Turkey is the most accessible of the Middle Eastern nations. A natural land bridge, it connects the eastern part of Europe to the Caucasus, and the viridian Black Sea coast to the arid Arab peninsula. With Emirates, Etihad and most major airlines serving flights to Istanbul, you can easily fly from Europe, the United States and Asia.
Yet with its proximity to war-torn Syria and the dubious reputation of its president, there are currently certain factors that deter people from exploring Turkey’s infinite potential for travel. Here's why you should move beyond the bad PR and reconsider this incredible country.
Why should I go now?
Truth be told, certain remarks from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have not helped the country's global reputation. But that’s exactly why you should visit now: Erdoğan is not Turkey; its people are. Go now to experience the incredible hospitality of the Turks first hand – on the ground, Turkey really is another world from what is described in newspaper headlines.
Whether you decide to travel slowly by train from Istanbul to Erzurum, the gateway to eastern Anatolia, or fly with one of the major airlines from Istanbul to Kayseri to marvel at the eerie rock formations of Cappadocia, the Turkish people will welcome and charm you with their history, rich culinary traditions and incredible sense of hospitality.
Tea being served in Turkey © Leyla Ismet/Shutterstock
Is it safe to travel in Turkey?
For the most part yes, it is. But the Kurdish areas in the southeastern corner of the country – literally facing war-torn Syria – can be unpredictable. While traveller message boards report that it's generally safe to visit the layered city of Mardin, the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan, Diyarbakır, still sees occasional unrest. But remember – Turkish people are charming, chatty folks who never shy away from sharing a witty conversation over a glass of tea. And even if English speakers thin out the more one travels east, language barriers don’t change the fact that the hospitality is always top-notch.
If you don't fancy flying with one of the major Middle Eastern carriers (and you're feeling adventurous), Turkey is one of the world's easiest countries to hitchhike — it's often possible to cover up to 800km in a single day. However, solo women travellers should be aware that the most conservative pockets of Turkish society are not used to seeing women travelling alone.
Sumela Hanging Monastery © WitR/Shutterstock
What are Turkey’s most underrated cities?
Few know of any city besides the obvious Istanbul and capital city Ankara. But among the underrated highlights there’s Trabzon, a long, thin settlement on the eastern Black Sea coast, nestled between mountains and sea. The Walls of Trabzon enclose the stunning old town, with its upper part, that once functioned as a citadel, set on the mountainside. Don’t miss the underrated Hagia Sophia: like its more famous sibling in Istanbul, it’s a Greek Orthodox Church converted into a mosque.
About 50km away, the Sumela Hanging Monastery, hemmed into the side of a sheer cliff, is one of the Middle East’s most powerful sights. You can stay at Ts Park Hotel, an 18th-century building renovated to boutique hotel that is within walking distance of Trabzon’s best sights.
Another gem is Izmir, sitting on the Aegean sea and an important port city with easy ferry connections to Athens and the Greek islands. Founded by the Greeks, taken by the Romans and re-built by Alexander the Great before becoming part of the Ottoman empire in the 15th century, Izmir boasts archaeological sites, the beautiful seafront Kordon Promenade, and the remains of the Kadifekale (”Velvet Castle”) overlooking the city from a hill.
Izmir is also the perfect gateway to explore the Aegean coast, striking off to the amazingly preserved ancient city of Ephesus, or moving eastwards to the kaleidoscopic travertine terraces of Pamukkale. If you feel like splurging, base yourself at the Renaissance Izmir Hotel, right in the centre of the action.
Hagia Sophia in Trabzon © Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock
Where can I get off the beaten track?
In general, anywhere outside of Istanbul and the Aegean coast sees very few visitors. An eastern Anatolian highlight is the city of Van, set next to Turkey's biggest lake of the same name.
Capital Ankara, regardless of its status, is also rarely visited. Spend a day hiking to the top of the hisar (citadel), whose remains date back to the 9th century AD, and get a panoramic view of the point where the cobbled lanes and staircases hit a barrage of modern high-rises. Walk downhill, and join the crowds of students at one of the many hipster tavernas that have recently sprung up all around the hill flanks.
Nature lovers and hikers could try all or part of the Lycian Way, a 509km hiking trail connecting Fethiye to the southwest of Antalya. Winding across Turkey's southwestern coast, the path skirts Lycian and Roman sites, climbs to the summit of 1800m-high Mount Tahtalı — formerly known as Olympos — and offers homestays and fine camping spots by the Mediterranean.
Finally, quiet Bursa, in northwestern Turkey, and on the opposite side of the Marmara Sea from Istanbul, has sights that guarantee a cultural immersion into early Ottoman history. It’s very safe, almost tourist-free territory, and a great chance to sample authentic Turkish city life.
Bursa © muharremz/Shutterstock
What about the food?
A delicate concoction of Mediterranean and Asian tastes, Turkish food marries fresh and salty cheeses with crunchy, oven-baked flat breads, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and melons. Then there are the skillfully roasted kebabs served with Middle Eastern rice. Wherever you go, the richness and diversity of Turkish cuisine, always borrowing from local natural ingredients and fresh produce, will blow your mind.
Last but not least, a great icebreaker for Turkish people is to invite their guests to share a meal. Refusing is not just plain rude, but a missed opportunity to visit their homes and bring back unique cultural experiences.
A Turkish breakfast © Nadir Keklik/Shutterstock
Can I find contemporary arts and culture?
Outside the more conservative cities of the Anatolian plains, it’s easy to go beyond stereotypes and get a feel for the nation’s cultural beat on the Aegean coast – and, of course, in never-dormant Istanbul. You may want to time your visit with the Istanbul Book Fair, Turkey’s largest literary event held annually since 1982. If you're lucky, you’ll catch a sight of Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, one of Turkey’s most forward-thinking voices.
The area surrounding Istanbul's Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian road that leads from Tünel Square to central Taksim Square, is full of tiny side alleys where hundreds of small restaurants, cafés and clubs offer all kinds of nightlife, staying open 24 hours on weekends. This is where you'll find bands – from Anatolian folk ensembles to blues, jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and even heavy metal groups – performing throughout the night.
This feature is in collaboration with Wego.ae, a leading travel search engine and app for accommodation and flights in the Middle East and North Africa. All recommendations remain editorially independent. Top image: Cappadocia © Olena Tur/Shutterstock