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Turkey is truly at the crossroads of the Eastern and Western worlds. With Istanbul standing at the head of the Byzantine Empire for a thousand years, and its Islamic successors—the Ottomans—ruling Turkey for the next six centuries, the country is a rich repository of Christian and Islamic treasures. Modern Turkey was largely the creation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an army officer and revolutionary who brought forth the Turkish state from the dying embers of the Ottoman Empire. He defined Turkey as a modern, secular nation—all the more remarkable for a country that is more than 95% Muslim and the one-time seat of an Islamic empire.
Through the centuries, untold emperors, travelers, traders, warriors, and religious pilgrims have been drawn to the myriad treasures of this former stopover along the ancient Silk Road—from the slender Ottoman minarets of Istanbul and golden Mediterranean coast to the surreal landscapes of Cappadocia. Turkey remains a magical destination where you can walk in the footsteps of Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans, witness haunting dervish ceremonies, explore Hittite ruins, haggle in exotic marketplaces, and sip tea with some of the friendliest people on the planet.
Click on map markers below to view information about top Turkey experiences
Göreme Open-Air Museum
Kaymakli Underground City
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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations
Any listing of the world’s top ancient sites must include Ephesus, the best-preserved Greco-Roman city in the entire Mediterranean region. The second-largest city in the Roman Empire, Ephesus was once home to about a quarter million inhabitants—and the temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The litany of visitors to Ephesus reads like a Who’s Who of ancient history—Androcles, Xerxes, Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, St. Paul, the Virgin Mary, and on and on. Even with about 80% of the city yet to be unearthed, Ephesus is a place to witness the Greco-Roman world come alive as you stroll the marble stones of the Sacred Way to the Library of Celsus, view the Roman baths, marvel at the advanced street lighting, and imagine St. Paul preaching the Gospel at a three-tiered Roman theater that once seated 25,000, built into the slope of a nearby hill. And as a reminder that Ephesus was once a pretty wild sailor’s town, there is also a prominent sign for a local brothel.
The whimsical landscapes of Cappadocia might have sprung from a fantasy novel. Volcanic eruptions millions of years ago created layers of soft tufa rock that the wind sculpted into thousands of towering “fairy chimneys,” a panorama of giant dripping cones, gravity-defying spires, and undulating cliffs, all changing colors with the passing clouds and shifting angle of the sun. Early Christians sought refuge in this sprawling expanse of ancient rock formations, carving out homes, frescoed chapels, and entire underground cities to escape persecution. One of the highlights of Cappadocia is Göreme Open-Air Museum, a Byzantine monastic complex located just outside the village of Göreme (described by Lonely Planet as “one of Turkey’s unspoiled treasures.”). Göreme Open-Air Museum, which is comprised of a cluster of rock-cut churches, chapels, and monasteries mostly dating from the 10th to 12th centuries, is also one of Turkey’s first UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Elaborate Byzantine frescoes adorn many of the church walls in this vast monastic complex—especially at Karanlik Kilise, or Dark Church, whose breathtakingly detailed frescoes have retained much of their vivid colors over the centuries due to the absence of light.
Cappadocia’s most prominent landmark is a rocky outcrop located just a short distance from the village of Göreme. Uçhisar Castle, the tallest fairy chimney in the region, dates back to the Hittites in the 12th century BC. Visible from miles around, this massive natural formation was used as a fortress in the late Byzantine and early Ottoman periods, and has borne witness to a number of empires—including the Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Seljuks, and Ottomans. Honeycombed by countless tunnels and caves, the natural fortress made for the perfect refuge for villagers when enemies advanced across the surrounding plains. Until very recent times, the rock-cut dwellings of Uçhisar also served as cozy homes for local families—a true bedrock community, one might say. Other than perhaps a hot-air balloon ride, there are no better views of the surreal rock valleys of the Cappadocian countryside than from the top of Uçhisar.
Istanbul is a city that literally straddles two continents—Europe and Asia—with the Golden Horn (an estuary of the Bosporus Strait) dividing the European and Asian sides. Unfortunately, the city’s strategic setting also made it the envy of scores of conquerors down through the ages—Greeks, Romans, Venetians, and Ottomans all had a hand in ruling this one-time terminus of the legendary Silk Road that linked Asia with Europe. And with each conqueror, it seemed, the city’s name changed—going from Byzantium to Constantinople to present-day Istanbul. The countless architectural and cultural treasures that recall the glory of this one-time capital of the civilized world include the opulent Topkapi Palace, former home of the sultans; the elegant Blue Mosque; Hagia Sophia, a masterpiece of Byzantine art; and the centuries-old Grand Bazaar, a bustling labyrinth of more than 4,000 exotic shops and stalls. One of the great cities of the world, today’s Istanbul is a vibrant, modern metropolis teeming with reminders of its epic past.
