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Turkey is a beautiful country with a long and diverse history, boasting a rich cultural heritage, astonishing architectural design, and a diverse food scene among the best in the world. During my first visit to Turkey, I was floored at how delicious the food was and how typical three-hour meals were. Although I had a few uncomfortable interactions with local men in Istanbul, (and not because of what I was wearing) I loved the city’s beauty, the deep-rooted history, and the intricate architecture set against the open waterways.
The intriguing landmarks all over the country are a testament to various civilizations that have left their mark on the region, including the Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman, and Hittite empires. Exploring these landmarks provides insight into Turkey’s historical significance and the evolution of human civilization in the area.
Turkey is home to numerous architectural wonders that showcase exceptional craftsmanship and design. Iconic structures like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the ancient city of Ephesus are marvels of engineering and artistry that captivate visitors with their beauty and grandeur.
From the stunning mosques and otherworldly terraces of Pamukkale to the breathtaking landscapes of Cappadocia; Turkey offers a diverse range of historical places and natural landmarks. Visiting these landmarks allows you to witness the stunning diversity of Turkey’s geography and appreciate the forces of nature that shaped these extraordinary sites.
Derinkuyu Underground City
Immersed within the volcanic rock of Nevşehir Province in Cappadocia, the extraordinary Derinkuyu Underground City is one of the most famous Turkey landmarks. This ancient subterranean city, a marvel of early engineering, burrows approximately 85 meters deep, featuring a complex network of spiraling tunnels and cavernous rooms distributed across eight levels.
Meticulously sculpted from the malleable volcanic tufa during the Byzantine era, around the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the city served as a haven for the early Christian community. It was a refuge from the onslaught of invading armies, such as those in the Arab-Byzantine wars. Equipped to accommodate up to 20,000 people, livestock, and food supplies, this labyrinthine city stands as an enduring testament to the ancient roots and resilience of the Middle East.
The architectural prowess displayed in Derinkuyu is characterized by its clever design, incorporating ventilation shafts, communal rooms, wine cellars, chapels, and even stables. Significant features, like movable circular stone doors, were included for protection, adding a layer of intrigue to this underground wonder. Embarking on a journey through this underground city offers a unique perspective into a historic underworld, revealing the lives of early Christians in Cappadocia.
Göreme Open Air Museum
Nestled in the enchanting heartland of Cappadocia, the Göreme Open Air Museum serves as a historical testament to monastic life from the 4th to 13th centuries. This UNESCO World Heritage site features an extensive network of rock-hewn churches, chapels, and monastic buildings.
This museum is surrounded by an otherworldly landscape marked by fairy chimneys and unique rock formations, sculpted by millions of years of natural erosion. Early Christian monks seeking refuge from persecution carved out homes, places of worship, and entire communities from these soft tufa rocks.
Visitors are invited to explore this intricate network of cave dwellings, catch a glimpse of the monks’ humble living quarters, and marvel at the Byzantine art adorning the chapel walls. Each site, from the nunnery to the dark church, narrates a tale of devotion, artistry, and endurance, establishing the Göreme Open Air Museum as an essential stop on any journey through Cappadocia.
Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia
Emanating from the valleys of Cappadocia, the Fairy Chimneys stand as a natural wonder and one the most famous Turkey landmarks. These peculiar geological formations, formed from millions of years of volcanic activity, erosion, and weathering, have shaped the soft tufa rock into towering pillars, cones, and mushroom-like shapes.
Over centuries, inhabitants of the region carved homes, churches, and monasteries into these natural formations. Today, these rock-cut dwellings and places of worship integrate seamlessly with the natural formations themselves, creating an incredible architectural landscape.
Experiencing the fairy chimneys isn’t limited to ground level. Drifting over the fairy chimneys and valleys in a hot air balloon as the sun rises, casting warm hues over the landscape, provides an unforgettable bird’s-eye view of this surreal terrain.
Uchisar Castle, hewn into a natural rock fortress, dominates the landscape of Cappadocia. Located in the town of Uchisar, this extraordinary structure represents the highest point in the region, offering unparalleled panoramic views of the surrounding valleys and fairy chimneys.
