Go ahead, spend your life savings on plane tickets and baklava.
1. First off, not only is Turkey overwhelmingly gorgeous, its cities and landscapes are also incredibly diverse.
2. Where else can you start your weekend on a ski slope…
…and end it with a dip in the Mediterranean?
3. Although the Black Sea is pretty great, too.
Amasra is the Black Sea’s most adorable port town and positively deserted compared to its counterparts on the Mediterranean, so you can get that beach all to yourself.
4. There are mountains to climb.
Like, really large mountains.
Turkey’s highest peak, Mount Ararat, forms a natural border between Turkey and Armenia. It’s also said to be where Noah’s Ark landed after the great flood and every so often, a hardy explorer claims to have found remnants of the ark’s wooden shell.
5. And islands to explore.
Akdamar, this picturesque little island, was once home to an entire Armenian palace. But all that’s left now are the ruins of the royal cathedral and an abundance of gorgeously flowering trees, juxtaposed against snow-capped peaks and the bluest lake you’ve ever seen.
6. Along with lakes that will take your breath away.
The perimeter of Van Lake (Turkey’s largest) is dotted with amazing archaeological finds, including the city’s castle, a fortress on top of a mountain, graveyards from the Seljuk era, and the ruins of Armenian churches. It’s also the bluest water you’ll ever see, #nofilter required.
7. Turkey has monasteries overlooking valleys.
Five miles outside of Mardin, the saffron-tinged Deyrulzafaran Monastery began as a sun temple. Since then, it’s been a Roman citadel and later, the seat of the Syriac Orthodox church. You’ll need to haggle with a taxi driver in Mardin for a ride over, but the breaktaking view of the Mesopotamian Plains surrounding the monastery are worth the struggle.
And monasteries built into mountains.
It takes an hour to trek up to Sumela Monastery, high in the mountains of the Black Sea region, but it’s worth the climb. Sumela, built by Greek Orthodox monks in the 4th century, has some of Turkey’s best-preserved biblical frescos and mosaics along its inner walls. You may even befriend a mountain goat or two on the walk up.
Turkey actually has entire cities built into mountains.
The honey-colored town of Mardin is built into the hills overlooking the Mesapotamian plains. It’s a veritable maze of tiny winding streets lined with ancient minarets and spice shops. It’s also famous for some of the cheapest — and most beautiful — silver-work in Turkey, so it’s a great chance to stock up on some bling.
8. Because there’s no better way to catch the sunrise than in a hot-air balloon.
The little towns of Cappadocia exist almost entirely inside caves called fairy chimneys, formed by volcanic explosions centuries ago. It’s a little like a cross between The Flintstones and something from Star Wars. Explore cave-churches in Goreme’s famous open-air museum, motor around the mountains in an ATV, and catch the sunrise with an early-morning hot-air balloon ride over this incredible landscape.
9. And where else could you find a five-star hotel in a cave?
Uçhisar is another tiny Cappadocian town famous for its pottery shops and Uchisar Kalesi — a castle on a hill which provides the best vantage point of the entire fairy-chimney-filled region.
10. Turkish towns are adorably picturesque.
11. Even (especially?) when they’re partly underwater.
The town of Halfeti was submerged underwater during the construction of the Birecik Dam in the 1990s. Though the town was relocated to higher ground, boat rides around the dam take you directly over the remains of the village and its mosque. It’s now a popular spot for day-trips from Gaziantep to see the remains of the underwater city and visit the Rumkale fortress nearby.
12. Its mosques are breathtaking on the inside…
Istanbul’s largest and loveliest mosque, Sultanahmet, is better known as the Blue Mosque for the mosaic tiles decorating its interior facades.
…and on the outside.
13. And nearly every Turkish city has its own castle.
This lovely little castle floats a mile off the shore of Mersin. According to local legend, supposedly a fortune teller once told a king his daughter would be poisoned to death, so he built Kızkalesi (the maiden’s castle) out at sea to protect her from harm. (Spoiler: the princess died anyway.)
The bravest make the swim out, but for the fainter of heart, you can also rent a paddleboat emblazoned with dolphins to make your way there. The beach is also lined with restaurants specializing in super-fresh of fish — the perfect place to watch the sun go down.
14. It’s where the world’s ancient empires once met.
Built overlooking Mount Ararat by generations of Ottoman kings, İshak Paşa Sarayı palace blends architectural influences from neighboring Armenia and the former Persian empire, making it one of the most enduring images of Eastern Turkey’s incredible history. The palace has survived a lot, including losing its entire second floor to artillery shelling during a battle with the Russians.
Getting there is its own adventure; it’s about a four-hour drive from the provincial capital of Kars, and the route there circles around Mt. Ararat and goes up against the Turkey-Armenia border.
And where every religion has left a mark.
