Turkey is a country where Asia meets Europe, where new age infrastructure co-exists with historical monuments and where rapid modernization thrives without affecting the cultural values of this age-old civilization.
The landscape of Turkey spans from snow-capped mountains in the north to fairy chimneys (peculiar rock formations) in Cappadocia to pristine white sand beaches of Alanya.
Due to this diverse landscape, a dramatic history and a deep culture, this country has a lot to offer to anyone visiting Turkey for the first time. Though you can easily spend a month here and not run out of things to do, I believe that spending two weeks in Turkey can cover most of the awe-inspiring sites that this beautiful country has to offer.
While we have already created a very comprehensive list of must visit places in our Turkey Itinerary, this article focuses more on the best experiences you can have in Turkey-experiences you shall be actively participating in and experiences that you can have only in Turkey.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, the follow blog posts may prove to be the difference between a good trip and a GREAT trip!
- Our comprehensive guide on visiting Turkey: 2 weeks in Turkey Itinerary
- A Practical guide to visiting Istanbul: 5 days in Istanbul Itinerary
- Get the best of your visit to Cappadocia: 4 Days Cappadocia Itinerary
- A hidden gem often ignored: 3 days in Alanya
- If you are a vegetarian like us and looking for Turkey vegetarian food
- Turkey Shopping Guide: Get the best Turkish souvenirs
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Hot Air Balloon ride over Cappadocia
Well let’s get the obvious ones out first. This is the image you get when you google things to do in Turkey. Hundreds of colourful hot air balloons lift off at dawn to give you a bird’s eye view of the majestic topography of Cappadocia.
Cappadocia is in central Turkey and is known for its alien-planet-like rock formations created by the tectonic activities in the area.
A hot air balloon ride over this beautiful landscape is the best way to experience its grandeur.
How to do it:
There are around 10 good agencies that operate hot air balloon flights in Cappadocia and you can book with any of them. The ticket cost includes pick up from and drop off to your hotel, a small breakfast, 1 hour of balloon flight, a flight certificate and wine/champagne after landing. The cost can range anywhere from $150 to $250 per person depending on the demand at the time of booking, no. of people in the basket and flight duration.
This is a weather sensitive activity so make sure you check the weather forecast for the day of your flight before booking.
For this reason, we believe that the best and the most convenient way to book is via a travel site like GetYourGuide for a hassle free experience. They shall take care of all the arrangements and they have a pretty good cancellation policy.
We recommend that you book your flight on your first full day in Cappadocia. So if you’re arriving in Cappadocia on a Monday, your flight should be scheduled for Tuesday morning.
This way, if at all your flight gets cancelled due to bad weather, you can reschedule it for the next day. If the weather is not supportive for the entire duration of your stay and you cannot reschedule your flight, you shall get a full refund. This is why we recommend booking via GetYourGuide as it takes care of the entire process and makes sure that you get your refund on time.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Explore the Valleys of Cappadocia on Horseback
The reason why we insist on horseback riding is because Cappadocia has been famous for its horses ever since the time of Alexander the Great!
Cappadocia literally means ‘land of beautiful horses’. Due to modernization and the popularity of hot air balloon rides, this aspect of the land has been forgotten despite its relevance in the name of region.
There are numerous ranches operating in Goreme that take groups of 4-8 across love valley, rose valley and red valley on trails that only horses can tread on. You start around 2 hours before nightfall so that you can experience the sunset from one of Cappadocia’s most picturesque places.
Book this experience through a travel site which includes pick up from and drop off at your hotel.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Have a Hearty Turkish Breakfast
There’s an old saying “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”. Well, i don’t know about lunch or dinner but the Turks definitely follow this advice for breakfast. Turkish breakfast, even in local households, is an extravagant assortment of 4-5 dishes. On weekends, an additional 3-4 dishes are included.
This lavish spread is a collection of sweet and savoury dishes and is enjoyed in a relaxed manner along with Turkish coffee or tea.
