Possibly my most indelible thoughts on Antalya came, as my flight swept over Turkey’s south-western coastline to Istanbul. Looking at the shades of blue and turquoise of the waters, my thought was ‘Ah, so that’s why it’s called the Turquoise Coast.’ I looked around the airplane, almost everyone was looking out, might probably be having the same thought as I had. I guess I caught the best glimpse of Antalya, a surreal kaleidoscope of electric blues, teals, and greens while leaving Antalya. But this ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean’ and the second most charming city of Turkey, with its stunning history, quick getaways, and splendid landscapes, is possibly among the most unique winter destinations.
I took a bus from Izmir to Antalya, a journey of four hours through rolling hills, verdant greens of rural Turkey, passing through numerous lakes, ochre limestone hills, and small towns. Antalya is classically beautiful and stylishly modern. And you get a hint of that at the bus station itself, lavish and charming. The real feel of romanticism of Antalya is felt as you enter the old city district of Kaleiçi (literally means ‘within the castle’) through the Hadrian Gate. The old city is a splendid mixture of ancient structures and finely restored Ottoman houses on its quaint, cobblestoned winding lanes. There is an unmissable charm of the Roman-era in the old city, which wraps a historic harbor with clifftop views of hazy blue mountain silhouettes. The finely graded sands and the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean make Antalya some of the finest beachside locations.
My first impressions of Kaleici was of a chic market set in some Ottoman era settings. And there is a lot of shopping potential in these areas, especially if you have taken to traditional Turkish handicraft. The old city seems to be wrapped with the remnants of Antalya’s Roman and pre-Roman history, nonchalantly absorbed in its modern look.
Losing my way in the alleys
Antalya’s history dates back to 150 BC. Two centuries later when Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Antalya, he entered through the iconic triumphal arch Hadrian gate (built-in his honor). It was quite inspiring to walk over the same path where centuries ago countless Roman carts would have passed. The place is so steeped in history that it seems all those characters and sets from history, would come and flash by you. I decided to wander the streets and take in the sights, meandering down past the Kesik Minaret to the Roman Hidirlik Tower and Karaalioglu Park.
But the mainstay of Antalya had always been its harbor, situated at a strategic location, connecting it to trade routes in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. The remnants of the old self of Antalya remain in the crumbling remains of the Roman and Byzantine era walls, and the Roman era harbor which has now been taken by Roman-themed excursion boats and the comfortable café scenes. The Club Amra, overlooking the harbor, clearly dominates the eat-out scenes in the old city. The coal-gas store turned into an Italian restaurant, brings out the best of Antalya, a charming mix of heritage and contemporary.
The old city is a hub of activity, and the bazaar is full of shops selling Turkish spices and souvenirs, plenty of bars and cafes, boutique hotels, and of course some historical artifacts. One striking piece of architecture is the fluted minaret mosque and the old walls. They hide a long corridor used to protect the guards along the city walls. The corridor is hidden and can only be accessed from the terrace of the Vista Restaurant, which also offers stunning views.
And for the evening before the bars open for travelers, I had the most romantic side of Antalya old town to go to – viewing point adjacent to Hıdırlık Kulesi and Karaalioğlu Park. Possibly the best place to watch the sunset among the limestone cliffs on the other side, and the harbor prepare itself for the nightly detours. Walk all the way down to the pier, sit down on the edge, enjoy a perfect sunset, and capture the surreal landscape of Antalya.
Old town, sumptuous meals
Turkey is for food lovers, and Antalya is just the finest piece of your love for Turkish food. And add to it the surf and turf kind of deal which you can get nowhere else. And when in Turkey, it’s almost a sin to miss the Turkish breakfast, and so I set out to one place every travel blog on Antalya I had found, had recommended, for the first meal of the day – Miss Ayşegül’s Farm. Sitting in a lovely garden, I feasted on freshly spread bread, eggs, olives, Turkish mixes, breakfast pastries, a tomato salsa, a spicy dip made of crushed walnuts and chili, the sheep’s cheese with walnuts, house-pickled artichoke hearts. Add lavas bread and raki or yogurt-based ayran to drink, and plenty of freshly brewed Turkish tea.
And when in Turkey, don’t forget to indulge in Turkish tea (Chay) – and yes, there’s no word like over-indulgence for it. And though I’m not a great fan of Turkish coffee, I’d say Turkey is just incomplete without this experience. Black as hell and sweet as paradise, coffee is a serious business in Turkey. And if you are a beverage lover, pencil in time to pay a visit to Cay teas.
The old town has a bustling café scene, and some come with their steal for location. My pick was Castle Café Bar for offering a gorgeous panorama of the sea, just the thing for travelers who desire great outdoors while sampling delicious Mediterranean cuisine. A little different find but a choice to get spoilt for, and a treasure trove for oenophiles is the Karaf Wine Bistro housed in an old Ottoman house.
And if you are a ‘vocal for local’ kind of traveler, drop by at local cheesemakers to get dollops of thick curds, spice sellers tout figs and saffron, and small booths for hand-labeled jars of local olives, local honey, and jams in flavors like walnut and preserved lemon.
And as I take one more eyeful of the turquoise waters, I am reminded of this multi-layered history, the charming old city, roman styled harbor, and enticing local culture, very different from the places I have been to before.
Fast facts: Head out of the city and you’ll find the ancient sites of Side, Perge, Termessos, and Aspendos, where the rubble of some of Turkey’s finest civilizations can be explored, or if not there are always gorgeous beaches and turquoise waters to look for.