From the massive, mirror-sided skyscrapers of Istanbul to some of the oldest manmade sites on Earth, Turkey spans the historical timeline from past and present to future. As an epicenter of human civilization, Turkey redefines old, while offering new and exciting experiences to those intrepid visitors who are willing to step off the beaten track. Perhaps the biggest rewards await the curious traveler who desires not only to see Turkey, but to understand how so many beautiful pieces fit together to create such an incredible destination.
1. Stare history in the face
Ascend Mount Nemrut, where at a height of 7,001 feet, massive stone heads guard the enormous summit tomb of King Antiochus I, ruler of the Commagene kingdom in Syria from 292-261 BC. Join the statues of eagles, lions, Zeus, and the old king himself as they gaze across the Taurus Mountains at this UNESCO World Heritage Site near the city of Adıyaman.
2. Get high
Lift off over gorgeous Cappadocia, renowned for its dreamy landscape of pointed fairy chimneys, sculpted by water and wind. Drift into the sunrise aboard a hot air balloon tour, or hop on a horse to explore the hidden valleys below. For the best view in Van, climb to the top of the stone citadel that overlooks beautiful Lake Van, as well as the 7,000-year old city that stretches along its shores. And in Istanbul, orient yourself atop the medieval Galata Tower, built in 1348 by Genoese traders and still offering one of the best panoramas of the city.
3. Go underground
If you really want to know a place, scratch beneath the surface. Derinkuyu is one of the deepest excavated underground cities in Turkey, dug out in early Christian times, when believers hid away from invading armies. Carved from the soft volcanic stone, the labyrinth of tunnels and chambers leads visitors into a complex world of subterranean churches, schools, stables, and wine cellars that sustained life for over 20,000 people.
4. Go (way) back in time
Long before the existence of Stonehenge, Göbeklitepe flourished as a sacred site in northern Mesopotamia. Explore the still-standing ritual architecture, intricately carved with mammals and birds that carried spiritual significance for early human societies. From the cliff-top city of Mardin, gaze across the Fertile Crescent, a region of the Middle East where homo sapiens progressed towards civilization with the invention of agriculture, written language, and the wheel.
5. Muse over the museums
Don’t miss Turkey’s state-of-the-art archeological museums featuring amazing collections and high-tech displays. Change your concept of history with the epic Paleolithic artifacts of the Şanlıurfa Museum. The Van Museum details the rare story of the ancient Kingdom of Urartu with the largest exhibition of Urartian artifacts in the world. Meanwhile, in biblical Antioch explore haunting Hittite statuary and the perfectly preserved Greco-Roman statues of the Hatay Museum.
6. Float by
Experience the daily continental drift of Istanbul, where hundreds of commuter ferries crisscross the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia. Ubiquitous and inexpensive, big and small ferries offer some of the best views of the city. For a calmer journey through a lesser-known city, ride a gondola through the clear and shallow canals in Sanlıurfa, where the prophet Abraham was born. Legend claims that the beautiful fish swimming in the Pool of Abraham are remnants of the burning logs and ashes that rained down when the evil King Nimrod threw Abraham into the fire. For a more unusual swim, slip into the crystalline springs of Perre, where you can float over sunken Greek temple columns.
7. Steam clean
Experience Turkey’s one-of-a-kind spa culture, which combines ancient Roman rituals with rich Ottoman traditions. The hammam, or Turkish bath, offers travelers the ultimate indulgence from the relaxing warmth of the göbek taşı (navel stone) that heats the marble slab beneath you, to the aromatic scrub and soothing massage that follows. Once wrapped in Turkish towels, sip hot tea, sample delicious Turkish delight, and feel utterly rejuvenated.
8. Shop the silk road
Browse the street markets and bustling bazaars that still color the timeless trading posts along the Silk Road. Visit Mardin for delicate silver and rare jewelry, or take time to sniff the array of spices and tea in Urfa and Istanbul. Shop for aromatic saffron or taste-test the pul biber, a flaked red pepper that the Turks sprinkle on everything (pretty much). Don’t rush—shopping is as much of an art as it is a pastime in Turkey, and if you’re looking for exquisite handmade carpets, come ready to barter.
9. Surround yourself with sacred art
Multi-layered civilizations and a crossroads of cultures make Turkey home to an astonishing array of mosaics, frescoes, sculpture, and painting. Find inspiration on the walls of carefully-carved Armenian churches, exquisitely-decorated Byzantine cathedrals, and the awesome and elaborate domed mosques that are still in use today. Perhaps the best example of Turkish artistic splendor is the mighty Hagia Sophia, once the largest building in the world and now the most unmistakable monument poking up from the Istanbul skyline (for a truly breathtaking view, take the stairs to the upper level).
10. Explore ancient cities
For the armchair archeologist or the next Indiana Jones, Turkey is a destination of constant discovery and ongoing excavations. Intimately explore some of the best-preserved ruins of the ancient world, from the great library at Ephesus to the impressive amphitheater at Laodicea. Too often overlooked, these ancient wonders are most rewarding for patient travelers who take the time to explore the side streets and wide temple complexes of cities like Stratonikeia, where Greek, Latin and Ottoman inscriptions still mark the silent stones.