The major components of a Turkish Breakfast include Simit (crusty circular bread topped with toasted sesame seeds), a huge cheese platter, sun dried tomato paste (delicious!), pickled olives (green and black), hazelnut spread, fresh honey, clotted cream, Menemen (a Turkish dish made with eggs, tomatoes and peppers), sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, a couple of savory dips like Ezme, Cacic and muhammara (we have explained them in detail in our Vegetarian Food in Turkey blog here) and Turkish coffee.
You can enjoy this breakfast in a buffet style at your hotel or at one of the many street side cafes of Istanbul. If you are willing to splurge a little, we recommend you book a table at the Seven Hills hotel in Sultanahmet where you can enjoy this decadent breakfast with clear views of the iconic Blue Mosque.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Practise your haggling skills in the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest market complex in the world consisting of around 5000 shops selling everything from ornate tea sets and carpets to cheap knock offs of luxury goods. You can spend an entire day in the Grand Bazaar and still not cover even half of it.
However, our focus is not on seeing the whole of Grand Bazaar but the experience of shopping in it. Because of its massive tourist reputation, prices here are almost double than what you might find in other markets of Istanbul like the Egyptian market or the Kadikoy market. You will have to haggle your way to a reasonable price.
Unlike other places in the world, negotiating is not only expected but also welcomed in the Grand Bazaar. Follow the below steps to get the best value for your money:
a. If you like something and have decided to buy it for e.g. a carpet, quote about 30% of the asking price. You can go lower also if you think the item is worth lesser than that.
b. This is when things get interesting. The shopkeeper will ask you to sit and order some Turkish Cai(tea) for you. He will tell you how the carpet you’ve chosen was made and which part of Turkey was it made in, attempting to convince you about its price.
c. This little exchange between you and the shopkeeper is something that is enjoyed in Turkey. Like a little game. In my case, when I started to leave after just 2 min. of haggling, the shopkeeper smiled at me while nodding, asked me to have a seat and sip some tea. Gesturing to me that this (the bargaining) is a long game and I can’t just quit mid-way. So, like me, have a seat, sip some tea and prepare for the long game.
d. Coming back to our situation, stick to your valuation because there’s a pretty good chance that he’s making a profit even at the 30% that you’ve quoted. Now it’s all about how much profit he’s willing to let go of.
e. Pretending to leave if your price is not met is a good tactic but you won’t be able to use it more than once. So make sure that you’ve exhausted all other negotiation tricks before you use it.
f. By the time you are done, the agreed price shall be 40% of the initial asking price, you shall know the entire history of his shop, about his family or, like in my case, his favourite nephew as well!
Consider spending half a day in Grand Bazaar and make sure you negotiate only for the items you wish to buy otherwise you shall only be wasting his (the shopkeeper’s) and more importantly your precious time.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Smoke a Fruit Nargile/Sheeshah
Nargile, also known as Hookah or Sheeshah or water pipes, as they are known in USA, are a prominent part of Turkish culture. They were a status symbol during the Ottoman Empire as only the people close to the Sultan were allowed to enjoy it.
Traditionally plain tobacco was used in Nargiles but for the last 20 odd years, flavoured tobacco is the preferred choice amongst smokers.
Nargile cafes are very popular all across Istanbul but we recommend Karakoy for the colorful wall murals, Sultanahmet for the views of Hagia Sofia or Blue Mosque and the back streets of Suleymaniye Mosque for views of the Bosphorus.
The first thing that you’ll have to do after entering the Nargile Cafe is choose the flavor. Our favorites are apple, grape, cappuccino, licorice, watermelon and mint. Orange and Kiwi are new flavors that are pretty popular these days.
Order your Nargile, some flavored tea or a beer, a plate of Sigara Borek to munch on and you have a great evening with friends.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Have Raki in a cave restaurant of Cappadocia
A little explanation on Raki: Raki or Yeni Raki is Turkey’s national drink. It is created from fermented grapes or raisins and flavored with pungent aniseed. It is clear, it is delicious and packs a punch at 45% alcohol content.
