The lira is the primary currency in Turkey, although many tourist destinations and shops will accept euros. Visa and Mastercard credit cards are widely used and accepted, and select hotels and restaurants may also accept American Express. It is recommended to have lira on hand to use at shops, restaurants, and smaller souvenir stands, which may not have card machines. Canadian and US dollars can be exchanged for lira at your local bank before departure, or at currency exchanges or ATM machines in Turkey while you are there.
Turkish is the official language of Turkey, but many locals are fluent in English (especially in larger towns and tourist destinations). Turkish is a unique language, in that it uses the Latin alphabet—like English or Spanish—with a few additional characters, but sounds closer to Arabic. It’s also more of a phrase-based language, and phrases often have a few meanings, such as “tesekkur ederim,” which means “thank you,” but can also mean “no thank you” or “I’m not interested.” “Gule gule” means “goodbye,” but after purchasing something you may be wished “gule gule kullanin,” which essentially means “use it in good health/while smiling.” A simple “hello” is “merhaba.”
Best Time To Go
Because Turkey is so large and spreads across various geographical climates, picking the best time of year to visit depends on what you’re looking to do in the country. In Istanbul and most of the most popular sites, April and May as well as September and October are very pleasant and not quite as crowded as mid-summer. If constant sun and heat is your prime focus, then you’ll love the summer months in the beach areas of Antalya and Marmaris along the South Mediterranean Sea where the water cools off the hot temperatures. For those seeking cooler temperatures and winter sports, November to March is a great time to visit as it typically doesn’t go below –2°C/28°F and the Eastern Anatolian regions have near-constant snow on the ground during those months.
Generally across Turkey, June, July, and August can reach 35°C/95°C and potentially feels even hotter in southern areas with added humidity. Istanbul is most pleasant in spring and fall, with average temperatures around 18–20°C/65–68°F and usually not colder than 9–12°C/48–53°F. In the parts of the country along the Aegean Sea (Izmiz, Kusadasi, and Canakkale), there is a classic Mediterreanean climate, averaging around 29°C/84°F in peak summer and not dropping below 9°C/48°F in winter.
The ideal traveller to Turkey is one who wants to mix extensive historical and cultural sightseeing with relaxation, great service, and friendly people. Families and beach bums will find plenty to do in the many seaside resort towns with clear waters and sandy beaches, but sportsmen and culture seekers will find various landscapes all over Turkey to spark their interests.
Getting There From North America
Istanbul Airport (IST) is the biggest and most popular airport in Turkey, and a common stopover point for flights into the smaller areas of the country and a waypoint to North African countries. Because of Turkey’s size, most of the best places to visit are spread out and not easily accessible by car. Airports like Kayseri Erkilet Airport (ASR) commonly serve the hot air ballooning capital of Cappadocia, whereas Izmir (ADB) is the airport you’ll want for visits to historical Ephesus and Troy. Antalya (AYT) in the south along the Mediterranean Sea is the main hub airport for Turkey’s best beaches.
Recommended flight route from the United States
Turkish Airlines ranks among some of the best airlines in the world as far as quality of service, amenities provided to guests, and value. They have many hubs throughout the world and provide direct service to Istanbul from the biggest airports in the USA, such as New York (JFK), Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington Dulles, Atlanta, and Miami. Other airlines such as Lufthansa, Delta, and United provide one-stop flights from most other airports as well, with stops in other US airports, Frankfurt, Paris, or London. Visitors to Turkey typically need a visa to enter the country so please check this with your local visa authority before departure.
Recommended flight route from Canada
Turkish Airlines provides direct service to Istanbul from Toronto and Montreal, with plans to add direct flights to Vancouver soon. Currently from Vancouver, Calgary, and Halifax, travellers can find frequent one-stop flights into Istanbul with stopovers in Amsterdam or Toronto via Delta, Air Canada, and KLM. Visitors to Turkey typically need a visa to enter the country so please check with your local visa authority before departure.
