There’s no debate: Turkey is the top choice for a short-haul holiday from Dubai that packs in anything and everything: from action and adventure, to culture and history, to some of the best food in the world. The literal and symbolic bridge between Europe (of whose currency it is suddenly less enamoured) and Asia, this country possesses the exoticism of many far-flung destinations and yet, thanks to its efficient network of long-distance buses that connect virtually every town and city, is easy to explore.
Though it’s a big country, you can still do a lot of Turkey’s highlights in two weeks if you plan your trip. The simplest option is a circular route through the western half of the country (far easier to travel in, especially if you don’t speak Turkish) that begins and ends in Istanbul, spending a couple or more nights in different towns. Take a backpack, travel on public buses, stay in small ‘pansiyons’ (the Turkish equivalent to a B&B) or hostels and you can spend your spare lira on treats like baklava and raki. Turkish people are typically friendly and helpful, and they’re always keen to send you in the right direction for the next sandy beach lapped by turquoise sea or an ancient ruin with a backdrop of rugged mountains.
The Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar, as well as the traditional hotels and most budget backpacker hostels, are in touristy Sultanahmet. It’s a pretty area to walk through and explore the twisty cobbled streets but a more cosmopolitan base is arty Beyoglu, a district in flux where you’ll find indie fashion boutiques, non-chichi cafés and designer-maker studios in refurbished Ottoman buildings as well as the Istanbul Modern art gallery and the excellent Pera Museum; there’s even a twee little tram that shuttles up and down the 1.5km-long Istiklal shopping street.
If you’re staying in Istanbul for several days, the ferry to the Kadiköy district on the Asian shore takes 20 minutes and makes for a great daytrip – walk from Kadiköy quay along the shore to Moda quay for a strong Turkish coffee in the café on the pier.
Where to stay: Check into Sumo Cat Hostel (Alı Hoca Aralik Sok 9; +90 0212 292 7866), which is a fun hostel in Galata, near Beyoglu; dorm rooms start at Dhs47, double rooms start at Dhs236. Alternatively try La Casa di Maria Pia (Yeni Carsi Cad 37, Beyoğlu; +90 0541 624 5462), which offers cosy apartments with fully equipped kitchenettes; guest rooms start at Dhs188 per night; apartments start at Dhs353 per night.
Fethiye, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, is a charming seaside town with an extensive marina. Even though it’s popular in summer, it never feels overcrowded – mainly because most people are out on the sea during the day; opportunities to get involved in watersports such as sailing and scuba diving are excellent here. Fethiye is handy for venturing inland to visit the deserted former Orthodox Greek town Kaya Koyu, Saklikent Gorge and Butterfly Valley.
Where to stay: Spend a couple of nights cruising the Med on a traditional gulet live-aboard, snorkelling and visiting small islands on the V-Go 12 islands cruise (www.bluecruisesturkey.com); from Dhs700 per day/night. Other destinations include Kas, Olympos and Antalya if you fancy skipping a bus trip. Alternatively, head to Butterfly Valley and spend a night in a beach bungalow or tent enjoying the stars without electric lights spoiling the view. Tents cost from Dhs100, bungalows start at Dhs123, while huts with a roof terrace are Dhs143.
In the centre of Turkey, the Cappadocian landscape is dominated by wind-sculpted rock ‘chimneys’, deep valleys and man-made, excavated underground cities. There are three towns in the region: Urgup, Uchisar and Goreme; the budget backpacker places are in Goreme. In the day, go for long walks – along the Red Valley is superb and there’s a great panoramic vista from the top of Uchisair Castle – mountain bike or take a hot air balloon at dawn. The underground cities, such as the one at Kaymakli, were carved by the Hittites circa 2000BC and are fascinating, if a little claustrophobic, to walk through. The monastery at Zelve and the city of Goreme are cities that were carved from the rocks by former inhabitants and are now open-air museums.
Where to stay: Splash out and stay in one of the more plush hotels in Cappadocia; choose a cosy cave room or, if you suffer from claustrophobia, a room overlooking one of the wide valleys. Check into the boutique cave hotel Esbelli Evi (Esbelli Sok 8, Ürgüp; +90 0384 341 3395), with smart rooms and rambling gardens (doubles from Dhs564), or labyrinthine boutique hotel Kale Konak (Kale Sok 9, Uçhisar; +90 0384 219 2828), with its own private marble hammam; doubles from Dhs564.
Selcuk and Sirince
Most visitors to Turkey visit Selcuk because it’s only 3km from the excellently preserved ruins at Ephesus. Ephesus was the capital city of Proconsular Asia in Roman times and you can walk along its excavated streets past buildings such as the impressive Library of Celsius and amphitheatre and even sit in the communal lavatory.
The traditional hillside village of Sirince is still inhabited. There are lovely views from the top of its steep, tortuous cobbled streets, which are lined with still-occupied tumble-down houses. Though it’s now a destination for coach tours, the village is a fascinating place to visit and gives a glimpse of Turkish farming life as it might have looked in the nineteenth century. Stay overnight and experience the place in peace.
Where to stay: Head to Homeros Pansiyon (Atatürk Mah Asmalı, 1048 Sok 17; +90 0232 892 3995), a friendly family-run pansiyon where rooms are decorated with colourful carpets and knick-knacks; singles start at Dhs92, while doubles/twins cost Dhs143. Alternatively, check out Nisanyan House (+90 0232 898 3208), a boutique hotel with a private hammam and spectacular views (from Dhs246).
Olympos is a small village on the 500km-long Lycian Way from Fethiye to Antalya. It’s got a superb (pebbly) beach and a calm, warm sea that’s fab for sea kayaking and has the added attractions of Byzantine ruins and outdoor activities such as abseiling and sea-kayaking. Nearby are the otherworldly ‘eternal flames’ – pockets of natural gas that burn 24/7 – at Chimaera. Olympos is a magnet for gap-year students, so choose your accommodation with care if you prefer to bed down before dawn and without a booming nightclub soundtrack.
Where to stay: Kadir’s (Olympos; +90 0242 892 1250) has 338 dorm and treehouse beds, plus camp sites and two lively bars. Bungalows with en-suite and air-con for two to three people start at Dhs82, or around Dhs71 without air-con. Prices include breakfast and buffet dinner. There’s also Bayram’s (Olympos; +90 0242 892 1243), which offers quiet bungalows and tree-house dorms; dorms start at Dhs61, tree-house dorms start at Dhs69, while bungalows (with en-suite and air-con) start at Dhs94. Prices include breakfast and dinner.
Antalya’s historic Old Town is protected and many of the ramshackle Ottoman homes are undergoing restoration and are being turned into small hotels, cafés and art galleries. Outside the confines of the old city walls, Antalya is busy and modern, but it’s a nice place to spend a few days in the sun, stroll around the ancient Roman harbour, shop in the bazaar or be scrubbed clean at 600-year-old Sefa Turkish bath. The Antalya Museum has an excellent collection of fossils, statues, Ottoman costumes and carpets. For a daytrip inland, the impressive ruins of Termessos are only a 40km drive away.
Where to stay: White Garden Pansiyon (+90 0242 241 9115) is set in Old Antalya and provides a refuge from the midday heat and is furnished in traditional Turkish style; doubles start at Dhs112.
Dubai to Istanbul
Flight time: Approximately four hours 25 minutes direct to Istanbul. Return flights with Fly Dubai (www.flydubai.com) start at Dhs1,280.
Time difference: Two hours behind Dubai.
Dhs1 = 0.5 Turkish Lira.