Places to stay in Turkey
We ended up spending about five weeks in Turkey, and we wish it had been a lot longer. The thing about Turkey is that it’s big. Really big. This means that the various regions can be really quite different, with their own distinct characters, geographies and of course cuisines – and that meant that we had to try and get to as many different corners as we could.
As the distances are so large, this meant staying in a lot of different places, but quite often not for very long. Some of them were pretty forgettable, but got us where we wanted to go the next day. But some of them have been wonderful – beautiful places run by interesting, hospitable and incredibly generous people. We wish we’d had more time, and we’ll definitely be coming back. So here’s our list of the places we’re most likely to come back to …
Here’s a quick list – click on the links to read more about each one (or just scroll down):
- İstanbul: the Ararat Hotel. Breakfast on the roof gazing at the Blue Mosque.
- Sapanca: Zeliş Çiftliği. Genuine hospitality – and food – to beat them all.
- Safranbolu: Paşa Konağı. Authentic Ottoman style in one of Turkey’s loveliest towns.
- Çamlıhemşin: Ekodanitap Lodge. Tea and eco-fun in the Kaçkar mountains.
- Mardin: Artuklu Kervansarayı. 13th-century splendour in the dusty south-east.
- Şanlıurfa: Gülizar Konukevi. Sleep on the floor in a traditional Turkish restaurant.
- Gaziantep: Anadolu Evleri. An oasis of calm and organisation in bustling Antep.
- Göreme: the Fairy Chimney Inn. Cave houses, a Turkish bath and an underground oven.
- Kaleköy (Kekova): Nesrin’s Bademli Ev. Watch the boats float past among the Lycian ruins.
- Şirince: Nisanyan Hotel. Gardens and village views in the hills.
- Çamlıbel (Edremit): Zeytinbağı. The best food – and herb garden – we came across.
İstanbul: the Ararat Hotel. Like most first-time visitors to İstanbul, we wanted to be close to the classic sights, sounds and smells: the great mosques, the Bosphorus, the palaces, the Golden Horn, the spice markets and (very important) the boats selling balık ekmek (“fish bread”). The Ararat is right in the middle of all of those, literally next door to the Blue Mosque – you will definitely hear the call to prayer. It has two lovely little roof terraces where you can eat your breakfast (see right), one facing the mosque and Aya Sofya, one looking towards the Sea of Marmara. The rooms aren’t big (this is İstanbul), but they’re reasonably priced (for İstanbul). And the staff were really helpful, from telling us how to get around town to telling us all their favourite places in Turkey – in particular, pointing us towards Mardin, Urfa and Kekova, of which more below …
Sapanca: Zeliş Çiftliği. We’ve already written about this in detail, so I won’t say much here. But if you’re interested in food and/or cooking (from jam to pastry to bread to olive oil, and from sausage-making to aubergine-stuffing to slow cooking in a home-built tandır oven) and you like to stay in beautiful peaceful surroundings, with friendly people who make you feel at home and go out of their way to help you, then I really can’t think of a better place to stay. We came back a second time towards the end of our Turkish trip, and loved it just as much.
Safranbolu: Paşa Konağı. I don’t know why there aren’t more tourists in Safranbolu. It’s a real gem of a town, full (at least in the Çarşı district) of wonderful preserved or renovated Ottoman houses, connected by winding bazaar streets full of food stalls, shoe-makers and coppersmiths. It’s the kind of place where you’ll get lost fairly quickly, but soon find yourself (as we did) being invited in for tea and dried mulberries by a dried-orchid-root salesman. Or being invited in to the town simit bakery (the ubiquitous Turkish twisted ring bagel) and being patiently shown exactly how to make them, despite really not being able to speak enough Turkish to make this easy (we started learning pretty quickly after that!). It’s also famous for its special saffron lokum (Turkish delight). Perhaps there are usually more tourists, and we were just lucky – after all, it was only April. But whatever the truth, I really would recommend coming here (and thanks to Tom to recommending it to us). And if you’re coming, you really should stay in an old Ottoman mansion, and the Paşa Konağı is a fantastic example – lovingly preserved, and full of beautiful carpets and authentic touches like the intricate wooden ceilings (see right) and toilets in cupboards. What’s more, the owner knows her food – she’s writing her own cookbook and even makes her own tarhana!
