Our terrific Turkey itinerary + travel tips

We started drafting this article just as we got back from Turkey and couldn’t be more grateful to 2020 and its challenges for the opportunity to finally spend more time and get to know our neighboring country. We’ve spontaneously set off to Turkey and we want to share our Turkey itinerary featuring some of the highlights of the country. In addition, we want to share our Turkey travel tips as well.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the land of Sultans. We will share our Turkey itinerary which took 10 days.

Pamukkale, Turkey travel tips

For those ten days, we could spend in Turkey, we chose to explore three main highlights – the vibrant megapolis of Istanbul, the castle of white travertines Pamukkale, and the fairy chimneys in the picturesque valleys of Cappadocia. Our pace was much more relaxed and still, we managed to fit some adventure and fill our Turkey itinerary with extra side trips.

Istanbul

After spending “one day in Istanbul” a few times, we have pretty much covered the basics and wanted to explore other layers of the city spread over two continents. We got lucky because we had a local friend (thank you, Yesim!) to show us around and give us some advice on what to do in Istanbul.

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Stay in Fatih-Sultanahmet: Rast hotel with a rooftop restaurant and view of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque

A day in Istanbul with a local

We started walking the city from the European side on our own, and later met with our friend Yesim on the Asian side. We did cover quite the distance as a deep exploration itinerary would convey. Can’t complain – it was a blast! Here are the things we did and the places we visited on that fun-packed day.

  • Misir spices market – absorb the aromas of known and unknown spices (even the face mask can’t stop them)
  • Take a boat to cross the Bosphorus – Eminonu boats to Karakoy and to Üsküdar
  • Walk to Kuzguncuk Carsi and Bostani, enjoy colorful houses, city gardens, and coffee
  • We couldn’t miss enjoying Turkish delights in Kuzguncuk
  • Hung around Sabanci Ogretmenevi Hotel and park and the picturesque and splashy waterfront
  • Throw a glimpse (or enter) Küçüksu Palace
  • Göksü Creek – the highlight of the day was kayaking toward Fatih Sultan Mehmet Köprüsü Bridge
  • Yesim took us to try the absolutely delicious Kankica yogurt
  • Take a boat taxi to Emirgan and capture the sunset
  • Grab dinner in Ortaköy kumpir and experience potatoes like never before
  • Pass by Besiktas Square and try not to get lost in the crowds

Exploring neighborhoods and markets

We definitely had to take the next day slow so we choose to head to beautiful charismatic areas of the city.

Balat and Fener neighborhoods offer fascinating street art, culture, and religious sights, you can feel like you’re in a different place. Make sure you walk through these neighborhoods to discover other layers of Istanbul on your itinerary.

Kapala Carsi will always welcome not only avid shoppers but also those who want to experience the city through its most bustling market.

Even on this slow day, we got oversaturated with experiences so we chose to have an afternoon black tea at a rooftop restaurant in Fatih-Sultanahmet.

Just before sunset, we headed to Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque to contemplate those remarkable landmarks from the outside. We finished the day with a hearty dinner at Mezze Garden and then got lost in the fumes of a shisha bar.

Pamukkale

We took a flight to Denizli and then a bus to Pamukkale town, then we checked into our hotel and fell asleep. In the morning we saw a balloon flying over the cotton castle. After another hearty breakfast by the pool (it was too cold for a dip), we headed out to explore the travertine formation.

If you decided to explore this miracle of nature (and you definitely should on any Turkey itinerary), head to the lower gate entrance, if possible early in the morning (travertine pools are open non-stop). You’ll be going uphill but it’s worth it as most of the crowds visit just the upper part. In the low, you have a pretty good chance to have all this white magic for yourself.

In order to preserve the formations, walking with shoes on the travertines is not allowed. Plan a bag to put your shoes in and enjoy walking barefoot. This will be a spa day for your feet. It’s hard to describe the emotions of walking in between pools carved by thermal water flowing. Take your time to immerse yourself in the surreal setting.

When you reach the upper part, you’ll be able to visit the remains of the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis. The ruins now comprise an archaeological museum telling the story of the Holy City.

Drop by the Antique Pool Spa, or Cleopatra’s Antique Pool, to observe the fallen columns of the temple of Apollo or even swim in the health-giving waters (for a fee and if you don’t mind many people around).

Pamukkale as a town has basically a “main” street where most of the restaurants are. We found those restaurants to meet the diversity of nationalities and cultures that ended up working and living near the Cotton Candy wonder.

Stay in Pamukkale: Pamukkale Melrose Viewpoint Suites

Kaklik cave and Salda Gölü

When we tried to arrange the return bus to Denizli airport in the local tourist agency, we notice some great places in the area. So we negotiated a private tour with a car to Kaklik Cave and Lake Salda. With the relatively cheap lira, we could afford a private day trip, see places that are had to get to without a car and help a local enterprise a bit.

Kaklik Cave we had only to ourselves. It’s a sulphuric cave with many formations and it’s only 30-40 minutes by car from Pamukkale. There’s a wooden boardwalk you follow but bring good shoes as it can be very wet and slippery at places. You’ll find many beautiful surprises underground in the cave, and it deserves its name as the “underground version of Pamukkale”.

Salda Gölü was such a great surprise for us – a huge crater lake with minerals that not only help some dermatological diseases but also give the lake from azure blue to emerald green colors. There are a few sandy beaches around the lake but the largest one was closed for swimming to preserve nature. The limpid waters that could be near 200 meters deep and the black pine forests surrounding the lake give it the “out-of-this-world” vibe. Not even the crazy cold wind would stop us from enjoying the views and asking our driver to make many stops for photos.

