(Editor’s note: This was originally posted on LinkedIn, before we even had a beta Dispatches Europe site. It became our best-read post, with tens of thousands of views since January. We’re reposting it in support of Turkey after the Istanbul Ataturk Airport attack this week. We support the Turkish people and Dispatches contributors are planning to visit Turkey this summer.)
Despite all its troubles, from the Istanbul attack this week to tensions with Europe, Turkey remains one of the most stable and prosperous countries in the Middle East. Though Turkey is technically a mini-continent of its own; “Asia Minor,” the bridge between Europe and the Middle East.
Our family lived in Turkey from 1999 to 2002, and we returned every year through 2005. So we know of what we speak. For expats in rainy Europe planning your summer adventures, there is no better travel destination. This summer especially, Turkey is turning into the best travel bargain on the planet. Here are excerpts from a travel post I did for European Stars & Stripes, looking at the 10 ‘must-do’ excursions for servicemembers in Turkey.
I reworked it because Turkey, for all its faults, is magical, and it’s about now you’re wondering where to go. If you go once, you’ll find Turkey is so affordable and accessible to every country in Europe, you’ll want to return often. But be forewarned: If there are 10 must-dos for expat travelers in Turkey, there are 1,000 things you’ll leave behind without experiencing.
Turkey is just like that — arguably the most destination-packed country in the world. There’s something for everyone, from the package-tour beach seeker to the most sophisticated adventurers. You can do everything from scaling Mount Ararat, fabled resting place of Noah’s ark, to staying in $1,000-per-night suites at the Four Seasons Istanbul or the Marmara Hotel in Bodrum.
For the typical expat traveler restrained by time and money, here are some practical suggestions for getting the most fun out of your time in Turkey.
Lycia, on the mountainous Mediterranean coast between Dalyan on the west and Antalya on the east, was isolated until the early 1980s, when the first paved roads went in. The coast remains unspoiled, from the 11-mile-long beach at Patara to fun seaside tourist towns such as Fethiye, Kalkan and Kas.
If you don’t have time to see Lycia’s dozens of ruins and attractions, renting a boat for about $80 per day and sailing the coast, with its perfect beaches, tiny islands and isolated inlets, is a sublime experience.
2. Walk Curetes Street in Ephesus
Ephesus is perhaps the best-preserved ancient city in the world. The apostle Paul, who preached here in the first century, would probably recognize much of what remains on a plain that used to be a large Aegean seaport.
The Turkish and Austrian governments have cooperated on the newest attraction, excavated homes on the slopes just above Curetes Street, the city’s main thoroughfare. The houses, dating to the seventh century, are elaborate two-story affairs, many with elaborate wall and floor mosaics. They belonged to Ephesus’ wealthy merchants and Roman aristocrats. The street meanders toward the Library of Celsus and the Great Theatre, where there are concerts throughout the summer.
3. Party in Bodrum
It has more nightclubs, discos, restaurants and cafés per square mile than any other place in Turkey. The Halikarnas disco in the middle of Bodrum is world famous. But the coolest beach clubs and nightclubs are in the seaside resorts of Turkbuku and Yalıkavak just outside Bodrum. But during high season, it’s nearly impossible to get in the best of them unless you’re a movie star or celebrity.
You’ll come to Bodrum for the party, which never ends during the summer. Stay for the culture. This restored crusader castle is a museum with everything from ancient Greek sculptures strewn around its courtyards to the nearly full-size re-creation of an ancient sailing ship, sunk in the Mediterranean and salvaged by U.S. and Turkish archaeologists.
5. Stay at the Erdoba Evleri hotel in Mardin
Though it’s far from western Turkey both in ambience and geography, Mardin has one of Turkey’s great hotels, the Erdoba Evleri. The Erdoba is actually two hotels fashioned out of turn-of-the-century mansions built by two Jewish merchant princes. The quieter of the two has huge rooms with vaulted ceilings and elaborately carved stone accents everywhere — more of a palace than a hotel. All for less than $50 per night! Exotic old Mardin, near the Turkey/Syria border, is the center of contemporary Christianity. Syriacs, Surianis, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and other sects all are represented here. There are major monasteries on the edge of the city, which overlooks the vast plains of Mesopotamia.
6. Eat lunch at the Topkapi Palace’s outdoor café in Istanbul
One not-to-be-missed experience is Topkapi Palace, once the main palace for the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Not only is it one of the most interesting palaces in the world, the outdoor terrace restaurant has the city’s finest view of the Bosphorus, and the food is tasty and reasonably priced.
7. Go windsurfing in Alacati
This is the windsurfing capital of Turkey, and it’s only 45 minutes south of Izmir. Aegean breezes blow nonstop off the buff-colored hills, filling the colorful sails of surfers rocketing across the blue inlet. And should you grow bored with windsurfing, Alacati becomes a raucous party center after dark, with beautiful young things coming here from across Europe, all the way from Australia. The town of Alacati remains an unspoiled Greek village on the edge of the summer vacation mecca of Cesme.
8. Sleep in a cave in Cappadocia
Cappadocia is, surprisingly — considering its remote location near Kayseri — Turkey’s most-visited site. Fairy chimneys and other bizarre landscape features — carved by winds out of lava deposited by volcanoes eons ago — draw tourists seeking all sorts of experiences, from sleeping in caves to hot-air ballooning over the surreal landscape. Goreme is a town offering the widest variety of hotels. After you sleep in a cave, you can visit cave churches, as Cappadocia is the birthplace of the Christian monastic tradition.
9. Shop Izmir’s Konak district
The district claims to be the largest collection of shops in the world, with at least 5,000 businesses packed into about four square miles. There is no better shopping in the world. The main shopping district is called the Kemeralti. There, you’ll find incredible deals on everything from wedding dresses and leather jackets to wooden spoons. It is typically Turkish in that all shop categories are consolidated in one area. So most gold dealers and jewelers are in Gold Alley. Ditto for the tailors, leather shops, copper pot makers and broom sellers. In the center of the Kemeralti is a restored Karavansarai — a 16th-century Silk Road hotel — converted into shops and cafés. Tourists rarely make it here, and merchants are far more gracious than in Istanbul and tourist centers such as Antalya.
10. Watch the sun set with the gods on Nemrut Dag
… then return for sunrise on Nemrut Dag, high in the mountains about 40 miles from Malatya, is one of the odder ruins in Turkey in that it has no real historical significance. Antiochus I, ruler of a middle kingdom between the Greek and Persian empires, decided he was descended from the gods. So he built himself a mountaintop tomb and surrounded it with giant statues and stone reliefs. Archaeologists never found Antiochus’ tomb, but the soft stone statues are still there, though most have lost their heads to earthquakes. The bizarre carvings and dramatic setting make it one of the most intriguing destinations in the world, and it’s traditional for visitors to watch the sun set from Nemrut Dag, then rise at dawn and greet the day from the 8,000-foot summit.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.