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Country Spotlight 

Essential Turkey

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul.Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul. Image: Getty

With its epic history, diverse landscapes and smorgasbord of cultures, there are many reasons to get excited about Turkey — here are just 10


1. City Breaks

The very name ‘Istanbul’ smacks of exoticism — towering minarets, domed bathhouses, perfumed sweetmeats, fez-wearing barbers, and a mythical bridge between East and West, with an overlay of sophistication. It’s a place where historical and architectural landmarks like the Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque stand among the latest in designer boutiques and famous-name hotels.

This is a city built on promontories of land, which makes distinguishing the European part from the Asian side quite tricky. The journey between the two is traditionally made by ferries that perform an intricate waltz around the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, but these days you can take the modern approach too: the Marmaray tunnel — the world’s first tunnel linking two continents — has just opened, and the crossing takes just four minutes by train.

The other big city destination for overseas visitors is Izmir, down on the Aegean Sea. There have been incomers here for thousands of years, as neighboring Ephesus was first a Greek and then a Roman city. Back then, expeditions set forth from Izmir’s harbor; today, it’s a relaxed port resort at the heart of Turkish coffee culture, with excellent beaches within easy reach.  



2. Cuisine

There are two key elements to great Turkish food: ingredients and location. You only have to start ticking the list — olives, yogurt, oven-fresh bread, grilled lamb, fresh fish — and already you can visualize the location: a vine-clad restaurant terrace overlooking a small fishing harbor. It’s everyone’s vacation dream, and the simpler it is, the better. Among the many Turkish delicacies on offer, watch out for burek — tasty savory pies with flaky pastry, and pide, the Turkish pizza. Many meals end with honey-infused baklava, helped along with robust Turkish red wine and finished off with raki — and, of course, sweet Turkish coffee.


Pamukkale. Image: Getty

3. Unesco sites

Turkey excels in archaeological sites. Moreover, lots are within reach of the beach, as the Greeks and Romans liked to be beside the seaside, too. The 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites include Pamukkale, a set of gleaming white infinity pools formed by hot springs, the rock chimneys of Cappadocia’s Goreme Valley, and Troy, one of the most storied sites in the world. New on the list this year are the remains of two ancient cultural  and religious centres: the so-called ‘birthplace of the Ottoman Empire’, Cumalikizik (Bursa), and Pergamon (Izmir).

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia

4. Adventure and activity

Once known chiefly for its beaches, Turkey has become increasingly adventurous. Cruising aboard a gulet (traditional boat) has been supplemented by charter sailings, as many companies have realized the safety and beauty of Turkish waters. Gulet adventurers are also exploring pristine sections of coast, which has led to the opening of coastal trails such as the Lycian Way and the Carian Trail, Turkey’s longest hike. Walking companies are venturing inland, and places like Cappadocia, usually day-trip territory, have also become trekking destinations. In the same region, the mountains of Anatolia provide the snow for Erciyes Ski Resort, near Kayseri city. Elsewhere, the hills backing onto many Turkish shores are attracting hang gliders, particularly around Fethiye.  

Antalya coastline

Antalya coastline. Image: Getty

5. Beaches

With nearly 400 Blue Flag beaches and 4,970 miles of coast, there’s no shortage of places to roll out your towel. Sand here comes in many forms: from Bodrum to Antalya, it nestles in beautiful, sheltered bays, as at Olu Deniz — the ‘Blue Lagoon’. East of Antalya it’s white and unbroken for miles, through Belek and beyond. Meanwhile, up on the Aegean coast, the current hotspot is Alacati Beach Resort, boasting great family sand and windsurfing.

Whirling dervishes

Whirling dervishes

6. Art and culture

Turkey is a cultural hotbed, with major jazz festivals in Istanbul and Izmir, film festivals in Antalya and Marmaris and the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival. Istanbul remains the heartbeat of most modern Turkish culture. It’s the venue for Contemporary Istanbul, an art fair across the city, and the Istanbul Design Biennial, which invites submissions from all creative disciplines. And that’s before we even start on Istanbul’s museums and galleries.


7. Golf

The town of Belek, east of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast, is the undisputed king of Turkish golf and one of Europe’s undoubted golfing hotspots. It offers a total of 15 courses, four of which are in Europe’s top 100, and many are designed by golf’s most famous names such as Colin Montgomerie and Nick Faldo. Some of these courses belong to standalone clubs while others are attached or associated with eye-catching hotels (mainly five-star and all-inclusive). All types of golfers are catered for, from beginners to advanced, and the region even hosts its own annual PGA tournament,  the Turkish Airlines Open.  

8. Spa

The proliferation of five-star hotels — there are around 250 in the Antalya region alone — means spas are everywhere in Turkey these days. But then, they always were: the Turks have a long history of thermal bathing, and perhaps the best place to experience this tradition is at Afyon — Turkey’s spa center, with thermal and mud baths found in and around the city. Of course, no matter which part of Turkey you visit, there’s the opportunity to sample one of the country’s famous local bathhouses, which cater to tourists and are wonderfully inexpensive. Meanwhile, one recent innovation is the increased presence of deluxe standalone spas.

9. Faith Tourism

A vast number of religious sites can be found all over Turkey, including places of pilgrimage for all three major monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Of appeal to Christian travelers are the sites where St John, St Paul and St Peter lived and worshipped in Anatolia, and where you can find what’s said to be the world’s first cave church, the St Pierre Church, built into the side of Mt Sipylus. Tarsus, near Mersin, is home to the site where St Paul was born, with the well in the courtyard said to have healing powers. Other sites include the dwelling in Ephesus where the Virgin Mary spent her last days.

The WW1 Ataturk Memorial and New Zealand National Memorial at Conkbayri, Gallipoli.

The WW1 Ataturk Memorial and New Zealand National Memorial at Conkbayri, Gallipoli. Image: Corbis

10. Military history

First World War centenary events aren’t just the preserve of Western Europe. The Great War was also played out in Turkey, and this year is the 100th anniversary of the landing of Australian, New Zealand and British troops at Anzac Cove. Anzac Day is marked each year on Gallipoli — 200 miles west of Istanbul within the city of Canakkale, close to the ancient city of Troy — and this year’s anniversary will be a big occasion, with attendees expected to use the opportunity to explore the wider region. Visitors to Gallipoli often combine it with the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Troy.  

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