ANCIENT SITES

Turkey, a sort of bridge between Europe and Asia, has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years. Numerous civilizations—Greeks from the west and Mongols from the east—settled or moved through the (vast) area at one point or another, leaving lasting and impressive reminders of their sojourns. As a result, virtually every region in Turkey has a bounty of stunning ancient ruins.

Ani : The abandoned former capital of a local Armenian kingdom, this haunting city in the middle of nowhere is filled with the ruins of stunning churches.

Cappadocia’s underground cities : A marvel of ancient engineering, these subterranean cities—some reaching 20 stories down and holding up to 20,000 people—served as a refuge for Christians under siege from Arab raiders.

Ephesus : This remarkably well-preserved Roman city has a colonnaded library that seems as if it could still be checking out books and an amphitheater that appears ready for a show.

Mt. Nemrut : At the top of a desolate mountain, this 2,000-year-old temple—a collection of larger-than-life statues facing the rising and setting sun—is a testament to the vanity of an ancient king.

Termessos : This impregnable ancient city is set dramatically high up in the mountains above Antalya; even Alexander the Great and the Romans found it too difficult to attack.

BEACHES

With 8,000 km (5,000 miles) of coastline, it’s no wonder that Turkey is home to several world-famous beaches, and you can find all kinds: from pristine, remote coves to resort hotel beaches with water sports and all sorts of amenities.

İztuzu: A nesting ground for sea turtles, the beach here stretches for 5 sandy kilometers (3 miles) close to Dalyan, with a freshwater lagoon on one side and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean on the other.

Kilyos and Şile: These beaches just outside Istanbul are among the nicest stretches of sandy shoreline along Turkey’s Black Sea coast. Since both are relatively easy escapes from the city, they are often crowded on summer weekends. The water here is cold year-round, and swimmers should watch out for the powerful waves.

Ölüdeniz: This stunning lagoon near Fethiye boasts azure waters—which, like elsewhere along the Mediterranean, stay warm well into October—backed by white sand.

Patara: The 11-km (7-mile) stretch of unspoiled beach here is one of Turkey’s best, with fine white sand and dunes. The picture-perfect coastline is reached by walking through a field scattered with ancient ruins, and has been spared the overdevelopment that has become a problem in some parts of the Mediterranean.

Sarımsaklı: The long stretch of sand here has made this one of the most popular beach destinations on the Aegean coast, with a row of inexpensive beach clubs running along the water parallel to a row of high-rise hotels and apartments on the shore. Take a dolmuş(shared taxi) from Ayvalık to Badavut Plajı (Badavut Beach) for a bit more peace and quiet.

MONUMENTS

The Byzantine and Ottoman empires may be long gone, but they left behind some truly striking monuments: churches, mosques, and palaces that still hold the power to take your breath away.

As the former capital of both empires, Istanbul has the lion’s share of Turkey’s most famous structures, but there are also impressive ones to be found in every other part of the country.

Aya Sofya : The monumental church built by the emperor Justinian some 1,500 years ago continues to be an awe-inspiring sight—arguably the most impressive one in Istanbul or even all of Turkey.

Blue Mosque : With its cascading domes and shimmering tiles, this exquisite Istanbul mosque is one of the Ottomans’ finest creations.

İshak Paşa Sarayı: In Turkey’s far east, near the legendary Mt. Ararat, this 18th-century palace seems as if it was transported straight out of a fairy tale.

Kariye Museum: The former Chora Church, a 12th-century Byzantine structure on the periphery of Istanbul’s Old City, is much smaller and less known than the Aya Sofya, but is filled with glittering mosaics and stunning frescoes that are considered among the finest in the world.

Topkapı Sarayı : The former home of the Ottoman sultans is a sumptuous palace with stately buildings, tranquil gardens, and the must-see Harem.

Selimiye Camii: Located in the former Ottoman capital of Edirne, not far from Istanbul, this mosque was the real masterpiece of the sultans’ favorite architect, Mimar Sinan. Its massive dome has made many a jaw drop.

MUSEUMS

The country’s wealth and depth of history guarantee that Turkey has lots of artifacts for its museums—even if there has been a problem with other countries shipping the booty off to foreign lands. The best and biggest museums are in Istanbul, where you can spend your days hopping from one fascinating exhibit to the other.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums: This sprawling institution near Topkapı Palace holds discoveries from digs throughout the Middle East.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art: Near the Archaeology Museums is this excellent collection of carpets, ceramics, paintings, and folk art housed in an old Ottoman palace. It’s set to reopen to the public at the end of 2013 after a renovation.

Istanbul Modern: Stylish with a stunning waterfront location, this museum has a good collection of modern Turkish art and a photography gallery featuring adventurous contemporary work, and plays host to large, well-curated temporary exhibitions.

Rahmi M. Koç Industrial Museum: This old factory along Istanbul’s Golden Horn is now used to display a quirky collection of cars, trains, ships, airplanes, and other industrial artifacts that will pique the interests of children and adults alike.

Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum: Opened in 2011 in Turkey’s southeast, this museum is one of the country’s best, with a world-class collection of Roman-era mosaics that were uncovered in the vicinity.

Museum of Anatolian Civilizations: Found in a restored 15th-century covered market in the capital city of Ankara, this museum holds masterpieces spanning thousands of years of local history.

Mevlâna Museum: Konya, in central Turkey, is home to this fascinating museum dedicated to the founder of the whirling dervishes and located inside what used to be a dervish lodge.

Museum of Underwater Archaeology: This unusual museum is located in a 15th-century castle in Bodrum on the southwestern Aegean coast and displays booty found in local shipwrecks.