Last Updated on September 22, 2023 by Maggie McKneely
Turkey is a magical country filled with ancient history, incredible landscapes, and mouthwatering cuisine. Here’s a 10 day Turkey itinerary to help you make the most of your time in this amazing place.
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10 Day Turkey Itinerary
When I was little, the only thing I knew about Turkey was that it was funny for a country to be named after a Thanksgiving menu item. Turns out that not only is it not named for the large poultry, but turkeys are about the only thing you can’t find in Turkey.
Turkey is one of those rare destinations that literally has it all. Are you a history lover? Well, Anatolia has been home to civilizations since the dawn of time and has important sites for Roman, Ottoman, Christian, and Muslim historians. A foodie? Turkish cuisine is some of the best in the world. What about nature? Snow-capped mountains, pristine beaches, and otherworldly landscapes (hello, Cappadocia!) all reside within Turkey’s borders. And whether you’re traveling on a shoestring budget or looking for extreme luxury, a trip to Turkey satisfies both.
If you’re planning your first trip to Turkey, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to go, what to do, and how to make the most of your limited time (that’s certainly how I felt!). Though a 10 day Turkey itinerary isn’t nearly long enough to see everything in such a large and diverse country, it’s the perfect amount of time to get a taste of what this amazing place has to offer.
Table of Contents
Tips for Visiting Turkey
The official currency in Turkey is the Turkish Lira. While most places do accept credit cards, there are a lot that don’t. Street vendors, marketplaces, some tour guides, and all tips require Lira in cash. And the places that require cash usually won’t accept any other currency, such as Euros or US Dollars, especially (and most surprisingly) in Istanbul. I didn’t have enough cash on hand and ATMs were not as common as I expected, so learn from my mistake and make sure you have enough.
What to Wear
Turkey is a conservative country with a majority Muslim nation. Most locals dress modestly, with women wearing head coverings and long-sleeve dresses. But there’s also a large tourism industry and many Turks are non-practicing Muslims, so you will see a wide range of clothing options. There are no rules about what you can wear, but you will probably feel more comfortable dressing conservatively. I wore shorts a couple of days because it got very hot, and while no one said anything, I did feel like I stuck out, and not in a good way. Also, women should bring a scarf. You will need it for any mosques or holy sites you visit.
Day 1-3: Cappadocia
Day 1: Get to Cappadocia
If you’re flying to Turkey, you’ll almost certainly have to go through Istanbul. But instead of starting your trip here, I recommend saving Istanbul for last. The reason for this is that you don’t want to end your trip elsewhere in Turkey and then try to catch a connecting international flight through Istanbul to get home. To make your life easier, start your trip with the bucket list destination of Cappadocia.
There are two airports for the Cappadocia region: Nevsehir (NAV) and Kayseri (ASR). You can get cheap, direct flights from Istanbul to either one of these. When I planned my trip, I booked my roundtrip flights from DC to Istanbul (IST) and then booked one-way flights to from IST to NAV (you can use either airport, that one just had the flight time I wanted). Just make sure you give yourself at least two hours between landing in Istanbul and your next flight.
Day 2: Hot air balloons and caves!
The one absolute must-do activity in Cappadocia is riding in a hot air balloon! It’s what the region is most famous for and is one of the most photographed experiences in the world, let alone Turkey. Floating above the otherworldly landscape of caves and rock formations during the peaceful sunrise hour is one of the most magical things I’ve ever done. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
For tips on booking a hot air balloon ride, including when to book, what company to go with, and how to avoid a weather cancellation, check out my one-day in Cappadocia guide.
The hot air balloon rides happen early in the morning, so afterward you’ll have the rest of the day to explore everything Cappadocia has to offer. One of the most efficient ways to explore Cappadocia when you only have a short amount of time is with a guided tour. That way you get to see all of the highlights without having to deal with renting a car or figuring out how to fit in everything you want to do. I opted for this full-day private tour and it was a wonderful experience!
Things to do in Cappadocia:
- Pasabag Valley
- Pasabag Valley is the best place in Cappadocia to see the famous “fairy chimneys,” those mushroom-shaped rock formations that the region is famous for.
