Not the capital of Turkey (that's Ankara) but certainly the cultural hub and most well-known city in Turkey. Istanbul was the perfect transition between Europe and Asia as it really is a mix of east and west culture and development (and is literally split between the two continents). It has the western and modern feel to it with its major pedestrian shopping streets lined with chain stores, fancy hotels and numerous bars promoting alcohol. In other respects, it feels very much like a massive, crowded developing nation with muslim and eastern influence. A good example in my mind is the Blue Mosque, a beautiful, large mosque from the 17th century (middle eastern influence) that has a multicolored, dancing fountain in the courtyard in front of it that looks straight out of Vegas (western).
Istanbul is MASSIVE. There are 14 million people in Istanbul (NYC has 8.5 million). A view from above in one of the many rooftop cafes is a must so you can really see how large the city is and how beautiful it is set on the water. The city is packed with mosques, thousands of them. But interestingly, in its modern/secular Turkish way, the city goes on functioning like normal as if nothing is happening during calls to prayer. There are a ton of interesting historical sites in Istanbul, and along with those came some of the longest lines we have seen. To name a few, there is the previously mentioned, there is the Blue Mosque (my favorite), the Hagia Sophia (originally a church from the 6th century, then converted into a mosque, and now a museum), the Basillica Cistern (a massive marble columned underground water storage room from roman times) and the Topkapi Palace (home to Turkey's past Sultans which was equipped with massively decorated rooms, was protected by African eunuch guards and hundreds of concubines serving at the pleasure of the Sultan, i.e. a place straight out of a Game of Thrones plot). You may have recently heard about these sites as the Pope was just visiting them during his trip to Turkey. On the negative side of Istanbul, it did have some of the most homeless mother's with children, beggar kids and stray cats we have seen on our travels so far. It certainly is a big city struggling to keep up with its general economic growth.
Ephesus is one of the best preserved Roman cities on remaining in the modern worlds. It ranks right up there behind Pompeii and Rome as the best Roman sight I have been to. It was surprising to me to find such an established Roman city in Turkey, but I forgot how far the Roman empire spread (Istanbul was the capital of the eastern part of the late Roman empire, then known as Constantinople). Ephesus take about a day to walk through and you see the remains of old houses, shops and meeting places. The best preserved, and most impressive, sites are the very large amphitheater and the facade of the old library, which are extremely well preserved. While it is definitely a city of ruins today, you still get a feel for how expansive and impressive Roman culture and technology was. It is also said that the virgin Mary actually fled to Ephesus and you can view her old home here.
Pamukkale is a unique natural phenomenon unlike anywhere I have seen in the world. Water from a number of hot springs flows down the mountains. It is rich in calcium carbonate and is deposited onto the rocks, eventually hardening into travertine. What results are white-coded mountains that look like snow covered glaciers, but are no such thing. Your brain is tricked when you step barefoot onto the white rocks (as required) and it is not freezing cold. There are also little pools filled with the mineral rich white water. You can also swim in one of the hot springs, as people have been doing for thousands of years...the main one used to be the favorite hang out of Cleopatra.
Fethiye and Kas were the beautiful beach portions of our trip. Fethiye, though beautiful, was a little bit of a cheesy beach town, reminiscent of Panama City or the like. We were randomly there during the Turkish air show though and got to see some cool acrobatics of the Turkish military fighter planes.
Kas was even prettier and reminiscent of some of our favorite places in Croatia. The coastline was spectacular with views of the islands and mountains in the distance. Because of a mutual Facebook friend we were able to hook up with new traveler friends, also traveling for a year! They were dog sitting (for 7 dogs!) at a beautiful house with a large balcony and pool overlooking the ocean. They invited us to stay at the house and we had an amazing time enjoying the view and swapping travel tales. Definitely check out their blog for their great travel stories http://www.detourswelcome.com. Thanks so much Ana and Nic!
Check back soon for a write up of the city in Turkey with the most unique landscape, Cappadocia (plus some posts about Turkish Food and a weird Turkish cultural experience!