- 10 Days
Most first-time visitors to Turkey arrive with two ancient names on their lips: İstanbul and Ephesus. This journey across the Sea of Marmara and down the Aegean coast covers both.
You'll need at least three days in İstanbul to even scrape the surface of its millennia of history. The top three sights are the Aya Sofya, Topkapı Palace and the Blue Mosque, but there's a sultan's treasury of other sights and activities, including a cruise up the Bosphorus, nightlife around İstiklal Caddesi, and the Grand Bazaar.
From İstanbul, take a bus to Çanakkale, a lively student town on the Dardanelles. A tour of the nearby Gallipoli Peninsula's poignant WWI battlefields is a memorable experience, as is a visit to the ancient city of Troy, immortalised by Homer in his Iliad.
From Çanakkale, it's a 3½-hour bus ride to Ayvalık, with its hugely atmospheric old Greek quarter and fish restaurants. Finally, another bus journey (via İzmir) reaches Selçuk, a pleasantly rustic town and the base for visiting glorious Ephesus (Efes), the best-preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean.
- 2 Weeks
If you feel drawn to Cappadocia's fairy-tale landscape after İstanbul, and you would like to stop en route across Anatolia, there are a few worthwhile spots to break the journey.
From İstanbul, catch a bus or hop on the fast train to Ankara, the Turkish capital. The political town is no match for that show-stealer on the Bosphorus, but two key sights here give an insight into Turkish history, ancient and modern: the Anıt Kabir, Atatürk's hilltop mausoleum, and the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations, a restored 15th-century bedesten (covered market) packed with finds from the surrounding steppe. Tying in with the latter, a detour east takes in the isolated, evocative ruins of Hattuşa, which was the Hittite capital in the late Bronze Age.
Leave three days to explore Cappadocia, based in a cave hotel in Göreme, the travellers' hang-out surrounded by valleys of fairy chimneys. The famous rock formations line the roads to sights including Göreme Open-Air Museum's rock-cut frescoed churches and the Byzantine underground cities at Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu. Among the hot-air balloon trips, valley walks and horse riding, schedule some time to just sit and appreciate the fantastical landscape in çay-drinking villages such as Mustafapaşa, with its stone-carved Greek houses and 18th-century church.
Fly straight back to İstanbul or, if you have enough time and a penchant for Anatolia's mountains and steppe, continue by bus. Stop in Konya for lunch en route to Eğirdir, and tour the turquoise-domed Mevlâna Museum, containing the tomb of the Mevlâna (whirling dervish) order's 13th-century founder. Lakeside Eğirdir, with its road-connected island and crumbling old Greek quarter ringed by beaches and the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları), is a serene base for walking a section of the St Paul Trail. Possible day trips include the stunning ruins of Sagalassos, a Greco-Roman city at 1500m in the Taurus Mountains.
From Eğirdir, you can catch a bus back to İstanbul or fly from nearby Isparta. If spending your last night in Anatolian tranquility appeals more than the hustle-bustle of İstanbul, head to lakeside İznik, its Ottoman tile-making heritage on display between Roman-Byzantine walls. You will have to change buses in Eskişehir or Bursa to get there, while the final leg of the journey is a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to İstanbul.
- 3 Weeks
Leading across the Sea of Marmara and down the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, this seaside itinerary takes in beaches, ruins and relaxing holiday towns.
After a few days in İstanbul, fly or bus to İzmir, spend a day or two exploring its museums and bazaar, and then catch the bus or train straight down to Selçuk. Time your visit to coincide with Selçuk's sprawling Saturday market, and pair the magnificent ruins of Ephesus with a trip to the mountaintop village of Şirince.
Next, hit the southern Aegean coast in cruise port Kuşadası, where you can sign up for a 'PMD' day trip to the ruins of Priene, Miletus and Didyma. These sites, respectively two ancient port cities and a temple to Apollo, are interesting additions to an Ephesus visit, giving a fuller picture of the region in centuries past. Spend a day or two nibbling calamari and sipping cocktails on the chi-chi Bodrum Peninsula and cross the Gulf of Gökova by ferry to the Datça Peninsula. With their fishing villages and rugged hinterland of forested mountains, Datça and the adjoining Bozburun Peninsula are excellent for revving up a scooter or just putting your feet up.
