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Essential Turkey

VISIT THE MUST SEE SPOTS

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If this is your first Turkey travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to Turkey, which include Istanbul, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Pamukkale and Bodrum. If this is your second trip to Turkey or you prefer to get off the beaten path, explore our Extended Turkey page.

Istanbul

"If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital." Thus declared Napoleon Bonaparte-and his words ring as true today as they did in 1800. The Turks themselves say that in Istanbul one can hear the nation's heartbeat. There is so much to see and do that any definitive overview would fill volumes, but following are some travel highlights in Turkey.

Begin with its historic sights, which have been designated a World Heritage by UNESCO.

The Roman Hippodrome was the center of Byzantine life for 1,000 years, and the center of Ottoman culture for another 400 years. The Hippodrome was the scene of countless political and military dramas, including rival chariot races. During your Turkey tour, see impressive granite obelisk, carved in Egypt around 1,500 BC and brought to Constantinople in 390 AD. The Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque is a masterpiece of 17th century Ottoman architecture, famous for its unique hand-made original Iznik tiles. The Hagia Sophia is absolutely spectacular-some say is the most beautiful church ever built. Other famous Turkey travel destinations include the Basilica Cistern, and the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman government and its resident sultans for 500 years; see its Imperial Ottoman Treasury, which includes the famous Spoonmaker Diamond.

The Suleyman Mosque is a monumental building, a masterpiece of Ottoman architecture. The Dolmabahce Palace, built around 1843, was an administrative center during the Ottoman Empire and later residence of the sultans. This ornate and vast palace overlooks the Bosphorus, and is well worth a visit as you travel Turkey.

The Grand Covered Bazaar is a marketplace of staggering proportion-with over 4,000 shops it is a world within itself. This is the very heart of Turkish culture, a sensory overload of sights, sounds and color.

The Kariye Museum is housed in a charming small church with beautiful mosaics and frescoes, and is a wonderful example of Byzantine architecture. The Jewish Museum of Turkey catalogs and celebrates the history and contribution of Jewish Turks. Located in the former Zulfaris Synagogue, its exhibits depict the daily lives of the local Jewish community throughout different periods of history. Other splendid sights well worth a visit during your tour of Turkey include the Church of Cora, Archeological Museum, Tile Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

We recommend a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait at sunset, where one literally crosses from Europe into Asia. And for those who don't mind a few steps, the top of the Galata Tower is the best place to take in the complicated geography and gorgeous views of Istanbul.

Ephesus

A must see for ancient-history buffs traveling Turkey, the ancient Greek city of Ephesus houses the best-preserved Greco-Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. It is a repository of unsurpassed historical riches, and offers a telling glimpse into what Roman life looked like 2,000 years ago.

The main sites include the Great Theater, with 25,000 seats, and the Library of Celsus, one of the architectural masterpieces of Anatolia (Asia Minor). See the Terraced Houses, which evince the decadent luxury of Roman upper-class life, and visit the last home of the Virgin Mary, where St. John hid her from the pagan Ephesians to save her life. Ephesus figures large in Biblical history: the Apostle Paul came to the city to preach in its Great Theater, its church was one of the seven churches of Asia that are cited in the Book of Revelation, and the Gospel of John may have been written here. Explore the remains of the Temple of Diana (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World) and St. John's Basilica. Walk in the footsteps of Marc Antony and Cleopatra along the marble streets of the Sacred Way - a remarkable Turkey travel experience.

Cappadocia/Goreme Valley

An essential - and otherworldly - stop on any tour of Turkey, Cappadocia is a region of extraordinary natural and cultural wonders that figures large in Biblical history. The surreal lunar landscape is comprised of cone, mushroom and pinnacle-shaped formations of red sandstone and salt deposits from the Miocene (Tertiary) period that have been naturally shaped by wind and rain for thousands of years.

During the Roman and Byzantine eras this area served as a shelter for the early Christians escaping persecution and Christianity flourished from the 4th to the 11th century. During this time, the soft volcanic deposits were carved out for dwellings, monasteries, churches and underground communities. Now it is possible for those traveling Turkey to explore these underground cities and dwellings carved into the stone "fairy chimneys." This extraordinary natural and cultural wonder has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pamukkale/Hieropolis

Pamukkale is an area of spectacular natural thermal hot springs and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name means "Cotton Castle" and refers to the gracefully curved white pools, formed by minerals in the thermal waters, which cascade down a ridge.

Nearby is the fascinating archaeological site of Hieropolis, an ancient hot springs resort founded in 190 BC and greatly enlarged by the Romans. Many consider the springs to have healing properties and it is possible to bathe in these soothing waters during your tour of Turkey-indeed people have been doing so since before recorded history.

Bodrum

Bodrum is famous throughout Europe for good reason. The exquisite sapphire waters of the South Aegean Sea surround a town of square whitewashed houses that appear like sugar cubes dotting the hills. Strolling the winding alleys reveals a charming village draped in brilliant pink bougainvillea.

The marina is modern, its cafés trendy and its restaurants posh. The Castle of Peter, built by Christian Crusaders in 1402, graces Bodrum's harbor. It houses the interesting Museum of Underwater Archeology. Take the time during your Turkey tour to stroll through the quaint market, and see the statue of Herodotus-Bodrum's native son-the Greek "Father of History" who is credited with being Western culture's first systematic historian. The eponymous Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was located in Bodrum. While there is little left of the ancient structure, models and sketches found on its grounds attempt to convey its majesty. There is also an ancient theater.

A glorious day-or week-may be spent aboard a traditional Turkish yacht known as a gullet, complete with crew and a certified archaeologist as your Turkey tour guide. Sail through the crystal-clear waters of the "Turquoise Coast," stopping at islands such as Aquarium and Karaada, with its natural hot springs. Longer excursions can access the outer islands of Knidos and Patara, where the ruins of ancient Greek civilizations can be explored. Greek islands such as Rhodes may also be accessed.

In summer droves of European tourists and a pounding disco scene recall the worst excesses of Mallorca. Spring and fall are recommended times to visit lovely Bodrum.