We visited Turkey (Istanbul & Cappadocia in 6 days) in October 2015 for a 6 day trip and had a great time. Turkey has so much to offer to tourists that planning a short trip can become a challenging task. But half a trip’s fun is in researching & planning and so here, I will share information from my trip and add to that!! We spent 4 days in Istanbul & 2 days in Cappadocia. For the ease of reading, this post is focused on Turkey trip planning & details out things to do & experiences in Istanbul; read about Cappadocia here.
Places to visit in Turkey
Destinations in Turkey are fairly scattered across the country so in a 5-6 day period you will likely be able to visit 2 or 3 max.
- Istanbul (visit for history) – To visit Istanbul or not is usually not even a discussion point. Highly likely that you will start your trip from the Ataturk airport in Istanbul but even if not, Istanbul is absolutely not to be missed. It is one of the most historic cities in the world & offers so many things to see & experience. Although Istanbul offers something for every kind of tourist, I would primarily mark it for history, architecture & food.
- Cappadocia/Kapadokya (visit for landscape) – Cappadocia has a very unique landscape which attracts tourists from all over the world. Hundreds of conical & chimney shaped rock formations from volcanic eruptions over years, also known as fairy chimneys are indeed very unique. A hot air balloon ride is really the best way to experience the Cappadocia landscape.
- Ephesus (visit for ancient archaeological attractions) – Ephesus is an ancient city located on the western coast of the country where you can experience centuries of history (Ephesus being one of the biggest cities in the Roman times i.e. 1st century BC) via the excavated architectural remains which are in a fairly well preserved state.
- Antalya (visit for beaches & history) – Antalya is located on the Mediterranean coast-line & if you are a beach lover, you will want to put Antalya on your list for this is one place in Turkey where you can get a flavour of both leisure & serious history. The turquoise coast which encompasses Antalya boasts of the some of the best beaches & scenery in Turkey
- Ankara – Being the capital & seat of government, Ankara is a very cosmopolitan city but not very popular place from a touristic point of view. If you do happen to visit Ankara, there are several museums & art centres which are great to visit.
The map below shows the 5 cities on interest on a map of Turkey; the average distance between any two places is ~400-600 KM.
After much deliberation, we narrowed down to Istanbul and Cappadocia for our trip. We chose Istanbul for its historic importance & Cappadocia was natural choice for its repute as world’s best hot air balloon ride site.
Turkey has three visa options – (i) standard visa (ii) Turkish e visa (iii) visa-on-arrival.
For Indians, there is no visa-on-arrival for Indians and the standard Turkish visa takes a month to get done. But, fortunately we qualified for the Turkey e-visa. E-visa has simplified Turkey visa process significantly & it takes as much time to apply for the visa as it does to order something from Amazon probably. However, there is a set of conditions to be met for you to qualify for the Turkish e-visa for e.g. it can only be applied for tourist/trade purpose, nationality based requirements (for e.g. a valid U.S. visa for certain nationalities) etc.
Trip planning, another useful thing
‘Pocket wifi’ – We prefer carrying a pocket wifi when travelling to International destinations for better access to internet on-the-go. It’s a great alternative to phone ‘data’ which usually is very expensive on international roaming.
I ordered a pocket-wifi from ‘AllDayWifi’ and our experience was very smooth with them. I pre-booked the device 3-4 days before our trip started & they delivered to our hotel. Returning the device is also quite convenient as they send along a return envelope & you can post the device right at the airport on your way back.
Destination 1, Istanbul
Our flight was a short 6 hour flight & we landed at the Ataturk International airport. We rode local taxi and the fare was ~70 TLs which is approximately the same amount that the airport shuttle would normally charge (10 Euro per person). As we rode, my first impression of Istanbul was a beautiful green city with many bridges. The bridges connect the parts of the city separated by the Bosphorus strait.
Stay in Istanbul:
Our stay was at MySuite Istanbul which is a cosy set of apartments located in the Cehangir (pronounced Jehangir) neighbourhood in Beyoglu, on the European side of Istanbul. Our host, Cihan, was very friendly and provided us with all the necessary information, a local cell-phone to call him & a local prepaid rechargeable card which we used for getting on the tram, buses & ferries.
We had chosen a terrace apartment and we got a great view of the beautiful skyline of Istanbul including Hagia Sophia, Galata tower and Sulemaniye mosque. The next few days, we rode trams, buses & ferries and walked across the breadth of Istanbul. It absorbed its history, culture and cuisine which are a unique blend of conservative Ottoman and liberal Europe.
