
Be aware that in the heat, the mosque has some serious foot odour.
The Imperial Gate is the entrance to the residence of the Ottoman sultans. Encircled by a high stone wall, it’s free to enter the courtyard. The Imperial Mint and the church Hagia Irene are inside.
The second courtyard is accessible through the Gate of Salutation. On the right of the gate, purchase your ticket to visit the Imperial Council rooms and former Harem.
This tree-lined park is popular with locals for picnics. You can buy snacks of Simitri (bread snack) or BBQ corn cob as you people watch.
The Column of the Goths, a Roman victory column, can be found in the park, which dates to the third or fourth century A.D.
3. Go Shopping in Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)
This undercovered maze of shops sells jewellery, clothing, lamps, carpets, and so much more. It is so easy to lose direction of where you are in this large space.
If you are happy to wander, allow at least an hour.
While you sip your tea, you’ll notice tea merchants bringing cups of tea to sellers and the haggling of shoppers.
Like the Spice Bazaar, look for the “Prayer Field” where Merchants were led in morning prayer, reminding them to trade fairly.
Near the Grand Bazaar is the Ottoman imperial Suleymaniye Mosque, easily seen from the harbour when you arrive in the old city of Istanbul.
Without the crowds, this mosque allows you to visit for longer and admire the Golden Horn’s great views.
The Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)
Entering the ancient Eygptian bazaar, we weren’t overwhelmed with the smell of spices as we were in Tangier.
Since 2016, the bazaar is now a mixture of shops selling dried fruit, tea and an assortment of gifts. It is a bazaar enticing the tourists, offering tidbits of Turkish Delight tidbits and Bavcalar to taste.
Shop from Local Street Sellers
We preferred walking the local street seller shops busy with locals buying products.
One street was electronics, another fabric and clothing, another tea and coffee. And you can wander here without the usual greeting “where are you from?”
4. Visit the Balat neighbourhood
Take the bus to Fatih Sultan Mehmet Parki to start your walk in the Balat area.
Here you can view The Walls of Constantinople before walking across to the Palace of Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayi Muzesi). Now a museum, it was once a Byzantine Palace.
On the way, you can stop to see the colourful houses of the old Jewish quarter on Nester Sk.
From the palace, wander your way down the narrow streets to the colourful steps of Merdivenli Yokus Evleri.
Take time to stop for a bite to eat or try a Turkish coffee on Vodina Cd.
We finished our walk at St. Stephen’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church (Sveti Stefan Kilisesi) before getting a bus back to near the Spice Bazar.
5. Walk the Bridges of Istanbul
Two bridges we can recommend are:
- Galata Bridge
- Golden Horn Bridge
Galata Bridge is famous for the local men (and a woman) who fish for their supper. We spent the early morning watching them catch small fish. Some are fed to the numerous cats that roam Istanbul.
Golden Horn Bridge (Haliç Metro Köprüsü) is built for the metro and pedestrians. The bridge’s pedestrian area has fantastic views of the old city of Istanbul.
And either bridge will take you to the famous Galata Tower.
6. Climb Galata Tower
Well, you actually take the lift up for views of Istanbul and walk your way back down.
This hilly area across from the old city is also old with cobblestoned streets. Galata Tower is a restored 5th-century tower.
To the locals, this side of Istanbul is the new city with architecture from the 18th century.
7. Pedestrian Walk of Istanbul New City
From Galata Tower, the walk along the pedestrian area of Istiklal Cd Istanbul is appealing.
Here you can browse modern department stores, pick up delicious treats and admire the 18th-century architecture. There are many covered passages, shops, and cafes, especially Cicek Pasaji.
Visit Sent Antuan Kilisesi Catholic Church before arriving at Taksim Square.
Getting to Istanbul
We chose Turkish Airlines, which services 315 destinations as of 2022.
If you book direct with the airline, the cost is often cheaper. And if you are flying from Europe, remember to check which airports offer cheaper flights. For us, Munich was much cheaper than flying from Basel.
