Our guide to spending a perfect time in Istanbul, Pamukkale and Cappadocia
Day 1 – Istanbul – Basilica Cistern and Suleymaniye Mosque
Day 2 – Istanbul – Sultanahmet Square, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar
Day 3 – Istanbul – Dolmabahce Palace, Galata Tower and Istiklal Street
Day 4 – Pamukkale – Kaklik Cave and Laodicea
Day 5 – Pamukkale – Travertines, Cleopatra pool and Hierapolis
Day 6 – Pamukkale – Lavender fields, Burdur
Day 7 – Cappadocia – Exploring Goreme town
Day 8 – Cappadocia – Hot air balloon ride, Pasabagi, Zelve Open Air Museum, Rose Valley
Day 9 – Cappadocia – Kaymakli Underground City and Uchisar Castle
Day 10 – Departure
Even if you choose not to visit all of these three cities, our city wise detailed itinerary below can be considered for your preferred destination.
Day 1 – Basilica Cistern and Suleymaniye Mosque
We had an early morning flight from Sharjah. Even before we boarded our plane to Turkey, we were excited to see the Istanbul’s newest International Airport, which had opened its gate to the world on 5th April 2019. Located on the European side of Istanbul, this airport has some really scenic views inside and outside.
Currently, there is no metro from the new airport to the Istanbul city. We took a taxi, which cost around 200TL and 45 minutes. There is a shuttle option too (Havaist) which drops at few prime locations in Istanbul (including Sultanahmet) – cheap but time consuming.
After relaxing and satisfying our gut calls, we step out to get exploration going. Since major attractions shut by around 7 P.M., so you’ll have to plan accordingly. We visited:
Basilica Cistern – or the Sunken Palace, it is an underground rain water reservoir system that served the ancient Turkey for ages. It is the largest amongst many cisterns beneath the city but it’s majorly known for the ‘Weeping Column’ and the ‘Medusa Column’.
Hippodrome column – Before and during the Byzantine Era, the area was used for Chariot racing. The Egyptian obelisk is the main artifact there. If time allows, you can definitely give a visit.
Suleymaniye Camii – visit during golden sun hours (after peak noon hours) for the beautiful views of and around the mosque. The place is sparingly crowded and is one our favorite mosque until now, definitely not to be missed!
Day 2 – Sultanahmet Square, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar
Like any other attraction, these places get really thick crowd by the late morning hours. So, we suggest going closer to the opening hours of at least one of these places to start with.
Hagia Sophia – This place is just magical! The light through the arched windows falling on the golden mosaics and paintings, lit up the whole into architectural serene masterpiece. First served as a church, then a mosque and now it’s one of the most impressive museums of Turkey.
Sultanahmet Camii – Also known as the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiles. Built right across the Hagia Sophia, this functional mosque has everything that renders beauty. Though mostly under restoration these days, this mosque has a reminiscing feel to the Byzantine era through its Blue Iznik tiles. Visit during prayer times is closed to tourists, and Friday prayers are 2 hours long, so plan your visit accordingly. The crowd gets quite intense after the afternoon prayers.
Legend has it that because of a misunderstanding – when the Sultan decreed there should be altın minare (gold minarets), the architect heard altı minare (six minarets) – easy to muddle! This caused some controversy, as the only other mosque with six minarets at that time was the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca – a problem the Sultan overcame by ordering a seventh to be added in Mecca.
It is also said because of the earlier era trade of “Turquoise” gem stone by the people of this country, is from where they were eventually known as the ‘Turks’.
Topkapi Palace – This Palace is huge and every section has beauty imbibed, so plan your time accordingly since it closes by 4.45 P.M. in summers (6.45 P.M. in winters). The Palace has two primary sections, the Palace and the Harem. Pick a Palace map so that you don’t get lost and miss the relics.
The Harem, meaning ‘a forbidden place’, is where the sultan’s mother and the wives lived with the concubines. The entry was limited and allowed only to the Sultan, the Queen Mother, his wives, princes, consorts, concubines and eunuchs who guarded the harem.
The ceilings of the various rooms of the Harem are all that attracts your gaze. The designs, colors, and motifs of the iznik tiles along with the beautifully inlaid gold are incredible. Don’t miss this for the extra fee, you’ll thank us later.
