Merhaba, fellow travelers!
When I started my trip, the country was called Turkey; when I left it was Türkiye. Three days into my visit, the nation reclaimed its non-anglicized name by registering as Türkiye (pronounced tur-key-yay) with the United Nations. The official reason, according to the President, was that “Türkiye represents and expresses the culture, civilization and values of the nation in the best way”, but I believe the rebrand was more of an attempt to dissociate from the bird. Let's see if the new moniker catches on.
There were many places I wanted to visit in Turkey/Türkiye, but I only had six days, so I limited myself to two destinations - the geological wonderland of Cappadocia and the eclectic metropolis of Istanbul. Both were incredibly picturesque and had welcoming people, delightful cuisine, a culture with depth, bucket-list-worthy adventures and a wealth of Instagrammable views.
Speaking of Instagram, Türkiye made a real effort to cater to the image-focused influencer culture. In Cappadocia, very early each morning, hotels set up a full breakfast spread so that people could use it as a prop when capturing their perfect snaps. In Istanbul, Kubbe rooftop, formerly a café and art gallery, was turned specifically into a photography location with an entrance fee of 100 TL. Instagrammers were welcomed here to take photos amongst Turkish carpets, patterned cushions, ornamental fruit-filled platters and traditional glasses of tea.
Travel to the Cappadocia region in central Türkiye was arduous, as the UK airports struggled to cope with the increased demand brought on by school vacation and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee bank holiday. I queued at check-in for over two hours, even though I wasn't checking a bag (my Turkish visa needed to be examined before a boarding card could be issued). Security lines were just as long and chaotic, which meant I had to sprint to my gate - a fruitless endeavor, as the flight to Istanbul ended up being delayed, on the tarmac, for two-hours. The setback's knock-on effect meant that I missed my connection to Nevşehir Kapadokya Airport (after yet another gate dash). Luckily, the Turkish Airlines customer service team rerouted me, on a much later flight, into Kayseri Airport. It was a long, sweaty and frustrating day, but I arrived at my hotel with two hours to spare before my pre-booked hot-air balloon adventure.
I stayed at the lovely, Insta-famous Sultan Cave Suites. Terraced above the town of Göreme (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985), this unique cave hotel offered panoramic views of the village, surrounding valleys, mountains and Mount Erciyes. The staff members were incredibly accommodating and the food was excellent (breakfast was included).
The good people at Turquaz Balloons collected me at my hotel at 4:10am the morning of my hot-air balloon flight. I was taken to their headquarters to check-in and was offered tea and pastries before being driven to the launch site (which varied each day based on wind direction and flight zones). As we arrived, the balloon was being filled with hot air in preparation for the 12 passengers (maximum capacity of 20) who would be flying that morning.
More than 25 companies and 200 hot-air balloons have been registered to operate balloon tours in Cappadocia. 150 fly nearly every morning (weather permitting), giving over 2,000 people the experience of a lifetime.
The balloons, like airplanes, were registered with the aviation authority and were subject to regular safety checks to ensure airworthiness. Hot-air balloon pilots in Cappadocia have undergone examinations, have a prescribed number of flight hours, have passed flight tests and have aced medical checks. This was our pilot's first ever commercial flight, which he did not disclose until after we safely landed.
The formation of the magical landscape of Cappadocia dates back millions of years. Ancient volcanic eruptions blanketed the region in thick ash, which later solidified into a soft rock called 'tuff'. Rain, wind and other weather conditions created the valleys, canyons and the unique rock formations called ‘Peri Bacaları’ (AKA Fairy Chimneys) seen today.
Floating above one of the most interesting and surreal terrains in the world was a magical experience and an exceptional way to get breath-taking views of this stunning region. Our pilot had us ebbing and flowing above and right down into valleys, amongst the volcanic formations.
The post-flight champagne medal ceremony was a nice touch too.
