Are you coming to Turkey and need to plan your trip? This post explains the main options and decisions you need to make in your planning.
There are two ways to visit Turkey—as a group tour or on a personal trip. These two options are quite different, so they require different planning approaches. There is so much to see and do in Turkey, planning your trip means choosing what not to visit! Here’s what you need to know. A quick note about timing—in general, July–August is hot and humid, while January–February can be cold. That means spring and fall are ideal times to visit.
Planning a Group Tour to Turkey
Most group tours, whether historical or biblical, follow a simple pattern. The core of the trip is four days in Asia Minor, plus several other areas you choose to visit.
Asia Minor/Seven Churches of Revelation (four days). Asia Minor, situated along the Aegean coast in western Turkey, is the meat and potatoes of group tours in Turkey because the spectacular ancient sites are close to each other. The four days are usually spent as follows: Ephesus (ancient site, museum, St. John’s Basilica), Pergamon (acropolis, Red Basilica, çç), Lycus Valley (Hierapolis/Pamukkale, Laodicea), and the Lydia region (Sardis, Philadelphia, and Thyatira, with the latter two being small sites only for biblical tours). The cities of Ephesus, Pergamon, and Sardis were all regional capitals at one point in antiquity and have been well excavated, so they are the top sites. For this time, while visiting Asia Minor, you can establish a base around Ephesus (at a beach resort in Kuşadası or a budget hotel in Selcuk) or in downtown Smyrna near the waterside. You can also add another day to visit sites in the Meander River Valley (e.g., Priene, Miletus, and Didyma), or take a day trip by boat to visit Patmos. More info about Asia sites here.
The rest of the regions below can be two-day visits that you can add to Asia Minor. Of course, there are other sites in each region and you can spend more than two days exploring each one. However, group tours tend to move fast because people are being guided around, so two days is standard. So, pick your favorites!
Cilicia—Visit Syrian Antioch (modern Hatay/Antakya), a wonderful multicultural city in southeast Turkey, then Tarsus and perhaps Adana.
Cappadocia—Enjoy the surreal geography of Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys and spectacular valleys with hundreds of medieval, Byzantine cave churches and monasteries. For more, see my site.
Galatia—Biblical tours can visit Pisidian Antioch, Konya, Derbe, and Lystra (the churches of Acts 13–14 and Paul’s letter to the Galatians). Only Pisidian Antioch has a notable ancient site and museum to visit; the others are unexcavated. More info here.
Pamphylia—Explore the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey. The biblical sites are Attalea (modern Antalya) and Perge. Other notable sites are Termesoss, Aspendos, and Side.
Lycia—The southwest coastline of Turkey features scenic mountains and a great coastline. You can visit the coastal cities of Patara/Adrianake, Patara, and Xanthus.
Troas—The peninsula in northwest Turkey has some strategic cities that were travel nodes in antiquity. The top sites are Assos, Troas (especially its harbor area), and Troy (yes, the city of Homer’s Iliad). More info here.
Istanbul—The capital of modern Turkey was the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. It features the most monumental structures in Turkey, such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapı Palace (of the Ottoman Sultans). Istanbul is a world-class city on the water, with great history. Most groups fly to/from Istanbul, so its usually at least one day on the itinerary.
The map below shows the regions (red underlines) and a common route for visiting them (blue line). If you visited all seven extensions, you would have an exhausting 18-day trip. There is so much to see, so you have to pick what interests you. Most groups are 8-10 days, so visit Asia Minor plus 2-3 other regions. You don’t have to travel by land between contiguous regions. There are direct flights from Istanbul and all the regions, and from Antalya direct to Smyrna, Cappadocia (Kayseri), and Cilicia.
I recommend Tutku Tours (based in Izmir), as they have decades of experience leading biblical and history tours for churches, universities, and seminaries. With Tutku, you can: organize your own group tour, join another open tour, or join one of their regular "Seven Churches" tour from Izmir.
Planning a Personal Itinerary In Turkey
Personal trips are different than group tours because you want more time to explore and experience the local scene. If you follow a tour itinerary, you will exhaust yourself with driving and spend all your time on the road. For a personal trip to Turkey, plan your time according to the country’s seven very different regions. You could blitz through a region in two to three days, but I suggest spending at least five to seven days in each one. So if you have two weeks, pick the two (maybe three) regions that suit your interests.
