In a country that embraces two continents, houses ancient ruins alongside a bristling contemporary culture, a week is barely enough to enjoy its highlights. Until our guide came along
Head to the striking Sultanahmet Mosque, the majestic structure decked with stained glass and over 20,000 ceramic tiles. Built in the 17th century, this is just one of the many wonders that dot Istanbul’s skyline. Visit the Sultanahmet Park, a lush garden next door. The Hippodrome, or the Sultanahmet Square lies next door, a chariot racing stadium built in the third century. Obelisks and columns commemorate various periods of history here.
The Hagia Sofia is an awe-inspiring structure that started out as a pagan temple, converted to a basilica, then a mosque and now a museum. The soaring domes and arches are decorated with Islamic and Christian motifs, with marble pillars and stunning stretches of mosaics. Wandering around will have built up a sweat – and that’s when you know it’s time for the ultimate Turkish delight – an afternoon at a hammam.
The Haseki Sultan Hammam is as authentic as it gets, with royalty trappings too. It was commissioned by the Sultan in the 16th century and has today been restored for you to enjoy a steam bath and soap massage. You could also try the Cağaloğlu Hamamı, once frequented by Florence Nightingale. Once scrubbed and relaxed, head underground to the Basilica Cistern nearby.
This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber approximately 9,800 sq m in area, built by 7,000 slaves in the sixth century to provide drinking water for their rulers. The enlarged cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, and continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and well into modern times. Today, it is just domed arches with piped classical music.
On your second day, head to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, a group of three museums located near the Topkapı Palace. There are stunning examples of Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman artifacts here, including an elaborate sarcophagus believed to have been originally made for Alexander the Great. It’s also home to the world’s first known peace treaty, between Ramesses II of Egypt and Hattusili III of the Hittite Empire.
The Topkapi Palace is the epitome of a Sultan’s home reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. Ottoman sultans lived there for 400 years, and today its curlicued gates have been flung open for the commoners to wander through its hundred rooms filled with porcelain and ceremonial robes. The highlight is the Imperial Treasury full of jewelled objects, including the Topkapi Dagger, with its emerald and diamond adornments.
Before you enter the Grand Bazaar, practice your poker face and perfect your bargaining skills. There are 4,000 stalls here, along with mosques, restaurants and food stalls. Do pick up some caviar, or as a souvenir, an ‘evil eye’. End the evening with some delectable Turkish food. Start with a round of mezze, moving on to the ubiquitous doner kebab and its many versions. Sign off on the oddest dessert possible–the Tavukgöğsüwhich, that’s made with chicken.
The Bosphorus, Istanbul
Start off with a visit to the Naval Museum, that’s full of replicas and originals of the magnificent boats that the Sultans used. Starting from Eminönü, hop on to a cruise – it will take you past the Rumeli Fortress, chug past the perfectly maintained gardens of the Dolmabahçe Palace, and old waterfront mansions called yalis. At night, the same cruise turns magical with twinkling lights of the city skyline.
The Bosphorus, Istanbul
Cap off your stay in Istanbul with a visit to two of its most evocative areas–Beyoğlu and Ortaköy. The districts are among the oldest in the city – the former Venetian influenced, the latter a cosmopolitan centre of the Ottoman empire. Ortaköy is also where a majority of the city’s most reputed night clubs are located.
As you approach the unusual rock formations of Cappadocia, the monastic caves that sheltered persecuted Christians and the 20 odd storeys of underground cities all unravel a fairy tale-like space. The fairy chimneys are a result of eroding winds and rain that have created these surreal landscapes on lava covered plains. Sign up for a hot air balloon ride to soar over the pink Derbent Valley, over the conical and mushroom-shaped rock formations.
Zelve, Goreme, Derinkuyu
The Zelve and Goreme Open Air museums highlight ancient churches and tunnels tucked between high cliffs. The Karanlik Church is worth a visit to see the most well preserved paintings of Christ. This underground city in Cappadocia dates back to 2000 BC, built originally by the Hittites, later made into homes by Christians fleeing from Persians. The most visited spot is Derinkuyu, 300 ft down, and eight floors of kitchens, stables, wells, churches and living rooms. Make sure you stay in a cave hotel here.
The port city of Bodrum has a twin personality—it holds within its walls a great deal of history. The Tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood here. The seaside Bodrum Castle today is the Museum of Underwater Archaeology. But Bodrum has a younger, peppier side too. The Barstreet is lined with some of the funkiest nightclubs in Turkey, while Club Catamaran is a vessel that will take you out into the sea to party the night away!
Antalya is a charming city on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Kaleici, the historic town centre, is a big draw with travellers, particularly for the Hadrian’s Gate, a monument that dates back to the 2nd century. The town also has the unique Duden Falls, which cascade straight down into the sea. Golfers must make the 40-km drive to Belek, which has a host of golf-courses by the beach. Competition means you have several attractive packages to choose from.