Looking for a destination that combines ancient history and the modern comforts of Europe? Visit Turkey. It will surprise you.
1. Istanbul is the largest city in Europe; and a walking history lesson
The largest city in Europe (determined by population within the city limits), Istanbul is also the only city split between two continents, with the Bosphorus dividing the city between Europe and Asia.
Famous historical sites attract tourists to the European side; I recommend also seeing the modern side of Istanbul with a visit to trendy neighborhoods, such as Beyoğlu, to discover up-and-coming local artists and fashion designers, and a bustling nightlife scene. The Asia side is less lively yet equally modern; venture through the sometimes narrow streets of Kadikoy to find quaint sidewalk cafes and markets.
The city also straddles centuries. Preserved architecture from traditional Turkish baths, palaces and mosques dating back to the 5th century line nearly every street in Istanbul; baring a comparison to the historical patchwork of cathedral-lined walkways in Rome. A bustling pedestrian mall connects the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, all located a 15-minute walk to the Grand Bazaar.
2. It’s more like Western Europe than you think
While ancient history seems to be around just about every corner, Istanbul is not stuck in the past. A climbing skyline, robust business climate and fashion-forward scene put Istanbul on par with other major European cities. An American traveler won’t feel out of place here, exploring the Hagia Sophia, haggling for bargains at the Grand Bazaar or shopping and dining in the trendy Beyoğlu neighborhood.
Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s first modern and contemporary museum, is amassing a permanent collection of Turkish modern and contemporary art combined with ever-changing international exhibits that may soon mirror the vast collections of London’s Tate Modern.
3. Your coffee can tell your fortune
Unfiltered coffee may be trendy in the States now, but it’s been part of Turkish culture for centuries. Traditionally served in a copper pot alongside leisurely conversation, Turkish coffee also sets the stage for fortune telling. After finishing a cup, locals participate in a fun tradition of reading fortunes from leftover coffee grounds. You just might luck out and have a tour guide who knows how to read your fortune.
4. You can get lost at the Grand Bazaar — and that’s a good thing
The sheer volume of goods rival that of modern-day shopping malls, so it’s no wonder the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Vibrant blue, red and yellow hues coupled with rich silver and gold decorate storefronts as far as the eye can see. Today the bazaar houses around 4,000 merchants each selling unique wares from Turkish carpets to decorated tiles to handmade jewelry. Don’t be shy, vendors expect you to haggle for the best deals.
5. There’s a burgeoning wine scene
Şarap or wine, is a well-kept secret of Turkey. I was surprised by the growing wine scene found within Turkey; the boutique wine labels and variety of lesser-known varietals is similar to Napa and Sonoma. There are approximately 30 indigenous varietals commercially cultured in Turkey, alongside more well-known Syrah, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon vines.
6. As amazing as the mosques are on the outside, go inside for the big reveal
The minarets that rise above the Istanbul skyline draw the traveler’s eye toward architectural marvels.
Mosques may appear plain on the exterior, but the interior leaves nothing to the imagination with intricate ceiling displays of blue, gold or porphyry. These breathtaking designs rival the detailed paintings of the Sistine Chapel.
Personally, I found the most impressive to be the Suleymaniye Mosque whose architect, Mimar Sinan, beautifully utilized use of porphyry (the color of nobility) for dark orange-red colored accents and whose apprentice later used his shared techniques to design the Blue Mosque.
Here’s a few traveler tips to keep in mind when visiting mosques: 1) Before entering, women must cover their head with a scarf and everyone must remove shoes, 2) visitors cannot enter during times of daily prayer, of which there are five, and 3) when inside remember to keep talking to a minimum, and a whisper at that, as to not interrupt those there for prayer.
7. Istanbul is home to an 86-carat diamond
Lavish Turkish décor and intricate gardens adorn Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman sultan residency which dates back to the 15th century. But the most revered treasure is the Kasikic or Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The dazzling 86-carat pear-shaped diamond make the 45-carat Hope Diamond pale in comparison.
8. Cappadocia will stun even the most seasoned traveler
I’ve climbed to the top of the Coba Ruins in Riviera Maya, walked in the footsteps of my ancestors at the Acropolis in Greece and dove with Maori Wrasse along the Great Barrier Reef, yet Cappadocia remains one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. No trip to Turkey is complete without a stopover in Cappadocia, a short 1.5-hour flight from Istanbul.
9. You can climb amid ferry chimneys and crawl through underground cities
The lunar landscape of Cappadocia is unlike no other, carved out valleys and dwarfing ferry chimneys steal the scene. Plus you can actually climb around these natural occurring structures — a rarity now that many historic sites have restricted access — or through the region’s famed 36 underground cities. As early as the 8th century, the locals found aegis within the porous stone, and built intricate cities that could house more than 30,000 people and even found space to carve out wine cellars and churches.
10. But make sure to see it all from above in a hot air balloon
Aside from the abundant natural phenomena, one of Cappadocia’s most well-known adventures is hot air ballooning. Picture yourself soaring high above the metaphorical treetops of Cappadocia and gazing down upon the lunar landscapes and quaint towns. Balloon trips start in the early-morning hours (before sunrise) and are reliant upon ideal weather conditions — this means high winds can delay planned trips. Plan ahead to ensure a hot air balloon adventure, and plan to spend at least two full days in Cappadocia.
11. It’s one of the easier (& cheaper) European countries to visit
Turkish Airlines flies nonstop to Istanbul from nine U.S. cities (including new routes from Miami and Atlanta). Roundtrip flights to Istanbul are routinely $200-$300 cheaper than other comparable cities in Europe (think: London, Barcelona, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens). Combine this with the fact that the dollar is near 10-year highs against the Turkish lira, and Turkey quickly becomes an affordable place for a vacation full of surprises.