The Grand City of Istanbul (Mamara)—The capital of modern Turkey was the Byzantine capital, Constantinople. It features the most monumental structures in Turkey, such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and Topkapı Palace (of the Ottoman Sultans). Istanbul is a world-class city on the water, with great history.
Historical Sites on the Aegean—If you like Greco-Roman sites or biblical history, the area of Asia Minor around modern Smyrna has an amazing collection of classical sites. The cities of Ephesus, Pergamon, and Sardis were all regional capitals at one point in antiquity and have been well excavated. That makes them the top sites. This time, you can establish your base around Ephesus (at a beach resort in Kuşadası or a budget hotel in Selcuk) or in downtown Smyrna near the waterside. You can also visit the Seven Churches of Revelation or the great sites in the Meander River Valley (e.g., Priene, Miletus, and Didyma). More info here.
Coastal Vacation on the Mediterranean—For great beaches, the "Turquoise Coast” in southwest Turkey has a spectacular coastline. Antalya (especially the towns of Side and Kemer) has many all-inclusive resorts on the coast. The coastline between Bodrum and Antalya has many small touristy towns like Kaş. And the mountains in Lycia feature great hiking. The weather is warm and sunny for 11 months of the year.
Beautiful Nature in Cappadocia (Central Anatolia)—Enjoy the surreal geography of Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys and spectacular valleys with hundreds of medieval, Byzantine cave churches and monasteries. For more, see my other site.
Those four areas along Turkey’s coast are the main areas for tourism and historical sites. The other three regions allow you to experience traditional, rural Turkey with far less tourism. The Black Sea region has green mountains and winding roads with coastal cities. Southeast Turkey has a great food scene and some majestic ancient sites. The Eastern region is more mountainous, rustic, and charming (more info here).
Turkey is actually very easy, affordable, and safe to travel in (assuming you have some common sense!).
You can rent a car at any airport or city for $30-40/day. I usually rent from Enterprise (or another established company); they have the best service with no hidden gimmicks. Tourists can drive legally in the country with a valid license from their home country for 180 after their initial arrival in Turkey. If you are short on money and long on time, Turkey has an extensive and cheap bus system. I usually get bus tickets at www.NeredenNereye.com. Domestic flights are usually short and cheap too. Every city has a flight to Istanbul, and the major cities have direct flights between them. Kayak.com is usually the best place to explore flight options in Turkey.
Citizens of most countries can get an e-visa for Turkey here (I know it doesn't look like an official government website, but it actually is!)
For a place to stay, you can find good options in a travel book like Lonely Planet or website like Google Maps. A decent double room can be $30-50, and $100 gets you something really nice.
Food in Turkey is fabulous. Most hotels will include breakfast. Plan on $5-10 pp for lunch; $10+ pp for dinner. Enjoy the chance to eat at some seaside restaurants if you get a chance.
The historical sites are all operated by Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism. You can buy tickets at the gate for individuals sites. But if you plan to visit multiple sites, I would recommend getting a Museum Card (which you can buy at the first site you visit).
Turkey has many qualified tour guides. You can hire them through any tour agency, such as Tutku Tours. The base fee for a guide is about $100 per day. Experienced and knowledgable guides can be $150+ per day. Guides can not drive, so you have to provide transportation (rent a car or hire a driver). In locations with many tourists (like Ephesus, Cappadocia, Istanbul) , you can join a group tour through any tour agency. Joining a group tour for the day cost abour $40 per person and includes lunch. Inquire about the itinerary to make sure it includes the historical sites you want to visit. Also, be sure to ask what shopping stops they go to. Unfortunately, some group tours spend a lot of time at expensive shopping places (pottery shop, rug shop, local food store, etc.) because the tour organizers get a commission from your purchase. I think one stopping stop is acceptable (and can be a fun cultural event) for a group tour, but more than that is too commercial.
If you prefer to learn from a book than a tour guide, then I would recommend Mark Wilson's Biblical Turkey, the most accurate and extensive book. Here are several good websites with free information about Turkey's historical sites.