Travel to Turkey is under the radar for many American travelers. If you watch the news, you know it’s a country sharing a border with Syria and Iraq. It also has a mix of faiths and governmental ideals that can make some travelers unsure about what to expect.
Honestly, I was one of the confused travelers. While I didn’t feel unsafe about the prospect of going to Turkey, I didn’t know what I’d find once I arrived. With a country as big as the state of Texas, I was so happy to find a tapestry of traditions, history and some of the best food I’ve ever had in Europe – or Asia!
Speaking of, Turkey resides in Eurasia. In fact, the capital city of Istanbul is half Europe and half Asia. You’ll find influences from both continents, as well as strong ties to the Middle East too. Most people start their trip here, as it’s a big flight hub and a cruise port.
If you’re planning on it, here’s a Turkey itinerary: 7 days through Istanbul, Kayseri and Cappadocia. You can certainly add a few days on the coast before or after if you’d like, depending on the time of year you travel. Then, allow for 10 days in Turkey total on your itinerary, including flight and travel time.
Travel to Turkey: How to Get There
We flew Turkish Airlines from New York to Istanbul. Travel to Turkey was fairly easy, and I was wildly impressed with the flight. While about 11 hours, we were pampered with multiple tasty meals, an amenity kit to rival business class and a great entertainment system (they had all seven Harry Potter movies!).
Even better, Turkish Airlines is offering a special where if you book your flight to Istanbul, you can book a domestic flight to Kayseri complimentary. The flight from Istanbul to Kayseri is about 2 hours, then it’s a 60-minute drive to the Cappadocia region.
Once we arrived, we were greeted by or guide, Mesut from Flotours. While you can do Turkey on your own, his translations, advice and wide knowledge of local customs/history was invaluable. I’d recommend a guided tour for your first time in turkey, especially if you plan on travel to Turkey for the first time. Flotours have been around for 30 years and offers our favorite kind of experience – small group travel. We had about eight of us total, which is perfect logistics-wise and intimate enough to make new friends on the road, if that’s your thing! They took care of everything, from pickup to transport, museum fees and many meals. All their tour packages are different, so it’s worth having a look to see what best suits you.
Day 1 & 2 – Istanbul
Istanbul is huge. It’s a major metropolitan city and one you can get easily lost in. There’s a mix of people, from jovial tours snapping selfies to grandmas in huddles and headscarves on the street. I walked around on my own a bit in the evening and with a group – both times I felt very secure and unbothered. Shopkeepers were chatty without being pushy, and I enjoyed a walk with some fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.
We checked into the Hotel Romance, perfectly situated in the old part of town on the ‘European’ side of the Bosporus. It’s a lovely, elegant boutique property that honors the Ottoman Empire’s Sultans’ Talismanic shirts in each room. These special shirts were said to protect the warriors with beautiful words of wisdom and strength. You’re greeted with a poem and explanation of the unique shirt in your room upon arrival.
In one or two compact days, you can easily see all of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. It’s all walkable, within 20 minutes max of each other. Here are the highlights:
In all my travels, this is one of the most breathtaking places I’ve seen. What was once a church, then a mosque, is not a non-official place of worship and museum. It’s home to incredible Greek Orthodox frescoes that have been left as-is and are some of the most beautiful examples of iconography today. Simply walking through the main room with massive arched domes and low-hanging chandeliers is a sight.
Just next door to the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque – that’s not really blue. You may visit as a foreigner (or non-Muslim) through a special entrance way on the side. Remove your shoes and be led into the red carpeted main area, apart from the main worship space separated by a wooden wall. While seemingly impressive, if you plan to visit in the near future – sadly there’s tons of construction. There’s currently not much to see. But if you haven’t been inside a mosque before it’s worth a look.
A grand complex with gardens, multiple museums and more. While the gardens weren’t as impressive in the winter, the museums told great stories about Turkish royal history. Artifacts offered a look into daily life, as well as wartime and artistic endeavors.
You have to take a peek in here at least! The Grand Bazaar is a covered marketplace with hundreds of shops. There’s lots of opportunity to get super lost. The ‘haggling’ gets a bit more aggressive in here and honestly, most of the stuff are knock-offs. But feel free to take a peek on a rainy day and embrace the chaos.
