Türkiye has always been on our travel bucket list because we wanted to marvel at the Hagia Sophia and wander the country's ancient cities. We discovered so many more magical moments in Türkiye when we finally got there and we're grateful for it.
We spent 12 days from late December to early January in Türkiye and realised that it was not enough because there are so many things to see. When planning the itinerary for this trip, the one thing that I couldn't get over was how BIG the country is! I mean, I know it isn't small, but it took a pretty significant amount of time to get from one place to another. This made us use all the planning and Googling skills we had to ensure that we travelled sensibly and would not tire ourselves out. I'll share some things I've learned below.
The best thing about travelling in winter in Türkiye
Fewer crowds. Lower prices because winter is low season. The weather does get cold, especially in Cappadocia.
Cities we visited
We didn't manage to go to all the places we wanted to because we had to factor in travelling time, and saving enough days in Cappadocia for the hot air balloon. Flights in winter get postponed regularly because of the weather - snow, fog, wind - so we allocated more days there just in case our flight got postponed multiple times.
We spent time in three cities in total and passed through one city.
Istanbul (4 days) --> Goreme (4 days) --> Konya / Izmir travel day on overnight train (1 day) --> Izmir (1 day) --> Istanbul (2 days)
Would have loved to go to Mardin to see the beautiful ancient city and Pamukkale, but we decided that's for another trip!
There's so much to see and explore in Istanbul, I think you could even spend a week there! We spent 6 days in total. Besides the famous historical sights, there are many neighbourhoods of different characters to explore.
Most of the historical places of interest are on the European side.
Getting around Istanbul was so easy. We took the bus a lot, and the metro system and trams were good too. The Istanbulkart (transport card) is easily topped up and can be used to pay for all forms of public transport, including the ferries. Some public toilets even allowed for payment with the Istanbulkart too, haha.
--Commercial break for how to travel between Istanbul Airport / Sabiha Goken and the city--
We took the Havaist bus which can be found in either airport. (It's on the Ground Transportation Floor, level -2 of the Istanbul Airport). You pay for tickets at the ticket booth or with the conductor just before boarding. Be at the bus about 10 minutes before departure so you have enough time to load your luggage, get tickets, etc. Bus timetable here.
The bus makes a few stops in the city: Besiktas, Taksim (on the European side), and Kadikoy (on the Asian side). These are the same stops to take the bus back to either airport, and there are ticket booths there, or you can buy tickets with the conductor too. The bus stop at Taksim is in front of the Point Hotel (on the left in the picture above).
-- Back to the itinerary!--
On our first day, we visited Galata Tower, which I felt was a good thing to do. From the tower, you can get a great view of the city, which was great for me to get an overview of the places we were going to visit over the next few days, haha.
--Commercial break for the Turkey Museum Pass--
It was also here that we bought our Turkey Museum pass (1,000 TRY). One of the most useful things we got on our trip. It saved us time queuing up for tickets (we still needed to queue and pay for audio guides). We felt like a real boss, waltzing into the ticket gates with our museum pass.
There is an Istanbul museum pass, but it only covers museums in Istanbul. Because we'd be going to museums and other places of interest in Cappadocia and Epheseus, it was more value for money to get the Turkey museum pass.
The Basillica Cistern and Dolmabace Palace in Istanbul, and the Uchisar Castle in Cappadocia (100 TRY) are not covered by the Turkey Museum pass as they're managed by different organisations. Even with those added in, the cost of the museum pass is still lower than if we'd bought all the tickets separately. Here's the cost comparison for information (prices are in Turkish Lira).
We tried buying the pass online but it only delivers to a Turkish address. But the pass can also be purchased at any of the museums covered by the pass.
-- Back to the itinerary!--
We saw this dessert online and managed to try it on our first day. It was delicious and was our first meal in Istanbul. It is a cheesecake with chocolate dripping over it. Yummmm. We had the one at popular cafe chain Viyana Kahvesi. We also had the apple tea here which was so refreshing!
