Who knew Turkey is home to 2 of the 7 wonders of the ancient world? Turkey was an unexpected destination for us, as we found ourselves with every planned 2020 trip cancelled. Turkey, as it turns out, is the most underrated destination we have ever been to in terms of culture, history, food and natural beauty. It was FANTASTIC. Truly cannot wait to go back and explore more of Turkey next time. What began as a 2020 revenge travel trip for Patrick, turned out to be one of the most beautiful and diverse places we have ever visited.

Like most, we had plenty of PTO left for a big trip (rest in peace Argentina / Brazil April 2020 trip) so we were able to burn a lot before the end of the year. We also maximized the trip by going to Turkey over thanksgiving…. Poetic, right? Turkey for thanksgiving. We love thanksgiving with our family, but it was the only window we would be able to accommodate around busy season at work and we were unwilling to sacrifice Christmas with the family. At the time we went (Nov 18 – Dec 6) Turkey was allowing folks to come in without testing or quarantine, so we quickly booked and to my surprise, were taking off on our international flight on November 18th as cases continued to rise.

Here is our ultimate Turkey itinerary:

Day 1: Fly Day

  • Location: Dallas (12:30pm CT) à Washington DC (11:30pm ET) à Istanbul (5pm TRT)
  • Accommodations: Pera Palace Hotel, known as the oldest European hotel in Turkey and home of the first elevator in Turkey and known for hosting passengers from the Orient Express, including Agatha Christie.
  • Activities: Patrick scoping out the whiskey selection in DC’s Duty Free, and becoming disappointed when he couldn’t partake on the outbound trip.
  • Breakfast: N/A – home
  • Lunch: Pot Belly in IAD at 7:30pm ET
  • Dinner: Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge and adjoining restaurant at Pera Palace. Pera Palace truly has two distinct dining areas, one on the main floor and one in the basement level. We loved the happy hour and dinners we had at the hotel, they were so delicious and the USD went a long way. Normally we aren’t hotel restaurant folks, but the staff was so sweet that we ended up spending most of our days winding down here with a few drinks.

We had a long travel day departing the US at midnight and arriving in Turkey at 5pm. Very strange time change, but all of the flights were fairly normal despite the mask policy. We had no issues boarding or deboarding since we only ever have carry on luggage (hence the name 😉) and made a quick exit once in Istanbul. I sleep on all flights always, so we were able to make our way to the hotel after a 45min taxi drive and the staff at Pera Palace quickly helped us out, taking our luggage and escorting us to the grandiose lobby and front desk. It truly looked like it was from a different era with a grand staircase, lush curtains, large chandeliers and it was beautiful in comparison to the current stylish minimalism / modern clean lines you see at a lot of hotels today. We had to fill out a health questionnaire and then we were escorted to the first modern elevator in Turkey. We took the extra long ride up (it was the first one after all!) and the bellhop gave us a brief history of the hotel.

We dumped our stuff, changed into acceptable clothing and got our behinds down to the restaurant to enjoy some hummus and raki for the first time. We opted for the “meal deal” or pre fixe for 275 TL (roughly $27 USD per person), which enabled us to have a lot of food and try the house specialties. We started with Turkish mezes, which is basically the sampler platter of everything. In this case we had hummus, beans, quinoa, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, simit bread, pita, honeydew, etc. I had fish for my entrée and Patrick had chicken. With our dinner I opted for some fantastic local Turkish red wine and Patrick attempted Raki, which is Turkey’s equivalent of moonshine. Patrick is Mr. Social so we chatted up our server the who taught us the traditional way of drinking Raki (one ice cube and sipping it, not as a shot) and he ended up bringing us both dessert options instead of the one included with our meal; fresh cut fruit and Sutlac rice pudding. We were stuffed and exhausted by the time we finished dinner, and thankfully crashed in our elegant hotel room right up the stairs.

