If you’re planning a trip to Turkey but you only have time for one place, you’re in for a tough decision: Istanbul or Cappadocia?
These two destinations in Turkey are each worth a visit of their own, but picking between them is hard as they each offer so much yet are so different.
Istanbul is a giant metropolis of 20+ million people, truly one of the world’s greatest cities, whereas Cappadocia is a series of small villages carved into the rock in one of the most geologically interesting places on the planet. They’re like two different worlds, yet only an hour and a half flight apart.
So if you’re lost trying to decide between Istanbul and Cappadocia, and doing both just isn’t an option, here’s our guide to picking Istanbul vs. Cappadocia.
Choose Istanbul if…
… You’re a city person
It sounds obvious, but it bears repeating: Istanbul is one of the biggest cities on the planet, encompassing 20+ million people, probably a hundred neighborhoods, and spanning two continents. It is big in every sense of the word and I’ve usually dedicated at least five days to Istanbul on each of my three trips to the city. In fact, Stephanie has visited Turkey five times and never once left Istanbul – that’s how big and endlessly fascinating it is.
Stephanie and I are both avowed city lovers, and we love nothing more than taking a city break as part of our holidays. We find that cities showcase the history of a destination while also balancing the young, modern side to the destination. In Istanbul, this is especially noticeable. You’ll walk mosques and bazaars by day and explore centuries-old history, but by night, you’ll find countless bars (both alcoholic and shisha), clubs, and restaurants buzzing with young Turkish people.
… You’re a foodie
Turkish food is absolutely delicious and there’s no better place to eat it than in Istanbul, where you can eat everything from street food to Michelin-starred Turkish cuisine.
While you can definitely eat some tasty food in Cappadocia, there’s simply no comparing the two destinations when it comes to food: Istanbul will win by a landslide every time.
…. You live for history
While Cappadocia has no shortage of historical sights, nothing beats Istanbul. It’s been the capital of three distinct empires – Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – and has a wealth of historical sights from all three periods.
From Greek Orthodox churches to fortresses on the hills overlooking the Bosphorus to ornate palaces that housed the Ottoman rulers to stunning mosques that defy all expectations, Istanbul is a history lover’s dream. It’s maybe the most important historical city in history.
… You’re into nightlife
Cappadocia is made up of several villages in the middle of Turkey, far from any city influence, and the region is largely quite conservative. While you can definitely find alcohol in Cappadocia (I definitely enjoyed my share of Turkish wine and beer), nightlife isn’t the center of life here the same way it is in Istanbul.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, there are nightclubs operating at virtually all hours of the night, tons of fun bars in various neighborhoods (Bebek, Karakoy, Kadikoy, Cihangir, and Arnavutkoy, to name a few), incredible rooftop bars, and laidback shisha joints for non-drinkers.
Choose Cappadocia if….
… You’re doing it for the ‘gram
While Istanbul definitely has its Instagrammable spots, Cappadocia is Insta-crack.
Whether it’s taking photos on your rooftop terrace with a casual breakfast spread with a view of the hot air balloons, posing amidst a colorful riot of Turkish carpets, or overlooking Cappadocia’s otherworldly landscape, Cappadocia has Instagrammable places galore that will have the likes rolling in.
… You’re into nature, not cities
What good is visiting a mega-city if you are decidedly not a city person? Istanbul is one of the top 10 largest cities in the world, and getting out of Istanbul and into nature that’s not a tiny city park or the Bosphorus is a traffic and logistical nightmare.
If you want to spend your time exploring gorgeous nature, hiking through geologically unique valleys, and admiring Turkey’s natural side, pick Cappadocia, not Istanbul.
… You really want to ride a hot air balloon
For many people, taking a hot air balloon over the valleys of Cappadocia is a bucket list must. And if a sunrise hot air balloon ride is on your must-do list, then there’s simply no equal in Istanbul (unless a helicopter ride will cut it).
I count riding a hot air balloon over Cappadocia as one of my top 10 travel experiences in the world, so if it’s on your bucket list, that may be a reason to pick Cappadocia over Istanbul.
… You want romance
While Istanbul definitely has its passionate side, Cappadocia just oozes romance in a way that a city as large and bustling as Istanbul can’t compete with.
Whether it’s a hot air balloon ride with your loved one, a thrilling sunset ATV ride, an intimate meal for two in a cave restaurant, or a night in one of Cappadocia’s stunning cave hotels, Cappadocia is the place to choose for proposals, honeymoons, babymoons, or romantic trips with your loved one.
Choose both for…
… meeting friendly Turkish people
The Turkish spirit of hospitality and kindness is infectious, and I’ve never left my numerous trips to Turkey experiencing anything other than warm welcomes and kind people. Turks are generous, social, and warm, and I trust that you’ll leave your trip to Turkey with the same lovely impressions of the Turkish people that we do.
As always, be cautious and trust your gut, and be wary of accepting too many freebies, especially from shopkeepers. There are some scams out there, but generally, we’ve never had problems in our 8 cumulative trips to Turkey.
…. eating delicious food
Turkish food is great everywhere. While I gave the edge to Istanbul vs. Cappadocia when it came to being better for foodies, really, it’s hard to go wrong anywhere in Turkey.
I always recommend ordering some meze – Turkish hot and cold appetizers – and perhaps a bottle of raki (if you can stomach anise-flavored drinks) and making a night of it. It’s one of my favorite ways to eat.
And don’t forget about the breakfasts! Turkish breakfasts are out of this world delicious, and any hotel worth staying in will deliver some seriously fantastic breakfast that basically overflows from the table.
… meeting the chillest cats in the world
If you think this is a weird item to put on the list, it’s because you haven’t been to Turkey yet.
