French writer Alphonse de Lamartine famously said,
If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.
Spread beautifully between the border of Asia and Europe, Turkey has a lot to delight travellers. Although there are tonnes of things to see all across Turkey, here are the top three places to visit for a first-time visitor since you gotta start somewhere, right?
Volcanic eruptions and erosions over millions of years have left behind spindly, stem-shaped rocks and stones in Cappadocia. These mushroom-like structures rise out of the earth, resulting in one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. Even its name—fairy chimneys—has a magical ring to it!
The arid, beige terrain is bizarrely reminiscent of a scene straight out of George Lucas’ Tatooine (minus its two suns). It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Anakin Skywalker ambling around here! Visit the open air museum at Göreme—just a 15-minute walk from the city centre, to take a walk through history. A UNESCO World Heritage property, the museum takes you back in time to when Christian monks fled Roman prosecution and arrived in Cappadocia. They lived and worshipped secretly in caves carved into these fairy chimneys. Dozens of monasteries and churches are situated next to each other, with beautiful frescoes that still retain their freshness. You could re-create the experience of living in a cave by staying in cave hotels dotting the region.
If you like your holidays to be more active, Cappadocia offers some scenic trails for biking and hiking. The best way, however, to experience Cappadocia is from a hot air balloon. The rides are scheduled at dawn and offer spectacular views of the unique landscape below. With a stunning sunrise and hundreds of colourful balloons gliding in the sky, this activity can be a great addition to your bucket list!
Part of the Turkish Riviera, Antalya is a beach lover’s paradise. It experiences 300 glorious days of sunshine in a year. The spectacular pine-laden Taurus Mountains sweep down to the sea. And the waterfalls make beautiful rainbows as they tumble down the cliff into the sparkling blue Mediterranean. All this lends to a stunning spectacle!
There is a lot to do in and around Antalya. You can unwind with a game of golf at one of the championship golf courses that are found aplenty in the city. I spent my morning playing 18 holes at the scenic Titanic Deluxe Golf Belek Course that is flanked by the ocean and Besgoz River. A few kilometres east lie the ancient cities of Aspendos and Perge. Here, you can walk through the remains of streets lined with Roman colonnades, agoras, aqueducts, and theatres. Stop by little villages on the way to pluck fresh oranges or to shop for locally made Turkish scarves.
The historical old town, Kaleiçi is worth a visit. Surrounded by medieval walls, the town offers beautiful views of the harbour with quaint shops selling lamps, pottery and lots of evil-eye paraphernalia. Enjoy a boat cruise through the harbour or gaze over the view as you sip a cup of Turkish coffee at one of the many quaint coffee shops. An old Turkish proverb describes Turkish coffee as ‘Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love‘. Brewed in a very distinctive way, a small cup is stronger than your average espresso. Moreover, a local fortune teller may even tell you what your future holds, by looking at the coffee remains in your cup!
Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul…the changing names of this great city tell the story of its fascinating heritage spanning thirteen successive civilisations. The capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the city dates back 3,000 years. From Roman-era hippodromes to Egyptian obelisks, the influence of the many empires that ruled here is reflected everywhere.
The magnificent Hagia Sophia is a 6th-century architectural marvel. It was repurposed as a mosque as part of the Turkish conquest in 1453 by Mehmed II. In 1934, Turkish President, Atatürk secularised the building, and it was made into a museum. Opposite Hagia Sophia, is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. The famous blue, hand-painted tiles from Turkey give the mosque its moniker ‘Blue Mosque’. A popular Istanbul attraction in the Sultanahmet area, it was built in the 1600s and continues to be an active mosque with prayers offered five times a day.
The lanes of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar nearby are reminiscent of an Aladdin movie. From Turkish carpets, scarves and shawls to sweets, dry fruit and coloured glass lamps, this colourful bazaar is a one-stop place to buy souvenirs. My favourite activity though was taking in the panoramic views from the rooftop of the medieval Galata Tower. Cruising down the Bosphorus strait that divides the city into two parts — one in Europe and the other in Asia — came a close second. The city even has a swimming pool located right in the middle of the strait, so you can start a lap in Europe and finish it in Asia! No matter how you choose to spend your time, Istanbul would definitely be unforgettable.
The author is an Olympian swimmer and Arjuna Awardee. For this six-time National champion in swimming, travel is a passion. You can read about his travels on TravelwithRehan.com.