10 Significant Historical Sites in Turkey: Places to Explore
To explore historical sites in Turkey is to delve into one of history’s most diverse and varied histories. Turkish history is not as simple as many people think. Over the centuries ruled by many empires, we see many architectural styles, including Ottoman and Byzantine buildings in Istanbul, Mediterranean and Lycian ancient cities, and Russian sites in the northeastern Black Sea region. So, get ready for a treasure chest of historical sights that are considered some of the most iconic architectural wonders in the world.
To appreciate each one, we recommend reading their history first, signing up for group day tours or using a private guide to guide you. In Turkey, tour guides must study for years and qualify for the job, so their knowledge and experience of the sights is second to none. History buffs would do well to take a look at the UNESCO World Heritage List in Turkey, including cities, villages and places that defy belief; it’s a great way to explore the country. Turkey’s most visited archaeological sites spread from east to west and can pose travel challenges for people with limited time. However, if you are in Istanbul, visit Miniaturk, which is a collection of mini landmarks and a whirlwind tour of Turkey’s popular historical sites.
The most visited historical sites in Turkey
1: The Ancient City of Ephesus
The ancient ruins of Ephesus, often considered Turkey’s most visited attraction, welcome millions of travelers from near and far every year to see why historians and archaeologists love this city. As one of the seven churches of revelation and a major trading port on the Aegean Sea, the great theater was the site of the Artemis riots, and if you are a Christian, it is worth a visit because St. John, Paul and the Virgin Mary spent time at Ephesus.
Other attractions include old Roman houses, the Celsus library, and public toilets that only rich Romans could use. Although most people arrive for the day and then leave, if you have time, book a hotel in Selcuk and explore St. John’s Basilica, the House of the Virgin Mary and the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. ( Read more about the ancient city of Ephesus).
2: Istanbul and the historic Old City
The Old City, located in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, is fascinating. Contains iconic landmark buildings such as the 16th century Blue Mosque and Byzantine Hagia Sophia (once the world’s largest domed building) architecture, decor and design amaze every traveler. While there, walk around the corner to visit Topkapi Palace, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, located near the Golden Horn and from where the sultans ruled their lands.
Their 500-year history is like a soap opera, and if you find yourself addicted, head to new Istanbul, near Taksim Square, and take a bus to the Besiktas neighborhood to see the Dolmabahçe Palace, sitting on the banks of the Bosphorus. It was their last ruling center before Turkey overthrew the dynasty in the early 1920s. If that doesn’t appeal, go a short distance to the Grand Bazaar one of the largest and oldest markets in the world, containing over 3,000 stalls, and a great place to buy souvenirs.
3: Central Anatolia Cappadocia Region
The most striking thing about Cappadocia is that the entire region is historic. Thousands of years of wind erosion have formed fabulous stone chimneys in deep valleys and create a whimsical theme if you stay in a cave hotel. Book a three-day, four-night stay and visit tourist sites like the Goreme Open-Air Museum, a collection of 12 person read to 14 read -century-old churches and monasteries carved out of tufa rock.
Our favorite site is the underground city of Derinkuyu, a massive collection of tunnels and rooms, some reaching six meters down. The inhabitants built them and hid there when they were under invasion, often for six months. Zelve Valley, another collection of rock houses and churches, was the setting for the Nicholas Cage movie Ghost Rider. Also visit the ancient caravans. These days some have Turkish evenings with whirling dervishes, dancing and food, but visit during the day to see their amazing and unique architecture. Their use in history was as hotels on the old silk road from east to west.
4: Gobeklitep: The oldest temple The discovery of Gobeklitep in southeastern Turkey threw the historical and religious world into chaos because it challenged everything we believed about man. This archaeological attraction, often called the world’s oldest temple, shows how man moved from hunters and gatherers to farming and rooting. Its remote location means that if you’re staying in western Turkey, you can take a day trip or extend your stay by booking hotels in Sanlurf. This town is home to the famous Balikligol, where urban legends say that Nimrod threw Abraham into the fire.
5: The Nemrut Mountains Head Statues
These iconic heads have left historians scratching their heads as to why they were built, the exact date (many suspect the 1st century BC) and how to preserve them for the future as the weather destroys them. Many say the best time to visit them is at sunrise or sunset because it provides a surreal setting that ensures your holiday photos will be better than everyone else’s. Sitting in the middle of nowhere, north of Malatya, the unique 2-meter heads are unmatched. Consequently, they belong to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Turkey because of their cultural significance to the Kingdom of Antioch.