During the Byzantine period, the multi-storied labyrinth of rooms and tunnels carved into the rock served as a strategic point for defense, its elevation providing an ideal vantage point against invaders.
Today, visitors can explore these tunnels, venture into the rooms, and ascend to the top to witness the breathtaking vistas of the Cappadocian landscape, including the majestic Mount Erciyes in the distance.
Selime Monastery, Cappadocia
Selime Monastery in Cappadocia is an extraordinary rock-cut monastery that dates back to the 8th or 9th century. This Christian monastery is the largest religious structure in the region and was carved into a volcanic rock hill.
The monastery complex includes a cathedral-sized church, several chapels, monk cells, a kitchen, and animal stables. The cathedral, with its towering height and large dome, is particularly impressive, decorated with biblical frescoes that, though faded, still show a high degree of artistry.
Located at the end of the Ihlara Valley, Selime Monastery offers panoramic views over Cappadocia’s unique fairy chimney landscape, making it one of the most famous Turkish landmarks.
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
An explosion of color, a symphony of sounds, and a labyrinth of winding alleys characterize the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Established in 1461, this market is one of the oldest and largest covered markets globally, accommodating over 4,000 stores scattered across 60 streets.
The Grand Bazaar is a cornucopia of traditional Turkish lamps, elaborate carpets, finely wrought jewelry, spices, ceramics, and leather goods. Strolling through its bustling lanes feels like a journey back in time, immersing travelers in ancient trading customs set against a backdrop enriched by the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.
More than a shopping haven, the Grand Bazaar is a cultural and historical icon, encapsulating Istanbul’s vibrant spirit. It offers a unique opportunity to delve into the city’s colorful history, its dynamic present, and the exquisite artistry of the locals.
When visiting The Grand Bazaar, you’ll have the opportunity to savor authentic Turkish food and experience the country’s culinary delights.
Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Hidden beneath the bustling streets of Istanbul lies the Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground marvel. Constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, this cathedral-sized cistern once stored the city’s water supply, brought from the Belgrade Forest, 19 kilometers north of the city, via aqueducts.
The cistern is an engineering marvel, covering approximately 9,800 square meters and capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water. The ceiling is supported by 336 marble columns, each nine meters tall, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns. These columns, recycled from ruined buildings, vary in decorative styles, contributing to the cistern’s captivating charm.
One of the most intriguing features of the Basilica Cistern is the two Medusa column bases in the northwest corner. The origin and purpose of these Medusa heads, one placed sideways and the other upside down, remain a mystery, further adding to the cistern’s allure.
Galata Tower, Istanbul
Rising above Istanbul’s skyline is the Galata Tower, an imposing stone tower that has dominated this city’s skyline for centuries. The 63-meter-high Genoese tower, built in 1348, was the city’s tallest structure when constructed and served as a watchtower for fires.
Situated in the Galata district, the tower offers one of the best vantage points over Istanbul. Visitors can take an elevator and climb a couple of flights of stairs to reach the viewing deck, where an unobstructed 360-degree view of the city awaits.
Golden Horn, Istanbul
The Golden Horn, or Haliç in Turkish, is a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus in Istanbul. This horn-shaped estuary separates the historic heart of Istanbul from the rest of the modern city.
Since the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, the Golden Horn has been a bustling harbor, playing a vital role in the city’s growth and development. Today, visitors can enjoy a leisurely cruise along the Golden Horn, savoring the sight of the city’s historic sites and beautiful landscape.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque, is one of the most famous landmarks in Turkey. This historic mosque, built in the early 17th century during the rule of Ahmed I, is still actively used for worship today.
The mosque gets its colloquial name from the beautiful blue Iznik tiles that adorn its interior, creating a mesmerizing and serene atmosphere. It is also known for its impressive architecture, featuring a central dome, eight secondary domes, and six slender minarets, which were quite unusual for the time it was built.
Inside, visitors are greeted by a forest of 260 windows, an expansive prayer area carpeted in red and decorated with intricate patterns, and a series of beautifully crafted chandeliers. Whether viewed from afar or within, the Blue Mosque offers a captivating glimpse into the grandeur of Islamic architecture and art.
