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8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

by Alex Berger on June 18, 2013

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark June 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm

We can’t really judge a place unless we’ve been there. :) Nice post! Very informative

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Judy June 24, 2013 at 10:45 am

Hope that after that post Mark you will be brave and GO THERE. I’m sure that you won’t be disappointed. :)

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KKOB June 22, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Lived in SW Turkey for 6 years and will always miss the people, the culture, the food, the weather and everything else about the country.

Turkiye, Seni Seviyorum.

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Alex Berger June 24, 2013 at 10:16 am

I can only imagine! All are fantastic! Thanks for reading!

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Ellen June 22, 2013 at 11:22 pm

Very good intro to Turkey for Americans. Important typo in section 1 paragraph 5: I’m sure you meant “it is not” where it says “it is now”. I don’t usually care about typos but this one changes the meaning to its opposite, so I thought I should point it out lest you be quoted out of context.
Ellen recently posted..Antalya’s Chapul City

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Alex Berger June 24, 2013 at 10:14 am

Thanks for catching that and mentioning it! Will dive into it and get it straightened out!

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Christina June 23, 2013 at 3:41 am

Hi Alex
Thanks for this post. I’ll be visiting Turkey this summer for the first time, and although I was slightly nervous and went ahead with buying cancellation insurance, I’m ridiculously excited!

Best,
Christina
Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

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Alex Berger June 24, 2013 at 10:13 am

Great to hear it! You’re going to have a fantastic time. Any questions, or additional concerns don’t hesitate to ask! Also, keep in mind that airfare around the interior of Turkey can be super cheap (as cheap as the buses) so seeing places like Cappadocia are definitely doable even if you hate long term bus rides!

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Terry Roddy June 23, 2013 at 3:52 am

My first trip to Turkey was in 1985 and, like the writer of this article, I too was full of misconceptions about Turkey and its people. At that time, there were no package holidays available from the UK so I drove it, entering at Edirne, crossing to Cannakale and then spent a couple of months travelling round the country visiting Izmir, Ankara, Antalya, Adana, Dyabakir, Capadoccia, Sinop, Samsun and Istanbul as well as numerous coastal towns. Without exception, I found the people to be friendly and hospitable with a willingness to drop what they were doing and lend a helping hand. Since then I have returned numerous times with my wife (and my children whilst they were young) and have never been disappointed. Of course we sometimes holiday elsewhere, but we are always drawn back to Turkey at least once a year, where we never feel unsafe or threatened and never fail to be impressed by the friendliness of the people, the variety of beautiful scenery, the range of activities available and the infinite variety of food. Long may it continue!

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Alex Berger June 24, 2013 at 10:12 am

Wow Terry, that sounds spectacular. Their hospitality really is incredible. Especially since it is so fantastically sincere. It must also be amazing to see how the country has progressed and changed over the last 28 years. I would love to see some of the smaller countryside areas and cannot wait to get back and to explore parts of the eastern part of the country. I’m definitely hooked and will be returning!

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Judy June 23, 2013 at 4:45 am

Turkey is a wonderful country. As in lots of places there are a minority of problems which eventually are blown out of all proportion. My husband and I first visited in 1995. We had seen the ‘grey lump’ across the sea when visiting Rhodes and decided to investigate. We have returned each year, sometimes twice and I would love to be able to get two visits on one tourist visa but have never quite managed it! We visited Istanbul for the first time in ’96 and were there for 36 hours, we were ‘hooked’. Go to Turkey and enjoy the country, the people, the history and the food. Enjoy.

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Alex Berger June 24, 2013 at 10:10 am

Fantastic and most certainly! I always wonder what places I’ve overlooked because of overblown or outdated concerns. I know Columbia is likely one such destination. Very jealous about getting to see Rhodes. I remember spending time in Crete in the winter of 1994/early 1995. That was when there was a conflict between Turkey and Greece as well as memory serves. Quite the time to make the jump and to do both! Thanks for a great comment!