Courtesy of CNN
A seaside resort town located on Turkey’s Aegean coast, Kusadasi is best known as the jumping off point for exploring the nearby ancient city of Ephesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Kusadasi holds many charms of its own, however, including a harbor area that is home to a bustling bazaar area, many 19th-century half-timbered homes, and a restored 300-year-old caravanserai. For a pleasant seaside walk, visitors often head to a causeway just south of the harbor to Pigeon Island, a great locale to watch a sunset and check out the remains of a 13th-century Byzantine fortress that became the lair of a trio of infamous Turkish pirates in the 16th century.
Ornate rock churches and family dwellings carved directly into the soaring fairy chimneys are one thing—but what went on underneath the land of the living in Cappadocia is even more extraordinary. Entire underground cities once dotted the landscapes of Cappadocia, built to protect the local population against invaders. One of them, Kaymakli, is estimated to have housed more than 3,000 people. Carved eight levels deep into the earth, Kaymakli featured a vast series of tunnels and rooms—including stables, a church, living quarters, wine-making facilities, kitchens, and much more—and was primarily used during Byzantine times for protection from invading Arabs. Long after peace came to the region, though, many locals still lived in Kaymakli and other underground cities. Archaeologists have uncovered about 35 subterranean complexes like Kaymakli across the vast landscapes of Cappadocia—and new ones are being discovered all the time.
Films featuring Turkey from international, independent filmmakers
Learn how to best witness Istanbul's cultural traditions, from theater stages to neighborhood meeting spots and more.
This film was produced by the BBC and was first published on BBC.com Travel
Take flight in a hot air balloon to float above Cappadocia and marvel at surreal tufa formations.
Produced by Kay Burn Lim
See how the crafts on display in Istanbul's colorful bazaar reflect the city's rich multicultural past.
Produced by Kristine Jurgensen and Ian Cross
Immerse yourself in Turkey with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Just below the surface—280 feet to be exact—is the underground city of Derinkuyu. Learn about this engineering marvel.
How much do you really know about Turkey? Check out these 5 fascinating facts to find out.
Indulge in the sweet Turkish treat lokum, which is made from honey, tahini, and pistachios, with this recipe.
Lyette Mercier, for O.A.T.
Only about ten percent of Derinkuyu’s massive compound has been excavated so far.
Picture a sprawling city carved into the ground, with eight stories of living spaces 280 feet below the surface. Its hundreds of rooms contain enough space to hold between 35,000 and 50,000 people—roughly the population of Burlington, Vermont—plus their livestock and enough food to feed the population for roughly one to three months. It might sound like science fiction, but it’s ancient history.
Built beneath borders
The underground city in question is Derinkuyu, built below the plains of Cappadocia, in the Central Anatolian region of Turkey. Whatever the date of the area’s first excavations, the oldest written record of the underground cities comes from the fourth century BC. The Anatolian plain is littered with man-made cave and tunnel systems like Derinkuyu, carved into the soft volcanic stone known as tufa. Up to 200 subterranean complexes have been discovered, with 40 of those containing three or more levels. The cities grew extensive and sophisticated enough that there is believed to be a tunnel on Derinkuyu’s third level connecting to another underground city, Kaymakli, located five and a half miles away.
The underground hiding systems flourished because the fertile plains of Anatolia were attractive to many empires, but were hard to hold, with the Hittites, Phrygians, Cimmerians, Lydians, Persians, Romans, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires each taking their turns invading and ruling the area. Anatolia often found itself on the border between warring empires, beginning with Greeks and Persians and later the Byzantine Greeks and a host of rivals. Derinkuyu’s complexes were expanded and used the most by Byzantine Christians avoiding persecution from the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries AD.
