This is one of many Mini Travel Guides that will whet our collective appetites for international puddle jumping. This guide comes to us from the lovely Iris!
Turkey is a country bridging both Europe and Asia, which probably contributes to some of the issues that seem to pull the country in different directions. For a quick historical introduction there's the Ottoman Empire and then also the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk. The country has a lot to offer visitors culturally, geographically, culinarily and socially, including: Mediterranean beaches, Whirling Dervishes, ancient tombs, the birthplace of the Ottoman Empire, Hittite castles, intricate mosques and more. People are friendly and genuinely pleased if you can speak a bit of Turkish. I lived in Turkey for four months as part of a study abroad experience. I am by no means an expert or a local,but I hope I can give a decent introduction to this amazing place.
(I purposefully left out Istanbul here. It's a wonderful place, but Turkey has so much more!)
Kapadokya, the land of 'fairy chimneys' and rock-cut churches, is a geographical marvel located in central Turkey. Make sure you see the Three Beauties and the Goreme Open Air Museum. A hot air balloon ride over the area wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
You might want to take a trip to the southeast of Turkey, where the topography and climate are different. You can base yourself in Sanliurfa, but you'll need to go a bit north and hire a tour company to take you up Mount Nemrut to see what remains of the large statues from a 1st century B.C. royal tomb, not to mention the amazing view. On your way up, you may be able to stop by the weaving school to see what the locals are up to.
Turkey is a great country to backpack and I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of the great gathering places of the young traveler. Stay in cabins on stilts, nestled in orange groves...or stay at one of the more partying treehouse communities. Walk five minutes to the Mediterranean coast, climb cliffs overlooking ancient ruins, eat figs from the forests below, see the flames of the chimaera come out of a rocky mountain, and afterward go to the dance bar with a roof open to the sky.
Turkish Bathhouse (Hamam)
Typically the routine goes as follows: you undress, sit in a marble sauna for a bit, a woman exfoliates a bajillion layers of dead skin off your body and then you're done. It makes your skin feel like new! All hamams are gender-separated except for the really expensive ones in resort towns. Most are either partially or fully nude, although men's hamams are generally never fully nude.
Shop for Turkish Carpets
Even a broke college kid in her early 20s can afford a beautiful flat-woven Turkish kilim and turn it into an instant family heirloom. Prices are cheaper outside of Istanbul but be sure to haggle a bit anyways. This is very much a haggling culture.
Ayran is a traditional salty, yogurt drink. You can purchase it pre-made at restaurants, or even add your own salt and water to a mixture from the super market.
Europe is familiar with the fast food 'kebab', while America is familiar with the 'shish kebab.' There are so many other different ways to prepare this thinly-sliced, slow-cooked lamb. Iskender kebap may be one of the fancier versions, with wide slices of lamb served with tomato sauce and yogurt (oh, the yogurt, soooo good). I could go on forever about the food.
97% of the country might be Muslim, but Turkey is a secular state and they have a 'national' alcoholic drink. Raki is an anise-flavored spirit much like Greece's ouzzo. So if you don't like black licorice, stay away. Maybe add a bit of water to dilute the intensity a pinch.
The headscarf issue is a touchy topic in Turkey. Women were not allowed to wear the hijab at public universities, government jobs, as teachers, etc. The rules have been changing recently, but as a visitor you should know that the only times you must wear a headscarf is when visiting a mosque. I would dress more modestly when in more conservative regions such as the east or the south of Turkey (possibly in Konya, too), but there is no necessity to do so elsewhere.
Travel on the Cheap
A large portion of the population travels by bus and mini-bus. If you want to get around on the cheap, you should too. The buses have bus-attendants who bring snacks up and down the aisles and if it's an overnight bus trip you'll get to stop at a neon-lit 24/7 bus stop selling candy and lentil soup. I miss that bus stop lentil soup!
Any Turkey travel tips to share? Questions for Iris?