Essential Sights of Turkey
Turkey’s capital city of Istanbul is over 3,000 years old, and in that time has been settled by Greeks (who called it Byzantium), the Romans (who called it New Rome, then Constantinople) and Ottoman civilizations. Fittingly, the city is full of fascinating history and a tapestry of architectural styles, while boasting a brotherhood of faiths amongst its many mosques, synagogues, and churches. This is the only city in the world that spans two continents—Europe and Asia—connected by the Bosphorus Strait. Stroll the historical section of the European side of Istanbul where you’ll find the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace, or spend your day in the pedestrian-friendly Taksim Square or fashionable Beyoglu district on the modern side.
Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace
Completed in 536AD at the request of the Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire, this monumental cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum (and soon to be mosque again) was once considered the official centre of the world. The groundbreaking addition of the large round dome built onto the square walls was one of the first of its type of architecture, acknowledging the wealth and technically advanced status of the empire. Hagia Sophia is also known as Ayasofya or St. Sophia. Nearby Topkapi Palace was the seat of all the sultans who ruled the Ottoman Empire after the time of the Romans, up until the early 1920s when Mustafa Kamal Ataturk transformed Turkey into the republic it is today. The glittering jewels and intricate mosaics found in Topkapi Palace bring visitors back to a very opulent period in Turkey’s history.
A quick flight from Istanbul will bring you to the otherworldly region of Cappadocia, famous for its hot air ballooning and distinct “fairy chimney” rock formations. Over 2,000 people fly daily over Monks Valley, Goreme Valley, and the dry desert landscape. The accommodations here are something special as well: cave hotels built as dwellings by troglodytes as far back as the Bronze Age now serve as naturally cooled and totally unique hotels.
Ephesus and Kusadasi
Within easy reach of the seaside modern Aegean city of Izmir, you can find tours to visit many ancient archaeological ruins in the Kusadasi area, the highlight of which are Ephesus and Kusadasi. Ephesus is considered “the cradle of early Christianity” as St. Paul ministered to the Ephesians here when the local Greeks still worshipped their gods at the Temple of Artemis (or Temple of Diana to the Romans). The House of the Virgin Mary is also an important site and pilgrimage stop for many Christians, and many ancient Greek and Roman sites here also remain like the Odeon, fountains, and Roman baths, and even a library and brothel.
The snow white hot spring mineral pools of Pamukkale were once observed by the Greeks (and later Romans) as a natural spa and area of intense peace and relaxation. Many of the upper elite of the ancient people would spend leisure time and retirement here among the shallow pools, which lead up the hillside to the town of Hierapolis. Here you can now find an incredible archaeological museum and many intact sections of the buildings where the town once sat, overlooking the pearly white mineral pools built into the hillside and the landscape below.
Other Highlights of Turkey Off the Beaten Path
At Istanbul’s Hodjapasha Cultural Centre you will gaze in awe at the spinning, dance-like ceremony performed by members of the traditional Sufi order. The Sufi followers who perform the ceremony (called Sema) are known as dervishes, and they twirl across the stage in long robes as a form of dhikr or praise—hence being known as Whirling Dervishes. The dance celebrates the sun and moon, and the spirituality of achieving perfection, along with prayers from the Qur’an. This all plays out in front of the backdrop of the historical cultural centre, which itself is over 500 years old and a domed former bathhouse for high-ranking Turkish men and women.
Located in the historical town of Hierapolis, atop the white natural mineral pools of Pamukkale, you’ll find a lesser-known historical area where they say Cleopatra herself used to sun herself and lounge. In its heyday, this beautiful pool (fed by the same warm spring as the mineral pools) was a massive crystal-clear basin surrounded by the Roman columns of a temple honouring Apollo, but a later earthquake tumbled many of the columns into the pool. In this magical place you can have the unique experience of swimming amongst history.
About four to five hours away from both Izmir and Istanbul is the historical city of Canakkale and the Archaeological Site of Troy. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was not only home to the legendary city of Troy, described in detail in Homer’s Iliad, but was in fact home to nine different ancient settlements stacked one on top of the other. Cannakale and the area of Troy was a strategic location for merchants passing through the Canakkale Strait (once called the Dardanelles), which connected the Mediteranean Sea with today’s Istanbul and the Black Sea.
