Why not visit Turkey this year? Here is what you need for a wonderful trip!
Turkey has recently been one of the places to escape the madness, the overtime and the ever changing sets of rules that have dictated life in the past two years. Have you considered to visit Turkey this year?
And while I am making more vague plans to re-visit soon, I came across a lot of stuff that is important to know and that a lot of other “100.000 Things you need to know before you visit Turkey” didn’t cover, especially considering the recent pandemic situation. So, drawing from my own experience, here is yet another “what you need to know before you visit Turkey this year” post.
Next trip will be my sixth trip to Turkey, and having visited twice in the past three months, I still consider myself a bit of a Turkey newbie, as my first two trips were to Istanbul only. If you consider a trip to Turkey soon, here you will find some useful tips for your visit, especially if you are planning to travel independently and don’t have tour operators sorting out the practicalities.
Pros and Cons of visiting Turkey
Why visit Turkey?
For us Europeans, Turkey is within easy reach at low prices. With Istanbul’s two major airports and a really good domestic flight network, you can fly almost anywhere in Turkey easily and cheaply. Turkish Airlines are really good, and low cost carriere Pegasus is an okay airline (I wrote a comparison here). During the summer season, add to that a plethora of charter flights to the Mediterranean and Aegean resorts, and Turkey really is a place easy to travel to.
Turkey is also incredibly friendly. I notice this more in places that aren’t so touristy, but even in Istanbul random people let me use their phone at bus stops, offered me sweets, are generally considerate and smiling, not just to tourists, but with each other.
Even before inflation took off and gave a raw deal to those living in Turkey, Turkey was reasonably priced, cheap almost. It is even cheaper now but I see it as a double-edged sword, and while it will not stop me from visiting, I make sure that I use local services and hotels rather than international brands and tip generously.
Hotels are of a good standard. Even local hotels, which can be incredibly cheap, are usually very clean and have comfy beds and clean bathrooms.
Culturally, the country is amazing – from early civilizations like the Hittites, Phrygians, Lykians and others through the Greco-Roman and Byzantive period, the Seljuk Empire up to the Ottoman Empire and the modern republic, there are rich sites telling the history of Turkey. The country has 19 UNESCO works heritage sites, from Neolithic Gobekli Tepe to the Ottoman sites of Edirne, Bursa and Istanbul. And the natural sites are not too shabby either, from a long coast line to the unique sites of Cappadokia and Pamukkale.
The food is amazing. So is the Shopping. And did we talk about the weather yet – with a long sunshine hours most of the year on the coast and cold snowy winters in the interior?
Sitting on the fence here… Is Turkey safe for visitors?
Add to that the relative safety. I do follow mainstream news and I cannot ignore the fact that Turkey is considered not safe for travel (FCO advice here and US Department of State advice here) due to threats from terrorism, political unrest and earthquakes.
For starters, I have felt a lot more unsafe in large UK or US cities, even in Berlin which I know pretty well, for example, than in Istanbul. As far as I am concerned, I would much rather travel to Turkey solo than to the US and the UK. And that’ll be travelling in the “red” zones near the Syrian border and in Hatay province. Yes, I noticed a lot of police presence, and check points, but I, as a tourist, felt rather reassured than frightened by them.
Reasons you may not wish to visit Turkey
You may have reservation about the political regime of Turkey, and without wanting to sound too critical of a country I have visited numerous times and had nothing but a good experience, your reservations are not unfounded. Unless you are active for any political movements or parties that are considered illegal in Turkey, you have nothing to fear. However, Turkey is considered by Reporters without Borders as heavily censored, with restricted freedom of press. Saying that the Western media, including my home country and the English language news outlets I sometimes read, often present a very skewed picture of Turkey.
The border regions with Syria and Iraq are deemed as particularly unsafe. I traveled there for a week last year and felt extremely safe, including the frequent police checks. As a tourist, I did not get any bother by police or army at all. But bear in mind you are often less than 10km from a country with a civil war still going on.