The weather was slightly cloudy when we started our day, but it soon became sunny, illuminating the gorgeous Dolmabahce Palace. It was the last residence of the Ottomans and was a great show of their wealth and status (they moved here from the Topkapki Palace, which we visited the next day). With a view of the Bosphorus sea, beauty was all around.
We had an amazing meal at popular cafe Petra Roasting Co. We liked it so much we went back on our return trip to Istanbul.
Oh by the way, one thing I was so surprised by was the number of cats in Istanbul! They were everywhere and the people are so kind and loving towards them. People randomly leave food, and bowls of water and comfy cat beds for them. It's very sweet.
Mosques, more palaces and things
Today was the day we did the tourist sights. It was a great way to overcome the jetlag, haha.. by making sure we were thoroughly occupied and tired enough by the end of the day to fall asleep.
Hagia Sophia was near the top of our bucket list so we saw it first, obviously. We heard so many tales about this gal that everyone wanted - the Orthodox Christians, Ottomans, Catholics... and the fact that it was a marvel of architecture.
We signed up for a tour to hear from a historian about Hagia Sophia (we were late so our guide was grumpy at us. But it was also because in my flustering about I interrupted him when he was telling a story to the other guests). I wouldn't recommend my guide as he had strong one-sided views, but I think that signing up for a tour would be valuable as there are so many details that you would miss if you just did a self-guided tour.
When we went in, we were amazed.
Look at those domes!
Hagia Sophia is an active mosque so women must dress modestly and cover their heads.
The Ottomans plastered over some of the original church decorations, and in doing so, actually preserved them! You can see a figure beneath the plaster in the picture below.
They covered the faces of the angels with stars and one actually dropped off. You can see it on the angel on the right. So because of that we know what's beneath the stars. I'm amazed they didn't hack the whole thing off - they wouldn't be the first conqueror to destroy the property of the civilisation they took over.
Our guide said that the face of the angel on the right looks sad / disappointed because they're looking at the sinners below. Gulp. But otherwise, admire the beautiful decorations!
Another interesting tidbit: if you notice that the niche below looks slightly off centre, that's because it is called a mihrab and is used to show the direction of Mecca. (thanks to my good friend Iz for advising me on what the mihrab is called.)
There were curtains covering the Christian decorations, and they were lifted up outside of prayer times, and only lowered during it.
I've only ever seen stained glass windows in churches so this one in the Hagia Sophia mosque is particularly beautiful.
Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapki Palace were all near each other, so we decided to do them all on the same day. We didn't feel that it was too much of a rush, but if you want to go really slow you might want to just do two places.
To be honest, the Basilica Cistern was pretty boring. >.< It had some very pretty columns though.
I think the Topkapi Palace is one of the most beautiful palaces I've been to. It seems like it is being restored beautifully (works are still in progress, so we couldn't see some of the parts of the palace). It's also located within walking distance from Hagia Sophia, so we visited both on the same day.
Here's an overview of the vast palace.
So many people lived and worked in the palace - there were so many rooms for all kinds of needs! I was fascinated by the entire exhibition on coffee. The Ottomans love coffee and there was an entire department of what felt like 50 people whose only job was to make or serve coffee to the sultan and Grand Vizier.
There were mosques too for all the workers so that's a lot of different areas in the palace.
And we haven't even gotten to the sultan's wives. The Harem Apartments are where the sultan's wives, concubines, children and the eunuchs (of African descent) lived. The chief eunuch was apparently very highly paid.
The Harem Apartments are in a separate part of the palace (and are charged separately too). The main palace had many exhibition showcases, but in the Harem Apartments you could see more of what the living spaces were like and what functions there were.
This is the throne room inside the Harem Apartments, and it was also where the women of the harem had their entertainment. When the sultan was in attendance, the consorts would sit at the galleries on the left of this picture.
The largest dome of the palace.
I'm fascinated by the mixture of European influenced-design and Arabic script.
This is the view of the Asian side of Istanbul from Topkapi palace.
Exiting Topkapi Palace, you can see Hagia Irene, now bathed in evening light.
The Asian side of things
Today we explore the Asian side of Istanbul. But first, breakfast at a wonderful restaurant, Cuma, who also have a very unique dinner menu.