Topkapi Palace, Istanbul
Gracing a hill with views sweeping over the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, the resplendent Topkapi Palace showcases the grandeur and finesse of the Ottoman Empire. Built in the 15th century, this expansive estate served as the official dwelling of the Ottoman Sultans for four centuries.
The palace is a spectacle of elegant courtyards, regal chambers, and intricate tile work, housing a treasury with relics from the Islamic world. Amongst its many precious holdings is the cloak and sword that once belonged to the Prophet Mohammad. The complex also encloses the Imperial Harem, the secluded quarters of the Sultan’s wives, concubines, and offspring.
Hagia Sophia Mosque, Istanbul
An emblem of Istanbul’s multifaceted past, the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish, bears the layers of the city’s rich history. Initially, this was a Byzantine cathedral, then a mosque under the Ottomans, and a museum for several decades. Finally, the Hagia Sophia was reconverted into a mosque in 2020.
This architectural masterpiece, constructed in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian I, is renowned for its massive dome, considered a revolutionary feat of engineering at the time. Inside, awe-inspiring mosaics narrate tales of Byzantine emperors, while Islamic calligraphy adorns the walls, symbolizing the structure’s dual religious heritage.
A visit to Hagia Sophia provides a tangible encounter with Istanbul’s historical transformations, revealing this remarkable city’s enduring coexistence of cultures and religions.
Suleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul
Commanding the Istanbul skyline is the majestic Suleymaniye Mosque, a testament to the architectural prowess of the legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The mosque, completed in 1558, was a grand project commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and marks a high point in Ottoman architecture refinement.
This mosque was the former home of a hospital, a library, schools, a bathhouse, and a caravanserai. The mosque’s interior is an ode to Ottoman artistry, with intricate tile work, vibrant stained glass windows, and colossal chandeliers contributing to its serene elegance. The mosque’s garden is a sanctuary of calm, offering sweeping views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The Walls of Constantinople, Istanbul
Constructed in the 5th century by Emperor Theodosius II, the Walls of Constantinople are among the most famous Turkey landmarks and some of the most well-preserved ancient fortifications. These walls, once shielding the city of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), comprised a network of defensive walls, moats, and towers – showcasing the engineering prowess of the Middle East during the 5th century.
Though time has claimed parts of these walls, significant sections remain standing, particularly the land walls. A stroll along these ancient bulwarks offers a touchable connection to the city’s bygone era and provides a unique lens into Istanbul’s storied past under the Ottoman Empire.
Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul
Nestled along the European banks of the Bosphorus Strait, the Dolmabahçe Palace is a manifestation of the late Ottoman Empire’s luxury and magnificence and is the largest palace in Turkey. Completed in 1856 under Sultan Abdülmecid I, one of the Ottoman Sultans, the palace weaves together Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical architectural influences, reflecting Turkey’s embrace of Westernization.
The palace is split into two primary sections: the Selamlik, or ceremonial quarters, and the Harem, the private domain of the Sultan and his family. With 285 rooms, 46 halls, and 6 baths, this palace exudes opulence. Inside, crystal chandeliers hang from the ceilings, including the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall, while 14 tons of gold leaf glisten on the ceilings. These rooms house a vast collection of European artifacts, boasting exquisite French clocks and vases from Sevres and Baccarat.
Dolmabahçe Palace also holds historical significance as the location where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, spent his last days and passed away in 1938. Today, it stands as a museum, inviting the public to step back in time and immerse themselves in the lavish lifestyle of Ottoman royalty.
Nestled within the province of Denizli in southwestern Turkey, the awe-inspiring natural phenomenon known as Pamukkale, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has captivated travelers over centuries. Its name, translating to “Cotton Castle,” aptly describes the terraced white basins that, from a distance, appear to be a castle spun from cotton.
These terraces are natural pools filled with thermal waters rich in calcium carbonate. Over millennia, the mineral-laden water has cascaded down the slope, leaving behind a spectacle of solidified cascades, stalactites, and mineral forests that sparkle under the sun’s rays.
Adjacent to these thermal waters lie the remnants of Hierapolis, an ancient Greek city. Visitors can meander through the ruins, bathe in the warm waters, and explore the remarkably intact Roman theater, necropolis, and other structures.
