Brian's Travel Guide to Turkey

Brian’s Travel Guide to Turkey

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Overview

If you are reading this, then you either are thinking of going to Turkey, or already booked a trip there.  If so, great! You will not be disappointed with Turkey. But if you were like me, and you had some concerns about safety, lack of infrastructure, lack of english speakers, etc., I wanted to start with this: if you have similar concerns, your assumptions are wrong. Read on for why.

Turkey is more developed than you think. It is cheap, full of fantastic people, full of rich history, beautiful beaches, and has great food options. That’s a pretty decent list and why it attracts over 30 million visitors/year.

Turkey is a democratic, secular, unitary, constitutional republic with a diverse cultural heritage. The country’s official language is Turkish, and is spoken natively by approximately 85% of the population. About three quarters of the population are ethnic Turks and about a fifth ethnic Kurds. The vast majority of the population is Muslim. Turkey’s growing economy and diplomatic initiatives have led to its recognition as a regional power.

Although they can come across initially as cold, I found Turkish people quite friendly.  Many are happy to help travellers get around. Be warned, in conversation they can be quite blunt, especially about your weight and looks. So I’m going to be blunt back. Turkish men are average height, dark, thin, and generally not ‘fit’.  Women are average height, dark, and thin as well.  Not saying there aren’t fat Turkish people, just less than North America.

Most people speak some English, but due to close ties to Germany, German is almost as common.

History

From Wikipedia

“Turkey has been inhabited since the paleolithic age, including various Ancient Anatolian civilizations, Aeolian and Ionian Greeks, Thracians and Persians. After Alexander the Great’s conquest, the area was Hellenized, which continued with the Roman rule and the transition into the Byzantine Empire. The Seljuk Turks began migrating into the area in the 11th century, starting the process of Turkification, which was greatly accelerated by the Seljuk victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. The Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm ruled Anatolia until the Mongol invasion in 1243, upon which it disintegrated into several small Turkish beyliks.

Starting from the late 13th century, the Ottomans united Anatolia and created an empire encompassing much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, becoming a major power in Eurasia and Africa during the early modern period. The empire reached the peak of its power between the 15th and 17th centuries, especially during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520–21566). After the second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 and the end of the Great Turkish War in 1699, the Ottoman Empire entered a long period of decline. The Tanzimat reforms of the 19th century, which aimed to modernize the Ottoman state, proved to be inadequate in most fields, and failed to stop the dissolution of the empire.[16] The Ottoman Empire entered World War I (1914–1918) on the side of the Central Powers and was ultimately defeated. During the war, major atrocities were committed by the Ottoman government against the Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks. Following WWI, the huge conglomeration of territories and peoples that formerly comprised the Ottoman Empire was divided into several new states. The Turkish War of Independence (1919–1922), initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his colleagues in Anatolia, resulted in the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey in 1923, with Atatürk as its first president.”

The period from 1923-1939 was one of large reforms within the new Republic of Turkey, also named the Ataturk Reforms. They include: abolition of the sultanate basically separated church and state, creation of a constitution, creation of a multi party democratic parliament, replacement of islamic court with a secular law structure based on the Swiss Civil Code, replacement of the religious education system with a national education system, replacement of the arabic alphabet with a latin based one, full universal equal rights to women, establishment of a banking system, and many more. Stop for a second, reread that, and think about if your country went through all that. Pretty crazy. The US can’t even discuss health care without everyone losing their shit. Anyway, these radical reforms is what led to Turkey’s recovery from a decaying Ottoman Empire. Most of these changes were completed while Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was leading the government. Very very interesting man, worth reading about (link).  His last name, Ataturk, meaning Father of the Turks was given to him by parliament in 1934 and made it illegal for anyone else to have that name.

Safety 

This is one area where I was concerned, and more so for many of the women I’ve talked to and travelled with. Now that I’ve travelled there, I can say that I’ve completely removed this opinion. I’ll start with some stats (comparing to the US) and then describe my experience.

When comparing to the US, in Turkey there is: 18 times less rape, 9 times less crime (per 1000), 7 times less violent crime, 17% less murder per capita, less likely to be robbed, and less likely to have your car stolen, etc 

So if you feel safe travelling to the US, you should feel safe travelling to Turkey. Your counter argument could be that the crime isn’t reported in Turkey. That could be true, but not a single person I met in the country has had an issue. I regularly walked around, by myself, with a camera, cell phone, wallet full of cash not hidden at all. Editors Note: Need a Sim recommends that you do not carry a ‘wallet full of cash not hidden at all’ anywhere.  Even Canada. I was once in a busy center, dropped a fist full of cash while trying to pay for a simit and a turkish guy picked it up and handed it back to me.  Also, while transferring buses during a particularly grueling overnight trip, I forgot my laptop on the first bus. The driver of that bus found it and went bus to bus until I claimed it. Convinced yet?

