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Most people who have Turkey on their travel radar rarely think past Istanbul and Cappadocia, but beyond the capital city and Göreme’s hot air balloons are majestic mountains, postcard-perfect beaches and preserved glimpses into ancient history. Wherever you end up in this diverse country, you’ll be met with smiling faces and food worth travelling for. You just have to know where to go, but thankfully Lonely Planet Experiences powered by Intrepid Travel, does all the planning for you.

Brightly coloured hot-air balloons float in the air in Cappadocia, Turkey. Mountains are visible in the background.
With fascinating cultural heritage, stunning scenery and bustling cities, Turkey has something for every kind of traveller © Olena Tur/Shutterstock

I visited Turkey with my family about a decade before my group tour. I remember the smell of fish frying under the Galata Bridge in Istanbul and the bustle of local bazaars. The intricacy of the mosques and Cappadocia’s Mars-like landscape are both imprinted in my mind.

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But it wasn’t until this small group tour that I gained real insights and access to Turkey’s most interesting places and the history behind them. Better yet, I’m still in touch with all eight of my travel companions. Here’s a small taste of the adventures we had through Anatolia.

The glowing Süleymaniye Mosque sits on top of a hill overlooking the the city of Istanbul, Turkey, as street lights begin to illuminate the twilight skies. In front, a series of boats are visible.
Istanbul is a city spanning two continents: Europe and Asia © Edwin Remsberg/VW PICS/UIG/Getty Image

Get lost in Istanbul

I landed in Istanbul early, which gave me time to grab some balık dürüm (fish wraps) drizzled with pomegranate molasses from a street vendor and kaymak (traditional clotted cream) for breakfast the next day. Our group first bonded over brunch at Balat Kapi, passing simit (circular bread covered in sesame seeds) to each other to scoop up menemen (a dish of eggs, tomato, peppers and spices), cheese and honeycomb. A former Jewish quarter behind the old Greek quarter, Balat is one of Istanbul's oldest districts, now known for brightly coloured houses, clothing stores, cafes and antique dealers.

From there we weren’t far from the intoxicating sights and sounds of the Spice Bazaar, where samples are offered from pyramids of lokum (Turkish delight) and spice towers and dried loose-leaf teas pop with colour. We stopped in at an ancient shisha teahouse, ascended the Galata Tower, visited the Aya Sofya and Süleymaniye Mosque – but the highlight for me was our evening food tour, where we discovered six local haunts and the stories behind them. We feasted on kokorec (seasoned offal wrapped in lamb or goat intestines chopped into tiny, crunchy pieces) and the late-night wet burger, a deliciously sloppy, steamed version of the one you know and love.

Things to do in your free time

Shop 'til you drop at the Grand Bazaar
Walk in the footsteps of Ottoman sultans and concubines at the stunning Topkapi Palace
Get a baklava sugar hit at Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Ruins outdoors in Ephesus, Turkey, on a sunny day. Clear skies are visible in the background.
The incredible Ephesus is only 20% excavated © Altan Gocher / Barcroft Media / Getty Images

Marvel at ancient wonders in Selçuk

The main attraction in low-key Selçuk is Ephesus. This ancient port city spans both Hellenic and Roman settlements and dates back to the 10th century B.C. It has some of the best-preserved ruins in the country, and rumour has it John wrote his gospel here. It's mind-boggling to think that only 20 percent of this place has been excavated when you find yourself walking past ancient pillars, sitting in the 25,000-capacity theatre, coming face-to-face with statues and sitting in crumbling, bookless libraries. The abundance of cats is another bonus (unless you have an allergy).

That evening, we walked uphill through the small village of Şirince, and dined on traditional Turkish ravioli (but smaller) topped with yoghurt sauce in Pervin Teyze.

Things to do in your free time

Take a break with a coffee brewed the ancient way, in sand, in Sirince
Explore the Ayasuluk Fortress’ inner walls and outer views 
Find out more about what was kept in the ancient city at the Ephesus Museum

Kas harbour lined with boats and with bars along the harbour's edge.
Picturesque Kas is ideal for relaxing by the beach and sipping cocktails © Nejdet Duzen / Shutterstock

Bask in the beach life at Fethiye and Kas

I’ve never associated Turkey with the coast, which is silly considering you could practically swim to the Greek Islands from the west (though your passport might get a touch soggy). During this trip we stopped in Fethiye, a fairly touristy town with an 'Emoji Street', where famed emoticons hang like Christmas decorations and clothing shops promise 'Genuine Fake' garments. It’s a solid place to stop during a road trip, and we ate some of the best pide (flat bread with toppings) and lahmacun (Turkish pizza) of the journey here, as well as tavuk göğsü, a pudding-like dessert that's made from, but tastes nothing like, chicken.

Just over 100 kilometres away is Kas, a pleasant, seaside town with atmospheric streets and bars that gaze over the ocean while customers sip Mediterranean cocktails in between dips. The best place to catch the sunset here, other than a bar, is at 1st century B.C. Antiphellos theatre, where locals also come to picnic and exercise.

Things to do in Fethiye and Kas

Explore the abandoned village of Kayaköy, 8km south of Fethiye
Trek the 540-kilometre Lycian Way (or at least some of it) 
Stop for Anatolian soul food at Bi Lokma

A boat heads toward the sunken city of Simena off Kekova Island
A boat is the best way to get to the sunken city of Simena © Murat Can Kirmizigul / Shutterstock

Cruise the Turquoise Coast by boat

Our group was united in picking our Kekova boat trip as a highlight of our Turkish adventure. Off the coast of Antalya, it’s the best way to explore secret swimming spots and the sunken city of Simena. We climbed to the top of a castle, stopping along the way for natural ice cream at the endlessly entertaining I Am Here cafe, where the eponymous "I Am Here” catchcry can be heard on repeat thanks to the eccentric owner.

Back on board our boat, GIZEMHA, we were very well looked after by Sebahat and Mehmet, a couple who cooked us a feast from a tiny kitchen and charcoal grill on the stern while we swam nearby. Later that night, raki was poured, dancing was encouraged and stars were gazed upon as we fell asleep on mattresses on the deck, counting shooting stars.

Things to do in your free time

Visit the ancient city of Selge, with 350 metres of its original walls intact and a huge theatre
Be mesmerised by the naturally burning rock on Mt Olympos, Chimaera
Catch the sunset at the Temples of Apollo & Athena

Fairy chimneys in Urgup, Cappadocia and Goreme National Park, Turkey.
There are plenty of delights to explore at ground level after your hot air balloon ride © Love Sea Travel / Shutterstock

Discover there’s more to Cappadocia than hot air balloons

I hadn’t been to Cappadocia for about 10 years and was shocked at how busy it had become. But rather than stick to the tourist trails, having a local leader meant we were able to get into the guts of Cappadocia and learn more about its history and culture, while other travellers seemed to want only to up their selfie game at key hot air balloon viewing spots.

While it’s worthwhile splurging on a sunrise hot-air balloon, there’s a chance the weather will prevent the ride. We went on a magical and somewhat challenging guided bike tour from Ürgüp, weaving between the otherworldly fairy chimneys that give Cappadocia its reputation as a place of beauty and Unesco-protected heritage. 

Things to do in your free time

Escape the crowds with a hamam at Heybe
Be spellbound by a whirling dervish ceremony
Try a testi kebab at Dibek restaurant in Göreme 

You might also like: 

The best free things to do in İstanbul 
How to spend a perfect weekend in İstanbul
Turkey's treasures: 7 incredible ancient sites

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This article was first published March 2020 and updated March 2020

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