Crossing the Bosphorus on the public ferry was fun, and we basked in some lovely views. Now I know why people talk about the Bosphorus like it's a poem. The shade of blue of the water and the waves are lovely.
We took the ferry from this terminal, Turyol, which is a separate one from the terminal that has ferries to the Princes Islands.
We were taking the ferry to Kadikoy, so, much like how one would wait for a bus, we waited for the right ferry to come (this is exciting for someone who doesn't have ferries as a form of public transport in their country).
We explored some very pretty neighbourhoods in Moda. They felt homely, somehow, and were a joy to stroll around in.
Today was all about that fish wrap
We were supposed to go to the Princes Islands today but felt lazy, so we hung out at Pierre Lotti Hill instead. It is supposed to have lovely views of Istanbul, which we did get to see, but I felt it was similar to the view from Galata Tower, so didn't feel much for it. Taking the cable car down (we walked up) was fun though. The restaurant there seemed a bit too touristy.
The Grand Bazaar was very touristy as they all say, and all the stores sell the same things! We also got ripped off there - 200 lira for two teas. Haha... well we should have known. I much preferred the Egyptian Bazaar. The spices, teas and sweets sold were quite interesting.
Back in the neighbourhood we were staying at, we discovered an amazing meal after a few days of having lots of red meat.
Highly recommend trying the fish wrap at Galata Fish Mekan, located on the streets behind the mosque and bathhouse that's opposite Tophane tram stop. The wrap was juicy and the salad was so fresh, refreshing and captured all the oils and juices from the fish perfectly. Highly recommend!
Galata Fish Mekan is along a pretty street filled with cafes and restaurants.
Also nearby is the French Gateway Business Centre, which now houses offices, and trendy cafes and restaurants.
It's balloon and hiking time
And we're off to Cappadocia! We took a flight from Sabiha Gokcen airport to Kayseri. Some people land in Nevsehir, which is nearer to the towns you want to be in by car. When staying in Cappadocia, most people stay in Goreme or Uchisar. Personally I'm glad we stayed in Goreme even though it was more crowded and touristy, simply because there were more shops and restaurants there.
We rented a car from Kayseri airport and drove to Goreme (about 1 hour). The drive was pleasant, though not very exciting in terms of scenery.
Road conditions were okay. We were given snow tires in case it snowed, but winter apparently came late, so we didn't get any snow at all.
Our first meal was at the restaurant in our hotel, Aydinli Cave Hotel. The restaurant was called Turkish Ravioli, and I ate the Turkish Ravioli dish there, which is known as manti. It's delicious, I highly recommend eating at the restaurant and staying at the hotel too. The staff were so friendly and the hotel is beautiful as well. You can even see the hot air balloons from the hotel!
By the time we settled in, it was almost sunset. We headed to a viewpoint, called Lover's Hill, which is literally called Sunrise / Sunset / Balloon Viewing Point on Google Maps. It was a lovely and beautiful way to end our first day in Goreme.
We could even see Uchisar Castle (the famous castle in the next town), against the backdrop of the rays of the sun. I must say, after visiting the castle, I enjoyed viewing it from a distance much more.
Goreme was very touristy as a whole, but somehow, it didn't make me enjoy the place less. I didn't feel like I was being touted or exploited at all. I could still feel its magic and my husband and I enjoyed ourselves very much.
The most magical ride
From what we read online and from what people have told us, the weather in Cappadocia in winter is often windy and snowy, and hot air balloon flights get cancelled often. Our balloon pilot also told us that out of about 250 scheduled flights a year, he only goes on about 150 - 180 or so (if I remember correctly), because the rest get cancelled due to bad weather.
If a flight does get cancelled, any company would let you postpone the flight at no extra fee to the next date with favourable weather. Since we didn't want to risk not being able to ride the hot air balloon, we planned to spend a few extra days in Cappadocia just in case our flight keeps getting cancelled.
We were very lucky and managed to go on the flight on our first morning. In fact, we had very good weather throughout the 4 days we were in Cappadocia (we left on the morning of our 5th day).
