The Best Bits of Istanbul in 72 Hours

Spanning the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a multi-cultural mecca.

With a population nearly double that of London, it’s a bustling, vibrant city of traditions, mouth watering food, delicious coffee, incredible architecture, and warm, hospitable people.

Always hovering high on my list of places to visit while I lived in London, but never quite high enough for me to make it there, when I saw a cheap flight from Delhi to Istanbul, and realized I could stop there for a few days en route back to the US from Asia, I didn’t hesitate to book it.

My only regret from our whirlwind visit to Istanbul?
We didn’t have enough time to truly get to know the city- it’s a place I’m eager to return to, and see more of.

WHAT TO DO

We were in the city for a week, but ended up working about half of our stay. On the three days we went out to explore, we grouped activities by neighborhood- Galeta, Balat, and the Historic district.

Whether you’ve got time to see the city leisurely, or are somewhat short on time to explore like we were, there’s plenty to do and see in Istanbul.

Our biggest challenge turned out to be prioritizing sights since we didn’t have time to fit everything we’d have like to do in to our stay.

GALATA

Head to the top of the Galata Tower: A medieval stone tower, built on a hill, admiring the tower from the surrounding streets is beautiful in its own right. Taking the lift to the top though, for about ~$6 USD a person, provides panoramic views of the entire city. Come early before the tower terrace gets crowded, and grab breakfast at a nearby cafe afterwards- we enjoyed Sirin’s breakfast platter and apple tea

Wander the historic streets: We loved walking the cobblestone streets without direction or purpose, just observing the different types of shops and restaurants. We were surprised by the amount of street art, especially the political graffiti in this area of Istanbul. The bright, bold statements are an interesting juxtaposition to the historic, pastel facades

Browse the antique shops along Cukur Cuma Caddesi: In the unofficial antiques district of Istanbul, you’ll find a lovely display of vintage goods on display 

HISTORIC DISTRICT 

Stroll the Egyptian Spice Market: Less busy than the Grand Bazaar, we enjoyed perusing the spices, tea blends and sweet treats inside the covered market

Admire the Blue Mosque (also known as Sultan Ahmet Camii): One of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, the Blue Mosque is the perfect place to start your morning to beat the crowds and admire the mosque’s intricate architecture. Constructed in the 17th century, the mosque features an impressive thirteen domes and six minarets. Covers are available for women for free, and can be acquired at the entrance before you head in

Allow yourself to be awestruck at the Hagia Sophia: At over 1,500 years old, the Hagia Sophia oozes grandeur and mystery. Built by the Emperor Justinian in 537 AD when Istanbul was known as Constantinople and Turkey was the Eastern Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was a Christian Church in its original incarnation.

You’ll find gilded mosaics of Jesus Christ and Mary throughout. When the Ottomans took over, it was converted into a mosque. Just strolling the ground is an incredibly beautiful experience- gaze up, and you’ll see dozens of chandeliers, which look like tiny, burning candles. It won’t take long for you to understand why the Hagia Sophia is touted as an architectural wonder.

Queues to enter Hagia Sophia can be quite long, but skip-the-line tickets are available online. We visited 1.5 hours before closing, when there were fewer people heading in, and found that to be an ideal time to visit. As closing drew near and the mosque started to empty, it was even more of a magical experience. At times, we felt like the only people around

Gawk at the view from the roof of Seven Hills Hotel: The terrace at Seven Hills boasts an impressive 360 view of the city, particularly the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. We didn’t eat here, but did enjoy Turkish tea, which, heads up, will cost 2-3x whatever you pay in other parts of the city

Learn about Turkish history at Topkapi Palace: Topkapi, a huge former palace for sultans and their families is now a multi-part museum. It’s beautifully decorated, and more expansive than you’d think. We only allowed 1.5-2 hours here, and it was nowhere near enough time to really see everything the palace had to offer, so I’d plan on a half day visit, because there’s truly so much to absorb

Shop the Grand Bazaar: Even though the Grand Bazaar has become more touristy over the years, it’s a must see and do for any first time visitor to the city. It’s easy to find the bazaar, and as equally easy to get lost inside the winding alleys featuring lanterns, rugs, jewelry, and so much more. Note, if you stop to browse, you will be approached by sellers- they’re quite aggressive. We just waved them away, and most obliged, but a few were particularly keen on trying to sell us things

Watch the sunset from a rooftop: We went to the Instagram-famous Kubbe (search ‘Kubbe Istanbul’ on Google Maps to find it). They describe themselves as an open air photo studio, but really, it’s just a rooftop, where an employee throws raw meat to a seagull to ensure birds are always circling within photo view.

