Historically, there are few places in the world as rich as Turkey. Home to some of the greatest empires in world history, battleground of Alexander the Great, the site of Homer’s Trojan War, Turkey is a historian’s fantasyland. The country spans two continents and centuries of human history and culture and yet is home to Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities in the modern world. Ruins of the ancient world merge with incredible examples of Byzantine architecture, and somehow none of the wonder has been lost in a country that is growing and changing to keep up with global modernization. The people are passionate, and the food is considered to be some of the best in the world. Whether lounging on the sands of the Mediterranean, soaring in a hot air balloon above the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, bartering in the markets of Istanbul, or exploring the ruins of Ephesus, time spent in Turkey is transforming, taking those who visit this historical treasure on a jaunt through centuries and across cultural and religious boundaries.
When to Travel
Weather in Turkey can be extreme, with temperatures in some regions dipping to as low as 10 degrees (F) in the winter months and soaring to over 110 degrees (F) during the summer in other parts of the country. April, May, September, and October are the most popular months to visit Turkey, when temperatures are milder. However, for those who plan to spend the majority of their vacation on one of Turkey’s many resplendent beaches, the summer months are obviously favorable. Mid-May to September is the best time to visit the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, while those traveling to the northern Black Sea coast is inviting a bit earlier, from April to September. If your itinerary includes spending time in eastern Turkey, avoid travel between May and mid-October to avoid frigid temperatures, heavy snow, and frequent road closures.
Turkish Cuisines and Drinks
Foodies in your group will rejoice in the knowledge that Turkish cuisine is often regarded as one of the greatest in the world. Turkey is famous for their use of fresh, local ingredients that provide the foundation for their delectable dishes. With the exception of a few regions, most of the country’s food is not spicy but tends to be quite rich. Popular seasonings include mint, parsley, dill, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, and the berries of the sumac tree. Yogurt is a common condiment, lending its cool, light flavor to balance out the richness of many dishes.
Rice, wheat, bulgar, and vegetables make up the foundation of Turkish cuisine. While the eggplant is far and away the most popular vegetable choice, other favorites include zucchini, artichokes, cabbage, and beans. Rice and barley are most commonly served as a pilaf, mixed with a wide range of ingredients such as dried fruit, tomatoes, nuts, or onions. Lamb is the most widely used meat in Turkey, though some beef, poultry, and seafood are also found in many dishes. Pork is mostly prohibited since the country is a predominantly Islamic one.
Turkish meals are traditionally served on a tray placed either on a low table or directly on the floor, with guests seated on cushions around the food. Always remove your shoes before entering the home of a Turkish family, and be quick to accept second, or even third, helpings to avoid offending your host. It is also common to offer the host a small gift of appreciation when invited to dine with a family.
Some popular Turkish specialties include:
Dolma – Vegetables, usually peppers, grape leaves, or tomatoes, stuffed with a savory rice and meat mixture
Pide Ekmeği – A delicious Turkish flatbread
Börek – A flaky pastry with a variety of fillings, including spinach, potatoes, meat or cheese. A favorite for Turkish breakfasts, it is traditionally believed that until a woman can perfect the art of making Börek she is not ready for marriage.
Kebab (or Kebap) – Now famous around the world, kebabs are simply skewered meat (usually lamb), sometimes with the addition of vegetables, and grilled to perfection.
Kofte – Finely minced meat is seasoned and hand-shaped before being grilled, fried, baked, or boiled.
Doner Kebap – The Turkish version of the fast food hamburger, Doner Kebap consists of slices of marinated lamb grilled on a tall vertical spit. The meat is often served with pide or in a bread roll with slices of pickles.
Raki – Turkey’s national alcoholic beverage, distilled from grapes and infused with the distinctive flavor of the anise seed. Raki is traditionally served with meze (plural mezeler), or Turkish appetizers and is sometimes called “lion’s drink”, hinting at the need of a strong constitution to drink it.
