Turkey is situated on a very unique area. As Anatolia (aka Asia Minor) has been a home to many different civilizations, Turkey carries the traces of these various cultures. While preparing the list of historical places to visit in Turkey, I tried to reflect this cultural richness.
There are many historical artifacts from the Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman empires in Turkey. This historical richness gives you the chance to trace different eras.
Although Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus stand out among the places to visit in Turkey, in fact, Anatolian geography offers much more to its visitors. For this reason, even those who come to Turkey for sea, sand and sun tourism cannot help but participate in cultural activities.
Best Historical Places to Visit in Turkey in 2021
There are 12 titles in the list of the best historical places to visit in Turkey in 2021. This article contains cities from every corner of Turkey, you can also find historical monuments in the UNESCO heritage category.
Istanbul is one of the most visited cities in Europe and has been on the Unesco World Heritage list since 1985. As a small model of Anatolia (a melting pot of cultures), Istanbul connects the continents (Europe and Asia) and embraces both cultures.
a. Topkapi Palace
Topkapı Palace was the place where the Ottoman sultans lived for 400 years. Located in the heart of the Historic Peninsula, Topkapi Palace is situated on the first hill of Istanbul, a city with seven hills.
Topkapi Palace is very different than the palaces of Europe. It contains four large courtyards and a magnificent view of the Bosphorus. If you visit Istanbul in spring, you may feel like hiking in the nature while discovering the nice gardens of Topkapi Palace.
b. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest domed temple from 537 when it was built, until a thousand years later. The curiosity created by the splendor of Hagia Sophia continued until the 17th century when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt.
Hagia Sophia remained a church for 900 years and was converted into a mosque in 1453. The building, which remained as a mosque for about 500 years, has been a museum since the Republic period.
It should also be noted that Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque in 2020. However, although it serves as a mosque, visitors can still see the Byzantine mosaics inside.
c. Suleymaniye Mosque
Suleymaniye Mosque is located in the heart of the Old City. Although tourists visiting Istanbul mostly prefer Blue Mosque due to its central location, Suleymaniye Mosque is the most impressive architectural work in Istanbul.
There are basically two reasons why the Suleymaniye Mosque is so important. The first is that it was built for Suleiman the Magnificent, the most famous Ottoman sultan. Secondly, the person who built the mosque was Mimar Sinan, the most important architect of the Ottoman Empire.
d. Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar was established in 1461 and has been the center of shopping in Istanbul for centuries. Located in the middle of the Old City, Grand Bazaar attracts people like a magnet.
People who get exhausted after a sightseeing in Istanbul can’t help but end their day at Grand Bazaar. Grand Bazaar challenges the modern shopping malls in Istanbul with its 67 streets and more than 3000 shops. The Grand Bazaar has been among the historical places to visit in Turkey for centuries.
e. Bosphorus Cruise
Bosphorus Cruise is one of the most fun things to do in Istanbul. As you tour the Bosphorus, you will understand why the city has been so important in history.
Combining Asia and Europe, Istanbul has been one of the most important ports in the world throughout its history. In addition, the Bosphorus, which acts as a bridge between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, has increased the importance of Istanbul.
Emperor Constantine was the first to realize this strategic position of Istanbul. For this reason, he declared Istanbul the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330.
Cappadocia is one of the best places to visit in Turkey with its unique geographical formations. There are so many things to do in Cappadocia that you will not be bored even if you stay for a week.
Since Cappadocia was one of the important centers of the early Christian period, there are many churches to visit here. Christians escaping from the persecution of Rome settled in Cappadocia in the early period. The foundations they laid made Cappadocia the most important monastic center in the Middle Ages.
Among the man-made places to visit in Cappadocia are rock churches, which contain the first examples of monastic life. In addition to this there are huge underground cities built to hide from the Roman authorities.
However, there are also natural formations among what Cappadocia promises to its visitors. Fairy chimneys and valleys formed in millions of years stand out among them.
One of the most fun activities in Cappadocia is to take a hot air balloon tour. You can photograph all the beauties of Cappadocia from the balloons that rise to hundreds of meters and have a great time.
3. Mount Nemrut
Mount Nemrut is flooded by people who want to climb to the summit and watch the sunrise in every tourism season. Mount Nemrut is also under UNESCO’s World Heritage List thanks to the colossal statues of Greek Gods.
