The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Turkey: Earl Starkey of Sophisticated-Travel.
Turkey has been Earl’s second home since he first ventured to Cappadocia 20 years ago. He opened Sophisticated-Travel in 2002 to offer travelers tailor-made luxury itineraries with a wider array of cultural and culinary experiences than were typically available at the time. He now lives half the year in Istanbul but is constantly crisscrossing the country to stay abreast of the latest hotel, restaurant, and gallery openings and to collect even more uniquely Turkish experiences that other travel firms don’t offer—say, a private cooking lesson in the home of a noted chef or access to a normally off-limits ancient ruin. Earl knows that a guide can make or break a trip, and he is known for handpicking only the savviest, all of them highly educated, personable, and accomplished in their own right. Earl was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Kayakapi is my new favorite. It’s a refurbished series of cave houses and mansions set in Urgup, and part of a national park that is a UNESCO World Heritage site and includes a historic church and mosque. The views of the valley are beautiful and the rooms are so huge that some of the suites have their own pool. You can actually rent a whole six-bedroom mansion if you are traveling with extended family or group of friends.
Restaurants the locals love
Ziggy Cafe in Urgup is a landmark that serves the best food in Cappadocia on a beautiful terrace overlooking Urgup and the surrounding valleys. The owner is an artist from Istanbul who brings a real spirit of sophistication and refinement to this otherwise rustic region; her artwork is on display and available for purchase. I recommend the set menu, which will give you a taste of everything, including the scrumptious pastirma, which is similar to pastrami, and borek, which is a phyllo-crusted pie filled with savories including cheese and meat.
Somine, also in Urgup, has a warm and elegant Cappadocian atmosphere, with a fireplace in the middle of the dining room (somine is Turkish for “fireplace”). It’s known for its wonderful service and extensive menu, which offers everything from grilled fish and lamb to a full range of kebabs and pizzas. There’s something for everyone here, which is probably why it’s been in business for ages.
The owners of the Old Greek House, in Mustafapasa, converted this imposing historic home into a small hotel and restaurant serving hearty fare including some of the best stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever eaten.
Testi kebabi, which is lamb or beef cooked inside a ceramic urn that is then brought to the table and broken open to reveal the delicious meat inside. Local Restaurant in Goreme serves the best version of the original dish (the more modern style is to add vegetables).
Meal worth the splurge
Seki Restaurant at the hotel Argos in Nevsehir serves artfully prepared dishes fusing Continental and Turkish cuisine made with local ingredients and served with excellent wines from its own vineyard.
What to See and Do
The town of Gulsehir, with its wonderful thirteenth-century Church of St. Jean carved out of a rock face and decorated with well-preserved Byzantine frescoes. Then you can hike from town through the otherworldly rock formations of the Cat Valley to the seventh-century Open Palace (Aciksaray) monastery, which has one of the most elaborate façades of all of the cave church complexes in Cappadocia (and that’s really saying something). The monastery is in all the guidebooks but very few people ever visit—their loss!
Staying in Goreme, the village in the center of Cappadocia. When I first went there 20 years ago it was filled with charming local villagers, but they’ve all since sold their homes to hotel owners and have left so that now you’ll only see other tourists. Stay in Urgup, Ortahisar, or Uchisar to have a chance to interact with locals and see a slice of real Turkish life.
The Church of St. Theodore in the village of Yesiloz was built from hollowing out the rock from a cliff in the eleventh century. You’d never guess from the outside how large the church is—it has three apses—and the frescoes are in remarkably good condition.
Trekking on horseback through the valleys gives you a completely different perspective on the landscape. I like the horses and guides at Cemal’s Ranch. They’ll take very good care of you.
During the summer, which is prime wedding season in Turkey, we can arrange for travelers to attend a kina gecesi (henna night), which kicks off the three-day celebration. The evening starts when the bride is brought in, her face covered with a red sheer cloth. Women apply henna to her hands and wrap them to give her palms the desired ornamental color. The attendees can put henna on their hands as well, for good luck, and sometimes even the groom’s hands are dyed. Then there’s music and dancing (men with men and women with women, in traditional Turkish fashion), and a more-the-merrier atmosphere in which everyone is welcome. Travelers who’ve participated in one of these events always come away having made new friends.
Take a hike through the beautiful Ihlara Canyon or a boat ride on the Kizilirmak River in Avanos.
May, June, September, and October for the driest, sunniest, and most mild weather. It’s very cold in winter in Cappadocia, but I think December is one of the most beautiful times to go because it looks like a magical fairyland, with all the fairy chimneys covered in snow. Another benefit of going during the cooler months: You don’t have to get up at 4:30 a.m. for the balloon ride, as they can fly later in the day in colder weather.
February, when the snow is gone and the weather is cold, rainy, and just miserable.
There has been a flood of new hotels opening in Cappadocia at every price point. An inexpensive hotel may look lovely on the Web, but if you’re not careful, you could end up in a place with no hot water, poor service, and no heat in the winter. Be sure to research your hotel choice carefully.
Don’t go walking in the valleys alone, especially if you’re a woman. Crime is rare, but it does occur from time to time, so it’s safer to be with a group.
Both airports in Nevsehir and Kayseri are small and easily navigable. The only caution I would give is if you have connected from an international flight and your luggage has been forwarded without going through customs in Istanbul (generally this is only possible for those flying Turkish Airlines), you need to go through the international terminal to collect your luggage and go through customs there.
You cannot tip on your credit card in Turkish restaurants. You must leave the gratuity in cash, and 10 percent is the customary offering.
Even in summer, be sure to pack a warm fleece or jacket for the evenings. The temperature can really drop at night as Cappadocia is at a high altitude.
Uchisar Castle—a towering rock formation that was hollowed and used as a fortification in ancient times—in the orange glow of sunrise or sunset, captured from high above the ground in a hot-air balloon.
Cappadocia is renowned for its fine pottery; some of the best is sold at Chez Galip in Avanos. Galip is a wonderful host who will show you how to use a pottery wheel and show you his most unusual “hair museum,” where he’s collected more than 16,000 specimens of hair donated by women passing through his shop.
The Dosim shop at the Goreme Open Air Museum sells high-quality goods ranging from evil eyes and other small souvenirs to artwork, pottery, replicas of ancient artifacts, and jewelry. Everything has some historical significance, is made in Turkey, and is sold at fair prices set by the government. You may pay more here than you would in the bazaars outside the museum, but you’ll know that you’re getting something that’s made well and not made in China.