The view is incredible, but at $16 (which covered two people), and considering their unethical animal treatment- it’s not worth it. There are other rooftops in the area, which we would have sought out if we knew how aggressively they feed the birds to keep them around

BALAT

Balat, a traditionally Jewish, now trendy neighborhood in the heart of Fatih isn’t quite near the city’s main tourist  attractions, but it’s only a short bus ride from Galata or the Historic District.

Trust me, the journey there is worth it.

We absolutely loved colourful Balat- it’s one of the city’s oldest districts.

Here, we just enjoyed wandering around, popping in and out of cafes that looked interesting, like Velvet, Nest and Fida.

Don’t miss the colourful, Insta famous homes at Balat Mahallesi, Kiremit Cd. No:28. 

And, the rainbow stairs near cafe, Incir Agaci Kahvesi are expansive and just as bright as you’d imagine them to be.

On our visit, we didn’t have time to visit the Ortakoy Mosque, which is said to be stunning inside and out, or the Suleymaniye Mosque, the former, largest mosque in Istanbul, built on top of one of the city’s seven hills. Both are on my list of places to see the next time I find myself in Istanbul.

If you’re making a proper vacation out of your trip to Turkey, and have time to see other parts of the country, consider hopping on a plane to Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is one of the most photogenic places on the planet.

World famous for its balloon rides at sunrise, the region’s moon-like landscapes are what make it such a special place to visit.

Once you arrive in Cappadocia, you quickly realize why the region is such a hot air balloon epicenter.

The landscape is unreal, it’s as if you’re on another planet.

Cappadocia is easy to reach from Istanbul, and definitely worth visiting if you can swing a few more days in Turkey.

WHERE TO EAT

To say we ate well in Istanbul would be an understatement.

Already a huge fan of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, I was excited to try the Turkish variants of some of my favourite dishes from the region.

If you’re vegetarian, you’ll have no problem finding places to eat in the city.

Most of the street food we saw was either meat or bread heavy, so we preferred to eat at least one meal a day in restaurants to get our fill of vegetables.

Also, should note- just about every cafe we visited either had great breakfast pastries on offer, or a full service menu, like Federal Cafe and Sirin, making them great picks for meals as well.

  • Babel Cafe & Restaurant: Our favourite dinner spot in Istanbul, we loved everything we tried here. So many delicious vegetarian options, and with many things being sharing size, it’s a great way to try a bunch of different Turkish flavours
  • Journey: Their brunch menu is epic, but the dinner options looked incredible as well. Also, a perfect spot for late night Turkish tea or coffee sidewalk-side
  • Pizzeria Pera: Looks like a small Italian restaurant from the outside. Inside, you’ll find some truly great wood-fired pizzas, and hearty salads. Takeaway from here was an A+ choice on a rainy night in the city – pizza + Netflix marathon, but make it Turkish

  • Simit Sarayi: This bakery has locations around the city, it’s a chain but their simit is good, and the egg noodle casserole is a great breakfast pick as well
  • Fida Cafe: Truly excellent falafel
  • Federal Coffee: Great pick for brunch, their cheese toasties are ace

WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE

Istanbul is a city of sacred tradition, and coffee is without a doubt one of them.

You could say cafes are the lifeblood of Istanbul.

We loved the social aspect to drinking coffee in Istanbul.

There’s an endless array of cafes with sidewalk seating- where people perch on low chairs, sipping tiny cups of coffee and chatting with each other.