Grand Bazaar – Walk down the roads of this historic market of Istanbul for reminiscing the past and present, and definitely some shopping. From authentic Turkish artifacts to copy of the all newly launched collections of luxury brands, name it and you get it here. We bought the indigenous hand-made Turkish rug and covers, plus a painting and few other pieces as keep sakes. Bargaining is real here, so get your socks on.
Day 3 – Dolmabahce Palace, Galata Tower and Istiklal Street
Dolmabahce Palace – One of the most alluring palaces in the world, it reflects the Europe and is dipped in luxury and opulence. If you take the Bosphorous tour, it will be one of the most intriguing of all the buildings you cross during the boat trip. Don’t miss the chandelier in the ceremonial hall which was gifted by Queen Victoria and is the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier.
If you are short of time, you can skip the Harem at this Palace.
While walking to the Dolmabahçe Palace, keep a look out on the other side of the road for the painted steps that join Findikli to Cihanger (Cafe Nove is on the corner) – The Rainbow Stairs. Another good spot for some colorful fun pictures
Galata Tower – This cylindrical tower made of stone, offers 360 degree viewing platform of Istanbul. The queue to catch the sight gets very long, and that’s why we ditched going up and roamed around the adjacent streets to absorb more of the Turkey vibes.
Istiklal Caddesi – This is the heart of the Present-day Istanbul, that runs from Taksim Square to nearly all the way to the landmark Galata Tower. Nearly three million people that pass it every day, can make it rather challenging to peregrinate. Yet it serves as a different little world of Istanbul within itself. From old charm cafes to fast food to gobble while you shop around some of the high street brands, and not to forget the street art and musicians that keep you going forward on this 1.4 KM stretch.
The Nostalgic Tram, the beautiful ruby-red trams are another reason to go to this street. This is one of the many examples in Istanbul’s past working seamlessly into the city’s modern culture. The trip would be incomplete if you don’t board one of these vehicles that are renowned for carrying shoppers and tourists up and down the bustling avenue as they’ve been doing for decades. Sadly, like many other places, the Tram was under maintenance and not functioning when we visited ☹.
Istanbul is a city that offers its inhabitants so many ways of exploring it; every day is a brand-new adventure.
If you have more time you may also visit –
- Turkish Baths
- Bosphorous cruise
- Princess Islands
- Ortakoy Mosque (around sunset)
- Camlica Mosque (for stunning city views)
- The Instagram famous neighborhoods of Fener and Balat
Day 4 – Kaklik Cave and Laodicea
We took an early morning flight to Denizli Airport, which is an hour’s drive away from Pamukkale. We grabbed a car on rent from the airport for three days in Pamukkale, as public transport is sparse. We visited:
Kaklik Cave – also known as the Underground Pamukkale, this cave was recently opened for public viewing. Mostly ignored by tourists, so very less crowd but I believe that’s why it still has its charm. There is a wooden walkway which is slippery at places, so mind your step but do go till the end to see the marvelous blue pool.
Laodicea on the Lycus – an ancient ruin site, still under excavation but also with scanty tourist footfall. This site is included in the tentative list of world heritage sites by UNESCO. It contained one of the then seven churches of Asia mentioned in the ‘Book of Revelation’. The site is currently not known much to the tourists, as it is a recent excavation. This makes the site must visit, as it is fresh from the ground.
Day 5 – Travertines, Cleopatra pool and Hierapolis
On the second day, we visited the most iconic sites in Pamukkale. These sites i.e. Travertines, the pool and Hierapolis, have a common entrance and a combined ticket. In order to save on the re-entry costs, these sites may be visited together.
Pamukkale travertines – Pamukkale means ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish. We visited the travertines at 6:30 A.M. in the morning from the south gate to beat the crowd. For a couple of hours i.e. before the crowds started pouring in by 8:30 A.M. , we had almost the entire travertines to ourselves. The serene blue thermal pools on the white limestone formations is a beautiful sight to behold in the golden rising sun giving it the subtle glow.