Plentiful ancient historical sites in this area and a symbolic large wooden Trojan horse monument stir the imagination back to the time of the beautiful Helen of Troy, her lover, and warring families and cities of legendary eras.
Sports and sporting activities help Turkey stand out as a destination for active travellers. The Istanbul Marathon has been running (pun intended) annually since 1979 and is the only race in the world where you can run on two continents! For sports enthusiasts, Istanbul has three top-tier football (soccer) teams who qualify regularly for the biggest football championships in the world: Galatasaray, Fenerbahce, and Istanbul Basaksehir. These teams play often between September and May, so add the energy and excitement of a Turkish football game to your travel plans during these months and you will not be disappointed. Golfers will enjoy the 11 beautiful coastal courses in Belek, which could be a trip on its own or an add-on to a stay in Antalya. Scuba diving is stunning in lovely Kas on the Mediterranean Sea, and travellers can even ski at the beautiful resorts and slopes of Erzerum in eastern Anatolia and Bursa closer to Istanbul.
Top Activities and Experiences in Turkey
Hot Air Ballooning
Seeing the sun rise over the fairy chimneys and surreal natural formations of the Cappadocia region from a hot air balloon is an experience you’ll never forget. Rides take place early morning, when the conditions are perfect for flying and the views are breathtaking. You will soar over the unique landscape, spotting a hundred other colourful balloons, pigeon houses, rock churches, and cave dwellings along the way.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
One of the first stops you’ll want to make during your visit to Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar in the historic area of the city. This sprawling covered souk or mall with over 4,000 shops and a maze of streets connecting them is one of the largest and oldest in the world. The original centre of the bazaar was built in 1461 and famous Turkish wares can be found here on their own avenues, like gold jewelry, rugs, leather goods, and authentic food and snacks. Early morning is the best time to visit the Grand Bazaar if you want a more leisurely stroll and chat with the vendors, but the cacophony of mid-day shopping frenzy is also a sight to behold.
Sail Between Continents
The Bosphorus Strait is a narrow passageway that bisects the continents of Europe and Asia, and more specifically the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Connecting the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, you can take a cruise along this waterway and spot all the mansions, fortresses, and palaces along the way—most of which were built by sultans of the Ottoman era. You will also pass under the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, which connects the two continents.
Relax in a Hammam
Hammams (also known as Turkish baths) have been a major part of Turkish culture since the Ottomans merged their bathing rituals with the Roman bath culture in 1450. Commonly located in historic and architecturally beautiful bathhouses, hammams are a place of ritual and social gathering with multiple rooms for men and women. A traditional treatment at the hammam would involve a massage and scrub with a rough Turkish bath mitt called a kese. The skin is then cleansed with black soap (made with eucalyptus and olives). Clear water is run over the body between each step, and all the while the relaxing and invigorating wet steam of the room detoxifies the visitor.
Beaches of Antalya and Marmaris
Along the Mediterranean Sea on the south coast of Turkey, visitors will find some of the most popular and beautiful beaches in Europe. Flocks of travellers from Eastern and Western Europe, as well as the Americas and Asia seeking sun and sand, make this a wonderfully diverse place to spend a holiday. The beach city of Antalya with its modern amenities, boasting 5-star resorts that offer all-inclusive dining plans and beach access, is top of the list. Spot gorgeous waterfalls at sunrise, shop the historical covered bazaar for souvenirs, or indulge in a plethora of water sports during your visit. The coastal town of Marmaris will beckon to sailing and nightlife enthusiasts with its golden beaches, clear water, and marinas chock full of boats, both old fashioned and modern. Luxury resorts and well-maintained villas allow visitors to spend time here in style, and at night areas like the lively Marmaris Bar Street keeps the party going until the wee hours of the night.
Essential Turkish Foods to Try
Kebabs are perhaps some of the first foods you might think of from this region of the world, but really “kebab” simply means meat that’s spit roasted over charcoal. There are a few types of kebab that are popular in Turkey, like doner kebab—vertically roasted then shaved lamb—and Iskender kebab, which is doner kebab served with tomato sauce and bread. The traditional shish kebab consists of chicken, beef, or lamb that is served on skewers alongside veggies and rice. Often, kebabs are considered a street food that may be served at roadside stalls and late-night eateries, but sophisticated versions can also be found at many of the best restaurants across the country.
