Neeta Lal ditches the popular circuit of Turkey for offbeat destinations that marry historical tales and ample modern comforts. By Neeta Lal

Jaw-dropping beauty? Check. Pristine beaches? Check. Exquisite architecture and flavoursome cuisine? Check and check!

Turkey ticks all the boxes of a holiday haven and then some. But the problem is of plenty—there are far too many enchantments on offer. From Istanbul to Cappadocia, Izmir to Amman, Bursa to Mardin, the Middle Eastern nation—akin to its iconic dessert, the baklava–has endless delectable layers.

So choosing towns or cities, hotels and B&Bs, especially those that could fit my shoestring budget, was the proverbial Sisyphean task. While I was eventually able to craft an itinerary that met my great expectations, my heart did bleed as I struck popular choices off my list to incorporate the offbeat.

Turkey Offbeat Destinations
The Aspendos Theatre, built in second century AD, is touted as the best-preserved Roman theatre outside Italy.

SIDE

A visit to Side is akin to flipping through the pages of history. Phantoms of the past lurk around every corner. A 30-minute drive from Antalya brought me to this spectacular resort town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast—its name means ‘pomegranate’ in ancient Anatolian.

Once the secret rendezvous point for legendary lovers Antony and Cleopatra, Side stands on a promontory flanked by two stunning beaches—Kumköy to the west and Titreyengöl to the east. This is Turkey at its most staggeringly beautiful, with sandy sweeps of shores hugging a coastline lapped by azure waters.

Even before I reached the town, a drive through the ancient cities of Perge, Selge, and Aspendos whetted my appetite for the region. “Each of these cities is a delight to explore,” my affable driver-cum-guide Omer said, as we stopped at Manavgat Waterfall to watch the milky foam crash into a gorge. Though the falls aren’t very steep, the area is scenic—with cafes and souvenir stalls, street performers and bird-sellers adding heft to the landscape. Selfie-seeking families picnic around the falls, their chatter and laughter mingling with the roar of the water.

“There are 20 waterfalls in and around Antalya, and Manavgat is one of the most amazing,” Omer explained, as we quaffed Turkish coffee while the waterfall’s mist sprayed our faces. “The falls originate from the slopes of Mount Seytan, the eastern part of Taurus Mountains, located between the lakes of Seydisehir and Bevsehir, cascade through mountains, forests, and a canyon-like narrow valley, and form an artificial lake on the Oymapinar Dam.”

An ancient Pamphylian city, Side is a jumble of myth, history, ruins, and the sea. Buried in the bosom of its old walled quarters are statuesque Greek-Roman temples with Corinthian pillars and fishermen’s cottages, a Roman bath, as well as an immaculately preserved Roman theatre that is used for concerts to this day. Ancient mildewed fortifications protect the town crisscrossed by hotels, shops, and late-night bars and restaurants.

As we stroll along the village’s colonnaded streets, Omer elaborates that tourism in Side boomed in the late 1950s, when archaeological excavations and empty beaches started luring travellers. Relics from these projects are showcased in the Side Museum, which is housed in a restored Roman bath.

However, Side’s most defining landmark is its ancient Roman theatre with an overarching stone gate. Sweeping arches and towering (albeit crumbly) walls, preserved for centuries, surround the entrance. Marble statues embellish colonnaded vestibules. The theatre could once seat over 15,000 people, I’m told.

Side’s seaside is breathtaking. Speckled with dramatic ruins of the Temple of Apollo and the ancient theatres of the Greek and Roman empires, it seems otherworldly when bathed in the glow of sunset. The Temple of Apollo—the site of many excavations–glows in shades of amber and russet.

“Approximately 150 amphitheatres once existed in the ancient period of Anatolia, which hosted Greek and Roman civilisations. A great number of theatres have partially survived,” Omer explained, as we negotiated the Temple of Apollo’s undulating, boulder-strewn stretches.

Turkey Offbeat Destinations
Watch milky foam crash into a gorge at Manavgat Waterfall.