I will say though that if you are a young attractive woman, especially if you are caucasian and blond, you will receive increased attention. This is usually in the form of lingering stares (I witnessed some intense ones with my travel partners). Be aware it will probably happen, but don’t freak out, just walk on and try to forget.

Costs and Payment

The currency is the Lira and is currently about 2:1CAD/USD, 3:1Euro. Most transactions happen by cash, and it is the preferred method by many merchants, so make sure you get some. That said, Visa and Mastercard are accepted at almost every place (they just don’t want to use it). There are ATM’s everywhere and the banking system in Turkey is rated as one of the best, so use a bank ATM and you should be fine.

So, in summary, it’s like North America. You’ll be fine.

What to See

Istanbul

This is a must stop and will probably be where anyone would fly into anyhow. The main things are the historical places and the city is full of them. I’ll list the see and don’t-see for the major attractions. 

See:

  • Hagia Sophia – This is my number one. The inside of the building is awe inspiring. Hopefully the renovations are done soon.  The cohabitation of Christian and Muslim is a rarity. (30 TRY, closed Mondays)
  • Blue Mosque – impressive interior and iconic exterior. Non-muslims are welcome to view when not in prayer. (free)
  • Archaeological museum – If you are into history, this museum is the best in the area. Renovations should be finished in 2015. Lots of cool sarcophagus (20 TRY)
  • Basilica Cistern – Just google the images of it.  (20 TRY)
  • Asian side Istanbul – greener, nicer, cheaper
  • Climb up to this wall

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L to R: Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Bosphorus

Don’t:

  • Galata Tower – view of the city is there…but you can get equally good views from other places. (20 TRY)
  • Topsaki Palace – didn’t do anything for me.  Go if you get the museum pass (more below) but not good enough on its own (30 TRY, closed Tuesdays)
  • Grand Bazaar – mostly just a tourist mall and is missing the character. Replace this with the Spice Bazaar.
  • Taksim Square – just not much there. 

The major attractions are a must for any visitor to Istanbul, but leave some time to explore the city.  ~15MM humans live here so there’s lots to experience. Some suggested things to do are: walk along the bosphorus, explore Sultanahmet, explore Bogazicki (Bosphorus) University, grab a coffee in Besiktas, walk down Istiklal (from Galata Tower to Taksim), take a ferry and grab breakfast in Asia and lunch in Europe, just because you can. There is a lot of nightlife in Istanbul so plan to grab a shisha (nargile), drink some Efes and maybe get your dance on.

Rest of Turkey

Typical circuit of Turkey

Typical circuit of Turkey

There is a circuit that most tourists of the country do, either clockwise or counter clockwise.  It includes Istanbul, Cappadocia, Fethiye (or similar southern towns like Bodrum, Kas, Olympus, and Antalya), Pamukkale, Selcuk (Ephesus), Izmir, and Canakkale (Gallipoli).

Ankara is the main political capital, but not much else is there to see other than to transfer transit.  Konya is also another major city, but again from talking to others, and stopping there quickly I would recommend skipping it.

Cappadocia (2-3 days) has alien like terrain, good hiking, cave hotels, underground cities and one of the best hot air balloon rides in the world (although expensive ~$150-200USD/CAD). The southern towns (3-4 days) have beautiful beaches, sailing, islands, and weather similar to Greece or Croatia. Fethiye also has one of the best areas in the world for paragliding, if you are into that. Pamukkale (1 day) has a snow covered mountain that is actually minerals from the hot spring at the top, hot springs, spa, and ruins of Hierapolis. Ephesus (1-2 days) is one of largest excavations in the world, lots of history, amphitheatre, and more Asian tourists than you can shake a stick at. Izmir shows a modern Turkey with a good nightlife. Canakkale/Gallipoli (1-2 days) is a great stop for history buffs interested in the World War 1 battle, and Canakkale is a university town so quite lively at night.

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L to R: Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus

That’s a quick rundown, but honestly if you do this circuit, you’ll hit all the major stuff and won’t be disappointed. The amount of time to stay, shown in brackets above, is a suggested minimum, but longer stays are encouraged. There is also some interesting things in the east of Turkey but currently (December 2014) not worth it with the uncertainty in the area.

Food and Drink

You’ll read the food is good in a lot of the places in the world, and Turkey is no exception.  The benefit is that it is also super cheap. You can eat off the street or live off donairs for ~$2-4USD/CAD a meal. Sit down restaurants range depending if you are in touristy to local, but plan to spend $10-15USD/CAD for a regular and $20-30USD/CAD for a fancy meal. Some of the local classics are: 

Borek – pastry of phyllo dough filled with cheese or meat usually

Simit – circular bagel thing with sesame seeds. cheap (1TRY) and delicious breakfast companion

Ayran – very popular yogurt drink. very salty. very very salty.

