Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Visiting Turkey has been on my bucket list for many years and I’ve got to say, it did not disappoint.
Turkey is smack dab between the east and the west. This 300,000 square mile country is sandwiched between Greece and Bulgaria to the west, Georgia and Armenia to the east, and Iraq and Iran to the south. Needless to say, it has the best of both worlds. It’s a deeply-rooted Muslim-majority country with a progressive, westernized bend in major cities like Istanbul.
Before I went to Turkey, I was determined to come prepared. I bought the books, did the research and even watched Murder on the Orient Express (the original one, not the fancy shmancy new one).
But, nothing prepared me for the fast-paced energy of Istanbul and the panoramic landscape of Cappadocia. In this article, I’ll break down everything I did over the five days I was in Turkey and what you can expect if you choose to follow in my steps.
The article will cover:
Where to stay
What to do each day
The best ways to see Istanbul and Cappadocia
What to avoid on your trip and what to lean into
Tons of lessons I learned that will save you time, money and the headache
An actionable guide that you can take on your upcoming Turkey trip
So, let’s get started, shall we?
1. Cappadocia (settling in)
The first place we landed was the Istanbul airport (IST) on the European side. This airport is state of the art with high-ceiling, cement pillars, and an industrial meets Scandinavian vibe.
We landed at IST and immediately took a direct flight to Nevshehir (NAV), the airport serving Cappadocia. Fly with Turkish Airlines. They’re awesome. I love their staff, checked bags are included in the ticket price, the seats are very comfortable, and their in-flight meals are delicious.
After landing in Istanbul, we took a same-day flight to Cappadocia. We arrived on a Friday and were excited to spend the entire weekend in a place we'd been dreaming about.
When we landed in Cappadocia, we took a taxi from NAV airport to Göreme, the region that’s home to Cappadocia. It took about 45 minutes one way. Taxi rates are fixed, so expect to pay about $30 USD per way in a private taxi.
From there, we stayed in a cave hotel. If you stay in Cappadocia, you MUST stay in a cave hotel. I don’t care what your budget is. The cave hotels are the most historic, yet luxurious accommodations you can find in Cappadocia and they’re worth every penny.
We stayed at the Mithra Cave Hotel which is located on a high hill overlooking the Cappadocia hills with a very instagram-worthy view of the hot air balloons (more on this on days two and three). The exterior looks like a cave, it’s dusty and tall with hand carved windows and doors. You may be nervous when you first arrive, and think “this is it?” But trust me, there’s more.
When you walk in, every room in this cave hotel has beautiful Turkish rugs, crushed velvet french-style sofas, and golden light fixtures. To say it’s ornate is an understatement. It’s stunning. You’re greeted with the national drink, a Turkish tea, and you’re promptly checked in to the hotel with an English (and Russian, and Spanish) speaking staff member.
Don’t expect an elevator to your room. Most cave hotels are so ancient that elevators don't exist. Plan to carry your big ol’ bag with 17 pairs of shoes up to your room three flights of stairs up.
When you arrive, settle into your cave room. Be amazed at the hand painted Turkish paintings, gorgeous stone flooring, ultra comfy bed, and soft slippers waiting at the door for you.
When you’re ready for dinner, enjoy it on the rooftop. Most of the nicer cave hotels have a rooftop with a full-service bar and restaurant. Order an array of local delights overlooking the sunset with a hookah in your hand.
Oh yes, the hookahs, also known as sheesha or nargile. If you’re not a smoker, skip this step. If you’re an occasional, it’s-just-for-novelty kind of person (like me), pick up a hookah, order a flavor that tantalizes your senses and partake in one of Turkey’s favorite pastimes.
Day 2: Cappadocia (hot air balloon and landscape tour)
Top of the morning! Day two has arrived and it’s time to do what you really came to Cappadocia for: to check out the hot air balloons. You may be familiar with the classic image of a barren valley with dozens of hot air balloons floating elegantly in the sky. Yes, that’s what you came to Cappadocia for and the time has arrived. But, before you take that epic instagram photo, the best view is from within.
