It’s friendly, beautiful, culturally rich and good value for money. It’s modern enough to be comfortable yet traditional enough to be interesting.Turkey is one of the world’s top 10 travel destinations, welcoming more than 23 million visitors every year.
Culture & Art: Turkey’s history of human habitation goes back 25,000 years. Some of the earliest-known human communities are here. Hittites, Phrygians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Seljuks, Mongols, Ottomans and others have all left their works of art and culture in what is now the Turkish homeland. Modern Turkey has all this—and more mobile phones than you’ve ever seen in one place before.
Special-Interest Activities: With nearly 8400 km (5200 mi) of coastline, water sports and yachting are big favorites. Hiking, white-water rafting, mountain-climbing and bicycling are all important, and growing, as is skiing. My favorite of all is hot-air ballooning.
Cuisine: Turkish food is now world-famous, and rightly so. The abundance of its fields, farms, orchards, flocks and fishing boats is exceptional, and Turkish chefs take full advantage of this bounty. Everyone comments on how good the food is. Then there’s Turkish tea.
Good Times: Sit at a long table in a meyhane (taverna) in Istanbul, Kuşadası, Bodrum, Antalya, order a glass of beer, wine or pungent rakı and join in the songs and stories. Turks revel in good food, good friends, good times, and good nightlife.For stories of life and travel in Turkey, read the excerpts from my travel memoir Bright Sun, Strong Tea.
What to See & Do in Istanbul
Istanbul’s Top Sights
These are the sights you should be sure to see, ranked in order of importance and ease of access. Luckily, the first six are close together near Sultanahmet Square. You can visit them on your own, or on Backpackers Travel’s value-for-money Old Istanbul Guided Walking Tour.
I’ve also made up self-guided walking tours.
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- Topkapı Palace: Home (and Harem!) of the sultans
- Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia): Changed the course of Western architecture; greatest church in Christendom for 1000 years
- Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque: Islam’s elegant answer to Ayasofya, with six minarets and blue interior tiles
- Byzantine Hippodrome: The political and recreational heart of Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul
- Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum: facing the Blue Mosque on the Hippodrome, a treasure-house of 1000 years of fine art
- Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıçı): An eerie subterranean “sunken palace” of 336 marble columns which could hold 80,000 cubic feet of water in case of drought or siege
- Grand Bazaar: The ultimate medieval “shopping center,” with 4000 shops, fun whether you buy or just browse
- Egyptian (Spice) Market: Food, spices, coffee, snacks and some touristy stuff
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- Beyoğlu: The romance of 19th-century Istanbul
- Dolmabahçe Palace: The sultan’s sumptuous new (1856) European-style palace on the Bosphorus
- Bosphorus Cruise: The perfect 90-minute, half-day or full-day Istanbul excursion, up toward the Black Sea past castles, palaces and Ottoman-Victorian villages
- Princes’ Islands: Get away to islands with Victorian-era towns free of motor vehicles: walk, bicycle, or take a horse-drawn carriage tour
Turkey’s Aegean coast is beautiful, historic and agriculturally rich. Here are the highlights of both the coast and the interior, in alphabetical order:
The center of Turkey’s legal opium trade, a dramatic hilltop fortress stands at the center of Afyon. At its feet are some historic buildings and lots of pastry shops serving the region’s renowned clotted cream.
This charming small town west of Izmir near Çeşme is yet unspoiled, visited by local vacationers in the know, but nearly unknown to foreign visitors except for passionate windsurfers.
The city of Aphrodite, Roman goddess of Love, is among Turkey’s most interesting ancient ruins. Detour to it on your way between Pamukkale and Ephesus.
Charming seaside hamlet facing lesvos in the shadow of a hilltop Temple to Athena—perfect for a getaway.
Ancient Tralleis, chief city of the Meander River valley, it has little to see today, but you may have to change buses here.
This North Aegean seacoast resort town is popular with Turkish vacationers.
Famous for its ancient library and medical center, an attractive farming town with lots to see.
Picturesque resort on two small bays divided by a crusader castle, a favorite yachting port noted for its exuberant nightlife .
On the Dardanelles, your base for visits to Troy and the Gallipoli battlefields.
The peninsula extending westward from Izmir into the Aegean is a traditional summer vacation land for Izmirlis, but in recent years it has begun to attract visitors from around the world.
This modern city near Pamukkale has all the transport connections (air, bus, rail) for the warm mineral springs resort.
