Travel

2 Weeks in Istanbul, Bodrum, and Cappadocia (and What to Pack)

Written by: Brianna Peters

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Published on: January 4, 2024

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With ruins of empires that fell thousands of years ago, bucolic vineyards, otherworldly rock formations, underground cities tucked into volcanic mountainsides, marvelous sleepy beachside towns along the turquoise Aegean Sea, and cities that effortlessly meld the ancient with the high-tech, Turkey is as enchanting, delicious, surprising, and beautiful as it gets. I’m already planning when I can go back; in the meantime, here’s where to stay, eat, shop, and explore—and, of course, what to bring.

Days 1 to 5 and 11 to 14: Istanbul

There’s so much to see here—to organize, break it into neighborhoods. We spent the first five days exploring first the Besiktas neighborhood, then Sultanahmet; we then flew to Bodrum and Cappadocia and bookended the trip with a final three days back in Istanbul, focusing on Karakoy.

BESIKTAS

Stay

Mandarin Oriental Istanbul
From the huge suites and personal butler you can text anytime to the subtle scent of jasmine that wafts through the hotel, the Mandarin Oriental is incredible inside. But its setting—it’s right on the Bosporus and feels like a tranquil, lush secret garden that’s inexplicably only a few minutes from some of Istanbul’s most popular destinations—is an equally important reason to stay.

Do

Dolmabahce Palace
The largest (and arguably grandest) palace in Turkey, Dolmabahce fuses Baroque, neoclassical, and Ottoman styles in its elaborate 285 rooms. Commissioned by Sultan Abdulmejid I in the mid-19th century, the interiors are lavish, and the gardens, breathtaking. I especially loved the ornate Crystal Staircase (made with Baccarat crystal).

Yildiz Park
From a Byzantine forest to an imperial garden, this sprawling park is a gorgeous respite from the city. Bonus: panoramic views of the Bosporus.

Bosporus Boat Tour
This is one of the best ways to see both the Asian and European sides of the city and familiarize yourself with the whole area. Book it for the late afternoon so you can catch an epic candy-colored sunset.

Eat and Drink

Yasemin at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus
Try a traditional Turkish breakfast at least once—cheese, fruit, eggs, jam, simit (Turkish bread), and sucuk (a type of Turkish sausage). The Four Seasons makes an incredible one—and has incredible views to go with it.

Aman da Bravo
Stop in here for a fantastic seafood lunch. With a bistro inside and a courtyard terrace covered by a canopy of trees outside, this really special low-key place serves a refreshing sea bass ceviche and minekop with gremolata.

Turk
My fiancé and I are still talking about the dinner we had at this two-Michelin-star spot in the Sisli neighborhood. Istanbul-born chef Fatih Tutak makes classic Turkish cooking his own with bold, smoky flavors that simply have to be tasted to be believed. His take on manti—a dumpling stuffed with lamb made with smoked cream and tomato tapenade—is one of the best things I’ve eaten.

Olea Bosphorus & The Bar
Dine (or drink) alfresco, right on the water. The Italian food is next-level—get the linguini with clams and fried zucchini—or, if you’re in the mood for something lighter, have a cocktail with a side of crispy manti from the bar.

SULTANAHMET

Stay

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet
It’s hard to imagine that this luxurious neoclassical hotel in the heart of Old Town was formerly a prison. The open-air courtyard is bursting with greenery and flowers; the spa is fantastic; the restaurant, delicious. And it’s all minutes away from some of Istanbul’s most famous sights. The hotel makes excursions really easy to book (we loved the four-hour guided Istanbul food tour). With your stay, you also get access to the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus.

Do

Hagia Sophia
An architectural marvel, Hagia Sophia has transformed from a Byzantine Christian church to an Ottoman mosque to a museum and back again to a mosque. Some frescoes and mosaics have been destroyed or covered over time, but you can still see some (for example, the seraphim on the ceiling corners). The scale is monumental, and the atmosphere is stirring.

Blue Mosque
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985, the must-see Blue Mosque is named for the thousands of blue-painted Iznik tiles.

Note: For visits to the mosques, cover your shoulders, knees, and hair.

Basilica Cistern
Beneath the city of Istanbul, this is the largest ancient cistern in the city, and you can tour it to see how water was filtered in the Byzantine era. The Doric, Corinthian, and Ionic pillars all look a little mismatched because some of them have been recycled from the ruins of other buildings.

Hippodrome of Constantinople
This square was once the city’s arena for social gatherings and sporting events. This is where the Horses of Saint Mark originally resided before they were looted during the Fourth Crusade and taken to Venice.

Eat and Drink

Aheste
I loved this intimate bistro in the Pera neighborhood so much, I went twice: Once for lavender zucchini, tuna kadayif, and chicken confit and once for delicious cocktails—the Sor, a thyme-and-hibiscus-infused gin with a foamy egg white and vanilla whip was amazing.

