An Epic Visit to Sanliurfa – [Best Things to Do]

A visit to Sanliurfa, a traditional and cultural city in southeastern Turkey is well worth adding to your trip itinerary.


In this post, we tell you all about a city in Turkey that you will definitely want to visit. We’ll tell you:

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Roses in front of the mosque.
Roses in front of the mosque. Is this where Abraham fell?

Where is Urfa or Sanliurfa?

Sanliurfa is a quaint little city in the southeastern part of Anatolia. It’s only about an hour from the Syrian border, but that should not stop you from visiting. There’s plenty to do in this region.

We’ve stopped there a number of times. We’ve always gone by car, because we love our road trips and we combined it with Gaziantep, Harran, Mt. Nemrut, Lake Van, and so much more. However, it does take a long time to get there from Istanbul (13 hrs.) and for us, from Ankara, it was 8.5 hours of driving.

The ablution station.

Depending on your time and how much you like to drive, you can also fly in. It’s not a long flight from anywhere else in the country.

The only way to get around between the cities is to take the bus, dolmus (taxi van), or hire someone to drive you from your hotel. All of these are options. Busing between cities is a very cheap and comfortable way to travel.

Tourists in the park under Urfa Kalesi.
Tourists in the park under Urfa Kalesi.

Short History of Sanliurfa

Urfa was an established city on the ancient silk road. It has been inhabited by all different types of peoples, with a variety of religions,  that have come through Anatolia for the last ten or so thousands of years. Even Alexander rode through and conquered the town until it was recaptured and turned into the city of Edessa. However, it became Muslim in the year 639 AD, and today it is one of the most traditional Muslim cities in Turkey, so much so, you can’t find a beer anywhere!

The Mosque and pond complex in Sanliurfa, a must-see attraction.
The mosque and pond complex in Sanliurfa.

It is the city of Abraham, an important figure in both the Muslim and Christian religions. The cave where is he was born is located someplace on the hill, right under the citadel. King Nimrod really had it out for him and he tried, repeatedly, to kill him from there. Because of this, pilgrims from many countries can be seen walking the streets.

The story goes that King Nimrod had had a vision telling him that a boy child would be born that would cause him to be dethroned.  As he wasn’t so fond of the idea, he declared all male infants to be killed. Luckily Abraham’s mother gave birth in secret in the cave and kept him there for his first seven years to keep him safe. 

A tomb or turbesi in Sanliurfa.
A tomb or turbesi in Sanliurfa.

As Abraham grew older, wiser, and more vocal, King Nimrod was able to locate and eventually capture him. While imprisoned, Abraham was catapulted off the citadel onto a bonfire. Thankfully, Allah protected him by turning the fire into water and the logs into fish.  And somehow, Abraham landed safely in a rose garden.

The water, which surrounds the Mevlid-i Halil Mosque, is called the  Balikligol and it is truly gorgeous. Locals and pilgrims alike walk around the park area, feed the carp, and have a nice afternoon, chatting, drinking tea, and maybe nibbling on some cotton candy.

The carp seem to be much in agreement with their lot, and will greet you with a smile on their faces and a glint in their eyes. The cynical might say this is because they want you to feed them and the camera flash is going off, but whatever, I came, I saw, and yeah I fed them, too.

One of the best things to visit in Sanliurfa is the covered bazaar.
Covered bazaar.

Best Things to Do in Sanliurfa

There are a few iconic sights that really should not be missed when traveling in Sanliurfa. Don’t worry, you can really do them in just one full day. Here are our recommendations in order of importance:

  1. Balikligöl – Fish Lake
  2. Mevlid-i Halil ul Rahman Mosque and the Rizvaniye Mosque
  3. Urfa Kale – a huge fortress in ruins
  4. Sanliurfa Archaeological Museum and Haleplibahce Museum
  5. Bazaars and markets
Everyone is enjoying their visit to Sanliurfa, like this little girl.
A festive, happy atmosphere surrounds the Balikligol.

