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Travel tips

8 can’t-miss moments to cross off your bucket list in Turkey

Apr 22, 2021 by Erin Arbaugh

If you’re looking for a country to surprise your socks off, Turkey is the place. Nestled right between Europe and Asia, most travelers fly right over it on the way to anywhere else. But with its wild, volcanic landscapes, ancient, sunken cities, and 4,000 years of rich culture and traditions, this underrated destination is more than worth the stop. Read on for our expertly crafted collection of things to add to your Turkey travel bucket list when you visit on a guided tour.


1. Take a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia

Smack dab in the middle of Turkey, a fairy-tale land of soaring boulders and honeycombed hills rises from the Anatolian plains. This is Cappadocia, one of the top places to visit in Turkey. Early civilizations carved intricate, underground homes, worship sites, and even horse stables into the soft, volcanic rock. Today, a smattering of locals still live here, and hotels even welcome guests to experience subterranean life.

But if you want to see the full beauty of the region, you have to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. As the light filters across the horizon, you’ll float softly over a wonderland of rock chimneys, vineyards, and orchards. The electric colors, along with a dabble of historical facts from the balloonist, will leave you with a mental picture you won’t soon forget. There’s a reason Cappadocia is one of the most popular ballooning places in the world!

“I just love Turkey for the golden light that flows over the unforgettable landscapes in Cappadocia,” said Go Ahead staffer, Robin.


2. Try a Turkish wet burger

If you’re looking for legendary street food, look no further than the Turkish wet burger. Think of it as a meatloaf meets an American diner burger meets a lot of garlicky, buttery, tomato sauce goodness. And unlike Turkish kebabs or baklava, this food stand favorite hasn’t caught on in other countries, so indulging in a few is definitely one of the best things to do in Turkey.

Although it tastes like heaven on a steamed bun, Go Ahead staffer and Istanbul native, Ozi, says it might take some courage to give it a go. “It took me a long time to try a wet burger because, well, it doesn’t look very appetizing,” she said. “After a lot of urging from my friends, I went for it. Mind blown. I couldn’t believe how a food that looks that soggy could taste that good! I ate four the first time, I am sure. No one ever eats just one wet burger and is done.”

As for the best place to snag this beloved, late-night snack, Ozi recommends heading to Kizilkayalar in Istanbul’s Taksim square. The snack bar owns the original recipe for the wet burger, and the best part? They’re open 24 hours a day so you can indulge in this local specialty whenever you have a craving.

Check out more must-try street foods around the globe >


3.  Hear the call to prayer echo across the Blue Mosque’s courtyard

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the most famous places to visit in Turkey. Finished in 1617, the mosque features six soaring minarets, 20,000 Iznik blue tiles on its dome, and over 250 windows for light to stream in. The structure’s seamless blend of Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic Ottoman architecture makes it one of the most unique structures in the world.

Check the worship schedule outside the Mosque, so you can align your visit to hear the Imam’s call to prayer from the inner marble courtyard. As you take in the traditional song, scan the courtyard for the babbling stone water fountain at the center, and four of the six minarets rising over your head. No matter your religion or beliefs, it’s a truly spiritual experience.

Traveler tip: Visitors are not allowed inside the Blue Mosque during prayer, but you’re welcome to explore the striking interior once worshippers depart. Our expert tour guides will even show you around on our Grand Tour of Turkey.

Looking to cross more architectural gems off your bucket list? Check out our tour of Portugal, Spain & Morocco.


4. Soak in Pamukkale’s ancient hot springs

Since the 2nd century B.C., people have flocked to Pamukkale in southwestern Turkey to bathe in the (gorgeous) healing waters along the cliffs. The Romans set up a spa city here to wash away all kinds of illnesses, including skin diseases, digestive issues, and heart conditions. Cleopatra even took a few swims during her reign.

Today, the volcanically heated water still flows down the steep hillsides, where you can dip your toes into the world of restorative mineral bathing. Even if your afternoon in the crystal blue pools doesn’t erase your wrinkles, you’ll still go home with photos for your friends to swoon over. This is a must-do on your Turkey travel bucket list.