The Technicolor-hued town of Antakya in southeastern Turkey is known as a city of co-existence, because of the people of myriad faiths who call it home. It’s got some of Turkey’s oldest churches and a synagogue.
It’s also a short drive away from the beach towns of Samandag and Arsuz, if you’d like to dip your feet in the Mediterranean. The cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring Syria, so get excited for spicier kebabs and hummus, and don’t miss the city’s specialty: künefe, a dessert made of sweetened cheese and cream.
15. So the entire country is basically one giant archaeological treasure.
Hieropolis, now a glorious mass of ruins, was basically the Florida of the ancient world: Many of its citizens chose to retire there to spend their final days soaking in the nearby hot springs of Pamukkale. You can follow their lead by soaking in the springs after a day of climbing around the ruins.
16. From Ephesus in the west…
The ancient Greeks built it, the ancient Romans conquered it, and the Byzantines rebuilt it. Somehow, the ancient city of Ephesus survived centuries of tumult to be one of the best-preserved ancient sites in all of Turkey today.
17. To Ani in the east.
Formerly the capital of an Armenian kingdom, Ani was once known as the “City of 1001 Churches,” some of which are still standing. Framed by mountains on one side and the Akhurian river on the other, the ruins of this once-grand city make for a hauntingly beautiful landscape. Try and make it over early enough to watch the sunrise — which is also the best way to avoid the afternoon crowds.
Literally, beautiful archaeological sites everywhere.
Ahlat is an abandoned cemetery filled with tombstones from the Seljuk era. It’s mostly inhabited today by less-than-friendly turtles, but the cemetery provides stunning views of the surrounding mountains and nearby Lake Van.
18. Turkey’s cities were once home to prophets.
Şanlıurfa is supposedly the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham and thousands of pilgrims visit its holy mosques each year — particularly the Halil-ur-Rahman mosque and its holy fish pond, called Balikli Göl. The sprawling park around this mosque is a great spot for a lazy Sunday picnic. If you’ve got sandwiches left over, you can feed them to the sacred carp for good karma.
19. And poets.
Konya is home to the tomb of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the world’s most famous poets and philosophers, and founder of the Sufi Mevlevi order — known colloquially today as the “Whirling Dervishes.” You can still see them perform at sema ceremonies around the city. It’s also the perfect place to curl up with a cup of cay (Turkish black tea) and catch up on your Persian poetry.
20. Its loveliest city, Istanbul, spans two continents.
Really, you could write entire articles about the beauty that is Istanbul.
Like this one.
21. And the world’s last divided city is only a ferry ride away.
Cyprus and Turkey have had a long, bitter history for the last five decades, and the island is currently divided between Turkish-held Northern Cyprus, and the internationally-recognized, mainly Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus in the South.
In recent years, particularly with Cyprus’s accession to the EU in 2004, relations have improved somewhat, and tourists are now able to easily cross the border between north and south by foot. Visit the divided capital, Nicosia, for pristine beaches and excellent gyros on the Greek side and remnants of beautiful Ottoman architecture (including the stunning caravansarai pictured above) in the north.
22. Turkey will bring out your inner adventurer.
The beach town Ölüdeniz’s name literally means the “Dead Sea” in Turkish, because the water stays as still as a pond, even during storms. It’s home to some of the most incredible parasailing and scuba-diving in the world. It’s also the starting point for hikes through the stunningly-beautiful Lycian Way mountain trail.
23. But it’s also a great place to relax and recharge.
Pamukkale means “cotton castles,” and you can see why. The snow-white travertine formations around these hot springs have been famed for their restorative powers since the 2nd century BC, and warm weather all year round means you’ll have a great reason to break out the swimwear even in the middle of winter.
24. We haven’t even discussed the food.
25. Turkey does breakfast like no one else.
Called kahvalti, breakfast really is the most important — and the best — meal in Turkey. It generally features a spread of little dishes, including several types of cheese, bread, sucuk (a spicy sausage), fresh-cut cucumbers and tomatoes, olives, kaymak (a clotted-cream-esque marvel served with honey and spread on bread), menemen (eggs scrambled with tomatoes and sausage), berry jam and Nutella, all washed down with several tiny cups of çay — Turkish black tea. Van Kahvaltı Evi in Istanbul is a personal favorite breakfast spot.
26. Plus, baklava.
27. And everyone needs a souvenir from the Grand Bazaar.
Yes you’ll need to dodge a crowd of other tourists and bargain hard, but it’s all worth it for the incredible pottery, scarves, and lanterns you can pick up at this covered market, one of the largest and oldest in the world. Also check out the neighboring Egyptian spice market to stock up on Turkish Delight and (duh) spices; and Sahaflar Carşısı, a secondhand book market dating back to the Byzantine period, where you can find rare books and beautiful prints of the city.