Our vacation to Istanbul and Cappadocia was an intentional stretch into something more exotic. Istanbul has often been referred to as, “the crossroads of civilizations” for good reason – the culture is a blend of both European and Islamic influences, drawing from its rich history of Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman influences. This union is apparent in almost every part of the city’s culture – the buildings, the people, and the food boast this proud cultural blending. The sounds of this city carry familiar notes of busy streets and honking horns, but there is also something distinctly different to Western ears – the Call to Prayer echoes through the streets and the bazaars reflect the buzz of hundreds of years of history.
Our travels included a few days in Cappadocia where hot air balloons decorated the sky like Christmas bulbs, and outdoor air museums felt like grown-up playgrounds. Everyday was an adventure. Some of my most memorable travel experiences occurred in these two cities, both of which I hope to return one day to show my kids. If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia, this ultimate guide to Turkey highlights the most fun adventures, delicious restaurants to try, and luxurious accommodations – including unique properties like cave hotels! Read on to learn more tips to help with your planning.
For your Planning Purposes
Getting there: Both Istanbul International Airport (IST) and the regional airport Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) are 30 minutes outside the main city. To get to Cappadocia, it's possible to fly into Nevşehir Kapadokya Airport, which is 40 minutes from Goreme city, or Erkilet International Airport is 1 hour away. You will need a visa to enter the country. It costs $20 and you can apply up to 3 months in advance. You can obtain an e-visa here.
Getting around: I highly recommend hiring a travel company to handle logistics to/from the airport, and especially transfers in/around Cappadocia. We used SRM travel and loved our experience. You could also rent a car, but I decided to avoid the headache of driving in downtown Istanbul. Given I don’t speak the language, and thus can’t read the signs, I wanted to avoid any driving confusion.
When to visit: Turkey’s high season is May - September. Spring has perfect weather, but high prices. Summer time comes the heat! The cities will be hot, but the beaches will be open. Fall is a favorite time to visit, but you can expect more rain. Winters in Turkey are cold, but you'll find the best deals.
What to do in Istanbul & Cappadocia
Highlights if you're in a hurry!
- My favorite historical spots: If you are a history lover, Turkey will check every box. You can find Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman influence all in one spot. It’s easy to fill a whole vacation visiting the historical site – but of course, you probably don’t want to go that overboard. So, which should you prioritize? In Instanbul, SRM’s tour of the Hagia Sophia and Suleiman’s Mosque is worth every second of your time! in Cappadocia, my must see’s include the Goreme Open Air Museum and the Kaymakli Underground City.
- Go treasure hunting at the bazaars: If you like shopping and experiencing new cultures, head over to the Grand Bazaar and Arastra Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar contains busy alleys of shops -- some of which have stood in that spot for hundreds of years! You’ll find spices, chocolates, nuts, clothing, scarfs, hand-made board games, mosaics, and of course…pomegranate decorations (Pomegranates are native to Turkey and people believe they bring good luck).
- Hot air balloon ride at sunrise: This experience makes my top-10-all-time vacation experiences! There is nothing quite like seeing 80 balloons soar over the Cappadocia landscape, with the sunrise as the backdrop. It’s an early day, but it's worth every second of coffee prep!
- Have lunch with locals in Cappadocia: We used SRM travel to help plan our trip. One of the advantages of using this company is that they coordinated lunches with local families. Not only were we welcomed into their homes with such genuine warmth, but we ate delicious food -- like fish that had been roasting for over 12 hours in a clay oven!
Luxury Accomodations in Istanbul
- Four Seasons Sultanahmet - Four Seasons Sultanahmet is a gorgeous luxury property close to all the popular historical sites. Even though your next door neighbor is the Hagia Sophia, it never once felt crowded nor congested; on the contrary, as a guest here I felt like I had a front row seat to all the best sites in town. This was a vacation pre-kids, so we were not looking for some of the amenities that I now prioritize (i.e. pool, large rooms). Instead, proximity and comfort were my two must-haves, which the FS Sultanahmet absolutely delivers on.
I Also Considered These Hotels
- Four Seasons Bosphorus - This is a very popular luxury option – especially if traveling with kids. I’ve had a number of friends stay here, who all came home loving it. Housed in a former 19th century Ottoman palace, the FS Bosphorous has a pool with views of the strait, a large spa for your own hammam experience, and suite options for families. Although it's further from the Old City, I think access to the pool during the hot summer months is a key feature this property offers.