The best-preserved classical city on the Mediterranean, a must-see . The town of Selçuk makes a good base for exploring lots of other ancient cities, as well as hill towns and beaches.
Though mainly a center of transport and industry, this is where most of the world’s meerschaum—and pipes—comes from.
A Greek temple perfect as a Hollywood set, right on the road between Ephesus, Milas and Bodrum.
Ancient Phocaea is now a nice resort town—actually, two resort towns, with swimming, windsurfing, restauranting and other pleasures.
Momentous battles during World War I, and poignant monument-strewn battlefields today.
Turkey’s third largest city is mostly modern, with good hotels, great seaside restaurants, an interesting bazaar, a few museums and archeological remains .
Bustling seaside resort and cruise ship port near Ephesus .
Known for its beautiful colored glazed tiles and pottery, this city also has several fine old buildings and, on its outskirts, a well-preserved Roman temple at Aizanoi.
A carpet-weaving center with a scale model (in marble) of the grandest tomb of ancient times: the Mausoleum .
Hot calcium-laden mineral waters ripple over a cliff to form cascades of gleaming white stone at this spa inland near Denizli. You can even swim in the water! Stop at Roman Aphrodisias, City of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, on the way to Pamukkale from Ephesus.
North of Afyon among the low hills at Aslankaya and Midas Şehri are remains of King Midas’s ancient kingdom, 2700 years old.
An easy ride east of Izmir are these impressive ruins, with a fine Roman gymnasium and synagogue, and Byzantine churches.
This little hill town close to Selçuk and Ephesus is straight out of Tuscany…or the Turkish equivalent.
Once thought to exist only in legend, the walls of Troy have been excavated and restored—and made into a movie.
Turkey’s Mediterranean shore, called the Turquoise Coast, is nearly 1600 km (994 miles) long, scattered with fine-sand beaches and sprinkled abundantly with classical cities turned to picturesque ruins.
The Turquoise Coast is the first place to think of when you’re considering a seaside vacation in Turkey. It has more and better beaches and resorts than does the Aegean coast, and warmer, saltier water than the Black Sea coast.The Taurus (Toros) Mountains form a dramatic backdrop along much of the coast, often dropping steeply right into the sea, but in some places rivers have washed down enough sediment over the ages to form beaches backed by fertile alluvial plains good for growing cotton, vegetables, and even tropical fruits like bananas.
Whether you consider Bodrum the south end of the Aegean or the west end of the Mediterranean, it is still Turkey’s foremost chic seaside resort, with two perfect bays framing a noble crusader castle, and the flashiest discos in the land.
“Green Marmaris” is Turkey’s most active yachting port, and a likely departure point for your Blue Voyage yacht cruise.
Peaceful and quiet, this traditional town sits on the shore of large, placid Köyceğiz Lake connected to the Mediterranean by the reedy Dalyan River. Hot springs are nearby.
This river town in the shadow of dramatic rock tombs cut into a sheer cliff is near the ruins of ancient Caunos and wide Iztuzu Beach, both reached by riverboat.
Not much of a place to visit on its own, Dalaman is home to the western Med coast’s largest airport, with regular service from Istanbul and Ankara, and several international flights.
Small, pristine and charming, this is primarily a nice port of call for yachters, but you can stop and enjoy it even if you’re only the captain of a Toyota.
Built on the ruins of an ancient city, Fethiye has age-old stone sarcophagi in its streets and gardens, rock-hewn tombs in a cliff above the town, an active yacht harbor, a vast bay dotted with islands, and all tourist services.
Over the mountains south of Fethiye, this is perhaps Turkey’s most beautiful beach, and also its most popular.
St Nicholas (“Santa Claus”) was born here, but visitors now come for the spacious, very long, very uncrowded beach as well as the sand-covered ruins of St Nick’s Roman town.
A tiny charming fishing village has become a yacht port with nice little restaurants.
A lazy pace governs this nice little resort town far enough from the airports to preserve a lot of its charm.
Close to Kas, Üçagiz is a tiny village on a cove with a sunken Roman city and an island (Kekova) with a Byzantine one.
Dramatic cliff tombs loom above a huge Roman theater, and vegetables grow everywhere in the rich alluvial soil. This is where St Nicholas did his good works, and where he is buried. Stop and say “Hi!” to Santa!
Once called Phoenicus, Finike is now a sleepy fishing town with a long pebble beach nearby.
