Turkey is a unique country that extends on two continents – Europe and Asia – a unique position, which gave birth to a culture that reflects both West and East. It is a friendly country that offers all modern facilities, yet traditional enough to be fascinating. Its history begins 25,000 years ago, while the Hittites, Phrygians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines,Crusaders, Mongols and Ottomans have left inestimable works of art and cultural heritage on the the land of today’s Turkey, a country that is among the top 10 tourist destinations in the world, annually receiving more than 23 million visitors.
It has one of the world’s oldest and biggest malls.
Istanbul‘s Grand Bazaar, or Kapalı Çarşı, dates to 1455 and was established shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Over the centuries it has grown into a warren of 61 streets lined by more than 3,000 shops and currently occupies a nearly incomprehensible 333,000 square feet. You’ll never possibly be able to explore it all, but that doesn’t keep people from trying — according to Travel + Leisure, the Grand Bazaar was the world’s #1 attraction in 2014, drawing over 91 million people.
You might find chicken in your dessert.
The signature Ottoman treat is tavuk göğsü, or chicken breast pudding. It’s a strange blend of boiled chicken, milk, and sugar, dusted with cinnamon. And it’s delicious. Look for it on menus across the country.
More than 130 peaks reach over 9,800 feet (3,000 meters).
Don’t let the balmy coastal climate fool you. Turkey is home to spectacular mountain ranges, and wintertime visitors can hit the slopes at nearly a dozen resorts. Palandöken, in the eastern province of Erzurum, is Turkey’s highest at 10,200 feet (3,125 meters) and claims Europe’s longest natural ski run.
Istanbul has one of Europe’s most exciting art scenes.
The edgy Istanbul Biennial, now in its 14th edition, is a must-see for the international art crowd, and with more than 300,000 visitors in 2013, it ranks among the top contemporary art shows in the world. In 2015 the show will occupy 30 venues on both sides of the Bosphorus.
Turkey gifted tulips to the world (you’re welcome, Netherlands).
It’s uncertain where the first tulips were grown, but what is known is that the Ottomans popularized the flower and facilitated their introduction to Europe. A simultaneous export? Tulipmania. The seeds of the world’s first speculative bubble were sown when a Flemish ambassador to the 16th-century court of Süleyman the Magnificent brought back the bulbous flowers to Holland. Other commodities for which Europe owes a debt of gratitude to Turkey are coffee and cherries.
You can cross continents underground.
Istanbul may be Europe’s largest city, but half of it actually extends into Asia. More than a century after a sultan dreamed of a rail link beneath the Bosphorus Strait, Turkey opened the Marmaray metro line in 2013. The former imperial city is also home to the Tünel, a short funicular that’s the second-oldest continuously running underground railway after London’s.
The seeds of agriculture were first sown in Turkey.
Historians believe agriculture began in these lands some 11,000 years ago. At sites like Çatalhöyük, in south-central Turkey, there’s evidence that the residents of this proto-city added crops like wheat and barley to their diet, and wild grasses genetically identical to those first domesticated grains still grow in southeastern Turkey. Even today, the country is the world’s 10th-biggest-grain producer.
People were building temples here back in the hunter-gatherer era.
Prior to the mid-1990s, it was assumed that large-scale human constructions weren’t undertaken until early peoples mastered agriculture and established permanent settlements. But then the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe was discovered in southern Turkey, with evidence of monumental construction taking place at least 2,000 years before the accepted timeframe of the agricultural revolution. The building at Göbekli Tepe also predated the inventions of pottery, written language, and the wheel.
It’s home to some of the most important sites in Christendom.
Turkey’s population may be 99% Muslim, but these lands draw tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims each year. The Ecumenical Patriarch, spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox, lives in Istanbul, a vestige of the Byzantine Empire. The grotto dug by the Apostle Peter in Antioch was the first Christian house of worship, while a 1st-century patriarchal church is said to have been located underground in today’s unprepossessing Istanbul district of Fındıklı. Istanbul is also home to the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia cathedral, now a museum. And the Armenian Apostolic Church was founded 1,700 years ago in what’s today the city of Kayseri.
A new type of plant is discovered every 10 days.
And Turkey’s 10,000 plant and 80,000 animal species help rank the country among the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. Twitchers can visit more than a half-dozen bird sanctuaries for sightings of some of the country’s 475 saves, or 5% of the global variety. It’s a great place for flower lovers, too — see highlights like the native Fritillaria imperialis, above.
Santa Claus is from Turkey.
Saint Nicholas was born far from the North Pole, in Patara. And he’s not the only saint with connections to Turkey — the Virgin Mary’s resting place could be near Ephesus, while Saint Paul was from Tarsus in the south. Other Biblical figures include the Prophet Abraham, born in Şanlıurfa. And after the deluge, Noah may have run his ark aground at Mount Ararat.
Turkey really is the centre of the world.
You can fly to just about everywhere from Istanbul Atatürk Airport, thanks to flag carrier Turkish Airlines’ 260-and-counting destinations. A modern fleet of aircraft served by kid-friendly crew has helped the fast-growing airline win Best Airline in Europe for four years running.