Day 3 & 4 – Kayseri
There are 1.5 million people in the sprawling city of Kayseri. It takes about two hours by place to reach it, located in the center of the country. Most people know the next-door Cappadocia (for it’s famous hot air balloons) but Kayseri has something special to offer too.
In 2011, the local Kayseri government and people officially launched a $200-million project to have a world-class ski complex on Mount Erciyes. They succeeded by bringing in consultants from Austria and eventually, city investors to create a slick winter oasis to visit.
There are 18 lifts over several peaks that boast 75 miles of trails and runs for all levels. You can take ski classes one-on-one with top instructors, or go off-poste up top and conquer some double black challenges too. Those not into skiing can enjoy the fun sledging hill or any of the winter-lone events, such as the snow volleyball tournament happening while we were in town.
Surrounding the slopes are traditional restaurants, cozy hotels and places for a little apres-ski too if you’re inclined.
One of the best parts? As the resort is subsidized by the local government, it’s roughly $10 USD a day to ski – all slopes, all lifts, all day (and night!) It’s another $9 for skis, boots and poles to rent. And PS – if you book a flight from the US to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, they will offer a domestic flight to Kayseri, complimentary. It’s a steal for anyone who skis – and I’d say this skiing in Turkey rivals anywhere in Europe.
Where to Stay in Kayseri – and What to Eat!
While enjoying a ski vacation, you can stay right on the mountain or anywhere in town, which is a 30-40 minute drive. Most hotels in Kayseri will offer a shuttle service to the mountain. I enjoyed the chic Radisson in Kayseri for it’s elevated service, large breakfast spread and traditional Turkish spa on the bottom floor.
Nearby is the Kemal Koçak Et Lokantası restaurant for traditional Turkish kebab and grilled meat. The ambiance is friendly and very popular- the manager is a character who would love you to sample the local (sour!) berry drink with your meal.
If you’re road tripping to Cappadocia from here, stop into Karaca Pastırma & Sucuk. They specialize in charcuterie Turkish-style for a wallet-friendly price. You can also have some local sausage, fresh salad, eggs and crudité for breakfast here too.
Day 5, 6 & 7 – Cappadocia
Cappadocia is a region comprising of several towns, all of which offer its own unique vibe. The whole region is a UNESCO World Heritage site, mostly for its massive network of underground cave dwellings and towering stone living quarters. While almost all the people officially moved out of the stone in the 1950s (heating/plumbing isn’t easy to install in rock), the various communities are honored in open-air museums. Here’s some of the best things to do and see while you’re in the area.
Where to Stay in Cappadocia
I loved the Acropolis Cave Suites near all the action. You have beautiful views of the rock formations and the city form their rooftop terrace and breakfast restaurant. Rooms range in size and style, but the best are carved cave-like into stone.
Hot Air Balloons
It’s very popular to take part in one of the daily hot air balloon flights and glide over the tops of the stone formations for the best views. I love hot air balloons (and was lucky to try it in Sri Lanka) for its quiet movement and unique vantage point to check out the scenery below.
There are several ways to go about booking a tour. They leave early in the AM or for afternoon flights around 2PM. Do note that weather can change quickly and during the winter sometimes there’s no flights at all for the day per local authorities.
- Direct: Simply ask your hotel for a recommended operator. They can handle transfers and the tour for you, plus offer a discount usually for a group.
- Through Your Tour: While this particular 7-day Turkey itinerary with Flotours didn’t have a hot-air balloon rides on the schedule, Mesut and the team were more than happy to offer the option to our small group and make arrangements if requested.
- Online: Viator tours for hot air balloons in Cappadocia are well regarded among the best. They can handle things like airport transfers from Kayseri too or a sunrise breakfast with champagne.
Kadineli Restaurant – Women’s Co-Op
Before tackling the open-air museums and underground caves, have lunch at Kadineli. This is a women-run co-op restaurant and one of the best meals I had in Turkey. Each course was meticulously created in a traditional way, including homemade dumplings in yogurt and tomato sauce.