The king of an ancient civilization (The Kingdom of Commagene) Antiochus I built these amazing statues and placed them on the top of the mountain. He proclaimed himself a god and added his own statue among the ones like Zeus and Apollo.
Climbing up to the Mount Nemrut in the early morning is not easy. It’s freezing cold up there. However, the atmosphere is truly amazing, so it’s definitely worth the effort. While the sun rises over the horizon and shines over the statues of Ancient Gods, you forget about everything else.
Strangely enough, the existence of this awesome statues was forgotten for long years. They were rediscovered and became one of the top tourist attractions in Turkey today.
Mount Nemrut has been the subject of the Netflix series The Gift. For this reason, it stands out among the historical places to visit in Turkey in 2021.
Ephesus is the best-preserved ancient city in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The city dates back to Ancient Greece and it became the capital of Roman provinces in Asia Minor later. You might feel like travelling in time while you are walking through the Curetes Street.
Among the things to do in Ephesus, the most famous temple of the ancient age, Temple of Artemis, comes first. In addition to this, there is the Library of Celsus, the best preserved Roman structure in Ephesus. You can also see temples, fountains and baths dedicated to Roman emperors in Ephesus.
Ephesus became a very important city during the early times of Christianity as Apostle John and Virgin Mary came to here. The House of Virgin Mary is definitely one of the top historical places to visit in Turkey for Christians. Moreover, it’s considered as one of the pilgrimage sites.
5. Sumela Monastery
Sumela Monastery was built on the rocks, which are at the skirts of Mount Karadag. Locals call this place as “St. Mary’s Monastery”. It had been an active monastery from 386 to 1923 and the Byzantine monks lived here.
Nowadays, Sumela is a popular museum which is a bit difficult to visit. You have to climb up the steep hills to get there. Yet, everybody thinks it’s well worth it when they see the ancient icons and experience the mystical atmosphere.
The monastery was built by two people, named as Barnabas ve Sophronios. According to the legend, they both saw the Virgin Mary in their dreams. They followed the trail of her and met each other at this spot. Two people who did not know each other before, came across in the same place after a dream. They considered it as a miracle of Mother Mary and dedicated the new monastery to her.
Sumela Monastery had one of the most important icon for the Christian belief, the icon of Panagia Soumela which was created by the Luke the Evangelist. Due to the spiritual importance of the Sumela Monastery, many miracles have been associated with this place in history.
Soumela Monastery reopened after many years of restoration. For this reason, Sumela Monastery is one of the most popular historical places to visit in Turkey in 2021.
Hattusa has a history of 2300 years and is located very close to Ankara, the capital city of Turkey. Located in the city called Corum, Hattusa was the capital of the Hittites in Antiquity.
As a contemporary of ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, Hittites had an important role in the ancient history. They became a superstate in the Middle East and challenged the Pharaohs of Egypt.
The two important states of the region fought for the superiority on Mesopotamia and signed the first peace treaty in the world history. The Treaty of Kadesh is displayed in Istanbul Archaeological Museum today.
Hattusa is a golden opportunity for those who want to get off the tourist route and do something different in Turkey. For this reason, it is among the best historical places to visit in Turkey in 2021.
Pamukkale is famous for its snow white landscapes. If you come to Turkey for a holiday in Cesme, Bodrum or other popular holiday towns, it’s definitely recommended to make a day trip to Pamukkale.
Pamukkale is not only for seeing the white travertines but also enjoying the Hierapolis Ancient City. Just like Ephesus, Hierapolis is also a great Greco-Roman heritage site in Turkey. You may enjoy the walk through the ancient ruins and seeing the ancient theatre. If you feel exhausted walking through the ruins, you can swim in the historical pool which is filled with ancient columns and remnants.
Walking in the snow-white travertines in Pamukkale, swimming in the ancient Cleopatra pool, and visiting Hierapolis Ancient City are among the best things to do in Turkey in 2021.
Mardin offers a great cultural experience to its visitors. Mardin was under the influence of Babylon, Assyria, Persia as well as Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Mardin’s colorful mosaic culture stems from its multicultural background.
