(Editor’s note: This post has been updated with a suggestion from Dispatches reader Angela Bobrytska.)
It’s that time again … time to start thinking about beach vacations. If you’re an expat in Europe, the easiest real beach resorts to get to are in Turkey.
Sure, you could go to the packed, often rocky beaches of the south of France, Italy or Spain. But for the optimal sun, sand and serenity experience, Turkey’s the first stop unless you want to make a big trip to, say, Pemba Island or all the way to the Seychelles or the Caribbean. And remember … so many beaches in Turkey come with their own ancient Greco-Roman ruin including Patara in Lycia, and Knidos at the end of the Datça Peninsula.
We know … the politics aren’t optimal at the moment. But you’ll still get a warm reception from ordinary Turks, who not only need visitors to survive but genuinely enjoy showing off their country … in my opinion the world’s greatest travel destination.
Here’s the deal: The wonderful thing about holidaying in Turkey is that you can choose your experience from ultra-lux in Bodrum, Alaçatı or Kalkan, or find a funky little hotel in the Lycia area, which includes Ölüdeniz, Turkey’s most famous beach. We chose these five destinations because they have it all – beaches, hotels, restaurants, ruins and shopping.
It’s all about what you want out of life! For the years my family lived in Turkey, we had it all.
A word to the wise:
Turkey can get very, very hot in the summer. And these beaches, unlike Caribbean beaches, don’t offer a lot of shade. Some such as Patara don’t offer much in the way of amenities at all … just miles of white sand. Others, such as the area around Bodrum orAlaçatı, have beach clubs where you can pay an entry fee and have cabanas and cocktails … and get out of the heat.
Best to avoid the midday sun.
No. 1 Ölüdeniz (the Dead Sea) has to be at the top of any list of Turkish beach destinations. This is Turkey’s legendary beach and has adorned a million Turkish tourism posters around the world
Best of all, the area around it is a preserve, free from development except for a few beach chair rentals and paragliding operations.
The pebble beach is immense in a sheltered lagoon. The water is perfectly clear and shallow enough at the shore that my girls could splash all day when they were little. You’re surrounded by steep, lush mountains. There are yachts anchored off the beach. It doesn’t get any better than this. Which means thousand of people come during peak tourist season.
That said, if you hit the beach in April or October, it’s warm – but not scorching – and you can have Ölüdeniz pretty much to yourself. You’re also near Fethiye, which offers a number of great places to stay. Or you can stay in the very affordable group-package resorts around Ölüdeniz.
While you’re there …
Check out the nearby resort towns of Fethiye and Kas, and take a trip into the interior to see the Lycian tombs at Tlos and the mosaics at Xanthos.
(Full disclosure – we always stayed at The Mountain Lodge in Tlos, about 20 miles away. But the lodge – one of the best small hotels in Turkey – has changed hands.)
Our sources tell us the Beachside Beach Club is very nice and pricy, but still funky and fun.
• No. 2 Patara
Not too far from Ölüdeniz (about 30 kilometers, or 18miles) is Patara, a far less well-known beach-and-ruin combination. I just checked with my Turkish friend Melahat, and she agrees … Patara is a must-see, the longest natural beach in Turkey, and one of the longest anywhere in the region at 11 miles, or 18 kilometers. Apart from sheer scale, Patara is different than most beaches in Turkey in that it has pretty good size waves for body surfing, and the sea breeze is ideal for sailing and windsurfing.
While you’re there …
To access Patara beach, you literally have to park at one of the most interesting ruins in Turkey. Israeli researchers often are there excavating during the summers.
Hotels in Fethiye are your best bet. Kas is closer, but most of the hotels are 4-star, at best.
• No. 3 Bodrum
Bodrum is the center of Turkey’s party scene. It’s grown from a village back in the 1980s to a fair-sized town these days, with white-washed buildings as far as the eye can see. The late music producer Ahmet Ertegun, who worked with everyone from Otis Redding to the Stones to the Eagles, had a mansion outside of Bodrum.
It’s that kind of place … think the French Rivera without the attitude.
Don’t think you’re going to get a hotel in the middle of town and go to sleep at 10 p.m. The music from the clubs is just getting started then, and can be pretty invasive. Better to get a hotel on the other side of the Bodrum Peninsula from the town.
Okay, you’re settled … most of the beaches are artificial, so best to head to Göltürkbükü and some of the beach clubs there. This is a very chic-chic spot, which has a Mandarin-Oriental Hotel!
While you’re there …
You have to see the Bodrum Castle, which was built by crusaders. Inside, the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology has some of the world’s greatest antiquities on display, salvaged from ancient shipwrecks across the Mediterranean.