Continuing along the Mediterranean coast, beautiful Ölüdeniz is the spot to paraglide from atop Baba Dağ (Mt Baba; 1960m) or lie low on a beach towel. While in the area, consider basing yourself in secluded Kayaköy with its ruined Greek town. You're now within kicking distance of the 509km-long Lycian Way. Hike for a day through superb countryside to overnight in heavenly Faralya, overlooking Butterfly Valley; further inroads along the trail will definitely top your 'next time' list.
Also on the Lycian Way, laid-back Kaş' pretty harbourside square buzzes nightly with friendly folk enjoying the sea breeze, views, fresh meze and a beer or two. One of Turkey's most beguiling boat trips departs from here, taking in the sunken Lycian city at Kekova Island. From Kaş, it's a couple of hours to Olympos, famous for the naturally occurring Chimaera flames and beach treehouses.
A 1½-hour bus journey reaches the city of Antalya. Its Roman-Ottoman quarter, Kaleiçi, is worth a wander, against the backdrop of a jaw-dropping mountain range. From Antalya you can fly back to İstanbul or take a nine-hour bus ride across the plains to Cappadocia.
- 2 Weeks
From the Black Sea shore to the borders of the Middle East, Turkey's little-visited eastern reaches are sweeter than bal (honey) for adventurous travellers.
Start in buzzing Trabzon, where a day trip south takes you to Sumela Monastery, peering down on a forested valley from its rock face. Head along the coast and drive up the Fırtına Valley, with its Ottoman humpback bridges and Hemşin culture. Circle the Kaçkar Mountains, or trek over the top, to Yusufeli, where the Çoruh River white-water rafting is worth sampling before a dam floods the area. The scenic onward journey to Kars through the Georgian Valleys leads over mountains, through gorges and past crumbling castles.
Russian-influenced Kars is the base for visiting haunting Ani, once a thriving Armenian capital, and now a field strewn with magnificent ruins next to the border of modern Armenia. Aim to spend a couple of days here, where weather-beaten Armenian and Georgian churches hide in corners of the steppe.
Next, head south past Mt Ararat (Ağrı Dağı; 5137m), Turkey's highest mountain, to Doğubayazıt. Perched above the predominantly Kurdish border town, İshak Paşa Palace surveys the plains, resembling a romantic scene from One Thousand and One Nights.
- 3 Weeks
This trip leaves out only eastern Anatolia, which is a mission in itself, and takes in both obscure gems and prime sights.
Begin with a few days among mosques, palaces and some 14 million folk in İstanbul, former capital of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires. Next, head east to Safranbolu, with its winding streets of Ottoman mansions, before turning north to Amasra, where Turkish holidaymakers wander the Byzantine castle and eat fresh fish on the two harbours. Amasra is the beginning of the drive through rugged hills to Sinop, another pretty Black Sea port town and the birthplace of Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic.
Next, it's a six-hour bus journey via Samsun to Amasya, with its Ottoman houses, Pontic tombs and castle. Take it all in from a terrace by the Yeşilırmak River, and drink several tulip-shaped glasses of çay, before another long bus ride across the Anatolian steppe to Cappadocia. This enchanting land of fairy chimneys and cave churches is wholeheartedly back on the beaten track, but you can escape the tour buses by exploring the valleys on foot or horseback. Likewise, Göreme and Ürgüp are the usual bases, but you could stay in a less-touristy village such as Ortahisar, with its craggy castle. South of central Cappadocia, see rock-cut churches without the crowds in Soğanlı, where Byzantine monastic settlements occupy two valleys. Then head into the Ala Dağlar National Park for some of Turkey's most breathtaking scenery in the Taurus Mountains (Toros Dağları).
Konya, its magnificent mosques recalling its stint as capital of the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, makes a convenient lunch stop en route to Eğirdir. Lakeside Eğirdir has views of the Taurus Mountains and little-visited local sights such as Sagalassos, a ruined Greco-Roman city at an altitude of 1500m. There are more impressive classical ruins at Hierapolis, an ancient spa city overlooking the village of Pamukkale from atop the travertines, a mountain of calcite shelves. Nearby Afrodisias, once a Roman provincial capital, is equally incredible; you might have the 30,000-seat stadium to yourself.
From Denizli (near Pamukkale), it's just a few hours' journey by bus or train to Selçuk, base for visiting Ephesus. From Selçuk, you can fly back to İstanbul from nearby İzmir, or continue overland via our Classic Turkey itinerary.