Planning Your Trip to Turkey
How long to spend—and which destinations to hit in that timeframe—may well be influenced by what your goals are, and how much you want to see. Because Turkey is so diverse the first thing to figure out is: What do you want to see and/or experience? What’s your focus?
In Turkey, there are itineraries to suit every traveler, from short sightseeing sprees for the history buff, or sedentary sun, sand, and sea-focused trips of the Aegean and Mediterranean, to adventure-oriented vacations in the rugged Anatolia interior.
Regardless, if this is your first trip to Turkey, be prepared for a spellbinding first impression, especially in Istanbul. Even if you only have a week or less to spare, you’ll be guaranteed a satisfying adventure. Don’t try pack in too much… you can always (and probably will want to) return! Use a “less is more” approach to planning so you can absorb your experience without rushing. Remember, Turkey is a big country and driving the winding coastal and mountain roads can eat up considerable time, given the long distances between many sites.
With a week or less, it’s recommended to focus your time on Istanbul and perhaps one other destination nearby, such as Gallipoli and Erdine plus Troy. With ten days you can combine these with a few days for Ankara and Cappadocia, renowned for its otherworldly 'fairy chimney' rock formations and cave-dwellings. Three weeks would permit you to craft a circuit, combining the above with an exploration of Izmir and the ancient port city of Ephesus, with its astonishing Roman ruins; Hierapolis and the turquoise pools and limestone terraces of Pamukkale; plus the Aegean and Mediterranean coastlines. And with a full month, you can range further afield into Eastern and Southern Anatolia.
When's the best time of year to visit Turkey? Read all about it here.
Turkey in 3-4 Days
Istanbul deserves all your time if you can only spare 3 or 4 days. The city is as complex as it is captivating for its cultural and architectural legacy as the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
You’ll want two full days to explore Sultanahmet, the most ancient and fascinating part of the city. Dramatically situated on a hilly peninsula overlooking the Bosphorus, Sultanahmet is chock-full of Istanbul’s main tourist sites. Must-visit venues include the sprawling Topkapı Palace (from where Ottoman sultans ruled); the iconic 6th-century Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) grand mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque (in 2020) with its soaring Byzantine dome, and the adjacent Blue Mosque, spectacularly lined with blue tiles; plus the grandiose subterranean Roman Basilica Cistern. End your day at the Galata Bridge, giving an #Instaready panoramic view of the mosques and the river at sunset.
On day two, begin your day in the Spice Bazaar, with its mountains of heaped colored spices and locum (Turkish delight). Then get lost in the Grand Bazaar, teeming with antiques, handmade Turkish carpets, and gold jewelry. With around 4,000 shops, it truly is easy to get lost beneath its domed temples! After all that walking, you’ll be ready to steam-clean yourself and relax in a hamam as a masseuse scrubs and pummels you in true Turkish fashion. Make a reservation for the Hürrem Sultan hamam, at the Hagia Sophia.
For day three, head to Balat and Fener, a gentrified historic neighborhood replete with colorful old houses and cobbled streets. Then catch a ferry to Karaköy pier in the Beyoğlu district on the north bank of the Golden Horn. This is the bohemian center of arts and contemporary culture, as exemplified by the Istanbul Modern art museum, plus edgy boutique hotels and chic restaurants centered on İstiklal Caddesi boulevard. Climb the Galata Kulesi tower. Then take a tram to explore east along the Bosphorus, including the sumptuous Dolmabahçe Palace and gorgeous Ortaköy Mosque.
Dedicate a fourth day to a ferry ride to the Kız Kulesi island fortress, then into the Sea of Marmara to explore one or more of the Princes' Islands.
Turkey in One Week
With one week, begin with the above 4-day itinerary, then head out of town. We recommend exploring Thrace—European Turkey—plus Marmara.
Start by heading northwest from Istanbul through the Arcadia Vineyards to the ancient Ottoman capital of Edirne, a distinctly Balkan city blessed with grandiose imperial buildings. Then head south to the Gallipoli Peninsula, site of the WWI battlefields and emotionally stirring cemeteries, memorial sites, and museums to that tragic era, drawing legions of Turks and Australians and New Zealanders come to pay their respects. Now head east along the Dardanelles shoreline, stopping to explore the Kilitbahir Castle Museum focused on Ottoman and maritime history.
From Kilitbahir, take the car ferry across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale, where the Trojan Horse used in the Troy (2004) movie with Brad Pitt now stands. The extraordinary archaeological site of Troy is a 30-minute drive south. Begin your exploration in the new Troy Museum, at the entrance to the Troy Historical National Park—setting for the 10-year Trojan Wars immortalized by Homer in the Iliad. Return to Istanbul via Bursa.
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Turkey in 10-12 Days
Having explored Istanbul and Thrace and Marmara, next either fly from Istanbul to Cappadocia for three days; or drive to Cappadocia via Ankara, with a day given to exploring Turkey’s capital city.