Çamlıhemşin: Ekodanitap Lodge. Çamlıhemşin is famous for being the rainiest place in Turkey – up here in the north-east corner, near the Georgian border, the huge Kaçkar mountains come straight out of the Black Sea: so it’s green, rugged and lush. People who come here generally come for the mountains – to go trekking. (We’re not that energetic, of course – we came here to eat fondue. Anyway, it was April and the mountains were covered in really deep snow). But despite being surrounded by nature at its rawest, there haven’t been any really environmentally sound places to stay until recently. No
w Mehmet and Kadar have opened one of the first eco-lodges in Turkey, and we can highly recommend it. They’ve built four very lovely little wooden cabins tucked away up in the foothills – in fact, you’ll have to walk to get there, but it’s worth it – surrounded by fruit trees, vegetables, and even their own tea plantation (we had the nicest tea in our whole Turkish trip here, and that’s coming up against a lot of competition). Mehmet’s a mountain guide and can lead treks and trips to your heart’s content (although we settled for a nice walk through the woods). They can also tell you all about the local Hemşin customs and (exictingly for us) food – they’re Hemşin themselves – to the extent of treating us to stories from Xenophon while cooking the eagerly awaited local cheese fondue. Best of all, while we were there, Mehmet put the finishing touches to his hand-built outdoor bread oven (the Hemşin people are famous for their baking skills). We’re looking forward to coming back and trying it out.
Mardin: Artuklu Kervansarayı. Everyone in Turkey can tell you how beautiful Mardin is. Not because they’ve actually been there, but because they’ve all seen it as the scenic background to a recent popular TV mini-series. Besides, it’s a long way away – over in the far south-east, only about 20 miles from the Syrian border. Not many Turks visit this part of the country, let alone foreigners. But they really should. For starters, it really is as beautiful as everyone tells you – it’s an ancient honey-coloured stone town perched on the edge of an escarpment, looking down over the Syrian plain. Sit under the minaret in the tea garden as the sun goes down, watch the lights come on across the plain, and you really get the sense that you’re on the edge of the Middle East. Wander around the stone streets and you’ll come across ancient Syriac Orthodox churches, still looking after some of the oldest Christian congregations in the world. Walk through the bazaar, admire the spices, and you’ll see how exciting the cuisine is here – try counting the different varieties of hot pepper, to start with. And then go back to your room in the 13th-century caravanserai, complete with massive stone fortified walls, iron-bound doors with keys as long as your forearm, fountains full of tortoises and a roof terrace overlooking everything. Seriously, do – nowhere else is quite like this.
Şanlıurfa: Gülizar Konukevi (or if that’s broken try here). If Mardin is the scenic centre of the south-east, Urfa is the religious centre. This is where Abraham had his set-to with Nimrod in the Talmud and the Qur’an. It’s a sizeable city, and it attracts a corresponding number of tourists, mostly from Turkey or the Middle East (from what we could tell, at least). And where there are tourists, there are venues for music, dancing, and – of course – eating. But this being Urfa, not for drinking. The Gülizar Konukevi is one of these places: it’s essentially a restaurant-cum-nightclub in the seriously traditional sense.
You can book your own private dining room, or you can sit on the cushions outside on the terrace (as we did). If this turns out to be a night when the band’s playing, then the terrace is definitely the place to be. If you’re English like us, you might start off feeling a bit embarrassed and self-concious as the guests start to join in the singing and the drummers start to mix with the audience – but when the dancing gets going, it’ll all be worth it. The food’s fantastic too, full of local specialities like the spicy raw meatballs çiğ köfte. Afterwards, you’ll realise that you’re essentially sleeping in a restaurant – the rooms are comfy, but there’s not much in the way of facilities, and you’ll have to use the single squat toilet downstairs. But what a restaurant.