Our hotel, Aydinli, was very nice and soon after we made our room booking online, they offered to book our hot air balloon ride. They gave us two companies to choose from and from what we observed, didn't take any commission from either. The price we paid was the price listed on the company’s website. We picked Butterfly Balloons because they carried comparatively smaller groups up. Their maximum group size is 16 per basket, compared to 20 or even 24 in some other baskets.
Since the sun rises later in winter, the pickup from our hotel was at 6.25am. Which is luxuriously late for a sunrise viewing. Another perk of winter travel! More sleep.
They even fed us some breakfast before our flight. Our hotel assured us with great confidence that we'd be done with our flight and still be able to come back before the hotel breakfast service ended. Still, it was nice being able to have a bite before going on the balloon.
It was past 7 and we were still waiting for more groups to come and I remember thinking.. don't we need to go up soon? The sun is going to rise!!! But then I needn't have worried because the sun only rises past 8am in Cappadocia in winter! In Istanbul, it only rose at 8.30am!
We were assigned a pilot and everyone hopped onto different vans to head off to the balloon take off and landing site. It was a very bumpy journey and it was still dark at this point so we couldn't see anything outside.
Watching the balloons being fired up was an exciting experience in itself. The blasting sound of the gas cylinders and the fire shining lit up the dark surroundings beautifully.
After a quick safety briefing, we were off! Rising up slowly then floating was a scary but wonderful feeling. I was scared as we rose higher up, but then the magnificent views helped me overcome my fears. I gripped onto the handles inside the basket but told myself to breathe and relax and enjoy the sensation of floating.
In the air, besides the firing of the gas, there was no other sound. The silence, together with nothing else beside us made me feel like I was in a void. Is this what being in those flotation chambers feels like? It feels a bit similar to diving underwater.
Then came the sunrise.
Seeing the other balloons against the rising sun and mesmerising landscape is a magical feeling we'll never forget.
Each balloon basket was divided into 4 sections and each section held 4 persons. It was a comfortable enough space for us to maneuver around and scoot over when we wanted to take pictures or see things from a different spot. There was another couple in the basket next to us and they seemed quite serious about capturing pictures. When they asked me to help take a photo with their professional-looking camera I didn't know what I was doing and I think the photo didn't turn out as good as they wanted! I felt so bad especially since they took such a nice photo of my husband and I. (They are not the people in the photo below)
We went very high up…
And also low down into the valleys.
View from the basket with the person in the next section in front of me.
After descending, there was the obligatory champagne toast and we were even given medals and certificates. I was slightly relieved to be back on the ground, but the experience was truly above it all.
True enough, we had time for a leisurely breakfast. We could even see balloons for the post-sunrise flights in the sky!
Photos below were taken from our hotel's breakfast room on another morning shortly after sunrise.
Refreshed and full of energy, we decided to cover the sights listed in the "Red Tour" of this region of Cappadocia.
When Googling about things to do in Cappadocia I saw a few mentions of this red tour and green tour but I had no idea what it was. Turns out, the various places of interest are grouped according to tour routes of different colours. It was only when the kind staff at our hotel whipped out her map and started telling us about things to do did I finally get it. Haha..
Our first stop was the Goreme Open Air Museum, covered by the Turkey Museum pass. We sauntered past the line of people getting tickets, scanned our museum pass at the gantry and walked in... Only to realise the audio guides were outside. We had to sheepishly ask a staff member for help to let us out as our museum pass only allows one entry per museum.
The little squares you see in the rock are pigeon lofts. Pigeons are kept here as their waste is used for fertiliser. The land looks bare and rocky, but there were vineyards, farmlands, and even spaces where honey was cultivated!
People lived in the rocks too, and as we would see later, worshipped and practiced religion in caves too.
I cannot imagine having to climb these rocks on a daily basis, but I guess if you do it so often, it really becomes a part of your life.
Climbing up into the caves was actually quite fun. Some parts have staircases or ladders, while others have grooves in the rock for you to climb on - but do be careful as some of them are very steep.
A whole civilisation used to live here.
This is the stuff that inspires tales of other worlds and universes...