Cappadocia is a wonderland of troglodyte homes, abandoned underground cave cities, and weird geological formations. A boutique cave hotel in Göreme makes the best base, as the honey-colored village hollowed out of the hills is surrounded by astonishing sites. Foremost is the Göreme Open-Air Museum, with its scores of rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries full of fantastic frescoes. Each of the valleys surrounding Göreme has its own special ambiance on a troglodyte theme. Other don’t-miss sites include the Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu underground cities. Local tour operators offer excursions.
There’s enough in this region to fill two or three days. Start one of your days with a sunrise ride in a hot-air balloon—the quintessential Cappadocia experience. Serious hikers might also tackle the mountain trails of Alad Ağlar National Park. This area is a key center of viticulture, so wine-lovers may wish to tour a vineyard of two. And Göreme has plenty of hamams for soothing sore muscles after your work-out hiking sometimes steep trails. At night, don’t miss the whirling dervish ceremony in the Saruhan caravanserai (a hotel on the ancient “silk route”).
Turkey in 3 Weeks
Add a week to the 10-12 day itinerary by exploring along the Aegean and Mediterranean shore. If you’re driving, the best plan of attack is to continue south after visiting Troy (see ‘Turkey in One Week,’ above), follow the coast counterclockwise to Mersin, then head north to Cappadocia. From here you can close the loop back to Istanbul via Ankara.
First stop is the ancient city of Pergamon (Bergama), one of Turkey's most impressive archaeological sites. Its hilltop Acropolis offers stupendous vistas and includes the Temple of Trajan, the Altar of Zeus, and a huge vertigo-inducing theatre built into the steep hillside. End this day in the resort town of Izmir, resembling a St. Tropez or Cannes with minarets.
It's only a one-hour drive south to Ephesus, the grandest and best preserved of Turkey’s many Greco-Roman archeological sites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site will take an entire morning to explore before you head inland, to Pamukkale, renowned for its iconic white travertine terraces filled with turquoise pools. Linger here for sunset and/or visit the next day at sunrise to avoid the crowds. You can then explore the ruins of Hierapolis, the Roman-era spa city immediately east, before heading south to the Turquoise Coast via Xanthos, another ancient Roman city site.
You’ll be ready for some beach time… and there’s nowhere better than 10-mile-long Patara Beach, just 5 miles from Xanthos. And the mellow port town of Kas, nearby, is a perfect base for scuba diving, kayaking, or a boat trip along the coast by traditional Turkish gulet.
Next day’s drive east along the mountainside coast road is sublime. Take a break to swim in the Mediterranean at Çıralı beach, and to view eternal flames emanating from the rocks behind the beach on Mount Chimaera. End your day in the stylish resort town of Antalya, boasting a Roman harbor, a beautifully preserved old city core, the superb Antalya Museum, plus Hadrian’s Gate.
Finally, continue east along the coast, stopping for a break at the fishing village of Narlikuyu. Its Mosaic Museum, set around a Roman bath, is not to be missed. So too the “Caves of Heaven and Hell”—turquoise sinkholes—reached by a stiff uphill climb. End your coast drive in Mersin. From here it’s a short drive inland to Cappadocia (see the ‘Turkey in 10-12 days’ itinerary), then via Ankara back to Istanbul.
Turkey in 4 Weeks or Longer
For a fourth week, from Mersin head east to explore Southern and Eastern Anatolia before looping back to visit Cappadocia.
Just east of Mersin, the old town of Tarsus is a real charmer, worth two hours of browsing among tumbledown houses, a Roman road, and historic mosques. If you haven’t had your fill of history, stop to clamber up to the medieval Yılankale Castle, rising above the highway atop a rocky ridge. And if history’s your thing, make a short detour to admire the Hittite statuary at Karatepe; active travelers can enjoy hiking amid the pine and oak forests of Karatape Aslantaş National Park. Overnight in Gaziantep, a city renowned for its pistachio baklava and other culinary treats (plus plenty of historical sites).
Arriving in the pilgrimage city of Şanlıurfa, you’re now in the heart of Muslim territory, where women wear black chadors and men still wear traditional baggy şalvar pants. Immerse yourself in its bazaars and mosques, and the nearby Göbeklitepe megalithic-era spiritual center—considered the world’s oldest. Today’s final destination is Diyarbakır, a soulful Kurdish city of twisting alleyways studded with mosques.
From here, continue east to spend a day at Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake, and a virtual inland saline sea. Flamingos and pelicans are among the many resident birds. After overnighting in the regional capital of Van (replete with historical sites), keep an eye peeled for the “Loch Van Monster” as you circumnavigate the lake en route to Erzurum. You’ll want an entire day in this vibrant university city and religious capital full of medreses (seminaries) and mosques against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.
From here, head west via Sivas (another major religious and historical center) for Kayseri and Cappadocia to pick up this portion of the 10-12 day itinerary above.
More Turkey Itineraries
Looking for more inspiration for your trip to Turkey? Check out these other Turkey itineraries, with trekking trips, cultural adventures, and best-of trips to hit the highlights.