In the spring of 2014, just a few months before I would graduate high school, my family and I embarked on our farthest adventure yet when we went on a trip to Turkey. Straddling Europe and Asia, this incredible country took a dizzying number of flights to reach, but was worth every penny and moment of jet lag. When planning our last family Spring Break trip ever, my family was really hoping to push the envelope and visit somewhere both culturally and geographically different than where we had visited before. Morocco and Thailand were also in the running, but ultimately we settled on Turkey (pro tip: it’s a pretty affordable destination right now if you’re looking to travel internationally).
We broke our trip into three legs, first visiting the beach along its southern Mediterranean coast, then the mountainous spires in Central Anatolia’s world-renowned Cappadocia, and finally the historic city of Istanbul. Our itinerary was the perfect way to experience three distinct parts of the country in a single week (nice planning, Mom and Dad!) and I highly recommend adopting a similar strategy if you want to get a more well-rounded impression of the country but don’t have unlimited vacation days. I’ve outlined a synopsis of each leg of our tour to help you make the most of your Turkish adventure!
Part I: Beach Vacation - Çirali
Driving from the airport in Antalya through the mountains to Çirali was a two-hour mix of beauty and nausea, but escaping the big city to visit this small seaside village was definitely a smart move. Our trip in March fell just shy of prime spring break season, so we virtually had the beach all to ourselves. Though small tourist bungalow hotels like ours were present throughout the village, it still had enough of a resident community to let us meet and connect with people from the area who wanted to show us around.
We stayed at the Hotel Villa Monte, which was situated on a picturesque yard with pickable oranges growing on the trees out front. Each morning, we stopped in to have what the owners call a ‘real Turkish breakfast,’ which included trays of bread, cheese, marmalades, olives, and fruit. As a pancakes-for-breakfast kind of girl, I wasn’t sure I could get behind this at first, but it ended up being perfect. We were always given fresh orange juice while eating and Turkish coffee right after (if you’re into that kind of thing). We dined with their house chef one evening and went out the other, but enjoyed great Mediterranean cuisine both nights!
We also explored the Olympos Ruins and hiked the Olympos Coastal National Park. There is so much history here, and it is mind-blowing to hear that some of these landmarks have been around since the times BC. Though you have to pay to access the ruins, it is the highlight of Çirali and truly a sight to behold.
Part II: Mountain Adventure - Ürgüp
Our next stop was to Cappadocia, an iconic outlook of mountains and hot-air balloons. This indescribable place is arguably the coolest view I have taken in during my lifetime. Its “fairy chimneys” are truly one-of-a-kind, though if I had to compare them to something, it would be like if the Badlands were dropped into the Grand Canyon. Honestly, though, you just need to see this place for yourself, because there is nothing else in the world that I know of quite like it.
There are so many ways to get around Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappdocia, but hiking and horseback riding are my two preferred methods. You can also take a hot-air balloon ride if you so choose! I still remember the day we set aside just to hike in the park, where I virtually ignored my phone and wandered into ancient caves, played hide-and-seek in the mountains, got covered in dust from traipsing through the valleys, and made friends with a donkey. It stands out because I was entranced by the view in front of me, completely living in the moment, and making memories with my family.
If you’re spending the night, Ürgüp is Göreme’s less-trafficked neighbor and is where we found Esbelli Evi, a hidden gem of a hotel tucked away in a cave. We literally slept in rooms cut out of rock that were decorated ornately with a traditional Turkish interior. Staying in a cave hotel is an iconic Cappadocia experience that I highly recommend. While I visited before my interest in capturing moments for Instagram really took off, I’ll tell you right now that there are an endless amount of photo-ops to suit all your content needs.
Part III: Big City Excursion - Istanbul
Our third and final stop was the most notable of all: Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, has a history extending long before its rule by the Roman Empire and actually has a far longer collection of former names than I realized. With a population of more than fifteen million, it is the largest city I have visited to date. During rush hour, traffic is so slow that vendors stroll between the lanes selling everything from fruit to magazines. There are people everywhere. There is also something amazing to see no matter where you look, and we tried (but it’s an impossible task, honestly) to visit all of the city’s most famous landmarks before heading home.
The line to enter the Hagia Sophia Museum was astronomical, so we opted to head across the street and check out the Blue Mosque instead. By this point, I’d quashed any remaining fears I harbored about being a minority in a Muslim country and entered the Mosque with enthusiasm and a headscarf. It was so incredible to see this world-famous building and enter the sanctuary where people pray (note that visitors are not allowed during prayer times). We also visited the Basilica Cisten – there are lines for everything in this city, so just make sure you plan ahead and prioritize which places you want to experience the most. This underground reservoir is incredibly constructed, given that it was built thousands of years ago. I almost had a heart attack while watching the movie Inferno a few years later when a major scene took place there and Tom Hanks was standing in the same room as I had!
My favorite experience was arguably a cruise we took along the Bosphorus Strait. The view of the city was breathtaking from the boat’s second-level outlook, and the fact that (for my intents and purposes) we were straddling two continents was simply mind-blowing. We stayed at the Aleph Hotel while in Istanbul, visited the Grand Bazaar, and ate an unprecedented amount of falafel and hummus. Our combination of return flights turned Easter into a 32-hour day, but gave me the best stories to tell once I got home!
What destination took you out of your comfort zone? I’d love to hear what you learned from your experience in the comments below!