Our favourite spots after a week of wandering and sipping coffee from place to place:

  • Mandabatmaz: Famed for Turkish coffee, a method of preparing coffee that dates back to the 5th century, Mandabatmaz didn’t disappoint. We tried Turkish coffee at a few places, but Mandabatmaz was our favourite- it was less grainy than other cups we tried
  • Swedish Point: High speed internet, Scandi chic design, artisanal coffee drinks, and dogs napping everywhere? Talk about a dream cafe

  • Velvet Cafe: Boasting delicious freshly baked simit, a Turkish bread, we dubbed Velvet a good place to start the day if you’re wandering Gala

  • Federal Coffee: Aussie style coffee, right in the heart of Galata. We loved Federal so much, we came near daily to try their extensive third-wave coffee menu (so many flavours of lattes and mochas!)

  • Dem Karakoy: We’d heard tale the tea menu here was extensive, and decided to drop in on our way back to Galata from Salt. Extensive would be an understatement- it’s page after page of tea, including every variety imaginable
  • Sirin Firin Cafe & Bakery: Loved by locals and visitors alike for their baked goods, and traditional Turkish breakfast plate

  • Salt Galata: Part art gallery, part trendy restaurant, Salt’s coffee and tea selection makes it worth a visit

  • Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi: Calling all coffee connoisseurs, founded in 1871, this stall outside the Egyptian Spice Market is the go to for freshly ground coffee

  • Incir Agaci Kahvesi: Follow the vivid rainbow steps to the door of this tiny cafe in Balat. Once inside, order a cup of Turkish coffee, sit back and watch local life unfold around you
  • 9Gram Coffee Roasters: Small, but mighty. The lattes here are great. The perfect kind of spot to pop in if you’re on your way to catch a tram into the city

  • Kronotop: Regarded as the city’s first speciality coffee spot and located next to Swedish Point, this cool cafe turns out good artisan coffee drinks as well

WHERE TO DRINK

We didn’t drink while we were in Istanbul, but most of the cafes and restaurants we visited had a wide array of local beers and wines on offer.

EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS

Language: Turkish is the country’s official language. Many people, especially in upmarket shops, speak some English, but I’d also advise having Google Translate downloaded, as English isn’t as widely spoken as it is in some other European cities. It’s likely you’ll run into exchanges with people where their understanding is limited at some point during your stay

Currency: Turkish Lira

I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- some purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards. Expect upmarket places to accept cards, and market stalls or more traditional shops to be cash only

Budget: We were pleasantly surprised with how affordable Istanbul was. All price estimates noted below are in USD:

  • Accomodation: ~$20-30 a night for a budget, but nice Airbnb studio apartment 
  • Coffee & Tea: Generally, we paid $2-3 for a nice latte, and $1 for Turkish tea
  • Street Food: When we grabbed pastries or quick eats off the street, we usually paid $2-4 per item. Sometimes, less, pending what we were ordering
  • Restaurant Meals: We ate out a few times, sharing small plates- usually, we paid $10 a person for tons of quality food
  • Getting to the City: The bus from the airport to the city runs about $3 a person
  • City Transit: Each ride costs under 0.50 cents, making public transit an attractive way to get around
  • Attractions: We visited four attractions, where you’d expect to find entry fees on our stay-
    • Blue Mosque: Free
    • Hagia Sophia: ~$12
    • Topkapi Palace: ~$12
    • Galata Tower: ~$6

Getting There: Istanbul has two major airports- Istanbul Airport (IST) & Sabiha Gokcen (SAW). If you’re arriving internationally, you’ll likely fly into Istanbul Airport. Both are about the same distance to the city, and from both, you can easily hail a taxi. We opted for the public bus, which was comfortable and took about an hour from each airport to the central drop spot in Taksim. Once in Taksim, we either walked to our Airbnb or took the metro/walked 

Getting Around: We walked around the Galata neighborhood, and used the city’s buses and trams to get around to other parts. Because we visited in winter, we didn’t take any of the ferries, but I’ve heard they’re a great option for getting from side to side in the warmer months. If you plan on doing the same, purchase an Istanbulkart at the airport, which you can top up throughout your stay.

You won’t find rideshare apps like Uber in Istanbul, but you can use BiTaksi to help call taxis. Taxi drivers can be a bit aggressive in the city, so apps like BiTaksi make it easy to call a taxi, share your destination, and get a fair cost estimate easily

Where to Stay: We stayed in awesome budget Airbnbs in Galata. Both places were stayed averaged $20 USD per night, had good WiFi, and were located in the midst of a beautiful, historic neighborhood with tons of restaurants, cafes, shops, and nearby public transit. 