The entire city is under the protection of the Turkish state and it will be in UNESCO World Heritage list in the near future. As the city is home to different ethnicities, religions and cultures, it’s one of the best historical places to visit in Turkey.
Strolling through the oldish streets of Mardin, you would feel yourself as if you were in Toledo or any other well-preserved Medieval cities. However, what Mardin has to offer is much more than that. Century-old monasteries, synagogues and mosques are next to each other in Mardin.
Antakya is a very strategically located city. It’s in the center of Mesopotamia, Mediterranean trade routes and Anatolia (Asia Minor). This unique position of the city makes it a bridge between different cultures.
Antakya has the most diverse and delicious cuisines in Turkey. Besides one of the largest ancient mosaic museum, Hatay Archaeology Museum, is also located in this city.
Antakya (aka Antioch) is one of the five episcopal centers of Christianity, along with Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Moreover, Saint Peter, built the Cave Church of Saint Peter (locally known as St. Pierre) in this city. Therefore, it’s on the pilgrimage road for the Christians.
However, the historical treasures of Antakya are not limited to these. There is also the Vespasianus Titus Tunnel, a 2000-year-old Roman engineering wonder, and the Monastery of St Simeon, dedicated to a famous column saint.
Antakya stands out among the historical places to visit in Turkey in 2021 with its architecture and local flavors. Antakya, along with Gaziantep and Adana, are among the cities of Turkey that are famous for their cuisine.
Bursa was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia. The most important feature of Bursa in history is that it witnessed the Ottoman’s transition from a chiefdom to a state.
Bursa is also the city where the Ottoman Empire created architecture in their own style rather than the Seljuk architecture from whom they inherited the Central Asian origins of Turks.
Ulu Cami (Holy Mosque) and Yesil Cami (Green Mosque) are the best examples of the early Ottoman architecture. Bursa was also the textile industry of the Ottoman Empire since it has high quality silk.
Bursa also stands out with its tourism industry. It’s one of the best places to go for a daily trip from Istanbul. People go there to see Bursa’s architecture, history as well as clothing shopping. Besides, Mount Uludag is one of the best areas to go skiing in Turkey.
Iznik (Nicaea) is a province in Bursa city. This small town is famous for Iznik Tiles. Ottomans decorated the most beautiful mosques, tombs and palaces of Istanbul with this high quality tiles. Surprisingly, Iznik housed the First Council of Nicaea, which was held by Emperor Contantine the Great. This first council laid the foundations of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Edirne was known as Adrianople during the Roman and Byzantine periods and was a very strategic city. After their first capital, Bursa, the Ottomans chose Edirne as their new capital. Because Edirne was in a perfect position to direct the Ottoman military expeditions to the Balkans. Nowadays Edirne is “The Gate of Turkey” that opens to Europe.
Contrary to popular belief, Blue Mosque is not the biggest mosque in Turkey. Selimiye Mosque, the largest historical mosque in Turkey, is located in Edirne. The second is the Suleymaniye Mosque, while the third is the Blue Mosque, which takes its name from the tiles inside.
Edirne is the perfect place for those who want to go on a day trip from Istanbul. For those who want to see the Selimiye Mosque, the masterpiece of Ottoman architecture, it is among the best historical places to visit in Turkey.
Safranbolu is the best place to see the local life in Turkey. The well-preserved Ottoman wooden houses make the city a place worth visiting. It gives you a feeling that you are in open-air museum. Also it is one of the best places for photography in Turkey.
Safranbolu offers a warm local atmosphere and delicious local food. These features of Safranbolu, make it one of the best destination for a day trip from Istanbul.
Map of Historical Places in Turkey
In this article, we have listed the best historical places to visit in Turkey for history lovers. On the map above, you can see Anatolia, a peninsula surrounded by the Black Sea, Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean.
Being a bridge between Europe and Asia, Anatolia was the crossroads of traditional silk and spice routes. For this reason, it has become a place where hundreds of civilizations have lived in history.
The number of places to visit in Turkey is too much to fit into this article. For this reason, I chose my favorites among them. You can find more places on Map of Historical Places in Turkey above. For additional information, I recommend the post titled Best Holiday Destinations in Turkey.
Historical Places to Visit in Turkey by Serhat Engul