Over the centuries, empires like the Ottomans, Persians, Byzantine and Hittites, have all left their influence on modern day Turkish arts and culture. A visit to the enchanting country's popular and historical sites - Basilica Cisterns, Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar, and Ephesus, to name a few - is well worth the trip. But don’t miss these five unique places where you're sure to learn even more about Turkey's unique arts and culture.
Admire Turkish carpets
Start with a visit to one of the many carpet shops in Istanbul. Now, you might be thinking what can a carpet shop teach me about Turkish arts and culture? Carpets have been woven here for centuries, when traditional nomadic tribes made them for decoration and warmth. Anatolian women still use them to tell a story using traditional dyes, patterns and motifs.
A knowledgeable carpet seller, like Metin Ulakci, the fifth generation owner of Punto of Istanbul located in the Vezirhan Caravanserai area (a centuries-old trading centre for traders on their way to the Silk Road) can take one look at a carpet and tell you where the carpet was likely made, the material, and translate the pattern for you. Even the carpet's fringe can tell a story; examine the knotting, which can indicate whether the carpet maker is married or has children.
Be prepared to spend an intriguing hour here drinking Turkish tea while Mr. Ulakci translates carpet-after-carpet. You can also watch a weaver deftly tie knots on a display loom showing the painstaking work that goes into each carpet.
Visit the Museum of Innocence
Kate RobertsonIn the Cukurcuma neighbourhood of Istanbul, known for its antique shops, visit the Museum of Innocence. Named after the novel published in 2008 by renowned Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, this collection follows a love story gone awry. It teaches us about the clash of east and west and everyday life and culture in Istanbul during the mid-1900’s to 2000 through memories and flashbacks, as its main character, Kemal, collects objects to remind him of the relationship.
This four-story house has 83 display cases (one for each chapter of the book), displaying more than 1,000 objects related to the story. Be prepared for the epitome of quirk, like the first display case where you will see 4,213 cigarette butts smoked by Fusan (Kemel’s love), mounted behind plexiglass. Free entrance if you bring a copy of the book.
Step back in time at Pera Palace
Pera Palace Hotel
Opened in 1892 and the oldest European-style hotel in Turkey, the Pera Palace was built to host passengers of the iconic Orient Express. Supposedly this is where Agatha Christie wrote part of her Orient Express novel.
This luxury hotel has an impressive guest book of famous guests like Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway, and Ataturk, the revered first president of Turkey who brought the country into modernity. The room Ataturk occupied is now a dedicated museum filled with his artifacts.
Although the hotel has been renovated, it has maintained the historical décor and features accents like the original cast-iron elevator and a sedan chair which was used to carry passengers from the Orient Express at the Sirkeci train station to the hotel.
Overlooking the Golden Horn and historical Old Istanbul, Pera Palace is the perfect place to indulge in a nostalgic theme suite (like the Greta Garbo room) or take afternoon tea. Honestly, it feels like you could bump into Hercule Poirot at any moment.
The Pottery of Avanos
Visit a pottery studio like Chez Galip at Avanos in the central Anatolia region, where Galip Korukcu teaches his craft to young apprentices. There is evidence of ceramics being made here from the red mud of the nearby Red River since 3,000 BC. Up until about the 1980’s, the craft was only taught by father to son and traditions were closely followed. One such example: when an apprentice could make a lid to fit a bowl, he was ready to marry.
Watch pottery being thrown on a traditional foot-operated pottery wheel and learn about various traditional designs. They range from the Hittite design which depicts animals of daily life, to the floral design common during the Ottoman period where each flower had a special meaning (tulip for Allah, rose for love, and pomegranate for fertility), up to contemporary pieces.
Argos in Cappadocia
The Cappadocia region is a historical area with a mix of farming steppes, magical rock formations and “fairy chimneys”, resulting from erosion over the centuries of soft lava (tuff) from millions of years old volcanic activities. Civilization here dates back as far as the Hittite Empire in 1600 BC or so, and there is evidence of 36 underground cities, sculpted into the tuff.
At Argos, the entire hotel is built around the ruins and cobblestone streets of an ancient monastery and underground city connected by tunnels built 2,000 years ago in Uchisar. Some of the tunnels and caves have been converted into a medieval wine cellar (the largest in Turkey) and private dining rooms.
Make this your base to visit the local historical sites like Goreme outdoor national park and Kaymakli underground city. Take a hot air balloon ride over the surreal landscape, then return to explore your very own cave hotel and enjoy that sumptuous wine list. The experience is like no other.
When You Go
Getting to Turkey from Canada: Turkish Airlines offers direct flights to Istanbul from Toronto and Montreal, and offers affordable flights from Istanbul to Kayseri in Cappadocia.
Visas: Canadians travelling to Turkey for tourism are encouraged to purchase an electronic visa prior to entering the country. Canadians can also obtain a visa on arrival.
Official tourism resource: Go Turkey Tourism