Most of the land mass of Turkey actually falls into the continent of Asia, but I’m filing this under my Europe Destination Guides since a good chunk of Istanbul is in the 5% which lies in Europe and the country has been in talks about joining the EU… I came to Turkey thinking I would stay up to two months, perhaps travel a bit in some of the surrounding countries. More than a year later, I’ve completely fallen for this country, the food, the history, the beautiful natural wonders and the people. I spent a year and half based in Goreme, in the beautiful Cappadocia region of central Turkey, and have recently moved to Istanbul. I still do travel as much as I can!
Before we begin…
In the time that I’ve been in Turkey, there have been incidences of terrorism in 2015 as well as an attempted coup in 2016 and ongoing domestic problems. Most of what you see on the news is dramatic and all bad news, so I’m often asked if I am safe here. Here are two posts by expat living in Turkey who very eloquently sum up my feelings as well: Am I Safe in Turkey? and Is Turkey Safe from ISIS and Terrorism? In short, I am happy living in Turkey and wouldn’t make plans to leave based on fears over terrorism, which can happen anywhere in the world – in fact, European cities like Paris, London, Brussels, etc have had more frequent trouble than Turkey recently… It’s always good to practice common sense and to stay informed, but Turkey is a large country and life goes on as usual for 99.99% of the people living here. Ok, enough about that. Hope you enjoy your visit to Turkey, as I have!
Map of Turkey
The following are some of my suggestions for regions of Turkey that I’ve either been to myself, or places that I am hoping to see soon. I’d love to add your recommendations to the list! Feel free to leave a comment below. =)
Things to Do in Turkey
Istanbul – Famous sights in Sultanahmet (Old Town) include: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and it’s harem. Orkatoy District (along the Bosphorus) – Feriye Lokantasi serves Ottoman cuisine, best spots for kumpir. Kempinski Hotel for a drink on the water at sunset. Cihangir (trendy/hipster district) – try Turkish breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi. On busy, modern Istiklal street, try Turkish BBQ at Zubeyir Ocakbasi. Visit a hammam (Turkish bath) for the full scrub down bathing experience. Love this list compiled by TurkishTravelBlog.com of 8 Cool and Unusual Things to Do in Istabul, like taking a jewelry workshop with a master jeweler in the Grand Bazaar or a food tour in the old city with the food editor of Vogue in Turkey. Culinary Backstreets has a fantastic list of culinary walks and cooking classes in Istanbul. One of the cheapest and easiest ways to get around is with an Istanbulkart, which gives you discounted rates on the all of the (already reasonable) modes of transport in Istanbul. For less than a dollar, you can snap photos while you take a lovely 15 or 20 minute ferry ride over to the Asian side of Istanbul. I especially enjoyed spending an afternoon in the fishmarket area of Kadikoy, which is just blocks from the ferry that arrives from Eminonu. (Good summary of ferries here.) Another option on the Asian side is the terminal at Uskudar, where you will find cafes where you can pick a cushion to lounge along the seawall near Kizkulesi (Maiden’s Tower) and enjoy Turkish tea or coffee as the sun sets over the Bosphorus. Watching or chatting with the fishermen as you cross the Galata bridge is entertaining and a practical way to get to lunch at the floating kitchens in Eminonu where you can try Balik Ekmek (which means “fish bread”) before walking around the historic Spice Bazaar.
>>For restaurant suggestions and an easy way to see most of these spots with a map view, check out my Istanbul list on Foursquare & Istanbul Photo Gallery. There’s also a (mostly Istanbul-specific twitter feed embedded if you scroll to the bottom of this post, which is helpful for the absolute latest news.