Cleopatra pool – situated right above the travertines is the Cleopatra antique thermal pool. There is no separate charge to see the pool. However, if you intend to swim in the pool, an additional charge of 50 TL needs to be paid. We did swim and the experience was good. You can see and feel the ruins inside the crystal clear pool water.
Hierapolis – The ruins of the ancient city of Hierapolis are well preserved. What grabbed our attention was the magnificent theatre. We decided to spend most of our time on a top seat in Hierapolis admiring the marvel. This is also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Karahayit – A small town next to Pamukkale, which is home to rust-red thermal springs (unlike the snow-white travertines). Most of the springs are located inside private resorts, but one of them is situated in the center of the town, next to the market. We also strolled in the market lanes.
We decided to spend some time boating in the picturesque Pamukkale lake as well.
Day 6 – Lavender fields, Burdur
On our final day in Pamukkale, we drove to the lavender fields in Burdur, which is around 150 kms from Pamukkale. We were a bit disappointed after we reached, as we were a week or two earlier than the full bloom. Though, we purchased a lot of lavender based products, specially lavender oil, from the local vendors at very affordable prices. Also, we had a lavender ice cream, it was delicious. Do let us know your thoughts if you try this at Burdur.
We were back in our hotel by 3 P.M. After relaxing for a while, we decided to see the whirling dervish ceremony. The experience was okay, and can be skipped in case you are short on time. The ceremony also takes place in Istanbul at Hodjapasha every day at 7 P.M., can be booked from your hotel or through their website (approx. 120 TL). In case you need an authentic experience of the ceremony, Konya, the land of the famous poet Rumi, is the place to visit.
Day 7 – Cappadocia arrival
We had an 8:30 A.M. flight from Denizli to Cappadocia via Istanbul. There are no direct flights. We reached our hotel (in Goreme) in Cappadocia by 4 P.M. Hence, we just decided to relax in our cave suite’s Jacuzzi and wander around Goreme.
Day 8 – Hot air balloon ride, Pasabagi, Zelve Open Air Museum, Rose Valley
Hot air balloon ride – This was the highlight of our trip. An experience to cherish forever. Watching the sunrise from a hot air balloon, with 150 other balloons was mesmerizing. We will let our pictures do the talking for this. We had booked our ride with Voyager Balloons.
Quick tips on booking a balloon ride:
1. Book the ride well in advance online, as the slots get full very quickly. Further, the rates for on the spot booking can be very high
2. Opt for ‘Comfort flights’, which have less than 15 passengers on a balloon and a duration of 90 minutes. This may be a bit expensive, but is worth every single penny
3. Fly on your first morning in Cappadocia. In case there are cancellations due to weather (which is often), you may be accommodated by the balloon company on the next day
Exploring the region on our bike – We hired a scooter for a day to explore the region on our own. It was very convenient to see the nearby places. We explored the moonscape valleys of Cappadocia, Pasabagi fairy chimneys, Zelve Open Air museum. At the end, we stopped to admire the mesmerizing sunset from the Rose Valley and spent some time there.
There are two main group tours offered there – the Red and the Green tour. The Red Tour takes you around the major attractions in the region and lasts for approx. 4-5 hours. The Green Tour takes you to some more added attractions of South Cappadocia like the underground cities and lasts for approx. 8-10 hours. Since we prefer flexibility we chose to visit selected places on our own.
Day 9 – Kaymakli Underground City and Uchisar Castle
On our last day in Cappadocia, we took public transport buses to visit the Kaymakli Underground City and the Uchisar Castle. The underground city is a bit far from Goreme (around 30 kms) and hence, not preferable to visit on a scooter.
Kaymakli Underground City – This is one of the many underground cities in Cappadocia. Kaymakli is one of the deepest underground cities in the region, with 8 levels, of which 4 are open to public. Navigating through the narrow passages in the city is an experience in itself.
Uchisar Castle – We went to the castle to see the sunset. The castle can get crowded during this time. In order to avoid the crowd and avoid the trek, we went to another part of the castle rather than the top. The way was from a café located before the entrance.
Day 10 – Departure
Our last day in Turkey. We decided to wake up early and see the balloons from the ground. We went to a higher secluded spot right next to our hotel for an amazing view. We departed by 2 pm flight to Sharjah, via Istanbul.