Pandeli
Above the Egyptian Bazaar, this traditional Turkish restaurant is a fantastic lunch spot. Try the meatballs (kofta), doner kebab, and sultan’s delight (hunkar begendi)—a melt-in-your-mouth lamb served on eggplant purée.

Shop

Grand Bazaar
With over 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is overwhelming—but manageable with a little planning. I spent most of my time in the Old Bazaar Antique Market sifting through vintage jewelry boxes and rings, but there are also beautiful Turkish towels, printed caftans, and fancy soaps.

Jennifer’s Hamam
Tucked behind the Blue Mosque, this textile shop has the plushest handwoven towels you’ve ever seen. I regret not bringing an entire suitcase just for the towels.

KARAKOY

Stay

The Peninsula Istanbul
Set on the water where the Bosporus meets the Golden Horn (an estuary), the very glamorous, stylish Peninsula just opened in February 2023; the four buildings balance history with a modern sensibility. With chic suites (the beds are like clouds and the Marmara marble bathrooms are stunning), glossy interiors, spectacular gardens, and an incredible spa (complete with the most beautiful indoor pool I’ve ever laid eyes on), it’s pretty much heaven.

Do

Galata Tower
Originally a watchtower at the highest point of the Walls of Galata (now gone), the tower reopened in 2020 as a museum; it’s got unbelievable 360-degree views of Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace
It’s hard to believe the sheer size of some of the many precious jewels housed in the Topkapi Palace (there are spectacular examples of Ottoman clothing and religious relics, too). The fountains that trickle through many of the rooms were put there so the original occupants could tell secrets without being overheard.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum
A few minutes’ walk from the Topkapi Palace, this museum has an enormous stone grave collection. There’s the Alexander Sarcophagus, 2,300 years old (from the Hellenistic period) and carved with images of Alexander the Great, among other historical and mythological representations. It’s also a prime example of how ancient polychrome designs appear different to modern eyes than they would have looked to their creators: The sarcophagus was originally painted in multiple vibrant colors, but today those finishes have faded and only faint traces of the original colors remain, so the sarcophagus appears white.

Turkish Bath
Ottoman Turks took traditional Roman bathing rituals and made them their own, calling them hammams and steaming, cleansing, scrubbing, and massaging their way into history. A true Turkish bath experience can be (delightfully) rougher than a traditional American spa treatment—think being pummeled with aromatic black soap. We loved the version at the Peninsula, which involved a firm full-body exfoliation with a textured kese glove, followed by a more soothing soap massage.

Approximate a Turkish Bath at Home

I turn my shower on hot, let it steam up the bathroom for a few minutes before I get in, and afterward do a proper face and chest steam.

  1. Step 1: Steam

    Dr. Dennis Gross
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  2. Step 2: Scrub down your entire body

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  3. Step 3: Rinse off and massage with oil

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Eat and Drink

Gallada at the Peninsula
Watch the sun set over the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque from this chic rooftop. The food, by chef Fatih Tutak of Turk, is inspired by the Silk Road, blending Turkish, Chinese, and Central Asian cuisines—don’t miss the tomato starter, tandoori duck, or monkfish.

Ernest’s Bar at Çok Çok Pera
Sit in the garden terrace of this Hemingway-inspired bar and enjoy an expertly made cocktail while listening to live jazz.

Frankie
Frankie is a buzzy rooftop spot in Galataport that treats local ingredients to Asian cooking techniques and spices. Order the tempura zucchini with honey and turmeric mayo, the duck gyoza, and the spiced grilled chicken with oyster sauce to share.

Days 5 to 8: Bodrum

From Istanbul, we flew to Bodrum for a few days of crystal-blue water and powdery shoreline.

Stay

Macakizi
Once a ’70s hot spot for supermodels and rock stars on the Turquoise Coast, Macakizi is a boutique hotel with an intimate laid-back vibe and picturesque views of the Aegean Sea. Dotted with two-story villas covered in bougainvillea and crisscrossed with mazelike paths that lead to the spa, bar, and canopied docks, it’s a luxurious seaside resort with a private-yacht-lined bay. It’s also a fantastic place to eat, with seafood spaghetti, blue-crab gnocchi, and buckets of champagne. As the night goes on, the restaurant transforms into a club with music and cocktails.

Do

Beach Day
The hotel will reserve sun loungers for you (they’re lined up on a dock, so you can jump right into the water from your chair). They’ll also deliver salmon crudo with a side of hummus-guacamole dip and a glass of Selendi rosé or a spicy margarita.