Gaziantep: Anadolu Evleri. And now we come to the south-east’s culinary centre – Antep. It’s a Turkish truism that this is where the best baklava in the country is made – and, er, it’s true. It’s not for nothing that the Turkish name for the pistachio is the Antep fıstığı or “Antep nut” – nowhere else are they as green and tasty. (Believe me, we tested a lot). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – it’s a lively city full of great food. (OK, yes, other things than food too. But we had a job to do). So we had to come – and we had to meet people and get to grips with things quickly. So we couldn’t have chosen a better place to stay than the Anadolu Evleri. The place is gorgeous, classic old mansions arranged around a tree-lined courtyard, where we spent many happy hours sipping wine and watching the Turkish and Greek tourists come to pay homage to the balcony – another TV mini-series background. But the real draw is the owner Timur: within minutes of our arrival, he was on the phone to his contacts to arrange everything for us – within half an hour we were chatting to Filiz Hösükoğlu, an hour later sampling pistachio kebabs at Şirvan, and next morning learning how to make baklava with the Güllüoğlus. Throughout our stay he made arrangements, set up meetings, and generally made the whole stay enormously more productive and enjoyable than it could possibly have been without his help. Timur is your man.
Göreme: the Fairy Chimney Inn. Quite a lot of tourists come to Cappadocia. It’s not the mass hotel blocks of the Mediterranean coast, of course, but it’s definitely on the mainstream trail. So how to find your way past the tourist restaurants, and find out about the traditional food, the people who make it and the stories that go with it? Stay with a cook and an anthropologist, of course. Andus and Gülcan have taken a “fairy chimney” (one of the weird rock column formations that Cappadocia is famous for, and which host its traditional cave houses) and turned it into the Fairy Chimney Inn. (Yes, they do get quite a few gay visitors). It’s beautifully done – you wouldn’t believe how comfortable and homely a cave can be. And it’s perfectly situated, with unbeatable views over Göreme from the terrace. But again, what really made it for us was the people: through Andus and Gülcan (and Gülcan’s amazingly enthusiastic brother Unal) we learnt more about the food here, how it’s made, and how this affects society and holds it together than we could ever have hoped. (We also learnt how to cook over a genuine underground tandır, and learnt some very rude words – but that’s another story.) Having said that, Barnaby has asked us to point out that it’s not just about the people: it’s about the pekmez too. And the pekmez was excellent.
Kaleköy (Kekova): Nesrin’s Bademli Ev. Quite a lot of tourists come to the bay of Kekova, too, but hardly any of them actually stay here – or even get off their boat, in fact. People float past on day-trips to take photographs of the crusader castle, the Lycian tombs which dot the hills, and the underwater Greek city ruins. There’s no hotel in Kaleköy, though, just a couple of small guesthouses – in fact, there’s no road here, so although it’s actually attached to the mainland you’ll have to get a boat too. Once you’ve arrived you’ll feel as though you have the place to yourselves. We stayed in a lovely little stone cottage, with a balcony overlooking the harbour and the underwater tombs. Our host Tarık was very welcoming, helping us find the local wild samphire, telling us all about the local carob trees, and introducing us to his expert bread-baking and pekmez-making friend Hatice. It’s so peaceful here you could stay for months – the kind of place you’d come to write a book, perhaps. And again, Barnaby was very ha
ppy with the high quality of the local pekmez (made of carob this time).
Şirince: Nisanyan Hotel. We don’t have as much to say about Nisanyan because we only had time to stay one night (we had to be somewhere the next day). But it would clearly be a lovely place to stay for a while – Şirince is a pretty village somewhat in the mould of Safranbolu, and the guesthouse and garden are done beautifully. And we have to come back if only to use the incredible marble swimming pool, set up in the garden with a perfect view over the village.
Çamlıbel (near Edremit): Zeytinbağı. We came here because we’d heard that the owner Erhan was a good cook. This is an understatement. We had some excellent food all over Turkey, but Erhan’s cooking really is some of the best – it’s innovative and interesting while staying totally true to the region and the local traditions. It’s also very different to food we had in other parts of the country – here on the Aegean coast the ingredients and techniques have more things in common with Greek or Cretan cuisine, with fish, lemons, eggs and in particular, wild herbs all over the place. But the food itself is only part of the point – this is the closest thing we found to an Italian-style agriturismo in Turkey. Erhan and Nejla grow their own herbs and greens, keep their own chickens and ducks, and they’ve built the place (from the ground up) with this in mind. The cheese comes from their own goats (with which they are starting a local breeding programme to improve the local livestock quality), and Erhan even makes his own preserves and condiments (try some chilli jam or even some garum). They run cooking classes too (although it’s not just about food – they’ll also point you at the hiking in the very scenic hills, and tell you about local archaeology). By next year, they’ll be making their own olive oil, and they’ll have built their own brick oven. We’ll have to come back then …