THE STORY OF TURKEY goes back much, much further than you may be aware. This is the land that gave rise to the earliest known human cities. This is the land of mighty empires: Hittite, Lycian, Roman, Ottoman. This is the land of Troy, of the epic war and the fabled horse that led to its fall. It’s the land that unites continents.
Fast forward, and Turkey is now a land of incredible travel opportunities, a country that’s preserved the thousands of years of history that have unfolded within its borders and made it possible for us to experience it today. This is a land of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, of outdoor adventures, culture, and cuisine, the land of turquoise.
At Pamukkale, in Denizli Province in southwestern Turkey, the seep of hot-spring water over millennia has created a “white castle” of terraced travertine pools and one of the most spectacular landscapes you’ll find anywhere. Its beauty was recognized early on; Pamukkale has served as a spa site for at least 2,200 years. The Greco-Roman town of Hierapolis was established above the pools, and its ruins — temples, bathhouses, a theater, and more — remain. If you visit today, you can bathe in the same pools as the Attalid kings of the second century BC.
2. Selimiye Mosque and its Social Complex
The Selimiye Mosque is the focal point of this UNESCO site in Edirne, an ancient city in far western Turkey, near the borders with Greece and Bulgaria. Constructed between 1569 and 1575, the mosque is the creation of renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan — he considered it his finest work — and features exquisite interior design. Its four slender minarets reach over 270 feet high and dominate the skyline of Edirne to this day. A surrounding complex of schools, a covered market, and a library complete the site.
3. Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia
Centered on the town of Göreme, in the middle of the country, the national park of the same name and its surrounds comprise one of the most fantastical landscapes in the world. Chief among its features are the hundreds of stone hoodoos — the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia. Sculpted by thousands of years of erosion, these formations range from precarious pinnacles to stout pyramids. Habitation of the area dates back to at least the Bronze Age, as evidenced by the numerous cave dwellings carved directly into the stone, which have served as hideouts, monastic quarters, and storerooms over the centuries. Today, the preferred method of sightseeing in Cappadocia is on a sunrise hot-air balloon tour.
4. City of Safranbolu
A few hours north of Ankara, the city of Safranbolu saw its fortunes rise in the 13th century, when it became a key stop on a major east-west Ottoman trade route. Many of the fine structures built over the next few hundred years are well preserved today: mosques, a bathhouse, a historic inn, and religious education facilities. The city also was widely known for its locally grown saffron (hence the name), and production of the spice continues on a small scale today. A heritage of artisan crafts and hospitality also remains in modern Safranbolu.
5. Hattusha: The Hittite Capital
From approximately 1600 to 1180 BC, the Hittites established and expanded an empire that at its height covered most of modern-day Turkey, along with slices of Mesopotamia and the Levant. Their capital was Hattusha, near what is today Boğazkale in the Black Sea region. The ancient imperial city sat atop a rocky hillock and featured a series of protective walls and elaborately carved stone gates — the Lion Gate, seen above, is the best preserved. Walking through the remains of this great settlement, it’s inspiring to imagine the power that once dwelt here.
6. Historic Areas of Istanbul
Istanbul likely needs no introduction, even if it’s the only place in Turkey you’ve heard of. This city linking Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus has played a pivotal role in the rise and fall of world empires, going by names such as Byzantium and Constantinople prior to acquiring its present moniker. Its history, both storied and visible, is incredibly rich. UNESCO recognizes four distinct zones:
- Archaeological Park, including: the Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace, the Hippodrome of Constantine, and historic churches dating to the 6th century AD
- Süleymaniye Quarter, including: the grand Sehzade and Süleymaniye mosques, and the Valens Aqueduct
- Zeyrek Quarter, including: the Pantocrator Monastery
- Zone of the Ramparts, including: the remains of fortifications constructed by Theodosius II, Byzantine Emperor of the early to mid-400s
Ephesus is another site whose lineage goes waaaay back. Serving as a capital of the Kingdom of Arzawa as early as 1500 BC and later falling under Greek control, many of the structures that remain today date to the Roman period starting in 129 BC. The status of Ephesus in antiquity was legendary — it was one of the 12 cities of the Ionian League under the Greeks; the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; and was one the largest cities in the Roman Empire. It was also home to the Apostles Paul and John and features in early Christian texts. Today, the main sites at Ephesus include the Library of Celsus, the Great Theatre, the Basilica of St. John, and the nearby Ephesus Archaeological Museum.
8. Nemrut Dağı
The 7,000ft Mount Nemrut, part of the Eastern Taurus mountain range, stands in southeastern Turkey near the modern city of Adıyaman. At its summit is a tumulus mound of stones, artificial terraces, and abundant statuary — all suggesting the presence of a royal tomb from the 1st century BC. The heads of the statues have tumbled from their original perches to a lower terrace, but apart from that the work is quite well preserved. Rediscovered in 1881, Nemrut Dağı has been a World Heritage Site since 1987 and is accessible by road during the summer months, often on pre-dawn trips in order to catch the sunrise from the Nemrut’s summit (note that these mountains see a lot of snow in winter).