ASPENDOS

A mere half-hour drive west from Side brought me to the quaint town of Aspendos. Textured with history going back to 1000 BC, it flourished in fifth century BC as a trade hub for oil, wool, and salt.

Today, however, Aspendos’s two standout features are its stunningly crafted aqueducts and a Roman amphitheatre. We begin by visiting the aqueducts first. Towering stony structures silhouetted against the sky with their sweeping arches and elegant pillars, the aqueducts’ two unique siphons have fascinated archaeologists and researchers for years.

“The aqueducts brought water to Aspendos from the mountains keeping its land fertile and rich in grain,” Omer elaborated. “The structure and their unique hydraulic siphons are very well preserved.”

The highest quality of workmanship and technological inputs of that age went into the aqueducts’ construction. We walk around the architectural masterpiece and stumble upon orchards lush with orange and pomegranate trees. Local villagers who have set up souvenir and juice kiosks greet us with warm smiles. I savour a glass of foamy pomegranate juice squeezed fresh from fruits plucked in front of me. Some pomegranates are so large they look like small watermelons, weighing nearly half a kilo each!

The Aspendos Theatre is touted as the best-preserved Roman theatre outside Italy. Every year, the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival is held here and welcomes renowned musicians, who come to play in what is regarded as one of the ancient world’s greatest theatres.

Built in second century AD, during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD), the theatre is dedicated “to the gods of this country and to the Imperial house.” Legend says that Emperor Marcus Aurelius organised a competition for architects to build the greatest structure that would bring abundance to the city. The prize was the hand of the king’s beautiful daughter.

The first architect constructed the aqueducts that supplied water for the whole city. Aurelius was so thrilled with the outcome that he immediately pledged his daughter to him. However, when he subsequently visited the theatre built by the second architect, he heard a whisper: “Choose the theatre-builder.” When the king looked up, he saw the architect Zenon on the stage. He had built the theatre in such a way that even whispers on stage sounded like they came from the gods. Zenon won the competition as well as the hand of the king’s daughter. No points for guessing where the nuptials took place. At the theatre, of course!

Turkey Offbeat Destinations
The town of Bodrum, fringed by the Aegan sea, radiates a European charm.

BELEK

Belek marries cosmopolitan charm with the appeal of an upmarket beach resort. Located along the southwestern Mediterranean coast, 48 kilometres from Antalya, it is framed by the Taurus Mountains and swathes of verdant pine groves. The scent of pine hangs heavy in the air.

The region’s velveteen beaches run along 16 kilometres of the coastline. Should you want an adrenaline high, there’s scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing, banana boats, jet-skis, and surfing. Vacation resorts also offer all-inclusive golfing packages, making the town one of Europe’s top golf destinations. An elegant promenade, lined with hotels, shops, and restaurants, takes care of all creature comforts.

In no way do these modern offerings diminish Belek’s cultural heritage. A slew of ancient archaeological sites pepper the landscape. From ancient vine-covered squares to vestiges of Roman occupation, The City Walls and the Hadrian Gate, you’ll be smitten fairly quickly. A short excursion to neighbouring Perge, a Hellenistic settlement dating back to 1500 BC, introduces me to Roman remains that continue to reveal secrets. For those venturing further afield, rewards lie in the form of Düden, the region’s most spectacular waterfall.

Downtown Belek bustles with high-end boutiques, hotel complexes, a shopping arcade, as well as an atmospheric souk. The town’s sun-splattered streets extend a warm invitation to saunter. I stroll through the Old Town, burrowing into the city’s secrets and rifling through souvenir racks and dining at a seafood restaurant overlooking the charming old harbour.

BODRUM PENINSULA

Located on the western coast of Turkey, 1,125 kilometres from the Syrian border, the town of Bodrum has a distinctly European feel to it. Fringed with a glutinous stretch of the Aegean, it is barely 20 minutes from the Greek island of Kos.

