Turkey - top 10 hidden gems
There is so much history and ancient culture in Turkey that sometimes it’s easy to be overloaded. Here are our top picks and tips for some of the most interesting experiences.
1. Basilia Cistern
The Basilica Cistern in Istanbul is definitely worth a visit. Nicknamed Yearbatan Sarayi, or "The Sunken Palace" in Turkish, it is a giant freshwater storage structure under Istanbul, built in Byzantine times to fulfill the water needs of the city. Picture ethereal columns of green marble rising from the mysterious water depths, flanked by ancient sculptures and ornate carvings depicting Roman myths of Zeus and Medusa. Lighting helps with the sense of mystery and depth, as you stroll past the 336 columns, watching the fish flick their tails in the deep. There is an audio tour, or wander through the mysterious depths on your own. TIPS: Get there at opening time – 9am – to avoid the crowds. Look for the carved Medusa head decorations that may have originally come from an ancient Roman temple.
2. Pamukkale Thermal Pools
For thousands of years visitors have bathed in the waters of the Pamukkale Thermal Pools, believing them to offer health and life-giving properties. Underground volcanic activity forces hot water and minerals to the surface, creating hot pools and all manner of terraces and pools sculpted by the mineral deposits. From a distance the area looks like a cotton castle, which is a direct translation of its name. TIP: Visit in Summer for the best daytime temperatures, or Winter to enjoy a long warm soak.
While no-one is certain that the Trojan war did take place here, most experts agree that it was the setting for Homer’s Iliad. Over 4000 years old, the city of Troy is the setting for the famous Trojan horse story and the ancient tale of the kidnap and rescue of Helen of Sparta. Troy has been destroyed and rebuilt nine times, and the layers of architecture from different eras are something to see. Sights - the Roman Odeon, which was intended for music performances. The Odeon, the baths and the nearby Bouleterion lie at the edge of the agora, the market place, where the public life of the city was focused. The Sanctuary, possibly built in 7th Century B.C. and dedicated to gods now unknown, was in use throughout the Hellenistic period and long into Roman Imperial era. TIP: Go with a guide to help you visualise the ancient city.
If Gallipoli is a ‘must do’ for you, then we suggest a tour. Tours are very informative and the guides are interesting and knowledgeable, so even if you think you know all about the campaign, you’re sure to learn a lot more. There are daily tours from Istanbul that cover Brighton Beach, Ari Burnu and ANZAC Cove cemeteries, the Lone Pine Australian memorial and cemetery, the infamous Nek cemetery, and more. One of the most moving sights is the carving of Ataturk’s speech about Gallipoli in 1934: ‘After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well’.
The food in Turkey is a not-so-hidden gem, as Turkish food everywhere is amazing! Turkish dishes are influenced by a variety of styles that reflect its frequent invasions from many cultures. Try a meze platter in Istanbul, with traditional patlican salatasi (eggplant salad) and kofta meatballs – no matter how many mezes you’ve had at home, you’ll love the authentic flavour! In Turkey meze is usually served as an appetizer so eat lightly to leave room for the main course. Taste a borek pastry – a traditional flaky pastry stuffed with spinach and feta or meat. Lahmacun is otherwise known as Turkish Pizza and is a traditional flatbread topped with mince, tomato, onion, parsley and garlic. They are usually rolled up and make a tasty, quick meal. Then there’s the snacks – munch on locally-grown pistachios, or try some of the authentic Turkish delight or baklava.
6. Çanakkale Archaeology Museum
Canakkale is an ideal base for trips to Troy and Gallipoli. The Çanakkale Archaeology Museum is small, but contains many artefacts – amphora, statues and small tools – from nearby excavations from Troy and Assos. You will see more at the museum than you will on either of the actual sites. The outdoor gardens of the museum are also worth a visit for the ruins, such as broken marble columns and giant amphorae.
7. Eastern Terrace, Nemrut
In 62 BC, King Antiochus built a tomb-sanctuary on the high mountain top of Nemrut. Next to the building were huge statues of himself, two lions, two eagles and various Greek and Persian gods. Over time, the statues have eroded and the heads now lie scattered throughout the site. TIP: Watch the sunrise from the eastern terrace; the beautiful orange hue and ancient crumbling ruins add to the place’s sense of mystery.
8. Ölüdeniz Beach
Ölüdeniz Beach is at the conjunction of the Aegean and Mediterranean seas, and is famous for its turquoise waters. It is one of the most photographed beaches on the Mediterranean today. It has a secluded sandy bay and lagoon at the mouth of Ölüdeniz, a small village on the Aegean Sea. The lagoon is sheltered and protected, and even in the wildest storms the sea remains calm. Ölüdeniz is also one of the best spots in the world to paraglide due to its breathtaking panoramic views.
Find more hidden gems with a homestay. If you’re hungry for more, the best way to discover the real Turkey is with a homestay. Turkish hospitality and friendliness is legendary and you can experience it by living with a family and learning the hidden secrets of this ancient civilisation. Experience a homestay in the Yuvacali area among the Kurdish people for wonderful, simple, home-baked food, a local’s view of the many historic sites, and many new friends.
10. Coach and bus tours
Travelling by bus is an inexpensive way to move around the country, with the advantage of wonderful scenery. The buses in Turkey are usually comfortable, with layback seats and air-conditioning; some have video players installed. Usually there is segregated seating. Tickets are booked at the station or online (however, sometimes you might need a Turkish credit card for online bookings).
For more on Turkey read our articles Turkey - The Ultimate Travel Guide or Rewards and Risks of Travelling to Turkey.