Historic Places to visit in Istanbul:
Istanbul was the capital of Roman & then the Ottoman empire. Owing to its historical importance, the city has a really rich art & architectural scene. The Sultanehmet area is where most of the major tourist points are located. It has been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage site. It was hard for us not to marvel at the monuments we visited.
It is one of the prime Istanbul attractions. Definitely, it is more beautiful than the image in my mind. Also, its interiors intrigued me for its Islamic and Christian influences. Visiting Hagia Sophia is going back in time to get glimpses of Roman and Ottoman empires at one place.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque:
The mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles. The two structures – Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet mosque stand opposite each other and make a spectacular view.
Topkapi Palace Museum:
It is the Royal residence during the Ottoman period. The palace is almost like a city in itself and is divided into four major courtyards. Most of the chambers are decorated in the Ottoman style with detailed artwork on ceramic tiles. The exhibition rooms display collections of robes, weapons, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts & Ottoman treasure and jewelry.
One of the several ancient cisterns located under the city, it is modern-day miracle that it has been intact after so many years.
Starting at the entrance to Hagia Sophia, we had bought our ‘museum passes’ which got us entry to 5 major museums including Hagia Sophia & Topkapi palace at reasonable rates. Also, Turkish government offers an audio tour at reasonable rates for all historic places and we recommend those to everyone. Among other places, we visited the historic Galata Tower and many mosques – each unique for its architecture and history.
I am a tea connoisseur and Turkey is a heaven for people like me. I still cherish my time in Istanbul sitting in European styled cafes sipping Turkish tea served in tulip shaped cups. Turkish cuisine had a lot of new things for us to try. I am a vegetarian but never really faced any trouble in finding vegetarian cuisine.
The Sultanehmet area is the old Istanbul area and you find a lot of restaurants serving traditional Turkish food which is a highly recommended experience. We tried the gozleme and pilaf here. Gozleme is traditional Turkish cuisine made with several different fillings, potato being my favorite & spinach + feta cheese being the popular choice.
I particularly remember one of our lunches at a small vegan restaurant called ‘Datli Maya’. We had lentil soup, vegetarian wrap & a spinach ‘pide’ i.e. Turkish pizza. And then who can miss Turkish desserts? We gorged on Baklawa and Turkish delight during our stay.
Must haves = (Turkish tea, Gozleme, Pide or Turkish pizza, Turkish sweets)
Istanbul has a rich culture which has evolved over hundreds of years. The city has different feel to it & the best way to experience it is to stroll around its sloping streets and sip tea in the several cozy side-walk cafes you will notice. We indulged in few interesting activities to get a glimpse of the city lifestyle and culture.
Bosphorus boat tour:
The ‘Bosphorus boat tour’ is a must activity which offers a spectacular view of European Istanbul on one side & Asian on the other. The tour also made us realize the vast expanse of the city.
Grand Bazaar Istanbul:
We visited the legendary ‘Grand Bazaar Istanbul’ located close to the Sultanehmet square. From clothes to books to spices, you can find everything here. We bought a Turkish lamp & Turkish tea cups from here as souvenirs. We also visited ‘Spice Bazar’ located at about a kilometer from Sultanehmet Square. It is definitely worth a visit if you are interested in cooking and spices. We also walked around in the Cehangir area since weather was quite comfortable. We noticed several antique shops, grocery stores with colorful veggies & fruits and surprisingly a lot of cats!!
Our final night in Istanbul ended at Taksim, which was a different world in itself. Starting at Taksim Square we proceeded on to the Istiklal Avenue which had a very warm feel. On Istiklal Avenue, you will find everything here including boutiques, bookstores, cinemas, cafés, patisseries and restaurants. There was a live band of street musicians performing Turkish songs which were quite peppy..
Destination 2, Cappadocia
We spent next two days in Cappadocia visiting underground cities, experiencing dervish performances and hot air balloon rides – readers can read here. Our brief but enriching Turkey trip ended on a happy but overwhelming note.
On our return journey to Ataturk airport, I managed to forget my cell-phone in the taxi. But thanks to helpful folks we met at the airport (right from taxi driver to random passengers), I was able to track the taxi driver and get back my cellphone. Indeed, the people of Turkey have equally rich values like their history!