Before you arrive at your hotel (preferably months ahead), sign up for a hot air balloon tour from your hotel. We booked our hotel in July and signed up for a hot air balloon tour when we booked. That was three months ahead of time (we arrived in October). That may not be necessary for you, but it worked for us.
The cost is 100 euros ($116 USD) per person for a 1-hour hot air balloon tour with about 15 other people. The schedule is as follows:
Wake up at 5am
Head to the lobby of your hotel at 5:20am
At 5:25, a driver will pick you and others up at nearby cave hotels and take you to the airfield (a dusty valley where all the hot air balloons take off).
You’ll jump into the hot air balloon, review safety protocols for landing, then off you go.
The tour is spectacular. You’ll see the best of Cappadocia at sunrise. Words cannot describe the picturesque landscape and panoramic view of a swarm of hot air balloons as they make their take off towards the heavens. Take lots of photos but don’t drop your phone when you’re taking your selfies. You won’t get it back.
The hot air balloon tour lasts about an hour. After you land, someone from the crew will bust out a pink, fizzy non-alcoholic beverage and everyone on the tour shares a collective cheer for a flight well done.
After the hot air balloon tour, it'll be about 8 am. Your driver will take you back to your cave hotel. Now’s the time to return to the roof and enjoy a complimentary Turkish breakfast. The breakfast is vast and somewhat overwhelming. Delivered all at once, your table gets flooded with:
And other delicious goodies
I would be surprised if you were hungry after breakfast. It’s all-encompassing and if you want more of anything, they’ll gladly bring you another round for free.
After breakfast, clean up and put on your hiking gear because you’re going to explore the beautiful view you saw this morning but this time, with boots on the ground. There’s a gorgeous hike that takes you through Cappadocia’s landscape. It’s about 7 miles roundtrip and takes you through a huge loop where you get to see the ancient caves that were once inhabited by humans thousands of years ago. It’s not a difficult hike but there is elevation and trickier terrain along the way. Be sure to wear the right shoes and give yourself three or four hours to fully enjoy it.
Halfway through the hike is Uçhisar, a neighboring ancient city with even more caves. At the top of Uçhisar is a view of the entire valley that allows you to see all the way to Cappadocia. Walk up the stairs to the peak and take in the view.
When you’re ready, come down from the peak and treat yourself to lunch in Uçhisar. Like Cappadocia, everything is on a rooftop, and you can enjoy a fabulous traditional lunch of kebab, hummus, dolma and other goodies with a breathtaking view.
After that, complete the rest of the hike all the way back to Cappadocia. Be sure to stop and eat the wild grapes, apples, and pears along the way. We were surprised that a place that looks as dry and desolate as Utah could grow an abundant amount of wild fruit. The wild grapes were our favorite and served as a delicious treat on our journey.
When you get back to Cappadocia, go souvenir shopping. There’s handmade pottery, authentic Turkish slippers, an abundance of spices, and other trinkets that you’ll definitely want to pick up before it’s too late. Once you leave Cappadocia, you won’t find the same goodies in other places.
At this point, you’re probably exhausted (we sure were!) It could be time to take a nap, rest, relax, and wait for dinner. Dinner time is a good opportunity to explore more of the city. We found several restaurants that had absolutely delicious food near our cave hotel. Our favorites were:
After dinner, enjoy a hookah, drink, rest and relax because tomorrow will be your last day here.
Day 3: Cappadocia to Istanbul (from the caves to the big city)
Day three was our last day in Cappadocia. But, I recommend staying an extra day if you have time. There's so much to explore in Cappadocia that two days can feel pretty short. But if you’re a working person with places to be (like me), two days in Cappadocia is perfectly fine and you can still see a lot.
Today, wake up at 6am. It’s early but I promise it’s worth it. At 6:15am, the hot air balloons fly in the sky and you can run up to the rooftop in your best outfit to get a gorgeous shot of yourself with hot air balloons floating around you. There are a lot of great shots you can take at the cave hotels or elsewhere in the city. But, definitely get the shot, it’s a moment that won’t last long. The hot air balloons stop flying around 7 am and you'll miss your chance.
