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7 of the best cities to visit in Turkey

Over 49 million tourists visited Turkey in 2023  (Getty Images)
Over 49 million tourists visited Turkey in 2023 (Getty Images)

Few countries so close to home can tick off as many travel essentials as Turkey, with flights from the UK taking around four hours, or about four days if you take the train.

The country has warm weather in both summer and winter, while being home to beautiful coastal areas, renowned historic sights, buoyant party resorts and an eclectic range of cities.

It’s no secret that Turkey is an excellent holiday destination. But less well known is the variety on show within its cities, a surprising number of which will keep you busy over a weekend or even longer.

Istanbul is many visitors’ first taste of the country, with its high-octane way of life and excellent range of things to do providing a memorable introduction to Turkish culture, history, cuisine and nightlife.

In Turkey’s south west, the Turquoise Coast – also known as the Turkish Riviera – is home to cities such as Bodrum and Antalya. They combine distinct heritage with striking coastal beauty, the perfect spots to visit in the midst of a beach holiday in this laid-back part of the world.

In the capital, Ankara, meanwhile, a vibrant energy attracts Turkish and foreign visitors alike.

But in a country so large, and so blessed with captivating cities, it can be difficult to know where to begin. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up the best cities in Turkey to help you plan your next adventure, whether it’s history, nightlife or culture that gets you going.

Istanbul

Istanbul is the most visited Turkish city by foreign tourists (Getty Images)
Istanbul is the most visited Turkish city by foreign tourists (Getty Images)

With a population of around 16 million people, Istanbul is a city that seemingly never sleeps. Bisected by the emerald waters of the Bosphorous Strait (which you can tour by boat for marvelous views), this is the place where two continents meet, and this fusion of distinct cultures has created a vibrant city whose energetic way of life often borders on chaotic.

A city steeped in the history of both Europe and Asia, Istanbul has been the home of three different empires over almost three millennia, and today still preserves some remnants of these vastly different cultures. Ottoman and Byzantine influences dominate, particularly in the Sultanahmet district, home to many of the city’s must-see sights.

Prime among these are the Blue Mosque, with its towering minarets, and the Hagia Sophia, a mosque that was originally constructed as a church, reflecting the changing influences that the city has been subject to. Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern are the district’s other main attractions, though it pays to explore further afield in areas like Balat, originally the city’s Greek Orthodox and Armenian neighbourhood, and Fener.

For a more contemporary taste of Istanbul, Arnavutköy is the heart of the city’s nightlife scene, while SALT Beyoğlu hosts art exhibitions and film screenings.

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Antalya

Antalya is the fifth most populous city in the country (Getty Images)
Antalya is the fifth most populous city in the country (Getty Images)

Most years, Antalya competes with Istanbul for the title of ‘most visited Turkish city’. Though just a fraction of the size, Antalya, the capital of the country’s Turquoise Coast, punches above its weight in the tourism stakes thanks to a characterful old town, a beautiful harbour and dozens of beautiful surrounding beaches.

Some of the best nearby beaches include Cirali, Konyaalti and Patara, and while many choose to stay in one of the various beachfront resorts that populate the surrounding coastline, exploring Antalya itself is certainly worth leaving your sun lounger for.

Its charming old town, known as Kaleiçi, consists of labyrinthine streets housing a series of mosques, ancient walls, russet-roofed stone buildings and parks that attest to the influence of Ottoman culture and architecture. These narrow alleys snake down to the equally idyllic harbour, where a slew of cafes and restaurants welcome revellers throughout the day and night.

Bodrum

Bodrum was once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Getty Images)
Bodrum was once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Getty Images)

Bodrum is best known as an ideal spot for a Turkish summer holiday. Set among rolling green hills, it has an enviable coastal location, pristine beaches like Yahsi and Aspat, a variety of tourist sites and lively nightlife for those who seek it.

