The first associations with the word “Turkey” are all inclusive, crowds of tourists, obsessive merchants and machomen sporting greasy looks. But stereotypes are almost always far from the real state of affairs. As a person who has lived in Turkey for five years and traveled around it far and wide, I can say that this is an amazing country in every sense. Do you want untouched nature and perfect beaches? There’s Kas or Kabak for you. Want a modern big city vibe? Here is Istanbul or Bodrum for you. Do you want unique landscapes? Welcome to Cappadocia or Pamukkale. Do you want ancient ruins? Get in your car and drive along the Aegean coast from Izmir to Fethiye. In general, if you thought you had seen it all in Turkey, it’s time to make you rethink.
Dismantling pre-concieved notions about Turkish Society
For many, Turkey is somewhere between Iran and Saudi Arabia and is considered a country with a religious and ultra-conservative way of life. It’s not like that: in Turkey, religion is legally separated from the state, and freedom of religion is guaranteed to every inhabitant of the country. Moreover, for almost the entire 20th century, the Republic of Turkey was a country of victorious atheism, and adherence to Islam was not important. The pro-Islamists (Justice and Progress Party, aka AKP) have only been in power since the early 2000s, and although their rhetoric is understandable, no one drives people to mosques, wraps women in hijabs, or cuts off hands for drinking alcohol on the streets . “But what about the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque? – you ask. “Isn’t this a clear sign of the Islamization of society?” I will answer briefly.
There are, as it were, two parallel Turkeys: one is conservative and moderately religious, the other is progressive and free in its views. There is even one legendary photo from the mid-90s on this topic: two girls stand side by side on the beach – one is completely closed in a burkini, the other is topless. And the signature: “Turkey today.” And this is a great metaphor for how everything is different in Turkey and at the same time relatively well coexisting. If we are talking about large cities and tourist centers, where, most likely, you will end up, then it is the liberal, modern Turkey with a very European face that awaits you.
A few years ago, Turkey was really turbulent. There were terrorist attacks, attacks on the police and military in the eastern part of the country, and even an attempted military coup. But in recent years, everything has been quiet and peaceful, so just proceed with reasonable security measures that you would apply in any other country in the world.
When to Visit and How to Travel in Turkey
In Turkey, the longest warm season is in Antalya and Alanya right up to the beginning, mid-November. Istanbul is suitable for travel throughout the year, however, from mid-November to March it is mostly rainy and dank here.
Air transportation within Turkey is quite inexpensive. Intercity buses cost about the same – you should not be afraid of them, they are comfortable and offer a huge number of routes. Against this background, the railway lags far behind, but if you really want to, you can travel by train. And, of course, Turkey is a country where it is ideal to travel by car. So you can definitely see a completely different Turkey with unique natural beauties, authentic villages, ruins of ancient civilizations and a variety of people.
Turkish Food and Drinks
Turkey has delicious vegetables, bread, meat and fish. Cheese – more than 250 varieties, but, to be honest, most of them are not for everybody. Seafood is available, but do not expect elegance and skill in their preparation: there is no culture of eating them, as, for example, in Spain or France. Meat delicacies are generally a problem – the choice is limited to specific dried sausage sujuk and dried meat – basturma (pastirma).
Turkey is more about street and home food than about restaurants. Here you need to take street stalls with mussels or fried lamb giblets or go to locants – canteens with homemade food for every taste, which tourists shy away from. And in vain, because their food is usually much tastier than in most restaurants.
But here’s why it’s still worth going to Turkish restaurants – for feasts with a lot of meze snacks, aniseed vodka, songs and dances. Such feasts take place either in fish restaurants (they go here for “raki-balyk” – fish from crayfish), or in meykhane (these are “table” restaurants, mainly with a meat menu).
The most popular drink is raki, aniseed schnapps. In fact, this is the same as Greek ouzo, but should not be confused with Balkan raki (fruit schnapps). The second most popular is beer. Few people know about Turkish wine, but it is worth trying. The history of winemaking in Turkey goes back thousands of years, very interesting grape varieties, and all international varieties take root well due to the abundance of different climatic zones. The Turkish wines are terribly underestimated, but over the past 20 years, a significant number of extremely good small wineries and wines worthy of attention have appeared here.
The main dishes in Turkey
Chi kofte is a Turkish dish that is ideal for vegetarians. This is bulgur, which is kneaded with tomato and pepper paste and a special mixture of a dozen spices, and then molded into small patties or sausages. They eat chi kofte wrapped in a lettuce leaf and generously flavored with lemon juice. The dish is spicy, satisfying and unlike anything familiar to us.
