Turkey is finally off the red list – here are the best holidays on offer

turkey holidays – Getty

No other Mediterranean destination offers the visitor as much variety as Turkey. Head east from the olive and vineyard-blessed shores of the Aegean across the rolling steppes of Anatolia and you’ll meet the dramatically mountainous frontiers of Georgia, Armenia and Iran. North across the towering Taurus Mountains from the sun-kissed Mediterranean resorts and you'll come to the temperate, hazelnut and tea-producing mountains of the Black Sea. Cross the mighty Euphrates and Tigris rivers of Turkey’s arid yet fascinating southeast and you can climb biblical Mt Ararat – 17,000 feet-high and glacier-clad – balloon over the fairy tale volcanic landscape of Cappadocia or relax on a beach criss-crossed with the flipper marks of nesting turtles.

Such a remarkably diverse topography, climate and flora and fauna means Turkey offers every kind of holiday experience you could wish for – with warm temperatures well into October. To relax, lounge by the beach or pool at an all-inclusive near Mediterranean Antalya, or cruise the beautiful Turquoise Coast aboard a traditional wooden sailing boat (gulet). Feeling more active? The Turquoise Coast and its hinterland is perfect for kayaking, scuba-diving, canyoning, mountain-biking and hiking the waymarked Carian and Lycian trails. Accommodation ranges from simple, family-run pensions in places like Dalyan, Kaş and Patara to luxurious hotels in chic Bodrum and golfer’s favourite, Belek – and everything in between, so there’s something for every budget.

Given that geographically Turkey spans two continents – Europe and Asia – and is poised culturally between primarily Christian Europe and the predominantly Muslim Middle East, it’s no surprise that it has a rich and vibrant heritage. Whether soaking up the atmosphere of legendary Troy, gently perspiring in a steamy, 500-year-old Ottoman Turkish bath, getting to grips with contemporary art at the Istanbul Modern or following in the footsteps of St Paul in ancient Perge, there’s always something to intrigue the curious visitor. That’s without mentioning the country’s rich culinary tradition – a blissful union of the best flavours of East and West.

At long last Turkey has moved to the new green list, making it the ideal choice for an autumn break. Turkey’s famous hospitality has not been dimmed by the travails of Covid-19, and its well-regulated tourism industry has done its utmost throughout the pandemic to keep visitors safe, not least with its Ministry of Culture and Tourism safe certification programme for hotels, restaurants and transport. And whilst soaring inflation and the need to be ultra-competitive in the face of shrinking tourist numbers induced by the pandemic are less than ideal in the long-term for either locals or the Turkish tourism industry, they do mean that holidaying here is extremely good value for money compared to most European destinations. With that in mind, here are some of the nation’s best breaks – for every type of holidaymaker.

The pull of the past

Turkey has a breadth and depth of history few other countries can rival. Most familiar to visitors from the West are the myriad Classical Greek and Roman sites peppering its beautiful Aegean Coast. The ruins of Troy, brought to life in Homer’s Iliad, still stand at the mouth of the Dardanelles. Ephesus’ huge theatre, where St Paul proselytised and unwittingly caused a riot amongst its silversmiths, is astonishingly well-preserved. The spectacular ruins of Pergamon, once famed for its comprehensive library, run in dramatic tiers down a striking rocky outcrop. Exploring these, or the countless other ancient sites littering Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean shores, often with nothing more than a few goats or tortoises for company, is one of life’s great joys.

Feeling more adventurous? Head deep into Anatolia to explore the Byzantine rock-cut churches located in the incredible geological wonderland that is Cappadocia. The most recently uncovered jewel in Turkey’s archaeological crown is, however, Unesco-listed Göbekli Tepe, an astounding series of circular stone structures dating back to 10,000 BC (thus predating Stonehenge by some seven thousand years), situated beyond the Euphrates in the country’s southeast. Easier to visit are the Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques of one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating cities, Istanbul. No matter where you go in this remarkable country, it’s impossible to resist the pull of its past.

churches cappadocia – Getty

How to do it

Andante Travels (specialistjourneys.com) offer a variety of guide and lecturer-led archaeology and history-based tours covering both the familiar and further-flung regions of Turkey, with prices starting at £2,895pp including flights. Martin Randall (martinrandall.com) offer tours of Istanbul and the Aegean Coast with expert lecturers from £2,890 including flights. Peter Sommer Travels (petersommer.com) specialise in combined archaeology/gulet cruise tours along the Aegean and Med coasts from £2,495pp, excluding flights.