Day 2:

  • Location: Istanbul
  • Accommodations: Pera Palace Hotel
  • Activities: Exploration on foot, government buildings, Galata tower, Galata Bridge, Gulhane Park, Walled Obelisk in Sultanahmet Square along with Column of Constantine and the ruins of the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Bascilica Cistern (unsuccessful attempt), rug purchasing, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Museum of Great Palace Mosaics, Turkish Delights from Altan Sekerleme, happy hour at Pera Palace
  • Breakfast: Agatha Restaurant at Pera Palace Hotel
  • Lunch: Arasta Cafe & Restaurant near the Blue Mosque
  • Dinner: Pera Antakya (although we originally had reservations at Mikla is located in the Marmara Hotel, which was abruptly closed for COVID)

Our typical trip has a bunch of activities up front and then ease off the gas as we progress in a city or over the course of the trip. The first true day in Turkey was no exception. Revenge travel turned into hype team as we explored the cobblestone streets and spent the entire day on foot checking out all the attractions in and around the Hagia Sophia. Even more serendipitous of a great day was the full rainbow we saw walking across the Galata bridge to all these attractions. One of the more underrated parts of the day was the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics. It was lower on our list and a “nice to do” rather than “must do” but we were both astounded by how well preserved and detailed the mosaics are to this day. If you’re thinking about it, definitely take the time to swing by and if you’re lucky like us, you will have the entire museum to yourself.

Day 3:

Topkapi Palace is a day in itself. We took our time walking over there from the hotel and ended up spending 4 hours on the grounds. It reminded me a lot of the Japanese temples and gardens where there were so many buildings within the grounds, that it was as if we had a ton of mini museums to tour. This palace was the original one of Turkish rulers dating back to the 15th century. With each ruler it was added on to and “renovated” so to speak, so there are interesting architectural elements, never ending bath quarters and of course, floor to ceiling iznik tile which is breathtaking. Only downside is that it is all completely exposed (clearly no AC or heat in this historical area!) and I froze my butt off. My feet got wet on the walk over and it was 40 degrees outside, so definitely come prepared rain, cold, heat, etc. as it is largely outdoors. Walking back from Topkapi (already exhausted) we willed ourselves to check out the Archaeological Museum, also a completely underrated museum as it was what I’ll call the mausoleum capital of the world. We went through room after room of ornate tombs for each of the royal family members, and the relief stone carvings were artwork unto themselves. We trudged back from the museum and rested our museum destroyed bodies before having yet another fantastic meal at Pera Antakya.

Day 4:

  • Location: Istanbul
  • Accommodations: Pera Palace Hotel
  • Activities: Galata Tower tour, Spice Bazaar, Textile Market, Suleymaniye Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Bosphorus sunset cruise by viator
  • Breakfast: Guney Restaurant
  • Lunch: Street vendor chestnuts and simit
  • Dinner: Street vendor

Galata Tower was fun, quick and similar to climbing the Duomo in Florence. Since it was near our hotel, it was the perfect way to start the day with a Turkish breakfast at the next door restaurant and check out the tower as soon as it opened. We then took the opportunity to do more exploration of the spice bazaar and textile market on fresh legs and souls, a fun experience even if you aren’t in the market for anything. Turkey is famous for many things, including textiles. If you happened to get bath towels from crate and barrel like me, you’ll notice the tag says Made in Turkey. Small world, right? We weren’t sure if the trek (~30-45 min) was worth it out to Suleymaniye Mosque but if there was one theme in this whole trip, it is that Turkey is completely underrated and every proposed activity is absolutely worth it. Suleymaniye felt more religious and less commercial than the other Mosques we visited as it is a bit further off the beaten path. The grounds were once again, massive, and it had a beautiful lookout point over the rest of modern Istanbul. The inside of the Mosque itself was spectacular. We trekked back though and did a lap around the Grand Bazaar, we headed back to clean ourselves up for the Bosphorus Cruise. Would 10/10 recommend seeing Istanbul by water. We learned so much about history and culture, it influenced us to check out the modern day Dolmabahce Palace, something we were previously undecided on. We were able to tour along both continents (Istanbul sits on both Asia and Europe) and experience Istanbul as sunset. Fantastic all around.

