Western Turkey is both the more economically developed and far more visited part of the country. İstanbul, straddling the straits linking the Black and Marmara seas, is touted as Turkish mystique par excellence, and understandably so: it would take weeks to even scratch the surface of the old imperial capital, still the country’s cultural and commercial hub. Flanking it on opposite sides of the Sea of Marmara are the two prior seats of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa and Edirne, each with their monumental attractions and regal atmosphere. Beyond the Dardanelles and its World War I battlefield cemeteries lie Turkey’s two Aegean islands, Gökçeada and Bozcaada, popular for their excellent beaches, lingering Greek-ethnic identity and (except in midsummer) tranquillity.
Further south, the Classical character of the North Aegean is epitomized by olive-swathed landscapes around Bergama and Ayvalık, the region’s star attractions. The old Ottoman princely training-ground of Manisa and ancient Sardis at the foot of Bozdağ also make a fine pair, although İzmir is merely the functional introduction to the Central and Southern Aegean, a magnet for travellers since the eighteenth century. Celebrated Ephesus overshadows in visitors’ imaginations the equally deserving ancient Ionian sites of Priene and Didyma, or the intriguing ruins of Aphrodisias and Labranda in old Caria. Don’t overlook evocative hill towns like Şirince or Birgi, still existing in something of an Ottoman time-warp. Also inland are tranquil, islet-dotted Bafa Gölü, the architectural showcase town of Muğla and the circus-like but compelling geological oddity of Pamukkale, its travertine formations abutting Roman Hierapolis. Be warned that the coast itself is heavily developed, though its star resorts – of which Datça is perhaps the quietest and Bodrum the most characterful – make comfortable bases.
Beyond the huge natural harbour at Marmaris, the Aegean gradually becomes the Mediterranean, the shore increasingly convoluted and piney. Coastal cruises are popular and easily arranged in brazen Marmaris or more manageable Fethiye, principal town of the Turquoise Coast. Two of Turkey’s finest beaches sprawl at Dalyan and Patara, near the eerie tombs of the Lycians, the fiercely independent locals of old. Further east, Kaş and Kalkan are busy resorts, good for resting up between explorations of the mountainous hinterland. Beyond relatively untouched Çıralı beach, at ancient Olympos, sprawling Antalya is Turkey’s fastest-growing city, at the beginning of the Mediterranean Coast proper. This is graced by extensive sands and archeological sites – most notably Perge, Side and Aspendos – though its western parts get swamped in season. Once past castle-topped Alanya, however, tourist numbers diminish, and numerous points of interest between Silifke and Adana include Roman Uzuncaburç plus the romantic offshore fortress at Kızkalesi. Further east, Arab-influenced Antakya is the heart of the Hatay, culturally part of Syria.
Inland in South Central Anatolia, the rock-hewn churches, subterranean cities and tuff-pinnacle landscapes of Cappadocia await you. The dry, salubrious climate, excellent local wine, artistic and architectural treasures, plus horse-riding or hot-air ballooning opportunities could occupy you for ten days, including a stop in Kayseri – with its bazaar and tombs – on the way north. En route to or from the coast, you might also pause at historic Eğirdir or Beyşehir – fronting two of the numerous lakes that spangle the region – or in Konya, renowned for both its Selçuk architecture and associations with the Mevlevî dervishes.
Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is a planned city whose contrived Western feel gives concrete (in all senses) indication of the priorities of the Turkish Republic; it also features the outstanding Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Highlights of surrounding North Central Anatolia include the bizarre, isolated temple of Aezani, near Kütahya; the Ottoman museum-town of Safranbolu; exquisitely decorated early Turkish monuments in Divriği; and remarkable Hittite sites at Hattuşaş and Alacahöyük. If you’re travelling north to the Black Sea, pause in the Yeşilırmak valley towns of Sivas, Tokat and Amasya, each with its quota of early Turkish monuments. The Black Sea shore itself is surprisingly devoid of architectural interest other than a chain of Byzantine-Genoese castles, but the lush landscape goes some way to compensate. The oldest, most interesting towns are Sinop, the northernmost point of Anatolia, and Amasra, the latter easily reached from Safranbolu. East of Sinop, a four-lane highway brings you to fabled Trabzon, once the seat of a Byzantine sub-empire and today convenient for Aya Sofya and Sumela monasteries.
The Ankara–Sivas route poises you for the trip along the Euphrates River into the “back half” of Turkey. First stop in Northeastern Anatolia is likely to be Erzurum, highest and bleakest major city of Turkey, from where you can head on to visit the temperate, church-studded valleys of southern medieval Georgia or go trekking in the Kaçkar mountains – Turkey’s most popular hiking area – walling off the area from the Black Sea. Kars is mainly visited for the sake of nearby Ani, the ruined medieval Armenian capital, and various other Armenian monuments in the area – though many of these require some resourcefulness to seek out.
South of here, the Euphrates and Tigris Basin have a real Middle Eastern flavour in all senses. Booming Gaziantep, the region’s gateway, offers a world-class collection of Roman mosaics, an atmospheric old quarter and Turkey’s spiciest cuisine. Further east, biblical Urfa is distinguished by its colourful bazaar and sacred pool, while cosmopolitan, hilltop Mardin overlooks the vast Mesopotamian Plain. The major local attraction, however, living up to its tourist-poster hype, is a dawn or sunset trip to Nemrut Dağı’s colossal ancient statues. Between Mardin and Nemrut Dağı, teeming, ethnically Kurdish Diyarbakır nestles inside medieval basalt walls. The terrain becomes increasingly mountainous as you head towards the Iranian frontier, an area dominated by the unearthly blue, alkaline expanse of Lake Van. Urartian, Selçuk and Armenian monuments abound within sight of the water, in particular the exquisite, restored Armenian church on picturesque Akdamar islet. The east-shore city of Van is notable for its massive camel-shaped rock punctured with ancient tombs. Beyond Van looms the fairy-tale Kurdish castle of Hoşap, while just outside of Doğubeyazit, another isolated folly, the İşak Paşa Sarayı, stands at the very end of Turkey.Read More