Ancient City of Hierapolis, Pamukkale
Perched atop the ethereal white travertine terraces of Pamukkale, the ancient city of Hierapolis stands tall as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Established in the 2nd century BC by the King of Pergamon, Hierapolis emerged as a healing sanctuary, its thermal springs offering therapeutic solace.
Today, the city’s ruins weave tales of its glorious past. The Roman theater, standing in near-perfect preservation, the expansive necropolis, home to over 1,200 tombs, and a Roman Bath, now repurposed into a museum, are relics of a bygone era. The remnants of the Temple of Apollo also adorn the cityscape. Hierapolis offers a visual feast with its panoramic views of Pamukkale’s unique “Cotton Castle” terraces.
Mount Nemrut, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an impressive mountain in southeastern Turkey known for the giant statues and monumental tomb at its summit. King Antiochus I of Commagene commissioned the site in the 1st century BC as a monument to himself and the gods.
The statues, originally seated and measuring up to 9 meters tall, represent a range of deities from both Greek and Persian pantheons, alongside a statue of King Antiochus himself. Over time, the heads of these statues have fallen off, creating the iconic scene of scattered colossal heads that visitors see today.
The mountain’s remote location and altitude of over 2,000 meters make it a challenging yet rewarding destination. Many visitors choose to hike up the mountain at dawn or dusk, as the sunrise and sunset over the stone heads and surrounding landscape create a truly mystical and breathtaking experience.
Sumela Monastery, Trabzon
High above the Altındere Valley in Trabzon, nestled within the Pontic Mountains, the Sumela Monastery is a historic Greek Orthodox site founded in the 4th century. This impressive structure clings to a steep cliff at about 1,200 meters high and offers breathtaking views of the lush forested valley below.
The monastery comprises a church, several chapels, student rooms, a library, a sacred spring, and a kitchen. One of its most striking features is the Rock Church, adorned with well-preserved frescoes depicting biblical scenes and portraits of saints. Despite being abandoned in 1923, the monastery has been well preserved and is now a museum attracting visitors worldwide.
Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa
Göbekli Tepe, located in southeastern Turkey, is an archaeological site that has fundamentally altered our understanding of human history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to around 9600 to 7300 BC, predating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, and is considered one of the world’s oldest known temples.
The site consists of massive limestone pillars up to 6 meters tall, arranged in circular formations. These pillars are carved with intricate bas-reliefs of animals and abstract symbols, offering fascinating insights into prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies’ spiritual beliefs and practices.
The Antalya Museum is one of Turkey’s largest and most significant museums, dedicated to preserving the region’s rich cultural heritage. It houses over 5,000 art pieces spread across 13 exhibition halls and an open-air gallery, meticulously arranged chronologically and thematically.
Visitors can admire various artifacts from the prehistoric era to Ottoman times, excavated from surrounding archaeological sites such as Perge, Side, and Termessos. These include beautifully preserved Roman-era marble statues, intricate Byzantine mosaics, Seljuk ceramics, and exquisite Ottoman-era Qurans, reflecting the region’s diverse history and civilizations.
The Blue Lagoon, Fethiye
Etched in the heart of Ölüdeniz, near Fethiye, lies the Blue Lagoon, showcasing the clearest hues of turquoise, fringed by soft sandy beaches and dense swathes of greenery. Often referred to as “the Dead Sea” for its tranquil waters, this magnificent bay nestles within a national park and is a gem on the crown of the Turkish Riviera, and is a popular spot for photography.
An adventurer’s paradise, the Blue Lagoon offers a banquet of thrilling exploits. You can paraglide from the peak of Babadağ Mountain, capturing the breathtaking lagoon vista from an eagle’s perspective. Dive into the crystal-clear waters, brushing shoulders with the vibrant marine life beneath.
Myra Ruins, Demre
Nestled in Demre, in the Antalya province, the ancient city of Myra whispers stories of its rich past. Known for its impressive rock-cut tombs and a colossal Roman theater, Myra is an archaeological site and open-air museum that held significant sway as part of the Lycian Union in the 2nd century BC.
The city’s cliff face is a tapestry of intricate tombs hewn from the rock. These once served as the eternal resting place for Myra’s elite. The Roman theater, among the largest in Lycia, stands in commendable preservation, and one can almost hear the echoes of the grand performances that once resonated here.
