Turkey: where east meets west

While it may be tempting to think of Turkey solely as a Middle Eastern country steeped in Islamic tradition and history, this notion comes up woefully short in recognizing the numerous cultures that have passed through the country or grown up there. Any traveler stepping off the plane in Istanbul will be struck by the wide variety of architectural styles represented, and that’s merely the tip of the iceberg of what a vacation in Turkey can entail.

 

Once referred to as Asia Minor, Turkey is a crossroads between both Asia and Europe. Its largest city, Istanbul, sits on either side of the Bosporus Strait, straddling two continents. Further west lies the Dardanelles Strait, and in between those the Sea of Marmara. The Black Sea borders the northern coast, while the Aegean borders the western coast and the Mediterranean runs along the southern coast of Turkey. These surrounding seas give Turkey a diverse range of climates, and a list of the bordering countries makes clear the cultural diversity in play in this country: Greece and Bulgaria on the west; Syria, Iran, and Iraq to the southeast; and Georgia, Armenia, and Aizerbaijan to the northeast.

 

Getting in, out, and about Turkey

 

In order to travel to Turkey as a tourist, you need a valid passport that must be valid for an additional 6 months from the date of your arrival. You also will need to apply for a tourist visa. The most efficient and inexpensive way to go about this is to apply for an E-visa from Turkey’s visa website, www.evisa.gov.tr, where it only costs approximately $20 USD. You can also apply at any Turkish embassy or consulate, but the visas issued there will cost around $60 USD. You’re allowed a stay of up to 90 days within a 180 day period in Turkey on a tourist visa.

 

Although Turkey does not officially bar travelers with AIDS/HIV from entry into the country, there have been instances where people were deported when they were found to be carrying the virus. In addition to routine vaccinations, many travelers get vaccinations against Hepatitis A and typhoid. If you like to eat adventurously, these may be appropriate for you. In addition, some travelers get vaccinations against polio, Hepatitis B, malaria, and rabies. If you plan on traveling in more rural areas, volunteering in a refugee camp, or engaging in adventure travel, these may be necessary for you. Always consult with your local doctor well in advance of a trip about your vacation plans to determine which vaccines are appropriate.

 

The tap water in Turkey is not safe for consumption. You should avoid using ice cubes and only drink water that has been bottled and sealed. While milk products are safe to enjoy in Turkey, other types of food pose some dangers. Instances of bird flu contamination through poultry and other animal products, particularly in open air markets, have been known to occur.

 

While street crime is fairly low throughout Turkey, the usual crimes associated with heavy tourist areas, such as petty thefts and pickpocketing, can occur, and travelers need to be careful to avoid making themselves stand out as potential targets. Many scams target individual travelers, both male and female, so you can avoid this by traveling in groups.

 

While crime rates may be low in Turkey, acts of terrorism, particularly those aimed at US interests, do proliferate. In 2013 a suicide bomber attempted to blow up the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, and the US restricts its personnel from traveling to several areas in eastern and southeastern Turkey. The border with Syria is particularly dangerous for US travelers.

 

Some festivals and celebrations in Turkey, particularly its May 1 celebration, have been known to get violent. Check with your local concierge about potential dangers surrounding any holidays before taking part in them yourself. Keep abreast of local news while you are there and always remain aware of your surroundings. Terrorist attacks are not necessarily frequent, but can be devastating when they occur. Before you travel, consult the US State Department website for additional tips on staying safe in Turkey: http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/country/turkey.html.

 

LGBT travelers should be aware that Turkey, although under a secular government, is extremely conservative and intolerant towards homosexuality. Law enforcement officials often use public morality clauses in their laws to justify harassing LGBT individuals and groups.