- Ritz Carlton Istanbul - This is another fabulous luxury option for just about any type of traveler, but it especially caters to families. Located along the Bosphorus, the Ritz Carlton Istanbul has 3 restaurants and a highly reputable Ritz Kids’ Club. Kids eat and stay for free, and there are special welcome amenities. Ritz Carlton Istanbul also provides a wide menu of infant equipment for free (i.e. high chair, diapers, bathtubs, changing tables, etc). Lastly, they even customize special tours for kids and families that bring the sites to life for little ears. If you're not’ traveling with kids, I recommend checking out the outdoor spa/pool facilities.
- Çırağan Palace Kempinski - A stay at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski means you’re vacationing in a literal Ottoman palace! Congrats – nice choice! This famous property is the creme de la creme of luxury and you’ll be treated like royalty. The hotel offers 310 rooms, with 20 suites in the main hotel, and 11 in the imperial section, which are perfect options for families. The grounds and gardens are fit for a king, and you’ll enjoy views of the Bosphorous as you sit by the infinity pool outside. If you’re feeling like a true high roller, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel property accessible by yacht, and helicopter.
- JW Marriott - Located in the eclectic neighborhood Karaköy, the JW Marriott is a luxury property conveniently located next to boutiques, cafés, bars, and markets. There are 8 dining options on site, and suite options for those looking for more space.
Luxury Accomodations in Cappadocia
If you’re travleing to Cappadocia, you’re going to want to book a cave hotel…right now! Reservations fill up fast, and for good reason; it’s truly a unique experience to sleep in a cave, and one I would do again in a second. Here are some of the most popular luxury cave hotels in Cappadocia.
- Cappadocia Estates - This family operated cave hotel is a true gem, and we loved our guest experience. We felt like family walking into the front door, and every detail was taken care of ahead of time. The hotel owners (yes, the owners), gave restaurant recommendations and helped coordinate local activities, like hot air ballooning.
I Also Considered These Hotels
- Argos- Argos is one of the most well known luxury properties in Cappadocia, offering 51 rooms. There are plenty of options for families, honeymooners, and even those traveling with pets! From the pool, you can watch hot air balloons take flight, you can enjoy an outdoor massage overlooking Mount Erciyes, and then finish your day dining at Seki Restaurant, which uses ingredients fresh from their own garden. There’s even an ancient tunnel that runs through the hotel! Nicknamed the “hotel with a village for a heart,” you will feel right at home staying here.
- Museum Hotel - Winning multiple luxury hotel awards, and the only Turkish hotel that is part of the Relais and Chateau brand, Museum hotel would be my adults-only vacation pick! Museum Hotel has cave rooms, and also decorates each space with historical antiques -- each room is completely unique. Sleeping here is a grown up version of Night at the Museum, but also explains why children under 12 are not permitted. In addition to the historical touches this hotel offers, guests can also enjoy the pool, spa treatments, and on site cooking classes.
- Kayakapi Premium Caves - Kayakapi was the first boutique hotel in Cappadocia, and has earned numerous luxury hotel awards. Hotel guests range from families with young kids, to honeymooners enjoying a romantic vacation. They have an on site pool, large suite cave options, and spa facilities too. The hotel is only a 10-15 minute walk to the city center of Ürgüp.
- Taşkonaklar Hotel - What started as an idea to build in a home in the historic town of Uçhisar, quickly turned into a realization that a boutique hotel would be the best way to share the spectacular views with people from all over the world. As a guest here, you’ll wake up to views of Pigeon Valley, and stay in beautifully decorated rooms (some with their own hot tub).
The Most Delicious Restaurants in Istanbul and Cappadocia
Since our travel plans – including dining – were organized by SRM travel, this is one of the only trips where I put my foodie faith in someone else. We mostly ate in the homes of locals, or grabbed quick bites in between tours. As we were traveling without kids, we were constantly on-the-go. Therefore, below I’ve compiled some of my restaurant research, but in full disclosure have not tried these places myself. I’ve included both family friendly and more formal options.
- Tuğra Restaurant at Çırağan Palace Kempinski - Taking its influence from Ottoman Empire cuisine, this restaurant aims to revitalize old fashioned dishes that aren’t commonly found anymore.
- Banyan Restaurant - The open air terrace of Banyan restaurant provides sweeping views of the Bosphorus. Take it all in as you enjoy a meal blending Asian and Thai influence. This is one of the most highly rated restaurants by foodies all over – reservations are required!
