At the crossroads of the world, the layers of history offer an almost impossible list of things to do and see.
I'M BLINKING IN the bright sunlight of Taksim Square, squinting down at a small piece of notebook paper covered with my daughter Linnea’s cramped but tidy writing. On one side, an almost ridiculously long list of things she says I absolutely must do during my time in Istanbul, divided carefully into neighborhoods and itineraries. And on the other side of the paper, step-by-step instructions for catching the funicular and M1 tram that will take me down to the city’s oldest — and ridiculously picturesque — neighborhood, Sultanahmet. On today’s list alone: the Blue Mosque (officially Sultan Ahmed), multiple museums, Topkapi Palace with its grand gardens, and the Basilica Cistern, the eerie sixth-century underground water system of Constantinople. And of course Hagia Sophia, the enormous gilded Greek Orthodox cathedral-turnedmosque- turned-museum that made the original seven wonders list. And all this is within a square mile.
This is what you have to understand about Turkey: to call it “the crossroads of the world,” which many do, is an almost laughable understatement. With the Mediterranean on one side, the Black Sea on the other and the biggest city, Istanbul, bisected by the Bosporus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, this former capital of the Ottoman Empire has seen its lands fought over and occupied by empires from the ancient Greeks and Romans to medieval Europe to the major powers of today.
And all those people, both the richest and most powerful and the poorest, left something behind, from soaring mosques to Byzantine churches, from ruined Greek and Roman temples to excavated mosaics and even older underground cities. In fact, many argue that Turkey boasts more significant historic sites for its size than any other country in the world, many of them also the best preserved. Certainly more than even the most energetic traveler — which I am — could see in the three weeks I’m going to be spending here. So from day one I had to begin paring, and here’s what I ultimately came to consider my “greatest hits” list.
I had a head start here, as Linnea, studying abroad at world-renowned Boğaziçi University, had already been in Turkey for a jam-packed six weeks and had charted a distraction-free course for me to follow. And thanks to her adventurous (read: risk-taking) tendencies, I found myself following her suggestions to visit places most other tourists miss.
Take the colorful streets, mosques and cafes of Fener, Balat and Fatih, some of Istanbul’s most traditional Islamic neighborhoods, where chador-clad women throng the markets and men play chess and gossip in the cafe-lined squares. Instead of beelining to Chora Church to see its splendid Byzantine mosaics and frescoes depicting the life of Christ, I took a ferry to Balat and zigzagged my way first to Fethiye Camii, a mosque housed in the Byzantine-era Pammakaristos Church, then back past the lively scene at conservative Fatih mosque with a detour to see the Valens Aqueduct.
To savor the sheer worldly sophistication of Istanbul at night, follow in the footsteps of generations before you to Istiklal Caddesi, the long pedestrian and tram route that runs from Taksim Square down to Galata Tower. (Spring for the trip to the top for the iconic view.) My first night on Istiklal I thought there must be a festival going on to account for the jostling throngs and buskers playing late into the night, but this is life as usual in Istanbul’s intellectual heart, where political arguments and raucous singing spill from crowded cafes late into the night. Turn off onto one of the many side streets lined with brightly lit restaurants (my favorite: Çiçek Pasajı, or Flower Passage, with its glass galleried roof) and choose one that serves meze, Turkey’s traditional repast of small plates, meant to be savored slowly accompanied by plenty of raki, an anise-flavored liquor akin to ouzo.
In fact, sampling the cuisine is what you’ll want to do most of all in Istanbul — and everywhere in Turkey. Seek out the last of Istanbul’s traditional kaymak shops, Karaköy Özsüt, where third-generation Haci Hasan Fehmi still trucks water buffalo milk straight from his farm to make the clotted cream, which is unpasteurized and eaten fresh for breakfast on bread layered with honey. Take a ferry across to Kadiköy on the Asian side and wander the sprawling fish market and bazaar; there are dozens of great restaurants and you can’t go wrong if you follow your nose and the crowds. Farther up the shore, Üsküdar boasts several historic mosques as well as colorful antique and flea markets.
But if there was one place in Istanbul I found myself returning to, it’s the quayside neighborhood of OrtakÖy, with its iridescent white marble mosque that seems to soar out over the river and the lively scene of clamoring seagulls, honking ferries and colorful market stalls that surrounds it.
