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13 of the best things to do in Turkey – from swimming in thermal pools to paragliding over blue lagoons

There’s more to the holiday hotspot than winter sun and mouthwatering kebabs   (Getty Images)
There’s more to the holiday hotspot than winter sun and mouthwatering kebabs (Getty Images)

Straddling south east Europe and south west Asia, Turkey’s charm extends well beyond its 5,000 miles of golden coastline.

Though already a sought-after holiday destination for the luxury beach resorts of Bodrum and Antalya on the sparkling Turkish Riviera, venturing away from the fine sands can be the best way to curate a top-notch Turkey itinerary.

You’ll quickly discover off-grid echoes of a Neolithic past, a city life ripe for embracing in the capital, and otherworldly views from Unesco hotspots Pamukkale and Mount Nemrut, if you tread your own tracks between the nation’s highlights.

Active thrills hiking the Lycian Way and paragliding over Ölüdeniz meet religious architectural feats in Ephesus and Istanbul, alongside afternoons haggling at the Grand Bazaar.

Here’s our guide to the best adrenaline-fuelled adventures, relaxing spa sessions and traditional sweet treats to try during your next trip to Turkey.

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Visit the Blue Mosque

Ornate tiles of cobalt and aquamarine decorate the interior of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Ornate tiles of cobalt and aquamarine decorate the interior of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, nicknamed the “Blue Mosque” for its ornate interior tiles of cobalt and aquamarine, is an Ottoman-era mosque in Istanbul and one of Turkey’s most famous attractions. With a domed exterior, thousands of blue Ä°znik tiles and a grand central prayer space, the historic religious and architectural feat is jaw-droppingly impressive to visit outside of daily prayer times.

Haggle at the Grand Bazaar

A labyrinth of lamps, rugs and spices in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A labyrinth of lamps, rugs and spices in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Think artisan stalls, traditional crafts and a thrilling haggling culture in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Weave your way through a labyrinth of technicolour lamps, woven rugs and piles of fragrant spices in one of the world’s oldest markets to experience the pleasure of bargaining for yourself. Some 3,500 shops pepper the 15th-century establishment, so you're bound to come home with a souvenir antique or two.

Explore the ancient city of Ephesus

Once an ancient port city, Ephesus is an archaeological site of Greek and Roman ruins (Getty Images)
Once an ancient port city, Ephesus is an archaeological site of Greek and Roman ruins (Getty Images)

As far as Turkish archaeology is concerned, the Greek city of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved Greco-Roman ruins in the world, is an unmissable ancient metropolis on the Aegean coast. Among the marvels of the 10th-century city that once stood, you’ll find the towering façade of the Library of Celsus, a 40,000-seat theatre carved into the hillside.

Paraglide over the Ölüdeniz Blue Lagoon

Take off on a tandem glide over Ölüdeniz’s cobalt waters (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Take off on a tandem glide over Ölüdeniz’s cobalt waters (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Flirt with danger on a tandem paraglide from the Babadag mountain in Ölüdeniz for unrivalled views of the Blue Lagoon’s cobalt waters 1,200m above sea level. For the fearless, simply run towards the edge of the mountain and allow gravity (and some serious wind) to float you down over the impressive shades of blue to a grassy landing – it’s a thrill you won’t be quick to forget.

Catch the sleeper train to Sofia

All aboard Istanbul’s night train to Bulgaria (Getty Images)
All aboard Istanbul’s night train to Bulgaria (Getty Images)

The Turkey to Bulgaria sleeper train weaves out of Halikali station past burek stands, earthen homes and colourful minarets on its journey to Sofia – resumed in April 2022. Berths are fitted with plugs, fridges, light snacks and fold-out beds for the journey through Bulgaria’s mountainous landscape into the urban sprawl of stations and post-Soviet architecture in Sofia – the ideal adventure for interrailers in the Balkans.

Take a Turkish bath

The traditional Turkish bath treatment, a hammam, involves hot steam rooms and cold plunge pools (Getty Images)
The traditional Turkish bath treatment, a hammam, involves hot steam rooms and cold plunge pools (Getty Images)

Turkey’s spa scene – centuries-old hammams complete with steamy antechambers, mineral water and the powerful forearms of a Turkish masseuse – offers an opportunity to unwind and relax away from the hustle of tourist-drawn town squares. The faded grandeur of tiled arches, ornate columns and crescent carvings still looms over visitors looking for muscle-melting treatments between sightseeing sessions.

