Frankly, 1 week isn't enough time to explore very much of anything anywhere, let alone Istanbul, the seat of three former world empires. And that doesn't include the 2 days spent on international travel (assuming you had to cross an ocean to get here). Because all of Turkey's major sights are scattered to the four corners of the country -- and getting from one to the next will involve either a flight, a long car or bus ride, or both -- a scant 7 days will force you to make some hard choices, and you'll have to hustle at high speed during what traditionally should be "downtime." With 1 week, expect to have barely enough time to cover the basics of Istanbul and one other destination. Because boat captains now regularly offer 3- and 4-day "Blue Cruises," you just may be able to squeeze in one of these, although if you do, you'll surely be compromising any hopes of experiencing the heart and soul of Turkey by sequestering yourself on the (albeit magnificent) coastal seas.
That said, an oft-asked question is "Should I go to Ephesus or Cappadocia?" It's a true dilemma: Go to Ephesus, the ancient port city and home to early Christianity's most venerated icons -- or head to Cappadocia, where all weird and wonderful rock formations not carved by nature were hollowed out for sheer secular and profane necessity. My answer is usually in the form of a question: "Why do you want to go to Ephesus?" Weed out the underlying sense of biblical enormity, and it's just another major archaeological must-see, right? So if the appeal is purely archaeological, and if you've been to Rome or seen Pompeii, then I'd have to tout Cappadocia as unique enough to win hands-down. Happily, with more than just 1 week (or high energy and lots of commitment), you can actually do both. So, depending on your interests and the answer to my question above, below are suggestions for both a 1- and 2-week itinerary.
Day 1: Arrive, Off and Running in Istanbul
Most transatlantic flights arrive in Istanbul in the late morning, so after you check in to your hotel and have a quick nap and a shower, it's time to head out. Spend the first afternoon getting acquainted with the old city of Sultanahmet, beginning with a good orientation point, the Hippodrome. You might duck into a local tea garden for a bite to eat (avoid the touristy ones closest to the Hippodrome). Then go directly to the Sultanahmet Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. Follow this up with a walk through the imposing Ayasofya, stopping along the way for a quick peek into the Haseki Sultan Hamami, now a beautifully restored space used by the Ministry of Tourism as a fixed-priced carpet shop. Next stop is the ancient underground Yerebatan Cistern across the street at Yerebatan Caddesi. If you haven't yet run out of daylight, scoot over to the St. Savior in Chora church for some of the finest Byzantine mosaics anywhere -- and plan to stay for dinner. (Asitane restaurant is located in the Kariye Hotel adjacent to the museum.)
Day 2: Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar
Begin day 2 fresher and better prepared for an exhausting morning poking around Topkapi Palace, and don't you dare skip out on the Treasury -- although if you're pressed for time or money, you can definitely skip the tour of the Harem, which departs at regular intervals. Instead, head back to the first courtyard, where you'll find access to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Few visitors take the time to visit this impressive collection of ancient and even famous artifacts (for example, the Treaty of Kadesh, signed by Pharaoh Ramses and the Hittite King), but I highly recommend this one and add that everyone I've ever sent here has thanked me for the tip. When you finally do exit the palace grounds, turn right immediately outside the main gate, out along Sogukçesme Sokagi for a walk through a typical 19th-century Ottoman neighborhood. Go down the hill and pick up the tram at the nearby Gülhane stop (you'll have to cross the main avenue to get the correct tram), and take it to the Beyazit stop near one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar. If you ever get out of this shopping labyrinth, there's a sound-and-light show in Sultanahmet Park under the Blue Mosque on summer nights at 9pm (the language of the display rotates daily), after which you can grab dinner at one of the numerous rooftop restaurants.
Day 3: A Day on the Bosphorus, and an Ottoman Band
Set out early in the morning for a daylong cruise up the Bosphorus, allowing yourself at least an hour to explore the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and neighboring Yeni Camii before you board at the nearby ferry docks. If you're concerned about time, take a half-day guided sightseeing tour, which includes a stop at the Egyptian Bazaar, an informed description of the sights along the Asian and European shores, and a visit to Rumeli Castle, which wraps up around lunchtime. If you take the guided tour, spend the remainder of the afternoon walking the length of Istanbul's main artery, on Istiklal Caddesi and poking in and around the back streets of Beyoglu. If possible, arrange this afternoon exploration around the 3pm performance of the mighty Mehter Band in the Military Museum up in Harbiye (walking distance from Taksim Square or a short taxi ride). If you miss the 3pm English performance, the whole thing repeats in Turkish at 3:30pm. Then, if you allow yourself one unexpected itinerary stop in Istanbul, make it this: From the Military Museum, take a taxi up to the modern and trendy seaside village of Ortaköy (just above the Çiragan Palace), where you'll find restaurants, cafes, and sidewalk vendors under the Bosphorus bridge. Reward yourself with a relaxing dinner at one of the many places on the quay, or head back to Beyoglu for a meal at one of the classic meyhanes (taverns) of the Balikpazari (fish bazaar).