Cappadocia – Cappadocia is known as the Land of the Beautiful Horses and it’s definitely a unique place in all the world. Any photo you’ve seen of Turkey likely includes hot air balloons rising over the surreal landscape of the region, full of “fairy chimneys” created by volcanic activity and further carved into churches, houses and hotels. A ride in a hot air balloon at dawn is a must, but if you absolutely can’t fit it in to your budget, I’d highly recommend getting up at dawn to head to sunset point, which will allow you a panoramic view over the valley as the balloons float past. If you’ve got limited time, there are a variety of day tour packages that take you around the sights of the region. I enjoyed the Green Tour (Southern Route) which included a lovely walk down Ihlara Valley, time to explore the nooks and crannies of Selime Monastery, a visit to the famous undergound city of Derinkuyu and a stop for photos over Pigeon Valley on the way back to Goreme. If you’d prefer to DIY, renting a car would be helpful (public transport can be a bit sporadic) and if you can, try to go very early or late to avoid crowds. You could also visit the underground city of Kaymakli, which I thought seemed less crowded by tour groups. The Goreme Open Air Museum is only 1km from town and consists of a variety of churches carved into the caves in the valley. Other activities on offer include sunset ATV tours of surrounding valleys, horseback riding, cooking classes, and Turkish Night dinner shows which include the famous whirling Dervishes. Testi kebap (“pottery kebab”) is famous from this region and there are also some great Turkish wines to try from Central Anatolia, particularly the Emir (white) grape or the Kalecik Karasi (red). Wine tasting can be done in nearby Urgup (Turasan Winery) or Uchisar (Kocabag winery), which was my favorite. The town of Avanos to the North is home to master pottery workshops where you can try your hand at the wheel, or just take a walk along the Red River.
Gaziantep – A food lover’s dream, Gaziantep is located in Southeastern Turkey and is somewhat off the beaten path of most travelers, who stick to Istanbul and Turkey’s beaches, then perhaps go inland far enough to visit Cappadocia. For me, it’s a must on my itinerary with its reputation for the finest cuisine (like pistachio baklava!), excellent restaurants, cooking classes, and even a culinary museum! My culinary to-do list here included: pistachio baklava from Imam Cagdas or Kocak, getting up early for beyran at Metanet Lokantasi, excellent kebap at Kebapci Halil Usta (kusleme is a type from Gaziantep), katmer at Zekeriya Usta and menengic coffee from Tahmis Kahvesi. For in-between food stops, there’s the Zeugma Mosaic Museum (with its famous work called Gypsy Girl), the Coppersmiths’ Bazaar, Gaziantep Castle and endless markets and winding streets to wander in the old city. (*Note: Gaziantep is currently listed on many travel advisories due to it’s location near the border with Syria. It’s a shame, because this is also what’s lent it such an amazing food culture and it was one of my favorite stops in Turkey. That being said, please be aware if you do decide to travel in this region.)
What to Eat in Turkey
- Kebaps – so many varieties to try! Istanbul on Food offers tours that let you experience some of them, and has a handy kebap cheat sheet.
- Lokum – known as “Turkish Delights”, a confection .
- Baklava – flaky pastries made with nuts (pistachio, walnut, almond, hazelnut), butter and sugar syrup or honey between layers of phyllo dough. Gaziantep is known for especially fine pistachio baklava. In Istanbul, the best baklava can be found at Karakoy Gulluoglu.
- Menemen – Turkish style scrambled eggs
- Balik Ekmek – fish sandwiches from boats near the Galata Bridge in Istanbul are the most famous, but you can find delicious balik ekmek just about anywhere near a fish market or harbor. One of my favorites was at a little shop in Canakkale.
- Kazandibi – caramelized milk pudding
- Dondurma – better known as Turkish Ice Cream, made extra thick by using a starch from the root of orchids. You can traditional dondurma with a knife and spoon! (Though it’s also possible to get artisan gelato in Istanbul now as well, with a Turkish twist in flavors like fig, baklava, or kazandibi!)
- Gozleme – savory Turkish pancakes, a specialty in central Anatolia
- Kumpir – huge baked potatoes piled high w/ tons of toppings. The most famous place to eat kumpir is near the beautiful seaside mosque in Ortakoy, Istanbul.