- Devrent Valley
- Devrent Valley is a fun area nicknamed “imagination valley” because it’s filled with rock formations that look like different animals, such as the famous camel rock. It’s a great place to take kids to let their minds run wild!
- Goreme Open Air Museum
- Goreme Open Air Museum is the crown jewel of all of Cappadocia’s historical sites. It’s home to the largest and most accessible collection of byzantine cave churches in the world.
- Kaymakli Underground City
- Kaymakli is the largest of Cappadocia’s underground cities (yes, there are multiples!) In the 7th century AD, Christians carved fully-functioning cities underground in order to hide from their Muslim persecutors. It’s definitely one of the most interesting places to visit in the region.
- Pigeon Valley
- Pigeon Valley is the only valley where people aren’t allowed to live; instead, it’s dedicated solely to housing the pigeons that provide the fertilizer Cappadocia’s farmers rely on! You can see their bird-sized caves on the sides of the cliffs. The valley is 4km/2.5 miles one way and is a lovely hiking option if you don’t want anything too strenuous.
Day 3: ATVs, Horsebackriding, Dinner with a show!
Spend your second full day in Cappadocia doing the things you may not have had time for the first time. (Full disclosure: on my trip, it rained our second day in Cappadocia, so we ended up not doing a whole lot outside of our hotel room. But had the weather been nice, these are some of the activities we would have done).
More things to do in Cappadocia:
- Wine Tasting
- Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most important wine-making regions. The fertile, mineral-rich soil is perfect for grape growing, so take advantage of your time here by indulging in some wine tasting! You can visit Turasan’s tasting room in a cave, or you can take a 3-hour wine tour of the whole region.
- ATVs or Horsebackriding
- Dinner with a traditional Turkish show
- Dinner at Evranos comes with a show featuring traditional Turkish music and dancing.
Where to Stay in Cappadocia
“Cappadocia” is actually the name of the entire region, not a town. The towns where you’ll find the balloons and the caves are Göreme, Ürgüp, and Uçhisar. Of the three, Göreme is the most centrally located and has the widest variety of hotels and restaurants. Most of the national parks and historic sites are here as well. You’ll find both regular hotels and cave hotels, but since this IS Cappadocia, you should definitely opt to stay in a cave – this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do so!
We stayed at Tulip Cave Suites and loved it. The price was affordable, it offered an amazing view of the balloons, and we got to spend the night in a 5th-century cave church. So cool!!
Day 4: Kusadasi
On day 4 of your 10 day Turkey itinerary, catch a flight from one of Cappadocia’s airports to the city of Izmir. Once in Izmir, pick up a rental car and drive an hour south to the port city of Kusadasi. (These are the only few days you’ll need or want a rental car.)
Kusadasi is a bustling, modern coastal town with a beach, boardwalk, and lots of great restaurants. However, no one goes to Kusadasi for Kusadasi itself. The city is the perfect base for visiting nearby places such as Ephesus and Pamukkale. So after arriving at your Kusadasi hotel, spend the evening walking along the waterfront, eat a seaside meal (I recommend Damla, it’s right on the water and has excellent and affordable seafood!), and rest up before two jam-packed days of exploring.
Where to Stay in Kusadasi
Kusadasi is one of Turkey’s largest cruise ports, so you’ll find no shortage of places to stay. There are mid-budget to luxury hotels on the water, as well as hostels. The waterfront is where you’ll find most of the restaurants and shopping areas, so you’ll want to pick a place near there. We opted for an Airbnb just a few blocks from the water and it was perfect.
Day 5: Ephesus
The city of Ephesus was once one of the largest and most important cities in the Roman Empire. It was home to one of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, the Temple of Artemis. It was also an important city for Christianity, home to the church that the letter of Ephesians was written for, and was a launching site for many of Saint Paul’s missions. Today, it’s one of the most well-preserved ancient Roman sites in the world. Needless to say, Ephesus is a non-negotiable part of any 10 day Turkey itinerary.