Of all the places we stayed – and some were pretty bad –the hotel we liked best in Bodrum by a mile was the Lavanta. A wealthy couple – she was German, he was Turkish – built and ran it back in the day. Now a Swedish family owns it. One of the best locations – off the water, but up high, with fabulous views of Yalikavak and the sea. This is several grades above the tourist-package hotels, but worth the money.
• No. 4 Alaçatı
As we told you a few months ago, this is the windsurfing capital of Turkey, and it’s only 45 minutes south of Izmir. After the sailboards are put away, Alaçatı becomes a raucous party center after dark, with beautiful young things coming here from across Europe, all the way from Australia. What makes Alaçatı really fun is it has a number of beach clubs where you can get drinks, snacks and beach chairs.
The town of Alaçatı remains an unspoiled Greek village on the edge of the summer vacation Mecca of Cesme. To that point, Alaçatı is an expensive place to stay, with just a few upscale hotels that will run you at least 200 euros per night. You could cheap out and stay next door in Cesme, but we’ll warn you … it’s not the same experience.
While you’re there ….
Head to Ephesus, the best-preserved ancient city in Turkey. Ephesus is about an hour south of Alaçatı/Cesme.
The Manastir (Monastery) is the hip new hotel, and is not cheap …. But there are no cheap hotels in Alaçatı, just so you know.
In keeping with its high-end reputation, Alacati has Alancha, one of Turkey’s most celebrated restaurants,
• No. 5 Kalkan
Twenty years ago, this was an undiscovered little resort town, a summer destination for wealthy Turks and Europeans. There were art galleries and cool stores. We went and relaxed in a 2-story apartment that was about 50 euros per day, then wandered down to the bars on the water in the afternoon where you could always count on hanging out with British travelers.
Then Bodrum got discovered in the 2000s, chiefly by Russian tourists. As my Turkish friends just told me, that didn’t last long. “They moved on to the next exclusive destination. It’s what they do.” Now, Kalkan is back to being a nearly Brits-only retreat, and still one of the best locations on the Med.
While you’re there ….
The resort town of Kaş is just down the coast, where there’s access to the underwater ruins of Kekova.
The Likya Gardens is typically rated the best in Kalkan. Rates start at about 200 euros per night. But you can do a lot better going online and renting an apartment.
We totally forgot ….
• Istuzu Beach
Dispatches reader Angela Bobrytska noted on the Dispatches Facebook page that we’d forgotten Istuzu Beach near Dalyan: “I’d add a magnificent Istuzu Beach near Dalyan, a home to Caretta Caretta turtles. It is always slightly windy and wavy there … as if an endless ocean coast!”
Angela is right … we’ve been there, and Istuzu Beach – at almost 5 miles long – rivals Patara in length. AND, it’s protected area, one of the main breeding grounds for Caraetta Caretta (loggerhead sea turtles) in the Mediterranean. In fact, the beach is closed between nightfall and dawn when the turtles lay their eggs, then when hatchlings go out to sea (May to October).
While you’re there …
Istuzu Beach, like so many in Turkey, is near ruins, with Kaunos the closest. On the river cruise to the beach, you see Lycian tombs carved into cliffs.
There are a ton of basic family owned hostels in Dalyan for 30 euros per night or less, many surrounded by their own orange, tangerine, lemon and olive groves. They’re usually more fun than the tourist-package hotels. If you need something nicer, you might want to stay in Marmaris.
You also should know about:
The Datça Peninsula juts into the Med south of Marmaris, which itself is an okay destination. The peninsula has some of the most unspoiled scenery and seaviews in all of Turkey. But Datça is pretty remote, and the road from Marmaris out to the ruins at Knidos was once pretty treacherous. About 15 years ago, they redid it, and now the world has access to the peninsula’s beaches including Ovabuku, Hayitbuku and Kizilbuk – all adjoining bays.
There are several nice pensions in Datça, the town. We haven’t stayed there, but the Usla Hotel Royal Yachting looks sublime!
If we’ve forgotten to mention your favorite beach destination in Turkey, fill us in at: [email protected]
Almost all of Europe’s big carriers, including Lufthansa, have flights to Izmir.
We’ve flown Turkish Airlines, and it’s one of our favorites. They have flights from Frankfurt and Munich to Izmir.
These Easyjet airports in the UK have discount flights to Antalya, which has the best access to Turkey’s Mediterranean region: London Gatwick, Luton and Manchester starting at about 40 pounds.
Atlas Jet flies from Amsterdam to Antalya.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.