Bodrum’s turreted castle is the pivot around which the town flows. Constructed by the Knights of Rhodes in the 15th century during the Crusades of the Middle Ages, it was named The Castle of St Petrus or Petronium. It is also the first thing that catches my eye as we roll into town.

Interestingly, much of the monument was constructed from the upcycled debris of the mausoleum of Mausolus, which had collapsed due to an earthquake. The façade was strengthened by five towers—the English tower, the Italian tower, the German tower, the French tower, and the Snake tower.

As I perambulate the castle’s majestic ramparts, I’m told its walls contain nearly 250 coats of arms and armorial bearings of many of the knights that served there. Captured in 1522 by the Ottomans during the reign of Kanunî Sultan Süleyman, the church on the castle was converted into a mosque.

The castle also hosts an Underwater Archaeology Museum, which showcases remnants from shipwrecks discovered in the Aegean Sea. As I exit the castle, I’m engulfed by exquisitely landscaped gardens overlooking the Aegean in 50 shades of blue. As one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Bodrum peninsula also boasts a slew of impressive ancient ruins, including the city of Stratonikeia, Myndos Gate, an amphitheatre, and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

A short walk from Bodrum’s harbour, and we’re staring at the mausoleum built for Mausolus, a ruler of the Persian Empire, in 353 BC. I amble around the tomb’s ruins, inspecting the damage caused by successive earthquakes from the 12th to the 15th centuries. Despite the devastation, there’s an aura of invincibility around the monument, a beautiful ode to a long forgotten king.

“Bodrum has a history going back centuries. In fact, the Father of History, Herodotus, was born here,” Omer explains, as we explore Bodrum’s back streets that seem ripe for exploration on foot.

The atmospheric old city is packed with souvenir shops as well as quaint restaurants where time seems to stand still. These establishments offer a relaxed and authentic dining experience. Chats with co-diners and the wait staff come as a bonus. Ahmed, a cafe owner and self-confessed fan of India, invites me to try his food. Eschewing the hotel’s cookie-cutter breakfast buffet, I troop down to Ahmed’s cosy cafe next morning for a traditional Turkish breakfast of soft, briny cheeses and olives, served with juicy red tomatoes, cucumbers, and sweet onion. There’s fresh bread, homemade jam, and preserves as well.

The pièce de résistance are the doner kebabs oozing a meaty juice down my wrists. The gözleme (large, paper-thin pockets of dough bursting with cheese, vegetables, and meat) take my taste buds places they’ve never been. Cooked on a dome-shaped griddle, they make for the ultimate Turkish street food, Ahmed tells me. Who am I to argue?

In the end, I’m surprised I have room for dessert. Bidding adieu to my affable host, I approach a nearby baklava store piled high with the country’s most famous dessert. There’s baklava with walnuts, baklava with pistachios, baklava with pomegranates, baklava with chocolate, baklava in the shape of lips… I try the proffered samples before choosing five different types to take back home. Now, every time I take a bite, I taste a bit of Turkey.

Live the Turkish Dream

Be it the breathtaking seaside of Side or the cosmopolitan charm of Belek, these little-known towns do not disappoint.

Getting There

All the featured cities are well-connected to Istanbul and are at comfortable motorable distances from one another.

Stay

SIDE: Hotel Sidestar Elegance is a five-star accommodation, located nine kilometres away from the Manavgat Waterfall From INR 14,220.

ASPENDOS: Xanadu Resort Hotel & Spa is located nearly 12 kilometres from Aspendos. From INR 21,329.

BODRUM: Caresse, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa offers a captivating view of the Aegean Sea. From INR 35,549.

BELEK: Calista Luxury Resort features stay options with smart room technology. From INR 28,439.

Tour Operators

Solymos Travel conducts daily tours, package tours, as well as customised ones, along with adventure activities. Leading Hayat Tourism & Travel Agency offers a wide range of tours spanning popular cities like Istanbul and offbeat locations like the ones described here.

Season

September to March is the best time to visit the country.

Related: This Fascinating Discovery in Turkey May Lead to The Country’s First Underwater Museum