When to Visit: We visited in early December, and were surprised by how many people were milling about some of the city’s top attractions. We enjoyed our time in Istanbul, but if you visit in early December, expect cold weather and periods of rain. 

As with most locations, the best time to visit Istanbul is during the fringe seasons, from March to May, and between September and November. During the late spring and summer, the crowds at the city’s top attractions are insane, and daytime temps often exceed 80 degrees.

Tipping: We found small tips were expected in restaurants and cafes, usually we left between 5-10% for good service 

WiFi Access: Every modern cafe I visited had WiFi- key word here is modern 

SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Istanbul’s airport, paying ~$30 USD for 10GB of data. SIM options were more expensive than I was anticipating, but because I work online, and having reliable backup Internet is critical, it was a worthwhile purchase

Have you ever visited Istanbul? Is it on your list of places to visit someday? 

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More than Turkish Coffee: Istanbul’s Coolest Cafes

Istanbul is a city of sacred tradition, and coffee is without a doubt one of them.

You could say cafes are the lifeblood of Istanbul.

Back in the Ottoman Empire, coffeehouses were strictly for men- women drank coffee at home.

Nowadays, these laws aren’t in place. You’ll see men and women mingling in traditional coffeehouses and modern cafes throughout the city.

Coffee shops and cafes in Istanbul bring together all the different faiths, background and cultures of the city.

We loved the social aspect to drinking coffee in Istanbul.

There’s an endless array of cafes with sidewalk seating- where people perch on low chairs, sipping tiny cups of coffee, and chatting with each other.

Over the course of a week we spent in Turkey, we found ourselves stopping frequently to relax with a cup of brew at cafes across the city.

11 Can’t Miss Cafes in Istanbul

Mandabatmaz: Famed for Turkish coffee, a method of preparing coffee that dates back to the 5th century, Mandabatmaz didn’t disappoint.

Turkish coffee is made by mixing coffee grounds with boiling water. Then, coffee is mixed with a sugar cube, before being poured into a tiny cup.

When poured, the grounds settle into the bottom of the cup, creating a sludge. You’re not meant to drink this sludge- I’ve heard tale it can be used to tell your fortune, but otherwise, leave it be.

We tried Turkish coffee at a few places, but Mandabatmaz was our favourite- it was less grainy than other cups we tried. That said, it wasn’t our favourite thing to order- we much preferred Turkish tea for its taste.

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Swedish Point: High speed internet, Scandi chic design, artisanal coffee drinks, and dogs napping everywhere? Talk about a dream cafe.

You won’t find traditional Turkish coffee at Swedish point, but if you’re in the mood for a latte or mocha, or have some work to do while in Istanbul, this is the perfect place to come. And, their selection of cakes means you won’t go hungry while you work.

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Velvet Cafe: Boasting delicious freshly baked simit, a Turkish bread, we dubbed Velvet a good place to start the day if you’re wandering Galat for its doughy treats and piping hot coffee.

Federal Coffee: Aussie style coffee, right in the heart of Galata. We loved Federal so much, we came near daily to try their extensive third-wave coffee menu (so many flavours of lattes and mochas!).

We also thought their brunch menu was good, especially the cheese toasties. Visiting Istanbul in winter, we were in need of refuge from the weather at times. Curling up next to the fire, cushioned by pillows and with a zebra mocha in hand made for the best afternoon break one day.

Dem Karakoy: We’d heard tale the tea menu here was extensive, and decided to drop in on our way back to Galata from Salt. 

Extensive would be an understatement- it’s page after page of tea- every variety imaginable.

Of course, there’s classic Turkish tea, which we chose to sip while plotting our next move in the city.

This is the kind of place I’d come to curl up in a corner, and read a book. When we visited, it was quiet, there were tons of cozy nooks with pillows and blankets available, and if you get tired of tea, they make a mean simit sandwich.

Sirin Firin Cafe & Bakery: Loved by locals and visitors alike for their baked goods, and traditional Turkish breakfast plate.

This trendy cafe near the Galat Tower was one of our favourite meals while in Istanbul. It was here we tried the traditional Turkish breakfast platter for the first time, enjoying the variety of nibbles included.

