Right now, I am writing this from the center of the world—literally, where the Bosphorus River runs through Asia and Europe in the stunning city of Istanbul, Turkey. And quite appropriately, there is no place in the world that fuses East and West with such ease.
From the old world cobblestone streets and cafes to the daily morning call to prayer to the country’s complex politics and relationship with its regional neighbors, there is truly no other travel experience quite like Turkey. I have been many places in the world, but I have never been so moved by a country’s political and social landscape.
If you are heading there, too (and I highly recommend that you do), here are a few important steps to make the best out of your trip.
1. Know a Little Turkish
Outside of the major cities, not many people speak English in Turkey. But the good news is, Turkish isn’t hard to learn—the letters are similar to the Roman alphabet and words are said as they are spelled.
And, a little Turkish will get you far. When I went to buy shampoo on my first day, I used a few Turkish words and the shopkeeper invited me for Turkish coffee. People have been gracious and patient as I navigate through the words I know, occasionally asking me to teach them English words. This kind of exchange can go a long way, and make travel a bit easier—not to mention much more rewarding.
2. Eat Well and in Moderation
There is so much good food in Turkey for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike (emphasis on “so much”). The key to food survival in Turkey is to take just a spoonful off each plate (especially when you’re eating mezes—small plates of grape leaves, eggplant, and hummus—as you’ll have more than one entree to follow).
The first few days we were in Izmir, we were consuming massive Turkish meals—course after course that would not stop coming, from appetizers to dessert to tea. We were stuffed, but also didn’t want to be rude. A few days into our trip my friend said “I fear food—please don’t let them bring the next course.” Later, we realized that our Turkish friends were trying to be as hospitable as possible.
Of course, Turkish meals vary by region, but remember to gauge your appetite and plan ahead so that you can enjoy the culinary adventure. And remember that street food and small portions such as a simit and sweet breads can be purchased for one lira and be just as filling as a five-course meal!
3. Dress Stylishly and Respectfully
Leave the backpacker equipment at home—women in Turkey dress extremely fashionably. There is also a wide range of dress: While some women wear headscarves and cover their bodies, others wear short skirts and high heels.
So how should you dress? Heels and professional clothing are generally acceptable, and if you want to blend in, you should create your own style, too. And be sure to purchase a scarf or shawl (I prefer ones with Iznik tulip patterns, because they're useful and you can bring them home) in case you find yourself in a conservative area, such as the countryside, or if you get invited into a mosque, where you’ll need to cover your hair.
4. Get Out of the Cities
Istanbul is famous for its old world, Ankara for its bureaucracy, and Izmir for its Greek influence and unique old city feel. They are amazing cities, but there are so many other regions to understand in Turkey, too. Places like Mardin in the Southeast of Turkey and Hatay, which shares a border with Syria, offer a unique insight into what Turkey is like from an everyday perspective. Mardin will offer a glimpse into the country life, while Haytay offers insight into a different era of the way things once were in Turkey.
Just as you would make it a point to go out every night in the city, make it a point to get out on the weekends to the countryside, just to understand a different and simpler way of life. In Turkey, there is no one place that's more authentic than the other—you just feel this positive energy wherever you are. Embrace it, and be sure to explore what the entire country has to offer.
5. Understand the Culture
Turkey is often misunderstood by the West as a moderate Muslim state—but in fact, it has always been a secular state with a Muslim population. That means religion and state are separate, and that most cities in Turkey are very liberal and give people a choice on how they decide to practice Islam.
Turkish culture keeps a strong focus on pride and honor, so it is important to make sure you know how to conduct yourself in certain situations. These are little things, like dealing with direct comments, accepting a six-course meal from your hosts, and getting used to the fusion of European and Asian influences. Also, be careful when you're talking politics: You should know which issues are sensitive and understand that every person will have a completely different perspective on culture, life, and government.
Observe, follow others' lead, and check out a great blog called “Turkish Muse” that will help you get acquainted with being an expat or traveler in the country.
6. Study History
To travel through Turkey without knowing the history would be like driving without GPS. One of the oldest regions in the world, Turkey has a rich historical story, and you must understand a few chapters in order to truly appreciate it.
A quick primer to get you started: The Seljuks, the Mongols, and the Ottomans played a huge role in shaping the nation's history. After the Ottoman empire fell into decline in the 1800s, Turkey fought for independence and sovereignty. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became the founder and first President of Turkey in 1923, a key historical moment in Turkey’s identity. Ataturk is the reason for many of Turkey’s modern facets today, including education, political structure, art, and culture. Also, a total of eight countries border Turkey, and there is a fascinating history of Kurdish, Syrian, and Jewish communities and their unique experiences in Turkey.
Today, from a foreign policy perspective, Turkey is one of the most strategically important countries in the world and a gateway to the Middle East. At the same time, it cannot be conflated with the challenges of the Middle East and must be looked at within its own unique context.
Turkey is at a constant crossroads, and has a dual identity as a historic empire and the 15th largest economy in the world. It's an utterly fascinating places, and whether you go for the food, the history, the culture, or the style, make a point to travel to Turkey at least once in your life. It will undoubtedly be worth the wisdom and learning you gain on your journey.
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Photos courtesy of Paul Searle and Stephanie Shearer Cate.