Your international flight will arrive at either:
- Istanbul Airport at Arnavutköy (IST)
- Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW)
Allow one hour from either airport to the city due to traffic. Your options are:
- Taxi – at a cost of approx 30€ during the day and 35€ at night (Be aware locals told us they don’t trust the drivers to charge the correct fare accurately)
- Uber – prebook
- Bus – purchase an IETT bus transfer to pay the 5.20₺ (withdraw funds from the airport ATM)
- Hotel pick-up – ask if your hotel has this service
What to Eat in Istanbul
Different to a Doner Kebab, served in a large bun.
Great for a morning snack.
Tea is traditionally served in the morning and coffee in the afternoon.
Watch out for Cats and Dogs
The number of roaming cats and dogs that drew our attention would have to be. No matter what town or city we visited, the dogs or cats roamed freely.
The cats varied in health. Either looking well cared for or actively avoided.
The dogs, however, are a historic breed called Kangal Shepherd or Turkish Kangal Dog. Often lazing about, if they are ear tagged, the state cares for them.
Is it safe to travel to Turkey by yourself?
Honestly, we weren’t sure of the answer when we started planning our trip.
Expats from Turkey would often advise against visiting. Maybe because of the recent politics, or was it something else?
When we chatted to fellow travellers who had visited Turkey, they spoke of friendly people, amazing coastline and lots of ancient history.
We had considered a road trip to Turkey, taking the ferry from France to Italy to Albania and driving down through Greece to Turkey. It’s a lot of driving. This is why we decided to fly from Munich to Istanbul.
We made the choice to see Istanbul by ourselves and use a GAdventures tour of central and west Turkey. Check out the affiliate link below for GAdventures.
Booking a tour allowed us the luxury of someone else doing the driving and booking the accommodation. Plus, we got to see some local places we may not have included.
The best time to visit Turkey is the shoulder season months of May and September. And make sure to avoid the month of Ramadan (this varies each year, so check before you book). But also the Feast of Sacrifice as the roads and Istanbul are chaotic.
If Türkiye is on your bucket list, here are ten interesting places to visit in Turkey.
10 Places to See the Best of Turkey
Our trip away from Istanbul was across the central plain of Turkey down to the coast of Antalya and west to Gallipoli.
Your options to see more of Türkiye are to:
- Self-drive (roading infrastructure is impressive)
- Public transport – by bus (the better option) or train (very slow)
- Internal flights (will give you more time at each location)
- Hire a driver
From Istanbul, we left the Europe side and crossed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge to Asia.
We travelled along the coast before turning south away from the northern areas of the Black Sea to Ankara.
1. Visit Anitkabir in Anakara
The capital city of Turkey, Ankara, is a modern city where the founder of modern Türkiye, Kemal Atatürk, is buried.
Atatürk’s mausoleum sits on Observation Hill of Peace Park. The Hall of Honor (Atatürk’s tomb) is an impressive structure. In front of the tomb is the Ceremonial Plaza, which allows 15,000 people.
2. Dip your Toes at Salt Lakes of Tuz Gölü
South of Ankara on road E90, are the salt lakes Tuz Gölü.
Well worth a stop to bathe your feet in the pink-coloured lake while you admire your reflection.
3. Stop at Sultanhani Caravanserai
Stopping at the caravan inn from the middle ages was one of the highlights of Türkiye.
The caravanserai differed from what you imagine from a story or a film. The interior was huge. The height alone would have made it difficult for raiders to invade.
Camels were houses on one side while their masters rested and ate on the other side. The goods were kept secured at the rear of the building. The merchants would stay here for three days free of charge.
4. Go underground at Derinkuyu
The underground city of Derinkuyu dates to the Byzantine era as protection against invaders.
Today you can explore the many tunnels where people sheltered with their food supplies and livestock.
You feel the chill factor and dampness as you descend. It is said the tunnels and caves could hold as many as 20,000 people. They must have been very small people.
5. Hot Air Balloon of Cappadocia
Spending three days in Cappadocia was, for us, the best in Turkey.
Starting with our stay at the Sofa Hotel in Avanos, a small town near the resort town of Göreme. The hotel was quirky with its display of bygone-era items as you wound your way to your room.
We loved our view over the valley watching hot air balloons early one morning. As well as the sumptuous breakfast in the open-air courtyard.
Yes, we did fly in the hot air balloon.