- Kofte – meatballs, often made from lamb or beef but can also be made with chicken, fish or even bulgur. They can be stewed, boiled grilled or fried. (Did you know that IKEA’s famous “Swedish” meatballs are actually Turkish kofte?)
- Borek – flaky, savory pastries with fillings like cheese, potato, parsley or spinach. Popular as an appetizer, with breakfast or at tea time.
- Islak Burger (Wet Burger) – burger doused in tomato sauce, popular late night street food, especially in Istanbul’s Taksim district
- Hamsi – anchovies
- Kokorec – spit-roasted lamb intestines, chopped and mixed with tomato, dried oregano and chile for heat. Usually served in bread or pita.
- Lahmacun – a thin, crispy flatbread spread with minced meat, tomato, onion, etc. Sometimes called Turkish pizza. To eat, roll up with fresh parsley and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Antep-style lahmacun comes with minced garlic and an eggplant puree spread.
- Manti – small Turkish dumplings filled with ground meat (often lamb) and served with a creamy yogurt sauce, Anatolian specialty with many regional variations. Just a couple of examples: Kayseri manti are known for being extra tiny (labor-intensive to make!) and hangel is a wide, flat noodle version with no filling, is a specialty of Kars.
- Testi Kebap – a stew traditionally cooked in a clay pot (testi means jug in Turkish) and opened at your table, Anatolian specialty
- Kuru fasulye – means “dried beans”, sometimes compared to baked beans, good with pilav
- Other Turkish Desserts – SeriousEats.com has a great list of 12 Turkish Sweets You Should Know.
- Ali nazik kebap – specialty of Gaziantep, made with mashed eggplant and yogurt
- Beyran – hearty soup eaten for breakfast in Gaziantep
- Bal Kaymak – Bal (honey) and kaymak (a fresh, rich cream traditionally made from water buffalo milk) is a combination made in heaven. This is one of the stars of a proper Turkish breakfast spread.
>> If all this talk of Turkish food is making you hungry, you should definitely check out some videos from popular Turkish chef Refika Birgul. (Note: the Turkish version of the channel has even more videos, most have English subtitles available too!)
>> A great list of some of the best bites in Istanbul from J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats.
>> Anthony Bourdain’s Istanbul Restaurants List
What to Drink in Turkey
- Turkish Coffee –
- Turkish Tea –
- Ayran – salty yogurt drink
- Raki – anise-flavored grape brandy
- Boza – wheat drink, spiced with cinnamon
- Salep –
- Fresh juices – common varieties include pomegranate, orange, pineapple, apple, carrot
- Turkish Wine – there are a variety of wine regions in Turkey, producing a few amazing white and red wines.
- Top 10 Turkey Blogs – compiled by one of my favorites, TurkishTravelBlog.com
- Ozlem’s Turkish Table – my favorite Turkish food blog, I’ve cooked numerous recipes from her site and she’s always available to answer questions via social media.
- Captivating Cappadocia – Duke Dillard has a great resource for the Cappadocia region, including a helpful breakdown with information on hot air balloon rides.
- Turkey’s For Life – is a great resource if you’re visiting Fethiye, written by a couple of expats, with an extensive Turkish Recipe index.
- Janey in Mersin – is a fantastic (and often humorous) look at what daily life is like as an expat in Turkey, written by an Aussie living in Mersin.
- Regional Food Guide to Turkey
- Istanbul Eats – I love their tagline: “a serious eaters guide to the city”
- Tourism Turkey –
- GoTurkey.com –
- Go Turkey –
- TripAdvisor – link to their Turkey page
- Best of Turkey: An A to Z Guide from WanderingEducators.com
A special mahalo to those who helped with tips…
Kim S., Ana D., Samia K., Abrar H., Janine, Leila, Varhap (aka “Bob” from Istanbul’s excellent Agora Guest House), Anna from Cappadocia’s Garden Cave Hotel