Let's Talk Turkey
October 11, 2016 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Help! Back in the early months of this year I concluded that I was going to need to be somewhere outside of the U.S. as we headed into the last few weeks of the election. I had an airline voucher that needed to be used and I'd wanted to visit Turkey ever since taking a class in the history of the eastern Mediterranean region in university, and so I booked myself tickets to Istanbul with two weeks to spend between my arrival and departure (the last week of October and the first week of November.)

However.. this has been a tumultuous year. Turkey's security situation and relations with the USA have been changing. And I've been completely distracted -- whenever I haven't been working I've been obsessively following the election threads (thanks, Metafilter!) and as my trip approaches I'm woefully under-prepared.

I would very much appreciate knowledgeable advice on how to have a good trip, what I should be sure not to miss, what I should avoid given current conditions, holidays or special events that might be occurring during my visit that a tourist would not know about, and how I should behave in order to be a welcome visitor.

Recommendations for sites to see, places to stay, how to get set up with a local SIM card and data service, what I should budget, etc.. would help; these (and several other subjects besides) are all areas in which I can use additional guidance.

I leave in two weeks, help me make the most of my trip! I like: art and museums, sites of historic or cultural interest, exploring big cities, discovering small towns, hiking in the country, boats and beaches, mountains and forests, encountering new food, overland travel, interesting things that I don't see at home. I know enough about Turkey to know that there's more than I could hope to see in one trip, but please help me pick some highlights.
posted by Nerd of the North to Travel & Transportation around Turkey (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The DingoWife and I did a similar 2-week trip in early November to Turkey back in 2013 - I can't speak to any differences due to the current political situation, but the question I asked got us a lot of responses that you might find helpful as well (and you can see our final itinerary at the very end).

Depending on where you end up going I could tell you about hotels we especially liked; since it sounds like you'll definitely be in Istanbul I'll say that we stayed in the tourist section since we were only there for a couple of days and most of what we wanted to see was in that area - it worked out very well, and wasn't terribly crowded at this time of year. The Kybele Hotel was particularly charming, with all the little lamps hanging from the ceilings everywhere, and the dinner we ate there was outstanding. Of the sights to see in Istanbul, the one possibly non-obvious one that I think is an absolute must-see is the Basilica Cistern - it doesn't look like much from the street, but it was one of the most eerie and amazing places I've ever been.

Outside Istanbul, I would happily endorse every one of the places we went (again, you can see our itinerary in my final comment in the linked thread). In Goreme we did the open-air museum, visited an underground city, and took a sunset horseback ride past 'fairy chimneys' in the Rose Canyon; in Fethiye we saw tomb caves carved right into the rock, and took a short bus out to Oludinez where we practically had this entire amazing lagoon all to ourselves (November is a great time to go!) ... the ruined cities at Hierapolis and Bergama were huge and again, not at all crowded (and the travertine terraces of Pamukkale are right next to Hieropolis so you can make a real morning of it all) ... Selcuk/Ephesus were more touristy and crowded but still worth the visit ... and if you go to Troy (which I highly recommend, though I know opinions vary on this one) do be sure to contract with a guide - we had a private tour with Mustafa Askin, of the nearby Hotel Hisarlik, and it made all the difference. Hotel Hisarlik itself is quite spartan but (at the time) was the only hotel within walking distance of Troy so I thought it was worth it - but getting there by bus is a bit of a challenge so do talk to Mustafa about that beforehand (he was actually going to pick us up from the nearest bus stop, although other things intervened and we instead ended up taking a hilarious taxi ride from Canakkale with literally the friendliest two taxi drivers I've ever encountered).

Oh, and since you asked about holidays - if you're there on November 10, be prepared for everything to stop for a moment of silence for Ataturk. We were in Selcuk that day and it really was EVERYTHING that stopped - traffic stopped, shopkeepers came out into the street, everyone was silent - so do of course stop what you're doing as well. We were approached afterward by someone who told us all about Ataturk and what the moment of silence meant - and really, people throughout our trip were INCREDIBLY friendly and welcoming like that, more so than I've experienced in any country, to the point that I came back wanting to go more out of my way when I encountered people in my town who seemed out of their element.

