In 2012, I travelled in Istanbul and northern Turkey for a month, and fell head over heals in love with the country! The Turkish countryside is full of surprises, the people are incredibly kind (especially towards Indians visiting Turkey) and Turkish culture is intriguingly different from the rest of the world.
My little guide to travelling in Turkey will help you score your Turkey visa, pick up easy phrases in the Turkish language, and assure you that vegetarian Turkish food is easy to come by and delightful.
Based on my own experiences, here are ten tips to make your Turkey travel planning simpler:
1. Get a visa for Turkey (easy even with an Indian passport).
[Update: Oct 2016] Good news! Turkey now offers e-visa for Indian citizens who hold a valid Schengen, US, UK or Ireland visa – and it takes only 15 minutes to get it. Apply for your Turkey e-visa.
Back when I travelled to Turkey in 2012, I didn’t hold one of the above visas, but the visa processing time at the Turkish embassy was only one day. To apply for the visa, you need to show confirmed flight and hotel bookings, and enough money in your bank statements. You can use a full fledged carrier like Turkish Airlines to make fully refundable flight bookings, and booking.com to make fully refundable hotel bookings, so as not to take a risk incase your visa falls through.
If you have an expired Schengen visa on your passport, make sure you attach a copy and write a cover letter, indicating that your passport has been approved for Schengen countries in the past. Turkey may never be able to join the European Union and the Schengen zone for political reasons, but it holds the Schengen process in high regard. I experienced it first hand when the official at the visa counter of the Turkish embassy read my cover letter, and only asked me to point him to the expired Schengen visa on my passport. I’m pretty sure that’s when he mentally approved my visa for Turkey.
Note that if you already have a valid Schengen visa on your Indian passport, you can get a Turkey e-visa online before you leave for Turkey.
2. Choose your accommodation wisely.
If you’re on a budget trip, you’ll be tempted several times to bust your budget, but don’t give in. That doesn’t mean that you need to compromise on the quality or location of your accommodation. Istanbul has an entire range of budget hotels and apartments to choose from; I was happy to rent an apartment, since they let you stay in fantastic locations at the same cost as a budget hotel far from the main town. Better still, apartments are a great way to feel like a local and acquaint yourself with life in a residential neighborhood.
Beyond Istanbul, apartments may be difficult to find, but pansiyons (pensions aka B&B) are aplenty. These are quaint houses converted into B&Bs, have the personal touch of a small property, and are good value for money. If you’re calling the owner directly for a booking, chances are you might have to learn some Turkish words to secure a booking. Asking for a discount (indireem), especially if it’s low season, can help get a lower price, but don’t be brutal about it. If you prefer to book in advance, booking.com and Airbnb are my go to places. If you are not on Airbnb yet, sign up with my referral to get 15$ off your first stay.
Also read: Why I’m Using Airbnb – and You Should Too
3. Pick up some Turkish words.
Even within Istanbul, it is not easy to find an English speaker. In fact, walk into a book store, and you are likely to find no English books (heck, even Harry Potter is translated in Turkish). Luckily, the Turkish script is similar to English, making road signs easy to read. Whether to get by, order food, ask for directions, or just have a simple conversation with a local, learn some phrases in Turkish (it is fun too).
Little gestures like teh-she-kuller (thank you) and bee teer deem (it was delicious) will go a long way. See more useful Turkish words.
Also read: 7 Quirky Things About Turkey
4. Pack like you’d pack for Western Europe.
Turkey is among the most liberal of West Asian countries, which means that while you still see burkha-clad women stroll along the beach, you also see plenty of women smartly dressed in western-style evening dresses. At this junction where the east meets the west, Turkey gives you the freedom to dress as you please. As always, travel light if you intend to move around a lot, and pick a backpack over a suitcase.
Summer in Turkey can be tricky to pack for, somewhat like the higher Indian Himalayas. The sun is strong and harsh, but stepping in the shade could leave you cold. Dress in layers, so you can add or remove one as necessary, and pack lots of sunscreen, a sun hat and shades.
5. Revel in Turkish vegetarian food.
In a country that loves its kebab and doner as much as Turkey, vegetarians may anticipate a tough time. Truth be told, the Turkish love to garnish even their vegetarian dishes with meat, and the concept of vegetarianism is so alien that if you ask about vegetarian food at a cafe, you’ll almost always be offered soup and salad. After two days of surviving on that and tost (cheese toast), I got around to learning the names of vegetarian dishes in Turkish, and asking for them to be cooked without meat. For easy access, save them on your phone or on a piece of paper, and refer to them at meal times.
