Friday, June 13 (Antalya & Vienna) – After my first Hamam experience in Morocco (nakedness and confusion), and my second in Istanbul (dirty and left early), I decided to go one more time. It was my last day in Turkey, and Tali and I were referred to the Sefa Hamam, a 600+ year old traditional Turkish Bath. We went first to look at it, and when deemed clean and acceptable, we went for it.
It was a little different than the experience in Morocco, but overall it was really nice! Tali and I seemed to have the Hamam mostly to ourselves which was an added bonus. We started in the steam-less steam room with hot, humid air to open our pores and get us to relax. We stayed there about twenty minutes until a man came to get us to go to another room for the rest of the treatment.
One by one, Tali and I were scrubbed, soaped, washed, and rinsed. Part of the soaping included a nice massage as well. Tali continued with an additional oil massage, but I had to go back to the hotel and catch a cab to the airport!
There are no female masseurs at Sefa, but the place seemed professional enough that we didn’t mind. It was a great experience and highly recommended for anyone looking to have a real Turkish Bath in Antalya. Note: a Hamam is not a high-end spa experience, especially the old, traditional Hamams. If you are looking for something a bit more luxurious and less traditional, try a hotel Hamam or one described as modern.
Thursday, June 12 (Antalya) – Antalya, the southern region of Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea, is home to many towns and beaches. During our stay, Tali and I wanted to see as much as we could, while still having ample beach time to relax at the end of our trip to Turkey.
Phaselis has two beaches – one that is rockier and one that is more sandy. We relaxed on the rocky beach that was surrounded by ancient Greek ruins (see my post on "Touring Ancient Ruins and Flaming Rocks in Antalya" for more on the history). I liked this beach because it was small and quiet, and the water was very calm. There was one small area where you could buy drinks or souvenirs, but overall it was a very self-serve beach where people bring their own provisions.
The stretch of beach in Olympos / Cirali is a nice place to stay for a few days if you are looking for peace and quiet. There are hotels and restaurants lining the coast, but in a very low-key / laid-back way. There weren’t many people out and about which made for a really relaxing hour in the sun. The beach is nicer and larger than in Phaselis, and there was a mix of people who seemed to be staying at the hotels and those who just came from neighboring towns to use the beach.
Lara Beach in Antalya is known for its five-star resorts, many of which are constructed with themes like the Titanic. When we visited this beach, we somehow ended up in a different part and didn’t get to see the fancy hotels. But we still got to lay out in the sun and under an umbrella and experience a more popular and crowded beachfront. My favorite part of this beach was actually just inland of the sand. There is a big park with dozens of picnic tables set up. Next to each table is a brick oven for grilling your own barbeque! There is even a kiosk where you can buy all the grilling supplies (not the food, though!) to make a perfect beachfront BBQ!
I would have loved to visit the main beach at Lara Beach if I had more time, but I’m really happy with our beach-hopping along the coast!
Wednesday, June 11 (Antalya) – Antalya is a region on the southern coast of Turkey with beach towns and ancient ruins scattered along the Mediterranean Sea. After touring Istanbul and Cappadocia, I was ready for some relaxation so a stay in Antalya seemed perfect. Tali and I decided to get a hotel in the old city (Kaleiçi) so we could be in the center of history, an old town to explore, and a variety of beaches. TIP: The Tuvana Hotel in the old city is great and highly recommended! It has one of the area’s best restaurants, great service and a pool.
Antalya was said to have been built by the Greeks in about 150 B.C. and was later taken over by the Romans, so there are ruins of ancient cities across the region. I visited Phaselis and Olympos – both are ancient cities dating far back, but have been preserved to different degrees over the years.
After exploring some ruins and enjoying some beach time (see my post on “Beach Hopping in Antalya” for more on that), we were headed to the site I was most excited about when planning the trip to Turkey: Chimaera. Chimaera is a rocky mountain in Olympos, near Çirali, that has a very unique quality. Coming out of its crevices is fire! It looks as if there are a dozen campfires set up along the mountain, but there are no sticks or stones, just mountain. It is truly an incredible site to see this naturally and eternally burning fire, especially approaching sunset.
The mountain is open until midnight and many locals come at night for a different experience. TIP: If you want to go at night, bring a flashlight and wear good shoes like hiking boots or sneakers. The hike to the mountain is about 25-30 minutes and parts are steep / have slippery footing from worn-down rocks.
Monday, June 9 (Cappadocia) – I’ll start off by saying what happened before 7AM this morning made today one of the best days of my life.
After my alarm woke me up at 3:40AM, I got myself washed and dressed and went out into the pitch black and chilly night and stood in front of the hotel. Tali and I had barely slept but we were wide-awake with excitement. We were about to take part in one of the best-known and most exciting activities in Cappadocia: hot air ballooning at sunrise!