After your mini-photoshoot on the rooftop, enjoy breakfast. The same array of fruits, nuts, cheeses, and breads will be served. Fill up because you’ll be walking a lot in the coming hours.
After breakfast, head over to the must-see Goreme Open Air Museum. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was home to thousands of Catholics seeking refuge during the Ottoman Empire. The open air museum walks you through the various caves in which they lived and shows you several ancient cave drawings of Jesus and other biblical figures.
As you know, Turkey is a Muslim-majority country today but at one point, Cappadocia was home to one of the largest Catholic communities in the Roman Empire. During the Ottoman Empire's reign, Catholics and other groups weren’t allowed to practice their religion freely. Many of the caves you see in Cappadocia were religious refuges for so many groups.
The open air museum lets you walk into these caves, bump your head, and get lost in this fascinating history. The caves are tight, dark and sometimes dank. If you’re claustrophobic, I DO NOT recommend this. But if you’re okay with tight spaces, I recommend a visit. You cannot take pictures in the caves so feast your eyes on the history and take the memories home with you in your mind.
You can walk or taxi from the Open Air Museum back to town. Eat lunch at a local spot and people watch. There are a lot of different cultures walking around Cappadocia, but you’ll definitely cross paths with a few Russians. In my experience, I heard more Russian in Cappadocia than I heard outside of Russia itself. And believe me, I've been to Russia more than once.
After lunch, it was time for us to pack. We decided to take an evening flight back to Istanbul, so we were able to enjoy the morning and return after lunch to pack.
We kissed Cappadocia goodbye and took a shuttle to the NAV airport. Your hotel can organize a shuttle to and from the airport that’s cheaper than getting a private taxi (that’s something we didn’t know before).
The taxi from NAV airport to Cappadocia was about $30 USD, while the shuttle was $11 USD per person. Lesson learned. So, be sure to tell your hotel or accommodation a day in advance the details of your flight and have them organize a shuttle for you.
We flew back to Istanbul from NAV airport, but this time, we landed in the other Istanbul airport on the Asian side. Yes, there are two airports. One is Istanbul Airport (IST) and the other is Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW). Honestly, both airports are fine. The one on the Asian side is a bit further out and the cost to get a taxi to the center of Istanbul can be up to $40 USD.
We took a taxi from the SAW airport and stayed in the center of Istanbul in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. This is the neighborhood I would highly recommend you to stay in, too. It’s walking distance to most tourist attractions plus it has amazing restaurants nearby.
When you arrive at your accommodation, stay, settle in, unpack and when you’re ready, hit the town. Istanbul felt really safe, particularly in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. It’s a tourist hub, so it felt like every business was looking out for you. It felt safe to walk at night with one other person. We never felt in danger at any point during our Istanbul trip.
Hungry? Easy. Find a restaurant with the loudest barking salesman. Just kidding, but not really. Every restaurant will have a man standing outside ready to pounce on you if you even breathe on their menu. They’ll say all sorts of things to get you into their restaurant. But, don’t pay them any mind. Look at the outdoor menu, and if something looks interesting to you, go in. If nothing looks exciting, move on. No one is offended if you don’t respond to their barking.
Like Cappadocia, most restaurants also have hookah. So, enjoy hookah, drink a beer or a glass of wine and enjoy the evening. The best part of Istanbul is that most places stay open well past midnight. So, no rush on enjoying your last night festivities, the business will likely be open until the early hours of the morning.
Day 4: Istanbul (tour the Mosques and the Grand Bazaar)
Day four of Istanbul was one of my favorites. This is the day you get to visit some of Turkey’s most historic sites.
If you’re staying in Sultanahmet, visiting the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque will be right up your alley. Both are a 5-minute walk from your accommodation and are very easy to find. Just follow the crowds if you’re lost.
Once you arrive, be sure to bring a headscarf. Whether you’re a Muslim or not, no one is allowed into the mosques without covering their heads. It’s out of respect for the faith and you’ll be asked to cover before entering.
