Turkey is overrun with historical cities and sites as well as tourism agencies and tour groups more than willing to take you there. This chaotic confluence has resulted in the most popular thing to do while in Turkey, i.e. participate in day trips from Istanbul, the capital. You could either plan your own and rent a car after flying into the nearest city (Turkey is pretty large and most attractions are far flung) or you could join a tour group, which we did. Our tour agency that arranged for our day trips from Istanbul was Efendi travels. Although they took care of everything and were super meticulous about the tours, they were extremely expensive and provided generic trip experiences for us. So I would strongly advise against using them if you are in Turkey and are looking for a more personalized experience. Read my previous post on mistakes we made while visiting Turkey and how to avoid them here. For more of Turkey’s many beautiful regions and cities, read this Ölüdeniz excursions guide in the Dalaman area of the country. As per Efendi travels, you can see all these cities as day trips although that will be very hectic. So it is better to opt for the overnight stay locally if you can.
Day trips from Istanbul Part 1: Ephesus
We were off to our very first day trip from Istanbul to Ephesus the very next day after landing in the capital. We flew into Izmir (the third largest city in Turkey) and then were transported to our tour van, waiting for us some 100 miles (or what seemed like a really far flung place) with a very chatty tour guide waiting patiently for us. The name of the guide evades me completely now, but he was the best one in the entire trip. His English was fluent and he was quite the repository of knowledge, which was great, since you definitely need that in a country like Turkey, where ‘antiquity’ is everyone’s favorite word (they have more than 10,000 years of history to justify its usage). He was a historian, linguist, botanist all rolled into one with some southern sass thrown in for good measure. Plus, he had an indomitable sense of humor which made the tour on a scorching summer day seem easy breezy. Although much of what we did can be crammed in a single day (see Efendi Travels day tours for details), we did stay overnight at a hotel in Kusadasi, a charming sea-side resort next to the beautiful Aegean sea. For more on Turkish sea side activities, do read this Turkey beach resorts Guide to plan your trip to the Turkish riviera. The hotel room was tiny, yet good enough for one night. Plus, the place was right next to the sea, and therefore provided a breathtaking view of the azure blue water in the morning from the terrace during breakfast (complimentary). Scroll down below for our adventure in Ephesus.
Day 1 of our day trips from Istanbul consisted of a visit to the House of the Virgin Mary (it’s believed that she spent her last years in Turkey after the crucifiction of Jesus), the temple of Diana/Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world which no one was interested in seeing anyway and consisted of a desolate monolithic rock structure jutting out of a bog with two adorable guard/water dogs swimming there) and finally a thorough tour of the ancient city of Ephesus. In between, we had lunch at a really charming road side make-shift restaurant and sampled the lip-smacking local cuisine (very different from the touristy mush that you get in Istanbul). In an effort to enhance our appreciation for local arts, our guide took us to a carpet weaving factory as well as a family owned Iznik pottery store (with an adjacent workshop) where we totally caved in and got ourselves a few goodies. A word of advice here: Its best to purchase local art in its place of craftsmanship or as close to it as possible since they cost an arm and a leg by the time they reach the stores of Istanbul. Also, you need to bargain REALLY HARD if you are in the mood to be a proud owner of a Turkish rug. They are handmade and jaw-dropping beautiful, but also heart-stopping expensive (priced in Dollars, no less). The Ottomans are conducive to bargaining, so do not hesitate to bring out the Jewish/Dutch/Indian side out of you and go full throttle at bargaining. We tested our “desi” (Hindi slang for South Asian) pride against the Ottomans with some hardcore bargaining, and after a silly handshake like gesture, nabbed a beautiful small-med size turquoise rug for ourselves.