Olimpos & Çıralı
Roman ruins scattered in a pine forest, a secluded beach, fertile fields, and the Chimaera, the world’s oldest and best-known natural “eternal flame,” make Olimpos and Çirali great places to spend a few days.
Once a thriving port shipping timber and rose oil, Phaselis is now a beatiful park backing its three perfect little bays good for a swim.
Built as a modern Mediterranean-style resort in the 1980s, Kemer is filled with group tours. it boasts all sorts of hotels and restaurants, a beach, yacht marina, and a park with a Yörük (Turkoman nomad) theme.
The coast north of Kemer is lined with posh self-contained resort complexes.
The “capital” of the Turquoise Coast, Antalya has a charming old quarter surrounding its Roman harbor, though most of the sprawling city is modern. Most importantly, it’s the coast’s transportation hub, with a huge, busy bus terminal and a large, modern international airport.
This planned resort district 36 km (22 miles) east of Antalya is still under development and will be for years to come, though some of its sprawling resort hotels are finished, complete with golf courses. If you like large resort hotels with many activities, this may be the place for you.
Imagine a traditional Turkish village scattered among the extensive ruins of a Hellenistic-Roman city: that’s Side (SEE-deh), and it has a kilometer of fine sand beach on either side. Neighboring Manavgat has a nice waterfall and more practical shopping.
Once a small, quiet town favored by Seljuk Turkish sultans on vacation, it’s now a large and fast-growing resort for package-tour beach-goers. The promontory at its center is topped by a dramatic Seljuk fortress. Its beaches go on for miles.
A craggy fortress with one foot in the sea guards a spooky Byzantine ghost town in this undiscovered beachfront town.
Ancient Seleukia is a thriving market town with a few interesting old ruins. Just south,Tasucu is the port for fast ferries to Turkish Cyprus.
A simple seaside village has grown into a resort town mostly because of two medieval fortresses, a fine small beach, and interesting ancient ruins in the hills inland.
A modern commercial port city, Mersin has ferries to Turkish Cyprus.
The birthplace of St Paul is mostly modern, but you can visit the ancient well said to be St Paul’s, and a Roman gate named for Cleopatra.
Turkey’s fourth largest city is fast-growing because of the local agriculture (think cotton) and light industry, but not all that interesting for tourists.
Formerly Alexandretta, this mostly modern port town has a few interesting sights on its outskirts.
Set back from the coast, this ancient city has Roman remains, particularly its incomparable mosaics, as well as a cave said to be the oldest Christian church. There’s a beach and more ancient relics at Samandag.
You need a passport and visa to travel to Turkey. If you are traveling as a tourist, you can purchase a 90-day sticker visa at the port of entry for $20 (U.S.) cash. There is one exception: If you are arriving by cruise ship for a day trip to Turkey, you do not require a visa as long as you are not staying on shore overnight. Official and diplomatic passports holders traveling on official business must obtain a visa from a Turkish Embassy or Consulate before arriving in Turkey.
If you are planning to work, study, or conduct academic or scientific research in Turkey, you should apply for a visa from a Turkish Embassy or Consulate before arriving in Turkey. Doing these activities while on a tourist visa in Turkey could lead to deportation.
If you are planning to stay more than three months for any purpose, you must obtain a visa from a Turkish Embassy or Consulate. You must also apply for a residence/work permit or Turkish ID card within the first month of your arrival in Turkey. This includes anyone who plans to spend more than three months doing research, studying, or working in Turkey.
You should get entry stamps on the passport page containing your visa at the first port of entry before transferring to domestic flights. If you don’t, it may cause serious difficulties for you when you leave Turkey. On multiple occasions, Turkish authorities have detained travelers overnight in such situations.
Due to a revision of Turkish residency requirements in 2008, you should not stay beyond the date permitted on your visa or residency permit. You run the risk of being deported, fined and kept out of Turkey for three months to five years. The length of the ban is determined by the length of the “overstay.”
Visit the Embassy of Turkey website for the most current visa information.Crossing the border with Iraq can be time-consuming as the Turkish government tightly controls entry and exit. Anyone wishing to cross into Iraq from Turkey must have a valid travel document, such as a passport.The U.S. Department of State is unaware of any specific HIV/AIDS entry restrictions for visitors to or for foreign residents of Turkey; however, Turkey will generally deport foreigners once their HIV positive status is discovered.
Information about dual nationality or the prevention of international child abduction can be found on our website. For further information about customs regulations, please read our Customs Information page.