Day 5:

  • Location: Istanbul
  • Accommodations: Pera Palace Hotel
  • Activities: Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Istiklal Caddesi stroll, Taksim Square, Dolmabahçe Clock Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
  • Breakfast: None
  • Lunch: Elvan Buff (Cihangir, 34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey), coffee at Dolmabahce Palace, sweet treats at Kahve Dunyasi
  • Dinner: Keskin Kebap & Doner

On our last day in Istanbul, we took Viator’s suggestion and made our way to Domabahce Palace, which is the more modern of the royal family Palaces in Istanbul. They do not allow pictures, but if they did our phones would be maxed out. We have done the White House and Buckingham Palace, and Domabahce Palace puts them to shame. It is over the top luxury with incredible décor. We were blown away and spent much more time on the grounds than anticipated. We spent the evening strolling up and down istiklal, which is an entirely blocked off street for pedestrians.

Day 6: Fly Day

  • Location: Istanbul à Kayseri (Cappadocia)
  • Accommodations: Esbelli Evi Cave Hotel
  • Activities: Fly to Cappadocia, get rental car, drive out to Urgup
  • Breakfast: None
  • Lunch: Airport snacks
  • Dinner: Il Gusto

Cappadocia is a fantastically beautiful place and so interesting both in architecture and natural land features. Most of our first day was eaten up by flights, figuring out the rental car situation and driving out to our hotel. We did minor exploration around the town of Urgup but opted to spend the evening relaxing in our new digs. The cave hotel itself was massive, a 4 bedroom cave suite. The ambiance was fantastic and I wouldn’t stay anywhere else other than Esbelli Evi.

Day 7:

We started off the day with a beautiful Turkish breakfast spread by the hotel owner with may traditional Turkish food including including my new favorite, Simit bread. Typically the cave hotel does more family style dining with other guests, however due to covid we has 1 of 2 dining rooms completely to ourselves. I don’t like making friends on vacation, so this was fine by me!

Full bellies and full hearts, we drove over to Uchisar Castle, parked along the main road that leads into town and followed a walking path not far from the road that led us through town. We picked up some canine friends along the way and our group of 2 quickly became 5 as hiked up the hilly and twisty town streets.

Uchisar Castle itself was a quick tour, as we were the only ones and it took 10min to climb through and up to the top. The overlook itself is really beautiful to see Cappadoccia and the lanscape it provides. All in all we may have spent 1-2 hours with our mini hike, tour and return to vehicle. We didn’t expect to finish so quickly, so we set our sites on the major outdoor museums; Goreme Open Air, Fairy Chimneys, Zelve Open Air.

Goreme Open air is a more popular museum giving its proximity to town and how immaculately preserved the cave paintings are. This village of cave dwellings served 10/11/12th century religious population and the architecture reflects it. There are large dining areas, chapels, churches and all art is religious in nature. We paid to upgrade and see the Dark Church portion of Goreme Open Air and it was 100000% worth it. The lack of sunlight that was able to get into that chapel preserved the frescoes that much more. The color is so vibrant you would assume someone painted it yesterday.

Next we headed over to play in the Fairy Chimneys, which look awfully phallic. It was a sprawling landscape of genitalia that was fun to climb around and explore. We quickly moved on to see Zelve near the end of the day, as we needed to check it out before the 4pm close.

Zelve was the winner – we were stunned by how vast the cave city was and the access into all the dwellings we had. Goreme was a tiny village compared to the extensive city that zelve displayed. In retrospect, we would have started the day here rather than Goreme and worked our way backwards. You can turn Zelve into a heartier hike too, as they have multiple paths through the city with varied lengths. It is adviseable to wear sporty gear though, as you would miss out on a lot if you packed “cute” shoes rather than hiking friendly shoes.