Day Trip to Ephesus, the Temple of Artemis, and the Basilica of Saint John
If you visit one place in all of Turkey, make it Ephesus, a meticulously preserved site of ancient ruins that include the Library of Celsus, the Ancient Theater, the remains of the famous Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and much more. Spending the day there was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus
Another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, this magnificent tomb, built in 350 BC, was an architectural marvel in its time and remains a must-see. Ruins of pillars and marble are still there.

Bodrum Castle and the Museum of Underwater Archaeology
Once a fortress for the Knights of Saint John of Rhodes, this castle is now a museum where you can view artifacts recovered from some of the oldest shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea.

Eat and Drink

Orfoz
Order the oysters baked with Parmesan and the zesty ceviche at this low-key taverna—they’re simple and delicious.

Mimoza
With twinkling colored lights strung among the trees, this beachside restaurant is a great place to cool off (it’s practically in the water) and get the fresh catch of the day.

Limon
Go to this bohemian outdoor spot at sunset: Cocktails are served in giant glass jars, and they’re amazing.

Yedi Bilgeler Vineyard
On the way back from Ephesus, this is an amazing place to stop for fantastic wine (each vintage is named after a famous philosopher), delicious food, and a cozy atmosphere. The chic rustic property sits among olive groves and vineyards; local produce (olives, herbs, and fruit) stars on the menu.

Shop

Leleg Living
For gorgeous handmade wooden utensils, terra-cotta bowls, and more, this is the spot.

Haremlique Istanbul
This is actually a Turkish chain, but the linens, intricate shams, and sheets are unique—and absolutely exquisite.

Days 8 to 11: Cappadocia

After a few days in Bodrum, we flew to Cappadocia to visit the underground cities and breathtaking scenery of towers, cones, valleys, and caves shaped by volcanic rock.

Stay

Argos in Cappadocia
Built amid the ruins of a 1,000-year-old monastery, caves, and underground tunnels, Argos feels like a totally different universe. With beautiful gardens, a relaxing pool, an unbelievable view, and cozy rooms with sumptuous beds (they even have a pillow menu so you can request a pillow tailored to your preferred firmness or softness), it’s just amazing.

Do

Göreme Open Air Museum
Cut into volcanic rock and crowded with churches, chapels, and monasteries, this was once a large monastic complex. The frescoes at the Dark Church are pristinely preserved and so beautiful.

Hot-Air Balloon Ride
Viewing Cappadocia’s stunning desert landscape—deep valleys and volcanic towers called fairy chimneys—from above is absolutely unforgettable. The balloons go up at sunrise, so you have to wake up super early, but it’s worth it.

Guray Museum and Pottery Workshop
Browse antiques, ceramics, and pottery at this underground museum before heading upstairs to experience a live pottery workshop.

Tour of the Kaymakli Underground City
Eight stories and miles of tunnels, rooms, stables, and more were built underground into the soft volcanic rock of Cappadocia to create this incredible city that’s believed to have been built as a refuge for Christians escaping persecution.

Eat and Drink

Nahita
It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal at this Anatolian-influenced rustic outdoor lounge (Anatolia is the historical name for the region where Cappadocia now resides). Start with the meze trio with summer tzatziki, wild thyme salad, and muhammara and follow with the Nevsehir tava and kirci pasta.

Lil’a
Nestled in a Relais & Châteaux hotel, Lil’a is super romantic and serves fresh farm-to-table cooking. Definitely get the pistachio baklava.

Seki
This is the place to go for testi kebab—an Anatolian specialty of tomato, eggplant, pepper, potato, garlic, and chicken or beef simmered in a clay pot for hours. When it’s ready, the waiter brings it to your table and cracks the clay pot open before serving it over farro pilaf.

WHAT TO PACK

  1. Birkenstock
    Milano Big-Buckle Sandals
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    You’re going to walk a lot. I wore these shoes all the time—so chic and comfortable.
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  2. ALEMAIS
    Evergreen Sundress
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    I wore maxidresses almost every day. My favorite is beautiful, breathable, and easy to dress up or down.
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  3. Crown Affair
    The Mini Shampoo, Conditioner, and Oil Set
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    I don’t go anywhere without my most-loved shampoo and conditioner. This set comes with hair oil, too, so my hair is soft, shiny, and beautifully scented.
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  4. Saint Jane
    Luxury Sun Ritual Pore Smoothing SPF 30
    goop, $38
    This sunscreen blends imperceptibly, and the slight tint smooths out any imperfections.
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  5. Bonjout
    Le Balm
    goop, $120
    This do-it-all salve fits easily in my bag, and I use it for my cuticles, lips, hands, and anywhere else I need a little moisture bomb.
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    Colorblur Glow Balm
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    I dab this cream on my cheeks and lips for the prettiest healthy-looking flush in seconds.
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