The ancient site of Ephesus is located about an hour from Kusadasi, near the modern-day town of Selçuk. Since you have a rental car, it is possible to drive there and explore the area on your own. However, because there is SO MUCH history and Ephesus is not well marked with informational signs, I recommend hiring a tour guide.
There are a ton of options out there, from group tours to private, full-day, half-day, or whatever suits your needs. I wanted a private, full-day tour that focused on the Christian history of the area (Ephesus + Virgin Mary’s House + St. John’s Church), so I choose this tour company and highly recommend them.
If you decide to go it on your own, here are the highlights you don’t want to miss in Ephesus:
- Archaeological Site of Ephesus
- I know, “duh! Isn’t this whole day about Ephesus?!” Yes, but the ancient site of the city is one self-contained archaeological area that has its own entrance fee. Within the Archaeological site of Ephesus Is the famous library of Celcus, once the third-largest library in the world. There is also the theater that Paul visited in Acts 19. The location of the Temple of Artemis is also within the archaeological site.
- Basilica of St. John
- On the other side of town are the remains of the Basilica of St. John. The church was founded by the disciple himself and was where he was buried.
- House of the Virgin Mary
- Tradition says after Christ’s crucifixion, Mary traveled with John to Ephesus and remained there until she died. In the 19th century, a German nun received visions of the precise location of Mary’s home in Ephesus. A french priest then explored the area and found the ruins of a small church. Since then, the site has been a major pilgrimage location. Did Mary really live here? We don’t know, but we also have no evidence to the contrary.
Tips for visiting Ephesus: bring water, sunglasses, and wear comfortable shoes. The archaeological site has no shade and lots of white marble, so it can be very warm even on coolers days and downright miserable in the summer.
Day 6: Pamukkale, Hierapolis, Laodicea
Day 6 of this 10 day Turkey itinerary involves a mini road trip to the otherworldly landscape of Pamukkale, Turkish for “cotton castle.” And it’s not hard to see why! Pamukkale is most famous for its travertine terraces, glimmering white hills of mineral deposits that rise out of the otherwise green and brown Turkish landscape. These are paired with sky-blue ponds of water that were seemingly made for epic Instagram shots. But the area is also home to a lot of ancient history, such as the site of the Roman cities of Hieropolis and Laodicea.
Because Pamukkale is a 3-hour drive from Kusadasi, you’ll want to leave pretty early. But not TOO early – the mineral deposits are most crowded around sunrise because that’s when people try to get cool pictures. So if that’s not a priority for you, you’re better off arriving later in the morning.
The travertine terraces are within an archaeological park that also contains the ruins of the Roman city Hierapolis. People have been drawn to the hot springs since antiquity for their supposed healing powers, hence Hierapolis became a bustling metropolis filled with people who wanted easy access to them.
The area is nearly as large as Ephesus and can take anywhere from a few hours to most of the day to fully explore, depending on what you want to see. We visited the terraces first, ate lunch at the cafe, and explored parts of Hierapolis, all of which took about 4 hours. I recommend this guide to visiting Pamukkale for all the logistical details you need to know.
Note: Some blogs say Pamukkale is crowded and overhyped. It can definitely be crowded, but we had a blast visiting and I don’t regret making the trek out there. It’s a beautiful drive, the terraces are so unusual and neat, and the surrounding history is fascinating. I disagree with the naysayers but to each his own.
Another note: You will need cash for the Pamukkale parking lot. It was 2TL when I was there in May 2022. But the entrance fee for the park itself can be paid via credit card.
If you leave the terraces early enough to make a stop on the way home, swing by Laodicea, a short 20-minute detour from Pamukkale. Laodicea is the site of yet another ancient Roman city. It’s recognizable to Christians though because the church of Laodicea was one of the seven mentioned in the book of Revelations. Archaeologists have spent decades looking for the site of the church building itself and just recently (2020) found it. The church itself is now an active archaeological site, with historians uncovering and restoring more pieces of the church every year. It’s a fascinating stop for anyone interested in church history!
After stopping at Laodicea, drive back to Kusadasi for one more dinner on the coast before flying to Turkey’s capital city.
