I’m only happy if I can live either by an ocean, a lake, or a broad river. Mountains, especially if they are high and close, make me feel claustrophobic, and lakes have the opposite effect. There is something very soothing about contemplating the quiet surface or vast expanse of a lake mirroring the surrounding countryside or reflecting my own image. What makes Turkey’s lakes so special is that they’re located in beautiful and sometimes out-of-the-way landscapes, surrounded by tales and legends, dotted with islands, monasteries, and an abundance of history, just like the country itself.
All are created by Mother Nature who seems to have made use of a full palette of colors to mix the most amazing hues, from sapphire blue to green, turquoise, and even pink. Some are freshwater lakes, but others, like the aptly named Lake Tuz (Salt Lake), are saline. Several are bird sanctuaries, like Lake Bafa, or home to an — alleged — monster like Lake Van.
I have visited all seven, some more than once, and want to share with you their individual beauty and stories.
1. Lake Van
This is Turkey’s largest lake, located in the far east of the country at an altitude of 5,380 feet. The lake is fed by several rivers but has no outlet. It’s one of the country’s saline lakes, which means that, despite the altitude and cold winters, the water does not freeze. Ferries or private boats criss-cross the vast lake, and they allow you to see it from all angles and to admire the reflection of the surrounding woods and the extinct, snow-covered volcanoes Mount Suphan and the legendary Mount Nemrut. The volcanoes loom over the northern and western shores respectively. Snowy mountains, green woods, and deep blue water make a striking combination.
The main island in the lake is Akdamar Island with the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross, a must-visit. The best way is by ferry from Gevaş. Legend has it that a princess by the name of Tamara once lived on the island, imprisoned by her father, who didn’t approve of her poor and humble lover. He used to swim across, guided by a candle she lit in her window. One stormy night, the candle blew out and he drowned, calling out “ach, Tamara,” from which the island got its name.
The next legend refers to Van Gölü Canavarı, a carnivorous lake monster. Nobody has really seen it yet, but it got a statue in the city of Van, just in case.
2. Lake Uzun
No legends or monsters, but Lake Uzun (or Uzungöl) is an oasis of utter peace and tranquility. Located approximately 44 miles inland from Rize on the Black Sea coast, Lake Uzun is a sweet water lake at the foot of the Soganli mountains, surrounded by steep hills and forests.
It looks like a piece of Switzerland, with many chalets dotting the hillsides and cattle grazing in the meadows. You know you are in Turkey, though, when you see the mosque with two slender minarets in the village of the same name reflected in the water.
You can walk on a path around the lake, which takes about one hour, hike on well-marked tracks up into the mountains, rent a pedal boat and cruise on the lake, or sit in a very beautiful tea house on the shore, enjoy the peace, and let yourself be dazzled by the turquoise waters.
3. Lake Bafa
Located in southwest Turkey, Lake Bafa was once part of the Aegean Sea before it was cut off by sediments carried by the Meander River. Therefore, the water of this rather shallow lake is salty. The northern side is bordered by steep mountain slopes covered in wild olive trees. The southern side has a few beaches and the romantic village of Kapıkırı, from where you can hire boats to visit the twin islands in the lake or go on a fishing trip.
The entire lake and surrounding area are a national park, beloved by bird watchers among many others. On one island, you find the ruins of a fortress and monastery; in the mountains to the north stands the Monastery of the Seven Brothers, which also features a cave with prehistoric paintings. From Kapıkırı you can walk to the ancient site of Herakleia, and on the shore, you find stone tombs of monks. Lake Bafa not only offers stunning nature but also a journey through thousands of years of history, from ancient Greece to Byzantine times.
My favorite is to eat at the Karia Restaurant in Kapıkırı, on the water’s edge. They serve the special fish which is only caught in Lake Bafa, and here you can get boats to take you to the islands.
Oh yes, and there is a legend, too. According to it, the moon goddess Selene fell in love with the shepherd Endymion here, and it’s easy to see how Lake Bafa inspires romance.
4. Lake Tuz
Turkey’s second-largest lake is located in the Central Anatolia Region. It is 65 miles from Konya, best known as the city where Sufism originated. Lake Tuz, or the Salt Lake, is also one of the world’s largest hypersaline lakes. You can reach the lake from Aksaray in Cappadocia. Fed by two streams but with no outlet, the lake is shallow and during the summer months dries out, leaving a thick salt crust which is the basis for three salt mines that produce a great part of the salt consumed in Turkey. Most remarkable, though, is the color: It’s a vibrant pink!
This is a rather harsh landscape and an out-of-the-way place with no tourism to speak of, which makes it all the more desirable to visit. The pink color gets otherworldly if you manage to be there at sunset.
5. Lake Salda
Lake Salda, a crater lake in Turkey’s southwest Burdur Province, is very special insofar as its hydromagnesite waters are beneficial to heal many dermatological diseases. The lake is very popular with Turkish visitors because of its white beaches, shallow access, and azure color. But it’s also Turkey’s deepest lake, and the sand can be treacherous, as it sucks your feet in. So be careful when going into the water.
No legends and monsters around Lake Salda, but there is a compelling connection to outer space. NASA thinks that the lake is of the same composition as the Jezero Crater on Mars, as discovered by the Mars surface rover Perseverance.
6. Lake Beyşehir
This is Turkey’s largest freshwater lake. It is within Konya Province’s Beysehir Lake National Park. The beautiful turquoise lake is fed by streams from the nearby Taurus, Sultan, and Anamas mountains. There are 33 islets in the lake, and there are many coves and sandy beaches to make this an enjoyable lake experience in Turkey. There is plenty of flora and fauna to observe in the national park, and it’s a paradise for bird watchers. Surrounding the shore are dense black pine forests that stretch up into the mountains.
7. Lake Sülüklü
This freshwater lake in Bolu Province near historical Mudurnu is an ideal destination if you fancy a camping vacation by a lovely lake. The facilities are good, and instead of a shower, you can have a refreshing swim in the lake. It’s also close to Burj Al Babas, a ghost town of abandoned castles next to Mudurnu.
The best time to visit all these amazing lakes in Turkey is summer. None of the lakes, towns, and villages next to them are overcrowded, and the warm weather of summer is more enticing for a swim where permitted. The first three lakes are easily reached by public transport; for the others, especially Lake Salda, you will need to rent a car. For all your lake trips, remember to be respectful of the environment. Tread carefully and don’t leave any litter.