A country straddling two diverse continents, struggling to define its identity for centuries, steeped in history, and blessed with otherworldly landscapes certainly makes for an intriguing voyage. Torn between its oriental and occidental cultures, it is a continually shifting civilisation, which has played pivotal roles in many of history’s most critical events. After dreaming about this destination for years, we finally had the opportunity to visit, and before we had even left, we were already mentally planning our next trip to this wonderful country.
A Brief History
First known as Byzantium to the ancient Greeks, Istanbul’s origins are as mysterious as its history. Located in a place of extreme strategic importance at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, it is easy to see why so many of the world’s greatest civilisations tried to conquer it. The mighty waterways of the Bosphorus, coupled with the Golden Horn, Marmara Sea, and flowing Dardenelles combined to form a defensible settlement, which was also a central trade route, had fertile land nearby, and was unimaginably beautiful as well.
In around 330, it was christened Constantinople in honour of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, and served as the capital of the Roman Empire. It was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe from the 5th to 13th century, and was largely developed in this era to rival Rome, as its central position made it easier to rule from. Majestic buildings, formidable defences, and an extensive cache of relics and art made it an enviable city. On the 29th May 1453 it was eventually conquered by Sultan Mehmed II after a seven-week siege, and it remained under Ottoman rule until the 29th October 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared that Turkey would henceforth be a republic. While Ataturk moved the country’s capital to Ankara as a way to break away from the past, Istanbul remains its economic hub, and the first place that springs to mind when anyone mentions Turkey.
While the Ottomans had a strong Islamic focus, and converted many of the city’s churches into mosques during their rule, they nonetheless provided a relatively safe environment for people of other faiths, with Christians, Jews, and Muslims all living side by side. There were a large number of Jewish inhabitants concentrated in neighbourhoods like Balat and Galata after they were expelled from Spain in 1492, whereupon the Ottomans welcomed them. They placed a high importance on taking care of the people, and many schools, hospitals, and ‘soup-kitchens’ were set up to serve the people. It was also unique in that anyone could raise their status through the palace ranks, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. They maintained a strong army comprised of janissaries, who were mostly Christian youths taken from their families during wars, and trained to be soldiers from early on. Later on, these janissaries had so much of pull that they even came to dictate the sultan’s decisions.
While most of the mosques and palaces constructed during Ottoman rule are distinctly oriental in design, a shift can be seen towards the occidental in the architecture of the last two centuries when they clearly tried to play up their position in Europe. After reading up on the history of Turkey, and after walking its streets and mingling with its people, it becomes ever clearer that as a nation, they are still torn between their identities and probably have a long way to go in defining it.
Places to Visit
No trip to Tukey would be complete without spending a generous chunk of time in Istanbul. The largest, and probably the most famous, city in the wold that straddles two continents, it is steeped in history and culture. From impressive mosques and opulent palaces, to vibrant squares and rich museums, it certainly has no shortage of historical sights to explore. However, it also has bustling bazaars and shiny malls, glistening skyscrapers and hip cafes, shopping streets and an efficient public transport system, which makes it a modern destination, too.
If you visit in the spring, keep an eye out for the tulips in full bloom, one of Turkey’s most famous and also unknown exports. For most people, the Netherlands spring to mind when one thinks of tulip fields, but they were actually brought to Holland from Turkey in 17th century. The name is even said to come from the Turkish word ‘tulban,’ as it resembles a sultan’s turban. Our suggestion is to take your time and explore its hilly streets, peek through intricate doorways and sample delicious local food, talk to locals and, of course, marvel at its monuments. This is a city best enjoyed at a leisurely pace in order to grasp its subtleties, and you will feel all the more satisfied at the end of your trip, having delved in deep to uncover some of the city’s secrets.
After getting thoroughly acquainted with Turkish life, it’s time to slow down and enjoy its beautiful countryside. If time allows it, a road trip would be ideal, but if, like us, you’re short on time, hit up the country’s greatest hits for a taste of what it has to offer. The otherworldly formations of Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys and cave houses really do feel like stepping on to an alien planet, and left us in awe. The region has now gained incredible fame for its hot air balloons, and it is definitely one of the few travel experiences that live up to the hype. Pamukkale’s travertine terraces have been famed since antiquity, and if the brochures are to be believed, Cleopatra’s own swimming pool lies atop the terraces. Their healing waters resulted in the establishment of ancient Hierapolis, and a visit to these ruins should form part of your visit.
With miles and miles of stunning coastline, there are plenty of options to suit every type of traveller. From the all-inclusive resorts of Lara devoid of any culture, to the tiny hotels in its old city that still retain age-old charms, Antalya has something to offer everyone. But don’t let that stop you from visiting Kusadasi, Fethiye, Bodrum, or any of the other myriad options along the coast. Some offer ferries to Greek islands, some are known for their diving opportunities, and some still retain their old-world fishing-village vibes.
If you find yourself visiting in the cooler months, you could be treated to snow covered mountain peaks and warm Turkish delicacies. If you’re feeling adventurous you can attempt a hike or try your hand at skiing in some of the country’s ski resorts, such as those in Kartepe, Erzurum, and Sarikamis, amongst others. For history buffs, the legendary city of Troy lies in Turkey’s Anatolian region, and there’s even a life sized replica of the Trojan Horse that you can visit in Hisarlik. The story of the seven sleepers appears in both the Quran and Bible, and there is some disagreement about whether it is located in Jordan or Turkey. IF you choose to believe the latter claim, the cave can be found in Ephesus. If Sufi traditions interest you, then a visit to Konya should feature on your trip, where you can visit the Mevlana Museum and learn about Rumi and the whirling dervishes.