This traditional drink is colorless but when you add chilled water to it, it turns milky white and the transition is as fascinating as its anise flavor.
Now, Raki is served in every bar, every restaurant in Turkey but the best place to enjoy it in, is a cave restaurant in Cappadocia.
Cappadocia’s landscape allows it the luxury to have these quaint, small family run little pubs. These are not noisy pubs with loud music or huge billboards to attract tourists. They’re small cafes dug into the rocks, playing soft Turkish music and with a friendly dog outside.
The interiors are dimly lit, seating arrangements are carved out of the same rock as the cave and walls are decorated with the famous Evil eye (nazar) pendants that ward off evil.
The service is intimate as the waiting staff will take care of you as their own and the owner might even be seated on the table next to yours smoking his nargile and having a drink himself.
Coming to the Raki, it is served in long test tube type glasses and with some of the most unexpected and delicious cocktail snacks – slices of the juiciest Turkish oranges, salted nuts (roasted chickpeas, almonds and peanuts) and firm Ricotta. These snacks are generally included in the menu price of the drink but it’s better if you confirm it while ordering.
We loved the snacks and the hospitality so much that we went to the same place every night during our 4-day itinerary of Cappadocia.
I recommend everyone visiting Cappadocia to have this experience as it not only introduces you to the epitome of Turkish hospitality but also helps these family run small businesses in the area.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Sip Turkish Tea atop a rooftop cafe of Istanbul
If Raki is not your thing and you rather prefer tea, there’s no better place to enjoy it than one of the many amazing rooftop cafes of Istanbul.
Turkish tea is something that accompanies every meal in Turkey. The Turks probably consume it 6 to 7 times during the day and probably some more at night.
As the American palate is not used to the strong flavour of regular Turkish tea, a lot of different flavours are added to the teas served in cafes and the ones sold in the market.
Some of the most distinguished flavours are apple, pomegranate, jasmine, peach and plain old lemon.
The area behind the Suleymaniye mosque is lined up with numerous cafes on the third or fourth floor offering sweeping views of the Bosphorous river on one side and the grand vistas of the Suleymaniye mosque on the other.
After a long day of site seeing, climb up to one of these cafes and enjoy a hot cup of tea along with some snacks or a nargile and take in the beauty of Istanbul from above.
If you’re there during sunset, it shall definitely be one of your most memorable sunsets in Istanbul.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Explore the Limestone caves in Alanya
Alanya is one of the lesser known towns on the Turkish coastline. Most tourists visit its more popular (and almost similar sounding) neighbour, Antalya. However, if you google things to do in Antalya half of those things would involve a day trip to Alanya!
Alanya is a town that is popular among families and couples as a beach destination because of its relaxed vibe and laidback culture. There are not many clubs or beach parties here and people come here to visit the famous red tower, hike up the Alanya Castle and explore the Limestone caves.
Limestone caves were discovered during mining operations and their interiors are littered with huge stalactite and stalagmite formations.
There are two major caves in and around Alanya – Damlatas Cave and Dim Cave.
The smaller of the two caves – Damlatas – is located right at Cleopetra beach in Alanya. The entrance fee is only 10 Lira (~$1.16) and it can be explored in about 15 min. which makes it perfect for somebody who is claustrophobic to check whether they want to explore the larger Dim cave.
Dim Cave is located about 11kms outside Alanya, is about 17 meters deep with a lagoon at the bottom most level.
Carry a jacket with you even if it’s hot outside as it gets pretty chilly inside the cave. For more information, check out our detailed post on traveling to Alanya.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Pamper yourself with a Turkish Hammam
A Hammam or Turkish Bath is an age old tradition in Turkish culture with hygienic and civic purposes. There were public baths during the Ottoman Empire with separate chambers for men and women where the general public socialised.
These days, lots of hotels have their own Hammams or have tie ups with nearby ones for their guests. This Hammam experience in Istanbul takes place in the oldest bath house in Turkey.
The traditional Hammams will have separate chambers for men and women or will serve them at different times of the day but never together. However, in some hotels, private hammam treatments may allow couples to be treated together.