Baklava – pastry desert of phyllo dough and honey and other deliciousness. Try Sutlu Nuriye, accurately described to me as life changing.

Gozleme – thin rolled dough, grilled up with wide variety of things inside.

Kokorec – mainly goat intestine. Sound gross? try it.

Pide – thin, narrow pizza like dough with minced meats, veggies, etc on it. cheap. everywhere.

Meze – collection of appetizers, usually bread and cheese, typical to eat before your meal.

Kumpir – basically a baked potato filled with every bloody thing they can stick in there.

There are kabobs, wraps, etc. readily available all over the country for cheap. I basically lived off these during lazy days. Breakfast is usually a combination of cheese, butter, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jam, honey, and bread. If the hotel says breakfast included, this is what it means. Workable, but if you’re like me, you’ll miss a good ol’ American breakfast after a while.

Also, try the turkish coffee, but don’t drink the whole thing, as the grinds are at the bottom. Turkish people also drink tea (chay) all friggin’ day, so if you want to visit with a Turk, have a tea with them. You’ll probably want to add some sugar though, as it’s pretty bitter.

Although officially a muslim country, alcohol is available everywhere…although not as cheap as you would expect, considering the food prices. Beer/wine is usually 7-10TRY at a restaurant, and upwards of 30-50TRY at a club/bar. You can buy beer at most street side markets for around 5TRY/can, and wine for 20-30TRY/bottle. The rules say they can’t sell liquor after 10pm…but this never seemed to be an issue in my experience. The beer you buy will probably be Efes, which as far as I can tell is the only beer maker in Turkey, although there are international beers like Tuborg and Carlsberg available as well. The wine from the Cappadocia and Pamukkale areas are probably the best local wines.

Where to Stay

I’ll provide a few recommendations, but the general theme is that there are A LOT of good, cheap accommodations in Turkey. I mostly traveled as a budget traveler so I don’t know what the high end is like. Is there a Holiday Inn everywhere, no? But why the hell are you travelling in Turkey if you want a Holiday Inn Express to stay in? Stay in North America, princess. Most accommodations are owner operated. Rooms are clean, wifi is free, showers are 90% of the time nice and hot, and the staff will almost always go out of their way to help you.

In Istanbul, I stayed at #Bunk Hostel. This is a hostel but a classy one (seriously) for the champagne backpacker. Great rooftop terrace at the Taksim location. Pretty much everyone I talked to in Turkey recommended their accommodations in Istanbul. There is so much competition that they have to be good or go out of business. So do a little research online for good reviews and then forget about it. To be close to the attractions, most tourists stay in Taksim (quick train ride) or Sultanahmet (walkable). I would recommend these areas for a couple nights and hit the major attractions hard during the days, then get the hell out. Personally I would rather stay on the Asian side (Uskadar or Kadakoy) for the rest of your time in the city.

They’re only a 10-15 min ferry or train ride from the major areas if you need to go back, plus they’re cheaper, less touristy, and nicer. Consider AirBNB.

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View From #Bunk Terrace

In Cappadocia, stay in one of the cave hotels in Goreme (any really). It’s a unique experience and you’re walking distance from the major sights. I stayed at Travellers Cave and while good, it’s no better or worse than any of the others. The owner can speak Korean, so expect a very Korean filled place. Actually, I’ll take a tangent here and talk about that. Turkey is HUGE for South Korean tourists, especially in the fall timeframe like when I went. It’s a ‘thing’ so expect to see them everywhere. Learn some South Korean and you’ll have friends for life. I digress.

In Fethiye, there are three major areas people stay – Fethiye itself, Oludeniz, and Calis. Only stay in Oludeniz if you are from the UK, and northern UK at that. Fethiye is a bit more expensive but where the boats are. Calis is where the beach is, where I stayed, a little quieter, and a great place to watch the sunset.  I stayed at Ten Apart Hotel, which was great, but being on the beach may be more preferable.

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Sunset From Calis Beach

For Pamukkale, just choose any place. You should probably only stay a night anyhow, and it’s almost day trip-able if you want. I stayed at this family-run little place called Anatolia Hotel, cute place and family.

For Ephesus, I stayed in a nearby city of Kusadasi, which I recommend. It’s a quick 5 TRY Dolmus from the sights and is a nice beach town. In Izmir, try to stay in the Alsancak area, it’s where the life of the city is. 

Don’t do your own laundry in Turkey. Almost all hotels will do it for you, and for cheap ($5-10CAD). Note that they generally hang things to dry so you need 24 hours for your laundry to be returned.

Note: The end of November is ‘end of season’ for most places outside of Istanbul.  A lot (~half) of the hotels, restaurants, and tours shut down around this time and reopen in the spring. So while it’s quieter in the fall, you have less options for places to stay and eat.