As we waited for our bus, about seven other hot air balloon company buses drove by to pick up other excited and terrified tourists. Finally our bus showed up, took us for a light breakfast at their main office, and then took us into a field in the middle of nowhere, where dozens of different hot air balloons were at different stages of inflation.
We were in awe of what we were seeing and the sheer size of the balloons – and we weren’t even inside yet. Finally our balloon was up and without any instruction or Americanized safety warnings, we climbed (literally) into a basket that was divided into four sections, each holding six people. The pilot was in the center to navigate. Soon we felt our basket slide a bit on the ground, and then it slid a bit more. All of a sudden the sliding stopped and we were floating!
It was slow, calm and comfortable. There was no fear, just adrenaline and excitement – but I’m not sure if I was more excited to see the mind-blowing view of colorful balloons all over the sky against the beautiful rock formations or to actually be floating 800 meters above ground in a balloon!?
Everyone was snapping photos left and right (myself included) as we floated up in the sky, but I made an effort to stop and enjoy the scenery and the experience instead of living through my camera lens (or my phone lens or my GoPro…).
It is hard to imagine, but the feeling of being in the sky was of such serenity and calmness. I’m used to being in loud airplanes with engines running and babies crying, but there was no sound to be heard except for the occasional release of fire into the balloon for steering.
I didn’t think this experience would be as moving as it was, but it was truly stunning from balloons to the landscape to the quiet. I felt like the world was sleeping but I got a VIP pass to get up extra early and experience this magical hour.
After we landed, we had a champagne toast and were given certificates of participation. We watched the fascinating yet grueling job of deflating and folding up the massive balloon, and we took a bunch more photos. Then it was back to the hotel around 7AM, giving us an hour to comprehend what we had just experienced before breakfast opened up.
If you can’t tell, I HIGHLY recommend hot air ballooning in Cappadocia to anyone who visits Turkey. Make sure a stop in Cappadocia is on your itinerary and do it. Wake up at the ungodly hour, bundle up in the chill of the night, I promise it will be worth it. TIPS: In reality, all the balloon companies are the same, offer the same program and experience and are at the same time (which is half the fun because you get to see all the other balloons in the sky). I paid 130 Euro, so something in that range is to be expected. If you are unsure, you can always go on TripAdvisor, the balloon company websites or the company offices and ask to see a proper license.
Sunday, June 8 (Cappadocia) – Cappadocia is an inland region of Turkey, about an hour’s flight southeast from Istanbul. The region is known for beautiful and unique-looking natural rock formations as well as caves that were used as churches and homes over 4,000 years ago.
I was really excited to visit Cappadocia because of how different it would be from Istanbul and other cities I have visited, there are a lot of active things to do in this region, and our hotel (most hotels in Goreme, the main city) is built in the caves!
So on our first day, Tali and I grabbed breakfast in our hotel (Dervish Cave Hotel, recommended!) and walked one or two kilometers to the Goreme Open Air Museum. The ‘museum’ is really a gated-off area of cave dwellings and churches like you would see across the street or throughout the region, but it has some very well preserved cave paintings and descriptions of what you are looking at. There is also a separate Dark Church within the museum that you can pay an extra 10 lire for, but we opted out of that. It was a nice introduction to what we would be seeing for the next 48 hours, but it was full of tour and school groups so the caves got a bit crowded at times.
Since we didn’t do a guided tour of Cappadocia, we had to figure out transportation on our own. There are some buses from the center of Goreme, but we were lucky to find a taxi as we were leaving the museum which became our ride for the day. “Black Snake”, as our driver called himself, was a jolly Turkish man who was happy to take us around and even wait for us or come back for us when we finished with each site. The cabs certainly add up in cost (metered fares), but it was cheaper than a tour and we got narrative when we wanted about what we were seeing.
We drove around Imagination Valley (Devrent Valley in Turkish) where we saw rock formations that appeared to take on certain forms (hence the name 'Imagination' Valley):
Then we went for a walk at Pasabag Valley and hiked up to the top of the highest rock for views of the region – so beautiful!
After exploring the natural wonders on foot and by car, we went around a different area on horseback! Of course I insisted that we go riding, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We were able to get very close to the different rocks and caves, cover more ground and experience the landscape on our own – without another tourist in site. Moonlight was the name of the barn (I think) and I recommend them for a two-hour ride. (They use English saddles!)
Continuing our busy day, we changed from our riding clothes and went to a one-hour Whirling Dervish performance. The Whirling Dervish are members of the Mevlevi Order and they perform a religious ceremony / dance called a Sema. It was a really interesting experience to watch, and you could tell that the people on stage were not performers, but they were truly engaged in their prayer. I felt a bit strange being part of an audience watching the ritual – especially when the lights went on at the end for tourists to snap photos – because it seems like such a sacred and private event, but it is a good opportunity to learn about other cultures.