Summit Mount Nemrut at sunrise

Ancient statues sit atop the Unesco World Heritage Site (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Ancient statues sit atop the Unesco World Heritage Site (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The 2,150m Mount Nemrut, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is a must-visit site for hikers and stargazers alike. Summit at sunrise to get your steps in with a side of spectacular views of its seated statues and the Euphrates River illuminated in every shade of orange. Watch the horizon shine with Made in Turkey Tours for unobstructed views, an experienced guide and a local lunch after the journey.

Swim in the Pamukkale thermal pools

The cascading limestone pools at Pamukkale are well worth a dip (Getty Images)
The cascading limestone pools at Pamukkale are well worth a dip (Getty Images)

Just north of Denizli, Pamukkale’s (“Cotton Palace”) cascading limestone pools take hot spring paddling to a new level. The unique terraced geology, coated in calcium carbonate to create the dazzling shade of white, was once the backdrop of the Hellenistic spa town of Hierapolis. Today, visitors to the Unesco-listed area can walk and soak in select swimming sections of the cloudy blue waters for just €11 (£9.52).

Get a taste of the country’s culinary backstreets

You’ll find roasted chestnuts, seasoned corn, fish sandwiches and molasses-dipped breads on Turkey’s culinary backstreets (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
You’ll find roasted chestnuts, seasoned corn, fish sandwiches and molasses-dipped breads on Turkey’s culinary backstreets (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

You’ll be spoilt for choice with unfussy mangal kebabs, meze plates and sweet baklavas in the culinary backstreets of Turkey’s big cities. Spiced egg breakfasts of menemen meet the famed donner kebab and kofte-filled pittas and, come winter, chestnuts roasted on the squares and side streets of Istanbul. Take a walking tour for the best taste of the mighty bites and flavours that have shaped Turkish cuisine.

Cruise the Mediterranean on a gület boat

Set sail on a gület for a sailor’s view of the Turkish coastline (Getty Images)
Set sail on a gület for a sailor’s view of the Turkish coastline (Getty Images)

One of the best ways to explore southwest Turkey's coastline is by boat. More specifically, by gület – a traditional twin-masted wooden sailing boat. The vessels, once carriers of silks and spices, now host holidaymakers looking to discover hidden coves on the water and anchor in off-grid villages for platters of meze enjoyed with the crew.

Reach new heights on a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia

Float over Cappadocia at sunrise for the best views of its surreal tufa formations (Getty Images)
Float over Cappadocia at sunrise for the best views of its surreal tufa formations (Getty Images)

Cappadocia in central Turkey has become synonymous with the image of hot-air balloons floating across its skyline. The modern bucket list topper sees thousands of tourists take to the skies to enjoy the World Heritage Site each year and early birds get the worm for the best views on whimsical sunrise journeys over the historic Göreme Town, the distinctive fairy chimneys and tufa rock formations.

Bathe on the beaches of Bodrum

Bodrum’s beach resorts sit on the azure Aegean (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Bodrum’s beach resorts sit on the azure Aegean (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Turkey’s own St Tropez, Bodrum’s balmy coastline is a paradise of deluxe beachfront resorts complete with floating sunbathing platforms and four poster cabanas for basking on the golden sands all year round. Away from the ease of all-inclusive life on a lounger, beach bars, lively seafood restaurants and a whole host of watersports lapping at the shore make the holiday hotspot a dream for a Turkish getaway.

Hike the Lycian Way

Stretching 539km from Fethiye to Antalya, the Lycian Way is a historic walking trail through Turkey’s ancient ruins (Getty Images)
Stretching 539km from Fethiye to Antalya, the Lycian Way is a historic walking trail through Turkey’s ancient ruins (Getty Images)

Those who like to soak in their history on two feet will find plenty about Turkey’s past to learn on the 539km Lycian Way. The long-distance walking route that snakes from Fethiye to Antalya traces Lycian settlements in graves and Roman ruins with secluded beaches, traditional hilltop villages and boutique hotels staple stop-offs on the hike. Picture preserved Roman amphitheatres, acropolis and wild camping backdropped by the sparkling Mediterranean.

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