Day 8: Thanksgiving

  • Location: Urgup, Cappadocia, Turkey
  • Accommodations: Esbelli Evi Cave Hotel
  • Activities: Watch the hot air balloons take off at7am, finish the “Red Tour” at Imagination Valley, Kaymakli Underground City, window show in Goreme, high tea at Panoramic Cave Hotel, traditional Hamam (Turkish bath) at Panoramic Cave Hotel
  • Breakfast: Turkish breakfast at Esbelli Evi
  • Lunch: None
  • Dinner: Il Gusto

We started off the day eager to catch the hot air balloons, which take off around 7 -7:30am when the weather is calm in the morning. We got some tips from our hotel on good lookout points, and ended up beating hot air balloon companies to their takeoff point. They even asked us to move our cars so they could load the basket and start blowing up the balloons. It was amazing, even if you don’t want to pay ~$200-300 USD per person, to observe their take off. We got some amazing views and had never seen hot air balloons up close and personal before.

This is where you find the best view for hot air balloons: 38°38’37.5″N 34°50’18.3″E

After hot air balloons, we went back to have breakfast at the hotel and hit the road to check out Kaymakli which was about a 45min drive away. We usually turn our nose up at tour guides, but unlike America, there is not a lot of signage within museums and exhibits. We would recommend paying someone just to get the history of Kaymakli underground city while you’re there otherwise you have no idea what you’re looking at. We had to google a lot of it afterwards, which isn’t as fun or insightful. Apparently, it was home to 20,000 people, it had entire sub dwellings within it with animal stables, complete with wine rooms and other community and individual areas. You’re able to go deep into the underground city, several floors below earth and it is not for the faint (or claustrophobic) of heart. At one point we had to waddle our way through certain passageways because even hinging forward at the hip would have left us too big to get through. It was claustrophobic but fascinating to see such early dwellings be so elaborate and hold a massive population of people.

The hamam experience was an interesting one to say in the least. We have taken up a tradition of doing massages in many countries we visit as it is a treat to us. This traditional Turkish bath is not one to miss and the bath houses exist all over Turkey. We happened to have more down time in Cappadoccia and leaned into the quiet country time by having a Turkish bath here. To learn more on what to expect from your first hammam, check it out here.

Day 9:

  • Location: Urgup, Cappadocia, Turkey
  • Accommodations: Esbelli Evi Cave Hotel
  • Activities: Allie’s long run, shopping in Goreme, Lover’s Hill look out (Aşıklar Tepesi), shopping in Urgup, MackBear Coffee Co
  • Breakfast: Turkish breakfast at Esbelli Evi
  • Lunch: Street kebabs in Goreme
  • Dinner: Il Gusto

Our last day in Cappadocia was spent meandering the towns and enjoying the quiet. There are the blue and green tours of Cappadocia as well which require a much further drive (1-2hrs) and given how toast we were from the previous few days we decided to spend a little more time “relaxing” than we normally do. There are amazing sites to see on these tours that we didn’t cover because we were busy wining and dining a little harder than usual. These additional activities include: Derinkuyu underground city, Lake Tuz and / or Ihlara Valley, Selime Cathedral, Silk Road.

Day 10:

  • Location: Urgup, Cappadocia  à Izmir
  • Accommodations: Renaissance Izmir Hotel
  • Activities: Returned rental car and flew to Izmir, explored on foot the Kordon promenade, Konak Pier, Izmir Clock Tower, Izmir Bazaar, Agora Open Air Museum, History & Arts Museum, Strolling Kultur Park Izmir
  • Breakfast: Breakfast at Esbelli Evi
  • Lunch: Gyro at a street vendor / Turkish cake at another street vendor
  • Dinner: Dinner at Renaissance Izmir Hotel

Fly day to Izmir! We had a noon flight out to Izmir (~1hr flight) and when we landed in Izmir instantly noticed a LA vibe. It was the Turkish Las Angeles with the palm trees, coast line, and a bit more big city and glamorous vibe compared to Istanbul. There is certainly history in Izmir, but it did not have the outward appearance of being as religious or having the same depth of history as Istanbul. Which is why we both walked around thinking we were in LA!

Given we landed early afternoon, we did the quickie version of an Izmir tour – walked along the bay, looked at the clocktower and did the main historical attraction of the Agora Open Air Museum. It felt very roman with the aqueducts running through the basement and the beautiful half circle archways. Once more, tourists were let loose to explore all of it. The marble alone was beautiful and interesting with the different colors and patterns.