Derinkuyu, designed for defense
Derinkuyu is a marvel of ancient engineering. Over 3,000 feet above sea level, the Anatolian plain’s deep water table allowed builders to dig eight levels below ground. The first level provided stables and rooms for livestock. The next level contained kitchens and storage, with the third level made up of domestic spaces. A cruciform, or cross-shaped, church is located on the lowest level, accessed via “vertical staircases:” ladders carved into walls. The second level contains a large room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and surrounded by a series of smaller rooms, which is believed to be a religious school or monastery. The city also contained many amenities, including wine and oil presses, storage, dining halls, ovens, toilets, morgues, Turkish baths, and cribs. Though red and blue arrows guide modern visitors into and out of the labyrinth, no one knows how residents navigated through the city.
An impressive aspect of Derinkuyu is its ventilation system. The city’s largest ventilation shafts go from the surface to the water table (Derinkuyu is Turkish for “deep well.”), allowing them to also be used as wells for residents above and below ground. Rooms cluster around the main shafts, where an astounding 15,000 smaller vents branch off the main one, circulating fresh air through the complex. However, if invaders capped the vents, the residents would quickly be driven out. More evidence that Derinkuyu was built for defense comes from the stone doors found in the city’s main tunnels. Resembling mill stones, these doors range in size from three to six feet tall and weigh between 400 and 1,000 pounds. They can only be closed or opened from the inside by inserting a log into a hole inside of the door, allowing a group the leverage to move it back and forth. Residents could retreat into Derinkuyu and essentially lock themselves in.
Many cities—forgotten, then found
Like the area’s rulers, the reason for retreating underground changed from century to century. Early Christians hid from Roman persecution in the second century AD and then found refuge again from Muslim raiders in the seventh century. Despite the effort put into these vast complexes, they ultimately failed to serve their main purpose: keeping Cappadocia’s residents safe from attack. The Byzantines finally evacuated Cappadocia in the eleventh century AD. The abandoned underground city of Derinkuyu was forgotten until 1963, when a local resident broke through a rock wall while renovating his home only to discover another room in the rock. While opened to the public in 1969, archaeologists continue to discover new rooms and passages in the underground city. Only about ten percent of Derinkuyu’s massive compound has been excavated so far.
Although Derinkuyu is the best known of Cappadocia’s underground cities, the cities of Kaymakli and Özkonak offer further clues to life below ground over a thousand years ago. Experts surmise that the eight floors of Kaymakli could accommodate some 5,000 people for extended periods of time due the city's well-built ventilation system, along with a winery, water cistern, kitchens, and extensive storage areas. The church at Kaymakli features a baptismal font, offering further evidence that early Christians practiced their religion in secret here. To this day, tunnels of Kaymakli remain in use as stables and storage by contemporary Turks living above ground. The underground city of Özkonak was rediscovered in 1972. This ten-story city (of which four have been excavated) also boasts a winery, along with a system of pipes allowing for verbal communication between levels and holes above the stone doors, allowing them to pour hot oil on invaders.
Above ground, thousands of years of erosion and seismic activity carved the volcanic tufa into the surreal “fairy chimneys” that dot Cappadocia’s landscape. In the fourth century AD, St. Basil—a proponent of Christian monasticism—instructed his disciples to carve cave rooms for solitary prayer. The intricately carved and decorated cave churches of Goreme grew out of this monastic tradition. Byzantine murals have been spectacularly preserved by the arid climate and feature iconic images of saints and biblical scenes. Anatolian settlers also built homes into the spires, which can reach as high as 130 feet and resemble gigantic ant hills, tall mushrooms, cone-shaped sandcastles, or columns topped with gnome hats. The rock provided insulation, keeping residents cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Hotels and inns carved into hillsides bring the traditions of Cappadocian living to today’s visitors. From the spires of Goreme’s cave homes carved high into majestic hillsides to the depths of Derinkuyu’s underground city to the modern refuge of a hillside hotel, the wonders of Cappadocia are truly all around.
by Maryclaire Dugre, for O.A.T.
Steeped in 10,000 years of history and culture, Turkey is a complex, multifaceted country. So we won’t blame you if you’ve overlooked these five fascinating facts:
Tulips originated in TurkeyTulips may be synonymous with Holland, but the brightly colored buds actually grew as wildflowers in Turkey first. In fact, it was Turkish traders who introduced them to the rest of Europe in the 16th century.
Your future lies at the bottom of your Turkish coffee cupThat’s right: Your destiny is in the dregs. According to an ancient Turkish ritual, by examining the shape of the coffee grounds at the bottom of your cup, you can glimpse into your future. For instance, the shape of a claw means that danger is ahead, while the form of a fish symbolizes wealth.