Beach bonanza

Turkey has every kind of beach you could wish for. In the country’s spectacularly mountainous southwest, diminutive crescents of unsullied white sand nuzzle gin-clear, turquoise tinged waters in remote coves backed by resin-scented pine forest. Further east, fronting the fertile Pamphylian Plain between Antalya and Alanya, mile after mile of gently-shelving beach is lined with rows of luxurious beachside hotels and pristine golf courses.

In between these extremes, tidy town-beaches are gaily decked with sunbeds and umbrellas in pretty, Turquoise Coast resorts such as Kalkan and Kaş. The pick of this multitude of beaches? Iztuzu stretches for almost three miles either side of the delightful River Dalyan, its hard-packed, white sands sloping gently into the sea – an ideal landing ground for the turtles that nest here each year. Patara, one of the longest beaches in the entire Med, is remarkably undeveloped – in part because it is home at one end to the romantic ruins of ancient Patara and, like Iztuzu, is a major turtle-nesting site.

Backed by the pine-clad mountains that are home to the remarkable natural phenomena that is the Chimaera – a cluster of small flames that naturally blaze on rocky slopes and flicker eerily amongst the trees – is Çıralı. This ‘alternative’ resort of low-rise pensions and guest houses is tucked away in a sea of citrus groves behind the great arc of a two-mile-long sand and shingle beach. Lost in dense undergrowth here is the site of ancient Olympos, just waiting to be explored by would-be Indiana Joneses.

iztuzu beach – Getty

How to do it

Jet2Holidays (jet2holidays.com) offers one-week stays in a four-star hotel in Dalyan from £314pp including flights. For an independent holiday, fly into Dalaman – from £100 return with Corendon Airlines (corendonairlines.com) from Gatwick – and stay at the well-regarded Patara Viewpoint Hotel (pataraviewpoint.com) from £280 per week for a double room, opt for one of their villas. For Çıralı, fly to Antalya with Jet2 (jet2.com) from Manchester for £169 return. Beachfront Myland Nature pension is £311 per week for a chalet room through Booking.com.

Let off steam

Tracing its origins back to the sumptuous, communal bath houses of the ancient Romans, the hammam (Turkish bath) cleansed and relaxed the inhabitants of the once mighty Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years. Despite the adoption of domestic bathrooms as living standards increased, the hammam has maintained its importance in modern Turkey.

With its steamy, marble-clad rooms of different temperatures, scrubs and massages, the hammam forms the focal point of the spa and wellness centres in many of the modern spa hotels that form a niche but increasingly important part of the visitor experience. It helps that much of Turkey is volcanic, with natural hot springs often integrated into spa hotels and wellness centres.

Bursa, across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul, is famed for its historic, hot spring-fed public baths dating back to Byzantine times. Roman emperors once bathed in the waters at Termal, an attractive and historic spa resort not far from Bursa. Spa hotels dot the environs of Aegean Hierapolis, a Roman city built amongst the famed travertine formations of Pamukkale, and which still has a functioning warm mineral pool resplendent with fallen columns.

More off the beaten track (for non-Turks) are the thermal resorts around inland Afyon, mid-way between Istanbul and Antalya. Even more remote are the hot springs at Ayder, high in the formidable but beautiful Kaçkar mountains behind Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast. But wherever you go in Turkey, there will almost certainly be a hotel with splendid hammam and spa facilities – it’s just part of the culture.

Aegean Hierapolis – Getty

How to do it

Wellbeing Escapes (wellbeingescapes.com) offer a variety of spa and wellness packages at the luxurious Six Senses Kaplankaya hotel near Bodrum from £1,420pp for a five-night stay including wellness package. Sanctuary Spa Holidays (sanctuaryspaholidays.co.uk) has one-weeks stays at the Kempinski Hotel, in Barbaros Bay near Bodrum, from £725 excluding flights. Entry to the historic hot-spring fed pool of Kurşunlu Banyo in Termal (an hour or so by ferry from Istanbul, followed by a short bus or taxi ride) is a bargain at £3.75. A swim amongst Roman columns at Hierapolis/Pamukkale is an equal snip at £4.

Culture fix

It may have lost its political status to Ankara in 1923 when modern Turkey rose, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but Istanbul remains the cultural capital of today’s republic. Spend a morning admiring the exhibits of exquisite calligraphy, carpets and tents in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, situated in the shadow of the magnificent Blue Mosque, to get a feel for Turkey’s nomadic and Islamic roots. By way of contrast, head across the Golden Horn to wander around waterfront Istanbul Modern, a converted warehouse gallery that wouldn’t look out of place in London or New York.

Istanbul holds a Biennial every odd year, with numerous festivals dotted throughout the year devoted to film, jazz, classical music and contemporary art – as well as many permanent venues for all these art forms. For an insight into more traditional Turkish culture, visit a domed Ottoman-era hammam or watch the dervishes whirl to haunting music at a Mevlevi ceremony.