Lahmacun is a flatbread made of thin crispy dough with minced meat on top. The shape is similar to pizza, but the taste is completely different. Usually salad and fresh vegetables are put in lahmacun, everything is sprinkled with lemon juice and wrapped in a wrap. But you can simply tear off pieces from the fragrant cake and eat it like this – the taste sensations will not suffer from this.
Kuru fasulye – spicy red bean stew in tomato paste, served with Turkish rice – Pilav. It’s worth trying once to understand what the Turks eat almost daily.
Chorba – in Turkish, actually, “soup”. The soups here are not like ours: they are all pureed thick soups, usually based on cereals. The most common is merjimek, lentil soup. The second most popular is ezogelin: in addition to lentils, it contains bulgur, rice and tomato paste. The main secret of the success of these soups is a fair amount of butter, which is added to chorba at the final stage. As a result, soups are hearty, with a bright rich taste and absolutely self-sufficient.
Kebabs are any meat cooked over an open fire. There are dozens of types of kebabs, depending on the method of preparation and serving. For example, shish kebab is our usual barbecue, but adana or urfa kebab is made from minced meat and looks like long cutlets. Beyti kebab is meat wrapped in pita bread and cut into pieces a la roll, and beyindili kebab is meat on a bed of eggplant puree. Well, a separate interesting dish is iskender: these are pieces of thin meat from a skewer, laid out on pita bread and a yoghurt pillow and poured with fragrant melted butter on top.
Dener – meat from a skewer, which is cut into thin layers. Dener durum is an analogue of our shawarma, but with one big difference: the Turks usually do not put sauce there, so for a Russian person Turkish durum is dry and bland. We recommend taking dener in portions on a plate (served with rice / bulgur and salad), in a flatbread called “tombik” instead of pita bread or with the addition of cheese (kasarli durum) – it will turn out not so dry.
Kokorech is one of the hallmarks of Turkish street food: fried lamb intestines, finely chopped, mixed with spices and green pepper and generously stacked in half a fresh loaf. The perfect balance of fragrant and fatty meat with the tender flesh of a roll is something, albeit an amateur one. A similar dish is uikuluk, the same fried and chopped lamb goiter glands. You can rarely find it, but the dish is so unusual that if you see it somewhere, I advise you to take it for a sample without hesitation.
Balyk-ekmek is the famous street food of Istanbul, which, however, is found throughout the country. Literally – “fish in bread”, mackerel fillet, stuffed into a bun. Usually such a sandwich is dry and hard, so it is better to take a new generation of balyk-ekmek – now it is made in the form of durum, where the fish is wrapped in pita bread with a bunch of vegetables and lemon-spicy sauce.
There are many types of fish in Turkey , but most often they serve sea bass / sea bass – it is called “levrek”, cod – “mezgit” and mackerel – “palamut”. Turks are very fond of “hamsi” – small anchovies, deep-fried to the state of a snack. In fish restaurants, of course, you can find rarer specimens – for example, a tender and melting in your mouth lantern fish (“fener balyk”). When ordering fish in a restaurant, the main thing is to immediately specify its cost. For many types of fish, the price on the menu is indicated for 100 grams, and rare types of fish may not be presented at all on the menu. In order not to get a check with three zeros, do not mindlessly poke a fish, but find out exactly how much it will cost you.
Another symbol of Turkish street food is mussels stuffed with rice and boiled in a spicy broth. They are served directly from the stalls, where they are usually eaten on the go without leaving the cash register. One thing costs only a lira, so with a change in your pocket you can safely throw a couple. They eat them with their hands, opening the shell and pouring lemon juice over them.
Best Places to Visit in Turkey, by Interests
For Nature and beaches: Kas, Kabak, Cirali
For beautiful nature and relatively non-tourist beaches, it is best to go to the Mediterranean coast from about Bodrum to Antalya. The ideal turquoise sea, shores overgrown with lush green forest, quiet bays and snow-white and relatively deserted beaches – this is it. The most remarkable places for a secluded beach holiday are Kas and Kabak. These are bounty-style beaches with turquoise water and chamber bays, relatively uncrowded and secluded. A more or less party place with a lot of picturesque bays and mountains around is Oludeniz. An authentic quiet village suitable for families is Cirali.
