Brits like to frequent Turkey for a cheap beach break with guaranteed sun. But lying on a beach for a week isn’t really me. The land of baklava and bazaars, hammams and Hagia Sophia has so much else to offer besides golden sands that delving deeper into this vast and varied country was high on my radar.
So, after weighing it up against San Marino or Serbia (it’s always tempting to visit a new country), my friend and I opted for Istanbul and Cappadocia. This was going to be my third trip to Turkey.
In pandemic times, booking any trip abroad feels about as risky as scraping the mould off a slice of bread before popping it in the toaster – it will probably be okay, but there’s a chance that it might cause some upset. Luckily, our fairly last-minute trip went ahead without a hitch, and it felt liberating to be travelling again. Here are six reasons why you should visit.
1. The combination of culture and nature
If you’re anything like me, visiting somewhere new to explore a different culture or to get active with a hike or a cycle are two of the main reasons to travel. Istanbul and Cappadocia couldn’t be more different from each other, and combining them meant I could satisfy both my culture vulture and active sides. Istanbul is a dynamic city bridging Europe and Asia together, and there’s nothing quite like getting lost in the Grand Bazaar or visiting one of the many impressive mosques here. Cappadocia, located in central Turkey, is home to incredible valleys with cone-shaped rock formations, shaped this way by volcanic eruptions, and hiking amongst them is the best way to soak up this unique landscape.
2. Exploring the islands around Istanbul
I only found out about the cluster of islands around Istanbul mere days before my trip. The Princes’ Archipelago comprises 9 islands in the Sea of Marmara and they are mostly car-free. We boarded a ferry to the largest of the islands, Büyükada, to explore it by bike. There are many bicycle-hire shops by the ferry port, and we hired them for 80 Turkish lira each (about £4) for the day. This price went down from over 100 lira when we hesitated slightly, but it wasn’t our intention to barter! After choosing our bikes, we headed to the abandoned orphanage first, because it’s not every day you get to see a real-life horror movie set, before skirting along the coastline. Stopping off at a restaurant with the most breath-taking views was a highlight, and we sipped on Turkish tea, enjoying having the place to ourselves.
3. To pet the many hundreds of thousands of cats in the city
Istanbul is a cat-loving city, and for a cat-loving gal, well, I guess it’s paradise. Long-haired, short-haired, grumpy, affectionate, ginger, black – they’re as diverse as they come, but after visiting many countries where the strays are straggly and seen as pests, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Istanbul’s fluffiest residents are well-fed and well-cared for. You cannot walk down any of the cobbled streets of the city without seeing a cluster of cats, and they are simply a part of the Istanbul experience. Whether you’re a feline fan or not, the cats of Istanbul will bring a smile to the face of any visitor.
4. Experiencing the clash of cultures
I visited Istanbul on a school trip when I was 15, but clearly my teenage self-had no taste because I didn’t like it. How, I’m not sure, because I realised during my second visit that it is one of the most fascinating and vibrant places I’ve been to in a long time. East meets West in Istanbul, and with cheap prices, endless pieces of stunning architecture to marvel at (especially at sunset from the Galata Tower), and delicious dishes to satisfy even a decade-long vegetarian in the land of kebabs, I already know I’ll revisit one day.
5. For the valley walks of Cappadocia
I’ve mentioned the incredible rock formations of Cappadocia, and they are what makes this area of central Turkey completely unique. I have never seen a landscape quite like it, and the best way to immerse yourself in the heart of this region is by popping on the hiking boots and delving into the many walking trails here. We did Pigeon Valley Walk from the highest point in Cappadocia, Uçhisar, down to Göreme, home to cave churches and frescoes dating from the 10th century. Another valley walk we embarked on was the Love Valley, named so due to the phallic shapes of the formations…
6. Taking a hot air balloon ride
One of the main reasons that people visit Cappadocia is to see the vast and incredible landscape from a hot air balloon. At only 70 euros (post-pandemic price) for a ride of over one hour, it was a complete steal. I have always wanted to try one ever since my fascination with The Wizard of Oz as a child (I was obsessed with the story and owned about 5 different versions of it on VHS) and so seeing Dorothy almost taking off in a balloon at the end stuck with me. After waking up at 5am and braving the outside temperatures of -1 degrees Celsius to ensure we were in the balloon basket for sunrise, we swiftly lifted off the ground and were 800 metres high before we knew it. My first thought was that anyone who was at all scared of heights would be sitting on the floor at this point (my mum sprang to mind…) but after initially feeling a little apprehensive, I embraced the beauty and magic of it all. Over the hour, the sun slowly rose in the distance, illuminating the landscape and the other hot air balloons across the horizon. I didn’t want it to end.
These two main highlights of Turkey are just a one-hour flight apart, and priced between £30-40 return, it just made sense to see them both. Tour packages will charge at least £900 for this week-long trip (I know because I received an email about it before departing), but we got international and domestic flights, plus accommodation for less than £300 in total. It helps when the person you’re travelling with is a bargain hunter, but it is quite easy not to break the bank when booking a week in Istanbul and Cappadocia independently. We had five nights in the city and two to explore the nature of this part of central Turkey, staying in a cave hotel. I’m already looking forward to my fourth visit.
Photos: either I’m in it, or I took it.