Day 11:

  • Location: Izmir, Bergama (Historic city of Pergamon)
  • Accommodations: Renaissance Izmir Hotel
  • Activities: Viator tour of ancient Pergamon
  • Breakfast: Hotel
  • Lunch: Bergama
  • Dinner: Konyali

One of the few planned tours we had was a Viator tour of Pergamon. Given Pergamon is about a 1.5-2hr drive away from Izmir, it ended up being a good day trip. There are likely other things to explore in Izmir, but a day is really all we felt we needed. Viator did an amazing job, our driver and tour guide were incredibly knowledgeable of the ancient ruins and the town itself. We had the entire grounds to ourselves, a function of COVID and of Bergama being off the beaten path. The world’s steepest ancient amphitheaters is in Bergama and it was incredible climbing up and down the steps.

We then went to Carpet Weaver’s Association to have a tour of the rug making process from harvesting to weaving and viewed many rugs. As mentioned in my article on how to buy a Turkish Rug I wish we had purchased our rug here instead. It was a private tour and they shared a ton of the history, culture, traditions of rug making in addition to having us try the famous Turkish double knot on a loom. We will certainly be back to visit Carpet Weaver’s Association for future rugs.

Day 12:

Traveling from Izmir to Selcuk is complicated. Very complicated. The easiest way to do it is hire a private driver to take you the 2-3hrs or take a bus if it is available. We did the subway/train system and made it up to about 10 miles from Selcuk when our connecting train was going to take another hour to arrive. We lucked out finding a taxi by the subway station (this is a tiny town pass through town) and it took ~200 TL to drive 20 minutes to Selcuk. Not ideal, but we arrived late morning to the beautiful Livia Hotel Ephesus. We would 10/10 recommend anyone to stay there. The team working there were so kind, from the property manager to the night shift and chef. They made us feel like family, not to mention the room and hotel was beautiful.

We had a short coffee on the veranda, put our stuff in the room and did the highlight reel of Selcuk in the first day. This involved a lot of activities all within a 1/2mi radius from the hotel. This was perfect for a travel day, and after about 3 hours of exploring and lunch, we walked a short distance back to the hotel to relax. Selcuk had similar vibes to Cappadocia where it was a quiet town with lots of nature surrounding it. We ate at the hotel for dinner and were thrilled with the quality of food. We split a bottle of wine and enjoyed the pool view with dinner outside on their covered dining area.

Did I mention we are instagram famous now on Livia Hotel Ephesus’ page?

Day 13:

A day on its own is the Ephesus, so we took our hotel manager’s advice and saved it for the second day. After a fantastic Turkish breakfast at the hotel, we were put in touch with a taxi driver, Tolga, who took us the 30min to House of Virgin Mary before dropping us off at Ephesus. This is typical, commissioning a taxi driver to take you to both destinations and come pick you up afterwards given it is a hike out there. We had a flat fee for the whole day, which was around 200 TL and he was with us for nearly 5 hours. Tolga doubled as our tour guide, talking a lot about the history and culture of Turkey along the way. Apparently, there is a trek to Virgin Mary’s house every year from the Vatican. Every pope has visited at some point during their tenure and it is an incredibly peaceful home where it is believed that Mary lived out the rest of her life.

A short drive from there is the city of Ephesus, a massive playground of history. We were one of the few there, so we went crazy taking pictures and exploring the terrace houses, city buildings, the library and the multiple amphitheaters. If you’re wondering about if the Terrace Houses are worth it? Go and spend the extra few bucks to see magnificent mosaics. Truly an adult’s cultural playground. We spent 3-4 hours here and were wiped out towards the end and could have spent more time exploring if we weren’t exhausted.

Day 14:

We met back up with our pal Tolga, the taxi driver, took us halfway from Selcuk to Soke bus station and we took a bus the remainder of the way to Bodrum. It was about 2-3 hours in totality to get to Bodrum, again not an easy transportation between destinations. Most people go back to Izmir to then fly to Bodrum. It may be an opportunity to rent a car and drive it one way from Izmir to Selcuk then Bodrum. We arrived early afternoon, dropped our stuff and immediately went out exploring on foot.

We stopped by the Halicarnassus Ancient City Amphitheatre as well as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. We spent several hours on foot bumping around the beach town before calling it in to the hotel. COVID was a bit more serious by the time we got to Bodrum, so we had the hotel assist us in ordering takeout, which we enjoyed in the hotel room overlooking a sunset on the beach.

Day 15:

  • Location: Selcuk à Bodrum
  • Accommodations: Degirmenburnu Residence
  • Activities: Allie run along the beach, windmills, walk about town, attempt to see Bodrum Castle (closed for repairs)
  • Breakfast: N/A
  • Lunch: Street Food
  • Dinner: Hotel called takeout for us from local restaurant

I woke up nice and early to get a run in along the beach. Most of the bars and clubs were closed for winter so it was just me and few locals up early to stroll with their dogs or children. I had one dog run with me most of the time and then try to come back to our hotel room to hang out! After a quick change, we got brunch at a takeout spot near the harbor and intended to visit Bodrum Castle, which was closed for repairs unfortunately. We strolled around the city, popping into shops and explored the town. Eventually Patrick went back to the hotels and I walked up the hill to see the Bodrum Windmills. We called it an early and easy night and had take out once more before our early trip to the airport to return to Istanbul.

Day 16:

  • Location: Bodrum to Istanbul
  • Accommodations: Park Hyatt Istanbul
  • Activities: Flights and lounging at the Park Hyatt
  • Breakfast: N/A
  • Lunch: N/A, airport starbucks
  • Dinner: Park Hyatt Istanbul

The interesting about travel in another country is that the security is 500x worse than the US. I thought it was frustrating as an American traveler, but had since forgotten that airports in other countries make you go through 2 or 3 rounds of security before boarding a flight. When we arrived at Bodrum airport we saw a couple miss their flight from all the layers of security. We got there way too early (per usual) and just made ourselves comfortable before the flight. Once we arrived in Istanbul and hopped in a Taxi, COVID lockdowns had become more intense. We were pulled over by the police on the way back so they could verify we were tourists (checkpoints like these are common). The tone of the officers were a bit different than previous checkpoints, and we handed over our passports through the window to verify. That weekend they announced everything was shut down and curfews back in place. Conveniently we were leaving the next day, however it did spook us a bit how close we were cutting it to our trip.

Back at the Park Hyatt, we were greeted with opulence but lack of culture. I don’t like the Park Hyatt brand for that reason and wouldn’t recommend staying in one. The room itself was beautiful and I took advantage of the gym access. We called it a day eating Turkish mezes at the downstairs restaurant which was a lovely experience.

Day 17/18:

  • Location: Istanbul à Frankfurt à Chicago à Dallas
  • Accommodations: Park Hyatt Istanbul
  • Activities: Fly day!
  • Breakfast: None
  • Lunch: Airport
  • Dinner: Airport

We had quite the travel day with more segments on the outbound than on the inbound, due to a shift around in our flights multiple times. By the time we landed in Chicago I had several missed calls and texts from the boarding facility in Dallas. Turns out our pup Reus had to be hospitalized for dehydration after being in boarding for three weeks. Now we know! I was horrified, sleep deprived and starving so I cried my way through the Chicago airport before we could get back to Dallas. Thankfully the owner let us come immediately after landing (and after their pickup hours) to get Reus. Something every dog parent should consider is a local emergency contact, a “nap time” during the day with water in their crate and being strategic about the boarding facility vs rover vs friend’s house that you take your pup to during international travels. The boarding facility is great, but it made us re-think keeping Reus there for extended stays like that again.

We LOVED Turkey! The unexpected and amazing trip that it was, I know we will be back for more in the future. To check out more articles and to deep dive into our trip, check out the other Turkey related articles below:

Posted by:Allie

5 replies on “The Ultimate 3 Weeks in Turkey Itinerary

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