- Lacivert Restaurant- Known as one of the best seafood restaurants in the city, Lacivert has a beautiful terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. They even offer a private boat transfer from the European side to their the Asian part of the city where they're located.
- Lades Restaurant - This is known for serving one of the best Turkish breakfasts, a scrambled egg dish called “menemen.” Menemen is a blend of eggs, tomatoes, peppers, and onions in a cast iron pot.
- Çiya Sofrası - Çiya Sofrası has a self serve mezze buffet that has gained this restaurant a serious foodie following! The menu changes daily, with Chef Dağdeviren cooking up unusual regional dishes for you to try.
Cappadocia has rich and delicious food scene – including some of my most favorite foodie experiences. Coordinated by SRM travel, we ate a few lunches in the homes of local residents, which was one of our favorite experiences! We were able to learn about the people and land in a more intimate manner; however, that being said, we also ventured to some restaurants and were blown away by the flavors and experience. Read on to learn about our favorites, and others we want to return to try!
- Ziggy’s - One of our favorite spots was this eclectic cafe, which has 3 terraces that overlook the town of Urgup. They have delicious mezzes.
- Old Greek House - This became our go-to spot, as it was right next to our hotel. The restaurant is run by the Ozturk family, with all dishes prepared by the owners wife. You’ll feel like you’re a guest at someone’s house eating a home cooked meal. The first night we came, we entered to find the whole Ozturk family seated at the dinner table having their own meal! Emine, the wife, quickly stood up, welcomed us, and ran to the kitchen to fire up some of her favorite dishes.
- Aravan Evi - This one is at the top of my list to try if I ever return to Cappadocia! Aravan Evi sources all its ingreidents from its own eco-farm, but they are especially famous for their TANDIR oven technique. These in-ground ovens use local aromas, like apricot, tree nuts, and grapes to infuse flavor into meat and fish. It can take 12-24 hours for a course to be cooked!
- Seten Restaurant - Seten Restaurant is known for its flavorful take on local appetizers, soups, and entrees traditionally found in Cappadocia. They are famous for their stuffed grape leaves, homemade flatbread, and baked okra. However, for me personally, they had me sold at pumpkin squash blossoms.
Tips for traveling to Istanbul & Cappadocia
- Hot air ballooning happens in the summer:. If you have your sights set on hot air-ballooning, do not book your Turkey vacation for winter. The balloons will not launch if there is wind or rain, so summertime offers the best chance to check this bucketlist item off your list!
- Ladies, always have a scarf handy: It’s required to have your head/shoulders covered when entering a mosque. If you’re planning to visit the Blue Mosque or Suleiman’s Mosque, make sure to have these areas covered. It's also a good idea to wear a longer skirt/dress or pants.
- It’s important to know how to haggle: A trip to Istanbul is not complete without visiting a local bazaar. Apparently price haggling is part of the cultural experience. However, this “skill,” (we’ll call it), makes me… uncomfortable. So naturally, when I found a coat in one of the shops, my husband (finance guy) stepped in to close the deal. However, after a few minutes it became clear that neither negotiator intended to budge. I blurted out “We’ll take it!” (now a famous vacation quote). Understandably, a few years later when we were house-hunting, my husband took the reins during the final negotiations.
- Have cash on hand for markets: As an addition to the above, it’s a good idea to pay in cash at local markets.
- Nudity is not optional at the bathhouse: I didn’t quite realize this when booking my/my husband’s spa treatment. And, while bathhouse are definately separated by gender, you really won’t need to pack a bathing suit for this experience.
- Separation of fish and meat: In some more traditional restaurants, you won’t find a menu featuring a ton of food choice variety. For example, seafood restaurants tend to only serve seafood – from mezze to main course! Conversely, other restaurants focus on flavorful meat dishes. There are some restaurants that may not follow this "rule," but it was a common trend I noticed throughout the trip.
That's a Wrap
Turkey was the trip of a lifetime and I would absolutely return -- I really hope to take my kids! With a city that spans two continents, and a country that has historically been named “The Crossroads of Civilizations,” there is still so much to see and do. Ephesus and Pamukkale are on my “next up” list. What started as a destination choice due to my curiosity for one historical structure (the Hagia Sophia), evolved into a captivation and love for an entire country.
I hope this article has inspired your own getaway to Istanbul and Cappaodoca. If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below. Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.
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