Istanbul is easily one of my favorite cities in the world. The Bosporus Strait separates Asia from Europe within the city itself, but as one of my friends says, “Istanbul is not where they are divided, but where East and West come together.” The city has been hugely significant historically, as a former Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman capital and as terminus of the Silk Road to China. Its setting alongside the Bosporus is beautiful, rich with history and modern activity alike, as one would expect of the largest city in Europe and a multicultural hub. There is so much to love.
When the recent earthquakes struck southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria, we reached out to our friends at Türkiye Tourism. In the immediate aftermath, we published this story about how to help Türkiye and Syria through donations and volunteer aid but asked what else we could do. They said they appreciated this and other aid efforts, but the most significant thing we could do now was visit the rest of their vast country (by comparison, it’s bigger than Texas), the parts untouched by natural trauma. They faced collateral economic damage from people not visiting.
This was all I needed to hear. I longed to return to Istanbul, but I had never visited any of the other parts of the country. I only had a week to travel, so I had to limit my time in Istanbul to one night/day, which left me time for three days in Izmir and two days in Cappadocia.
Day 1: Istanbul
There had been two significant changes in Istanbul since my last visit in 2016 that I was able to enjoy during my brief visit. The first was the Ataturk Cultural Center, a shopping, arts, and entertainment center, with a rebuilt 2,000-seat opera hall within a distinctive red-tiled globe as its centerpiece.
The second, even more dramatic change was the completion of the Galataport, a three-quarter-mile mixed-use development along the Bosporus. It’s both the new port for cruise ships visiting the city and a locals’ hangout for shopping and dining. We went for the dinnertime tasting menu at Muutto Anatolian Tapas Bar, where chef Muutto puts modern touches on traditional Turkish dishes. I was fortunate to stay in the new Peninsula Istanbul hotel, at the end of the Galataport near the Old City of Istanbul. The Peninsula includes two historic buildings and two modern buildings, all outfitted to the high Peninsula standards, and has lovely gardens with seating areas and table service along the Bosporus.
Read on for New Things to Eat, Drink, and Do in Istanbul.
Days 2-4: Izmir, Ephesus, and Çeşme
From there, I took a one-hour flight (as opposed to a five-hour drive) southwest to Izmir, the third-largest city in Türkiye and also the name of the region surrounding the city. Known as the “Pearl of the Aegean,” Izmir is a beautiful city on the sea well known for its “TurkAegean” cuisine and lifestyle. The city has hills with scenic views, streets shaded with palm trees, the historic Kemeralti bazaar, and busy Konak Square. It is known as the most liberal city in Türkiye. I visited during Ramadan and it was even more active than Istanbul, though obviously much smaller.
Cafés were full of locals laughing and enjoying meze, seafood, and raki, the national drink of Türkiye; of course, I joined in. My two Turkish friends introduced me to the concept of a “raki table” at the Veli Usta restaurant, just off the Kordon waterfront park. Raki is a clear brandy made of twice-distilled grapes that has an aniseed (licorice-like) taste also associated with ouzo and sambuco—but raki is much stronger. We drank ours with equal parts raki and chilled water. At raki table, participants usually have meze and sometimes seafood, as we did, but the key is the conversation, which needs to be open, convivial, humble, and sincere. What is said at the raki table, stays at the raki table, a concept that goes back to before the Ottoman Empire (yes, way before Vegas was conceived).
With the Swissôtel in the city of Izmir as my base, I made day trips to Ephesus and Çeşme/Urla. The Ephesus archaeological site is about one hour south of the city, with remains from as far back as the 8th century B.C.E., but most of which came from the Roman period beginning in the 1st millennium. Ancient artifacts are on display throughout the ruins; some have been reconstructed to be similar to their original form, most notably the Library of Celcus and a large outdoor theater that could seat 24,000. Also not far from Ephesus is the site that was reputed to be the last home of the Virgin Mary and, in the other direction, the grounds of a former basilica built by Justinian to honor the apostle John, who was reportedly buried there.
Çeşme is a very popular seaside area, approximately one hour west of Izmir. I especially enjoyed the town of Alacati, full of old stone buildings, narrow streets, and lots of restaurants, bars, and shops. It was relatively quiet when I visited, but it is reportedly packed with locals from Istanbul and Izmir during the summer. About halfway between Çeşme and Izmir is Urla, an area known for its wines, olive oils, and dining. I ate at two very fine dining establishments, Vino Locale and OD Urla, that I would not have expected to find so far from a major city. I also really enjoyed olive oil tasting with Pelin Omuroglu, a U.C. Davis–educated, second-generation olive farmer from the region. She has a beautiful shop, Olivurla, where she conducts tastings of her own olive oils and other award winners.
Days 5-7: Cappadocia
After three days around Izmir, I took a 90-minute flight east to Kayseri, about an hour’s drive from Cappadocia, a now iconic region in the country’s center famous for hot air balloons flying over a moon-like topography. The region is the result of lava and ashes from nearby ancient volcanoes, eroded by rain, wind, and ice over millions of years. The result are unique conical rock formations called “fairy chimneys” believed to be formed by fairies. Besides being fascinating to see, walk among, and soar above, the rocks are soft, resulting in many natural and human-enhanced caves, where people lived from ancient times to the 1950s, when authorities moved the locals out because continued erosion made permanent residence unwise. However, enterprising hoteliers have built hundreds of hotel rooms throughout the area into and out of the rocks themselves. I stayed in a three-level suite built into the rocks at the Yunak Evleri Cave Hotel, and I had a wonderful dinner at the Museum luxury cave hotel (a Relais & Châteaux property) and suffered a bit of hotel envy.
High winds in the mornings prevented balloon flights while I visited (a hotelier told me cancellations occur about 10 percent of the time), but honestly that didn’t bother me. I enjoyed walking at the Zelve, Paşabağı, and Göreme open-air museums among the rock formations and historical dwellings, monasteries, and churches, all built within caves. Many of the ancient churches have frescoes and have been restored with vibrant colors. The area was very significant in early Christianity, where St. Basil and his brothers unified many of the ideas of the early church.
I also enjoyed visiting the Güray underground ceramic museum, an attractive facility with a collection of pottery and other artifacts going back through the Chalcolithic period, the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman periods, along with a shop containing many contemporary ceramics (though two less, after my visit); the Gülor Wine cave house, with winetastings of Gülor, Corvus, and Chamlija Turkish wines; and Punto Carpets of Istanbul, which has a beautiful store in Urgüp (Cappadocia). I had hoped to find time to bike the area but ran out of time.
Time is never on my side in Türkiye. I always want to do more, see more. As much as I love Istanbul, and wish I had spent more days there, I find that I came away with a better appreciation for the country when I got out of the big city. Türkiye is historically and culturally so rich: Next on my list are trips to Sinop and Rize in the Black Sea region, Edirne in Thrace, and with luck, Göbeklitepe and Gaziantep, once it is appropriate, to better understand and support the area hit hardest by the earthquakes.