Discovering the Turkish Riviera 

December 28, 2020 Updated: January 4, 2021

At first, I think it’s my imagination—after all, how can the water just glow like that? Sitting on a pirate ship under an almost-full moon, the Aegean below the starboard side seems to sparkle, each ripple producing a new, tiny burst of blue-green wonder.

There’s a scientific explanation, I realize, a phenomenon they call, somewhat clinically, and a little poetically, bioluminescence. But for the moment, it’s just magic. A few of my shipmates let the moment take them all the way down to the water, each stroke of their impromptu swim traced with more of that lovely light.

Ancient and alluring, the 5,000-mile Turkish coastline has been drawing adventurers and explorers since (almost) the beginning of time. Known now as the Turkish Riviera, this string of historic towns and hidden beaches lines the Aegean and the Mediterranean, along the western and southern shores of the country. Sometimes overshadowed by neighboring nations such as Greece and Croatia, the area is drawing new visitors, especially from the United States, who are currently shut out of the European Union, but still welcome in Turkey.

Sometimes known—very accurately—as the Turquoise Coast, it’s a place that you can enjoy most, when you know where to go, and what to do—here are some of the best.

Take a Gulet Cruise

gullet in turkey
An anchored gulet. (muratart/Shutterstock)

Built right in the town of Bodrum, these two-and-three-masted beauties, which look a lot like cartoon pirate ships, sail to nearby islands in both Turkey and Greece. Don’t expect buffets or nightly shows—a gulet (pronounced “goo-let”) voyage provides simpler pleasures and flexible itineraries. If your trip over to Santorini is foiled by high winds, you can just explore smaller islands, where the captain often knows everyone. Eat breakfast in the open air on the stern. Jump into the clear, blue water for a swim. Venture into tiny ports along the way, finding a little restaurant (or “meyhane,” like a Greek taverna), for dinner.

Then, sleep on the open deck, under the stars, with nothing to awaken you except maybe a herd of sheep, the bells on their necks clanging, in the inky light just before dawn.

Visit Bodrum

bodrum
Bodrum. (Luciano Mortula – LGM/Shutterstock)

The place where the Mediterranean meets the Aegean, this dynamic town, now a favorite holiday spot, was once home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Perhaps less-known than the Colossus of Rhodes or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was built for Mausolus around 350 B.C., and stood almost 15 stories. And while it was destroyed by successive earthquakes, there’s still a lot of history to explore here, including a 15th-century castle built by the Knights of the Hospital of St. John that rises over the town’s harbor. (Explore inside, and you’ll find a museum of underwater archaeology.) Sightsee during the day, then, once it’s safe to do so, party well into the evening (and perhaps the next morning)—Bodrum is home to some of the best nightlife in the country.

Enjoy the Blue Lagoon

An icon of the Turquoise Coast, aerial images of this super-blue spot near the town of Ölüdeniz have become the de-facto symbol of the region. And with good reason. With white sand running around the lagoon and along three sides of a peninsula, it’s the perfect place to relax—grab a beach chair, an Efes Pilsen, and soak up the sun. But if you feel like getting the blood pumping, you’ve got options, too. Sea kayak across the crystal blue waters or, even better, paraglide from the top of nearby 6,234-foot Babadag Mountain, soaring over its green flanks and the sparkle of the sea, far below.

Discover Knidos

A double harbor linked by a causeway that dates back to the 4th century B.C., Knidos, once a major port, is a place of great treasures—many of which now reside in the British Museum. (The Lion of Knidos is one notable example.) But there’s still plenty to discover here. Digs have uncovered the agora, temples, a theater, and more, and the harbors are literally littered with artifacts, including amphorae once used to transport olive oil and wine across the ancient world. It’s a unique opportunity to snorkel over history.

Explore Antalya

With 1 million people, Antalya is home to broad beaches, high-rise hotels, and big-city pleasures. Explore the old town (called Kaleiçi), strolling through narrow streets along one of the best-preserved Hellenistic walls in the world, to the three perfect archways of Hadrian’s Gate. Haggle hard for jewelry and crafts at the city’s bustling bazaar (beware: Turkish sellers drive a very hard bargain). Then reward yourself for your efforts with a nice seafood dinner at the Old City Marina—the food, including super-fresh octopus, is good, the views of small wooden boats and gulets, even better.

From Kusadasi to Corinth

Celsus Library in Ephesus
Celsus Library in Ephesus. (muratart/Shutterstock)

Climbing from the water into the hills, the tightly packed town of Kusadasi (population: 70,000) forms a spectacular curl of white buildings, hotels, apartments, shops, and restaurants, all of them facing the sea. It’s a favorite for those seeking the sun and a good beach, but when you tire of days spent on the sand, you’ll find a few fascinating sites here as well. Including the namesake Pigeon Island (Kusadasi literally means “bird island”), linked to the mainland by a causeway, and home to a Byzantine fortress that dates back to the 1200s (and was once inhabited by a bunch of pirates).

And just a short drive inland—Ephesus. Perhaps the most spectacular remaining site from the ancient world, this well-preserved archaeological site dates back to the 10th century B.C. Home to the Temple of Artemis (another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—not much of it remains today), and a major place in the Bible (the Book of Ephesians, one of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation), a walk here feels like a trip back in time. Here stood several Hellenistic and Roman cities; stroll past the sites of shops and apartments, climb up into the theater, and marvel at the Library of Celsus. An icon unto itself, its impressive façade dates back to the year 110, and it was once the third-largest library in the Roman world.

Kemer

Another popular beach town, Kemer offers exceptional opportunities to get active. Go diving just offshore at a World War II shipwreck, a 19th-century French cargo vessel. Explore caves with Paleolithic engravings, or take a ridgeline hike above the clouds in Beydaglari National Park. And if you’re feeling like a view, without all that effort, just climb aboard the cable car, which will sweep you up more than 5,000 feet, to the top of Mount Olympos.

Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling, in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.