Day 7-10: Istanbul
Day 7: Travel to Istanbul
On the morning of day 7 of this 10 day Turkey itinerary, pack up your rental car, drop it off at the Izmir airport, and board a flight to Istanbul. Istanbul has two airports: the newer and larger IST and the smaller SAW. Both airports are a long way from downtown Istanbul, so be careful how you choose to get from the airport to your hotel.
I highly recommend arranging for a private transfer. Our hotel took care of this for us, but there are plenty of private companies that you can go through as well. It’s the most expensive option (around $30 one-way), but it’s the least stressful and the only way to guarantee you won’t be scammed. There are plenty of taxis available, but Istanbul taxis are notoriously untrustworthy. There is also a bus system, but you need to make a few transfers to get into the downtown area of Istanbul.
It takes at least two hours to get from the airport to the city center, so you won’t have a lot of time left in the day once you get there. So when you arrive at your hotel, spend the evening wandering the area and get some dinner, then rest before the next three days of exploring one of the world’s best cities.
Getting Around Istanbul
Istanbul is huge, but the majority of places people go on a first-time visit are all within the Sultanhamet neighborhood. This area is very walkable. If you don’t want to walk, or you need to go somewhere outside of Sultanhament, the best mode of transportation is the tram. It’s an easy-to-use, tourist-friendly aboveground metro with stops at all of the important locations.
There is also an extensive bus and metro system if you want to go somewhere the tram doesn’t go. And the public ferry can take you across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. So there are plenty of options; no need to rely on the sketchy taxi system! Here is a full guide to Istanbul’s public transportation.
If you plan on using any public transportation (either the tram, a bus, or a ferry) an Istanbulkart will make your life much easier. It’s a card that you load money onto and scan to get on public transportation. It saves you from having to pay an individual fee every time you go somewhere. It also gives you a 50% discount over the normal fare.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
As mentioned, the majority of the main tourist attractions are in the Sultanhamet neighborhood of Istanbul. This is where you’ll spend most of your time, so it makes the most sense to find a hotel in this area. Because it is the place where all the tourists come to, there’s no shortage of options. We stayed at an adorable bed and breakfast, Hotel Buhara, and it was perfect.
Day 8: Mosques, Bosphorus, full-day tour
Istanbul is an overwhelming place, which is THE understatement of this entire blog post. Nearly 16 million people call the sprawling metropolis home. Its history stretches back several thousand years and being located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia means it’s the world’s biggest melting pot of culture.
Day 8 is the first full day in Istanbul of this 10 day Turkey itinerary, so use it to get a broad introduction to the city. A walking tour with a local is one of the best ways to do this. I opted for this private tour and it was worth it. Our guide met us at our hotel and took us to all of the main spots nearby: the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Roman cistern, Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Market, and told us all about Istanbul’s ancient history and current politics along the way. She also pointed out places to eat and gave us advice for the rest of our time in Istanbul.
If you choose to explore Istanbul on your own, here are the places you should visit on your first day:
- Hagia Sophia
- Arguably Istanbul’s most famous landmark, the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, then a mosque, then a museum, and in 2020 it was converted back into a mosque. It is a magnificent work of art and architecture.
- Entry is free, but men may not wear shorts and women must wear a scarf or other head covering. They do provide ugly sack things to cover yourself if you don’t have the proper clothes, but you don’t want to be one of those people…lol.
- Blue Mosque
- The Blue Mosque is right across the park from the Hagia Sophia and is arguably even more impressive (which is saying something!). Unfortunately, it was undergoing renovation when we were there, so we could only see a fraction of the famous blue tiles that cover the inside of the mosque. That’s just one more reason I need to go back to Istanbul one day!
- Like the Hagia Sophia, entry is free but you need to be properly dressed.
- Basilica Cistern
- Istanbul is home to numerous underground cisterns built during the time of the Roman empire. Many of these cisterns have been converted into museums, art galleries, and performance spaces (because why perform on a stage when you can do it in a super fancy well?). The largest is the Basilica Cistern, located across from the Hagia Sophia. It’s an unusual tourist spot, but super cool.