The following steps shall be a part of a basic Hammam service:
a. Sauna : You must sweat before having a bath and hence you’ll be asked to relax in a Sauna before going to the main area.
b. Washing: Once you’re done with your Sauna, you’ll be asked to lie on a marble block where your attendant shall wash you with water and lather you with a swab.
c. Scrubbing: This is the part where things get intense. The attendant shall scrub you vigorously with a coarse cloth (it’s so vigorous that you might feel like he/she is using sandpaper on your skin) to remove all the dirt from every part of your body.
You can tell them if it becomes unbearable but we recommend you to live through that pain as the rewards outweigh the effort. Once done, the attend will show you the puddle of dirt that came off of you.
Pro tip: At this point, the attendant is expecting a reaction of surprise from you on seeing the amount of dirt he removed from your body. It’s his validation for a job well done. If he doesn’t get it, he will go back to scrubbing you again, this time may be more vigorously. So if you want the scrubbing to stop, make sure you give him a convincing look.
d. Lathering: After the intense scrubbing, the attend shall wash you with water and cover your entire body in lather and leave you that way for some time. This is a very relaxing experience as you are left on that cool marble block with small bubbles soothing every cell of your skin.
You’ll be given one last rinse and then left to relax in the hammam. You can walk around, admire the architecture of the Hammam, wash yourself at a basin or just lie on the stone block feeling the cleanest you would’ve ever been in your life.
This is the basic treatment available in any Hammam in Turkey but certain Hammams also have added services like a fish sauna, reflexology, deep tissue massages or aromatherapy.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Get yourself a Turkish Ice Cream
Having a Dondurma (Turkish Ice Cream) is a unique experience. We have all seen videos on Instagram of a server in traditional Turkish attire doing tricks while serving the ice cream to the docile (or playful) customer.
Although the manner in which it is served is reason enough to include this experience in this post but we would also like to point out how delicious it is!
We believe that the distinct taste of Dondurma does not get the deserved attention due the spectacle that accompanies it while being served.
One of the key ingredients of Turkish ice cream along with milk, cream and sugar is Purple Orchid Root Extract that gives this ice cream a chewy texture. This elastic consistency allows the attendant to do all those fancy tricks and more importantly it allows the customer to retain the flavor of the ice cream on his palate long after he has devoured the ice cream.
Speaking of flavor, make sure you try the vanilla bean, chocolate, pistachio, raspberry and mango flavors. You can combine these flavors (one on top of the other) in one cone or enjoy each flavor separately as per your choice. However, please note that additional flavors shall involve higher cost.
You can have this ice cream almost everywhere in Turkey, but we enjoyed the servers on Istiklal Street the most as they were the liveliest of the lot and the ice cream was out of this world.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Stay in a Cave Hotel in Cappadocia
Now this is something that you cannot miss when you are in Cappadocia. You can’t just go to Cappadocia and stay in a regular brick and mortar hotel.
Cappadocia’s landscape of uneven rock formations is one of a kind which makes this an experience you cannot have anywhere else in the world.
Cave hotels are, as the name suggests, hotels that have their rooms dug into the mountains of Cappadocia. There might be some masonry involved in the construction of these hotels but the walls and ceilings of your room shall still be the same rock that you climbed to reach the hotel.
Don’t worry, the interiors of these walls have been waterproofed and plastered to avoid any kind of water seepage and additional reinforcements have been made wherever the structure of the hotel is threatened making it a safe and secure place for the guests to stay in.
The interior of the rooms is decorated with Turkish artefacts and Turkish rugs giving it a rich and cultural feel. Some hotels create additional décor elements from the cave itself like artistically carved stone pillars or like in our case, a dragon on the wall.
As far as room amenities go, these hotels try to provide the best for their guests. All hotels in the region, even the smaller ones, are trying to emulate 5 star resorts.
Every room has heaters as it gets pretty chilly inside the cave even during the summer months and most of the mid-range rooms have Jacuzzis (the one in our room was large enough to fit 4 adults). The ensuite bathrooms have ornate fittings and plush toiletries and are often as large as the room itself.