From hobbit holes to fairy chimneys to Alice’s giant mushrooms, Cappadocia abounds with fairy tale metaphors — and some more adult ones, too, like the aptly named Love Valley. That’s because the usual descriptors fail before this otherworldly landscape of volcanic spires, caverns, cliffs and pillars chiseled out of limestone by thousands of years of meager rainfall. With just a few days and without a car, Linnea and I stayed in central Göreme, where we could walk to the Open Air Museum of cave churches bedecked with spectacular 12th-century frescoes. We chose Kelebek Special Cave Hotel for its cliffside location, spectacular views of the rock spires at sunset, and the chance to sleep in our own limestone fairy chimney, complete with elfin wooden door.
We spent an entire day scaling crumbling cliffs to find the most brilliantly painted cave churches and exploring the underground city of Kaymakli, excavated by warring Hittites eight stories below the earth. And, like pretty much every other Cappadocia visitor we met, we woke before dawn to take a hot air balloon ride over the valley, awed by the sight of the sun over the rosehued cliffs as dozens of rainbow-hued balloons soared together into the sunrise.
EPHESUS AND SELÇUK
Arriving in the tiny village of Selçuk by bus, I climbed the hill to the Basilica of St. John the Apostle just in time to see the columned tomb and the walls of Ayasoluk Fort turned gold by sunset. Surrounded by farms and orchards, Selçuk restaurants make good use of the bounty, and I ate the best lamb kebabs and stuffed eggplant of my trip there at Ejder restaurant, popular for its terrace view of the Roman aqueduct that bisects town.
Two million people visit Ephesus every year, but when the local minibus dropped me off the next morning, pouring rain gave me the gift of solitude. As I walked the Royal Road through this city once second only to Rome in size and power, I seemed to feel my feet slipping into grooves worn by Caesar’s soldiers. From there it was on by bus to climb the sparkling white travertine terraces of Pamukkale and to soak my feet in the steaming calcium carbonate–infused pools, after clambering around the ruins of Heiropalis, built by the Greeks in the second century B.C. to take advantage of the holy waters.
ANTALYA AND THE MEDITERRANEAN COAST
The gateway to Turkey’s southern “turquoise” coast, Antalya is a dreamy, sensuous city where strolling the sunny waterfront seems to be a way of life. Don’t miss the chance to stay within the ancient walled city, where cars are few, bougainvillea runs rampant and every restaurant seems to have a lantern-lit terrace. Historic sites stud this area, many of them ancient Lycian seaports linked by a footpath known as the Lycian Way. I’ve rarely felt history come alive as it did in Phaselis, where arches, aqueducts, an amphitheater and thousands of giant stone building blocks lie tumbled among the trees as if a giant had just stopped playing with them.
Visiting Turkey’s ancient cities, you can’t help but notice that many of the most impressive statues, friezes and sarcophagi have been removed (for the protection of the artifacts). You’ll find them in the Antalya Archaeological Museum, including spectacular Lycian mosaics lifted from Xanthos and Perge’s Three Graces and Gallery of the Gods. Really, there’s nothing like standing before the grand tomb of Pericles, perfectly preserved since the fourth century B.C., to make you feel small.
My last few days, back in Istanbul, were spent bargaining for neon-hued pottery and jewel-toned lamps and carpets in the Grand Bazaar and taking a ferry ride to the Prince Islands, where horse-drawn carriages take you to hilltop Greek monasteries with stunning views of the island-dotted Bay of Marmara. And of course, I made one last pilgrimage for kaymak.
IF YOU GO
THINGS TO DO
Antalya Archaeological Museum
Göreme Open Air Museum
Hierapolis-Pamukkale World Heritage Site
Kaymakli Underground City
Kelebek Special Cave Hotel
A NOTE ABOUT SAFETY
There’s no question that recent political unrest has made traveling to Turkey less predictable than it was a few years ago. That said, Europeans still flock to what has long been one of their favorite holiday spots, and I honestly felt safer walking alone in Turkey than I do in many places here at home. Would I go to Ankara right now? Probably not, though I’d love to see Atatürk’s Mausoleum someday. Would I go back to the destinations I visited? In a heartbeat. Just use the same approach you would in other countries where attacks recently occurred: be practical, stay wary, avoid sensitive areas, and time your visit to avoid political anniversaries and demonstrations (the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory page lists these events in advance).