Home to one of the world’s best cuisines, fascinating history that spans millennia, diverse and beautiful landscapes, a rich culture, and idyllic beaches, Turkey is full of endless wonders.
No amount of background reading can really prepare you for Istanbul. Once the capital of four great empires, it has a romantic setting on seven hills, with a minaret-studded skyline and the Bosphorus, a mighty ocean strait slicing through its heart. The only city in the world with one shore in Europe and one in Asia, Istanbul is steeped in history, but it also shines with an ever-growing edge of contemporary cool, as in recent years scores of new art galleries have opened.
It is hard not to fall in love with the country right from the start when Istanbul is your introduction to Turkey. From the Byzantine Hagia Sophia — whose story of church-to-mosque-to-museum tells a microcosmic tale of the past millennium— the gaudy Dolmabahçe Palace, and the eerie underground Basilica Cistern, to the sprawling Topkapi Palace, and the astonishing Blue Mosque (best seen at dusk when its symmetrical spiky light up against an inky sky), Istanbul’s sights are blow-your-socks-off spectacular.
Nevertheless, the city has so much more to offer than just sightseeing through three thousand years of history. There’s negotiating your way around the Grand Bazaar, where you’ll find carpets, colourful glass lamps, jewellery, antiques, shoes and clothes sold in 3.000 shops, people watching on buzzing Istiklal Street and seeing Turkish contemporary art at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, and after all that, relaxing with a water pipe and a cup of sweet apple tea on one of the city’s many atmospheric rooftop bars.
And then there’s the food. The city is a gourmand’s paradise, with fantastic eats ranging from street snacks such as fried fish sandwiches from the carts on Galata Bridge, and pistachio-encrusted Turkish delight from markets to plates piled high with mezze (think fried dill cakes, red peppers stuffed with rice and nuts, roast vegetables with thick yoghurt) at restaurants where the tables spill out onto the streets.
If you can tear yourself away from Istanbul, then catch a short flight to Cappadocia, in central Turkey. Here you’ll find hilltop villages of cave dwellings, valleys of rose-coloured rock formations and spindly volcanic chimneys that look like giant mushrooms, an otherworldly and breathtakingly beautiful landscape that makes you feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale.
It’s a good idea to hire a car when you arrive in Cappadocia to be able to travel around the region. Each day will yield new treasures: hikes in lush gorges, horse riding through rocky vineyards, and exploring centuries-old underground cities and fresco-covered rock churches built a thousand years ago. One experience that cannot be missed is hot air ballooning. Every morning at dawn, over a hundred hot air balloons take off near the town of Göreme for an hour’s flight hundreds of metres in the air above an epic landscape of gorges, mountaintop rock villages, vineyards and rock castles.
After all the hiking and rocky scenery, Turkey’s beautiful coastline makes for a lovely change. It takes a few hours to drive south from Cappadocia to the Turquoise Coast, a long stretch of jewel-coloured sea, plunging cliffs, postcard-perfect beaches and scatterings of ancient ruins.
Each place along the coast offers up unexpected sights beyond sand and sea. At Olympos, it’s a photogenic white pebble beach, two-thousand-year-old ruins, and the mystical naturally occurring eternal flames coming out of the mountainside above the sea. At Kaleköy, it’s an ancient city that’s sunk beneath the water and a Byzantine castle that was built to fight pirates, at Xanthos, it’s ancient Lycian tombs now inhabited by goats, and at the abandoned village of Kayaköy it’s silent uninhabited streets that feel like the set of a movie.
Just as the Turquoise Coast is miles away from your run-of-the-mill beach holiday, Turkey is an out-of-the-ordinary destination, a country that captivates you with the kind of travel experiences you never forget.
To Madrid through our 28 weekly flights from Bogota, Medellin or Cali; or to Barcelona and London from Bogota and connect from any of these cities to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, an airline member of Star Alliance.