Popular Vacation Sites in Turkey
Istanbul – Istanbul is the country’s largest city and is unique in the world as it is the only city that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. Once the capital city of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, the famed “City of the World’s Desire” remains one of the world’s largest cities. Visitors to Istanbul stand in awe of some of the world’s most impressive and well-preserved examples of Byzantine architecture. Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia in Greek) and the neighboring Blue Mosque are especially striking with their graceful domes and soaring minarets. Just across from the Blue Mosque is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, home to treasures dating back to the eighth century. Perhaps the most famous site in Istanbul is Topkapi Sarayi (Palace of the Cannon Gate), which served as the home of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. The palace contains hundreds of rooms that served as both home and harem and are now open to tourists. After taking in the city’s rich historical treasures, head to the Grand Bazaar, Turkey’s largest covered market. To call the bazaar “Grand” is no exaggeration; it is home to 4000 shops offering everything from stunning Turkish carpets and pottery to apparel and souvenirs. To rejuvenate after a long day of shopping or sightseeing, arrange a visit to a local hamam (Turkish bath). Many hamams offer a massage or a scrubbing, an experience not to be missed.
Ephesus – According to legend, Ephesus, once a vital trade center of the ancient world, was founded by the female warriors commonly known as the Amazons. The city stands today as one of the most impressive “outdoor museums” in Turkey. The ruins at Ephesus include the well-preserved Great Theater, which once seated up to 24,000 people, the Gate of Heracles, and several temples and baths. One of these temples, the Temple of Artemis, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Also of interest in Ephesus is the House of the Virgin, where it is believed that Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her last days and passed away. The site is now considered a shrine by the Catholic church and is visited regularly by the Popes.
Cappadocia – Nestled in the middle of Turkey among strange and beautiful rock formations known as the “fairy chimneys” lies one of the country’s most fascinating cities – Cappadocia. The whimsical volcanic formations would be reason enough to visit Cappadocia, but the city is also known for its underground cities and cave houses and cave churches. Ancient inhabitants of Cappadocia lived in cities carved into the surrounding rock faces, and some of these dwellings were still inhabited as recently as the 1950s. The Goreme Open-Air Museum consists of several of these cave churches arranged side by side to create an impressive monastic complex. The churches are some of the best-preserved and contain breathtaking frescoes that have managed to retain their original colors through the centuries. The Zelve Open-Air Museum is the largest example of a cave town, while the Derinkuyu and Kaymakli underground cities are the two largest cities built entirely underground, including stables, cellars, storage rooms, churches, and even wineries. While Cappadocia is easily toured on foot, many prefer to explore the area on horseback. To fully appreciate the beauty of the vast geological wonders of the region, many prefer to experience it as they soar over it in a hot air balloon…making Cappadocia known worldwide as one of the best hot air balloon locations on earth.
The Turkish Riviera (The Turquoise Coast) – No Turkish vacation would be considered complete without time spent on the beautiful Turkish Riviera along the country’s Mediterranean coast. One glance at the pristine water explains the region’s nickname of the “Turquoise Coast”. While there are numerous beaches along the coast where visitors can simply soak up the Mediterranean sun, the real treasures of the area and what sets it apart from countless other Mediterranean locations are the remote coves and villages, ancient cities, and castles tucked quietly away along the coastline. Bike tours of the area are a popular way to explore the coastal cities, though for a truly unforgettable experience, consider a guided tour in a gulet, a traditional wide-bottomed fishing boat. However you choose to experience it, The Turquoise Coast is sure to be a highlight of your vacation.
The currency in Turkey is the Yeni Turk Lirasi, or New Turkish Lira. Lira comes in coin denominations of 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 kurus (100 kurus is equal to 1 lira) and 1 lira, with paper notes available for 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 lira. Inflation has been a serious problem in Turkey in recent years, though it stabilized somewhat with the introduction of the New Turkish Lira in 2005. Still, it is best to wait until you arrive in Turkey to exchange your money, as you will likely get a better rate of exchange than you would outside of the country. Since Turkish Lira are not accepted outside of the country, make sure you use your converted cash or exchange it to your native currency before departing for home. ATMs are widely available, especially in larger cities, and usually accept Visa, MasterCard, Cirrus and Maestro cards. American Express is rarely accepted. Use caution when using free-standing ATMs, as they may fail to return your card and retrieving them can be a hassle. Some foreign currency, especially euros and US dollars, are accepted, but the use of travelers checks is discouraged as they are usually exchanged at a much lower rate than you will receive for cash.