Here’s a short video about building the new restaurant in 2016:
This open-air museum has some of the best examples of Christian churches hidden in the cave dwellings. The origins can be traced back to the Byzantine era (when Turkey was Constantinople). What’s most wonderful about Mustafapasa is it’s been untouched. All the colors and artwork of religious icons is original. While you shouldn’t touch it, you can step inside each of the churches and marvel at the details in these small, dark places of worship. The best one include the Church of the Snakes, Apple Church and St Barbara Church (who we affectionately dubbed Babs).
These days, there’s only about 2-3% of Christians living in Turkey. That’s not to say there isn’t lots of Turkish Christians though – for example, more than a half million Turkish Greek Orthodox live in present day Moldova. While Islam is most prevalent today, there are also practicing Buddhists, Jewish people and other faiths. Religion plays a major role in how modern-day Turkey was formed, as well as it’s fascinating history.
Chez Galip Pottery
Chez Galip is a 5th generation potter, homing in his craft for the past 55 years. Nowadays, he has daughters in their 30s and Is working to pass along the craft. It’s unusual in Turkey for women to make pottery, but he’s decided to have a small school and international students, including his wife. You can visit his studio and enjoy a demonstration, then walk through the gallery. His pieces are beautiful, and they also have student pieces for sale too.
The clay used comes from natural clay beds nearby, as does many of the colorings for decoration. They sift the clay to create a fine dry material, which makes a pleasant sizzling sound when mixed with water if it’s of good quality. They also use some ancient techniques, including blacking with taking away oxygen in the kilning process. I personally took home a small pomegranate vase I love in my office to remember the trip!
Chez Galip Hair Museum
So Chez Galip seems like the nicest guy around. After his pottery studio tour, you find out he had an old studio in the center of town too. This now is home to one of the strangest collections I’ve ever seen in person.
Galip owns the world’s largest collection of…human hair.
It hangs from every inch of the ‘gallery’, attached by a pushpin and next to a piece of paper with the donors details. He’s been collecting hair (just from the ladies) since the 1970s and claims to have more 16,000 specimens.
I voluntarily offered my own strands to the museum, which is open to women who’d like to participate when Galip is on property. Those new addition to the collection are put into a raffle every year, and 10 new ‘students’ are offered a trip back to Cappadocia to learn more about pottery and ceramics from the master potter. Take the whole experience as you will!
Here’s a short video of our visit to the famed museum:
Matis Cappadocia – Turkish Rugs and Carpets
All of the rugs on property are one-of-a-kind. These artisans use only natural dyes for each of the colors, such as indigo, red onion skins, sage, walnut shells, tobacco leaves. Some of the more intricate rugs can take upwards a year to make from one female weaver. There are practical rugs for the home, and some small, silken decorative rugs only a foot or two in diameter.
You can stick around for the grand presentation, where they roll out rugs with a flourish and show a variety of absolutely beautiful but very expensive, rugs. If you’re serious about taking one home, you can do so there at a decent discount, and they will ship it back to your home for free. But be strong – feel free to accept the complimentary drink and say a polite no thank you if you don’t wish to buy! While the process made me squirm a bit, it was much less intimidating then in the marketplaces and was well worth a visit even without taking home one of these interior design masterpieces. Do take them up on the offer to remove your shoes too, some of these rugs felt so luxurious and wonderful underfoot.
Have a quick look at Pigeon Valley while driving between the towns of Göreme and Uçhisar. There’s hundreds that flock there, and will take to the sky unexpectedly for an interesting experience up close. Offer a donation and feed the birds too while you overlook the ancient cities down in the valley.
Kaymakli Underground City
So, lots of people are fascinated by the underground cities to complete their travel to Turkey adventure. I am not a fan of being underground, so I did not like this one bit. I did manage to get through the super tight passageways and only freaked out once when we stopped in a tunnel to chat, but there are rooms you can stand up in and the overall atmosphere is calm. The temperature is naturally regulated, year-round, about 55-60F. Everything needed by the ancient residents was done underground, like food storage, kitchens, chimneys and wine/beer production.
Turkey surprised me overall, and I’m sure you’ll be just as delighted. Let us know if you need any help planning or have questions – we’re always around! Feel free to check out more photos on Instagram too of the trip.
Thanks to Flotours for this amazing experience. While we were invited by the tour company for this trip. All advice, guides and opinions are our own.