Whether you go to Istanbul or Cappadocia, you will meet some of the friendliest, loveliest felines in the world. They are badass and you should probably bow down.
The Final Word: Should You Pick Cappadocia or Istanbul?
My personal opinion? If there’s a chance you may only visit Turkey once in your lifetime, I’d pick Istanbul over Cappadocia. There is so much to do within the city that you could literally pack your itinerary for weeks. That said, even if you only have a few days, you can easily fit the highlights of Istanbul into a 2 or 3 day city break by creating a focused plan.
To go to Turkey and not experience the wonders of the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, witness the sunset over the Bosphorus, or wander the stalls of the Grand Bazaar would be a true shame. You’d simply be missing out on one of the most epic cities in the world. Cappadocia is wonderful and unforgettable, but in my eyes, it simply can’t compare to Istanbul when it comes to history, culture, and world importance.
Can You Do Cappadocia as a Day Trip from Istanbul?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: It involves flying, it’s tiring, it’s expensive, and it’s likely worth it. This is the cheapest day tour I can find, and it still costs a pretty penny. It includes airport transfers, flights, exploring the monasteries of the Göreme Open Air Museum, seeing the fairy chimney landscapes, and visiting various valleys, before returning that same night. It does not include a balloon ride nor would it be possible to do one on a day trip.
If a balloon ride is a must, this overnight tour from Istanbul (1 day, 1 night via an overnight flight) is a costly but doable option.
However, even that trip is extremely rushed and I doubt you’d get any sleep on the way over, so if you were going to pick one Cappadocia excursion at all, I’d lean towards this 2-day 1-night tour which has received 5 star reviews. It’d be an ultra-quick trip and merely an introduction to Cappadocia, but it’d give you the opportunity for a balloon ride and extensive tour of the area.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
I often recommend the neighborhood of Galata for people in Istanbul for a city break, as it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods right in between Taksim and Sultanahmet, easily walkable to both. The best value-for-dollar option is Jurnal Hotel, which has small and sleek double rooms within just a few minutes’ walk to Galata Tower for an insanely affordable price.
Rooftop breakfast with a view of the Galata Tower for less than $50 a night? It’s definitely possible at the Galataport Hotel, literally 200 meters away from the gorgeous Galata Tower.Price and location aren’t all it has going for it, though: guests love it, with an average review score at the time of writing of a whopping 9/10!
This is my favorite Istanbul hotel! I stayed at Hammamhane for 3 nights and it truly started to feel like home at the end of my stay. Located literally on Cukur Cuma, the main street of the antiques district, Hammamhane is within walking distance to art galleries, design stores, antique shops, and chic cafés. Hammamhane is a converted boutique apartment-hotel, that was originally a hammam, which should be now open after years of renovations (it was still being worked on when I visited in 2017).
Where to Stay in Cappadocia
I got an abnormally good deal and paid $50 per night for a double room with a jacuzzi in Chelebi Cave House Hotel and it was fantastic! It was the high season because I was visiting during Eid Al-Adha and it was one of the few hotels left, so I was lucky to end up snagging such a beautiful hotel at the last minute despite the holiday. They had a delicious daily Turkish breakfast with an incredible view of the fairy chimneys and other cave hotels in Göreme nestled in Cappadocia’s beautiful and unique landscape.
The most-Instafamous one is Sultan Cave Suites. I’d be willing to bet you’ve seen the breakfast set-up at Sultan Cave Suites approximately 29,832 times as you scroll through Instagram. While this is staged (the food is not meant to be eaten and you must take your turn to get the shot), there is an actually edible delicious Turkish breakfast spread ready for you once you’ve gotten your Insta pics, so you can snap your ‘breakfast photos’ without your food getting cold. Oh, also, there’s an adorable dog included. Marketing genius. Surprisingly, your average room at Sultan Cave Suites is less expensive than you’d think.
Another fantastic-looking but slightly more expensive option is the incredible Museum Hotel. Awarded both the Best Luxury Boutique Hotel and the Best Hotel Architecture in Europe, you can rest easy that Museum Hotel is basically as good as it gets in Cappadocia and is a perfect pick if you’re in Cappadocia. But the coolest thing about Museum Hotel is that its name isn’t in vain: the hotel is literally set within historic ruins which have been renovated to provide an incredible hotel experience. It has a number of artifacts from around Turkey that create a ‘museum’ within a hotel — plus each room is furnished with invaluable antiques that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Staying here is like staying in a living, breathing, 5* piece of history
More Turkey Travel Resources
If you head to Istanbul, we have a lot for you! We’re working on our massive things to do post, but for now, you can check out our Instagram guide to Istanbul, our favorite Istanbul neighborhoods and where to stay, and tips for shopping in Istanbul.
If you pick Cappadocia, we have posts on the most Instagrammable places in Cappadocia and the perfect 3-day Cappadocia itinerary. We’ve also written extensively about the best cave hotels for all budgets here in Cappadocia.
For more general Turkey information, check out this guide to planning a trip to Turkey (including visa information) and this guide to other beautiful places to visit in Turkey.
Headed to Turkey? Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
If you’re planning a trip to either Istanbul or Cappadocia, one thing is sure: make sure to travel with a valid travel insurance policy! While we feel safe in Turkey, you need to be covered in case of an emergency. Travel insurance covers you in case of theft or an accident, which can save your trip if there’s an incident.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.
Originally from California, Allison has been living in Bulgaria for the last two years and is obsessed with traveling around the Balkans. She has been published in National Geographic, CNN Arabic, Matador Network, and the Huffington Post. She loves befriending dogs, drinking coffee, geeking out about wine, and cooking food from around the world.