From the port of Kuşadası, we wander the streets of ancient Ephesus, soak in a natural spa at Pamukkale, learn why the dervishes whirl at Konya, munch lunch in a Turkish pizzeria, and cruise the Mediterranean on a traditional Turkish gulet from Antalya. Turkey is a mighty nation whose ancient heritage, Muslim faith, and western ways are coming together…and we'll see how.
Ephesus — one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire — is among the world’s best ancient sites. Whether you’re strolling its broad boulevards, appreciating the pillared facade of the famous Library of Celsus, peeling back the layers of dust to understand the everyday lifestyles of the rich and Roman at the Terrace Houses, or testing the acoustics in the theater where the Apostle Paul once spoke, Ephesus is a perfect place to time-travel back to the grandeur of Rome.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Merhaba, I’m Rick Steves, back with more travels. This time we’re livin’ the good life: backgammon, a nice glass of rakı, and the sparkling Mediterranean. It’s the Best of Western Turkey. Thanks for joining us.
This time we’re spicing things up — venturing east of Europe for the more exotic charms of Turkey. I’ve been traveling here since my backpacker days and I’ve enjoyed seeing the country evolve. Today Turkey is a mighty nation whose ancient heritage, Muslim traditions, and Western ways are coming together beautifully.
As we explore western Turkey, we’ll see magnificent Roman ruins, relax in ancient pools, munch lunch in a Turkish pizzeria, learn why dervishes whirl as they pray, and enjoy a Mediterranean cruise on a traditional Turkish gulet — capped with a refreshing plunge.
In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey links Europe with the Middle East and Asia. Starting in the port of Kuşadası, we’ll explore ancient Ephesus. Then we’ll travel to Pamukkale, Aphrodisias, and Konya before finishing in Antalya.
Turkey is where East meets West. For centuries a cultural, economic, and religious crossroads, it’s long been a land of change. And Kuşadası? It’s a fine example of the latest change: modern prosperity.
The port of Kuşadası is a good low-stress place to start our Turkish adventure. As if to remind its residents of a humbler past, colorful fishing boats still bob in its harbor, cradled in the sweeping curve of a people-friendly promenade.
Kuşadası is booming today, in part because of its foresight in building a fine cruise port. Nearly every morning in season, ships carrying thousands of passengers slip artfully into harbor. As they disembark, cruisers enjoy an ambush of hospitality as traditional musicians celebrate their arrival.
I find Turkey every bit as friendly and rich in history as Greece. The food’s great and it’s a good value. While most visitors find it’s a safe and welcoming place, it still feels exotic.
In Turkey, some women may be more comfortable traveling with a partner. But with a spirit of adventure, and applying your common sense, I think anyone can find this country as friendly, comfortable, and intriguing as I do.
Kuşadası is popular with travelers because it’s just a few miles from the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. While tour buses and taxis can get you there in a snap, as anywhere in Turkey, I like the excitement of hopping a local mini-bus, or dolmus.
A dolmus is kind of a cross between a taxi and a bus. You hop on one heading in your general direction, tell them where you’re going, then relax; they’ll tell you when to jump out.
The ancient home of the Ephesians is one of the world’s greatest classical sites. The west coast of what we now call Turkey was once a cultural heartland of ancient Greece. Ephesus blossomed as a Greek city in about the fourth century B.C. It was later consumed by the expanding Roman Empire and eventually became a major Roman city. While the site is vast, only about 15% of this Greco-Roman metropolis has been excavated.
But as Rome fell, so did Ephesus. Once a thriving seaport, the city was sacked by Barbarians. Eventually its busy port silted up and it was abandoned. A thousand years of silt left it stranded three miles inland from the Aegean Coast.
The library — the third largest of the Roman Empire — is a highlight. The facade is striking. Statues of women celebrating the virtues of learning and wisdom inspired the citizenry.
The city’s main street is lined with buildings grand even in their ruined state. This one, known as Hadrian’s Temple, was built in the second century. Dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, its decorations are full of symbolism. To this day, archeologists debate just what it all means.