Anyway, sorry for the book - I LOVED Turkey and think your idea to be there during US election time is a wonderful one. If there are any specific questions I can answer please feel free to ask or PM - and have a marvelous time!
posted by DingoMutt at 8:43 AM on October 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you get a chance to go to Ephesus it's fantastic - I enjoyed it a lot more than Pompeii. I was in Turkey very briefly this summer in tourist/resorty areas and it generally felt pretty chill (apart from in the main tourist shopping streets, where I found the hard sell/hawkers much more intense than in similar places in Italy and Greece), but I can't speak to the current political climate or what it's like in big cities.
posted by terretu at 10:35 AM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm in Istanbul on a two week vacation RIGHT. NOW. It's a good time to visit, as the weather has cooled off and tourists are few. The political events of the summer don't seem to be affecting everyday life very much, at least in the areas I've been in.

I'd recommend the highlights: Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, the cistern, the archaeology museum, Galata Tower, etc. I'd recommend getting a museum pass. It's about 85TL for non Turks and gets you into a bunch of museums and historical places (not all, so double check that it would be a savings depending on where you want to go). Also be aware that entrance fees are more expensive (sometimes 3x) for foreigners than for residents of Turkey.

I'd also recommend buying a boatload of baklava at Gulluoglu, in Karakoy. Take some to go and then sit down to eat some with a hot çay. Next door is a lovely grocery place, Namli, where you can buy all sorts of cured meats, jams, cheese. You can eat a meal there, too. It's famous for breakfast. Get the sucuklu yumurta!

For other foods, you can't go wrong with desserts here! The best Tatli places are Saray Muhallebicisi and Sutis. They have multiple branches, so you can find them everywhere. I enjoyed kazan dibi, firin sutlaç, and muhallebi. I hope you like dairy ;)

Make sure you bring plenty of layers, because you'll (I hope!) be riding the ferries across the Marmara Sea and Bosphorous. It's chilly!

You can get a refillable IstanbulKart ticket to use on the ferries, trolleys, buses, and funiculer. It's convenient when paying, but you can only refill using cash, not cards. You'll have to pay cash for a ride in a dolmuş, but it's only a couple TL. The dolmuşes are called "yellow bullets". I think they can be the fastest form of transportation, since they can weave through traffic better than buses, but be ready to jump in/out when they're basically still moving!

Enjoy your trip! There's too much to see/do/eat in 2 weeks, but you won't go wrong no matter what you do.
posted by stripesandplaid at 11:59 AM on October 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Istanbul has a lot of places for the historically curious. I would say that Sultanahmet alone (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapı Palace) would take you a couple of days to visit. Don't miss the Treasure of the Topkapı – you probably have to pay extra, but it's worth it! There is also a Museum of Archaeology close by, if you are really into ancient civilizations. The Grand Bazaar is now very touristy and sells a lot of worthless stuff, but if you still want to go there, stare at Minyatür's window. It's a shop of expensive, old-timey maritime stuff, and it's a joy to look at.

I also suggest walking through Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu along the historic tramway – it's quite touristy as well, but it leads you to Taksim Square and Gezi Park, which became famous for the riots and offer a quiet place to rest. From Istiklal Caddesi you can find your way to Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence. I highly recommend it: It's a collection of dioramas displaying the objects and memories of the (fictional) characters from Pamuk's novel entitled, well, The Museum of Innocence – but it's also a great display of the zeitgeist of Turkey in the 1970s. Having read the book (or even a few chapters) beforehand will help you a lot. From Gezi Park you can also walk to the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ottoman residence on the Bosphorus, which later became Atatürk's summer place.

I am not sure if the weather is usually good in Fall to visit the Princes' Islands in the Marmara Sea (Büyükada is the only one worth visiting imho), but it's worth a shot, especially on a sunny day.

