Turkey: Itinerary, Tips and Tricks
Turkey as a country had been high on my destination list ever since I arrived in Europe. Why Turkey? Rich history, amazing natural wonders, and one thing which I just found out when I traveled in the country – wonderful people. I traveled for 16 days, and interacted with dozens of people, all the while was sort of expecting one of these tough looking men to cheat me dry or ditch us in the middle of nowhere, but it never happened. In fact the Turks’ hospitality has been probably the most impressive I have encountered in all my travels. (for bits of stories you could check my last week’s Turkey Storifyed)
I had questions before I traveled to Turkey, and I’m guessing some of you probably do too, so I’ll do this post in Q&A format. Feel free to ask more questions if you have any in the comment section, and I’ll do my best to answer.
Is it safe in Turkey?
Yes, it is safe. Admittedly I traveled with a male companion (my husband), which always helps to shoo away unwanted male attention, but we met a few females traveling alone, no problem. Obviously standard precautions should always apply.
Any particular dress code I need to worry about?
Turkey is a Muslim country, but it is amazingly modern, so for females there is no need to wear jilbab (head cover), though I brought one big scarf, just in case. To get into mosques you generally need to cover your head, though it’s not strict, so you just need to do it loosely, and you could even use your hoodie if any. I often wore scarf that could easily double up as head cover. In public, I noticed that many of the old generation women wear jilbab, but rarely is the case for the younger generation.
Is it easy to do independent traveling in Turkey?
Yes it is. The bus system is amazing in Turkey. Many of the bus stations are so big and modern they look like airport. The buses are all modern and big, and you even get refreshments, like drinks (tea/coffee/juice/water) and snacks every couple of hours, just like in the plane. I was so impressed with the refreshments, I never experienced that anywhere else that I remember. The train system is not as great, in the sense that it has not connected the whole country, so until then bus is the way to go, or local flight.
People say that the bus system could be tricky and it often doesn’t reach the place that they say it would. For example, instead of Safranbolu, the bus might stop in Karabuk, which is another 15 minutes by dolmus (Turkey minibus), and while they say Göreme, the bus might stop you in Nevsehir. But this did not happen to us. I think the important thing is to be really aware of where you are (check for any signs) and to actively ask if you’re not sure. I really don’t think anyone purposely lies to you about the destination point, it’s most probably just due to miscommunication. When we reached Nevsehir for example, we were supposed to change from the big bus to the minibus, because only minibuses go to Göreme. We must have asked at least a couple of times to make sure that yes it was indeed the time and place for us to change bus, and the minibus literally started rolling before we sat down tight, so things happened pretty quickly. So again, ask, don’t be shy!
I only have X number of days. Where should I go? What are the things I should not miss?
When planning the trip, I was aware that Turkey is a big country, and therefore I would need to spare quite a big chunk of time for it. Even with 16 days, there’s one spot that I’m dying to see and could not be included (that’s Mount Nemrut if you want to know). Istanbul itself would need at the very least 3 full uninterrupted days. If this is your first visit to Turkey and you have only a week, you could do Istanbul, then pick either Eastern Turkey (Cappadocia) or Western Turkey (Ephesus+Pamukkale). We met quite a few people that did exactly that (Istanbul+Cappadocia or Istanbul+Western Turkey). I love Cappadocia so much though that personally I would choose that over Western Turkey. However Ephesus and Pamukkale are both amazing, that it would be sad to miss them. So it’s a tough call!
In Cappadocia, I highly recommend you stay in the town of Göreme, which is the fairy chimney rock formations area. If you plan to go on the famous balloon ride, it is best to make sure you have at least 2 to 3 possible mornings (the balloon ride is always in the morning between 6-8am), the reason being that the ride is highly dependable on weather. For us for example, we failed one morning because it was too windy, and had only the next morning to try. I can’t imagine if the second morning failed as well, I was worried sick after the first cancellation. We have traveled so far for what I considered was the highlight of the trip, and if that did not happen, the disappointment would’ve been too much to bear. So to save yourself any sad drama, I’d recommend to stay in Cappadocia area, with at least 2-3 free mornings. Also the area is so beautiful you will appreciate every minute you spend there!
As you can see in the map, we went from Istanbul (A) to Safranbolu (B) by bus, then to Ankara ©, then Göreme (D). The only local flight we took was from Göreme (Kayseri airport) to Izmir airport (D to near E). From Izmir, we took an hour train to Selçuk (E), our base for a few days, to Ephesus and Pamukkale. Then we took (multiple) buses all the way to Canakkale (F) for Troy site, then all the way back to Istanbul by bus.
If you’re tight for time, it is possible to take flight from Istanbul to Kayseri airport for Cappadocia, then take another flight to Izmir, and the last flight back to Istanbul (as all International airports must go via Istanbul), and skip Troy site. One of my friends took this route. But we don’t like plane flights and generally try to avoid it if possible.
If I had to do it all over again…
- I would probably skip Ankara. Despite being the capital of Turkey, it has little to offer for visitors unfortunately. Only go if you’re dying to see a particular thing in the city (it does have a few good museums).
Safranbolu is a nice little village with Ottoman style buildings that is also a UNESCO World Heritage, but if you don’t care much about that fact, you can get similar thing from Şirince, which is a little village an hour away from Selçuk. (We only learned about Şirince after we arrived in Selçuk)
Our journey from Selçuk via Canakkale back to Istanbul was interesting, and it was all for the site of Troy. Though interesting for historical (and gimmick – you can find the horse used in the recent Troy movie) purposes, everyone knows that Troy site is rather in a sad state of mostly ruins. I was prepared for this, so I knew what was coming. Canakkale as a city has absolutely nothing to offer, except for being the only city apart from Istanbul which has both European and Asian site, so you could have a chance to cross continents there if you miss it in Istanbul. Only do Troy if you care about that part of Greek mythology (If you don’t yet, go read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller or watch Troy).
If I had done the trip in summer I would try really hard to fit in Mount Nemrut (google the giant heads, they’re unreal!). From what I read though there’s a good chance that the site is closed in deep winter, which was the time when took the trip.
Surprisingly there were not that many European or American tourists, and lots of people from China and other parts of Asia (we even met many Indonesians). I’m guessing it’s because Turkey is a Muslim country? Growing up in a country with majority Muslim population myself however, I didn’t find anything too foreign. The sing-song of praying time 5 times a day reminded me of my own childhood afternoons. At the time the chanting was always broadcasted on TV, in between TV shows, and I would sing the prayer alongside it. (I could still do it.)
I loved Turkey. I rarely go back to any one place, since there are so many places in the world not yet touched, but I think there’s a good chance for me to go back to Turkey. Next time I’d really love to do more walking in Cappadocia, and continue East to Mount Nemrut!
5 UNESCO World Heritage sites were visited in this trip, making my total count: 66 sites.
Archaeological Site of Troy (1998)
City of Safranbolu (1994)
Historic Areas of Istanbul (1985)
Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia (1985)