For extra guidance, we’re joined by my friend Lale Surmen Aran. For years, Lale has led our bus tour groups around Turkey and for this itinerary she’s joining us.
Rick: Huge city — quarter of a million people!
Lale: This was one of the biggest metropolises of the Roman period. Now, we’re in the downtown and the main street of the city, but the city expanded beyond this main street on both sides.
Rick: So, way up to the mountain, actually?
Lale: On both directions, way up to the mountains — and housed 250,000 people. All the city was planned. Right underneath us there was a huge sewer, and there were clay pipes at either side of the street taking fresh water to the baths and the fountains.
Rick: Ah, so they had aqueducts coming in and powering the whole city.
Lale: See, these were the public toilets attached to the Roman baths next door. Everybody sat next to one another.
Rick: So, public toilets were really public.
The terrace houses stretch up from the city’s main drag. These excavations are incredibly complex — like piecing together an enormous puzzle. The fragments are so delicate, the ongoing work is protected under a roof. The terrace houses give us a particularly intimate look at Ephesian life 2000 years ago.
Rick: Now, how many families would have lived in this zone right here?
Lale: Only five.
Rick: Just five!
Lale: Five families. And these were huge houses.
Rick: This must have been the elite of Ephesus.
Lale: Ultra, ultra rich. Not only for Ephesus, but among the richest of the world lived in these houses.
Rick: So, when you walk through here, can you imagine what it would be like to live at that time?
Lale: Sort of — it was very luxurious living in these houses. All houses were arranged around an atrium, so they had a courtyard with rooms all around, which were richly decorated with art on two or three floors.
A standard feature of any Roman city was its theater. To estimate an ancient city’s population, archaeologists multiply the capacity of its theater by ten. As this one holds 25,000, they figure the city’s population was a quarter million. It was here that the apostle Paul planned to give his talk, instructing the Ephesians to stop worshipping manmade gods. And here in Ephesus, that god was Artemis.
The local craftspeople produced statues of Artemis — like this. It was a big industry — they exported them far and wide. When they realized Paul’s message would ruin their businesses, they started a riot. Imagine this theater filled with thousands of people all shouting in one angry voice, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” For his own safety, Paul had to flee, and he ended up giving his message by letter. That’s why, in the Bible, we’ve got Paul’s “Letter to the Ephesians.”
Back in Kuşadası, the cruise ships have left and the town is once again relaxed. We’re capping our day with strolling locals on the harborfront. Like anywhere along the Mediterranean, the town promenade is the great equalizer — everyone is welcome to enjoy this convivial scene. And when the call to prayer rings out, I’m reminded that people of all faiths share the same joys.
One of the delights of traveling in Turkey is the cuisine. Seafood is the forte here on the coast and we’re joined by some local friends for a feast. Traditionally, meals start with a selection of meze — fun little plates that let you dip into a variety of taste treats.
Male friend: Let’s go for fava beans.
Rick: Alright! And then I’d like the eggplant over there.
Female friend: Yes! And the eggplant!
Rick: So I’d like: No, no; yes, yes, yes, yes.
When Turks are ready to party, the local firewater, rakı, is often part of the mix. It’s an anise-flavored drink — like ouzo — you mix to taste with water.
And it goes surprisingly well with the meze – octopus salad, fava beans pureed with olive oil, zucchini fritters, and grilled eggplant.
And for our main course, the kitchen’s preparing an array of fresh seafood. We’ve chosen sea bass, encased in salt as is the tradition to keep in all the flavor.
Rick: Oh, that was very nice!
At the table, our fish is cracked open and filleted with pride.
Rick: Mmm! The flavor with the olive oil, and the salt that keeps the flavor in…
Female friend: Ah, this is excellent.
Male friend: We have a saying in the Aegean region: If you drink rakı, and eat fish, the fish in your tummy reincarnates and swims again.
Rick: It swims again!
Kuşadası is a practical springboard for exploring western Turkey. We’re driving up the Meander Valley — famous for its fertile farmland. We’re here in April and the farmers are busy with their crops before the stifling heat of summer hits. And the strawberries are ripe for picking.