Order a breakfast platter, steaming apple tea, and watch the cobblestone streets in this part of the city awaken.

Salt Galata: Part art gallery, part trendy restaurant, Salt’s coffee and tea selection makes it worth a visit.

The food menu is ace as well, and the view of the city from the upstairs terrace? Consider it the cherry on top.

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Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi: Calling all coffee connoisseurs, founded in 1871, this stall outside the Egyptian Spice Market is the go to for freshly ground coffee. 

They sell it in all size packets, so even if you don’t have much room in your suitcase, you’ll likely be able to fit one of their tiny pouches.

If there’s a queue, don’t fret- it moves quick.

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Incir Agaci Kahvesi: Follow the vivid rainbow steps to the door of this tiny cafe in Balat. 

Once inside, order a cup of Turkish coffee, sit back and watch local life unfold around you. This spot is a favourite with Turks, who come to catch up with friends over a cuppa.

9Gram Coffee Roasters: Small, but mighty. The lattes here are great. The perfect kind of spot to pop in if you’re on your way to catch a tram into the centre city.

Kronotop: Regarded as the city’s first speciality coffee spot and located next to Swedish Point, this cool cafe turns out good artisan coffee drinks as well. With more of an edgy vibe, it’s a good place to come for an evening cup of coffee before dinner or heading out for the night.

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Have you been to Istanbul? Did you explore or enjoy the city’s cafe culture? 

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A Mini Guide: Two Days in ‘Out of This World’ Cappadocia

Cappadocia is one of the most photogenic places on the planet.

World famous for its balloon rides at sunrise, the region’s moon-like landscapes are what make it such a special place to visit.

Once you arrive in Cappadocia, you quickly realize why the region is such a hot air balloon epicenter.

The landscape is unreal, it’s as if you’re on another planet.

Formerly known by its Persian name, Kapadokya, Cappadocia is located in central Anatolia- the heartland of Turkey. 

Famous for its fairy chimneys, cave hotels, staggering rock formations and hot air balloon sunrises, it’s no wonder tourism is on a continual rise.

The region’s mesmerising backdrop is the result of a process that began many millennia ago, when a volcano scattered ash across the region. When the molten deposit turned to soft rock, which helped erosion create the unusual landscape that exists today.

It didn’t take long for inhabitants of the region to built underground homes and cities, alongside cave dwellings and peaked churches.

When we decided to visit Istanbul in early December, we carved out 2.5 days to visit Cappadocia.

We knew only allowing two mornings was a gamble, especially in the off-season when weather can be unpredictable. But, we rationalized, even if we didn’t see a beautiful sunrise, the jaunt would still be worth it to experience another part of Turkey.

The five days before our visit, it rained throughout Cappadocia, and was so windy, no balloons flew.

When we checked into our hotel, we were told our timing may be perfect- there was a good chance the balloons would fly the next morning.

During our short stay in the region, we were treated to blue skies, mild temps and practically no wind.

To tout our time in Cappadocia as lucky would be an understatement.

The entire experience was just incredible.

WHERE TO STAY

We stayed at the Insta-famous, Sultan Cave Suites in Goreme. 

Our room was €80 a night, and included breakfast for two. Given our modest travel budget, this was a splurge, but one we couldn’t imagine passing up. 

The hotel’s terrace offers an insane view of Goreme, and the surrounding valley- one of the best in town. 

It’s absolutely epic at sunrise, and sunset is pretty beautiful as well. 

Our rate was an off-season travel perk. It’s my understanding prices increase by 2-3x as much in summer when the hotel is in high demand. 

There are plenty of cheaper places to stay in Goreme, but since we weren’t renting a car, having a good view of the balloons (if they flew) was important to us.  

Whether you rent a car or not, I’d stay at a hotel with a great terrace. The off-season rates made our cave suite all the more attractive, but the entire experience was so incredible, I’d recommend it to anyone.

HOW TO GET THERE & GET AROUND

We flew in and out of Kayseri, which is about 45-60 minutes from Goreme.

We traveled on Pegasus airlines for $28 USD return.

If going again, I’d rent a car. The roads in this part of Turkey are in great condition, and easy to get around, assuming you have GPS navigation.

