Two Weeks in Turkey: From Istanbul to Cappadocia
Turkey is a country in which you could easily spend a month or more. There’s just too much history and culture packed into this meeting place of Europe and Asia. At once familiar and foreign, Turkey is a delight to all visitors.
Unfortunately, not all of us get a full month off from work, or work remote. Based on my own experiences traveling through Turkey in 2021, if you can put together 2 weeks to fully appreciate Turkey, then you will have an unforgettable journey.
Feel free to alter this itinerary however best suits you and your travel style. I personally took buses and trains to save money (and because I hate flying), but my buddy Jose says Turkish Airlines is much faster and not much more expensive. This is just a general guideline for spending 2 weeks there.
Read on for my Two Weeks in Turkey Itinerary!
Istanbul - Sultanhamet
Start your two weeks in Turkey by waking up to the sound of seabirds in Istanbul, the country’s largest city and one of the biggest and most historical cities in the world. Formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium before it, Istanbul has a history stretching back well over 2,000 years. Its Roman and later Byzantine roots were altered dramatically in the mid-15th Century, when the Ottomans invaded and Islamicized the city. While Turkey is very liberal by MIddle Eastern standards, you can still hear the legacy of this transformation several times a day, as each and every mosque across the city calls the faithful to prayer with a series of wails.
Your hotel is probably in the trendy Sultanhamet district, and you don’t have to go far at all to find a nice sidewalk cafe for breakfast. A good cup of strong traditional Turkish coffee (turk kahvesi) is in order, but most Turks also drink tea (chai).
Sultanhamet Square is incredible as it boasts two of Turkey’s most famous mosques. The first is the Blue Mosque, a relative newcomer, having been built in 1661. The real star of the show, however, is the world-famous Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia (“Sacred Wisdom” in Greek and Ayasofya in Turkish) was built by the Byzantines in 537, and was an orthodox church for the first 900 years of its life. Then in the 15th Century, Mehmet II of the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and converted it to a mosque. And thus it was a place of Muslim worship for almost the next 400 years, until the father of modern Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, secularized it and turned it into a museum. Turks could not worship in Hagia Sophia for the next 90 years, until the year 2020, when the government reconsecrated it. Devout Muslims can now worship once again in its gorgeous, cavernous hall.
Of course, anyone is free to visit Hagia Sophia and appreciate its grandeur. It really is an impressive structure, an absolute must-see. Just be aware that everyone, Muslim or not, must remove their shoes prior to entering the mosque, and women in particular must cover their heads. You will not be allowed in otherwise.
When you’re done taking in these beautiful places of worship, do some shopping along the main street. There is shop after shop, selling everything from watches to books, clothes to works of art, bags to hookahs. You don’t have to buy anything right now; merely to browse is a feast for the eyes.
You won’t be far from the world-famous Grand Bazaar, a fully enclosed marketplace that’s been in operation for hundreds of years. You can find everything from watches to clothes to food to tea to sweets to coffee to electronics to jewelry. Any kind of souvenir you could possibly think of can be found under these aged walls.
Finish the day off with a nice dinner at one of the many restaurants around the city.
Istanbul - Karakoy
Today you’ll want to take the tram up north across the river to the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul. As you climb the steep cobblestone streets of the district, the focal point will come into view: Galata Tower.
Built in the 12th century, it’s not enough to appreciate the Galata from the street–you have to go inside! Pay 120 lira for an audio guide and head inside. The elevator will take you up to the 7th floor, where you’ll be greeted by unparalleled 360-degree views of the metropolis.
From there you’ll climb down the ancient stairwells as you explore level after level of Turkish history. Be sure to watch out for part of the huge chain that once stretched across the Bosphorus to repel naval attacks.
Istanbul - Cagaloglu
Today you feel like delving deep into Turkey’s history and culture. So, you take the tram to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, where you can easily spend two hours.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum is located right next to Gulhane Park, which is simply gorgeous in Fall. You can relax here for a minute while getting some sut misir, delicious fried corn with seasoning.
If you’re up for one more museum, you’re within strolling distance of the world-reknown Topkapi Palace.
Tomorrow you leave the frenetic energy of Istanbul for the hinterland of Turkey. To say goodbye for now to Istanbul, get back on the tram and head up to the banks of the Bosphorus. Find the guy selling fish durums by the river and buy one–should be about 20 or 25 lira. Get your delicious, fresh-caught fish durum and sit by the water, watching the seabirds wheel about between you and the mosques across the water.
After a few days in Istanbul, hop on a bus down to Turkey’s third-biggest city, Izmir!
You are of course also able to fly down to Turkey’s third-biggest city. It is more expensive but the cost isn’t that great compared to the time savings and the comfort.
It’s good to see Izmir as a more laidback aspect of this country, but also a jumping-off point for the ruins of Ephesus.
You’ll see pretty quickly that Izmir is a little more liberal and progressive than Istanbul. You will see people dressed much more comfortably and expressively than in the north.
While a fraction of the size, it has a large bazaar and plenty of waterfront trails, restaurants, and bars to enjoy.
Be sure to check out the Clock Tower, a symbol of the city, and the plaza surrounding it.
