Bustling cities, dusty ruins, sunny beaches, dimly-lit bars, austere shrines, sensual belly dancers… Turkey has it all. Kiran Mehta visits the destination that’s perfect for every type of traveller and lists places to visit in Turkey that suits every kind of traveller.
Whether you’re a guide-book geek who needs to tick monuments off a list, or a vagabond who hopes to chance upon a treasure; a city slicker, or a recluse in search a secluded island; a raki addict or a kahve connoisseur; a pilgrim or a party animal, Turkey was made for you.
Having travelled a fair bit, I can assure you that few places are as intriguingly layered and perfectly contradictory as Turkey. On a recent Turkey tour, I tried to capture her many moods. Read on, to pick your favourite side and explore these places to visit in Turkey…
#1 Places To Visit In Istanbul If You Are A History Lover
I arrived in the famed and fabled land of Constantinople, and all I saw was modern-day Istanbul! Concrete high-ways packed with cars, swanky sky-scrapers, and chic shopping centres. But somewhere in the midst of the metropolis, Constantinople took shape. Imposing minarets and impressive domes appeared just minutes from the city-centre, but transported me centuries away.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque
This is where my historical tour of the city began. It stood majestic against a clear sky with its perfectly voluptuous dome, grand courtyard and as many as six minarets. Legend has it that when Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the mosque, he ordered Alti or gold minarets, which was misheard by the architect as Altin or six in Turkish. And this little error makes this mosque unique to the Turkish skyline. But the visual appeal doesn’t end there.
I entered to be mesmerised by the play of light against the 20,000 blue tiles that embellish the interiors, and give the Blue Mosque its colloquial name. With the sun setting against the dome, the rays cut through the many windows, reflecting off the blue mosaic to create a breath-taking sight. And in that instance, I knew that this architectural marvel lies unrivalled even today.
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Hagia Sophia or Aya Sophya
Lying not too far from the Blue Mosque, on first glimpse, I saw the similarities in architecture. But the Hagia Sophia comes with an interesting twist of ‘faith’. It was built by Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 AD as a church. But in 1453 it was taken over by Mehmet and converted it to a mosque. Finally in 1935, Ataturk pronounced it a museum.
The dome, even larger than the Blue Mosque, seems to reach for the heavens itself. Within one of the areas of the former church, stands a beautiful mosaic of Christ that recaptures the grandeur of Byzantine Empire. Further inside the former mosque lie gigantic medallions bearing the name of Allah and the caliphs, in artistic Islamic calligraphy.
I admired the art around me, and stopped to make a wish at the ‘Weeping Column’. The column originally stood tall at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus but was transported here centuries ago. A non-descript structure, except that it bears a tiny hole. Legend has it that ‘miracle waters’ intermittently seep through this hole and pilgrims travel from long distances in the hope that their fingers emerge moist, a signal from the Gods that their prayers have been heard.
While I may not have been among those lucky few, I came away knowing that paganism, Christianity and Islam, live harmoniously within this house of the God(s).
Once again this showcased the confluence of religions. Built in 1465, this opulent palace was home to the Ottoman Sultans for about four centuries. But in 1924, it was declared a museum.
As I entered the palace, I knew I could spend days walking the many courtyards, entering the many rooms, admiring the many artefacts and still not take it all in. Pressed for time, I headed straight for the Third Courtyard. Once the Privy Chamber of the Sultan, today it houses the rarest of relics: the staff of Moses, David’s Sword, Moses’ Turban, the keys to the Kaaba, hair from the beard of Prophet Mohammed, a piece of Prophet Mohammed’s tooth etc.
Apart from housing these precious relics, Topkapi Palace also showcases the garish garments of the Sultans, their sparkling jewellery, and dazzling, gem-studded thrones. But it’s the colourful legends that instantly attract my attention: Topkapi was home to Sultan Salim who is believed to have drowned in the palace pool, after drinking too much champagne; it was also home to Sultan Ibrahim who lost his mind, and in a fit of rage ordered his harem of women to be tied into a sack and thrown into the Bosphorus. And these are just a few of the tall tales held within these high walls. Let your imagination run riot, and you could piece together a few fantastic fables too!
