I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Turkey – and, more specifically, Istanbul – back in college, when I read a book that was partially set in Eastern Europe throughout the 1900s (this one, in case you're curious). I fell in love with everything about Istanbul in that book, and my very first trip to Europe in 2012 was to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Istanbul.
But it was just a teaser; I only got a taste of Turkey on that trip. And I knew that one day I was going to want more.
Fast forward to 2019, and I decided it was finally time to *really* visit Turkey. My dad ended up wanting to join me, and we booked a 2-week tour with Intrepid Travel that hit up a lot of the highlights of Turkey, from the crazy streets of Istanbul to the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
This trip, too, was just a “taster” of Turkey, but it allowed me a much more well-rounded sampling of traveling in this fascinating, beautiful, and delicious country.
If you're wondering whether YOU might like to travel to Turkey, read on to learn about the things that surprised me about traveling there.
8 things that surprised me about traveling in Turkey
1. Turkey is a big country
Many people just think about Istanbul when they think of Turkey. Which is fair – the mega-city straddles two continents and is home to 15 million people. But Turkey is more than just Istanbul.
Turkey covers more than 300,000 square miles, which in US terms is roughly twice the size of California, or a little bigger than the state of Texas. Meaning it's not exactly a small place.
The landscapes in Turkey are diverse, ranging from mountains to salt flats to the deep blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Traveling through the country for two weeks, we saw a different landscape almost every day.
2. It's less conservative than you probably think
Turkey is a Muslim-majority country, but it's one of the less conservative ones I've visited so far. While right-wing politics still reign supreme, recent polls have suggested that religious piety among the people of Turkey might be waning slightly. There are of course many factors that could contribute to this, but part of it is likely due to the fact that Turkey feels, at most times, like a Western nation.
I'm obviously not an expert on Turkish politics or religion, and I can't pass judgment on whether this Westernization is a good or bad thing – but it's definitely there. It can be seen most in Turkey's larger cities, where many local women choose not to wear headscarves, and where you can find things like Starbucks coffee.
Turkey still feels very exotic to this Western traveler (there's nothing quite like hearing the call to prayer echo throughout the many mosques in a city like Istanbul, for example), but it's not as jarring a cultural shock as I think most people assume it will be.
Some parts of Turkey are still very conservative, but there was only one city we visited (Konya) where it was suggested that women make sure their shoulders and knees were covered at all times out of cultural respect.
3. Turkey is relatively safe
It's impossible to make blanket statements about safety, especially in current times. But of course everyone wants to know: Is it safe to travel to Turkey?
My very broad answer would be yes; it's safe to travel to Turkey, and Turkey is not an inherently “dangerous place” to travel.
When I visited Turkey in 2019 (and indeed as I'm writing this post in 2020), the US State Department listed Turkey at a Level 2 travel advisory (“Exercise Increased Caution”). This could sound a little scary, but I'd remind you that the State Department also lists France, Italy, the UK, and many other European countries under a Level 2 advisory.
You of course still want to take basic safety precautions to avoid things like pickpocketing and other petty crime, but but my dad and I felt quite safe throughout our whole time in Turkey. (And, actually, speaking of things like general safety and petty crime, I felt safer walking down the street on my own in Istanbul than I had the week before in Rome!)
As a female traveler, I'm always aware of how places make me feel. I experienced very little harassment in Turkey, and overall never felt very anxious for my safety.
Now, this of course doesn't mean that bad things can't happen when you're traveling in Turkey; there have been recent concerns over tensions at the Syrian border and an increased risk of terrorism, but terrorism is something that can (and does) happen anywhere in the world.
I would not recommend traveling anywhere near the Syrian border in Turkey, and would also advise against participating in any politically-driven protests, should you come across any. But otherwise I don't think you need to avoid Turkey for safety reasons.
4. The history is so rich
Turkey is a relatively “young” country, politically speaking – the modern-day republic of Turkey was only founded in 1923. But the region's history of course is much older.
Most people associate Turkey today with the Ottomans, though its history actually goes much further back, a long time before the country was Muslim. (Even though we often assume the Ottoman empire to be ancient, it was only founded in 1299 and didn't really become powerful until the mid-1400s).
Before the Ottomans, the area now known as Turkey is better referred to as Anatolia (Asia Minor). It's been inhabited since the Stone Age, and has seen civilizations as diverse as Assyrian, Hittite, Persian, Greek, and Roman (which became Byzantine).
Because of this long and rich history, Turkey is home to some ancient wonders that many people don't associate with the modern country.
You can find ruins of churches and temples (including the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World), rock-hewn tombs from the Lycians, in-tact Roman theaters, underground cities, and the ruins of ancient cities like Ephesus and Troy (yes, THAT Troy!).
