I recently found myself back in Turkey to cover a new hotel – The Museum Hotel Antakya (pick up a copy of Condé Nast Traveller ME‘s upcoming Feb issue to read what I had to say about it). Though I consider myself quite fond of Turkey and have been a few times (including the Lykia Way trek, which was kind of a fail due to the heat but still amazing, and lovely Antalya), I was pretty much totally unfamiliar with Antakya in the Hatay Province, which sits along the Mediterranean coast and the Syria border in the country’s southern-most point. It’s something I’m ashamed of. It’s part of the Fertile Crescent! Antakya is the biblical Antioch! The amount of history and ancient sites in this region is nothing short of phenomenal. That I, an admitted lover of history who enjoys traveling for it, was unaware of its importance was frankly embarrassing. What’s more, UNESCO has listed Hatay as a City of Gastronomy. Food? Yes please, always. How was I so in the dark about this destination?
Part of that may be due to its location – while it’s relatively simple to get there now (about a 90-minute flight from Istanbul), that wasn’t always the case. The Hatay Airport only opened in late 2007, so prior to that you’d have to fly to one of the neighboring regions’ airports, which are close to a three-hour drive away. For those that may have decided to road-trip around the popular Mediterranean coastal areas like Bodrum and Antalya, the latter, closer, option is still around a 10-hour drive away. So it’s a little out of the way from the usual tourist trail.
But that was then, and this is now: an airport with flights in and out throughout the day, a brand-new luxury hotel and an eye to develop new tourism experiences and museums, like the Hatay Archaeology Museum, which opened in phases starting in 2014 and fully opened in 2019.
Just because Antakya is new to me (and maybe you, too), its lesser-known status wasn’t always the case. Ranking third in terms of size and importance in the Roman Empire (behind Rome and Alexandria) is nothing to sniff at, and the region’s wealth of ancient finds prove as much. Founded as Antioch in 300 BCE, it was a key location in the Seleucid kingdom and Roman Empire, then gained further importance as one of the first centers of Christianity – this is where followers of Christ where first called “Christians” and so, unsurprisingly, is where you’ll find one of the very first Christian churches, the Cave-Church of St Peter carved into the slopes of Mount Starius dating to around the 4th century CE.
There’s a lot to take in, and you’d be wise to employ the services of a tour guide – The Museum Hotel hooked me up with Selda Kuruoglu, who was previously a banker but in her retirement has been sharing her deep well of expertise of this region – her hometown – with visitors for over a decade. As genial as she is knowledgeable (which is to say: very), she’s an absolute boon to have at your side, especially as English is not widely spoken in this region (and you’re going to want to know exactly what all the delicious cheeses, breads and pastes are that you’ll be sampling as you wander through Antakya’s bazaar).
I spent a full-on two days exploring the region and while I saw a lot, I feel I merely scratched the surface – I’m definitely due for a return visit in warmer weather. But in the meantime, I think I can boil some of its highlights down into three sections.
Archaeological & Ancient Sites
This is probably what will attract most tourists, and is certainly what most appealed to me. The best place to start is at the Hatay Archaeology Museum in Antakya, which displays a number of artifacts through the ages (the region has been populated since the Paleolithic era). Most impressive though, is its collection of ancient mosaics from the region, which is the largest collection of its kind in the world. I particularly loved the Oceanus depictions (his crab-claw horns are fantastic) and a reclining skeleton surrounded by wine and bread with text that says to “be cheerful, enjoy your life” – sage advice if ever there was. Then you should head to the Antakya old town, a warren of old streets that feel both Mediterranean and Oriental. Citrus trees with enormous plump fruit fill courtyards and cobbled streets are lined with low-key restaurants, cafés and bars. Poking around this area as well as the bustling bazaar also reveals a trove of locally made goods: fragrant soaps made from defne (laurel-tree) oil and said to be great for eczema, soft hand-woven peshtemal (bath) towels and silk shawls (particularly lovely ones imprinted with flowers and leaves can be found at Tyche-h Yerli Ipek. Stop at Antik Cam Evi as much to nose around the gorgeous traditional home as the collection of ancient glassware on display; new pieces are also blown there, many inspired by ancient artifacts found in the area.
Outside of the city, Harbiye, cooled by a series of waterfalls, was a pleasure getaway for the affluent in the Roman era. It’s still popular today, filled with small venues where you can dip your toes in the water while you dine. As the story goes, the beautiful nymph Daphne was running from besotted Apollo and this is the location where she asked to be saved from his attentions. Turned into a laurel (defne) tree, Apollo swore to honor her by using the leaves of the tree as artistic and triumphal ornamentation. Daphne wept at this and it’s said that her tears formed these waterfalls. Moving into the mountains, you’ll find Turkey’s last Armenian village with a small church. Mainly agricultural in nature, the slopes are covered in fruit trees and the overall atmosphere is tranquil and charming, despite the complex history behind the village. My visit was marked by intense and cold winds, so exploration was cut short – but I imagine it’s wonderful in the warmer months. In a neighboring village is the Moses Tree, a giant and ancient plane tree that is said to have grown from Moses’ staff and the “water of immortality” nearby. Of course I sipped it, so I’ll check in again in about 75 years or so and let you know if it worked. If it’s chilly – and even if it’s not, because this area is so beautiful – grab a seat at the adjacent café to warm up with some tea and freshly baked breads – can’t go wrong, but the flatbread topped with tomato paste and cumin (among other seasonings) was excellent. (Full disclosure: I thought it tasted like a (better) Totino’s “combination” frozen pizza, which is a huge guilty pleasure of mine, so take that how you may.) Another hilltop (and windy) stop is the ruins of the St Simeon Monastery. It’s difficult to understand what this place must have looked like given its current state, but a few clues remain in the form of very prettily carved stones. Its claim to fame is thanks to Simeon Stylites the Younger who, in 500 CE, is said to have lived atop a pillar here for 45 years, preaching and performing miraculous healing to those below who made pilgrimage to see him.