Even if you don’t fancy a flight, it’s worth getting up early to see the colorful aerial display from the ground. For optimal views, aim to be on your hotel's rooftop by 5:10am.
Exhausted from lack of sleep and two consecutive early mornings, I spent the majority of the day lounging by the pool at Kelebec Special Cave Hotel (one of Sultan Cave Suites sister properties).
After catching up on rest and vitamin D, I wandered into the center of Göreme to see what it was all about and to indulge in Turkish food and wine.
Then it was onwards to Viewpoint Cafe & Restaurant for more panoramic views and adult beverages as well as some shisha and catchy tunes!
I ended the night with dinner at Dibek, Göreme's best and most authentic restaurant. I wish I made a reservation in advance for downstairs (where the seating was traditional Turkish style, on cushions on the floor), but it was fully booked. Instead, I was seated on the rooftop. No matter though, the food and wine were still great. Definitely try a testi kebab (terrible name, but very delicious). It was one of their most popular dishes.
I was really sad to leave Cappadocia, I have to say; I was going to miss that rocky wonderland. I was even more depressed though when I arrived at Nevşehir Kapadokya Airport (NAV) to find out that we were going to be delayed over two hours. The entire airport was one room (the whole of it is pictured below) and all announcements were in Turkish.
Turkish destination number two was Istanbul, an intoxicating mix of east and west. Istanbul was one of only a few transcontinental cities who claim residence on two continents (Europe and Asia in this case). The European part was separated from its Asian part by the mighty Bosphorus. The European side had historical significance as well as the city’s commercial center with banks, stores and corporations and two-third of its population. The Asian side was more relaxed, with wide boulevards, residential neighborhoods and fewer hotels and tourist attractions.
I stayed in the touristy district of Sultanahmet because I only had two days and wanted to spend my time exploring the historical landmarks, not transiting around the sprawling city. I highly recommend Hagia Sophia Mansions; it was a dream. The location was super close to all the main attractions, a reasonably short walk to Karaköy and about an hour from the Istanbul Airport (IST), but was reasonably priced with pre-booked transfers (via booking.com).
Here (and below) you will find the route I roughly followed on my day of sightseeing.
Hagia (pronounced Aya) Sophia Grand Mosque was the first place I ventured to on my Istanbul walking tour. Built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, it is now a mosque and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its doors were open to all visitors, locals, foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, every day of the week, from 9am until 5pm (although the day I visited it didn't open until 10am). It did close five times per day though, during prayer times. Entry was free, so don't get scammed by guides offering to jump the line. Visitors had to remove their shoes before stepping onto the mosque's carpet (warning, the whole place smelled of feet). Women were required to wear a head covering (headscarves were available at the entrance, without a fee). Photography was allowed; pictures should not be taken of those praying though. The first floor of the mosque was closed for restoration, which was a bummer in terms of a photo vantage point.
On the other side of Sultanahmet Park, facing the Hagia Sophia, was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, which most people referred to as the Blue Mosque because of the color of its interior tiles. It was built to not only rival Hagia Sophia, but to surpass it. It's the only mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. The Blue Mosque was undergoing major renovations when I was there (and until 2024). Only about 20% of it was open, so there wasn't a whole lot to see. It was free to enter.
After seeing what I could of the pair of mosques, I headed around the corner to Topkapi Palace, which cost 320 or 420 TL to enter, depending on if you want to visit the Harem or not. It was open 9am-6pm everyday apart from Tuesdays. This palace served as the main residence and administrative headquarters for the Ottoman sultans. It had large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts as well as other treasures and jewels. It overlooked both the Marmara Sea and the Bosphorus strait at the historical peninsula (Fatih district) of Istanbul.
Lunch was necessary by the time the Palace was ticked off the sightseeing list. I went to the colorful Kybele Hotel Cafe and indulged in some delicious typical Turkish fare.