For the rest of your week in Turkey, you're faced with the big question: "Ephesus or Cappadocia?" I'm outlining a plan for both:
Day 4: The Ancient Site of Ephesus
Take a domestic flight to Izmir, and using either Selçuk or Kusadasi as your base, spend the day visiting the archaeological site of Ephesus, the Ephesus Museum, the Temple of Artemis, St. John's Basilica, and the House of the Virgin Mary. If you have your own car, have dinner up in the village of Sirince.
Day 5: Pamukkale's Travertine Terraces
You'll need a whole day for a visit to Pamukkale, which should include a visit to the travertines and the archaeological site of Hierapolis, plus a dip in the effervescent Sacred Pool. If you've got your own wheels, stop along the way at the impressive ruins of Aphrodisias.
Day 6: Three Greek Sites
Dedicate the day to exploring the more neighboring ancient sites of Priene, Miletus, and Didyma on a leisurely drive down to Bodrum.
Day 7: Bodrum and Beyond
On your last day in Turkey, you'll have to decide whether you want to relax on a beach or maintain your holiday in the fast lane. Either way, you should schedule a visit to the Underwater Archaeology Museum, located in the conspicuous and imposing St. Peter's Castle. And although there's not much left of the supposedly wondrous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, you'll have to do some impressive tap-dancing to explain to your friends why you didn't go. (It'll be quick, I promise.) Do both of these things early, to leave plenty of time to drive out to Gümüslük, the as-of-yet unspoiled waterside village and site of submerged ancient ruins. There's a tiny beach there, too, although better beaches are located all along the peninsula, particularly around Yalikavak and Turgutreis. (If you prefer a beach closer to home, head over to the crowded resort beaches at Gümbet, the bay adjacent to downtown Bodrum.)
Or you might be tempted by the landscape of Cappadocia:
Day 4: Cappadocia's Fairy Chimneys and Monastic Caves
Take an early domestic flight to Cappadocia. If you're arriving in Kayseri, it's about an hour's drive into any of the towns in the region. Rent a car and begin your visit in the rock-cut monastery of Zelve Valley, being careful not to slip during one of the more challenging cave climbs (climbing not obligatory). Depart Zelve, following signs for the open-air museum of Göreme, with its frescoed churches and fairy chimneys. Follow the road into the modern section of the village, and have a bite to eat at the Orient Restaurant. Spend some time in the bazaar behind the otogar, and then head out for a visit to the rock city of Üçhisar. Climb up to the top of the fortress for a splendid panoramic view of the entire region, second only to a sunrise balloon ride, do some shopping at the base of the fortress, and then head back to your hotel for some old-fashioned Turkish conversation and a glass of tea.
Day 5: Cappadocia's Underground Cities
Set out early in the morning for the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, where you will work up an appetite ascending and descending hundreds of underground steps. Drive the short distance to Belisirma, one of the access points for entry into the Ihlara Valley. Before setting out on your hike, stop at one of the combination restaurant-and-camping sites for a rustic riverside lunch. After lunch, head over to the village of Güzelyurt, wander through the valley, and poke through the village's own underground city. Finish up with dinner at the open buffet at the Kaya Hotel in Üçhisar, unless your hotel offers dinner on the premises.
Day 6: Cappadocia: Land of Beautiful Horses
Experience the valleys of Cappadocia firsthand with a horseback-riding tour or a hike through the valleys. Have lunch at the Greek House in Mustafapasa and spend the rest of the day around Avanos hunting for ceramics or shopping in Ürgüp for carpets, traditional keepsakes, or silver. Try to manage your time so that you're in town for the 9pm showing of the Whirling Dervishes at the 12th-century Sarihan caravansary.
Day 7: Ankara: Pre- and Post-Republican
Take this day to drive to and visit Ankara, from where you can arrange to fly home via Istanbul. Begin your time in Ankara around the ancient citadel, starting with the remarkable Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (which also has a great gift shop). A few steps up the hill opposite the entrance to the fortress is the restored Çengelhan, the 16th-century caravansary now housing the Rahmi Koç Science Museum. Spend an hour wandering around the inside of the citadel, then head left outside the entrance you came in through, and work your way through the copper, antiques, and carpet shops on the steeply cobbled streets heading to the daily market on Çikrikçilar Caddesi. From the bottom of Çikrikçilar Caddesi, you will find yourself back in the heart of Ulus. From here, take a taxi to the Atatürk Mausoleum and Museum at Anitkabir. Once finished, have dinner at one of the restaurants off of Tünali Hilmi, and then call it a day.