Answering "Which is the Best…" Questions is Hard!
Because I live and breathe "tourism" in Turkey and Greece, people frequently ask for suggestions and itinerary ideas. Travel preferences are subjective, so giving recommendations is tricky. But, I am quick to name a favourite when asked to pick the best city to visit between Athens, Greece and Istanbul, Turkey.
I was fortunate to visit both cities (plus the very popular Cappadocia region of Turkey) in September / October 2012. The trip was my first exposure to Greece and Turkey and I didn't really know what to expect. These are my observations as a first-time visitor:
Let me start by saying "Athens was nice..."
I spent 3 days in Athens and that was sufficient to get a sense of the city and explore the main tourist sites and museums. If you're reasonably fit, everything is within walking distance (the hike to catch the tram to the top of Mount Lycabettus is fairly steep) but taxis and the transit system are easy to navigate. Here's a sample tour I found on Trip Advisor: 3 Days in Athens: Travel Guide. I didn't do this exact itinerary, but visited the same highlights and it was sufficient to give a reasonable introduction to the major touristic sites in the city.
The Greek people were friendly. The popular tourist sites were under constant renovation (a reality for structures that are thousands of years old), crowded (even in "off season") and dirty. I was also surprised by the amount of graffiti - and it's gotten worse since my first visit.
After leaving Athens, I spent some time in Rhodes (incredible, I'd actually recommend visiting Rhodes instead of Athens!), the south of Turkey (the Lycian Coast is amazing!), and slowly made my way by car to Istanbul for a week-long, whirlwind visit of the main sites.
Athens was nice, ... but Istanbul captured my heart!
Istanbul was more intriguing than Athens. There was more diversity, more excitement, more charm. And it was cleaner. Much cleaner than Athens. The people were friendlier and more generous with their time, knowledge, and hospitality. There was definitely some "pushiness" from vendors, but a polite "no thank you" was generally sufficient to get them to back off.
I hired a private guide to escort me on a custom tour of the city. Besides being able to design the route to match my interests and timelines, a private guide allows you to by-pass line-ups at the popular tourist sites. (Who wants to waste valuable vacation time standing in a queue?) It was well worth the price in my opinion!
A week wasn't long enough to visit everything I wanted to see, but highlights included the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, little Hagia Sofia, Chora Church, Hippodrome, Basilica cistern, Topkapi palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Dolmabahçe Palace, Galata tower, Taksim Square, a Turkish Bath at Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam (the Elixer of Life package is pricy but devine!), a luxury dinner cruise on the Bosphorus, a day-time cruise on the Bosphorus, plus visits to carpet shops, ceramic shops, cafes and restaurants. I also spent one evening enjoying a traditional Turkish dance and whirling dervish show at Hodjapasha dance theatre.
(I've been back to Istanbul many times since that first visit, and have still only seen a small fraction of what the city has to offer.)
Nearing the end of my trip, I hopped on an early morning flight (like 4AM early!) to the Cappadocia region and spent the next three days exploring the area. My visit included two day-long bus tours (I'm NOT a lover of bus tours), but the cave cities were unique and I got the chance to hike through some pretty unique rock formations. I also did a sunrise hot air-balloon ride, which was worth the early morning (like 4AM early!) wake-up call. My hotel (a "cave hotel", but I think they're all "cave hotels" in Cappadocia) package included a "cultural dance show", which was abysmal in comparison to the evening I spent at Hodjapasha in Istanbul. Three days was more than enough time for me in Cappadocia and I was quite happy to hop on the plane back to Istanbul.
Can you guess I think is the best city to visit?
My recommendation is to visit Athens for a day or two, but spend the majority of your time in Istanbul. Don't bother with the side-trip to Cappadocia if you only have a week or ten days for your holiday, but definitely splurge if you've got more time. You'll either love or hate each of the cities you visit. If you love them, you can always plan for a longer holiday next time.
Wishing you safe and happy travels, wherever in the world you travel!
Pictures from My Trip to Athens, Istanbul, and Cappadocia
Click on any image to expand it.