Rising early for a 4.30 am pick-up, we were up, up and away in the hot air balloon by 5 am. And as first-time flyers, it was reassuring to know the flights are regulated by the Turkish government.
Depending on the weather conditions, the government gives the go-ahead for flights.
We have to say, our pilot’s skill was incredible.
He descended into the valley and ascended way above the valley with ease. The hour passed quickly before we landed on a nearby trailer.
The pilot’s team helped with the climbing out of the basket, offering a glass of bubbles to celebrate.
Hiking the Valley of the Swords.
On our free day of the GAdventure tour, we chose to hike the Valley of the Swords.
We set off from Göreme via Sunset Point (also known as Lover’s Hill or Asiklar Tepesi) with a few snacks and lots of water.
For a small entrance fee, you have fabulous views of Göreme’s ancient cave dwellings and across to Pigeon Valley and Uchiser Castle.
For us, we were keen not to backtrack, so we descended from Sunset Point via a rugged path into the Valley of the Swords.
Our hike had us stopping at more cave dwellings to admire the horses and peep in old caves. We finished the hike near the monastery of Cavusin Kilisesi.
Cappadocia will hold your attention with many interesting things to do:
- Love Valley
- Pigeon Valley
- Uchisar Castle
- Göreme Open Air Museum
- Fairy Chimneys
- Sword Valley
5. Hadrian’s Gate of Antalya
Antalya was a Roman Port which honoured the Roman Emperor in 130AD by building Hadrian’s Gate.
The narrow cobblestoned streets of the old town look out over the small harbour filled with yachts. The shops entice the tourists throughout the day and evening. The fish restaurants serve the catch from the Mediterranean.
But staying in the old town at the weekend is disrupted with loud music fuelled by alcohol.
6. Kekova Island Fortress
Taking a private family boat for an afternoon cruise was a highlight of visiting Türkiye.
Swimming in the clear blue water was refreshing, and we felt buoyant due to the high salt content of the sea.
We stopped at the small Turkish Island of Kekova to walk up to the ancient fortress. The captain also showed us the sunken ruins of Dolchiste. Now underwater from a 2nd-century earthquake.
Cruising back to Demre, the captain barbequed fish at the back of the boat while we swam. A delicious meal was served before we motored back to shore.
7. Kaş Seaside Village
The picturesque town of Kaş is a quieter alternative to the bustling city of Antalya.
You can browse the shops or sit at cafes near the water’s edge in the old town. And away from the harbour, you can choose a beachfront bar to hire a chair with access to a swimming area.
Kaş also has an ancient amphitheatre used for local events. It overlooks the Greek island of Castellorizo, only a 20-minute ferry for a day trip.
8. Pools of Pamukkale
Wow. Mother Nature is impressive.
The terraces of Pamukkale were formed from cracks in the earth’s surface.
As calcium mineral deposits cascaded, they became layered, forming the thermal pools. With each rainfall, the pools fill to create the most spectacular panoramic view.
The cotton candy look is the meaning of Pamukkale.
Before visiting the pools, you can walk the avenue of ruins of Hierapolis. Because of the healing power of the pools, the Greeks and Romans built the nearby city.
9. Ruins of Ephesus
Ephesus was once the main commercial centre of the Greeks and the Romans.
It is an impressive excavation with ruins on either side of the avenue leading to the library. It always amazes us how these structures have lasted over the centuries.
The arena of Ephesus is still used today.
10. Anzac Cove of Gallipoli (Gelibolu)
Every 25th of April, Australian and New Zealanders (ANZAC) commemorate the lives lost at the Battle of Gallipoli. This bloody battle resulted in a massive loss of life for both ANZACs and Turks.
Today the peninsula is a national park where crops are grown, but no recreation is enjoyed.
As New Zealanders, visiting Gallipoli and speaking the Ode was a special moment.
See the Best of Türkiye
Our three weeks in Turkey have definitely ticked off our bucket list of inspiring destinations. In particular, colourful Istanbul and Cappadocia.
Seeing the extensive infrastructure of roads, it would be easy to plan your own road trip. Although there are vast distances between cities, it gives you time to stay longer.
At no time did we feel unsafe. Maybe a little frazzled in the old town main street shops of Istanbul.
We loved the unpolished cities and towns so different from pristine Europe. Life is full of energy.