Mount Olympos, Antalya
Mount Olympos, known locally as Tahtali Dağı, towers over the surrounding landscape near Antalya. The mountain reaches an elevation of 2,366 meters, providing stunning views of the ancient city of Olympos and the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
This location is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Hiking trails wind up the mountain, passing through fragrant pine forests and offering increasingly expansive views. Paragliding from the summit is a popular activity for those seeking a thrill. At the base of the mountain, visitors can explore the ancient ruins of Olympus or relax on the beautiful beaches.
Manavgat Waterfalls, Antalya
Near the bustling city of Antalya, the Manavgat Waterfalls are a beautiful oasis of tranquility. These waterfalls are located on the Manavgat River, one of the longest rivers in Turkey. The river’s white, foaming water cascades over a wide ledge into a large, tranquil pool.
The surrounding park provides a perfect setting for relaxation, with shaded areas for picnics and platforms for viewing the falls. Boat trips on the river offer another perspective on the waterfall and the lush landscape.
Aspendos is an ancient Greek city located in the Antalya Province of Turkey. It is renowned for its greek ruins and remarkably well-preserved Roman theater, one of the country’s most significant and impressive landmarks.
The Roman theater in Aspendos is considered one of the best-preserved ancient theaters in the world. It was constructed during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD) and could accommodate around 15,000 to 20,000 spectators. The theater’s architecture and engineering are a testament to the advanced skills of Roman builders, and it stands as a remarkable example of Roman theater design.
One of the most astonishing features of the Aspendos Theater is its impeccable acoustics. Even today, it is possible to hear a whisper from the stage throughout the entire auditorium, which is a testament to the engineering genius of the ancient architects. This acoustic perfection dramatically enhances the experience of watching performances in the theater.
Aspendos is an active archaeological site, and ongoing excavations reveal new insights into the ancient city’s history and culture. Archaeologists continue to discover and study artifacts and structures that provide valuable information about life in Aspendos throughout different periods.
Ephesus, located near the modern city of Selçuk in Izmir Province, is one of the world’s most significant and well-preserved ancient cities. It was an important trade, culture, and spirituality center during various historical periods, leaving behind a wealth of archaeological treasures and historical significance.
Ephesus is significant for its ancient Greek and Roman heritage, the former presence of the Temple of Artemis, its well-preserved Library of Celsus and Great Theater, its role in early Christian history, its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its popularity as a captivating tourist destination. It stands as a testament to the ancient world’s ingenuity, culture, and spirituality.
Temple of Artemis, Ephesus
The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, also known as the Artemisium, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and a significant religious site dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis. Built-in the 6th century BC, the temple was renowned for its size and architectural grandeur.
Although only a single column remains standing today, the original structure was said to have been four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. It consisted of 127 Ionic columns, each standing 18 meters high, and was adorned with fine sculptures.
Despite its ruinous state, the site of the Temple of Artemis continues to attract visitors who marvel at the scale of this once magnificent structure. Nearby, the Ephesus Archaeological Museum displays many artifacts recovered from the site, providing further insight into the ancient temple’s grandeur.
The House of Mary, Ephesus
Nestled in the embrace of Mount Koressos, a stone’s throw away from the ancient city of Ephesus, rests a small, unassuming stone house – the House of Mary. This modest dwelling, named Meryemana in Turkish, is shrouded in spiritual significance. For many, it holds the heart-rending honor of being the last abode of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Steeped in tranquility, this chapel is no ordinary house; it is a beacon of faith, drawing in believers from both Christian and Muslim communities. Year after year, on the 15th of August, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary breathes life into this humble sanctuary. Thousands of pilgrims gather their prayers and hymns, resonating in unison. A sacred spring murmurs nearby, its water believed to hold healing properties, offering solace to those who seek it.
Visiting the famous landmarks in Turkey can be an enriching and unforgettable experience, providing the chance to delve into the country’s fascinating history, experience its diverse culture, marvel at architectural wonders, and immerse yourself in beautiful landscapes. It’s an opportunity to broaden your horizons, gain new perspectives, and create cherished memories.