After being back in the United States for 2 months I have had plenty of time to reflect and reminisce about my 8 weeks in the nation of Turkey. It took my a few days but I finally came to an understanding of why I love this country so much now and why it is so unique.
So far I have traveled through 32 nations, and though each is unique in their own right, none is as different and special as Turkey in my opinion. Most countries have their own cultures, food, languages/dialects, people, and history. Indeed many countries have had influences from various civilizations and conquerors throughout their histories. But I dont think I have been to a country where the history and the influences are still as vibrantly alive as they are in Turkey.
When one arrives and begins to explore Istanbul, one notices that there are tons of Mosques and can immediately feel the influences of Islam. Yet upon further exploration you can stumble upon many churches of various Christian sects, and synagogues. You also see relics of the Byzantine past alongside elegant and grand Ottoman palaces set along a backdrop of modern skyscrapers. Then you stumble upon Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddessi which seems like any other cobble stoned shopping promenade in Europe. You travel down the coast and explore the contested ruins of Troy alongside the battlefields of Gallipoli where the fighting and efforts lead to the rise of national consciousness among three nations. Go further down the coast and you see the ruins of Ephesus from both Greek and Roman ages. Go out east and you’ll probably find remains of ancient Orthodox Churches from the former capital of neighboring Georgia. Venture out to the middle of Turkey and you’ll encounter desert landscapes and ride a hot air balloon over fairy chimney rock formations. And the list just goes on.
At first I was a little unsure of how I felt about Istanbul. It was pretty as everyone had said and it was surreal that I could cross between two continents in 10 minutes. But there was something missing, and it was because I wasn’t really sure how to describe Istanbul and Turkey. The reason being is that it is so diverse, so rich in its culture and history and is really as people say, a crossroads between not just East and West but of multiple religions, cultures and histories.
In addition to that, the people of Turkey are simply some of the most friendly people in this world. Turks are very patriotic and proud of their history and culture (specifically that of the Turkish republic) and as such they are very welcoming of foreigners and really want people to experience and learn about their culture and people. It was extremely easy to make a local Turkish friend or two, granted it was easier once you learned a few key phrases, but nonetheless people were very receptive. The young turks themselves are modern, liberal and ambitious people. They also highly value friendships, families, and respect (something I witnessed in the way Turks treat the elderly and the disabled even within the organized chaos that defines Istanbul’s transportation).
Furthermore the food is simply out of this world. And from the food one can experience multiple facets of Turkey. The hospitality of the restaurant owners and cooks is reflective of how important food is to the Turks and how food is a very communal thing for many people. The food itself has influences from the Middle East, Asia and Europe. And the array of flavors, textures and colors in Turkish food is quite amazing.
This all being said, Turkey is still a predominantly Islamic country, though it is a secular state, over 90% of the population are Muslims and while Islamic elements dominate in Turkey, the people and culture is still different than that of many other Islamic states.
So what is Turkey? We’ll, that is exactly what it is, Turkey. It’s not really Europe, not really Asia, and not really the Middle East yet it is all of them at the same time. This is what makes this country so unique and special. There really is no other country in the world (that I have been to so far) that has as strong a national identity and pride that is of a mix of multiple religions, peoples, cultures and histories. Many other countries have connections and influences to their past, but the historicity of Turkey is still very much alive in the present day.
Many cities or countries state they are melting pots and very diverse and indeed they are. But within this diversity is often times a disparity amongst people’s definition and understanding of their own identity and nationalism and what it means to be a citizen of that city of country. But in Turkey it is a solid and consistent front, at least based on the people I met and talked to, and yes while the diversity has in the past and present lead to tensions and uprisings, people unite together as one for the same cause, this is especially the case for the protests in Taksim this past summer.
Turkey is by no means the perfect nation, nor is it the utopian example of diversity. But its geographic location has allowed it to be the intersection of many civilizations, peoples, cultures, religion and ethnicities giving it its historic significance and economic/ political importance in today’s world. It is also this history that has made Turkey unique and somewhat jarring upon one’s first encounter with it.
These were my takeaways and understandings from my 8 weeks in Turkey, perhaps I need more time before I can truly understand this amazing country and its people, which I would hope I can do sometime in the future. But nonetheless upon much reflection, I realized these were some of the reasons why Turkey stood out for me from the many other nations I have visited, or maybe it is the fact that it is the longest period of time I’ve spent in a foreign country outside of Taiwan and the United States. But I have asked around and talked to many other and their impressions of Istanbul and Turkey seem to be similar. In fact, Anthony Bourdain seems to agree too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GRQHrf2I7s
At the end of the day whether or not you agree or believe me, I still highly highly recommend people to visit Turkey. There is so much to see, do, eat and experience in Turkey that its nearly impossible to do them all. Despite, in my opinion, having a unique culture and identity, It is nonetheless a great place to gain an exposure to Islamic culture and the Middle East as well as a living history of Ottoman, Byzantium, Roman and Ancient Greek cultural elements.
To start, I’d definitely spend at least 4 days in Istanbul, and then from there simply go! Since there are too many places to see and too many things to do and eat, prioritize based on your interests and needs and what can fit in your time and budget. I believe there isnt one place or experience that you’d regret in Turkey. But without a doubt, include at least 3 days in Cappadocia in any itinerary for Turkey, and you must include a sunrise hot air balloon ride, there are no words to describe this surreal experience.
