In 2014, Turkey was quickly becoming one of the top tourist targets in the world. Now, the media makes it out to be another type of target. It was the sixth most visited country in 2015, but is now looking at losing up to $12 billion compared to last year. Not to mention, with everything that is going on politically--Turkey's everyday citizens and beautiful landscapes need some positive press.
I'm not going to include "The Big 5" destinations that everyone sees in their inflight magazines or travel brochures. You will learn there's far more to this country than suppressed journalistic freedoms, terrorist attacks and threats, autocratic leaders, and regional "disputes" that could be said about lots of countries (and are definitely still ongoing here and are real issues). It's a place with an immense history and beauty that has been the center of the world for millennia. Napoleon once said, "if the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be the capital." Istanbul was my home for 3 years and the rest of the country lifts the city to its place of prominence.
First off, 'The Big 5'. Let me break them down:
Sultan Ahmet, Cappadocia, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Bodrum & Fethiye are the biggest draws. Most people fly into Istanbul and stay in Sultan Ahmet, then visit Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Tokapı Palace. However, there are so many places that you wouldn't normally find when wandering the old-stone streets of Sultan Ahmet.
Families' then move to Cappadocia. Here you stare at Phallic rock formations, hike through underground cities and ancient Christian valleys. Then you finish it up like any destination worth its weight--wine, sunsets, and tacky pottery (some is quite beautiful, actually).
If you're here in the summer (or British, Russian or German) then you may just head to one of the Turkish Riviera's beautiful turquoise beaches. Bodrum, Fethiye and Antalya are the most famous with their own bits of culture to keep you interested, but what makes these places really worth their salt is setting up camp on the beach and letting the sea slightly cool you from the scorching sun until you recharge with fresh fish and cold drinks.
Turkey's most well-preserved ancient city, Ephesus (Efes, in Turkish) was the Greek capital of Asia Minor and once the 2nd largest city in the world. It's an open museum that is as interesting as it is beautiful. As far as ancient cities go, if Rome is New York then Efes is Chicago. Which is to say that it may actually be better (I come from Chicago and am incredibly biased). It's massive and definitely worth shelling out the extra cash to get the full history. A bonus section shows old apartments from the time and detail the extravagance of the upper class and the depression of the lower. Very close is the Temple of Artemis, or really, a column from it, that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
About an hour or so away, you have Pamukkale and Hierapolis. Pamukkale, or Cotton Castle, are limestone baths that give the appearance of sitting in bathtubs in the clouds the way the Gods are always depicted in Greek myths. It's connected to Hierapolis, the original Florida. An ancient city that people have been flocking to in retirement since the 2nd century BC. The hot springs amongst the ruins are the only ones that I've discovered.
Now that you're caught up on the must see destinations, I'll give you the first place on my list--Kumkapı. Those that have been to this neighborhood know it for its square filled with fish restaurants to lure in tourists. On the other hand, trickling through the windy ravines of streets that flow from this reservoir of rakı, mezes, and fresh fish is evidence of Istanbul's diverse ethnic and religious origins. Still boasting a large Armenian population, it also possesses some of Istanbul's most original churches and mosques.
On my trip I came from the seaside at Yenikapı and I think it's the best way to encounter the neighborhood, though it's probably the opposite that most people will use. When you cross the concrete underpass by Kennedy Caddesi you'll encounter the Armenian Patriarchate and a large Armenian Orthodox church. Together, they represent much of pre-WWI Istanbul with an infusion of traditional architecture of the Ottomans mixed with an Armenian Apostolic style.
As you walk one more block inland you'll notice a stark contrast in the upkeep of the buildings. With run-down shops and homes, the business spills into the street where you can find a plethora of supplies. Anything from socks to booze, and even pork, can be haggled for while strolling down the street; make sure to grab some fruit from the street vendors for your walk.
That walk should take you up the hill a bit more towards Beyazıt and you'll end up at Mother Mary Church. Unassuming from the side, with a plain brick wall, but it's stunning on the inside and a gorgeous classical exterior that helps it sit like an island oasis in a concrete sea of dilapidation and gentrification. If checking out old churches is your thing also check out Aya Kiryoki and Rum Kilise for larger and grander structures, but with slightly less "je ne sais quoi" to them.
Turn towards the Old Town and you'll run into the main square that's filled with restaurants and not so passive waiters trying to get you to sit down. Kumkapı Historical Restaurant is the most famous, but in my opinion you really can't go wrong where ever you go here.
Once you're refueled head out towards Marmara University's campus and check out Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Camii just passed the police station. It's beautifully ornate with a piece of the Kaaba on the inside. You can chat with the caretaker who speaks enough English to give you an idea of the history and meaning of the place, while he'll also throw in pictures of all his grandkids to show you.
When you finally get a word in, ask him how to get to Küçük Aya Sofya and he'll point you there. Close to Sultan Ahmet, you'll come across the church-turned-mosque that actually predates the larger Aya Sofya by a year--being finished in 536 AD--and was used as a template to help them prepare for the much larger and more famous follow up. Due to Islamic law all the interior mosaics have been covered, but the current interior's design can be traced back to as early as 1506.
From here you can follow the path near the water or the streets next to the parks and end at Bukoleon Sarayı, the remnants of a palace from the 5th century. It was one of the few palaces still standing when the Ottomans sacked the city and a wall remains to this day. It's a last little photo-op before heading back into the much more dense Sultanahmet district.