More esoteric is the Kırkpınar grease-wrestling festival held out near the Greek and Bulgarian frontiers, and the Kafkasör festival held in the remote Black Sea mountains near Georgia, a genuine folk event which sees much drinking and dancing to traditional Turkish music.

Western-style culture is not confined to Istanbul – on the Mediterranean coast the Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival near Antalya is magnificently staged in a superbly preserved Roman theatre, and Antalya itself is home to the annual international Golden Orange film festival.

whirling dervishes – Getty

How to do it

To explore Istanbul’s Byzantine and Ottoman treasures fly to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) or Pegasus (flypgs.com) from £169 return and stay in a historic city-centre hotel such as the boutique Ibrahim Pasha (ibrahimpasha.com) where double rooms cost from £75pn. Istanbul Tour Studio (istanbultourstudio.com) offers tailor-made cultural tours of Turkey’s cultural capital, Istanbul for around £90 per person per day. Cox and Kings (coxandkings.co.uk) offer nine-day cultural tours from £1,295pp including flights.

On the go

With range after range of mountains rising to almost 17,000 feet and over 5,000 miles of coastline, Turkey is paradise for lovers of outdoor adventure. The waymarked Lycian Way, which threads its way along the sublime coast and through the lofty mountains of southwest Turkey, is perennially popular with walkers and trekkers, as is the Carian Trail, winding its way through ancient Caria.

More challenging is following the footsteps of St Paul from the Mediterranean to the Anatolian interior over the mighty Taurus on the St Paul Trail. The regions these trails criss-cross are also superb for mountain biking and cycle touring or, more daringly, canyoning and paragliding. Cappadocia is famed for its dawn balloon rides over the region’s fairy chimneys and gorges – an activity now established in Pamukkale, known for its fabulous travertine formations, and over prehistoric Göbekli Tepe near Şanlıurfa.

For thrills and spills in the water, head for the sun and wind-blessed Aegean coast, where kite-surfers rule the waves at Alaçatı, and windsurfers the Bodrum Peninsula. Pretty Kaş is well-regarded for scuba diving and multi-activity holidays, whilst both the Dalaman and Köprülü rivers in southwest Turkey offer superb whitewater rafting. For a gentler but equally challenging holiday, Belek, east of Antalya, is home to some 14 top-notch golf courses and a wealth of all-inclusive hotels.

white water rafting turkey – Getty

How to do it

Explore (explore.co.uk) offers a one-week walking tour of the Lycian Way from £445pp, excluding flights For walking trips in Lycia and elsewhere in Turkey try Cappadocia-based Middle Earth Travel (middleearthtravel.com) from £403pp for a five-day group hike excluding flights. Cycle touring and mountain biking trips also available. Mark Warner (markwarner.co.uk) offers a multi-activity watersports holiday in sun and wind blessed Foca for £2,398pp. Yourgolftravel (yourgolftravel.com) has one-week, three-round holidays in Belek for as little as £455pp excluding flights. For information on long distance trails, visit cultureroutesinturkey.com.

Family fun

One family’s idea of fun can be another’s nightmare, but whatever your preferences Turkey has it all. For a low-key, bucket and spade and frolicking in the shallows with toddlers’ holiday try mellow Çıralı. It’s on the road to nowhere so there’s little traffic, the guesthouses are simple, it’s uber-friendly and relaxed and everything is within walking distance.

If you want to get the kids off your hands for a while Belek, east of Antalya, is lined with all-inclusive hotels with baby-sitting, children’s clubs, pool and aqua parks, as well as delicious buffet meals and private strips of beach – plus golf for parents. The former Greek fishing village of Kaş, set at the foot of soaring peaks, is the outdoor adventure capital of Turkey and ideal for multi-activity holidays aimed at older kids and teens – from kayaking and canyoning to mountain-biking and snorkelling. It’s also a small, relaxed resort to wander around at night.

Dalyan, set on a reed-fringed river a short boat-ride upstream from family-friendly Iztuzu Beach, is another chilled, family-friendly resort town. The boat ride to the beach is an adventure, plus there’s swimming in the river, a dramatic ancient site (Kaunos) to explore and much mucky fun to be had at the Dalyan mud baths on Köyceğiz Lake. If the sea is not a prerequisite, few kids will fail to appreciate the geological wonders of dramatic Cappadocia in Central Turkey – all canyons, weird rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, underground cities and rock-cut houses – as well as cave hotels to stay in and plenty of outdoor activities on offer.