6: Kayakoy Ghost Village in Fethiye, Turkey
This unique historical site, near the resort of Fethiye, has a heartbreaking history. Once a thriving village of Greek and Turkish inhabitants, the Greeks were forced to leave in the 1920s, after the Lausanne Treaty. Likewise, Turkish people returned from Greece but could not settle, so they left the village in favor of other destinations more suitable for its trade. An earthquake a few years later solidified Kayakoy’s status as a ghost village. Explore the cobblestone streets to discover churches, schools, and old houses. Before your visit, also read Louis Bernieres’ book, Birds Without Wings, which is supposed to set the scene for Kayakoy and it gives a good experience of the Turkish War of Independence and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Turkish Republic. This will enhance your visit and provide an additional atmosphere.
7: Historical Trio: Miletus, Priene and Didyma
Travel to the Aegean coast and explore this delightful trio in one day. Beginning with the temple of Apollo in Didyma, once completed this pagan sanctuary would correspond to Delphi in Italy. Then, a short 30-minute drive would take you to Miletus, of which the intact theater allows you to take a back passage, just as the gladiators did. Sitting nearby, the majestic Temple of Athena puts Priene the ancient Greek holy city on the map, but Alexander the Great also stayed in the house on the east side when he tried to capture Miletus.
8: Aspendos in Antalya
Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, opposite the Taurus Mountains, Aspendos attracts attention with its large theater, which historians say is one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world. The annual ballet and opera festival, open for a day-long tour next to the city’s other ruins, takes place there because the ideal acoustics enhance the sound. If Aspendos shows an interest in the region’s diverse historical timeline, visit Perge, which is 35 minutes away, and Termessos, 120 minutes away, which offers spectacular views of the landscape.
9: Mira and St. Nicholas Church
While you’re in Antalya, it’s worth extending your stay to visit the ancient ruins of Mira and St. Nicholas Church in the Demre region. Mira, famous for its ancient theater, also boasts Lycian tombs cut into the hillside. Located there so that the creature of the wing who came to take them to the afterlife has easy access, they often seem to be the region’s main talisman. Nearby in the city of Demre, the church of St. Nicholas is where Santa Claus preached. The man who inspired the version we see today was the bishop of Demre and is known for his kindness and warmth.
10: Afrodisias: City of Sculptures
As a later addition to the Turkish UNESCO sites, Afrodisias has to be the most underrated ancient city in the country. Although it is close to Pamukkale and Hierapolis, Turkey’s second most popular tourist attraction, most travelers avoid it, which is a shame because it was a center of excellence for sculptures; hence the large gallery museum, which showcases stunning uncovered statues during excavations. Today’s iconic buildings we see are attributed to one man, Kenen Erim, who was buried within the city limits when he passed by.
It’s comforting to know
The Lycian Way of Turkey: Stretching across the Mediterranean coast from the Antalya region to Fethiye, the Lycian Way includes impressive ancient ruined churches such as Xanthos, Letun, Patara, Mira, Phaselis, Olympus and Gemiler. They underscore the history of the Lycian Empire as visionary in terms of economy, literacy, and art. The official Lycian route, often marred by Roman or Ottoman ruins, stretches for just over 500 kilometers and is worth studying. Some people walk it all in a matter of two months. A mighty task that only humans can accomplish, so most walk a section at a time. However, you can also take a 2-week trip on the main D400 highway around which most of the ruins are located. Spending one night in each city is an amazing and carefree way to see Turkey’s historic sites.
Visit Turkey Articles and Interesting Readings
Famous Castles in Turkey Travelers planning a trip to Turkey often associate the country with the great Ottoman palace and ancient cities, but castles dominate the skyline in several coastal destinations and should also be on the itineraries of what to see and where to go. This article explores the most famous and visited, with the goal of uncovering their historical history.
Lakes in Turkey: From historical landmarks to places of natural beauty, these lakes surprise everyone who visits them. Including Turkey’s most significant and smallest and most famous lake area, we look at where they are and why they are worth visiting.
Turkish Culture for Tourists : This quick guide to traditions covers everything a beginning traveler needs to know, including Turkish baths, social greetings, the history of carpets and kilims, Turkish food and drink, cafes, and more.
Turkey’s 20 Most Impressive Historic Sites
Turkey’s location at the junction of Europe and Asia has given this country an incredible history: many people, states, eras, and empires have left their mark here. You can stroll among the elegant columns of the Lycian ruins on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, visit the Roman amphitheater at sunset, imagining scenes that unfolded here thousands of years ago, stand on the very spot where Alexander the Great, St. Paul and Helen of Troy might once have stood. These 20 historical monuments located in Turkey make a truly lasting impression!
