Hitting the highlights on a guided tour of Turkey

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Roman theater in Aspendos.

by Diane Harrison, Creve Coeur, MO

Using Globetrotter Guides’ “Turkey Travel Guide” to compare the itineraries offered by several large tour companies, my parents and I started planning our 2010 vacation. We decided on smarTours’ 14-day “Treasures of Turkey.”

Istanbul intro

Rock dwelling at the Göreme Open-Air Museum.

Our April-May tour started and ended in Istanbul (a 2010 European Capital of Culture), including city sightseeing on either end. We visited Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the spice market.

I especially enjoyed the Privy Chamber at Topkapi Palace, which contains holy relics from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, and the nearby treasury building housing fantastic jewels from the Ottoman Empire.

Our second day of touring in Istanbul was a Monday, and most museums were closed. While the majority of the group joined smarTours’ optional Bosphorus cruise ($55) in the afternoon, we decided to walk the entire length of Istiklal Caddesi, one of the city’s main streets, starting at Taksim Square and ending at the Bosphorus. 

Our walk provided a taste of Istanbul’s diversity, as we visited a Catholic church, a mosque and The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews (phone +90 212 292 6333), housed in an old synagogue in the Karaköy area. (Entry cost seven Turkish lira, or $4.50, per person.)

A few highlights

After leaving Istanbul, our tour made a large loop around the western half of the country, covering roughly 2,000 miles. We had many long driving days through mountainous areas on poor roads. Following are some of the tour’s highlights.

In Ankara we chose smarTours’ optional tour ($32) to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (phone +90 312 324 3160). Our tour guide, Serap Uslu, had earned a Master’s degree in archaeology, and she led us through the museum displays, which focus on ancient Turkish civilizations.

The collections of Roman sculpture and Hittite artifacts, including mother goddess statues over 8,000 years old, were particularly comprehensive. This museum, like the others we visited in Turkey, had English labels on all displays. 

The Peri Tower Hotel in Nevsehir.

In Cappadocia we visited the Göreme and Pasa valleys, making photo stops at rock cities, camel rock, fairy chimneys and other bizarre geological formations during a full day of touring. Some of the homes carved into the rock formations are still inhabited, though health concerns caused the government to close several towns.

I especially enjoyed the rock churches at the Göreme Open-Air Museum (phone +90 384 271 2167), which date from the 10th through 13th centuries. The St. Barbara, Apple and Snake churches contain Romanesque frescoes that are clear and sharp, in spite of their age. The frescoes in the Dark Church (entry, eight Turkish lira) are noted for their beauty, but we did not have time to explore this church nor the museum.

SmarTours offered two optional tours in Cappadocia: early-morning ballooning ($175) and a whirling Dervish show with dinner ($45). We did not take either tour and heard mixed results with regard to their value.

While visiting Cappadocia, we stayed at the uniquely shaped Peri Tower Hotel. This was our only hotel that did not have a central-city location, as the town of Nevs¸ehir spreads out over a large area.

Archaeological sites

In Antalya, we took smarTours’ optional half-day tour of Perge, Aspendos and the Antalya Archaeological Museum ($50). Most ruins at Perge date from the Roman era, including a complete complex of baths, a main street lined with columns and a nymphaeum (a fountain with statuary).

Aspendos has one of the world’s best-preserved Roman theaters; it can hold 20,000 people and is still in use.

The Antalya Archaeological Museum contains Roman statues and sarcophagi from Perge as well as Eastern Orthodox icons and Turkish ethnographic displays. We had only one hour at the museum and would have liked more time.

Antalya’s Dedeman Park hotel, a resort located on the Mediterranean Sea, was the best hotel of our tour. Our room had a balcony facing the Mediterranean and the Taurus Mountains.

Stone carving of the Greek goddess Athena Nike at Ephesus.

I swam in the huge indoor and outdoor pools and took a dip in the sea. There is no beach, but the hotel offers a platform and ladder for swimmers.

The breakfast and dinner buffets were fantastic, with at least 100 choices on the dinner buffet.

Our tour included five ancient sights: Hierapolis, Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, Pergamum and Troy. I really enjoyed Hierapolis, which is located by the mineral pools of Pamukkale.