You can bring a scarf from home, borrow one from the mosque or haggle with a street seller. I even saw people wear hoodies as their head covering. I don’t recommend that, but if you want to do it, go for it.
In the mosque, you’ll have to take off your shoes. Be prepared to go barefoot or walk around in socks. Don’t worry the floors are immaculate and extremely clean. Once you’re in, be amazed at the ornate lighting, the Arabic scripture hanging from the walls, and the areas for praying.
Men and women pray separately in mosques, so you’ll see two sections for both genders. Don’t stare, but observe how people honor their faith in mosques. Learn something new from a faith that perhaps is not your own.
Visiting religious sites is one of my favorite things to do. It humbles me to be in a place of spirituality and I enjoy learning about faiths that are different from my own. In fact, while we’re on the topic, here are a few things you should know about Islam before you go. We found these slides outside of the Blue Mosque and think they're very informative.
One other place to hit if you have time, visit the Topkapı Palace. This historic site is also located near the Sultanahmet neighborhood, so if you stayed there, you can easily walk to this spot, too.
The palace was once the home of the Ottoman empire and houses an array of historic buildings and courtyards to explore. Give yourself a lot of time in this place, there’s a lot to see.
After your huge historic tour, you’re probably in the mood for some grub. There are plenty of options for dining near these touristy areas. It’s the same deal as your neighborhood, there will be men barking at you to eat at their restaurant, look at the menu, ignore the pressure, and go in or not.
Whatever you do, try the Kebab. Kebab in a clay pot is an old Ottoman-era specialty that’s quite the spectacle. They cook your meat or vegetables in a clay pot, swirl it in flames in front of your eyes, crack open the lid, and pour steaming hot food into a cast-iron pot. It’s quite the phenomenon and it’s delicious, too.
In the afternoon, visit the Grand Bazaar. This ancient marketplace can feel overwhelming to those who are intimidated by crowds. But, if you can get past your social anxiety for a couple of hours, it’s totally worth it.
The Grand Bazaar is a city within a city. It’s a marketplace with hundreds of sellers with individualized stands selling gold jewelry, spices, rugs, clothing, and other local goods. You’ll definitely want to haggle here. If you’re interested in something, a seller will always try to sell it to you for the highest price. Be sure to dust off your negotiating skills to avoid getting ripped off.
Depending on how you feel about getting ripped off, you may or may not mind it. Read this article to hear my take on getting ripped off and why it’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, if you really hate getting a bad price on goods and you’d like some advice on negotiating in the Grand Bazaar, I’ll share some tips on haggling in the notes section of this article.
After a couple of hours of shopping, it’s time for dinner. Head back to your accommodation and eat something nearby. Of course, enjoy a hookah, sit back and relax.
Day 5: Istanbul (a ferry to the Asian side)
Oh no, it’s the last day. Yes, your trip to Turkey is coming to an end. But, you’re going out with a bang. If you didn’t know, there are two sides of Turkey, a European side and an Asian side. Just to note, I didn’t notice a racial difference between the two sides, rather a cultural difference.
The European side of Istanbul felt more like New York City, fast-paced, energetic and busy. While the Asian side of Istanbul felt more residential, relaxed, and tranquil. So, if you have a few hours in the morning, it’s worth visiting the Asian side of Istanbul and stopping by the neighboring town of Moda.
To get to the Asian side of Istanbul, you’ll need to take a ferry. Walk to Eminönü Turyol. This ferry port has 25-minute direct ferries every 15 minutes to the Asian side of Istanbul. Pay 8 Turkish lira ($0.86) for the one-way trip to Kadıköy Turyol (the terminal for the Asian side). The ferry is efficient and relaxed with a lot of locals traveling to and from for work and home. Get a spot with a nice view of the water, take selfies, and relax.
When you arrive at Kadıköy Turyol, depart the terminal and walk 20 minutes south towards Moda. Moda is considered a young, secular, and hip area on the Asian side of Istanbul. Here you’ll see man buns, lesbians, people with tattoos and women who don't wear the hijab. Basically, it’s the Portland of the Asian side with a young, hipster subculture that’s not into the traditional Muslim ideals of their parents.
