From ancient Roman ruins and mosaic-encrusted churches to bygone rural villages and the fairy-tale landscapes of Cappadocia, here are our top things to do 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 made for rich travel experiences.
Our list of amazing things to do in Turkey could go over for a very long time. Instead, we’ve picked out a selection of experiences that showcase what this amazing country has to offer.
To help put it all together, read our 2-week Turkey itinerary.
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1 / PAMUKKALE
People have been soaking in the thermal bliss of Pamukkale for centuries. The hot water springs that dot the area range from 35°C to 100°C (95°F to 212°F) 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.
The nearby ruins of Hierapolis, a sprawling impressive complex of ancient buildings set in high, dried-out grasses., is one of the most impressive ancient ruins in Turkey.
Sitting watching one of the most magical sunsets we’ve ever seen over such a unique landscape was one of our top travel experiences in Turkey.
2 / AYA SOFYA, 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.
Inside, 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 is a reflection of Istanbul and its story.
Aya Sofya is now a mosque again, but it’s still possible to visit as a tourist. All the details are covered in our guide to Istanbul’s top things to do.
3 / 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.
The site also contains a series of excavated Roman terrace houses that were covered for centuries. Glass walkways run over these ancient dwellings offering us a insight 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. For more information, read our guide to the best ancient sites in Turkey.
4 / CAPPADOCIA
As the rays of the sun gradually push back the night, illuminating the towering rock faces of Cappadocia, hundreds of brightly coloured hot air balloons dotted the sky.
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.
Seeing Cappadocia from a hot air balloon is one of the unforgettable things to do in Turkey. One moment you are within inches of treetops through valleys no wider than the balloon itself, the next you’re 800 metres high.
The whole experience is thoroughly rewarding. Tours usually finish with a champagne breakfast amongst this incredible landscape.
Bookings // Hot Air Balloon + Champagne & Breakfast
5 / THE WHIRLING DERVISHES
The Mevlevi order is an Islamic religious order based in Konya, in central Turkey. However, most know them as the Whirling Dervishes who perform the Sema (ritual dance) to haunting music.
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.
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.
It’s an unmissable experience of Turkish expression.
Whirling Dervishes // Mevlevi Sema show in Istanbul
6 / PERGAMUM
A short drive to the north of Ephesus, Bergama (Pergamum) was once the Roman capital of Asia Minor.
Perched on a hill, Pergamum reflects not just the might of Rome but the defensive fortresses of the ancient Greeks.
Stare up at the towering columns of the Temple of Trajan, sit in the seats of the dramatic theatre embedded deeply in the hillside and scramble through the weeds and overgrown grasses surrounding the Temple of Dionysus.
The rocky ruins of the Pergamum Altar surrounded by ancient column is one of the most fascinating ancient Turkish ruins.
Pergamum is an under-visited attraction in Turkey, but its desolate appearance makes it even more alluring.
7 / CHORA CHURCH, ISTANBUL
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.
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 which is a must-visit place in Turkey.
2022 Update // Chora Church has returned to a mosque and it is currently under renovations and closed to tourists. We have more information in our Istanbul itinerary.
8 / KAPIKIRI
The village of Kapıkırı is not a popular attraction in Turkey, but it was one of our favourite experiences.
We strolled up and down the narrow paths that wind through the village. Each turn revealed a deeper insight into rural Turkish life. Kapıkırı is subsistence farming; chickens, goats and cows freely amble the streets. Friendly locals lean against crumbling walls in the shade, reviving themselves from backbreaking work.
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.
The lake is a great place to relax and have a swim. After cooling off, we sat down on a couple of chairs and a family offered us some beers from the little fridge they had set up on the shore. It’s not exactly on the tourist trail, but Kapıkırı was one of our favourite places to visit in Turkey.
There is limited public transport to Kapıkırı but fortunately, driving in Turkey is very easy.
9 / TEMPLE OF APOLLO
Only three columns of the Temple of Apollo 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 but the colossal size of the columns put the whole structure into perspective.
The temple walls, metres thick and almost 30 metres high, are simply massive. Wide columns stretch like mighty redwoods into the sky. One fallen column, lying on its side, still stands 2.5 metres high.
The original platform of the temple was over 5,500 meters square and held 122 massive columns.
Nevertheless, this was only the fourth largest temple in ancient Turkey. Standing here in awe of a monument of such power and might is a wonderful thing to do in Turkey.
10 / HIKING IN CAPPADOCIA
We were hiking in the Rose Valley at Cappadocia, but it could just as easily have been the Red Valley. Signage was either non-existent or misleading – a plethora of information covering makeshift signs, all contradicting each other.
But we persisted and put together detailed instructions for hiking in Cappadocia – one of our favourite things to do in Turkey.
The views – and challenges in finding them – are richly rewarding. Green-topped valleys, oceans of rippling red and white rock, strange rock formations. It’s a beautiful part of the world to hike with changing scenery that’s unlike anywhere else. In addition, hidden cave churches and local family cafes provide awesome places to take a break from the heat.
MAP / BEST THINGS TO DO IN TURKEY
To help with your Turkey planning, download our map with all top attractions listed in this guide. Our favourite things to do we’re spread over a large area of the country. To help narrow things down, read our 2-week Turkey itinerary.
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