Hierapolis has a huge necropolis dating from Greek and Roman times. We spent over an hour walking around the sight, taking pictures of the sarcophagi, theater and other ruins. There is a free shuttle for visitors who cannot walk the two miles through the necropolis. The archaeological museum there was closed.

I also enjoyed Troy, which is a small site but interesting, from a historical perspective. Serap provided an excellent overview of Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations and the Greek legend.

The small museum contained city plans and construction details going back to Troy I, the oldest layer of ruins. A giant Trojan Horse stands in front of the museum.

Shopping stops

We also visited four government-sponsored shops on this tour, featuring pottery, carpets, leather goods and products made of onyx and turquoise. All shop visits began with a demonstration of how the goods were produced, in addition to an explanation of pricing and bargaining rules, if applicable.

The quality of the workmanship we saw was excellent and the prices were fair. I purchased small items at three of these shops and also shopped at the ubiquitous bazaars. 

Among the unique “touristy” items were purses and bags with Turkish designs; woven bookmarks; onyx carvings, and jewelry featuring the “evil eye.” We bargained for most bazaar purchases, and vendors were very persistent.

Final tips

The following are some important items to remember when visiting Turkey.

US visitors are required to secure a visa and can do so easily upon entering the country. We purchased ours for $20 each at the Istanbul airport.

Wayne, Diane and Sondra Harrison at Hierapolis.

In addition, good walking shoes are critical, because many sites have difficult walking surfaces and large numbers of steps.

While we did use tap water for brushing our teeth and suffered no ill effects, we otherwise drank bottled water. We felt comfortable eating fresh fruits and vegetables, as the restaurants we went to used filtered water.

This was our third trip with smarTours (New York, NY; 800/ 337-7773), a company that, we believe, provides knowledgeable guides and good-quality accommodations at a reasonable price.

This tour cost $1,799 per person, double occupancy, with an early-booking discount. The price included round-trip airfare between New York and Istanbul on Lufthansa; hotels; daily buffet breakfast; seven dinners; admission fees to included sights; transportation, and the services of a guide provided by Tekser Tourism, smarTours’ ground operator in Turkey.

Tours operated by smarTours focus on a country’s history and highlights rather than on “cultural connections.” If this meets your interests, I would not hesitate to recommend this company.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Roman theater in Aspendos.

by Diane Harrison, Creve Coeur, MO

Using Globetrotter Guides’ “Turkey Travel Guide” to compare the itineraries offered by several large tour companies, my parents and I started planning our 2010 vacation. We decided on smarTours’ 14-day “Treasures of Turkey.”

Istanbul intro

Rock dwelling at the Göreme Open-Air Museum.

Our April-May tour started and ended in Istanbul (a 2010 European Capital of Culture), including city sightseeing on either end. We visited Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the spice market.

I especially enjoyed the Privy Chamber at Topkapi Palace, which contains holy relics from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions, and the nearby treasury building housing fantastic jewels from the Ottoman Empire.

Our second day of touring in Istanbul was a Monday, and most museums were closed. While the majority of the group joined smarTours’ optional Bosphorus cruise ($55) in the afternoon, we decided to walk the entire length of Istiklal Caddesi, one of the city’s main streets, starting at Taksim Square and ending at the Bosphorus. 

Our walk provided a taste of Istanbul’s diversity, as we visited a Catholic church, a mosque and The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews (phone +90 212 292 6333), housed in an old synagogue in the Karaköy area. (Entry cost seven Turkish lira, or $4.50, per person.)

A few highlights

After leaving Istanbul, our tour made a large loop around the western half of the country, covering roughly 2,000 miles. We had many long driving days through mountainous areas on poor roads. Following are some of the tour’s highlights.

In Ankara we chose smarTours’ optional tour ($32) to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (phone +90 312 324 3160). Our tour guide, Serap Uslu, had earned a Master’s degree in archaeology, and she led us through the museum displays, which focus on ancient Turkish civilizations.

The collections of Roman sculpture and Hittite artifacts, including mother goddess statues over 8,000 years old, were particularly comprehensive. This museum, like the others we visited in Turkey, had English labels on all displays. 

The Peri Tower Hotel in Nevsehir.

In Cappadocia we visited the Göreme and Pasa valleys, making photo stops at rock cities, camel rock, fairy chimneys and other bizarre geological formations during a full day of touring. Some of the homes carved into the rock formations are still inhabited, though health concerns caused the government to close several towns.