We actually forgot about renting a car until right up to our arrival. When we finally remembered to check (the night prior), rates had gone up so much that it no longer made sense to consider it as an option.

Instead, we took a shuttle from the airport to our hotel. There are independent shuttle companies, which you can find via Google, or you can ask your hotel to help coordinate transport.

Either way, make sure you reserve before you arrive. There’s no ‘on-arrival’ transport at the airport, aside from private taxis, which usually run €60-70+ one-way to Goreme.

By comparison, a seat on a shared shuttle is only €8 per person.

There’s also a public bus to Goreme, but it departs from a nearby bus station, so you’ll need to catch an airport bus (if they’re running) or taxi to the bus station, then wait for the next departing bus. If you’ve got plenty of time, this may be alright, but otherwise, I’d advise doing a shared shuttle.

Once in Cappadocia, most people stay in Goreme. It gets a bad rep for being a bit touristy, but it is the most developed of the towns in Cappadocia, and the balloons fly right over it during sunrise.

Assuming you’re staying in Goreme, you can walk around town- it’s small enough.

To get to other parts of Cappadocia, you can reserve a spot on a half or full day tour, pending what you want to see, or do as we did and hire a taxi driver.

In the off-season, our driver cost €35 (for two people) for 6 hours of drive time, and took us to every sight we wanted to see.

We would have preferred a car for flexibility in exploring, but hiring a driver made it easy for us to see and do more than we would have on a tour at our own pace, and for less than a tour would have cost both of us.

Our taxi hire was arranged through our hotel. Sultan Cave Suites were incredibly helpful in discussing what we wanted to see and do.

We went to them with a list of sights we wanted to visit, asked them if there was anything else we should consider doing, and then worked out a rough plan for the day with estimated timings to give our driver.

WHAT TO DO

Watch the Sun Rise 

On our first frosty winter morning in Cappadocia, we were blessed with a truly gorgeous sunrise.

Even the hotel photographer said it was one of the best he’d seen all year. 

In total, we spent nearly two hours on the roof, enjoying all of it.

Each moment was magic- from a glowing, fiery sun cresting over the horizon, to soft purples and pinks illuminating our surroundings, to a rising sun casting soft morning light across clear blue skies. 

The hotel staff kept bringing us coffee and tea to help us stay warm, but we didn’t start to feel cold until the very end, even though it was ~30 degrees Farenheit the entire time. 

We couldn’t believe how close some of the balloons flew to town, or how incredible the colours of the terrace pillows and rugs looked against the changing morning sky.

A staged breakfast may seem silly, but the colours and the movement of the softly sailing balloons in the background was mesmerizing.

Because the balloons hadn’t flown for a few days, there were more than usual for this time of the year. The hotel staff estimated there were between 125-150 in the skies around Goreme on that morning.

Another off season travel perk?

There were times we had the entire terrace to ourselves.

The terrace is closed to guests only at sunrise, but in the summer, when the hotel is fully booked, you’ll normally have 60-80 people on the roof, vying for photos and views.

Shots I was able to grab easily, and without even thinking about it, would require queueing to do so in summer.

Go Rug Shopping 

I’d waffled over buying a rug in Turkey for most of our time in Istanbul. I was intrigued with the idea, especially since they were so beautiful, but also hesitant since I was still living that ‘digital nomad’ life.

Our first day in Cappadocia however, I accepted a job offer for 2020 that would see me relocate to Europe.

Upon accepting, I decided the best way to celebrate would be treating myself to a Turkish rug. Since we were in Cappadocia at the time, we headed to the Insta-famous rug shop, Galerie Ikman.

Walking in, you instantly feel as though you’re on the set of Aladdin.

This place is popular with bloggers, keen to get a colourful shot with rugs and beautiful Turkish clothes in the background. If you visit, please remember to be respectful- they ask you to pay a small fee to take photos (they are a business after all), and remove your shoes so you don’t damage the rugs.

If you make any purchases while there, photo fees are waived.

We enjoyed watching others take shots, including a drone photoshoot, before heading into the back rooms to look at the rugs.

After a discussion with the owner, they started pulling rugs for me to see, and I was instantly smitten with one of them.

It was just beautiful, and it helped that I loved the story behind it as well- it’s one of a set of rugs, crafted by a small village near Goreme each year. The women who handcraft the rugs only create so many to ensure quality.