Love Valley had very phallic looking fairy homes, which we thought looked like mushrooms. Now we might sometimes not be able to look at oyster mushrooms the same way. 😅
The mountain you see in the distance is Mt. Ecrycies. Hiking through Love Valley is possible too.
Pasabag Valley showed more unique landscapes and here we got a chance to climb and crawl around the rocks. Which I enjoyed immensely, actually! But some steps were very steep and the rocks are very very sharp. I shudder thinking about scraping my knee on them.
The entrance to the valley is well paved.
A note about travelling to all these places - as you can see there are many wide plains and not a lot of shelter (except in the caves). Thus a good pair of sunglasses and a hat will be a lifesaver! I imagine it must be very hot in the summer. We made sure we drank lots of water.
This little sweetie below was trying to climb up the steps into the cave but the step was almost as high as her.
Against the pure blue sky, these dramatic rocks make it seem like were in a landscape in outer space.
Since it was nearby, we decided to check out Uchisar Castle. Plus we've been seeing it in the background in so many of our landscape views so far.
The castle is managed by the local town administration, so entry fee is not covered by the Turkey Museum Pass.
It was interesting to discover more about this former fortress, and we climbed to the top for some decent views.
We were more amazed of the views of the castle from afar to be honest, or perhaps we were tired of seeing it. Haha..
You can actually hike between Goreme and Uchisar and you will pass through Pigeon Valley, so named because of the pigeon lofts there.
Doesn't this look like something from outer space, especially with the moon in the sky? The white stuff you see on the ground is snow, which hadn't melted!
The landscapes were quite different from Love Valley but equally wonderous. If we had known, we would have planned to hike from Goreme, through Pigeon Valley to see Uchisar.
I really like the views of Uchisar Castle from afar better. Hehe sorry I'm being a bit mean. It wasn't that bad!
Here are more details about the hike - the route, things to see along the way, how long it takes, distance, etc.
Trail start/end (you might need to click on the images to view the full version):
This was taken in December 2022 so hopefully it's useful for anyone looking for information. Maybe I wasn't searching properly but I couldn't find much information on the route on any of the hikes we wanted to go on. Will share more on the Red and Rose Valley hikes in the next section. We ended up using Google Maps which worked relatively well, so perhaps it works well for Pigeon Valley too.
Oh yes, we had lunch at a sweet, homely restaurant called Kadineli which my husband found. The ladies are so motherly and food so wholesome we really felt like we were eating homecooked food. 🥰
The leftmost dish is rice wrapped in cabbage and stewed in a kind of tomato sauce which was delicious. The salad in the middle was so fresh, and the beans and rice were a nice warm dish to round off the meal.
We didn't think we could do all these things in a day, but I guess it's possible! It didn't feel too rushed and we saw what we wanted to. We travelled around by car.
Oh yes a note about driving in Goreme town. Goodness, the roads leading up to the hotels are very narrow and cars park in any space they can find (most of the hotels in Goreme are on hills). If this is Goreme in low season I cannot imagine how packed it is during high season. I would not have driven. Haha.. oh and the roads in the town weren't marked clearly when we were there.. we didn't know if there were two lanes or one so we just drove carefully, haha.
And a-hiking we go
Today was one of the days I was looking forward to the most - hiking! We hiked through the Red and Rose Valleys. It was so hard to find information about a trail in English. Different blogs gave different starting points but after being there, I felt that a good place to start is at the Red Valley Coffeebus. It's just called Red Valley Park on Google Maps. It's a short distance on a nicely paved road that branches out from the main road. There's parking here and you can stop for a coffee before the hike. There is a nice view of the valley below and if you go early enough you might see the hot air balloons in flight.
But don't stay too long, you have a hike to get to!
Walking further in, you'll reach some cafes, shops selling souvenirs and one of the most expensive public toilets we had to pay for - 6 lira per person! There's also a huge car park here and I remember us thinking... we should have just mapped to this spot and parked here. Haha.. If you want to come here directly, I think you can map to this spot. Photos here show the carpark and they seem accurate.
The entrance to the hike is clearly there. Walk down the slope and you'll see these yellow signs (photo below) giving directions. Some signs are painted on wooden boards or on rocks. The signages aren't always clear but we relied on Google Maps a lot and it worked well. Amazingly, we had 4G for most of the hike in the valley.