Day Trips from Istanbul Part 2: Heirapolis and Pamukkale
Our previous tour guide was not exclusively affiliated with Efendi travels, and so much to our dismay, we ended up with another one the next morning for our trip to Hierapolis and Pamukkale. You can read this excellent Pamukkale travel guide to know more about the fantastic geothermal pools in this region. The guide, a strapping young Turk, was really nice, but his English was not half as good as the previous one, i.e. most of the times it was a mutual struggle for communication. Also, this was the first of several of our cookie cutter trips that would follow. Let me breakdown a typical tourism agency guided tour in Turkey for you:- all these places on our itinerary were extremely touristy. Plus it was June and the weather was perfectly warm and balmy. So tourists were flocking to all these sites like locusts and were literally being dumped by huge buses there. Although this did not make for an extremely pleasant viewing experience, it was something we had to live with. The worst part, as I mentioned in the previous blog, was the cookie cutter, minion-like lookalike nature of the day trips from Istanbul; something extremely disappointing given the amount of money that we churned out for it expecting a somewhat customized tour. For example, all our day trips from Istanbul, excepting the first one by that amazing guide, consisted of the following parts: 1) sightseeing, 2) lunch at one predetermined restaurant (where all the 500 tourist buses would be brought in one after the other), 3) further sight seeing and 4) stopping by some local crafts store (once again, all other tourist buses would follow us there). It’s almost as if several thousand of us tourists formed a fellowship of some sort during the tour cause we would bump into each other everywhere. The other thing which struck me greatly was the vast and efficient network created by these innumerable tourism companies. We would start out with Efendi travels who would eventually transfer us to some other group going to a certain place of interest, which would then deposit us with some other group visiting some other place and finally to another group which would take us to our hotel. This is where I realized that the exorbitant price charged by Efendi for such seemingly blah tours was actually to pay for the overhead costs to the sister companies.
Anyway, our sightseeing was rather uneventful in the sense that it was one well oiled routine like the rest of the tour leg (see Hierapolis and Pamukkale pictures below). The natural vistas and gorgeous limestone steps more than made up for all the weariness. A word of caution for Pamukkale visitors: it will serve you well to wear a bathing suit under your clothes if you want to take a dip in the cool waters of the travertines. If not, even shorts is a good idea. Anything is better than uncomfortably rolled up pants. There is an indoor hotel there with a swimming pool that claims to have its water drained in from the travertines. Do not fall for that and go into the pool cause you will be charged a tidy fee for it. We finally departed Pamukkale, and after a round of being transported like cattle, we ended up at a tiny airport and flew back to Istanbul that night to Deniz houses. Next day, we headed off to Cappadocia.
Day trips from Istanbul Part 3: Cappadocia
Our second installment of the two day trips from Istanbul was to Cappadocia a.k.a the land of beautiful horses. The tour itself, details of which can be found here, is nothing much to write about. Same old rituals of sightseeing, interjected with another cookie cutter lunch at a nondescript place where thousands of fellow tourists had congregated (rather dumped in via different agencies), more sightseeing, a mandatory tour of some handicraft stores and getting back to the hotel. We covered the Goreme open air musem, the Monk valley and Devrent valley on Day 1 (details here). Our guide, fluent in English and Portuguese, was managing two groups at one time, which did become a little annoying at times since she had to repeat everything in Portuguese to the motley group of Brazilians who were with us (one more evidence of a rag-tag tour group arranged by Efendi travels). Since Efendi travels booked our hotel, we did not get a chance to stay in one of the “cave” hotels, which seemed to be the rage in Cappadocia. Our hotel at Urgup (a city in the province of Cappadocia) was pretty nice though and the room was like an underground tavern which opened out to a semi-private clearing/balcony. Breakfast was complimentary. Finally, we did not go for the hot air ballooning; we had gotten a taste of it on our previous vacation in Albuquerque (NM), and did not feel the need to bob away gently all over again. You can read these very valuable tips on ballooning in Cappadocia to prep for your hot air ballooning experience. Plus, it was not part of the tour and so we did not want to stretch ourselves since we were already so exhausted from traveling back and forth from Istanbul. We returned to Istanbul after this and you can read my Istanbul guide here.
If you are looking for a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia, do not skip reading this hot air ballooning experience in Cappadocia! For other amazing cities to visit, here is a post on things to do in Alanya, Turkey.
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