 

If you are into recreational drug use, Turkey is not the place for you to engage in it. Penalties are harsh for drug violations and can carry jail sentences that range from 4 to 20 years. It is also illegal to disrespect the Turkish flag and other government symbols, so remain respectful wherever you go. Although it is not explicitly illegal to engage in religious proselytization, there are numerous laws that regulate religious expression that can ensnare you. The main guideline to follow while you’re traveling in Turkey, or anywhere else, is to remember that as a traveler you are a guest of that country and should behave with respect towards your hosts.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

The official language of Turkey is Turkish. You would do well to amass a good sampling of survival phrases while you are there. While English is widely taught in secondary schools, most Turkish people have too few opportunities to practice it, so that fluency varies widely. Outside of the heavier tourist areas, English speakers are few and far between. If you speak German or Dutch, however, you may be able to get by, since the Turkish people more commonly speak these languages throughout the country. Since the 1920’s, Turkey changed from using the Arabic alphabet to use a variation on the Latin alphabet, so most signs should be intelligible to US travelers.

 

Money matters in Turkey

 

While Turkey once was a relatively inexpensive travel destination, the popularity of Mediterranean and Aegean seaside resorts and larger cities such as Istanbul as tourist destinations have made prices in Turkey more commensurate with the rest of Europe. Budget travelers can find inexpensive deals on accommodations, with hostel prices ranging from $2.50 USD to over $150 USD a night for one person. Midrange hotels average around $80 to $120 USD a night per person. Keep in mind that these are estimates according to 2014 prices.

 

The lira is Turkey’s unit of currency, and periods of high inflation have made it difficult to truly assess how much a vacation to Turkey can cost at any one point in time. Occasionally, travel there is rather inexpensive and at other times extremely costly. Budget travelers should look to use public transportation, eat modestly, and engage in free activities to minimize the hit to your pocket book.

 

Tipping is not practiced typically in Turkey, although some restaurants may add a 10% service charge to your bill. Tips ranging from your coin change to up to 10% are considered highly generous.

 

Changing US currency or euros is fairly common throughout Turkey, but other forms of currency, such as the Canadian and Australian dollars, are not. Most ATM machines offer service in English and typically charge a 1% service charge for you to pull money out in the form of lira. Paying vendors directly in US currency is possible, but you tend to get low exchange rates this way.

 

Highlights of a vacation in Turkey

 

  • Istanbul. In addition to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Istanbul features numerous attractions. Take a boat ride through the Bosporus to view the city or cross the Bosporus Bridge over to the Asian side of the city and climb the top of Çamlica Hill for a magnificent view of the entire city. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market are two world famous places to shop. For an out of the ordinary experience, explore the caverns of Basilica Cistern, which date back to the 6th Century Byzantine Empire.
  • Visit the ruins of Ancient Troy. Troia, the name of the archaeological site that has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lies next to the town of Hisarlik. Excavation of this area has been in process for over 150 years, so you can see many different levels of a city that has been around for 1000s of years. There’s even a replica of the famous wooden horse that ultimately, according to Homer, did Troy in. You can even climb inside of it and imagine you’re a Greek warrior waiting to infiltrate the ancient city’s walls.
  • Hattusas. Before the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantines, Romans, and Greeks, the ancient Hittites ruled over most of Turkey. Hattusas, near the town of Bogazkale, was once the capital of the Hittite Empire. Check out the museum in Bogazkale or walk among the ruins of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Keep in mind that most museums and ancient sites are typically closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly.
  • Take a bath. The Turkish baths, known locally as hammams, are great places to relaxe and be pampered. Many of the more expensive hotels feature fake hammams that are more geared for western tourists, but if you want to experience the real deal, check out the Cagaloglu in the Old Town section of Istanbul.
  • The Lycian Way. This heavily forested area near the Mediterranean side of the country is perfect for hiking, especially when you never know what ancient ruins you may come across (and from what era).

 

In addition to these highlights, you’ll find numerous attractions to make your stay in Turkey unique and enriching. Lounge on the fabulous beaches along the Mediterranean coast or go skiing in the interior mountains. Whatever activities you fill your vacation to Turkey with, you’ll find there are numerous things still to do, and this will keep you coming back.