For travellers with a sweet tooth, you will find lots of treats in Turkey to suit your tastes. Traditional baklava originated here, a light and very flaky pastry filled with walnut or pistachio and coated in delicious sugar syrup or honey. The baklava that comes from the town of Gaziantep is even designated as a Protected Geographical Designation by the European Commission—the first Turkish product to be registered! Forget any Turkish Delight you may have had in the past; the fresh and tender lokum (the Turkish name for it) are jelly sweets that will melt in your mouth and can be found in over 40 flavours.
Wash down your Turkish Delight and baklava with some dark Turkish coffee, a uniquely roasted coffee that combines ground beans with water and sugar, brewed in individual pots on a stove till foamy. Turkish coffee has been prepared like this for over five centuries, and has even been designated as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Turkish hospitality and socialization tied to the brewing of coffee is what led to the coffeehouse culture spreading throughout Europe.
Extended breakfasts are very popular with Turks, with a plentiful variety of shared family-style dishes full of regional favourites. Cured meats and soft cheeses top fresh white bread, fried eggs, and menemen (scrambled eggs with tomatoes and peppers) and sujuk (Turkish sausage) are served hot and delicious. Finishing off your hearty breakfast with traditional black tea or coffee will truly make you feel like you’re starting your day like a king or queen.
You might think you’ve crossed the Mediterranean into Italy when you discover that Turkey is famous for a variety of ravioli, or manti in Turkish. These are very small pasta pockets filled with ground beef or lamb topped with a buttery yogurt sauce and some light spices. Manti is typically painstakingly handmade, and it’s said that up to 40 manti will fit in one tablespoon.
Tips for Sustainable Travel
There are many ways in which travellers can travel sustainably across Turkey, including shopping local for goods and touring with local tour companies and guides. Travelling within cities and between sites is popular in places like Istanbul and Izmir. In fact, Izmir and the surrounding historical sites and cities along the coast were recently added to the Eurovelo 8, part of the Mediterranean Route on the European cycle route. Organizations like the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) works to ensure that Safe Tourism Certification Program measures are followed regarding transportation and accommodations to protect all travellers who visit Turkey and local staff who work hard at these establishments. As with any destination, leave Turkey as beautiful as you found it by reducing the use of single-use plastics where possible, leaving only footprints behind, and taking only photos, memories, and local goods home with you.
Where to Go Next
Once you’ve experienced Turkey, you will find countries in North Africa and the Middle East to be logical next steps in terms of culture, ritual, and landscape. Istanbul is a common stopover city en route from North America to other countries in the area of Turkey, such as Tunisia, Egypt, or Greece. Travellers fascinated by the ancient Greco-Roman history of Turkey will love a trip to Greece and Italy to further learn about the impact each country and ancient culture had on one another. Beachcombers will find the Mediterranean beaches and culture of Tunisia, Malta, and the Aegean islands to be their next ideal vacation destination.
Most Popular Itineraries for Turkey
For a short stay in Turkey or stopover on the way to another destination, the Taste of Istanbul is a great way to see the highlights of this historic city. Visit the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar with a guide, while also taking a boat ride between the continents and cross to the Asian side of the city for some amazing views. If you’re able to spend a bit longer in Turkey to take in more of the amazing sights and history of the country you should check out the Classical Turkey itinerary. Fully customizable to suit your interest, this 8-day itinerary visits Istanbul, the hot-air ballooning capital of the world Cappadocia, and beautiful Izmir with nearby historic Ephesus. For guests looking for the most possible inclusions of touring, meals, and transportation, consider an escorted 10-day tour. An incredible value, you will have the opportunity to see many of the above sites in addition to spots between cities that are more easily accessible by coach, such as the Pamukkale pools and historic Troy in Canakkale.
13 Jul 2020, 5:48 p.m.