Then, moving down towards the Mediterranean, the Vespasianus Titus Tunnel was one of my favorite stops. Taking about an hour, this easy-to-follow trail with viewing points, benches and tea spots along the way is another relatively new (in the past few years) initiative to appeal to tourists. It takes you through a now-dry canal that was dug by manpower alone in the 1st century CE, ordered by the Roman emperor Vespatian. Spanning about 1.3km in length, it’s a truly impressive feat of ancient engineering, and was created to divert the Orontes River and prevent flooding in the once-buzzy hub of Samandag, from where goods were shipped to Rome. Along the way you’ll see an arched Roman bridge (remarkable in that it still stands despite using no mortar) and at the end, a necropolis decorated with seashell motifs. And if you’re lucky a series of friendly cats and dogs who will happily walk alongside you for the cost of just a few pats and head-scratches.
Antioch may best be known as the place where Christianity got its start – where the followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians and where the first Christian church was founded. One of the earliest places of worship may well be the Cave-Church of St Peter (this post’s lead image), said to be the place where the saint preached the first gospel. On the slopes of Mount Starius, you can walk there from some parts of town, a restored facade dates back to the 1800s, while the sparse interiors include an alter and, above that, a small statue of Saint Peter. In one corner, a pool pf natural water would have been used for baptisms, and in another corner a tunnel leads to the other side of the mountain, an escape for Christians being persecuted. Though technically considered a museum, church services are still possible within the ancient space on permission.
In the old town quarter, you’ll find ever more churches – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – rubbing shoulders not only with each other, but also with the other religions that have found homes and a welcome in this region. There’s the small Antakya Synagogue that houses a 500-year-old Torah, and the Habib’i Neccar Mosque that was first a pagan temple and then a Christian church before becoming a mosque in the 13th century. The current building dates to the 1800s, rebuilt after an earthquake demolished much of the original (and much of Antioch, as well). Here you’ll find the mausoleum of Habib’i Neccar, a carpenter and Muslim martyr from the 1st century CE.
If you’re heading to the shore and are seeking some spirituality, the Dome of Khidr shrine is said to be where the Prophet Khidr and Moses met. Near Samandag, people of all faiths are welcome to enter the frankincense-clouded dome, circling the stone in the middle three times while praying – it’s said that prayers here, particularly those related to healing – are heard and answered quickly.
You’ll need a lot of sustenance to keep your energy up to make it to all of the sights (though you may be able to make do with just a few of those small but mighty Turkish coffees throughout the day). Luckily there’s no shortage of excellent grub in this UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Awarded the title just a few years ago, it’s another reason Hatay and Antakya should start appearing more regularly on must-visit lists. It’s difficult to say where to begin, but the bazaar in Antakya is a good start.
Just follow whatever scent draws you: breads fresh out of ovens, cheeses squeaky and sesame-covered, olives, pastes (I’ve never before tasted such flavorful tomatoes), oils and syrups, oh the syrups, of which the pomegranate molasses is a particular local specialty. Within the bazaar, hunt down Semir Eraslan Baharat, a delicious wonderland. In addition to much of everything else I’ve mentioned, it’s also got spices galore, the most fantastic figs (which they suggested I dip in fresh tahini, a revelation) and a treat called sujuk (no, not the sausages, though it does resemble a sausage link) – a string of walnuts dipped in a thickened grape syrup.
Your sweet tooth still not satisfied? Stroll through the nearby courtyard and just a minute or two away you’ll find Cinaralti Künefe Yusuf Usta’s Place, which reigns as one of Antakya’s best spots for the local dessert. Grab a seat under one of the trees in the courtyard and stick around to watch the chef skillfully flip the sweet cheese pastry topped with fried-crisp semolina from an enormous skillet. I’ve tried a lot of künefe around the Middle East, and whether this one was a particularly good recipe or because I had it fresh off the pan, it was easily the best I’ve ever eaten.
For a full meal, there are a couple more restaurants in the old town area worth checking out. For lunch head to Hatay Sultan Sofrasi, a home-style spot right on the main road along the Orontes River. The inside is cozy (look up to catch the pretty peacock stain-glass windows) and while you won’t get a menu, you will get a spread of traditional regional cuisine to choose from laid out in a couple display cases – my favorites were the stuffed dolma vine leaves and oruk (similar to a meatball, with a crisp bulgar outside stuffed with seasoned minced meat) in a salted yogurt sauce, which was rather soup-like. In the evening, Konak has a large, gorgeous courtyard filled with tables and serves a wide array of local and Levantine cuisine – all nicely paired with wines made right in the Hatay region.
Finally, I fell in love with the unusual salgam, a spicy juice made by fermenting the local purple carrot. The first sip was a bit of a slap in the face, but after that I could not get enough of this kicky, vinegary drink that you can find all over town, often bottled like a soda.
Where To Stay
For the history: The Museum Hotel Antakya has got to be your choice, given that it’s intertwined with a large archaeological site that dates back 2,300 years, including the world’s largest Roman mosaic, and a museum with hundreds of artifacts from the site.
To be in the thick of it: Waxwing Hotel is a hip boutique stay that sits right in the charming and buzzy old town surrounded by all its food, shopping, social spots and varied religious sites.