Are you sitting comfortably? Because we are going on an armchair tour of unexplored places in Turkey. We asked customers and our staff for underrated destinations they have visited and that they think deserve more recognition. What we learned when asking, is “unexplored” means something different for everyone.
For example, English tourists rarely visit beautiful Amasya on the Yesilirmak River, yet Chinese tourists often sign up for coach tours to go there. Likewise, independent backpackers often put the small rustic, treehouse village of Olympos on their bucket list, yet families rarely visit. In addition, some places receive a steady trickle of Turkish tourists, yet most foreigners have never heard of them.
Turkey has done such an excellent job of diversifying its tourism trade and is now the world’s 6th most visited destination. As independent travel continues to dominate worldly travel trends, it is hard to define what unexplored means. So for this article, we’ve ignored places that rank with visitor’s numbers like Ephesus, Pamukkale, and Antalya city centre. We still look at the famous, lunar rocky region of Cappadocia, but will not mention the much-visited Goreme Open-Air Museum or recommend a hot-air balloon trip, since they sit on a list of popular things to do in Turkey.
Much of Turkey’s tourism industry revolves around Istanbul, the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, so most unexplored places sit in other regions than these. Do not be surprised though because Turkey is the world’s 37th largest country and covers masses of lands. So, let's delve in, with our personal favourites sitting in Turkey’s northeast region.
9 Unexplored Places in Turkey
The Northeast: Mainstream, western holiday companies rarely feature the northeast because it has no beaches. What it has though is the beautiful Kackar mountain range, many small traditional villages, and a completely different lifestyle. Boasting of many places of natural beauty, anyone who wants to see a different side of Turkey, away from the coastal beach resorts will enjoy it. (Also read – Excellent Reasons to Visit the Black sea.)
1: Kars and Ani City
Our planned visit to Kars was to see Ani, otherwise known as the city of one thousand churches. Ani ancient city, sitting 60 minutes’ drive away is hard to get to, because of a lack of public transport but since we had the car, we enjoyed a pleasant ride out. Spread out over a considerable distance; the ancient city was the Bagratid Armenian Dynasty’s capital. Remains of ancient churches scattered around portray stunning architecture, like seen in the massive cathedral that defies belief.
After wandering into the small village sitting close by and talking with locals, we headed back to Kars, to explore the old city part. Russians once ruled Kars, and the tell-tale signs of their presence are seen in buildings and monuments of the old quarter. To get an even better view though, head to Kars Castle. Many people while in Kars, also make the hours drive to Lake Cildir, that in winter, turns into a fairy-tale wonderland.
2: Green Camlihemsin: At One with Nature
If the great outdoors is what you want, get yourself to Camlihemsin, one of Turkey’s prettiest places. Sitting within the Firtina Valley region, it is an access point to the Kackar mountains, and Ayder plateau, that is famed for old wooden houses. The scenery isn’t the only spectacular thing about Camlihemsin either.
This is a chance to learn about Turkey’s unique Hemsin and Laz cultures. Known as being expert pastry makers, other unique aspects of their culture include the Tulum bagpipe, and plateau migration, where they retreat further up the Kackar mountains during the hot summer months. Other things to enjoy include ancient Ottoman stone bridges and taste the delicious Muhlama which is a cheese type fondue.
3: The Unexplored Savsat National Park
Once you arrive in Savsat national park, you would be forgiven for asking whether you are still in Turkey. The mountain village resembles a French alp destination that is green during autumn and summer and then prepares for a blanket of snow in winter. You will need your car or sign up for a guided region tour and expect the basic of amenities.
Five stars all-inclusive, spa hotels don’t exist in this region because the national protected status preserves its true beauty. People still adhere to a lifestyle of living off the land like bee-keeping and animal herding. Savsat sits near the Karagol Milli Park, and Artvin Province, both of which are growing in popularity on Turkey’s domestic tourism scene, and people coming from Georgia.
The Southeast: A lack of beaches and misunderstood culture keeps foreign mainstream holiday companies away from the southeast, yet Turkish newspapers report a surge in domestic tourism, as Turks arrive to discover a different heritage to what they know. Three places stand out as exciting places to explore.
4: Welcome to Historical Mardin
Forget about New Mardin, and instead, head to the old part covering a large hillside on the edge of the Mesopotamian plains. What makes old Mardin stand out, is the stone architecture of houses, old mosques, monasteries, pigeons that do backflips and unique cuisine. Dibek coffee, a robust and earthy beverage is a regional delight, as is stuffed lamb ribs. To get off the beaten track, hire a car to explore surrounding attractions like the ruins of Dara, Deyrulzafaran monastery, and old Midyat, which has a marvellous culture house depicting the lifestyle and culture for residents.