Here, we ate lunch at a ritzy, outdoor restaurant called Big Chefs. It was the first place in Istanbul where we saw the majority of women not covering their heads in a hijab. It truly felt secular.
After lunch, go souvenir shopping. There are very cool handmade goods designed for young, trendy, and hip millennials that can only be found in Moda. Just follow the trendy guy with the man bun. He knows where to get the goods. Pick up some souvenirs, walk around, and enjoy this super cool city.
When you’re all done head back to Kadıköy Turyol to take another one-way ferry to the European side of Istanbul. No need to plan ahead, most of the ferries to and from Eminönü Turyol run every 15 minutes. So, if you miss one, no worries. Get the next one.
Enjoy another tranquil 25-minute ferry ride over open waters back to the European side.
In your last stretch, right before dinner, find the time to visit a Turkish bath for the royal treatment. The Turkish bath is famous around the world and is absolutely worth visiting.
The Turkish bath consists of a few stages of relaxation:
Turkish steam room
Complete body buffer, latter, and rinse with a professional staff member
Dip into a cool jacuzzi
Turkish tea or coffee afterward
We didn’t have time to visit any of the fancy, historic Turkish baths, but we found a local one near our hotel that was more convenient for us. If you have time to visit some of the historic ones, definitely make a reservation two or three days in advance. Perhaps while you’re in Cappadocia, make a reservation for a Turkish bath experience in Istanbul.
Turkish baths aren’t cheap. Expect to pay $40-100 USD for a two hour or more experience. But with that price, you won’t be rushed. You can really rest and relax as long as you want.
After your bath, indulge in your final meal and hookah. Perhaps go to a restaurant that you’ve been eyeballing but haven’t had the chance to try.
That's it, your five days are complete. But, wait, there's more.
Notes and words of advice:
Cost of taxis to and from the airport in Cappadocia
Depending on the airport you choose, the price of taxis to and from the Istanbul airport (IST) or Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW) can fluctuate. The advantage of traveling from IST is that there’s less tolls and your taxi driver won’t add any unexpected Liras to your bill. While arriving in SAW offers cheaper flights (particularly to Cappadocia). So, do your research and expect to pay between $20-40 one way for a taxi from either airport.
Cautions about traveling from Turkey in the time of COVID
Heads up, I was stopped in the SAW airport on my flight to Europe because I was an American citizen. Traveling during the time of COVID has been wonky and the rules for traveling to and from Europe are constantly evolving. The officials in the SAW airport definitely did not have up-to-date information about who can travel to Europe from Turkey so be sure to read into your specific country’s COVID immigration policy when you’re flying from Turkey. Otherwise, you may not be able to board your flight back home (wherever that is) and the Turkish officials may give you a hard time.
Tips for bargaining at the Grand Bazaar
Haggling is a normal part of the Grand Bazaar. Sellers expect you to haggle and try to get the best price. Here are a few words of advice:
Hear their first price and cut it into thirds. If the price is 1000 Turkish Lira, say you’ll buy it for 600.
Then go down to half. If they won’t budge walk away.
If they let you walk away, it’s because the good really was worth more.
If they say “wait”, know you have room to negotiate further.
Always convert the Lira into your home currency. Then, think about it. If it sounds too high, haggle more.
Haggling doesn’t make you good or bad, rich or poor. It’s just the way to do it.
When you feel like the price is right, go ahead and seal the deal.
Always check when they’re taking your cash or credit card that the deal you both agreed upon is the one they're charging you for.
If buying gold, be sure to get a certificate of authenticity.
Ask lots of questions and accept the Turkish tea if they offer it. It’s customary and doesn’t mean you have to buy anything.
Shake hands and end on a good note.
Rent a car? The answer is NO
If you’re thinking about renting a car, particularly in Istanbul, don’t do it. The driving style in Istanbul is chaotic and stressful. Don’t risk your life or your insurance policy by driving in the city. If you stay