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Amanda June 27, 2013 at 8:48 am

Thank you Alex for putting into print your view of the magnificent country that Turkey is. I moved to Turkey from the UK and so far it’s been 6 years of great happiness, meeting wonderful, hospitable people who indeed would do anything for you, amazing scenery, so much history, wonderful food, abundant sunshine, blue skies and turquoise coast lines….bliss. So pleased you have fallen for Turkey as I did, 14 years on the love affair is still as strong. Hopefully your post will convince others to take that leap of faith and be pleasantly surprised!

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Alex Berger June 29, 2013 at 8:18 am

Impressive and great to hear! Thanks for the comment!

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keith jura June 27, 2013 at 9:05 pm

Alex:

Your use of the phrase “Christian dominated countries” probably says it all, but maybe you should do a little more research before showering Ataturk with praises. I have no beef with modern day Turkey or Turks, but to borrow a phrase from U.S. failed V.P. Candidate, Lloyd Benson- ” I knew George Washington, and Ataturk was no George Washington”. He murdered 1.5 Million Armenians. Check for yourself.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide

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Alex Berger June 29, 2013 at 8:23 am

Thanks for the comment Keith. I’m familiar with the incredible tragedy that marks the Armenian Genocide, and with Turkey’s ongoing inability to acknowledge it. It is a profoundly deep black mark on Ataturk’s legacy, but it does not diminish the incredible foundation he laid for Turkey and the institution which has been built based on the core principles he (at times brutally) established. Modern Turkey would not exist without Ataturk and the probability is that something far less progressive and far more backwards would. A national entity that would serve as an unstable and regressive blight on the region, instead of the great boon which Turkey has managed to be. The country is far from perfect, and there are elements of Ataturk that were indeed monstrous.

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rumi October 4, 2013 at 9:39 am

hi! its rumi and i’m Turkish. It’ really glad to hear good things about my country .. thanks to all of you for lovely comments..
sincerely..

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cecilia November 2, 2013 at 10:17 am

Thank you so much for this article! I am from Turkey and it hurts when I hear all the misconceptions about our beautiful country. I love it when people have such amazing experiences there! I hope you continue to visit. Thank you again.

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Alex Berger November 2, 2013 at 10:18 am

Thanks Cecilia! Really appreciate the kind words!

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Pratik November 25, 2013 at 2:36 am

Hello, I am from India and I am thinking of travelling somewhere in February and the purpose of my travel is not to sight-see but to experience new cultures. I am thinking of doing a 15-20 day trip. I did China a couple of years back and absolutely loved it. I was considering Turkey for the upcoming trip. Do you have any recommendation on where we should go and what we should do?

Thanks,
Pratik

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Alex Berger December 3, 2013 at 7:35 am

Hi Pratik, my apologies for the delayed response.

I think Turkey is a fantastic option. You can easily spend a week exploring all that Istanbul has to offer. The city is a perfect blend of history, culture, food and flavors. I also really loved Cappadocia (the region) and the town of Goreme, but that is more of a sightseeing destination. Airfare within Turkey is about the same price as a bus, which opens up a lot of small towns. The hospitality culture in Turkey is fantastic, which means just socializing with people and exploring the towns both in and out of the tourist areas will provide lots of opportunities to meet and engage with people. It can be quite cold in some areas in Turkey in February, so be prepared for that. But it also means that most of the tourists don’t come until later in the year making it much easier to connect with the locals.

I hope that helps a bit? Also consider reading through the material on http://turkishtravelblog.com/ which might provide a lot of added in-depth info!

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Marysia @ My Travel Affairs November 26, 2013 at 12:13 pm

I would never ever imagine saying any of those things about Turkey, but I deeply love this country and people! Great article, kudos!

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Candy Chung April 11, 2014 at 3:38 am

This is a wonderful article, with beautiful photos. Telling the truth about Turkey, I will like to share this to everyone……..

Because, I love Turkey as well.

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Alex Berger April 11, 2014 at 5:25 am

Thanks Candy!

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