Where to Stay:
The Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel,
This is a splurge but definitely one that is quite worth it. The hotel sits right on the banks of the Bosphorus and offers uninterrupted views of the Bosphorus Bridge, Asia, and the tips of Sultanahmet. Its namesake comes from the palace that sits on the hotel grounds which has a Turkish restaurant, event space and the ultimate luxury sultan suites in it. The palace is a restored Ottoman palace used primarily for visiting guests and extended royal family members of the Sultan during the Ottoman Empire. The hotel itself is spectacular. The rooms are comfortable, the breakfast (which costs 40 Euro if not included in your rate) is delicious, and the large “infinity” pool is amazing to swim in, and the service, which is that of a classic colonial hotel such as the Peninsula Hong Kong or Raffles Singapore, is excellent. There are rooms that offer Bosphorus views and some that face the city behind the hotel. I highly recommend a Bosphorus view, its worth it.
The Sub Hotel, http://www.subistanbul.com/
This mid-range boutique hotel is located in the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul. It is close enough to Sultanahmet (2-3 tram stops away), but far enough that you arent stuck with the masses of other tourists staying in Sultanahmet. Karakoy itself is a great area to explore and wander about, and its really a midpoint between Sultanahmet and Taksim, the two more popular areas for travelers.
Antique Hostel, http://www.antiquehostel.com/
For those who wish not to splurge too much. This hostel has a great staff who are extremely friendly and helpful in getting you started on your adventures through Turley. They also have an incredible rooftop patio that offers great views of the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea, this is where you can have breakfast, or drink some cai and learn backgammon from the staff. It is also only a few steps away from Sultanahmet but is tucked away just enough that you don’t feel the crowds.
Argos in Cappadocia, http://www.argosincappadocia.com/EN/
This hotel in Uchisar offers great views of Cappadocia as well as very spacious rooms. From regular suits with vaulted ceilings to cave rooms, of which Cappadocia is famous for. It is only a short 5 minute hike to Uchisar Castle, a castle carved into a rock. The cave rooms are comfortable but can get very hot, despite Cappadocia’s very chilly nights. They also have amazing suites, some that are duplex and feature en-suite plunge pools! The staff here are all friendly and their service is really good for the price you pay. and the food in the main restaurant is amazing, especially their Slow Roasted Lamb Shoulder, this was to die for. But one great feature of this hotel is its underground wine cellar and its event space. The hotel was built on and around a former monastery, and the guest relations manager offers daily tours of the hotels and all its secret nooks and crannies. I highly recommend doing a wine tasting in their wine cellar regardless of whether or not you stay here.
The Serinn House, http://www.serinnhouse.com/
This cozy 5 bedroom boutique hotel in Ugrup, the more remote of the 3 main towns in Cappadocia, is really worth the value. Eren, the owner, and her small staff treat you like family and really make you feel right at home the moment you arrive. Each of the hotel’s rooms has its own design and character, and this hotel has been under many design spotlights since its opening. The rooms are simple and minimalistic but comfortable and homey. Breakfast here is all homemade, and Eren will even see to it that your favorite breakfast items are served. Eren will also help you arrange travel plans in Cappadocia from transportation to and from the airport as well as your hot air balloon ride. As a Turk who grew up in Turkey and worked for many years at an airline in England, she is also very knowledgeable about Turkey and travel in general, she is quite fun and outgoing and will even join you for dinner, wine and conversation at one of the restaurants in downtown Ugrup. I highly recommend staying here for a home away from home and authentic Turkish hospitality experience.
Note: for other hotel/ hostel recommendations in other cities and destinations inside Turkey, please refer to my previous posts, I have linked them below.
Where to Eat
Invest in “Istanbul Eats: Exploring the Culinary Backstreets,” it will do wonders to your trip and is your ultimate guide to where to eat in Istanbul. The best foods I had in Turkey came from the restaurants in this guide and indeed it was rare that I’d encounter a tourist at these local places.
In Cappadocia, you must check out Ziggy’s in Ugrup. And the main dish to try in Cappadocia is the Testi Kebab, a kebab made inside a clay pot that the chef cracks open in front of you before pouring the contents into a plate or bowl and served with pilaf (Turkish Rice), it is really good, the best one we had was at a place right across the street from the entrance to the Uchisar Castle as it contained eggplant in it.
Note: again for other destinations in Turkey, please refer to my other posts.
1) Learn a few key Turkish phrases or have a guidebook with you (even if you hate them and dont want to be touristy), learning key phrases can go a long way with Turks and despite many people who speak English, most people you meet wont. It also helps tremendously in local restaurants.
2) Turkey uses the Turkish Lira which is around 1USD=2 TL. Exchange some at the airport and make sure you start getting change as the more local it gets the less change people will have. But ATMs are prevalent and convenient.
3) Buy yourself a guidebook, from what I gathered the best is Lonely Planet Turkey, but there may be other ones out there that are just as good. Use these as your preliminary guide to Turkey to ease you into this country. Once you have a general sense of the country and learned your phrases, ditch it and make local friends and learn about Turkey from them.
4) Also, nearly everyone smokes in Turkey, so dont be too surprised.
There are many more suggestions I can give, but the above are some of the general key reminders. And at the end of the day no matter how much you are warned or how many suggestions and recommendations you read, your travels are your travels. And once you spend a day or two in a new country you’ll start to get a feel and understanding of it, and will develop your own interpretation and opinion of it. So just get a general sense and go with an open mind, especially to somewhere like Turkey!
Other posts on Turkey: