Travellers visit Turkey for many different reasons, for the food, for the bright blue coastline and the weather, for the history, as a walking or biking backdrop and terrain... But it's the history and colourful culture of Turkey that a lot of travellers are interested in experiencing, from the intricately decorated mosques and churches, with their ancient mosaics and frescos, to the ruins and museums, and even the markets that haven't changed much in hundreds of years.
Istanbul has been the seat of three different empires, it's ancient – but if you visit its markets you'll see that its still a very lively, as well as a culturally rich city. You need a lot more than four days to 'do' any city properly, but this itinerary is a good place to start 'doing' Turkey's cultural highlights.
Take a tram to the bay at Eminonu, to walk the famous Golden Horn of land on the southern side of equally famous Galata Bridge. The Yeni Mosque, an Ottoman Imperial mosque and a great feat of Islamic architecture is easy to spot. In the complex surrounding the mosque are gardens of fountains and walkways and on one side there's a spice market called the Egyptian Bazaar, which sells spices, dried fruits, nuts and other local delicacies, including Turkish Delight.
Walking back along the tram route towards the centre of town, stop off at the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the underground cisterns that watered the city in its 6th Century Constantinople days. The exit of the cistern is right by the Haiga Sophia, once a church, then a mosque and now a museum, home to impressive Byzantine mosaics – the best are on the second storey, which is also a good place from which to admire the rest of it. You'll want a couple of hours there. It;s within walking distance of one of Istanbul's other famed sights, the Blue Mosque, named for its coating of 17th Century Blue Iznik tiles, and open to the public at all times bar prayer times, though ladies you do need to bring something to drape over your head.
The centre of town, the area 19th Century travellers used to call Stambool, is at the other end of the tram line, by Sultanahmet Square, which used to be Constantinople's Hippodrome.
From there stroll along the pedestrianised, covered roads, though Cemberlitas Square and into the craziness of the Grand Bazaar. With more than 4000 shops and stalls along 64 streets, this is a commercial labyrinth of people wanting you to buy something off them.
After seeing the heart of Istanbul spend a more relaxing day taking in views of the rest of it. Istanbul was built along the Bosphorus, a narrow channel connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and sailing along it is a nice way to see the buildings of the city fade into the suburbs. The ferry leaves from Eminonu at quay 3, and stops at all stops until Anadolu Kavağı, zigzagging between the Anatolian and Asian sides of Istanbul.
Anadolu Kavağı is a pretty village to end up in. Once unloaded, most ferry visitors head up the hill for a pretty impressive view, then down it again for a meal of fresh seafood in one of the many restaurants. North of the village are the ruins of the Byzantine fort of Yoroz Kalesi and above that, joined to it by a wall are the ruins of the castle of Imroz Kalesi.
Day Three it's back into Sultanahmet Square, this time passing the old traditional houses built into the old city walls, and though St Irene Church, within the expansive grounds of Topkapi Palace, which is the intended destination. The palace has been made into a museum of itself, but as well as exhibits featuring treasures from the sultan's collections there are also exhibits featuring other Turkish treasures. If, after the museum, you're interested in finding out more join a tour of the harem. The Istanbul Archaeological Museum is also within the grounds of the Topkapi Palace – this is where you can see some of the most unique and impressive treasures of the ancient world, including a peace treaty brokered between the Egyptians and the Hittites over three thousand years ago. Gülhane Park used to be the palace grounds, so you have to stroll though it on your way out.
If you have time for it there's one more local attraction worth wandering though at the end of the day: Miniatürk . It sounds naff, a miniature layout of many of Turkey's great sights, but it does give you an idea of Turkey's architectural highlights – and you might never have time to see them all full size.
The Chora Church or Mosque is considered a notable Byzantine church by many, and though Istanbul has quite a collection of Byzantine churches, this one, slightly off the beaten track in Edirnekapi, is recommended because of the impressive collection of mosaics and frescos decorating its walls. While in the area, detour via the great gate, which used to be the main entry into the city for the Sultans and Emperors – a break in the four mile long ring of walls, towers and battlements built in the 5th Century.
The neighbourhoods of Balat and Fener are another area worth exploring, here you can see the cultural and architectural remains of the many different people who've lived in this city – Jewish, Greek, Armenian and Ottoman. It's getting restored at the moment, so while some of the old houses are crumbling, on the next street you'll discover a basilica freshly repaired.
In the afternoon visit Dolmabahçe Palace, book a guided tour to ensure you'll have your mind fully blown by the opulence. Then finish your day, and your four days in Istanbul back in the centre of town with a stroll down the Çiçek Pasaji, a historic arcade housing some of the city's best restaurants and bars, then visit the Galatasaray Fish Market for a fish dinner.
Ephesus is a ruined Ionian city, one of Turkey's largest Roman sites, with a lot more still to be excavated. It's an archaeological gem, with its pillared theatres, library, odeon and numerous temples, political and commercial agoras and was the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Temple of Artemis. This is also where the Virgin Mary is thought to have lived in her old age. So if you want the cultural highlights of Turkey, as well as those of Istanbul, this is a good site to aim for, taking in other nearby treasures, Aphrodisias, Pamukkale and Hierapolis as well as some of the beautiful Ionian Coast, on your way though.
Fly from Istanbul to Izmir and drive to Selçuk, which is the nearest modern town to Ephesus, and about an hour from the airport. Spend the day preparing for your visit to Ephesus by visiting the Ephesus Museum and seeing some of the treasures recovered from the ruins. The remains of St. John's Basilica, the church of the St. John who wrote the Gospels and Revelation, is right by the museum's entrance. The İsa Bey Mosque, an impressive piece of 14th Century architectural art – both for its design and the art decorating its interior, is also right next door.
Spend the morning in Ephesus: stroll the gladiator graveyard, walk down Harbour Street to the now silted up harbour, past the theatre and the impressive facade of the Library of Celsus, and admire the Temple of Hadrian, and that of Domitian, and visit the tomb of St. John the apostle. Then drive to Aphrodisias, the ruins of the largest temple to Aphrodite in Asia Minor, which is about an hour and a half away by car. People have been living and worshipping here since the 5th Century BC, though the temple to Aphrodite dates from the 1st Century BC. Pamukkale, famous for the hot springs that fall down the mountain in bath like terraces, is another hour and a half drive, and has more accommodation options.
Take the morning off and while away a few hours in Pamukkale's hot springs before venturing up to their source, the ruins of the Roman spa resort at Hierapolis, which was the Florida of its day: its day being the 2nd Century BC, when it was home to about 100,000 citizens. When this city was deserted the springs over ran, causing the waterfall of terraces at Pamukkale .
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