Basically the first three revolve around the Balikligol and Abraham’s story. If you are into museums, I would go to both of these. They are fantastic. The Archaelogical Museum is brand new (2015) and includes artifacts from Gobekli Tepe (one of our favorite sites). And if you love mosaics, don’t miss Halepbahce.

Women sitting in shade near Balikligol in Sanliurfa.
Taking shade near Balikligol.

It goes without saying that to feel the flavor of the city, go to the markets and bazaars. Find a table and sip some çay, like a local, and people watch. Don’t leave without buying some beautiful Turkish souvenirs.

The carp waiting to be fed at Balikligol.
The carp waiting to be fed at Balikligol.

Balikligol

Abraham’s Pond, from the story above, is the number one thing to do and experience in Sanliurfa. As you walk through the gardens, you and plenty of pilgrims with you, are happy to be enjoying the day. All of the people we came across were cheerful and excited to share the fun with us, even though we clearly were not Muslim.

Rizvaniye Mosque and Balikligol are the top things to do in Sanliurfa.
Rizvaniye Mosque with the Balikligol.

The pond is surrounded by a beautiful stone building and arches. It is filled with black carp. It’s said if you find a white one, it will bring you luck. There is fish feed sold and you are encouraged to throw them as much as you can. Feeding fish is always fun, and it’s great people-watching as well.

Halil ul Rahman Mosque.
Halil ul Rahman Mosque.

Mevlid-i Halil Ul Rahman Mosque and the Rizvaniye Mosque

In Turkey you are allowed to enter religious buildings at no cost. You should, of course, bring a scarf (if you’re female) and keep covered (no shorts). Both of these mosques are beautiful and important places right near the Balikgol, and you are essentially walking on the outside of them.

Urfa Kale.
Urfa Kale.

Urfa Kale

Built at the end of the 2nd Century, the Urfa Kalesi is mostly ruins. You can climb to the top to get some excellent views and photos of the Balikligol surrounding area, and even walk through some empty rooms.

A kebab stand in sanliurfa.
A kebab stand in sanliurfa.

What to Eat

Urfa is known for its food. The entire region is very much a place to go to get some amazing local dishes. Maybe that’s one of the reasons we keep returning. It’s all good.

The most important dish to try is Urfa Kebab. Urfa Kebab is a long köfte (spiced meatball – shaped more like a log) on a skewer and grilled over a mangal or grill. We had it dining al fresco right downtown, but there are plenty of indoor mangal restaurants so you don’t have to do that unless you want.

Bread baker in Sanliurfa.
A baker stands proudly by his product.

The other foods from the region that are so delicious are kunefe, baklava, imam biyaldi, and so much more. One good thing about Turkish restaurants is that the dishes, especially meats, are typically on display as you walk in. So, it’s easy to order.

Tourists and locals walking and talking near the Urfa Kale.
Tourists and locals walking and talking near the Urfa Kale.

Where to Stay

There are many hotels in Urfa, since it’s such an important tourist city. You can check all the prices here, but we also have a few recommendations.

  • Hanehan – A very traditional, old inn (han) that has modern facilities, a stunning courtyard, and fabulous buffet breakfast. It’s located very close to the main tourist sights in town.
  • Palmyra Boutique Hotel – Another refurbished old inn, with stone walls, a great seating area and fabulous breakfast pretty close to the Balikligol.
  • Elci Konagi Butik Hotel – You just can’t go wrong with an old inn with their own preserved mosaic. Clean and friendly.
The history of Sanliurfa will tell you that this is reputed to be Abraham's pond.
The history of Sanliurfa will tell you that this is reputed to be Abraham’s pond.

Conclusion

Don’t miss out on a great part of Turkey. Go to the Southeast, and enjoy the places like Sanliurfa. With its fantastic food, religious and cultural sights, and it’s welcoming atmosphere, you’ll be happy you did.

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