For a history nerd like me, Turkey is a fascinating place. Every day we were stopping to see ancient ruins, many of them totally non-touristy.
5. Travel in Turkey is pretty easy
I visited Turkey on a guided tour, which was great and stress-free (it was this tour, in case you want to check it out!). But I was surprised by how easy traveling there was.
The infrastructure is pretty good in western and central Turkey; the roads are well-kept, and the highway system easy to navigate. There are plenty of hotels and services for travelers, and a lot of people (especially those working in tourism) speak English.
While I was glad to be with a local guide who knew so many off-the-beaten path spots that I undoubtedly would have missed on my own, I think I would feel comfortable going back to Turkey on my own and exploring beyond Istanbul.
6. Turkish food is more than just kebabs
If you're one of those people who only associates Turkish food with kebabs, get ready to have your mind blown!
Yes, you'll find a lot of kebabs in Turkey. But you'll find a TON of other incredible food, too. In fact, Turkey is probably one of my favorite food countries now!
Because Turkey is a fairly big place with lots of influences from other cultures over the centuries, each region specializes in something slightly different.
Some delicious foods (other than kebabs) we tried throughout Turkey included:
- Gözleme (a stuffed flatbread-like pastry dish)
- Manti (tiny meat-stuffed ravioli in a yogurt sauce)
- Karniyarik (stuffed eggplant)
- Pottery kebab in Cappadocia (basically a stew-like dish cooked in a clay pot that you break open to eat)
- Pide, (Turkish pizza)
- Roasted chestnuts (a popular street food snack in Istanbul)
- Fresh carrot juice (a specialty in Beypazari) and fresh pomegranate juice
- And for dessert, we gorged on things like baklava, semolina halva (a super sweet paste), and of course Turkish Delight
And of course you have all the hot Turkish drinks to look forward to, too. Turkish tea (çay, pronounced like “chai”) is more popular than Turkish coffee among locals, but you can find them both easily. The most popular tea is black tea, but you can also find apple tea, which is very sweet and almost like cider.
There's also ayran, which often looks like milk, but is actually a yogurt drink made with yogurt, salt, and water. It's an acquired taste (and I have not acquired it).
My dad kept joking that we were secretly on a food tour of Turkey instead of a regular tour.
7. It's not particularly cheap
Eastern Europe and Asia are usually fairly budget-friendly destinations. And Turkey IS affordable compared to places in Western Europe.
But, having said that, it's not a particularly “cheap” destination if your travel style is like mine (i.e. I don't stay in hostels anymore and generally like a few creature comforts on my travels).
Prices for most things in Turkey's main cities (like hotels and meals) are on-par with places in central Europe. For example, I paid a little over $100 per night for nice hotel rooms in Istanbul, and meals at regular restaurants can easily cost $10-25 per person (especially if you're ordering drinks).
The only thing that I would say is cheaper than I expected it to be was seafood along Turkey's Mediterranean coast – you can get huge seafood platters in coastal cities for very little money!
Having said all this, Turkey is still a very affordable place to visit, and is probably one of the more affordable destinations if you're after a Mediterranean getaway. It's just not super-cheap like many people assume.
8. Tipping is not compulsory
Unlike in many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa where tipping is not only expected but basically a compulsory part of the culture, it's not quite the same in Turkey.
Tipping of course is still appreciated and expected in some instances where a service has been rendered (like at restaurants), but there isn't as much pressure to tip for small things as there is in, say, Morocco or Egypt.
At restaurants, a tip of 5-10% is normal, and you'll want to tip in cash; there's not always a way to add a tip to a credit card payment here.
The 1 thing that didn't surprise me about Turkey
Before going back to Turkey on this trip, there was one universal truth that I already knew:
Turkish people are so kind
The people in Turkey are known for being warm and hospitable; even the incessant carpet salesmen pester you with a good-natured smile.
I can list off several instances of the kindness of the Turkish people that I personally experienced, like the shop owner in the touristy town of Antalya who was saying “I love you!” to every tourist who walked by, or the time our driver pulled the van over and hopped out of the driver's seat to help a turtle cross the road, or a hotel owner in Istanbul who went out of his way to make sure my dad and I had a good time in his city.
Everyone is always welcoming you to their town or country, often offering you tea or small gifts even if they have very little themselves. And yes, they're sometimes trying to sell you things, but people will still be incredibly kind even after you tell them no.
These are all little things, but it's the little things that often stick with us and leave an impression.
If you're looking for a place where you're likely to feel welcomed as a tourist, you can't go wrong with Turkey.
Who's ready to plan a trip to Turkey now? What else would you like to know about traveling there?
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