5: Places to Explore in Gaziantep
Mention Gaziantep to any Turk, and they will say the first thing to do is taste baklava, which is Turkey’s best. Yet the city is about much more. The castle and its marvellous view tell the story of when Gaziantep during Turkey’s War of Independence. Coffee houses make a roaring trade but forget about Starbucks because we are talking about traditional beverages. The Mevlevi museum is an old whirling dervish lodge while the culinary museum does a beautiful job of explaining regional dishes and drinks. Gaziantep is also known for its copper work, and a great place to see artisans in action is the old copper bazaar.
6: Conservative Sanliurfa
Don’t expect a lively nightlife scene in Sanliurfa because the city is more connected with religion than anything else. Most people go to see Balikligol, where Nimrud threw Abraham into the fire. Sitting nearby is the Mevlid Halil mosque and the cave where Muslims believe Abraham was born. It is essential to distinguish between new Sanliurfa and the old part because the latter holds the major attractions including the castle with a spectacular view over the city. Harran beehive houses are about an hour drive from Sanliurfa, but another reason people go there is to visit Gobeklitepe, the world’s oldest temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cappadocia – Central Anatolian Region
You might be surprised to see the Cappadocia region on this list, considering it is one of Turkey’s most popular travel destinations. Yet there are off the beaten track places within Cappadocia. They sit quite a distance from the main centre; hence you will want to hire a car or jump onto a guided tour. Most are within the Nevsehir Province that despite being close to Cappadocia’s central travel hub remains off the tourist grid.
7: Haci Bektas Veli Complex
Sitting one hours drive away from Goreme, the Haci Bektas Veli complex gives a great insight into Turkey’s Alevi community. This 13th century, cultural monument holds the mausoleum of Haji Bektas Veli, an esteemed preacher of Islam’s Alevi sect. While, there, tour the museum, to learn about Alevis in Turkey and visit during August for a front-row seat to their annual festival. Such is its importance, Haci Bektas centre waits on the UNESCO World Heritage sites tentative list.
8: Acik Saray: The Open Palace
Little is known about this deserted cave village shrouded in mystery about who lived there and why was it built. Nicknamed the open palace by locals, expect weird rock formations shaped like mushrooms and elaborate facades that enter to many rooms, of which some were old churches. Documentation suggests it dates from the 10th or 11th centuries, so one can only guess at the many untold secrets it holds, yet one thing is sure. Its off the beaten track location in Gulsehir means tourists rarely venture there; hence there aren’t long lines at the ticket desk.
9: Eski Gumuslar Monastery
Sitting in Nigde Province, Eski Gumuslar monastery is out of the way, yet worth making the detour. Carved out of a large rock, the churches, and frescos within it, date from between the 7th to 11th centuries. Albeit renovation attempts of some frescoes leave little to be desired, it was only discovered in the 60s, and exploring the maze of corridors and rooms evoke an out of this world experience.
Explore the Mediterranean
This stretch of coastline covering Turkey’s south includes some popular places not only for tourism but also for ex-pats who have upped sticks and moved to the country. So, how do you discover unexplored places? Well, we find this is best done on a gulet cruising trip from Fethiye to Antalya. As well as dropping by famous spots like Kas and Kalkan, boats visit many small islands and coves including Gemiler, that without the boats wouldn’t receive any visitors at all.
Further down the coastline, is Pirates Cove, in Gokkaya Bay, where the only way of reaching Smugglers Inn, the local bar is by water taxi. To keep your feet on land, Adrasan is another place to consider. Most Antalya locals already know of it, yet travel guides rarely mention it, so enjoy a quiet beachside lifestyle. Likewise, head to the Fethiye region. Faralya, is well known by locals and on Turkey’s yoga scene of Turkey, yet remains unexplored by mainstream tourism. (More about Mediterranean Turkey.)
The Northern Aegean
Like the Mediterranean, the Aegean is awash with tourism and includes Izmir, which is Turkey’s third-largest city and attracts much attention. However, to reach places unheard of in mainstream tourism, consider touring the northern Aegean. Stretching from the Dardanelles down to Izmir on Turkey’s western coast, sailing yachts often hop between this part of Turkey and surrounding Greek islands.
Bozcaada, Ayvalik and Assos rarely receive foreign visitors, yet are Turks time-honoured favourite holiday destinations. That brings our list to an end but there are many more unexplored places in Turkey, such as Beypazari and its old Ottoman houses, and the underrated Hattusa ancient city in Corum. To find out more about travelling and living here, see our Turkey blog archives full of useful information about places, the food, culture and day-to-day life.
Also of Interest
Nine Cities to Visit in Turkey: You can choose any theme for your travels in Turkey, and if you love cities and urban landscapes, this article will be of use. Discussing well known Turkish cities and what to see while there, we look at places like Bursa, Trabzon and Amasya.
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