For ancient ruins – the Aegean coast
If you feel like wandering around the ancient amphitheaters and hugging the columns of dilapidated mosques, the coast of the Aegean Sea, from Izmir to Bodrum, will suit you. It was here that Asia Minor was located, where the Greek civilization met with the eastern cultures of the Mediterranean and the great Ionian cities arose – Miletus, Ephesus, Priene, Didyma. Philosophy was born here: the first Greek philosopher Thales lived in Miletus, and Heraclitus settled in Ephesus – the one who “everything flows, everything changes”, and on the island of Samos – right opposite – Pythagoras lived and worked.
Here are amazingly preserved ancient cities (again, Ephesus, or tiny Priene). And here, according to legend, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist ended their days. By the degree of concentration of history per square meter, this is a unique place. It is ideal to travel here by car, but if you don’t have one, you can choose the city of Kusadasi as your outpost and from here explore the surroundings on your own by public transport.
Cappadocia – for Martian landscapes
Cappadocia is a mountain plateau in Central Anatolia that is known for its “Martian” landscapes, created over thousands of years by volcanic lava, wind and rain. It is worth going here not earlier than the end of September and not later than the end of November (no one canceled the high-mountain climate with temperature changes). For a complete immersion, you need to stay in a hotel inside the cliff, taste local wines and fly at dawn in hot air balloons. It costs from 100 euros per person.
Pamukkale – snow-white mountain terraces with waterfalls
Another place with an extraordinary natural landscape is Pamukkale. Here, on the slope of one of the mountains, limestone deposits come out, forming snow-white stepped terraces descending to the bottom. In addition, this land is famous for its healing springs – it is no coincidence that the ancient city of Hierapolis, one of the main “spa resorts” of the ancient world, was located here (now you can wander through its ruins). Actually, part of the water covers the limestone terraces themselves, forming waterfalls and pools. It all looks fantastic: it blinds the eyes from whiteness and turquoise.
Pamukkale is located near the city of Denizli. It is ideal to go here by car or by bus or train from Istanbul (the trip will take about eight hours). From Antalya and hotels on the Aegean coast, ready-made one-day tours are also often made here.
For Hiking – Lycian Way
On the territory from Fethiye to Antalya there is a famous hiking route – the Lycian trail. It is clear that at the time when it appeared, the concept of hiking did not yet exist: it was an important trade route passing through Lycia, one of the states of the Ancient World. Today, the path remains of the road, and ruins of the great cities that surrounded it.
But if you like hiking and the synthesis of impressive natural views and ancient ruins, this is the place for you. You can start hiking along the trail in the Fethiye region, and finish near Antalya. The trail is marked with red and white marks in accordance with European hiking agreements, and there are campsites and boarding houses around.
For Yachting: Bodrum, Marmaris, Gocek
Yachting in Turkey has significant advantages. It has quiet bays suitable even for novice yachtsmen, developed infrastructure and an abundance of marinas, and incomparably cheaper life on land than in European waters. And the season lasts almost the whole year. In Marmaris, for example, international competitions are held in November and February, and in Gocek, many yachting schools conduct training in winter.
The main yachting centers are Bodrum, Marmaris, Gocek. My love is Bodrum because there is so much to do here besides yachting: the city combines the charm of a Greek coastal village with a modern party vibe. Most of the rich Turkishmen vacation in Bodrum, which obviously affects the quality of service.
Alanya – ideal for families with children
The best option for families with children is Alanya. This is a small town a little further from Antalya, where young people will be frankly bored, but families with small children are just right. Warm and calm sea, the longest summer season (even in early November it is ok for a beach holiday), intimacy and safety – this is Alanya.
Karadeniz – mountains drowned in greenery on the Black Sea coast
Karadeniz, is mostly unheard of. This is the Turkish Black Sea region that is located in the northeast, closer to the border with Georgia. A place of amazing beauty: mountains overgrown with lush forests, inside of which small villages are lost with an authentic cultural heritage that has been preserved here for centuries. Ancient Armenian and Byzantine shrines are also located here – for example, the Sunela Monastery, partially carved into the rock.
It is almost impossible to write about Istanbul briefly and at the same time sensibly. This city is a “layer cake” of eras and cultures, it has a dozen different faces, and it would be a huge simplification to show only one of them. By the way, most of the Istanbul travel guides that appear in the media every season succumb to this. Behind the lists of places that the authors accidentally liked, the complete picture rarely peeps through. Of all the Istanbul guides, I never cease to recommend the old Afisha guidebook, last reissued in 2015 – even though it is a hundred years old at lunchtime, no one has surpassed it in terms of description capacity and depth of understanding of the city. To be honest, even the places recommended there for visiting are not outdated, they just moved from the category of “fashionable” to the category of “classic, time-tested”.