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Turkey is a large and geographically diverse country, with a continuous history of habitation stretching back thousands of years. Its vast open spaces, massive mountain ranges, fertile valleys and rugged coastline have been coveted by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans (among others) who have all left their mark – so that Turkey is overflowing with archaeological and historic sites. While this rich cultural history may evoke images of sultans, harems and exotic oriental decadence, Turkey is not trapped in the past – in fact it is a fascinating amalgamation of ancient traditions and contemporary vision.

In the early 20th century, as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Kemal Atatürk stepped into the breach and led Turkey to independence. He is deeply revered by most Turks for reinventing Turkey as a modern and forward-thinking secular democracy. Visitors will be won over by the peoples' adoration of their past-leader, their endlessly polite hospitality, and their exuberant vision for a future within Europe.

The nation's largest city, Istanbul, must be one of the world's most fascinating cities. It really is a case of 'east meets west', as it's often described, with the Bosphorus strait running through it and literally separating Europe from Asia. Istanbul gives visitors the best of the ancient, with its many UNESCO World Heritage listed landmarks, but contrasts it with the thoroughly modern (its seriously stylish bars and restaurants reveal the cosmopolitan city's glamorous side). A walk around the historic district of Sultanahmet takes in the main sights: Ayasofya; the Blue Mosque; Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman sultans for centuries; and the famous Grand Bazaar. Directly underground lies the huge and quiet Basilica Cistern, the city's old Roman aqueduct, now fitted out for visitors with soft lighting and walkways between some of its 336 marble columns. Take some time out from sightseeing to sit at a café, sip a Turkish tea and perhaps puff on a water pipe, or have lunch on the run with a traditional fish sandwich and 'simit' (Turkey's pretzel) down near the water's edge.

Most first-time visitors to Turkey focus on the attractions of its West coast: Ephesus; Pamukkale; the battlefields of Gallipoli; and the warm blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean coastline is dotted with well-preserved Greco-Roman cities such as Pergamom and Ephesus, with the latter's ruins offering the best-feel for what life was like in Roman times. Pamukkale's hot springs and white travertine terraces are a sight to see; its calcium-rich waters' restorative qualities hailed for centuries. Outside of the main tourist areas are a handful of places where travellers can explore ancient ruins without the crowds, and simply enjoy the peace.

Jutting out into the Aegean Sea, the Bodrum Peninsula lies between the Turkish resort areas of Kusadasi and Marmaris, opposite the Greek island of Kos. Bodrum is a popular seaside destination for trendy Istanbul holidaymakers who flock to enjoy its marinas, mosques, bazaars, and easygoing pace.

One of the most popular ways to experience the more than 7000 kilometres of coastline is to cruise on a Turkish yacht, called a gullet. Gullet cruises typically involve a leisurely journey along the coast past sleepy villages, bustling seaside resorts and long, empty beaches. Beyond the pleasures onboard are the options of swimming, snorkelling, and kayaking, as well as onshore expeditions.

Eastwards, and inland, is Turkey's capital city, Ankara. Modern skyscrapers, domed mosques and Ottoman architecture share pavements with great restaurants, museums and the grand Mausoleum of Kemal Atatürk. Restoration in recent years has rejuvenated this big city's ageing buildings to gracefully accommodate art galleries, bistros and bazaars.

Across to the vast plateau of Central Anatolia, broken by mountains ranges, is the heartland of Turkey. This region boasts striking scenery, excellent museums, and hundreds of Roman archeological sites. Cappadocia in central Anatolia is a rich agricultural area and Turkey's most visually striking region. Fascinating are the "moonscape" areas around the towns of Ürgüp, Göreme, Uçhisar, Avanos and Mustafapasa (Sinasos) where soft volcanic rock, shaped by thousands of years of erosion, has formed 'fairy chimneys', caves and clefts. Past centuries have seen monks pray in cave churches and locals carve homes into the rugged hillsides. Active travellers can hike the valleys; visit ancient cave paintings; float above it all in a hot-air balloon at dawn; and even spend the night in a comfortable cave room fitted with all the mod cons.

Another thing Turkey is now world-famous for is its food, and rightly so. The abundance of fields, farms, flocks and orchards is exceptional, providing a rich bounty for high-end restaurant chefs to take full advantage of. Everyday eating is also excellent, catering to meat lovers and vegetarians alike. Roasting and grilling methods produce the famous döner kebap (the national dish); and soups known as corba are also very tasty. Most visitors are surprised to find that Turkish tea 'çay' (chai) is the universal drink in Turkey rather than coffee. Those seeking something a little stronger should give Raki at try (the local variant of ouzo – not as sweet but just as potent). While one should mix it with water and consume with meze, or watermelon, Ataturk proposed "The best accompaniment to Raki is good conversation."

The best time to travel in Turkey is in the spring (April, May, through to mid-June) when the weather is mild across the country and the days are long. This is high season for Istanbul and Cappadocia. Summers (mid-June, July, August, through mid-September) are quite hot across most of Turkey (30+ degrees) though usually rainless, and cool inland in the evenings. Istanbul is less crowded in the summer, as is Cappadocia. September or October is a good time to head to beach areas, where the water is still warm, and crowds are smaller. Winters (November to March) tend to be cold and rainy everywhere except the southeast, which remains temperate.

Click here for our suggestions on events and places to go at various times of year