Istanbul is catching up on public transportation, but I don't know if it's feasible to travel all around the city that way. You might consider taking a taxi for some legs, or even a minibus (dolmus) if you're feeling adventurous. There are also ferryboats, and one of the best ways to enjoy the city is from the sea.

Two weeks are more than enough to visit Istanbul – well, most of it – so I'd suggest checking out some other destinations as well. Ephesus and Cappadocia are certainly good ideas (if you can arrange a guided tour in one of the underground cities, such as Derinkuyu or Kaymaklı, even better), but I'm not sure whether it's possible to visit both (plus Istanbul) in two weeks. Pamukkale is also beautiful and it's worth a try if you manage to find some time in your schedule, but don't get your expectations high: There is not much else to see there, and some of the pools are off-limits. I'd also suggest skipping Troy: it's not close to any other major attractions and you won't find it worth the detour, unless you are really into ancient history.

You can rent a car to travel to Ephesus and/or Cappadocia, but if you're not into that, don't knock the buses. I'd suggest looking for recent information because I travelled with a couple of big bus companies a long time ago and things might have changed since, but from what I remember, it was a very comfortable experience.

Now for the biggest question: Is Turkey a safe country for a tourist? I would say that the recent coup and Erdogan's purges will not affect you – it's mostly a problem for residents working for the government or big Turkish corporations. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that terrorist attacks are affecting Turkey, and especially Istanbul, relatively frequently (well, at least by Western standards). Yet millions of people live there, and millions of tourists travel through the country at any given moment – so stay safe, but don't forget to enjoy your trip!
posted by spheniscus at 12:40 PM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Take the public ferry up the Bosphorus! That's definitely one of the most memorable things I did in Istanbul.
posted by yarntheory at 8:01 PM on October 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the subject of the dolmus- the phrase for getting them to stop is inerjek var. the rs are a little rolled. Without this they won't stop unless someone else happens to ask them to or if you are in an area where your driver speaks English. It means 'there is someone who wants to get off' and you can use it at any time. There are very few official stops.
posted by jojobobo at 12:59 AM on October 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I've been resisting the urge to thread-sit, but am following (and grateful for) all the responses.

Regarding the multiple recommendations re: ferries -- never fear, if there's a ferry to be taken, I'm there (in fact, ferry travel is one of my #1 recommendations to people who visit the region I live in when I'm asked, though it's a different kind of ferry travel.) Are there ferry routes which give particularly good views of the city from the water or should I just look to the Bosphorus cruises for that? I should have mentioned that I also enjoy photography, and would enjoy tips on places from which one can get a notably good view.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:59 AM on October 12, 2016

I can't speak to the ferry per se, but be aware that there will be people all over Sultanahmet offering you boat (and bus) tours, and the boats they'll take you to can be of ... variable quality. Despite our tour book's warning about this, we went along on one of these tours, and honestly it WAS fine (the boat looked a little older but not horrifyingly so) but there was no narration or anything, so we were basically left looking at interesting structures with no real sense of what they were. While even that was pretty fun, I hear there are better tours to be had - my advice on this one is to do your research.
posted by DingoMutt at 10:36 AM on October 13, 2016

Response by poster: Well, I'm back and had a great time. I liked Turkey and the Turks that I met quite a bit, but the two weeks I spent was barely enough to scratch the surface.