9. Archaeological Site of Troy
It’s true: When the Greeks launched their thousand ships to recapture Helen of Troy, their destination was present-day Turkey, right across the Aegean Sea. After years of bloody battle, the Greeks pretended surrender and built a great wooden horse as a purported gift to the Trojans…and the rest is history (or myth, or a fusion of the two; no one’s really sure). What is known is that the Archaeological Site of Troy tells of 4,000 years of human history, and is absolutely worth a visit. For Hollywood’s take, head to the nearby city of Çanakkale, where you can see the actual Trojan horse constructed for the 2004 Brad Pitt movie Troy.
10. Great Mosque and Hospital of Divriği
The region of east-central Turkey where Divriği lies was one of the early Turkish conquests in Anatolia, and the Great Mosque here was founded 1228 AD. Its architecture is imposing to say the least, the exterior featuring elaborate stone carvings around three high, recessed gates, the interior impressive examples of stone columns and vaulted ceilings. The adjacent hospital, founded at the same time, is an equally extraordinary structure. The mountainous terrain of the region gives Divriği a remote feel — Sivas is the nearest large population center.
11. Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape
There are examples of Turkey’s ties to Greco-Roman history all over the country, perhaps none so prominent as Pergamon. A city rule off and on by both Greeks and Persians in antiquity, its heyday came in the Hellenistic period, when it served as the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon under the Attalids. It prospered as a center of learning and modeled its Acropolis (the ruins of which are on display today) after that of Athens. Temples, theaters, a library, and other structures make up the historic site, located just outside of Bergama near Turkey’s Aegean coast.
12. Neolithic Site of Çatalhöyük
Somewhere around 9000 BC, people in this part of the world began doing something that, to our knowledge, had never been done before: settling down. The birth of agriculture is credited with bringing an end to our species’ nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle and leading to the creation of permanent villages, towns, and eventually cities and civilizations. Çatalhöyük is one of the earliest of these yet found. Located near Konya in southern Turkey, it appears to have comprised mainly domestic residences, arranged in a honeycomb-like structure. The population is estimated to have reached 10,000 — an unprecedented metropolis by the standards of the time.
13. Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens
In the city of Diyarbakır in southeastern Turkey, ancient and modern are interwoven. Sitting on the banks of the Upper Tigris River, today’s Diyarbakır surrounds the sprawling site of the old city and fortress, with its preserved walls and watchtowers, ruins, and elevated views out over the river basin. The Hevsel Gardens form a green corridor that connects the city to the Tigris and once provided food and water for those living within the walls. Diyarbakır’s strategic location between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers places it in the Fertile Crescent, a region that’s regarded by historians as “the cradle of civilization.” This is one of the country’s newest World Heritage Sites — get there quick and beat the crowds!
14. Bursa and Cumalıkızık: Birth of the Ottoman Empire
The area surrounding the modern-day metropolis of Bursa, opposite Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara, represents the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire. It’s here that Orhan Ghazi, founder of the Ottoman Dynasty, is entombed. And in smaller villages of this broad river valley, principally Cumalıkızık, you can still get a sense for early Ottoman life by walking the cobblestone lanes and admiring the preserved architectural styles. If you visit during winter, make sure to check out the ski resort of Mount Uludağ, just outside of Bursa.
Located just south of present-day Fethiye, Xanthos was the center of Lycia, a Late Bronze Age civilization in southern Turkey. In 540 BC, it fell to the Persians, and was subsequently overtaken by the Greeks and the Romans. A sanctuary dedicated to the mythological figure Leto — mother of Apollo and Artemis — called the Letoon is located nearby. Xanthos is the place for those interested in the history and legacy of the Lycians…one among the hosts of sites and civilizations that tell the story of Turkey.
16. Historic City of Ani
The newest UNESCO World Heritage site in the country, the ruins of the medieval city of Ani sit near the city of Kars in eastern Turkey. History of settlement at the site goes back much further, to perhaps 500 BC or earlier, but the city came into its own around 900 AD, in connection with the Silk Road trading routes that ran through this region. Ruins are all that remain today, but they’re significant — you’ll see evidence of architectural styles that would later spread to Europe and become known as Gothic. Of particular note is the still-intact Cathedral of Ani, shaped by the same architect who worked on a repair to the dome of İstanbul’s Hagia Sophia in the 10th century AD. When you visit, you’ll probably do so via Kars — make sure while you’re there to sample the local specialty, gravyer cheese, brought to the region by German immigrants from Russia. “East meets West” is no mere cliche in these parts.