Needless to say, I can’t wait to find a flat and see my colourful purchase on display.

Explore the Region’s Unique Landscape

  • Love Valley: Be sure to see this valley of unique rock formations (you’ll understand why it’s nicknamed ‘love valley’ when you see the shape of them) from an above overlook, as well as below. Down in the valley itself, there are places to park, where you can walk into the valley to see the formations close-up
  • Pigeon Valley: This stop wasn’t initially on our list, but we visited at the urging of our hotel. We spent about 20 minutes here, walking around, and taking in the view of the valley and homes carved into rock. Worth a stop, for sure, especially if you’re visiting nearby Uchisar Castle
  • Rose Valley: There’s a 5km hiking trail, which we would have loved to do, but if you don’t have time for it, there’s also an overlook of the valley, where you can still hike a bit, while being treated to incredible views of the rose coloured peaks
  • Uchisar Castle: Sunset is the best time to visit the castle, the fading sun creates the most beautiful glow. We loved the castle, and the views of the valley from the top, but were most smitten with looking at the castle head on
  • Pasabag: Our least favourite stop of the afternoon, Pasabag felt artificial with its paved walkways. Nonetheless, it’s a great place to actually go inside fairy chimneys, and the landscape is really just unbelievable
  • Goreme Open Air Museum: One of the most popular tour spots in Cappadocia, and for good reason- it does a great job of explaining the region’s history. You can actually reach the museum by walking from town- it’s only about a mile from the centre of town, and takes 15-20 minutes to reach on foot

Wander Town

Goreme is small- you can easily cover most, if not all of the town by foot in a day.

Arriving in Goreme late morning, seeing town is how we chose to spend our first day.

We really enjoyed visiting other hotels in the town, especially Cappadocia Cave Suites and the Local Cave House with its beautiful pool.

There isn’t a ton to do in town, so we ended up spending some time just lounging in rooftop restaurants we found, as well.

It was such a chill welcome to a new part of Turkey, and allowed us to rest for the next day, which would begin early with sunrise.

Watch the Sunset

Dozens of balloons may not fly at sunset, like they do in the morning, but if the weather is good, there’ll likely be a few in the sky.

Lover’s Hill provides panoramic views of the setting sun over Goreme.

If you have a car or don’t mind paying for a taxi, there’s a panoramic viewpoint outside of town that’s popular with visitors for sunset.

Calling it a viewpoint is actually an understatement- there’s even a small bar onsite. The viewpoint is near the red valley, and you should be able to find it just by entering ‘Panoramic View Point, Goreme’ or Coffee Club into Google maps.

And, the same rooftop terraces that provide such a special view in the morning are great to head to in the evening again.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK COFFEE

Our hotel offered free breakfast, so we only ate a few meals out during our short stay in Cappadocia.

Also, of note, we weren’t drinking while we were in Turkey, which is why I haven’t made any recommendations for places to have a drink.

Our favourite finds?

  • Cafe Safak: Great for your third-wave coffee fix, the lattes are creamy and piping hot. Plus, the guys who run the cafe are so friendly
  • Organic Cave Kitchen: This was one of the first restaurants we stumbled upon in Goreme. We had a lovely chickpea stew with Turkish tea here. If you don’t eat meat, your selection is pretty limited, and there are other spots in town that do a better job catering to vegetarians
  • Viewpoint Cafe and Restaurant: We visited Viewpoint both days we were in Goreme- it’s one of the only restaurants in town with a high enough rooftop to have a decent view of the valley without climbing into the hills. Both visits, we had a slew of appetisers (cheese, hummus, flatbread, olives, etc.) and hot chocolate- and thought everything was delicious
  • Firin Express: Decent flatbread pizza, very affordable
  • Dibek: Good for trying traditional, Turkish food

Have you ever been to Cappadocia? Is it on your travel wish list of places to visit someday? 

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A Magical, Winter Sunrise in Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey, famous around the world for visions of hot air ballooning over ethereal, out of this world landscapes.

In 2018 alone, over half of the world’s hot air balloon rides took places in Cappadocia, with almost a half million people soaring through the skies.

Once you arrive in Cappadocia, you quickly realize why the region is such a hot air balloon epicenter.