Before the discovery of Göbekli Tepe in 1963, Stonehenge was considered the oldest man-made place of worship on Earth. Now excavations are still underway at Göbekli. Archaeologists have already found pillars with ancient animal drawings and hieroglyphic inscriptions carved on them.
Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and home to a quarter of a million people, from slave traders to saints. It was home to the temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Hattusa is one of the greatest and most impressive ruins in Turkey. It was once the capital of the ancient Hittite kingdom, which emerged in 1600 B.C. and was destroyed after 1200 B.C.
Founded in 1000 BC, the ancient city of Perge (near modern Antalya) was first captured by the Persians and then by the armies of Alexander the Great, before becoming part of the Seleucid Kingdom. After that, the Romans ruled here. During the last excavations, 13 ancient sculptures were discovered, including a sculpture of the Emperor Caracalla, as well as the moon goddess Selene, the goddesses Nemesis, Aphrodite, Athena and Tyche.
Zeugma Mosaic Museum
Here is a huge collection of restored mosaics from the ancient Roman city of Zeugma. Today 25% of Zeugma is under water because of the construction of modern dams.
Olympos and Phaselis
The cities were completely abandoned in the 15th century AD, but most of the original Lycian views have not changed. Today Olympos is an important center of tourism in Turkey.
This is a Seljuk ruin located on top of a peninsula overlooking the sea. The defensive walls are nearly 4 miles long and there are 140 ramparts and 400 cisterns. This city was once considered one of the most well defended on the Mediterranean Sea. When you visit this fortress you will see the palace of Aladdin Keikubad, several mosques and a church.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) was the ambitious creation of the 19-year-old Sultan Ahmed I. He began the project in 1609. Today it is one of Istanbul’s iconic landmarks.
For almost 500 years Istanbul was the seat of the powerful Ottoman Empire, and for most of that time the Ottoman sultans lived in Topkapi Palace. The Topkapi complex consists of a hospital, a mint, and several mosques. It served as home to thousands of people. When the empire collapsed in the early 1920s, the palace was turned into a museum.
Nemrut, also known as Nemrud, is located 2000 meters above sea level and is the burial place of King Antiochus I. The best time to visit this place is at sunrise or sunset.
Bodrum Castle, known as St. Peter’s Castle, was built after 1402 by the Knights Hospitallers from Rhodes (Order of St. John) who were fleeing the Seljuk invasion. The castle is open to the public. It is also home to a unique museum of underwater archaeology.
Goreme National Park
In the open-air museum of Göreme, which is located in Cappadocia, you will find about 30 ancient churches, admire striking landscapes with stone columns, and see some of the best preserved frescoes. At the end of the 2nd century A.D., this place was considered a center of Christian activity. In addition, a huge underground city, estimated by archaeologists to be at least 5,000 years old, was recently discovered during excavations here.
According to the Greek geographer Strabo, Mira was one of the most important cities of the Lycian League. Today, it is mostly Roman ruins, including an amphitheater and Roman baths, that are of interest at this site. Among the most notable structures are two tombs carved into the rock and the church of St. Nicholas.
The Roman theater of Aspendos was first described by the Hittites in 800 B.C. The amphitheater, once part of the city of Aspendos, could hold up to 15,000 people. Today it hosts the annual Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival.
Hagia Sophia Cathedral
The world-famous Hagia Sophia Cathedral dates back to the 6th century AD and is a church in Istanbul that became a mosque and is now a museum.
The Basilica cistern is an underground wonder, one of the largest and best-preserved Byzantine water reservoirs in Istanbul, whose creation was completed under Emperor Justinian in 532 AD.
The deserted city of Kayaköy, which was once a bustling village on a high hill, is now an open-air museum with nearly 500 dilapidated houses and the remains of two abandoned churches. The atmosphere is unreal.
The remains of ancient Simena (modern Kaleköy) are considered one of the most impressive historical sites in Turkey. There is a Lycian cemetery here, and huge sarcophagi are scattered across the nearby slope. After a series of coastal earthquakes 1,800 years ago, part of this area is submerged in the Mediterranean Sea.
A Byzantine monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary, located on the edge of a steep cliff at an altitude of about 300 m. It was founded around the 4th century AD by two Athenian priests who traveled in the area. The monastery stopped its activities in 1923 and since then it has been a very picturesque museum.
During the Greek and Roman periods, this small town, named after the goddess Aphrodite and located in southwestern Turkey, was a major supplier of marble. The stone was transported throughout the ancient world and used in the decoration of building facades and in the creation of sculptures.
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