Go forth and explore- you will not be disappointed! Keep an eye out for our detailed city guides, which will be published over the next few weeks.
Read, read, read!
Turkey has a rich and interesting history and reading both fiction and non-fiction, contemporary as well as classic literature will give you valuable insights as you prepare for your trip. It will help you to understand what you’re seeing and provide context for both the old and the new.
Eat, eat and eat some more!
While almost everyone knows about kebabs, Turkish cuisine goes far beyond that. It has the most delicious foods, with a focus on fresh, regional produce and rich, spicy flavours. From syrupy baklava and delicate lokum, to fresh fish sandwiches and moist clay pots, our food list was almost as long as our attractions list. Turkey is a great place to get out of your comfort zone, so stray away from the international chains, and look for spots frequented by locals for the most authentic experience.
Use the public transport system
Istanbul has one of the most well developed public transport infrastructure systems we’ve seen. Purchase an Istanbulkart from any supermarket or station, top it up with some cash, and you’ll be able to access any corner of the city using busses, underground trains, trams, and even funiculars, ferries, and cable cars. While it eats up more time than you’d expect, each trip costs just a couple of Lira, and the rides give you a chance to see the city, interact with locals and tourists alike, and also avoid much of the city’s notorious traffic. We were warned to be aware of pickpockets on and around the public transport, but thankfully had no incidents. However, it never hurts to be alert so do take special care of your belongings. Note that in some countryside towns you will likely be dependent on taxis if you haven’t hired a car, and some cities like Antalya have limited public options that will do the job but not at the same level of efficiency as in Istanbul.
While a lot of places are quite geared up for tourists, there are still a lot of shops and restaurants that don’t accept credit cards at all, and some that only accept local cards. Some add 3 to 11% above the actual price if you use a card, and all those little charges start to add up fast. Do look around different money exchanges for the best rates (we found the best rates on Istiklal Street, but surprisingly, even the Istanbul International Airport had decent rates). Also take special care when using the ATMs, as some don’t translate all the features to English properly and in some cases, cancelling the transaction doesn’t work. We almost walked away from an ATM after cancelling our withdrawal transaction, only for the money to be spat out a few minutes later! Luckily we were still nearby and didn’t lose the cash but it served as a good reminder for future transactions.
While all the mosques offer scarves and long skirts for women to cover up, it is best to dress conservatively if you’ll be visiting mosques to show respect. This applies to men as well, who should at least wear shorts that reach below their knees.
Leave your musallah and istinja bottles at home
For muslim travellers, Turkey is a destination that’s hard to beat. Every toilet we used had a bidet, and we were never further than a five minute walk from a Masjid, which made Salah such a pleasure!
Bargain, a lot
Istanbul is cheaper to shop at than other towns, but it is still in your best interests to bargain, no matter where you are. While the Grand Bazaar is on most travellers’ lists, it is not the best place to shop, and you’ll be better off shopping on the side streets outside it, as well as further away from tourist hotspots. Also make sure to ask around for prices to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
If you are planning on shopping, chances are that the bulk of it will be done in Istanbul. Most international flights also fly through the new airport in Istanbul, and if you are travelling to other destinations within the country afterwards, you might be worried about storing your luggage. You basically have three options:
- You can opt to end your trip in Istanbul and either leave your luggage at your hotel and collect it after your other travels or alternatively leave all your shopping until the end of your journey.
- You can add on extra luggage on your internal flights, or travel by road so that the extra weight doesn’t become an issue. Note that generally Turkish airlines has a luggage allowance of 20kg on internal flights and Anadolu Jet’s allowance is 15kg per person. However, extra kilograms aren’t very expensive so check your airline’s rules to see if that extra shopping will be worthwhile.
- Store your luggage at the airport. There are lockers at Istanbul airport which charge a daily rate for storage, which differs based on the size of your suitcase. There is a manned counter on the ground floor near arrivals, but further towards the end of the building, and there are unmanned ones where you can just lock up your stuff and go on the international departures floor, also located at the end of the terminal.
Get off the beaten track
Famous sites are famous for a reason, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d go all the way to Istanbul and not visit the Blue Mosque. But with its incessant crowds and guided tour groups, it’s difficult to get a sense of the peace that a mosque is meant to exude. As you wander around the city, pop in to the smaller and less renowned mosques, and you’ll be treated to scenes of community and peace instead of chaos. Likewise, visit lesser known museums, restaurants, parks, neighbourhoods, and cities and experience the diversity and hospitality that Turkey has to offer.
Get an adrenalin rush
From hot air ballooning in Cappadocia to paragliding in Pamukkale, Turkey has no shortage of extreme sports and fun activities to keep you entertained. Try your hand at skiing, surfing, scuba diving, mountain climbing, or river rafting, but just keep your wits about you and stay safe. Look for reputable companies, and if in doubt, ask your hotel to arrange the outings for you, to make sure that your safety isn’t compromised.
Bathe at a hammam
While we can’t speak from experience here, public baths have been a feature of life here since Roman times. There are public ones and luxurious spa-like experiences abound, at a variety of price points. Some of them just allow you access to the baths where you can do your own thing (while a bunch of other people do, too!) or you can opt to be bathed and scrubbed by an attendant on magnificent marble slabs. There are separate facilities for males and females, and the most famous one is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hammam.
Experience a football match
Football, soccer, call it whatever you like, but it is something of a religion in Turkey. Watching a game was my favourite experience from our two-week trip, a great way to interact with locals, and the atmosphere was electrifying! Watch out for our upcoming guide on how to watch a football game in Turkey.