Ephesus was once the biggest city in the ancient world and you can easily spend two hours or more exploring its ruins (I myself spent three).
It’s not hard to get to from Izmir, and is ABSOLUTELY worth it. I In fact, I can show you how to get there cheaply and easily!
Back in Izmir, be sure to take some time to do some shopping and grab some good food. If you stop by any of the bars around town, try some raki, the Turkish national alcohol.
Today you’re taking a short-ish bus ride west, into the interior of the country. You’ll arrive at the small town of Pamukkale, lying in the shadow of an incredible white mountain. Pamukkale itself means “cotton candy castle,” and this cute name accurately describes this fantastical natural formation.
You can climb up to the top, but because of the delicate nature of the natural formations, you must remove your shoes and walk up barefoot (between you and me, I don’t see how the oils on the bottom of your feet wouldn’t damage the travertine, but I’m not the expert).
When you’re at the top, you can check out the thermal pools, though be aware that they cost an extra 120 lira and may not be worth it for everyone.
No, for an incredible (and free!) view, climb up to the top of the hill. It’s here that you’ll find the ruins of Hieropolis, an ancient Greek city. Sit at the top row of the ancient amphitheater and take in the vista of the mountains in the distance and the town below.
Today is a long bus ride, but it might be better than an expensive flight into a small airport. Either way, one of the highlights of the entire trip awaits you in he middle of the country: Cappadocia!
You’ll probably be on the bus all day, and not get off until late at night. If you’re traveling in the Fall or Winter, be sure to pack warm clothes: temperatures can get down into the teens up here in the mountains.
Your base of operations will more than likely be Goreme, although you can pick any one of the various towns that dot Cappadocia, or even Nevsehir, one of the only cities of any size in the vicinity.
Get acquainted with Goreme’s winding, hilly streets and the region’s signature geologic feature: the “fairy chimneys.”
Browsing the very (very, very) many tour agencies around Goreme, you’ve probably seen the same advertisement several times: “Green Tour,” “Red Tour,” “Blue Tour.” These are all pretty standard tours that originate in Goreme and show you various aspects of Cappadocia.
All are amazing, but I recommend the Green Tour.. It’s some of the most incredible bang for your buck you’ll ever get.
Make no mistake, this is definitely an all-day excursion. You’ll go to a beautiful overlook, the underground “city” of Derinkuyu, a gem shop, a centuries-old monastery, get to hike through a valley, eat lunch at an outdoor restaurant, and finish the night at a sweet shop.
Hot Air Balloon & ATV Rental
One of the defining moments of Cappadocia is going up in a hot air balloon. Aside from the fairy chimneys, it’s what the region is famous for.
Pro Tip: Be aware that these excursions can and often are cancelled at the last minute due to high winds. You may need to keep your mornings open if you want to do this.
You get up super early for the balloon, so you should have time to catch a quick nap when you get back. You’re going to need it.
Later that afternoon, head down to literally any of the outfitters around Goreme and rent an All-Terrain Vehicle; you’re going joyriding today. 4 hours should be good for what you’re planning to do and should run for 500 lira or less.
The guy will draw you a map of places to drive to, which will loosely follow the standard Red Tour (which you can also do, but I like having a day of freedom to just go and ride around).
You will definitely want to ride out to Uchisar Castle. Beyond that; the road is yours!
Bus to Ankara
Getting from here back to Istanbul is a long way, and in all honesty, if you want to spend extra time in Istanbul, you can absolutely just fly straight to Istanbul and bypass Ankara entirely. The Turkish capital and second-largest city has some cool districts, but isn’t anything you absolutely NEED to see.
See if you can get a room at the Freaky Hostel in Ankara’s trendy District.
High-Speed Train to Istanbul
Here’s a chance to switch up modes of transportation: take the high-speed train back to Istanbul!
There are two types of high-speed: pretty high-speed and really high-speed. The really high-speed trains are light greenish-blue and white and can hit top speeds of over 180 mph! The slightly slower ones can hit about 125, which is still pretty neat.
I will say, however, that the seats are not the most comfortable, keeping in line with the Turkish practice of having very firm mattresses.
Finally, having covered a good chunk of the country in just a few hours, you’re back where you started: Istanbul!
You’ll probably want to take some time to catch some rest after all the jumping and jiving of the past two weeks.
Maybe later on tonight, go out for some drinks and shisha (hookah). I highly recommend the Erenler Lounge on Cemberlitas, next to the graveyard, if you want an authentic hookah lounge experience.
Istanbul - Final Day in Turkey
Wake up to your final day in Turkey feeling a little sad that the journey is coming to an end, but also excited for what the day has in store!
Miniaturk is a park in north Istanbul that is, well, exactly what it sounds like…a miniature Turkey!
You can find scale models of many of Turkey’s most famous landmarks and buildings. This serves two purposes: A) it helps recap all of your incredible experiences you had on your trip, and B) it shows you everything you need to come back and see in the future!
Hamami are massage parlors. Finish out your perfect two weeks in Turkey with a relaxing massage. You’ll return home refreshed and rejuvenated!
Turkey can be a very different place from what westerners are used to, so be sure to check out my article Things to Know Before Traveling to Turkey.
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