How to Get Around

Central Istanbul

Central Istanbul

 

Airport

Starting with the flights in, whether you land at Ataturk International on the European side (the biggest airport), or Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side (the newest), the best way is to take a shuttle bus run by a company called Havatas that’ll get you to Taksim for something cheap like 10-15 TRY. It is a municipally owned bus, so they won’t rip you off. The downside is that it doesn’t go to Sultanahmet. There are some good public transport options from Taksim to Sultanahmet, or you can grab a cab. If you are a group of 3-4 and going to Sultanahmet, I would recommend taking a cab as the cost comes out to what the shuttle is. Forget the people inside the airport and go to the official cab booth. Should be 40-50 TRY to get from Ataturk to Sultanahmet.

You can try to take public transport, and if you figure it out, all the power to you, but I can guarantee that it will take you more than an hour and be fairly adventurous. And I really don’t know if it will be cheaper than the bus.

Lastly, you can take a taxi, but as a general rule, I stayed away from them in Turkey. For one, without Google Maps, they could have taken me anywhere and ripped me off, though if you do have a SIM card, you can check them on this. Second, I had no basis for what a taxi should cost. Exception is the airport taxis.

Around Istanbul

Walk. It’s healthy and safe.

Istanbul public transport is really good and should be your main mode of transportation beside your feet. Talk to someone and find out where to get an Istanbul Card (actually what they are called in Turkish).  They are 10TRY to buy, then you put credit on them and just tap at the turnstiles or bus of your choice. The easiest way to get around and worth it as they work on the tram, trains, bus, and ferries. A typical journey will cost ~2.5TRY. The ferries from the major ports of Kadakoy, Beyoglu, Uskudar, Karakoy, and Besiktas run every 10 mins or so, and journey times are 10-20 minutes. There is also a train underneath the Bosphorus that connects Uskudar and Sultanahmet.

Around Turkey

Like many places, there are three options for inter country travel: plane, bus, and train. The prices can actually be pretty close between the three depending on where you’re going to so check them all. If you fly, you are probably going with the discount airline, Pegasus.  It’s pretty good, which is surprising for the cost. They fly out of Sabiha Gökçen.

There are lots of bus company choices and as far as I could tell they are all pretty similar in price and quality. My favourite ended up being Metro Tourism (http://www.metroturizm.com.tr/) because their website is in English and they have offices everywhere. If you can, try to get an upgraded (SUIT) class bus. They are way more comfortable, and almost the same price, somehow. I usually looked at the availability online then went to the local office to buy. This way I received a paper ticket, and you are guaranteed a shuttle from that office to the bus station which can sometimes be across the city.

The train system in Turkey is better than I thought. There is a high speed line between Istanbul and Ankara, and the regional trains are European standard. I would give further recommendations, but this site, Seat 61, is way better (not just for Turkey but all of Europe).

For any city outside of Istanbul, there is a ‘public’ transportation system called Dolmus (pronounced Dolmush). Instead of buses, they are VW van things that as far as I can tell, which are owned and operated by the drivers. They’re cheap at ~2TRY a ride, reliable, and conveniently everywhere. Don’t be a princess and use them. If you don’t know where to go, ask anyone or talk to your hotel concierge (owner). The vans usually have their destination in the front window as well.

Little Things

  • Don’t wait for a crosswalk, just find a break in traffic and go. It is common for people to go halfway, wait and then cross the second half. There are crosswalks, but they seemed to only be used on busy streets.
  • Don’t drink the water. Bottles of water are everywhere for .5TRY/500ml. I used tap water for showers and brushing my teeth with no problems.
  • Everything is officially negotiable if you want to commit the time.
  • There will be beggars everywhere in Istanbul. Most seem to be Syrian refugees. Most won’t bother you, but just be prepared.
  • There is WiFi everywhere (coffee shops, hotels, markets, restaurants, etc) and almost all places will be happy to share the password. That said, if you want maps on the go, getting a SIM is easy too. Check out our page on Turkish SIM cards.

Turkish Words to Know

The Turkish language is phonetic, so once you learn the sounds, you should be able to say anything, but it will take some practise.

  • Merhaba – Hello
  • bir (beer) – 1
  • iki (icky) – 2
  • uc (ooch) – 3
  • dort – 4
  • bes (besh) – 5
  • alti – 6
  • yedi – 7
  • sekiz – 8
  • dokuz – 9
  • on – 10
  • on-bir – 11
  • etc
  • nilsulsun – How are you?
  • Iyiyim – I’m good
  • teşekkür ederim – thank you
  • teşekkülar – Thanks!
  • Menu – Menu
  • hesap – check (in restaurant) 

Get Google Translate and download the Turkish dictionary, it’s worth it.