Saturday, June 7 (Istanbul – Asian and European sides) – It’s not every day that you get to take a boat and then a bridge between two continents. But for me, today was that day. Istanbul is a huge city spread across both the European and Asian continents, separated by the Bosphorus. Tali and I signed up for a two-hour ferry tour that took us along both sides of the Bosphorus as well as up along the Golden Horn, the body of water that separates 'old' Istanbul from the rest of the city. Here are some photos from the journey.
TIP: Don't pay more than 25 Turkish lire for the two-hour tour (in fact, you can probably get it for about 20). However, while we had a great time, I don't highly recommend this boat ride unless you have plenty of time in Istanbul. The reason is that you have no guarantee that your tour guide speaks good English or if you will be able to understand him on the sound system. Unfortunately we couldn't understand a word so we were just watching the views for two hours which was very nice, but it would have been more meaningful if we knew what we were seeing. Just food for thought.
After the excitement of our maritime adventure, and our final lunch in Istanbul, it was time to head to the airport for the second leg of our trip. Instead of flying out of the airport we flew into, we were leaving from the other Istanbul airport on the Asian side of the city. So for the second time in the span of a few hours, we got to take a ride (over a bridge this time) from Europe to Asia.
Friday, June 6 (Istanbul) - Throughout my travels, I have been extremely lucky with weather. Other than a 10-minute rain and hailstorm in Ireland and short-lived downpour in Italy, I have had sunshine just about every day. Then I arrived in Istanbul and the rain began. I was originally going to take a trip over to the Asian side of Istanbul, but with the rain and choppy water, I felt that was not the best idea. But there are a lot of things to do when it rains in this city, so here are my recommendations. (I didn’t have time to do all of them, but they were all recommended!)
Mosques: Blue Mosque & Aga Sofia
The Blue Mosque and Aga Sofya are both indoor sites, so those are good bets and must-sees, as long as you didn’t do them already. There is a line at Aga Sofya because there is an admission fee (the Blue Mosque is free and no line) so keep that in mind if you are umbrella-less. Fore more tips about these places and others, read this post about what to do in Istanbul.
Museums: Istanbul Modern
I really enjoyed Istanbul Modern Art Museum, especially their permanent exhibit “Past and Future” which looks at the evolution of contemporary and modern art in Turkey since its inception. Not all of the pieces are what you would consider ‘modern art’ because it is more of a stroll through Turkish art history, so there is definitely something for everyone.
One of their current exhibitions is a photography collection called “On the Road: Images of Turkey from the Nar Photos Archive” that documents current events in Turkey – political, social, lifestyle – in unique, thought-provoking ways. I wasn’t allowed to take any photos in that room, but some of the prints were extremely powerful.
Some other museums to check out (that I would have visited with more time) include the Istanbul Archeology Museum and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.
Turkish Bath / Hamam
You may remember my post about my first Hamam experience in Morocco… well, I tried again on this rainy day in Istanbul. Tali and I were recommended a place by a woman who worked at the café where we had breakfast, so we went to check it out. Maybe we should have known by the dead cockroach on the floor, but it wasn’t the nicest of places. Long story short, we sat in a hot, humid room with a bunch of men and women – including one towel-covered gentleman who was getting a soapy bath – for about 20 minutes before deciding to bail. We will try again in a TripAdvisor-approved Hamam in either Cappadocia or Antalya. BUT, there are tons of reputable, beautiful spas to get a Hamam treatment in Istanbul, and it is the perfect thing to do on a rainy day. Just do your homework a little better than we did!
Istanbul – particularly the Taksim area – is filled with live music! When the weather is dreary and you don’t want to sit outside, live music is a great reason to go inside and have fun. Modern Turkish rock is really great and regardless of the genre, who doesn’t love a man with a guitar?
Thursday, June 5 (Istanbul) - Istanbul is awesome, I love it! The city is huge and there are many different areas and neighborhoods, but overall it is a lot more modern than I expected, with delicious food, helpful and kind people, tons of live music, and a welcomingly different culture.
My good friend Tali met me in Istanbul for a week and a half of traveling throughout Turkey. That may sound like a lot of time, but I already know it will barely scratch the surface of what Turkey has to offer. On our first day in Istanbul, we checked out some of the main attractions including the Blue Mosque, Aga Sofya (or Hagia Sophia), the Grand Bazaar / Spice Market, and Galata Tower area. After spending some time in the city, I have some highlights, tips and recommendations to share!
Sightseeing in Istanbul
Shopping in Istanbul
Eating in Istanbul
Nightlife in Istanbul