Bring a walking stick if you prefer. Some of the slopes are quite steep and there is a bit of climbing involved (especially if you want to climb up to the cave churches and caves). There will be staircases at some parts like the ones in the photo below.
One of the most darling things to me was the little random cafes in the rocks and corners. I was most looking forward to having tea at the Red Valley Tea Garden, but when we reached there, unfortunately they were closed. Perhaps they close in winter.
We followed the signs to the Crusader Church and Columned Church, the latter also known as Direkli Kilise (Kolonlu).
These amazing formations and the clear blue sky make it seem like this scene is on another planet!
We climbed up to this quaint cafe that sold drinks, juices and snacks. I drank copious amounts of pomegranate juice throughout our entire trip and did not pick anything different this time, haha. A nice cool juice after walking in the hot sun is the best.
We sipped our juice to this view.
Another couple enjoying drinks against the magnificent landscape.
I never imagined we'd get to do this and I'm so happy and grateful we did.
Refreshed, we headed up to the Crusader Church which was just by the cafe.
It was pretty amazing. I think these were restored but they look very good, and the shades of green here are lovely.
Entrance to another part of the church:
The view from the church. Whew, amazing!
We wandered up the rocks behind the church and came to more rocks with what seemed like dwellings carved in them.
Look at those rocks! The Geography student in me is having a feast for the eyes.
Some parts of the hike were flat like this.
We got lost finding our way to the Columned Church, which was the place I wanted to see the most. We didn't come across any other hikers, but suddenly, a sweet dear friend trotted along our path. We thought she was just passing through but she seemed to be accompanying us.
She walked on ahead of us a few times so we thought she had gone off but soon she came back or she seemed to be waiting for us. She's so sweet and a real blessing. We were so happy to have had her for company whilst we figured our way around. When we met another hiker who striked up a conversation with us, suddenly we didn't see her around any more.
I wish that she keeps warm this winter, and we'll always remember her sweet gesture. Hope you're taking care, dear doggy!
Finally we found the Columned Church. I was about to give up when we decided to try another route, and voila! We saw a structure carved in the rock.. weren't sure if it was the church, but we entered.
We saw these little coves and they looked like spaces that people would put offerings or light candles in.
We saw a tiny flight of stairs in the corner and climbed up.
And our jaws immediately dropped. It was dusty inside but it was beautiful.
There we plain decorations but the columns were so majestic and awe-inspiring.
When the sun rays streamed in at just the right angle...
Little windows (window seat?) to see outside.
Unfortunately we had to end our hike quickly as we signed up for an ATV tour (our hotel kindly helped us with the booking). We were picked up from our hotel and joined a group.
It was called an ATV sunset tour and they brought us to a few sights in the area on our ATVs and we got to see the sunset.
Some of the places we had been to, except for one which was new to us, called the Monastery which looked very grand! But we were only given 10mins at each place so we couldn't explore much.
We ended the evening with a delicious dinner at Inci Cave Restaurant Goreme. It had good pot kebab, a local dish of stewed meat and / or vegetables in a clay pot, which they crack open at your table. Lots of people bring the pot out while its still surrounded by fire... for the tourists. haha.. but do try it if you're there. Its pretty tasty!
But my husband's favourite dish, and a dish which I enjoyed immensely, was something they called their Special Chicken Dish. Oh it was definitely very special. It tasted like a really really really good cream chicken dish. Excellent!
I highly recommend this restaurant. (It's not in a real cave, but the vibes are there haha).
Another good restaurant is Top Deck Cave Restaurant. Reservations are a must and we got really lucky as we managed to get a table for a party who showed up very late. They also have very wholesome Turkish food.
Exploring outside of Goreme
With the luxury of one more day in Cappadocia, we decided to visit a valley about 1 hour drive out from Goreme, called Ihlara Valley. We were deciding between this and one of the underground cities of (Derinkyu or Kaymakli are the more popular ones), but we decided we didn't feel like visiting an underground city that day and preferred a beautiful valley instead.