I especially enjoyed the rock churches at the Göreme Open-Air Museum (phone +90 384 271 2167), which date from the 10th through 13th centuries. The St. Barbara, Apple and Snake churches contain Romanesque frescoes that are clear and sharp, in spite of their age. The frescoes in the Dark Church (entry, eight Turkish lira) are noted for their beauty, but we did not have time to explore this church nor the museum.

SmarTours offered two optional tours in Cappadocia: early-morning ballooning ($175) and a whirling Dervish show with dinner ($45). We did not take either tour and heard mixed results with regard to their value.

While visiting Cappadocia, we stayed at the uniquely shaped Peri Tower Hotel. This was our only hotel that did not have a central-city location, as the town of Nevs¸ehir spreads out over a large area.

Archaeological sites

In Antalya, we took smarTours’ optional half-day tour of Perge, Aspendos and the Antalya Archaeological Museum ($50). Most ruins at Perge date from the Roman era, including a complete complex of baths, a main street lined with columns and a nymphaeum (a fountain with statuary).

Aspendos has one of the world’s best-preserved Roman theaters; it can hold 20,000 people and is still in use.

The Antalya Archaeological Museum contains Roman statues and sarcophagi from Perge as well as Eastern Orthodox icons and Turkish ethnographic displays. We had only one hour at the museum and would have liked more time.

Antalya’s Dedeman Park hotel, a resort located on the Mediterranean Sea, was the best hotel of our tour. Our room had a balcony facing the Mediterranean and the Taurus Mountains.

Stone carving of the Greek goddess Athena Nike at Ephesus.

I swam in the huge indoor and outdoor pools and took a dip in the sea. There is no beach, but the hotel offers a platform and ladder for swimmers.

The breakfast and dinner buffets were fantastic, with at least 100 choices on the dinner buffet.

Our tour included five ancient sights: Hierapolis, Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, Pergamum and Troy. I really enjoyed Hierapolis, which is located by the mineral pools of Pamukkale.

Hierapolis has a huge necropolis dating from Greek and Roman times. We spent over an hour walking around the sight, taking pictures of the sarcophagi, theater and other ruins. There is a free shuttle for visitors who cannot walk the two miles through the necropolis. The archaeological museum there was closed.

I also enjoyed Troy, which is a small site but interesting, from a historical perspective. Serap provided an excellent overview of Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations and the Greek legend.

The small museum contained city plans and construction details going back to Troy I, the oldest layer of ruins. A giant Trojan Horse stands in front of the museum.

Shopping stops

We also visited four government-sponsored shops on this tour, featuring pottery, carpets, leather goods and products made of onyx and turquoise. All shop visits began with a demonstration of how the goods were produced, in addition to an explanation of pricing and bargaining rules, if applicable.

The quality of the workmanship we saw was excellent and the prices were fair. I purchased small items at three of these shops and also shopped at the ubiquitous bazaars. 

Among the unique “touristy” items were purses and bags with Turkish designs; woven bookmarks; onyx carvings, and jewelry featuring the “evil eye.” We bargained for most bazaar purchases, and vendors were very persistent.

Final tips

The following are some important items to remember when visiting Turkey.

US visitors are required to secure a visa and can do so easily upon entering the country. We purchased ours for $20 each at the Istanbul airport.

Wayne, Diane and Sondra Harrison at Hierapolis.

In addition, good walking shoes are critical, because many sites have difficult walking surfaces and large numbers of steps.

While we did use tap water for brushing our teeth and suffered no ill effects, we otherwise drank bottled water. We felt comfortable eating fresh fruits and vegetables, as the restaurants we went to used filtered water.

This was our third trip with smarTours (New York, NY; 800/ 337-7773), a company that, we believe, provides knowledgeable guides and good-quality accommodations at a reasonable price.

This tour cost $1,799 per person, double occupancy, with an early-booking discount. The price included round-trip airfare between New York and Istanbul on Lufthansa; hotels; daily buffet breakfast; seven dinners; admission fees to included sights; transportation, and the services of a guide provided by Tekser Tourism, smarTours’ ground operator in Turkey.

Tours operated by smarTours focus on a country’s history and highlights rather than on “cultural connections.” If this meets your interests, I would not hesitate to recommend this company.