- Grand Bazaar
- The Grand Bazaar is the oldest covered market in the world, dating back to 1455. Today, it’s filled with every kind of shop you could ever want. From jewelry, clothing, furniture, and tourist trinkets, if you can’t find your souvenir here, you won’t find it anywhere.
- Spice Market
- Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, the Spice Market is Istanbul’s other famous market. As the name suggests, this market focuses on spices, but you’ll also find Turkish delight, tea, dried fruits and vegetables, and other food wares here.
- Bosphorus Cruise
- After walking all over Old Istanbul, a relaxing cruise up the Bosphorus is the perfect way to round out the day. There are several different cruise options, but if you only have an afternoon, the city’s official ferry, Sehir Hatlari, offers a 2-hour short Bosphorus cruise for only 12 TL. You go up the Bosphorus far enough to see many of the massive homes along the water, then turn around and come back.
Day 9: Yummy Food Tour
Turkey has some of the best cuisine I’ve ever had, so a full-day Istanbul food tour was one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made. After getting an introduction to Istanbul’s history, spend day 9 of your 10 day Turkey itinerary learning all about its food! Yummy Istanbul offers several different food tours, some 6 hours, others just four, some focused on Old Istanbul, and others that explore the newer Asian side. Every guide is a local who has a love for Istanbul’s history, culture, and, obviously, its food. You can’t go wrong!
I opted for the full-day Taste of Two Continents Tour. We made over 10 stops and learned all about some of Turkey’s most important foods and restaurants, the influence of food on daily life in Istanbul, and met some of the important players in the city’s food scene. It was a remarkable experience and a highlight of the week. For a full review of the tour we did, check out my post about Yummy Istanbul’s food tour.
Day 10: Palaces
As the seat of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was home to all of its sultans. And their homes, Topkapi Palace and the later Dolmabahce Palace are open to the public. The last day of your 10 day Turkey itinerary should be spent exploring these opulent royal residences.
Perched on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus and old Istanbul is the magnificent Topkapi Palace. Topkapi Palace was built in 1453 and served as the royal residence until 1860, nearly four centuries. Sultans, courtiers, concubines, eunuchs, and hundreds of other colorful characters called this place home at any given time. Today, it remains the oldest and largest palace in the world.
The sprawling complex has mother-of-pearl-covered pavilions, rooms decorated from floor to ceiling with hand-painted tiles, ornate fountains and gates, and even gold-plated bathhouses. It is the most impressive example of Ottoman architecture and will have you wishing you had a palace of your own.
There is a main ticket to enter Topkapi Palace, but you’ll need to buy an additional ticket to enter the Harem section. The harem is where you’ll find the Sultan’s extravagant private quarters, so I definitely recommend doing that. Allow for at least 3 hours to explore the whole palace complex.
After spending the morning exploring the original Ottoman Palace, make your way across town to the palace that was the Sultans’ home until the fall of the empire: Dolmabahce.
The easiest way to get to Dolmabahce Palace from Topkapi is to get on the tram at Sultanahmet square and stay on until the last stop at Kabatas. From Kabatas, it’s a 10-minute walk to the palace.
Dolmabahce Palace was built in 1856 as a part of the Ottoman Sultans’ desire to be more like the Western world. They thought that the traditional eastern architecture of Topkapi had become outdated. As a result, the more European Dolmabahce is reminiscent of Versailles and other grand European palaces.
Many scholars believe that the expense that went into building the extravagant Dolmabahce actually contributed to the fall of the Ottoman Empire – the Empire was struggling financially, so there was no reason for the Sultans’ to spend millions of dollars on a palace they didn’t need. Whether or not that’s true, Dolmabahce is an extremely impressive place to visit.
The entry fee to the palace does not include a tour, and while you can wander around on your own, I definitely recommend hiring a guide. There are no informational signs inside the palace, so without a tour guide, you won’t know what you’re looking at. This tour includes the palace entry fee and a tour guide.
A 10 day Turkey itinerary isn’t nearly long enough to explore this fascinating country, with its ancient history, beautiful landscapes, and mouthwatering food. And it’s just enough to convince you to plan a 2nd trip back.
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