For the benefit of those who might be researching such a trip in the future, I'll share a few of my impressions..
  • My trip, which took place the last week of October and the first week of November, was a bit past the end of their main tourist season. While I don't know that it will be like this every year, I still got quite nice weather (by my standards), never encountered crowds or stood in lines, and found accommodation prices almost unreasonably affordable. I would definitely visit this time of year again.
  • Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world and I didn't at all regret spending nearly half of my visit there; I could easily have happily occupied myself for much longer. I do regret that I didn't have enough time to see many other places in the country but I don't regret any of the time I spent in Istanbul.
  • I highly recommend that upon arrival in Istanbul travelers immediately get an Istanbulkart and load it with some credit. Besides being useful for accessing the city's convenient mass transit system it was a happy discovery midway through my trip that it can also be used to pay for many public pay toilets in the city, saving me the trouble of hoarding lira coins against need.
  • Travel within the country was pretty easy to manage. There are a number of low cost airlines that offer very affordable travel from region to region and shorter distance travel is generally pretty easily accomplished by a very usable bus network. It's easier if you aren't encumbered with a huge amount of luggage.
  • I don't drink alcohol and can't speak to its pricing there, but food and non-alcoholic beverages were cheap and good and I am particularly going to miss the access I had during my trip to fresh fruit juices. I might have gone at a particularly good time of year for oranges but you could get killer fresh-squeezed orange juice just about anywhere for only a few lira. Yum!
  • I enjoyed every place I visited but the highlight of my trip was four days spent aboard a gulet-type schooner operating out of Fethiye. It was definitely the end of the season for gulet cruising -- the first company I called said they were done for the year but referred me to another outfit run by a relative. Despite the late-season visit, we had excellent weather and the water was still very warm by my (admittedly used to cold water swimming) standards.

posted by Nerd of the North at 7:26 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My itinerary, once I got it settled was (more or less:)
  • Three nights in Istanbul
  • Join gulet cruise, three nights aboard boat.
  • Two nights in Fethiye
  • One night in Pamukkale -- this wasn't part of the original plan, which called for a half-day visit to Pamukkale and then continuing to Selçuk that evening, but it worked out well.
  • One night in Selçuk / Ephesus
  • Three nights in Istanbul
Clearly I never got off the beaten tourist path, but for a first visit I thought it provided a nice mix of destinations and a chance to get my bearings and learn how to get around a bit without spending all of my time rushing from place to place.

Fethiye to Pamukkale to Selçuk in one day was not a great plan and in any case had to be abandoned because of problems catching the right morning bus out of Fethiye, but Pamukkale was unusual enough to be worth a stop (I thought.) It left me short on time in Selçuk, however, but I still managed to do most of what I wanted to do there. Unfortunately I had to skip the Ephesus Museum.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:48 PM on November 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I guess one thing I should mention for future visitors.. Although it requires a tram ride to get to the main tourist sites in Sultanahmet, during my time in Istanbul I chose to stay in the Beyoğlu section of the city in the area around Taksim Square. This worked out well for a number of reasons -- I found a nice hotel which was only a block or so away from the drop-off point for the Havataş shuttle buses going to/from either airport (which made arrival and departure easy and was handy for flights connecting to other parts of the country), the streets were full of people shopping and dining well into the evening hours, there were many restaurants and shops nearby, etc.

But as an unmistakable foreigner walking alone on Istiklal Caddesi I was approached on at least three occasions by men that I'm pretty certain were trying to work this drinks scam. It wasn't any problem rebuffing them, but travelers planning to visit Istanbul should be aware of the scam and on guard because there are clearly people still trying to work it.

I was also approached by "antique coin" scammers in Selçuk -- again, I simply declined without being confrontational about the scam and I had no problem.

I want to underscore that the vast majority of people I met in Turkey were genuinely warm and kind people and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. I had pretty positive experiences even with the people who were trying to scam me; I just didn't do what they wanted. Don't let fear of being scammed ruin your trip, but perhaps do a little reading on the more common varieties first and listen to the little voice in the back of your head which tells you when something's not quite right.
posted by Nerd of the North at 6:53 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and since I asked this above but didn't receive a response, here's what I found out about local cell service while I was visiting: getting a local SIM card was relatively easy and inexpensive -- I just popped into a Turkcell store and they got me set up; Vodafone is all over the place as well.

However, the Turkish government requires cell phones brought in from abroad to be registered and requires a fee be collected. If you haven't paid the fee your cell service will be deactivated after a relatively short time (some sources I read said a few days; people I talked with in country said it was more like 1-2 weeks.) If you only need cell service for a short visit you can probably, as I did, just get away with buying a local SIM and hoping that it won't be turned off until after you leave. If you are planning a longer stay in Turkey, you should register your phone at a tax office and pay the registration fee if you want it to continue working indefinitely.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:06 PM on November 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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