A range of resorts, from the dazzling high-end to the more affordable and family-friendly, cater to all sorts of tourists, whether you’re looking for parties on the marina or want to delve into the region’s history. There’s plenty of Bodrum’s past to explore; once known as Halicarnassus, it still contains a mausoleum, ancient ruins, a Roman theatre and the 700-year-old Bodrum Castle.

Like any coastal tourist city, there’s plenty more to see and do in Bodrum away from ruins and sun loungers. Scuba diving is a popular activity in nearby Gokova Bay, while boat trips around the peninsula or the Dalyan River are a good way to spend an afternoon, as is wine tasting at Karnas Vineyards. The town’s proximity to Kos means that tourists and locals alike will often spend the day in Greece too.

Ankara

Ankara was declared the capital of Turkey in 1923 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Ankara was declared the capital of Turkey in 1923 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Turkey’s capital city may be overshadowed by world-renowned Istanbul, but Ankara offers visitors an experience of Turkey’s ‘other’ side, away from chaotic cities and party-centric coastal resorts. This is a youthful, exciting city that fuses the old and the new. It is fuelled by its relatively new status as a major city, and vibrant modern areas such as studenty Kizilay and more upmarket Kavaklidere.

But Ankara has been careful not to forget its past. High above the city sits the Anit Kabir, the vast mausoleum of the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who led the War of Independence and bestowed the city’s status as capital. Down below in Hisar, Roman monuments like those at Ulus sit alongside Byzantine citadel walls that enclose Ottoman-era mini villages. The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations and the Museum of the War of Independence are two more historical highlights, while the parks of Kugulu and Genclik provide some much-needed green space.

Izmir

Izmir is home to around 4.5 million people (Getty Images)
Izmir is home to around 4.5 million people (Getty Images)

Izmir is sometimes overlooked in favour of nearby Bodrum or Marmaris, but Turkey’s third largest city is home to plenty of arts, culture and a rich heritage, as well as the idyllic coastal resorts of Cesme, Alacati and Urla.

While the city’s past was characterised by activity around the Bay of Izmir, Konak Pier and the impressive city promenade (known as Kordon), the modern-day symbol of the city is its 20th-century Clock Tower.

It is located in the middle of Konak Square, in the district of the same name, which is also the gateway of the maze-like 17th-century Kemeralti Market. This Turkish bazaar stretches across the city into the Roman agora, with the ancient Kadifekale fort being the other main historic site.

Edirne

Edirne was capital of the Ottoman Empire before Constantinople (Getty Images)
Edirne was capital of the Ottoman Empire before Constantinople (Getty Images)

Located on the border with Greece and Bulgaria, Edirne is a city with a more European feel than other Turkish counterparts, but one whose architecture, mosques, bazaars and palace provide a constant reminder that you are in a former Ottoman capital.

Edirne sits along the banks of both the Maritza and Tunca rivers, surrounded by verdant plains and with much of the same white-washed, russet-roofed building styles as Antalya. The city’s main landmark is the 16th-century Selimiye Mosque, an impressive Unesco-listed structure that has become a symbol of Edirne. Other mosques, such as Muradiye, Old Mosque and the Sultan Beyezid II Complex, adorn the city skyline, while a series of bridges over the Tunca also hark back to Ottoman times, and provide a base for summer relaxation and mild swims.

Marmaris

Regular ferries operate between Marmaris and both Rhodes and Symi in Greece (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Regular ferries operate between Marmaris and both Rhodes and Symi in Greece (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Marmaris is a popular coastal town, welcoming thousands of tourists every summer despite its modest size. It benefits from a striking location on the Aegean Sea and surrounded by dense forest and towering hills, with a coastline that is home to golden sand lapped by azure waters along beaches like Urban or Long Beach.

Like Antalya, the town begins in its yacht-filled marina, with a maze of narrow streets slowly snaking back into the old town, itself a sea of red roofs and white-washed buildings. Marmaris Castle, the museum, the bazaar and Jinan Gardens are worth exploring to take in history, a spot of shopping and a pleasant stroll, before ending the day on aptly named Bar Street, the centre of the city’s often raucous nightlife.

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