Dalyan mud baths – Alamy

How to do it

Sovereign (sovereign.com) offer all-inclusive holidays at the Gloria Golf Resort hotel from £1,149pp including flights. Exodus (exodus.co.uk) offer a multi-activity family holiday in Kas from £849pp excluding flights. Tui (tui.co.uk) have the family orientated all-inclusive Tui Blue Tropical Hotel close to Dalaman airport, with large family rooms, kids pools and clubs from £434pp for five nights, including flights.

Those that want to travel independently can fly into Dalaman (for Kaş and Dalyan) or Antalya (for Çıralı) with Pegasus (flypgs.com) from £157. Good value, family-friendly pensions start from £45 – try Gulsen (gulsenpension.blogspot.com) in Kaş, Lindos (lindos.com.tr) in Dalyan and Emin (eminpansiyon.com) in Çıralı. For Cappadocia, fly to Nevşehir via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) from £253. The Kelebek Cave Hotel (kelebekhotel.com) has family suites (sleep four) available from £1,200 for seven nights.

Cruise the blue

Cruising the sublimely beautiful coast of southwest Turkey, where the Aegean merges into the Mediterranean, is one of the great holiday experiences. Limestone cliffs soar spectacularly above turquoise waters, unsullied strands of fine sand beach welcome nesting turtles and the atmospheric remains of ancient Carian and Lycian cities straddle ridges or nestle in deep valleys. Indeed, few people who have sailed along this magical coastline in a traditional wooden sailing boat known as a gulet ever go back willingly to a hotel-based seaside holiday.

Life aboard is one long round of sun-lounging, eating meals remarkable for their quality given the small on-board kitchen, reading, conversing and dozing. Interspersed, of course, with swimming stops in unspoilt coves and trips ashore to explore an ancient site or potter round an attractive harbour town. Watch out for curious dolphins arching their way through the blue waters alongside your vessel and, much harder to spot, flying fish skimming the waves.

The night sky viewed from onboard is fabulous too: a veritable panoply of stars on moonless nights, the yakamoz (a Turkish word for moonlight reflected in water) spectacularly bright when the moon is gibbous or full. Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye are the major start points for blue cruises; either privately charter an entire gulet with family or friends, or book onto a cabin charter (where berths are let out individually) and make some new friends.

gulet turkey – Getty

How to do it

Blue Cruise (bluecruise.co.uk) offers one-week cabin charters from £549 per week excluding flights; departs Göcek, Marmaris and Fethiye. Gulet Escapes (guletescapes.com) has one-week cabin charters from £735. If you’re travelling independently and fancy a shorter cruise, Fethiye-based Alaturka (alaturkacruises.com) offer two-day, three-night cruises out of Kaş, Fethiiye and Ölüdeniz from £190pp.

A foodie's (Turkish) delight

There’s no arguing that Fry’s Turkish Delight, the gooey confection long marketed on the strength of its ‘Eastern Promise’, has been a popular chocolate bar in the UK since its launch way back in 1914. But in the land of its birth, Turkish Delight (or lokum as it’s more properly known) is a veritable art form. Whether scented with rosewater, stuffed with pistachios or coated in coconut flakes, it is best washed down with a tiny cup of another local delight: viscous, aromatic Turkish coffee. Throw in buttery, walnut or pistachio-stuffed baklava or creamy, oven-baked rice pudding, and it’s easy to see why the Turks are renowned for their sweet tooth.

But there’s far more to Turkish cuisine than desserts. Kebabs come in all shapes and sizes, from the tender flakes of lamb cut from a revolving döner spit to the spicy, skewered minced meat sausage of Adana kebab. Any Turkish restaurant worth its salt cooks its kebabs and meat over charcoal and the accompanying flatbreads in a wood-fired oven. Although their origins may have been in land-locked Central Asia, today’s Turks love fish – from grilled sea bass to deep fried anchovies. Seafood is usually paired with the national spirit, aniseed flavoured rakı, and preceded by a bewildering array of dips and bites known as meze.

Vibrant Istanbul is the centre of Turkey’s food scene, but from the humblest seaside café to the remotest Anatolian pide (Turkish pizza) place, you’re never far from a fabulous meal in Turkey.

baklava – Getty

How to do it

Istanbul-based Cooking Alaturka (cookingalaturka.com) has four-hour long lunch time and evening Turkish cooking courses from £55pp (you eat what you cook!). Also Istanbul-based Turkish Flavours (turkishflavours.com) offer cooking and food tours starting at £57pp and a Cappadocia-based village culinary experience for £125pp. Intrepid Travel (intrepidtravel.com) offer a 10-day culinary tour including Istanbul, Cappadocia and Bodrum from £1,098pp excluding flights.

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