The landscape is unreal, it’s as if you’re on another planet.

Most people visit Cappadocia with the hope of going on one of the balloons, or watching dozens of them float through the air at sunrise.

When we decided to visit Istanbul in early December, we carved out three days to visit Cappadocia.

We knew only allowing two mornings was a gamble, especially in the off-season when weather can be unpredictable. But, we rationalized, even if we didn’t see a beautiful sunrise, the jaunt would still be worth it to experience another part of Turkey.

The five days before our visit, it rained throughout Cappadocia, and was so windy, no balloons flew.

When we checked into our hotel, we were told our timing may be perfect- there was a good chance the balloons would fly the next morning.

To tout our experience as lucky would be an understatement.

We stayed at the Insta-famous, Sultan Cave Suites in Goreme. 

Our room was €80 a night, and included breakfast for two. Given our modest travel budget, this was a splurge, but one we couldn’t imagine passing up. 

The hotel’s terrace offers an insane view of Goreme, and the surrounding valley- one of the best in town. 

It’s absolutely epic at sunrise, and sunset is pretty beautiful as well. 

Our rate was an off-season travel perk. It’s my understanding prices increase by 2-3x as much in summer when the hotel is in high demand. 

There are plenty of cheaper places to stay in Goreme, but since we weren’t renting a car, having a good view of the balloons (if they flew) was important to us.  

On our second day in Goreme, we awoke before the sun rose.

Making our way to the lobby of the hotel, we were keen for news of whether the balloons would fly. About 20 minutes before sunrise, we were given a thumbs up, and told the first balloons would be in the air shortly.

Another perk to off-season travel?

Sunrise was near 8 am in December, so we didn’t have to wake super early, and were able to catch all phases of sunset, from first light, without losing sleep.

On this particularly frosty winter morning, we were blessed with a truly gorgeous sunrise.

Even the hotel photographer said it was one of the best he’d seen all year. 

In total, we spent nearly two hours on the roof, enjoying all of it.

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Each moment was magic- from a glowing, fiery sun cresting over the horizon, to soft purples and pinks illuminating our surroundings, to a rising sun casting soft morning light across clear blue skies. 

The hotel staff kept bringing us coffee and tea to help us stay warm, but we didn’t start to feel cold until the very end, even though it was about 30 degrees Farenheit the entire time. 

The whole experience was incredible.

We couldn’t believe how close some of the balloons flew to town, or how beautiful the colours of the terrace pillows and rugs looked against the changing morning sky.

A staged breakfast may seem silly, but the colours and the movement of the softly sailing balloons in the background was mesmerising.

It was a bit funny to watch people pose with the staged breakfast, but whatever makes you happy in life, you know? 

Because the balloons hadn’t flown for a few days, there were way more than usual for this time of the year. The hotel staff estimated there were between 125-150 in the skies around Goreme on that morning.

Another off season travel perk?

There were times we had the entire terrace to ourselves.

The terrace is closed to guests only at sunrise, but in the summer, when the hotel is fully booked, you’ll normally have 60-80 people on the roof, vying for photos and views.

Shots I was able to grab easily, and without even thinking about it, would require queueing to do so in summer.

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As the sun continued climbing in the sky, balloons began to disappear. We headed inside for a Turkish breakfast, followed by hot showers and a leisurely nap in our cozy, cave suite.

When I planned two days in Cappadocia, I thought we’d have two chances to see sunrise, but didn’t factor in transit time to the airport for a 10 am flight. 

We flew in and out of Kayseri, which is 45-60 minutes from Goreme.

On our second day, we were able to catch the first half of sunrise before we left, which also looked like it was going to be a beautiful one.

My best advice for visiting Cappadocia?

If you’re set on seeing the balloons fly, or taking a ride yourself, allow for some flexibility. Even in peak season, a storm or wind may delay your prospects.

And, whether you rent a car or not, I’d stay at a hotel with a great terrace. The off-season rates made our cave suite all the more attractive, but the entire experience was so comfortable and incredible, I’d recommend it to anyone.

A once in a lifetime sunrise in a once in a lifetime destination. One for the record books, that’s for sure.

Have you ever visited Cappadocia? Is it on your list of places to travel to someday?

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