Goreme is the best place to stay in a cave hotel as it has the most options for every budget and has a range of hotels with added benefits like an outdoor pool or viewing platforms for the iconic hot-air-balloon-filled sunrise. We shall soon be publishing a post on the best cave hotels to stay in Cappadocia, so make sure you bookmark this page for updates.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Take a natural Sauna in Pammukale
Pammukale literally means “Cotton Castle” in Turkish. This surreal landscape was created by decades of calcium deposits brought by the hot water flowing from the springs above.
The waters are said to have certain healing properties because of which the then king established the Spa town of Hierapolis here in 130 BC.
You can see the ruins of this Spa Town like ancient baths, temples and theatres at the top of this white mountain.
Speaking of the mountain itself, the water flow has created terraces on the sides of the mountain resulting into small pools. Bring your swimsuit and relax in one of these pools or for a better experience, lie down in one of the channels to get that Jacuzzi-like feeling.
How to get there:
Take an overnight bus from Istanbul to the town of Denizli from where you can take a shuttle to Pammukale. Alternatively, you can fly from Istanbul to Pammukale for the same amount and save some time.
The best time of the day to visit is during the early morning or late evening when the sun is not too harsh. It becomes really crowded from late morning to sunset so we recommend going as early as possible.
Pro Tip: The Thermal pools open at 7:00 in the morning but the ticket counter opens at 8. We recommend buying a Turkey visit pass that gives you skip the line access to all the major attractions in all of Turkey and Pammukale is one of them. This pass allows you to visit a lot of attractions like Pammukale even before ticket sales have started for the day which means no crowds, better experience and let’s face it – best pictures for Instagram!
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Take a stroll in the old city of Antalya
Kaleisi – The old city of Antalya is a myriad of cobblestone streets surrounded by buildings that date back to the 18th Century and the Turkish government has done a wonderful job of preserving them.
Today, numerous small restaurants, cute street side cafes and clubs occupy these buildings.
The streets are colourfully decorated with murals, graffiti, umbrella ceilings and even paintings on canvas. Add to that the rustic charm of the Roman and Byzantine era buildings and we have the perfect place to sip some coffee or smoke a Sheesha.
The streets of Kaleisi are a safe haven from an otherwise bustling town of Antalya. The best time to visit shall be early morning as it gets pretty crowded during the day. Start your day early before the shops open, walk around the colorful streets, admire the artwork, have breakfast at one of the cafes or have a cup of coffee with the friendly and welcoming locals.
While exploring the archaic alleyways, you might also come across the iconic Hadrian’s gate-the only remaining gate to the old city dating back to the Roman era. Stop by for some cool pictures for Instagram.
Unique Experiences in Turkey: Witness a Whirling Dervishes Show
We booked this experience for the visual appeal of the dervishes clad in white attire spinning uniformly as if in a trans-like state to music that we didn’t understand.
Little did we know that the ceremony shall have such a calming influence on us, drenching us with the peace and positivity emanating from the Sufi saint.
This mystical Sufi ceremony is known as Sema. It is a form of meditation where the dervish is spinning to become one with God.
While spinning, with his right hand above his head, the dervish is conveying to God that he is ready to receive His benevolence and with his left hand pointing at the earth, he’s willing to share this blessing with the ones witnessing his prayer.
The best place to witness the Sema is in the Mevlana Cultural Centre of Konya – a city in central Turkey where Rumi, the Sufi saint who established this practice in the 13th century, lived and died.
However, if Konya is not a part of your itinerary, you can witness this ceremony in Istanbul at the Galata Mevlevihanesi Muzesi or at the Motif Cultural Centre in Avanos, Cappadocia.
Make sure you book this experience beforehand as tickets get sold out pretty fast.
These were our personal favorite experiences you must have on a trip to Turkey. These experiences can be easily accommodated in our two-week Turkey itinerary. Check out other posts from our Turkey series to make the most of your time in Turkey.