Today’s Turkish culture is shaped by a complicated history. Ancient Greece, and then Rome from the west, swept in and established a culture that led to the Byzantine Empire. Eventually, Muslim Selçuks from the east ended Christian Byzantine rule. Then the Ottomans stormed in and ruled until World War I, when the father of modern Turkey, Atatürk, established the Turkish Republic. While the Republic is secular, the vast majority of Turks are Muslim.
Turkey is filled with over 75 million people. They come in many ethnicities and after thousands of years of exposure as a crossroads between Asia and Europe, it’s quite a mix. Faces tell the story.
The landscapes of this vast country are as diverse as the people it supports. Distances are long, traffic is sparse, and the roads are great.
In what seems like the middle of nowhere, we come to a striking white hillside. This marks the ancient city, spa, and necropolis of Hierapolis. In Roman times, the rich and frail came here to spend their last years and to die. We approach today as visitors always have: Walking through the evocative tombs, then passing under an imposing Roman gate where a grand boulevard leads you to the mineral springs — famous since ancient times for its curative waters and tranquility.
Today the ever-popular springs, in the shadow of ancient ruins, fill a pool littered with a dreamy assortment of ancient Roman columns that sparkle beneath the crystal clear water. A soak here is like bathing in hot champagne.
Below, the wondrous white cliffs of Pamukkale create a scenic backdrop for bathers. The water flowing over the rocks leaves a calcium residue that whitens and solidifies, creating a wonderland of pools and terraces that along with the commanding view make an unforgettable setting.
Turkey fills the Anatolian peninsula, and Anatolia is peppered with remnants of civilizations long gone. And around here, important sights are constantly being unearthed.
Aphrodisias is a relatively recent excavation. The more they dig the more many archaeologists believe that Anatolia, rather than Mesopotamia — farther to the east, is the cradle of our civilization.
While this site goes back much farther, what we see today, is ancient Roman, only about 2,000 years old. This ornate gateway gives us a sense of the impressive city’s former grandeur.
And judging from its stadium, this town was really into sports. This is a proper stadium: one “stadion” long — that’s about two football fields. Events like athletic contests, animal fights, and gladiator sports packed the house.
On the road to Konya, we drive deep into the Taurus Mountains. Get off the main road. Any little town will have the local equivalent of a pizza joint. It’s dinnertime, and that’s our plan.
When you drop into a place that rarely sees a tourist, you’re likely to enjoy a particularly warm welcome.
A Turkish pizza is called pide and that’s what’s cooking.
Lale: [Asks what their pide options are in Turkish]
Cook: [Lists possible toppings in Turkish]
Lale: Diced meat, minced meat, cheese, and eggs.
Lale: He can either make plain ones or a combination of these ingredients.
Rick: OK, let’s get a variety.
Lale: OK. [Turkish]
Rick: So, this is the mixed one with the cheese?
Lale: Yes, and this is with the diced meat. The beef.
Rick: And, um…oh! We have more even.
Lale: Oh, teşekkür ederim. Ah, ayran!
Rick: Ayran! Teşekkür, Lale.
Ayran — I love this stuff. It’s a yogurt drink — it’s healthy, it’s cheap, it’s a fun part of the pide culture.
This is Konya, one of the most conservative and religious towns in western Turkey. For many Turks, this town’s a bit too orthodox, but I’m looking for all sides of Turkey, and Konya is a fascinating stop. This city of a million people is one of the oldest in the world, with known settlements dating back 8,000 years.
The city has an illustrious history. Back in the first century, when Konya was called “Iconium,” the apostle Paul visited several times. And during its heyday in the 13th century, Konya was the capital of the Muslim Selçuk Empire.
Strolling the streets, you experience the contrasts of the old and the new. It’s a university town with a fine park — ideal for young couples enjoying a little private time.
And wandering into its back streets, much of the traditional side of Turkey survives, and the orthodoxy of Konya becomes more apparent. For instance, nearly all women wear scarves. The huge produce hall is busy with people picking up locally grown fruits and vegetables.
In the hubbub of the crowded streets, browsing can be endlessly entertaining. Boys with trays of tea, or çay, scurry from shop to shop. Travelers have a richer experience when they make a point to connect. Drink some tea.
