So many things to see, so little time…
It’s not everyday that you get to visit a country as exotic as Turkey, and spending no more than one week in the country remains one of my biggest travel regrets. What can you learn from my mistake? How would I have done this differently?
Spend Approx. 2-3 Days in Istanbul
Use your arrival day to cover essentials such as Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, Ortakoy, and if time permits, Rumelihisari. Do not miss a visit to one of the historical hamams for a steamy Turkish bath experience (famous ones are Cagaloglu Hamami, Cemberlitas Hamami, Suleymaniye Hamami and Haseki Hurrem Sultan Hamami).
You need at least 1 full day to explore the Historic Center of Istanbul in Sultanahmet, with highlights being the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and possibly Topkapi Palace. You can end the afternoon with a brief visit to Spice Bazaar before taking the scenic Bosphorus Cruise.
For another perspective of Istanbul, you can spend another half day to visit the Asian side (where Beylerbeyi Palace and Camlica Hill are located) or the New City area for a more modernized version of the city. If you have a little extra time, you can consider a day trip to the the famous Troy site or Princess Islands.
Where to Go Next: Classic 5-Day Tourist Loop
From Istanbul or Troy, most people would continue to Ephesus (using Kusadasi as overnight base). You need approx. 1 full day for Ephesus to tackle highlights such as Library of Celsus, Great Theater, and though I gave it a lukewarm review, no visit to Ephesus is complete without the Temple of Artemis (one of the world’s original Seven Wonders).
Start the next morning by transferring to Pamukkale, where you can find magical cotton castle terraces as well as the Hierapolis ruins.
The next day, you can transfer to Cappadocia via Konya. Cappadocia is a site of surreal beauty and is worth spending at least 3 days. You need one full day to cover South Cappadocia (i.e. Pigeon Valley, Ihlara Valley, either Kaymakli or Derinkuru Underground City) and end the day with wonderful hot air balloon.
You need to allocate another full day to explore the North Cappadocia (i.e. Uchisar Castle, Cavusin, Goreme Open Air Museum, Pasabag, Devrent Valley, Three Beauties). If you are pressed for time and can only choose one, North Cappadocia provides a more all-encompassing summary and is also logistically more feasible given its close proximity to Goreme (which is likely to be your overnight base).
From Cappadocia, you can then take a flight or overnight bus to Istanbul. A possible alternative is to add another night in Ankara to accommodate for the picturesque Lake Tuz.
So You’re a Beach Person…
If you’re into beaches and can afford 4-5 more days in between Pamukkale and Cappadocia… after enjoying Pamukkale’s cotton terraces, transfer to Fethiye in the same afternoon.
You can spend approx. 2 days in Fethiye. One day to do the famous 12-Island Boat Cruise and another to explore the paragliding heaven of Oludeniz cum Butterfly Valley. In the afternoon, take a bus from Fethiye to Kas.
Spend one day in Kas to explore the Kekova Sunken City, Hamideye Bay and Simena Village.
The next morning, travel to Antalya before continuing to Cappadocia. Some people like to add another day in Antalya to do a full-day excursion to Perge, Aspendos and Manavgat Waterfall.
The Tragic Itinerary: What I Actually Did
Unfortunately, my visit to Turkey was a “work comes first, travel comes second” experience. So here’s what actually happened in my case:
Day 1: Arrived at Istanbul via Dubai. Spent the afternoon exploring the old streets of Istanbul nearby to my hotel.
Day 2: Dropped at Kadir Has University for work-related purposes. In the afternoon, I took the Bosphorus Cruise before visiting the Spice Bazaar, Beylerbeyi Palace and Camlica Hill.
Day 4: Spent entirely at Kadir Has University with dinner at Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Day 5: Woke up before the sunrise to catch a flight to Izmir. Visited Ephesus, House of the Virgin Mary and the Temple of Artemis. Spent the afternoon exploring Kusadasi and took a Turkish bath.
Day 6: Another early morning to catch a flight to Kayseri. Supposed to do South Cappadocia today and North Cappadocia on Day 7, but as I was transferred to the destination quite late, I’ve missed the entire thing and I could only do the North Cappadocia tour. Visited Cavusin, Avanos, Goreme Open Air Museum, Pasabag, Devrent Valley and the Three Beauties. Spent the evening exploring the streets of Goreme, took another Turkish bath and overnight at a cave hotel.
Day 7: Instead of getting to do the South Cappadocia tour, I only managed to visit Uchisar Castle and had a panoramic view of the Pigeon Valley. Rushed to airport for return flight to Istanbul. And then another flight to Dubai and Singapore.
Don’t repeat my silly mistake… just don’t. Unless this is what you want to see for the majority part of your trip:
Pressed for Time: Ephesus or Cappadocia?
If you’re pressed for time, since Istanbul is most likely to be your first stop, you’ll most likely spend your first two days there. Now, if you have a few more days, the next question you’ll find yourself asking is: “Should I go to Ephesus or Cappadocia?”
If you ask me, the answer is obvious.
Cappadocia’s bizarre natural landscape is one-of-its-kind and has no other equivalent on Earth. Ephesus is a worthy destination too, but its only attraction that could compete with Cappadocia is the idea that you get to visit one of the original Seven Wonders in the form of Temple of Artemis, which unfortunately, quickly disappoints.
If you have 2-3 extra days in addition to Istanbul, choose Cappadocia. If you have a 4th extra day, then you might want to consider Ephesus.
Any question about Turkey itinerary? What’s your ideal itinerary for Turkey?