Getting to Turkey
From Europe and the Middle East, travelling to Turkey is extremely easy thanks to two large Turkey-based airlines, Turkish Airlines and Pegasus. Recently, I paid 53 Euro for a flight to Antakya and 48 Euro including checked luggage back from Istanbul to Berlin, which I consider, given the distance and that the ticket is fully flexible, very cheap. My last trip, a return flight to Istanbul, cost 75 Euro. For internal flights, I paid between 15 and 35 Euros.
Usually, unless you take a charter flight, you will most likely have to transfer in Istanbul.
In short, Istanbul Airport (IST) is the big modern one on the European side where most International flights by Turkish Airlines and international airlines go to.
Sabiha Gokcen Airport (SAW) is the older, somewhat more chaotic and unfancy one where most cheap flights go to and where Pegasus Airlines has its hub.
The airports are 75km apart, and a coach into the centre takes 30minutes in very good traffic and up to three hours in bad traffic, which can occur commonly.
Entry Regulations to Turkey
Turkey allows many citizens, among them South Americans and Europeans, to enter Visa-free. As a German, I don’t even need a passport. Some others, like citizens of Canada, Australia, the United States and most East African countries, can easily apply for an eVisa or receive a Visa on arrival. So, as a tourist, there are not many legal hoops to jump through.
Like most countries, Turkey has been affected by COVID-19. Obviously, the infection and vaccination rates keep changing but are reported in detail although with some delay, ont he Turksi Health Authority web site, where you can check incidence and vaccination rates for the region you are planning to visit.
At the time of writing, you require either a negative test or evidence of a complete vaccination. Masks are mandatory on public transport and in enclosed public spaces.
It stands for “Hayat Evi Sigar” or “Safe at home” and everyone who’s out and about in Turkey has to have one – to allow COVID-related tracking. It is mandatory for everyone entering Turkey to fill in an Entry Form for Turkey. Compared to the buggy pieces of crap I have seen for some EU countries, this one was a breeze to fill in, and upon completion, without fault, you will be issued with a HES Code, which you need to keep, either on your phone, or print it out.
If you are in Istanbul, you will need to link this HES code online before being able to use the Istanbulkart, the electronic ticket to public transport, and a very useful thing to have, rahter than the three-ride tourist cards. It isn’t a big deal, but unless both are linked, you cannot use any public transport. Best is to purchase a card from Vending machines of the Havaist Bus Shuttle Ticket office, and ask someone to help you link it. There is a web site, too, but it is not operational at the time of writing. (https://kisisellestirme.istanbulkart.istanbul/)Other than that, the HES code is no big deal, most hotels want to see it, sometimes you need it to purchase tickets for intercity bus journeys, sometimes even museums want to see it.
As Entry forms are getting scrapped left, right and centre, you may not even need to fill this in any more, and even if you do, it is extremely strsightfoward and can be done in less than two minutes.
The currency is the Turkish Lira. At the time of writing, 1 Euro equals about 16 Turkish Lira, but that is literally changing by the minute, as Turkey experiences a high level of inflation. Do not bring Turkish Lira into the country – there are plenty of exchange offices and ATM in both airports.
Some web sites will not work
First and foremost, my beloved Booking.com which I use for about 80-90% of my hotel bookings, will not work on standard internet inside Turkey. It is fine to book your hotel from outside Turkey using the site, but once you enter Turkey, you can see and use these bookings, but not book any new hotels.
Good alternatives are Agoda, which works reliably and has some nice hotels, but generally less choice than Booking.com, and slightly more expensive on average. I had forgotten this last time, and finding nothing good on Agoda, booked my Iznik hotel through a Turkish site called Odamax. It has an English language option, and offers reservations without a credit card – which I prefer, having been bitten with credit cards not working severaltimes when in Turkey.
Some other web site, especially those for news or a political nature, will not work either.
Turkey is quite conservative
Istanbul and the big resorts aside, Turkey is a conservative Muslim country. It still means you can have lots of fun.
A lot of cities I have been to now, including Bursa and Sanliurfa, are almost entirely teetotal. And guess what, there are still noisy parties with a lot of music and dancing and a vibrant nightlife… just not the way we might know it in the West.
