6 Must-Visit Sites in Turkey — and 2 You Can Totally Skip

If you’ve read my deep-dive review of Gate 1’s affordable Turkey tour, then you know one of my biggest regrets: that we didn’t have enough time at some of the sites. 

So to help you make the most of your trip to Turkey, here are the six attractions that you absolutely need to see — and plan to spend a significant amount of time exploring — along with two that you can easily cross off your to-do list.

6 Must-Visit Sites in Turkey

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1. Hagia Sophia

Aya Sofya Meydanı 1, Istanbul

 A Greek Orthodox basilica turned mosque turned museum. Commissioned by the Emperor Justinian nearly 1,500 years ago, the Hagia Sophia’s massive dome changed the history of architecture forever.

Why You Should See It

The Hagia Sophia is a living history lesson. Within its walls you can chart the rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire and Christianity, the rule of the Ottomans and Islam, and, finally, Turkey’s move to a secularized democracy in the twentieth century.

History aside, it’s one of the world’s most beautiful edifices. The walls are covered in gold mosaics which seem to twinkle as light spills in through the windows.  The building is so ornamented that when Justinian saw it, he reportedly exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” After its completion, the Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest church for 1,000 years.

What I Loved Most

We visited the Hagia Sophia on Christmas Day, and it turned out to be one of the most enlightening experiences of my life. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

This morning brought no snow or stockings for Scott and me. Instead we were in the Hagia Sophia, pondering Christian mosaics, passages of the Quran, and peace on earth. This remarkable edifice stands as proof that there is room for all in God’s house. For me, it was the perfect yuletide message. Here’s to trying a little harder to reach out, to include, and to love in 2015.

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2. Basilica Cistern

Yerebatan Caddesi, Istanbul

 A vast underground cistern built in 532 AD using columns from ancient ruins. After falling into disuse, the Underground Palace was rediscovered in 1545 when a Byzantine scholar learned that locals were lowering buckets into their basements to catch fish. Turkish authorities opened the site to the public in 1987.

Why You Should See It

Walking between the mossy columns on slick wooden boardwalks — wet from the drip, drip, drip of the ancient bricks above — is transformative. You’ll feel like you’re the hero of your own action film (or Dan Brown novel).

What I Loved Most

Since the builders of the cistern sourced their materials from the local junk heap — ancient Roman temples — there are some amazing columns to look at. My favorites were the Medusa heads: large blocks with the snake lady’s face permanently etched in stone.

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3. Ephesus

Ephesus, Turkey

The excavated and reconstructed capital of Asia Minor. Ephesus was a bustling trade port and the fourth largest city in the Roman Empire. It’s also famous for those epistles from Paul — you know, Ephesians.

Why You Should See It

Ephesus is Europe’s most complete classical city, and archeologists have only unearthed 20 percent of the metropolis so far! You can walk along the high street, which would have been filled with luxury shopping stalls; stroll through the Senate’s chambers; and even visit the Romans’ take on a public lavatory (privacy not required!). These ruins bring the Greco-Roman world to life.

What I Loved Most

The Library of Celsus is magnificent. It’s facade stands proudly once again thanks to the tireless work of archaeologists over the past century. In its prime, the library housed 12,000 scrolls, making it the ancient world’s third largest collection of tomes after Alexandria and Pergamum.

 

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4. Topkapi Palace

Babıhümayun Caddesi, Istanbul

The home of the Ottoman Empire’s sultans, concubines, and eunuchs, Topkapi palace is a sprawling complex perched over the Bosphorus. The result? Stunning views of Turkey’s most important — and valuable — waterway.

Why You Should See It

Built over four centuries, Topkapi Palace is a feast for the eyes with varied architectural details (one sultan installed a Rococo fountain!) and countless walls plastered with hand-painted turquoise tiles. And that view of the Bosphorus? Spectacular.

What I Loved Most

Diamonds — and apparently rubies, emeralds, pearls, and sapphires — were a sultan’s best friend. If you visit the Topkapi Palace treasury, you can gaze at all of the amazing trinkets, housewares, and weapons that the Ottomans bedecked in precious jewels.

 

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5. Pamukkale

Pamukkale, Turkey

A series of white calcite terraces formed by mineral-rich springs. The purported healing powers of the water have drawn visitors since ancient times and made the village of Pamukkale something of a spa resort.

Why You Should See It

It’s gorgeous, obviously. But this is one UNESCO World Heritage Site you can actually sink your feet into. Once you take off your shoes, you can traverse the travertines and descend to the village of Pamukkale below. Caution: calcite is slippery when wet.

What I Loved Most

Above the white stone pools are the ruins of Hierapolis, a Roman-turned-Byzantine city that welcomed tourists looking to benefit from the healing waters. The ruins are impressive, and most interestingly, you can stroll through the city’s sizable cemetery. Apparently not all the ancient health-seekers found the cure they were looking for.

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6. Lone Pine Cemetery

Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey

A cemetery dedicated to the nearly 5,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers lost during the WWI campaign to take control of Turkey’s strategic waterways. The eponymous lone pine was obliterated during the fighting. The current evergreen sentinel was planted in the 1920s.

Why You Should See It

For me, and probably many other young Americans, the horrors of  the Great War are often swallowed up by the tales our grandparents told about World War II. The quiet memorials and cemeteries that dot Gallipoli are a reminder of the sacrifices made by countless young people on both sides of the conflict.  

What I Loved Most

We visited the cemetery just months before the centennial of the Gallipoli campaign. To mark the occasion, Australian and New Zealand school kids signed crosses for cemetery visitors to place on the graves. I put one out for Private B.A. Thompson, age 25. The message: “Lest we forget, Oscar R.” Thanks, Oscar.

Sites You Can Skip if You’re Short on Time

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1. Virgin Mary’s house

Ephesus, Turkey

A pint-sized chapel supposedly built on the foundations of the house that Mary, the mother of Jesus, inhabited after the crucifixion.

Why You Can Skip It

Nothing against Mary, but there’s not much to see here. You walk into the tiny chapel (photos not allowed) and then walk straight out. And since this site wasn’t discovered until 1881, I  viewed the link to divinity with a hearty dose of side eye.

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2. Troy

Troy, Turkey
A classical city that you’ve probably heard about before — thanks to that wooden horse story, Homer’s Illiad, and Brad Pitt’s 2004 film.

Why You Can Skip It

The mythical stories about Troy don’t match the archaeological site. That’s because the ruins were pillaged — and irreparably damaged — by the self-styled archeologist who unearthed the city in the nineteenth century. The other major attraction is a modern-day Trojan Horse for tourists to climb in. It’s the Turkish equivalent of the World’s Largest Ball of String.

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