Turkey, undoubtedly, is on every traveler’s bucket list considering the country has much to offer in terms of stunning architecture, gorgeous cities, splendid Turkish cuisine and very warm people. While travelling during the winter season is a topic of debate, I feel this country is an amazing destination round the year. I traveled during the last week of February till the first week of March and loved every bit of the trip- the chill in the air, less tourists and great deals on the hotels. Here is a 8-day itinerary for all those who are planning to travel to Turkey during the winters.
Day 1: Arrive in Istanbul. I will urge you to stay at one of the pretty boutique hotels in old town area of Sultanahmet. It is not only beautiful but the location is super convenient since you can walk to all the major spots. Also, these hotels offer a truly delightful Turkish experience especially in terms of hospitality. I met some of the warmest people at these hotels. I stayed at Muyan Suites and Osmanhan Hotel which are highly recommended.
Day 2: After breakfast at your hotel, you can walk towards the Sultanahmet Square and soak in the beauty of the Hippodrome before going to the Blue Mosque. You can buy a museum pass depending on your length of stay to avoid queues. The Hippodrome (or the Hippodrome of Constantinople as it was called in earlier times), was a sporting and social centre of Constantinople (present day Turkey) and used to host horse racing and chariot racing among other things. Today, the monuments are still intact in the form of obelisks and you can walk around the area or just sit on one of the benches and admire the surroundings.
Right in front of the obelisks, is one of the entrances to the grand Blue Mosque, named so after the blue iznik tiles adorning its interior walls. The building is awe-inspiring and speaks of the luxury and grandeur of the multiple empires that this historic city has seen. You will need to take of your shoes and cover your head to enter the mosque. Also, do dress modestly (no shorts, bare arms etc.) as a mark of respect. Enjoy the marvelous Ottoman architecture and spend some time just enjoying the peace and serenity of the mosque.
After checking out the Blue Mosque, you can do a day cruise of the Bosphorus strait, that connects Europe and Asia and offers stunning views of the European and Asian side of Istanbul. There are various cruises that you can choose from and tickets are easily available online or on the spot near the Blue Mosque. I did a short round trip cruise which takes around 2 hours.
Get off from your ship after the cruise and walk towards the Hagia Sophia which was a church once, was converted to a mosque in the Ottoman era and is now a museum. Hagia Sophia is a wonder in itself and a proper tour can take more than one hour. You can also explore the adjoining complex which houses tombs of various Sultans. Basilica Cistern, an underground water filtration system, can be the last stop of the day where you can search for Medusa’s head in the eerie atmosphere!
Day 3: Explore the Topkapi Palace which was home to Ottoman Turks for 400 years. It has sprawling gardens, opulent architecture and stunning views of the Bosphorus from the top. Chill out in the cafe and enjoy a hot cup of Turkish chai along with the view. You can also take a tour of the museums which are located very near to the Palace i.e. Istanbul Archeology museum.
From Sultanahmet, take a tram to Eminonu or the Spice Market for Galata tower. It is 67 metre high tower that was the highest building in the city when it was built and offers panoramic views of the city and Bosphorus!
Now, head to the famous Grand Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar (Egyptian Bazaar) for some hard bargaining and shopping. You can find beautiful Turkish lamps, silk scarves, trinkets, souvenirs, towels, rugs, bath products , spices, clothes, ceramics and everything under the sun here.
Day 4: Istanbul has several iconic mosques, the largest of these is the Suleymaniye Mosque which is located on the third hill. Grand, peaceful and serene, it is a must visit.
You can spend the day on shopping since few hours in the Grand or Spice Bazaar is not enough. If you are not too keen to tackle the crowd at these areas, you can shop at the Arasta Bazaar which is very close to the Blue Mosque.
At night, go the Galata bridge for the lovely views and electric energy! You must also stroll around the Sultanahmet Square to catch a glimpse of the the iconic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque at night.
Amidst all this, do not forget to gorge on the absolutely delicious Turkish cuisine and have copious amounts of the Chai. Kebaps and freshly baked breads with dips are must haves. Do try the Turkish ice-cream or ‘Dondurma’ which is different from the normal ice cream and is served in the most entertaining way!!
Day 5: Leave for Cappadocia-a short flight away- which is an ancient city with the dreamiest landscape and exceptional natural wonders. Years of volcanic eruptions followed by erosion through wind and water has resulted in a fairy tale landscape of of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which stretch as far as 130 feet (40 meters) into the sky. Houses, hotels and other buildings have been carved into these rocks. I strongly recommend you to stay in a cave hotel for a truly local experience. I stayed at Kelebek Special Cave Hotel which is the most gorgeous property in Goreme!
Today you can explore the area near your hotel and rest a bit since you need to be up at 3:00 a.m. the next day for the amazing Hot Air Balloon Ride!
Day 6: See the sunrise over Goreme’s fairy chimneys from a Hot Air Balloon followed by a Champagne celebration. While there are many places in the world for this, Cappadocian landscape offers one of the most gorgeous backgrounds. So, this is definitely a must do. I would strongly recommend the Butterfly Balloons since they have a pretty good track record and service.
The booking can be done online or through your hotel. However, do keep in mind that during winters the flight can be cancelled depending on weather conditions.
After the ride, you can have breakfast, rest a bit and then head for a hike along the Rose valley. It is advisable to book a tour of the areas you want to explore- there are plenty of tour companies offering various itineraries from which you can choose.
Next stop is Cavusin village where you can admire the landscape while having a hot cup of tea and lunch.
Head towards the Pasabag valley which has the most perfect ‘fairy chimneys’ of this region.
Last stop of the day before heading back to Goreme, is the Kaymakli underground city, a UNESCO world heritage site, which is one of the several underground complexes found in Cappadocia. These were built by Christians to escape persecution by Ottoman Turks. Kaymakli is 4 floors deep while the largest one i.e. Derinkuyu is 7 floors deep. Be careful if you are claustrophobic!
Day 7: Spend the day at the Goreme open air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which was a Byzantine monastic settlement and houses several rock-cut churches with beautiful frescoes depicting life of Christ. The most awe-inspiring frescoes are in the Karanlik Kilise or the Dark Church which has an additional TL10 entrance fee. It is highly advisable to take a guided tour to enjoy the history behind the marvelous complex.
We were fortunate to witness snowfall as soon as we finished exploring the museum. If you also happen to experience this, then go for a traditional Turkish hammam which is super relaxing. Spend the evening, watching the magical Whirling Dervishes at the centuries old Saruhan Caravenserai.
Gorge on the sumptuous Cappadocian cuisine during your stay!
Day 8: Leave from Cappadocia and back to Istanbul for your flight back home!!