Turkey’s local vegetarian cuisine has uncanny similarities to Indian dishes. Don’t miss : kuru fasuliye (chickpeas, french beans, kidney beans), gozleme patata (aloo paranthas) and pilaf (pulao). The most commonly used form of cheese is peynir, which tastes somewhat like raw cottage cheese and isn’t appetizing to Indian taste buds, not mine anyway.
6. Estimate a budget and stick to it.
Travelling within Turkey could be almost as expensive as a Euro trip, unless you impose a budget upon yourself. As a rule of thumb, it is cheaper to pay (and to be charged) in Turkish Liras than in Euros, and bargaining is hardly uncommon. Remember you don’t have to visit every tourist attraction out there just because everyone else does. You might be better off spending the entry fee on a nice meal at a cosy seaside cafe, or experiencing a Turkish bath at a Hamam.
On a moderate budget, staying in nice B&Bs and eating local, I spent 50 Euros a day on accommodation and food.
Also read: Turkey’s Black Sea Coast: A Photo Essay
7. Beware of scams in Istanbul.
A Turkish lady stopped me on a sidewalk and tried to convince me that she needed to take her elderly mother to the hospital and had run out of money. She was convincing enough for me to feel guilty for refusing to offer her money, and believe or not, ten minutes later, I saw her devouring kebabs and exchanging smokes with her mother at a supper joint!
I’ve heard many friends-of-friends stories too, who were befriended by extremely friendly locals and offered to hang out at a bar, and later tricked to pay for extremely expensive bottles of wine. Sure, these would make for awesome travel stories in retrospect, but are probably not worth losing a fortune over. Wikitravel has an entire list of common scams to watch out for.
Luckily, these scams are more or less limited to Istanbul, so once you’re out on the countryside, you can losen up.
8. Use public transport across Turkey.
Public transport in Istanbul is quite convenient, and all journeys by bus, tram or metro are priced at 2 TL, irrespective of the distance you go. Cabs are easily available past midnight, when public transport stops operating, and levy no late night charges.
All major cities & towns in Turkey are well connected by private buses, and I found the services of Ulusoy and Safran to be the best. These buses are equipped with free Wifi, stop often for rest room breaks, and on longer journeys, you are served beverages and snacks. It is, however, difficult to book to book these buses online without knowledge of Turkish. The most feasible option is to show up at the bus terminal and purchase tickets to your onward destinations. Distances between smaller towns and villages can conveniently be covered by the area’s dolmus (mini bus), which stops along every small town on the way, dropping people off.
Hitch hiking is a convenient option on the countryside, but as in any country, you need to keep your wits about you to try it.
9. See Turkey beyond Istanbul.
Before I left for Turkey, the majority of people who had visited the country had only ever been to Istanbul, and at most Cappadocia. While the two are extremely beautiful and worth a visit, Turkey is more than just a 4 day stopover destination enroute to Europe.
The Turkish countryside along the Black Sea Coast is as beautiful, if not more, than the alpine countryside of Europe, and combines the quaint charm of European villages with a touch of Asia and the Arab world. Central Anatolia is home to some of the most stunning and stark landscapes, the far northeast of Turkey is a lush tea belt & replicates the terrain of Georgia, and the outskirts of Cappadocia are home to Greek ruins and underground cave cities untouched by the development of Goreme. The countryside that you’ll drive through to reach these far flung corners of Turkey is an other worldly experience in itself.
Also read: My First Impressions of Turkey
10. Get to know the locals.
For a country socially restricted by lack of a common language with the majority of the world, the Turkish people are truly kind hearted. I was touched and overwhelmed, time and again, by the hospitality and camaraderie extended to me by strangers in vastly different parts of Turkey, and under several different circumstances.
In a world where racism against Indians is hardly uncommon, Turkey is a breath of fresh air; I found that people were especially kind to me on hearing that I was from India, Hindistan as they fondly know it. Bollywood stars have fans in the smallest of Turkish towns, and our cultural similarities and larger than life attitude surely strengthen the bond. Make the best of it, even though lack of a common language will impose a barrier, and find a second home in this beautiful part of the globe.