On our drive out, we happened to pass by Hasandagi, or Mount Hasan. We were blown away. Seeing it as we were driving on the endless road made us feel as if we were driving towards it. The whole range was beautiful in fact.
When looking for things to see and do along our drive from Goreme to Konya, to catch our overnight train to Izmir, seeing Hasandagi was one of the things I was looking at. But I axed that plan as the detour was too long. So it was a good decision to head to Ihlara Valley as we got to see the mountain.
The valley was very pretty and walking along the river in the valley is a pretty long hike in itself. Some trails are about 10km long. There were more cave churches along the valley but we were all churched-out by this time so we skipped it.
We finished off the evening with dinner at Seten Restaurant, also a popular restaurant in Goreme. This was the waiting area and the Christmas tree added to the warm, cozy atmosphere of our stay in Goreme. A great way to end our last night in the town!
Off on our overnight train journey
On our last morning in Goreme, we had the delicious hotel breakfast, and made sure included our new found favourite food, kaymak and honey. Kaymak is something like clotted cream and when spread on bread with the honey.. oh my goodness.. it was heaven. Do give it a try!
Biting into the honeycomb to have the honey burst out... oooof. So good.
Our drive to Konya was smooth, and we stopped by the Sultanhani Caravanserai, one of the largest pitstops along the ancient Silk Road. The place was nicely restored and is now being used as an art gallery.
Not much to see in terms of history, but good that they're repurposing an ancient landmark.
Before continuing on to Konya, we stopped at KÖYLÜM ETLİ, a little restaurant serving "buffet" style food, where dishes are displayed and you can pick what you want. The food here all looked good and the dishes we picked were tasty.
We arrived in Konya just before sunset and after a bit of an adventure returning our car, we set off on our 1 hour walk to the train station. With our luggage. Hahha.. we didn't want to bring our huge luggage up the buses or trams as it was peak travel period, and the walk to the train station looked pretty straightforward. So we decided to walk there. It was actually a pleasant walk as there were good pavements and the road was literally straight for 90% of the journey.
We grabbed some dinner at a random shop nearby and headed to the train station. The train station is very big and has both high speed and local trains. Ours was an overnight train but would be a local one. The high speed rail doesn't go to many places. The overnight train from Konya to Izmir and vice versa runs once daily and it was easy to book tickets beforehand on their app.
This is our train on its platform.
I had read that tickets sold out really quickly so I bought our tickets 1 month beforehand. All the cabins were full! The conductor barely looked at our tickets but he did check our passports. I'm glad he gave them back to us. I remember when I took an overnight train in Italy many years ago the conductor actually kept our passports.
The train was comfortable. The bedsheets could be cleaner but it was good enough for one night. The beds folded out simply and the seats were wide and spacious. There was even a washbasin in our cabin! Best part of the train was the minifridge!! It didn't feel very cold but maybe that's because it was winter. They provided small snacks and packet drinks. There was also a lot of table space and there were also even little cabinets to keep items. Very thoughtful.
The restaurant car was open and hot drinks and more snacks were available for sale. I saw a hot food menu but didn't ask if they were serving food. The restaurant car attendant was very friendly and tried talking to us. Another passenger had to translate. 🤣
The shared toilets were decent too.
Overall we had a very satisfactory experience and surprisingly good sleep.
Izmir & Epheseus
Driving in Izmir was scary. There were so many roads and the traffic was crazy! I'm proud of my husband and I for surviving it. He was driving but navigating it was scary too because we weren't familiar with the roads.
After picking up the car we drove to Epheseus. It is one hour from Izmir and a pleasant enough drive. We decided to stay in Izmir instead of Selcuk because there seemed to be a lot more to see in Izmir. We would only be spending a maximum of 3 hours at Epheseus anyway.
We were about to buy an audio guide at Epheseus when a local tour guide stopped us and offered his services. So far on our trip we had been turning down personal guides as we prefer exploring on our own. But since the driving in Izmir was a little traumatising and required a lot of energy on both driver and navigator, I thought having a guide bring us around might be a nice change.
Epheseus was such an important town and the Romans really helped elevate it further. I admired the well-planned streets, shopping arcades, bathhouses, commercial districts and restored homes.