Fueled up on meze and wine, I visited the Grand Bazaar. With over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar was one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It has been regarded as one of the first shopping malls of the world. Within this market you could find everything from food, clothing and accessories to jewelery, textiles, lanterns, counterfeit luxury goods and tourist junk. It was a good place to practice your negotiating skills.
The Basilica Cistern was closed for ongoing restoration work, so that got struck from my explorations and, instead, I headed back to my hotel for a massage, before dinner at Nusr-Et Steakhouse Sandal Bedesteni.
The Nusr-Et chain has been globally praised as a unique concept combining an innovative menu (making meat into art) with some theatrics. The menu can be found here (including prices, in Turkish Lira). The owner, Nusret Gökçe (nicknamed Salt Bae), is a Turkish butcher, chef, food entertainer and restaurateur whose techniques for preparing and seasoning meat became an Internet meme back in January 2017.
I have to admit that I didn't expect much. I thought dinner would be an over-priced, gimmicky bit of fun, but it was actually really good. Where else can you order gold beef? And, with the exchange rate, it wasn't nearly as expensive as some of Nusret's other locations around the world.
The next day was spent on a private yacht, cruising the Bosphorus strait, between Europe and Asia.
I kid, that wasn't our boat. This was...
The journey started and ended at Karaköy Pier. In between, we followed the European coastline for about an hour and then returned along the Asian side. The Bosphorus was the veritable heart of the city, dotted with magnificent palaces, famous bridges, elaborate Ottoman mansions and spectacular seaside residences from different centuries.
Being at sea was also a lovely way to spend a few hours on a sunny Saturday!
Since Karaköy was where I disembarked and my dinner was booked nearby, I decided to explore the area after the boat ride. One of the oldest and most historic districts in Istanbul, Karaköy was also home to the Galata Tower as well as a bunch of cool boutiques and art exhibitions. It was a whirl of activity, all noisy and beautiful and colorful and alive.
I dined that evening at Aheste (on the 50 Best restaurants list). Its good-value, meze-led menu, informal atmosphere and laid-back service drew a hip crowd. Floors were tiled, walls were exposed bricks and tables were dressed simply with white tablecloths. The menu offered a range of hot and cold sharing plates and although small, the wine list was strong.
To end my night, and my time in Türkiye, I went to Le Cuistot Bistro to enjoy some Latin music, dancing and mojitos.
Then it was time to Hoşçakal, Türkiye. Until next time!
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
A visa was necessary for American persons. In just three easy steps, my e-visa was issued (for ~$51.50/£43.20). Check here to confirm if you would need a visa, depending on your citizenship.
At the time I visited, a COVID online health form still needed to be completed, but nobody ever checked it.
In terms of other COVID restrictions, there were none. Masks were not worn anywhere - not on airplanes, nor in taxis/mosques/etc.
Turkish Lira was the local currency. When I visited, it was ~20 TRY to £1 GPB, which was huge value for people spending British quid.
Always carry cash. Credit cards were widely accepted in major cities, but I heard that many smaller towns and independent shops required payment in cash. Not all American cards were accepted and Wi-Fi was unreliable. You’ll also need to cash money for taxi fares, tips and public bathrooms.
The best time to visit Cappadocia was from March - June or September - November, when the crowds were thinner, and the weather was milder. June - August was the peak season and was crowded. It can get bitterly cold during the winter months from November to late February.
I paid €180 for the hot-air balloon ride, which I had organized by Sultan Cave Hotel and also came with a free one-way airport transfer. Definitely pre-book your balloon; they filled up months in advance. *Tip: Book your flight for the first day you're there to maximize your chances of getting on a flight, if there are poor weather conditions.
Taxis in Turkey were notorious for cheating and scamming. You can call a metered taxi via Uber in Istanbul, if you can get one to pick you up. Drivers have to enter the final meter number into the Uber app, so take a picture of the meter and let them see you taking that picture.
In terms of electricity, Turkey followed the 2-pin round sockets in common with most other European countries and standard voltage is 220V.
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