Turks outside Istanbul dress quite modestly but no one will expect that from you. However, attire covering shoulders and knees are pretty much standard outside resorts. Trousers are totally fine for women. Turkey has some pretty great clothes shops, too. I often end up buying a pair of jeans and a top and scarves, plenty of very versatile scarves.
What I love about Turkey’s society and religion is that unlike in some countries, all mosques are open to any kind of visitor as long as they behave and dress modestly. Larger and more famous mosques might chuck non-Muslims out at prayer time, most don’t. Some people especially in the Southeast might give you funny looks if you enter the main prayer hall as a woman, but with modest clothing and making clear you want to admire the art, it is not a problem at all.
Smaller and lesser known mosques usually have imams, caretakers or random people who happen to know where they keys are kept and welcome you into the mosques with open arms, asking about your relation to islam and why you are interested in seeing the mosques – then ply you with tea or even food. From being able to sit in mosques during prayer to attending a sema at a Sufi shrine, people were always very open and welcoming, many spoke English and it all felt very tolerant and inclusive.
Food is fresh and tasy but sometimes you have to be imaginative as a vegetarian
Turkish food is one of the best in the world, and I often tend to cook it at home, using fresh produce from a Turkish supermarket. The irony is, while most of my Turkish food is vegan, it can be harder to find vegetarian and vegan food in Turkish restaurants.
The cheapest restaurants (“lokantasi”) often have a range of veggie dishes.
The restaurants you will come across as a tourist, often quite fancy ones in beautiful locations, often boast a charcoal grill, and the menu is meat, meat, and more meat. However, every restaurant I have been to so far has made me some nice grilled veggies with whatever side dishes they had when I asked if they had something vegetarian (“vejeteryan yemeğin var mı?”)
I did notice quite big regional differences here. Obviously, there are regional specialities, especially if you come to the Black Sea Region or Southeastern Anatolia. Anywhere along the coast you will find lots of fresh fish and seafood. Kebab, Kofte and pide are staples all over the country, often sold from simple takeaways or simple restaurants.
Then, there are the “lokantasi”, local restaurants, often for workers, which have ready-cooked meals on large trays available. They will always have some veggie dish, because, very cheap, and you will find them often in commercial areas. Also, look out for “corba” (soup) “Izgara” (grill) or “kahvalti” (breakfast/brunch) places, they tend to be local and very good. A great place, often a bit fanciet, and in beautiful old buildings or with what would be a “beer garden” in Western Europe, are the “ocakbasi” (“fireside”) restaurants, offering grilled meats, and they will basically grilla anything for you, including a skewer of veggies accompanied by fries, if you ask nicely.
Accommodation is almost always amazing and very cheap
From the very basic and very cheap to five star luxury, Turkish hotels and pensions are amazing value. Can you believe it, in three trips to Turkey in the past two years and about 20 hotels, I never had a really bad one.
I remember in my early travel days that the Western Germans said ” Hotels in Turkey are not Western Standard”. My, my, I never understood exactly what “Western Standard” meant exactly. Yes, on my first trip to Istanbul, super cheap, because, student, we stayed in a comfy three-star hotel in the Kumkapi area. yes, the bedroom had carpeting, and there were kittens in a broom cupboar,d but I didn’t get bed bugs and it was clean, friendly, and they served a lovely breakfast.
I have stayed anywhere from “no star” (Istanbul Hotel in Iznik) to “Five Star” (The Pera Palace) establishments, and in Turkey, you can find a clean and comfy room for 1oEuro and find some superb luxury accommodation in the region of a 100Euro per room per night. Hotel rooms in pretty much every category are good, and sometimes I may not quite understand how the star ratings come about, but I have slept in palace-like holtels and guesthouses in Southeastern Anatolia for about 25 Euro per night – the value for money in hotels is absolutely stunning, and I encourage you to seek accommodations away from the international chains (which are fine just look very similar everywhere).