This amphitheater had amazing acoustics!
These were public lavatories made of pure marble. They were very cold in the mornings so wealthy people had their slaves sit on the seats to warm them first. Literal seat warmers. :( I'm disturbed by how close the seats are to each other too.
We also decided to rent a car because if we stayed in Izmir we'd have to rush to catch the train. The train timings were not favourable and would require 1.5 hours travel each way and we'd only get about 2.5 hours at the site before we have to catch the next train back. I didn't want to catch a later train because I wanted to walk along the waterfront in Izmir at sunset.
The sunset was indeed lovely and we even walked through a very trendy and nice-looking neighbourhood that had many hip restaurants and cafes.
There are lots of restaurants along the waterfront but we decided to have dinner at one near our hotel. It was a plate of delicious fish and their starters were scrumptious too. We ordered the butter garlic prawns and fried squid. So good, I highly recommend!
The staff were so nice too. The other customers inside were smoking a lot so we asked if we could sit outdoors as the smell was starting to get to us. I noticed they had outdoor seating that was covered up, probably only used in warmer months. The waiter could see why we wanted to shift out and kindly brought a table and setting outside specially for us. We were so grateful!
One thing we noticed about service staff is that most don't expect to be tipped and will let you know if service charge isn't included in the bill so you can tip if you want. If you tip, they appreciate it a lot.
Back to Istanbul
We took a flight back to Istanbul today. We searched for breakfast along the waterfront and found a place that served a nice addition to a breakfast dish we liked a lot - menemen, which is baked tomatoes and scrambled eggs. Meat is sometimes added into it. This restaurant added cheese, which gave a nice texture to the dish. Can't go wrong with egg, tomato and cheese! We recommend Lades Menemen near Istiklal Street.
When we were at Epheseus, we saw notes in the museum about how some of the pieces were at the Istanbul Archeological Museum, so since we had extra time in Istanbul, we decided to pay it a visit. The museum itself is relatively big and we spent about 1.5 hours there. Quite a lot to see as well and I was ogling at the restored jewelry pieces.
Some of the writeups were long and chunky so it was a bit of an info overload. But worth a visit if you have time. The museum is near Topkapi Palace. But I feel visiting both places on the same day might be a bit taxing on the brain, just by the sheer amount of information you'll be receiving (unless you're a history buff!).
Last chance to visit our new favourite places
The last few days in Istanbul were spent shopping and eating at some of our favourite places. We went back to Cuma again, and met this little kitty who was so comfortable we thought she was the restaurant's cat, till the waiter came and tried to shoo her away. Haha!
We went back to Galata Fish Mekan for the juiciest and tastiest fish wrap we've had in our lives. A definite must go if you're in the city. In fact, check out the rest of the shops, cafes and restaurants on this street, called Mumhane Cd., in Karakoy, near Galataport.
Speaking of Galataport, the mall Galataport Istanbul is a loooooong stretch of shopping overlooking the sea and its nice! Worth a visit. It's near the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. (There's another Galaport postanesi or something..which has higher end stuff and which I didn't find very interesting).
Good place for shopping and eating and there are many restaurants serving many different types of food there.
We enjoyed eating kunefe, a delicious crispy warm pastry, at Hafiz Mustafa, an old pastry chain. We found out later from a staff at our hotel that it caters to Arab tourists so the prices are slightly higher.
They sell their sweets but there's also a cafe. The kunefe is delicious with ice cream on top.
It even has cheese in it!
We also took a ride on the funicular, one of the oldest subway systems in Europe which brings people from below a hill to the too where Istiklal Street is. It's called the Tunel and we had so much trouble getting to it from the Sishane metro station. But we were so glad we found it as it made our journey around much easier.
Thank you Türkiye for the wonderful, eye-opening experiences, awe-inspiring vistas, and the kindness of the people and even animals. It's a really beautiful country with so much to experience and learn. More than just a mish mash of east and west, I felt that it was just a different and unique place of its own. We hope to visit more of Turkey again in the future!
#Turkey #WinterTravel #History #Hiking