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#2 Places To Visit In Istanbul For Shopping
Walking into the Grand Bazaar was like stepping into a tale from the Arabian Nights. I walked through snaking lanes, and lost all sense of time and place.
Beautiful hand-woven carpet-adorned stores magically transported me to a distant era; dusty lanes with the smell of spices and herbs lacing the air, took me back to simpler times as genial shop-keepers shared the age-old wisdom of herbal medicine; lantern shops selling colourful lamps and shiny brass lanterns, almost made genies appear real; furniture modelled after antiques, that seemed fit for a king…the list of wares was endless at the world’s largest covered market.
#3 Places To Visit In Istanbul If You Want To Break Records
If like me, you have a few impossible things on your bucket list, for instance, being in two places at once, then Istanbul makes it possible. I hopped aboard a ferry in the Asian part of Turkey; an hour later, I was in Europe!
A feat that’s possible only in Turkey. Because, it is the only country in the world, that’s spread across two continents. What’s more, the ride comes with a view, palaces, little villages and of course calm, blue waters.
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#4 Places To Visit In Istanbul If You Are A Hedonist
To take in the hedonistic side, with a hint of the cultural, I headed off to the Kervan Saray Restuarant in Istanbul. With live music playing in the background, flowing raki and traditional treats filled up our table. But the main attraction was the graceful dancers. From Anatolian folk to provocative belly dancers, Kervan Saray entertains with a slew of performances.
The pace picked up when the belly dancers hit the floor, clad in shimmering garments and see-through veils; their moves were raw, yet gentle; untamed, yet rhythmic. And shouts of a Turkish song, cheering them on, occasionally rent the air. I caught only a few lyrics, ‘Shima, shima, shima nai; yavrum shima nai, nai’, (which roughly translates to ‘Beautiful Women’). The entertaining evening culminated with us, the patrons, hitting the floor to Turkish tunes.
#5 Places To Visit In Turkey – Princes’ Islands If You Are A Recluse
For a change of pace, I headed to the Princes’ Islands, a cluster of nine islands, a short ferry ride from Istanbul.
The islands are aptly named, for this was where the Byzantine Princes were exiled. The heir to the throne often felt threatened by the next in line – his younger brother. So, the younger ones were banished here, but not before they were maimed in some way – some had their ears cut off; others had their nose disfigured. Apart from this gory piece of the past, Princes’ Islands are truly unmarred.
I docked off the largest of the nine gems, Büyükada, which seemed like something out of a period film. A no-vehicles policy had us traversing the Island in an ornate horse-carriage. The tree-lined streets were dotted with Ottoman styled mansions. Autumn leaves carpeted the roads, and the water glistened under the sun. The entire scene seemed sepia-toned, and I realised that being banished from the world to such a place must definitely have had its perks!
Princes Island will take your breath away!
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#6 Other Cities In Turkey – Ephesus If You Love Ruins
The splendour of the Greco-Roman times still lives on in the dusty ruins at Ephesus. A city that gave the ancient world one of its seven wonders, The Temple of Artemis, built in 550 C. This temple was once the biggest the world had ever seen, dedicated to the Roman Goddess of Fertility.
This singular marvel of architecture made Ephesus famous across the seven seas, such that the city also finds mention in the New Testament of the Bible. The Act of the Apostles speaks of a riot in Ephesus when the Apostle Paul came to preach in the city. The riot was started by the silversmiths who made idols of the Goddess Artemis and feared for their livelihood due to the influence of the Apostle.
Today, ironically, only a single barren column stands where the temple of the fertility goddess once stood. But the legends, coupled with the many other ruins on the site, such as the Library of Celsus, make a trip here, worthwhile.
Fly Mumbai/Delhi to Istanbul, direct, on Turkish Airlines
For Ephesus: Take a short domestic flight from Istanbul to Izmir. Ephesus is about one hour by road from Izmir.
Best time to go: April to September
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