Don’t just go to Cappadokia, Istanbul and the resorts – Turkey has so much more to offer
My advice is to really seek out places that are less touristy. Almost every visitor will go through Istanbul at some point, and the city is fascinating, full of sights and some of the best food, but compared to every other city in Turkey, it is absolutely rammed. It take some getting sued to for sure, but consider staying in a less touristy area with good links (Laleli, Vezneciler, and, to a certain extent, Beyoglu) for a somewhat more authentic experience.
Istanbul, Cappadocia, Antalya, Pamukkale and Ephesus are pretty much top places to visit in Turkey. I am not going to tell you to avoid them, but Turkey is huge and you can see more more of the “real” Turkey by mixing up your destinations.
You like fascinating landscapes and cave churches?
Instead of Pamukkale and Cappadocia, try the Phrygian Valley, one of the most underrated places in Turkey. A bit of a bummer to get to, but at least you have a high speed rail links all the way to Eskisehir, then visit Afyonkarahisar and Isprarta before flying back from Konya or Antalya.
Is it UNESCO World Heritage Sights you are after?
Well, Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Cappadocia, Ephesus and the Historic Areas of Istanbul are the famous , and over-visited ones. Of the ones I have been to, Afrodisias and Bursa stand out, and I really want to visit the Selimiye Complex in Edirne, Nemrut Dagi and Gobekli Tepe. There are about 1o more, including Pergamon, Troy, Ani and Diyarbakir.
A classy resort?
Forget the “Turkish Riviera”. Of the “big” ones I have only been to Fethiye. Too busy. I really loved Patara on the Mediterranean, and Alacati on the Aegean Coast.
And so I could go on and on.
Last not Least….
The Shopping is Outstanding
If you love to shop, like me, you will be in paradise. Lets start with what Turkey is famous for: decorative items and clothes! Yes, the variety is outstanding.
From multicoloured “Turkish” lamps to rugs and carpets, ceramics, tea sets, copper and brass bowls and plates – you find it. In order to see what’s available the Grand Bazaar is a great place to start looking. If you have an apartment to decorate, Turkey is heaven. But even if you don’t, there are some great items that you find only in Turkey at a great quality, but you may need to look a little harder. For example, great towels and scarves made from organic cotton often hand loomed on mechanical looms.
Silk fabric for about 10 Euro a metre. Well, in Bursa at least.
Nice gold jewellery at decent prices, including some heavy bangles.
If it’s clothes you are after, you get some amazing quality everyday clothes at unbelievable prices. Take a look at branches of Mavi (who make good and durable jeans) or LC Waikiki for casual clothes, and Vakko for fancier classic clothes. The accessories of Levi d’Or are great. They emphasize on chic hijabi accessories, but I found the silk squares are perfect as neckscarves, and they do bags and purses and great accessories.
Cosmetics – well, I am no good at decorative cosmetics but I have bought a lot of soap from Turkey. The city of Hatay is famous for laurel soap (similar to Aleppo soap), a lot of Aleppo soap is actually produced in Turkey, and pretty much anywhere in Turkey you find natural soaps based on olive oil for very little money. During the pandemic, I was grateful for my stash of Turkish cologne – often lemon-scented, they are to cleanse and to refresh,a nd they make the best-smelling hand sanitizer! Many cities and regions and even cafes and restaurants produce their own signature cologne. For everyday brands, Eyup Sabri Tuncer is my favourite. For a fancier scent, Atelier Rebul, the fancy brand of the Rebul cologne brand, has produced a range of Eaux de Parfum and Cologne.
And if there isn’t a single thing you want to buy because you have too much stuff already, take a look at the food items! I always bring back superb quality chili flakes, sumac and other spices. The spiece merchants are really good – especially the ones outside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, but any decent city bazaar has good spices by the kilo. And if there is anything you need for the kitchen… I have two nice Turkish cezves (coffee pots) already, but there are nice inexpensive porcelain and glassware (Pasabahce is good and made in Turkey) , hand made copper pots, and juce presses that actually work for a fraction of the price you’d pay in Central Europe. A commercial grade pomegranate and citrus juicer is on my watch list already, and on my next trip, I might have a larger luggage allowance to finally pick one up.
And now? If you have a vacation and nowhere to go yet, Turkey will have something for everyone, so book it and have a wonderful time!