The barbershop is still a great way to catch up on all the gossip. The finale: spanking with a flame…leaving you smooth as you’ve ever been.
And poking into unusual shops, you’ll be surprised at what you may learn. Turns out, this place is a one-stop shop for shepherds.
Rick: So, I’m a shepherd, sitting here in the elements.
Rick: Ah, this is my backpack. I have to have a flute. Perfect. Do you take credit cards?
Rick: OK! It’s a good deal.
Konya is the home of Mevlana, also known as Rumi, a 13th-century Muslim philosopher who preached a message of love. His tomb is the focus of many pilgrims visiting from throughout Islam.
Under beautiful domes, the tombs of Mevlana, his family, and earliest followers are venerated. Pondering the tomb of their great teacher, pilgrims remember his message which focused on connecting the powerful love of God with us on Earth. Mevlana said, “I looked for God in all the temples, mosques, and churches, and found him in my heart.”
The adjacent museum explains Mevlana’s teaching with a display of significant writings, books of poetry, and historic copies of the Koran.
Mevlana attempted to distill the message of the Koran into a pure and simple anthem of love. His teaching was a mystical interpretation of mainstream Islam, and his followers, called dervishes, have dedicated their lives to living out that Mevlana, or Rumi, philosophy.
Mevlana’s dervishes whirl themselves into a meditative trance. While raising one hand toward heaven, the other toward earth, they symbolically plant one foot upon the Koran, the Muslim word of God, while the other walks through all the world. One hand rises up, as if to accept the love of God. The other goes palm down, showering the love of our creator on all of humanity. As he whirls, the dervish transcends our material world…becoming a conduit between the love of God and his creation.
Wherever you travel in Turkey, you’ll find opportunities to witness this mesmerizing form of prayer. It’s a good example of the many facets of Islam, a powerful religion that perhaps we can take the initiative to better understand.
A scenic drive south from Konya takes us over more of the Taurus Mountains toward the Mediterranean Coast. And sprawling out from those mountains spreads the metropolis of Antalya.
Antalya, with two million people, has long been an important port. Its idyllic harbor was founded in ancient Roman times. These days, it deals mostly in good living, as tourism is the town’s main industry. A once-imposing wall fortifies the old town. Today, a gate dedicated to the emperor Hadrian still leads into a delightful collection of Ottoman-era houses that cater to the tourists — shops and boutique hotels that fill the historic center.
And above it all is a thriving modern Turkish city. Its people-friendly promenade, like so many public spaces here, comes complete with the requisite statue of the father of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk. Strolling here, it feels to me like anywhere else in Mediterranean Europe. The people just seem to be in love with life.
A popular excursion from Antalya is a cruise on a gulet — the traditional Turkish sailboat. These boats, which are designed to suit all tastes, keep the harbor busy.
After so much sightseeing, simply luxuriating for a day at sea puts me truly on vacation. Meeting the captain and crew, I know I’m in for a wonderful and relaxing experience.
Sailing away, we marvel at the dramatic shoreline under snow-capped peaks. Resorts, park-like beaches, and ancient ruins clinging to cliffs are all tucked into this rugged-yet accessible Riviera playground. While the rowdier party boats take one side of the bay, we drop the hook in a more peaceful corner.
Even in April, the water’s inviting and our boat serves as a handy swimming platform. While the crew’s busy putting together an impressive feast for lunch, we enjoy an invigorating swim.
Having worked up an appetite, we’re served a feast. Enjoying our meal at sea provides a great chance to both eat some fresh fish and get to know the crew.
Well-fed, refreshed from our swim, and peacefully anchored in this scenic corner of Turkey, we take a moment to appreciate what traveling here offers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our journey through western Turkey — with its evocative ancient sites, beautiful ways of worship, and vivid traditions. In this complicated corner of our world, Turkey’s an impressive success story. Join us next time for more adventures. Until then, I’m Rick Steves. Keep on travelin’. Güle güle!
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, ready to kick off a new career as a Turkish shepherd.
…have dedicated their lives to living out that Mevlana, or Rumi, philosophy [passerby walks into frame].
Like my teeth?