Explore our tour of Turkey


5. Have your fortune read at a coffee shop

Turkish coffee isn’t just any cup of joe. It’s one of the world’s most important cultural heritages, according to UNESCO. Turks celebrate this caffeinated treasure in literature, songs, and ceremonial events—and special care is taken to make every cup a memorable occasion. Locals pour cold water and sugar over finely ground beans and brew the mixture slowly on a stove to create the perfect foam.

Sip your Turkish coffee slowly, so the grounds gather at the bottom of the fincan (or tiny cup). That way, you can take part in an ancient (and very popular) local pastime—Turkish coffee fortune telling. Many cafes now have staff on hand to interpret the leftover grounds in your mug. If the reader sees a ring of grounds, a new romantic partner may be in your future. If they spot a fish, a job promotion might be coming your way. Even if you think this sort of divination is a bit far-fetched, it’s still a delicious way to get a taste of local culture. Plus, if you don’t like your fortune, it’s a great excuse to get a second cup so you can try again!

Check out some of Europe’s best cafes for coffee lovers >


6. Try the dried fruits at a Turkish market

There’s nothing more iconic than a Turkish market. That’s why visiting is one of the top things to do in Turkey on tour. Tourists flock to these cultural hot spots for the bustling stalls full of delicious local treats, like Turkish Delights. But Go Ahead staffer, Gen, says there’s an even more mouthwatering experience hiding in plain sight. “Someone suggested I skip the usual stuff and try the dried fruit,” she said. “I’m so glad they did! The pineapple was just as tart as if it weren’t dried at all. I’ve never found anything close to this amazing at any grocery store.” Gen also suggests digging into the super sweet dried strawberries and apricots.

In Turkey, dried fruit comes in all shapes and sizes. You can get everything from a shaved piece of fruit paste covered in nuts (döner), to a dried, pounded fruit leather (pestil). And if you leave without trying cevizli sucuk, or walnuts covered in thickened crushed grapes, you’re, well… nuts.

Can’t get enough of open-air markets? Check out our tour of Marrakech, the Sahara & Fes.


7. See Istanbul’s palaces from the Bosphorous Strait ferry

One of the best ways to experience Istanbul is on the upper deck of a Bosphorous ferry. You can sail the strait while sipping a warm cup of tea and see the whole city without the traffic. You’ll also get the best view of the 19th century Ottoman palaces along the waterfront.

If you want to feel like a real Istanbullu, grab yourself a samit, or round roll of sesame bread, before boarding the ferry. When seagulls begin to circle (and they will!), tear off a few pieces and toss them to the friendly fliers. “This is one of the most local experiences one can get!” says Go Ahead staffer and Istanbul native, Ozi. “I used to do this every morning on my commute to school from the Asia side of Istanbul to the Europe side. It is a local ferry tradition, and it has to be on your Turkey travel bucket list.”


8. Sail to the sunken city on Kekova Island

Just off the southeastern coast of Turkey lies the lush, uninhabited island of Kekova. Over 4,000 years ago, long before the Roman or Byzantine empires took hold, the Lycians built a sea-trading city here. The port thrived until the 2nd century B.C., when a wave of earthquakes sank this budding metropolis.

Today, you can board a gulet, or traditional wooden sailboat, to explore the watery remains of the city. Thanks to the clear, turquoise waters, you’ll easily spot a shipyard, houses, and ancient jugs that carried goods like wine, oil, and grain. Just above the waves, you’ll see a few houses, ancient tombs, and a church. It’s one of the most unforgettable things to do in Turkey.

Traveler tip: Whatever you do, don’t jump in for a snorkel on your sailing trip. It’s so tempting, but the Turkish government strictly prohibits swimming at this protected historical site.

What experiences are on your Turkey travel bucket list? Let us know on our Facebook page!

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About the author | Erin Arbaugh
Erin grew up in New York’s winding woods, where she discovered a love for a lot of adventure, a little danger, and plenty of bug spray. Since then, she’s backpacked across Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano in a white out snowstorm, gone waterfall jumping in Costa Rica, and escaped the Patagonian wilderness just before COVID slammed the borders shut. Erin’s never met a food she won’t try once (lookin’ at you, fermented shark) or a wallet she can’t lose at least twice on any trip. Luckily, just like every trip's memories, it always comes right back.

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