The first man to fly was TurkishAccording to legend, in the mid-17th century, after being inspired by the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, Turkey’s Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi took flight from the top of Constantinople’s Galata Tower with a homemade set of artificial wings. Fortunately, strong winds allowed Celebi to glide over the Bosporus Strait to Dogancilar Square—about 2 miles away. Unfortunately, after this remarkable flight, Sultan Murad IV feared Celebi’s power and thus exiled him to Algeria.
Santa Claus is from TurkeyBefore he was mythologized as Father Christmas, he was Saint Nicholas—otherwise known as Nikolaos of Myra, the Christian bishop of modern-day Demre, Turkey. While little is known about the life of Nikolaos, he was renowned for his incredible generosity, which, centuries later, still inspires people to honor him by giving gifts to their loved ones.
Turkey is 100% self-sufficientAgriculturally, that is. With fertile soil, an optimal climate for growing, and access to water, Turkey doesn’t have to rely on other countries for food imports. The country hopes to maintain its agricultural progress in the years to come, with a goal of becoming one of the top five food producers in the world by 2023.
by Brad Keist, from Dispatches
If the legend is true, feelings of love and passion gave birth to lokum. In Turkey, food isn’t just food—it represents something much greater, something more than just a pastry, a pudding, or compote. And no dessert holds more symbolism than the Turkish confection halva (meaning “sweet” in Arabic). Typically made from either wheat flour or tahini (sesame paste), halva is shared amongst friends and family during any major milestone in one’s life—be it a birth, a death, a marriage, graduating from school, going into the army, buying a new home, or leaving or returning from a pilgrimage. Topped with crushed pistachios or a sprinkling of ground-up cassia bark, halva embodies the very essence of happiness and sadness.
2 cups honey1 ½ cups tahini* (sesame paste)2 cups pistachios (optional)
*If you’re feeling ambitious, rather than purchasing store-bought tahini, you can make your own—from scratch! Tahini is akin to American peanut butter, but instead of peanuts, sesame seeds are used. Just follow the recipe below and you’ll have your own sesame paste in no time at all.
1 cup sesame seeds¼ cup olive oilSalt, to taste
There are pros and cons to visiting a destination during any time of the year. Find out what you can expect during your ideal travel time, from weather and climate, to holidays, festivals, and more.
The winter months are fairly cold in Turkey, with temperatures in Istanbul averaging in the 40s (°F) and in the 30s in places like Cappadocia—and even colder as you travel to Turkey’s eastern fringes. Snow is not uncommon during these months, but those who dress warm will enjoy visiting sites like Ephesus when they are far less crowded than in the summer months. If you don’t mind the chill, this is a great time to explore Istanbul, as the lines are much shorter at popular sites such as the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque—and you can find better bargains from the merchants in the Grand Bazaar. And with fewer tourists around, this is also an excellent time to quietly view the stunning landscapes of Turkey’s inland regions and experience authentic local life.
The winter chill is gone and the weather begins to moderate in Turkey in the springtime, with temperatures getting into the 60s (°F) in Istanbul and even warmer in the country’s interior. The summer crowds haven’t started to arrive yet, making these perfect months to visit Turkey’s many ancient ruins. April is also peak tulip season, and the parks and gardens of Istanbul are starting to bloom with color. While it’s too early for the sun worshippers who regularly flock to the Turquoise Coast (where most hotels are still closed), the combination of warm weather and fewer people make this an ideal time to explore almost all of Turkey.
The summer months are the peak travel season in Turkey. The weather is usually hot and dry, with temperatures reaching the high 90s (°F) in the eastern stretches of the country. Ancient sites can get very crowded during these months, along with the cities along the Mediterranean coast, which are filled with visitors seeking relief from the heat with dips in the sea. Cappadocia is not as crowded as other locales, however, and is especially beautiful during these months, when it is carpeted in wildflowers
The International Sand Sculpture Festival takes place each year (usually in June) at a beach in Antalya and is one of the largest sand events in the world. The works of talented sand sculptors from across the globe are featured in this dazzling competition.
September can still be hot in Turkey, but from the middle of the month onward temperatures begin to cool, making these months ideal for exploring Istanbul or any of the country’s ancient sites. Although the days are shorter than in spring, the combination of clear skies, fewer crowds, and pleasant weather make the autumn months just about the perfect time for any Turkish adventure.
Cappadocia in the fall is a magical time to visit with the leaves in all their glory and the light lending a special glow to the entire region and its mystical fairy chimneys.
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Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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