Istanbul: Things I saw: The Aya Sofia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, Basilica Cisterns, Galata Tower, The Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, a ferry ride up and down the Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe Palace, fish sandwich at Eminönü straight off the boat, and walking İstaklal street.
I loved Istanbul with a passion I could not have imagined. I stayed at Agora Guesthouse in Sultan Ahmet, a very clean and helpful hostel with all the modern conveniences. We took the “tram” (or metro) to get from the airport to every other place in the city, and it was very cheap and easy to get around. Sultan Ahmet is a little dodgy, with plenty of overpriced goods and restaurants and shopkeepers to hassle you, but just get back on the metro and head to areas that cater more to locals and you’ll get a local price and no hassling. I loved the small bakeries selling börek and sandwiches, and little convenient stores where you could grab bottled water and cookies. Sultan Ahmet by night is pure magic, especially the Blue Mosque and all of its minarets glowing against the sky.
Ephesus: This once-capital of the Roman Empire has been excavated to reveal one of the most well-preserved Roman ruins in existence. It was certainly marvelous to see, but difficult to reach without reserving a “tour” package, which I did reluctantly after realizing that options for getting to and from the site from nearby Izmir was too difficult on my time constraints. The tour included the home of the virgin Mary, another place I’m glad I saw, as well as the ruins of the Temple of Artemis. Annoyingly, the tour makes you visit a few shops as well, to sell Turkish Delight, figs, carpets, and kilims. There’s nowhere to stay, and no reason to, really, unless you stay in Izmir, so we did this as a day trip from Istanbul by plane.
Cappadocia: My very favorite place in Turkey (as hard as it is to choose) and the original reason for my trip, Cappadocia has a crazy strange geography with its fairy chimneys and little elf doors carved into the soft rock by ancient civilizations. We visited in the winter, when it was all dusted with glittery snow, but unfortunately winds did not allow us to go up in an air balloon. Something else that would’ve been fun was a four-wheeler trip into the valleys. We did visit the Göreme Open Air Museum, where early Christians fled to escape persecution and set up some of their very first churches, carved into the soft rock of the fairy chimneys. Göreme is tourist town, but was also very lovely and situated in such a unique landscape that it was impossible not to be charmed. I wanted to stay for weeks! We took a bus into nearby Kaymakli to visit the underground city there… it was incredible! We found a local pide shop, and enjoyed local food that was delicious.
No doubt, this is a very touristy place. That being said, I recommend going at least once, because I’ve honestly never seen anything like the white calcium-deposit travertines, and being able to walk barefoot through the warm waters was really freeing and fun. Not only that, but the nearby ruins of Hieropolis were a lot more interesting to me than Ephesus, although perhaps a bit less “grand”. The huge ancient burying grounds was very unique, scattered all over the hillsides and as eerie as it should be.
I’m lumping this half of Turkey all together, perhaps unfairly, as it encompassed so many interesting and lovely places. Southeast Turkey is much more like Syria and Northern Iraq, as Western Turkey is much more similar to Greece. That’s my opinion, but there are few who could argue that the Southeast isn’t remarkably different from the west. For a week I was hosted by Nomad Tours Turkey, and I highly recommend it to everyone. I stayed in a small Kurdish village whose ruins date back to the beginnings of known civilization, and who made me feel so very welcome in every way. From there you can participate in half-day, full-day, or mult-day tours of the entire Southeast. I opted to spend a night in the village, take a 4 day tour (I wanted to see absolutely everything), return to the village for another night, and then back to Istanbul for a total of 6 nights, 7ish days.
Gobekli Tepe, Urfa, and Harran
Gobekli Tepe is the oldest known human-made religious structure, Urfa is the birthplace of Abraham the prophet, and Harran is a village close to Syria known mostly for its beehive-like dwellings, and also for the ruins of the world’s first university. I stayed the night in Harran with an Arabic host family.
Harran to Midyat
This leg of the trip included a trip to the Bazda Caves, the little town of Mardin, Sogmatar the ancient moon-worshipping center, and the Shrine of Jethro. Unfortunately, even much searching of google for information on the Shrine of Jethro has not really led me to any understanding of its significance, but it sure was a rocky, interesting place, with lots of ruins and underground caves/dwellings. The landscape started to get really interesting, lots of rocky hills, filled with lots of rocks, and a vast stretch of desert that extended into Syria. I’m glad I went in the winter, because the desert was wonderful to see from within my coat. I’m sure it’s unbearably hot later in the year.
Mardin to Diyarbakir
Mardin was a very sand-colored town, with a lot of abandoned Syrian Christian churches. Just outside I visited a monastery called Mor Gabriel and I got to watch a service. Next we crossed the Tigris River by ferry (in the car) and went on to Hasankeyf, a place I very much wanted to see as it has some crazy old ruins carved into its cliffs and will soon be covered by water as a result of a soon-to-be-built Turkish dam. It really did not disappoint, as overrun with tourists as it was.
Diyarbakir to Nemrut
Diyarbakir was a sort of drab city with a very interesting long city wall surrounding it. I spent a day traveling by car to Nemrut, a mountain famed for the large heads of statues that have toppled down to the ground. I didn’t get to see the heads because of road conditions due to snow. Luckily, I love the mountains and I love playing in snow, and that’s basically all I did there. I had dinner with a local family who spoke no English, and spent the night in an otherwise abandoned hostel. This was totally out of season.
On the way back from Nemrut, I got the chance to stop and meet REAL nomads. They gave me a tour of their tents… it was truly unforgettable.
All in all I loved Turkey, it had everything to offer, from adventure and culture to history and ruins galore. I would love to return to Istanbul again, and explore the rest of the country.
Things I want to go back for:
Four-wheeling and balloon ride in Cappadocia
Beaches and Lycean ruins along the Aegean and Mediterranean
The Black Sea areas in the North
The capital of Ankara and its museums
Lake Van and Mt Ararat in the east