Eventually, we had a stop in the middle of nowhere, in a local eatery. Nobody spoke English but they definitely spoke the language of hospitality and well, some Russian. We had a stop in an Onyx factory to learn about the magical stone Zultanite, or the “Sultan of gems”, changing colors according to the light.

Cappadocia

After a flight back to Istanbul and one more to Kayseri, this time we rented a car (from Rental cars) to be able to freely explore Cappadocia. If you plan to fly with a hot-air balloon, we recommend booking the flight for the first possible morning. Because weather can ruin everyone’s plans. For us, the flight happened on the third morning (you can check the weather on this site but also the operators will tell you if the weather is good or not). We moved our flight to Istanbul a bit later to stay one more early morning in hopes to take photos from the ground of the many balloons, but again the weather had other plans.

The balloon flight itself is an experience hard to put into words, not only because you get views over the whole valley, but also because you get quite close to the rock formations. Even if it’s cold in the morning, there’s nothing like the first sunrays caressing your frozen faces while you’re looking at tens of other ballons coloring the sky. We booked one of the most affordable Cappadocia hot-air balloon tours and it was a blast (including the landing precisely into the trailer)!

Göreme and around

We chose to stay at a cave hotel in Goreme, to indulge ourselves in a cave experience and celebrate Nace’s birthday with style. Our walk (or more of a hike) around the hilly Goreme took us to magical romantic places such as Lovers Hill, overlooking open-air museums of ancient volcanic eruption ashes solidified into soft rocks, called tuff.

Goreme Open-Air Museum, Devrent Valley, Three Graces, Love Valley – you can spend countless hours observing or hiking around those amazing formations and endless horizons. Although we visited many places, we could spend at least a few more days exploring the landscapes of the “Land of beautiful horses”.

Stay in Goreme, Cappadocia: Village Cave House Hotel for a true cave hotel experience

Spa, viewpoints, and farther afield

We decided we wanted to indulge with some spa so we checked into another hotel just in time for a very cold and rainy day. After the ultimate hamam experience, we could sleep like babies and get ready for more exploration of the area.

We decided to explore the underground city of Kaymakli, and together with our local guide tried to imagine how people used to live and prosper underground with limited resources and limited to no natural light.

We discovered our favorite viewpoint over Pigeon Valley (yes, there were quite a few pigeons), with old cave dwellings and newish souvenir shops. We even stumbled upon an old friend (so nice to meet you again, Siva)!

We spend almost a whole day exploring Ihlara Valley. We were in awe of Selime Cathedral – the biggest rock-cut structure in Cappadocia. Our hike in the green canyon of the valley took us to interesting frescoes and cave churches. It was full of amazing sights day and we needed only pomegranate juice to recharge.

If you head to Saruhan Kervansay, you might be able to witness a sema – the whirling dervishes ceremony. It was an experience of not only contemplating the technical skills of the whirling men but also becoming part of a sacred ritual of their connection to God, of meditating. Make sure you attend such a ceremony if possible, it’s an elevated experience.

Stay in Nevsehir, Cappadocia: Kapadokya Hill Hotel & Spa (12+) for a lovely spa experience. Here’s our hotel review.

Turkey itinerary and travel tips

Here are our Turkey travel tips to make your journey smoother and even nicer.

Local SIM card

We recommend buying a local SIM card to be able to arrange things and check stuff at your convenience. We bought a Turkcell card of 180 liras for 26GB, some calls and SMS included too, from a small shop. We had to rearrange flights, bus rides, etc. so it was super helpful not to rely on wi-fi (which was not present at many places.)

Internal flights in Turkey

It is not the most environmentally friendly way to travel inside Turkey, but flying will save you tons of time and in many cases – money. As we didn’t have too much to spend on either of those, we booked 4 flights to get to our destinations.

Istanbul – Denizli , Denizli – Istanbul, Istanbul – Kayseri, Kayseri – Istanbul

Istanbul public transport

A very nice person paid for our first tickets from the bus station to the neighborhood we were staying in on the very first night in Istanbul. Then we managed to buy a top-up card (we used one for both of us) for 6 TL which covered metro, tram, bus, and even boats.

We hot the Havaist app and used their buses for getting to and from both the airports (Istanbul Airport and Sabiha Gökçen Airport). We’re very happy with the app and the bus service.

Private transfers

Our trip to Kaklik Cave and Lake Salda wouldn’t happen had we been scared of the “private” connotation. It was quite affordable and although we had hard times communicating with our driver (but hey, Google translate and thank you, local SIM!), we saw amazing places at our own pace which is kind of our thing. Don’t be scared of “private transfers” and “private trips”, just make sure you negotiate the prices well.

Renting a car in Cappadocia

If you’re planning to visit Cappadocia, we highly recommend renting a car. There’s not much public transport to the main highlights, so you either need to take tours, walk for miles, or just rent a car. It gives great flexibility and the opportunity to go to many places for a limited time.

Cards and cash payments

While most places in Istanbul, as well as many in Cappadocia and Pamukkale, accept cards, you should always be ready with some cash. Turkish liras are the best currency, although at some places they would accept your dollars, rubles, or euros (but the rate would be flexible). Make sure you draw enough cash so you can freely enjoy your time in Turkey.

This was our Turkey itinerary and all the essential travel tips and tricks for your unforgettable journey through Istanbul, Pamukkale, Cappadocia, and farther!

Kuzguncuk, Istanbul, Turkey

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