Going to Turkey is like opening yourself to an inescapable spell. You will have the urge to visit it over and over again.
Turkey or in Turkish: Türkiye, is a unique country as it straddles eastern Europe and western Asia. Greece and Bulgaria in the northwest, Georgia in the northeast, Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and Iran from the east, and Iraq and Syria from the south, border it; a total of eight countries.
Due to its rich geographical location and its crisscross of cultures, travelling to Turkey can be confusing in terms of what norms to follow, what to avoid, and what sightseeing activities to prioritise. The city itself is massive, spanning across two continents. Hence, I’ve compiled a list of do’s and don’ts for curious Turkey travellers. First order of business: DON’T stop reading here!
DO visit the museums
For history enthusiasts, this is quite an extensive task since there are hundreds of them in Turkey. However, it is possible for one to narrow it down simply based on one’s interest. Renowned museums I’d recommend include;
1) Hagia Sophia Museum
Undeniably one of the best in Turkey, this former church and mosque astonishingly reflects Byzantine and Ottoman architecture. A large dome in the main hall takes centre stage, along with the Christian frescoes and large Islamic calligraphy. UNESCO chose this as a world heritage site in 1985
Those traveling alone will have to pay 40TL for the entrance fee. However, entrance is free for those travelling in a group with a professional tour guide. The museum also provides hearing devices to guide you throughout. Keep an eye out for construction works on your travel calendar; some were ongoing when I went in 2015, so there were parts of the museum that were closed off to access.
If you are visiting during winter, I recommend the hot chocolate drink at the café beside the souvenir shop. It will give you some warmth and keep you energised, like it did for me.
For further information in regards to the museum, http://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en/visiting-information .
2) Topkapı Palace (topkapi-sarayi-tanitim)
Built in 1478 and covering an area of approximately 400,000 square metres, Topkapı Palace is the largest and oldest palace in the world still standing today.
The first thing you would see when entering is the Imperial Gate. After passing through, the courtyard also known as the ‘Courtyard of Regiments’ comes into view. The uniqueness of this gate is the fact that only the Sultan can pass. He would come on horse back while everyone else was to remain on their feet
The second gate is called the ‘Gate of Salutation’ as every visitor must salute the Sultan before passing through it. Be sure to observe the two tall, magnificent guard towers on either side of the path. After crossing the Second Courtyard, you will see the third and final gate, also known as ‘Gate of Felicitation’. It is the last hurdle to the Throne Room, where the Sultan used to felicitate important events.
I was blown away by the impressive architecture and the fact that only minor restorations were made. The palace felt so alive. It is a 40TL fee to enter the museum and an additional 25TL to enter the Harem and Halberdiers with Tresses Dormitory. However, for those going with a tour group certified by the Union of Travel Association Agencies of Turkey, the entrance is completely free. Here is a link for if you prefer to buy the tickets online: https://muze.gov.tr/buy_museum_pass .
3) Mevlana Museum
This museum, located in Konya, is offered to the visitors as the Dervish Lodge of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi). As some of the Ottoman Sultans were the members of Mevlevi sector, this building still exists today without being damaged.
The museum hosts the graves of Mevlana and his followers. Hence, visitors will also have the opportunity to see their belongings and remnants of their lifestyles. Interestingly, the Mevlâna Müzesi is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims as the owner, Rumî, is considered a saint. His poetic message of peace, love of God and one’s fellow creatures, resounds to a far wider audience today than it did over 700 years ago when Rumî preached and taught in Konya, bringing goodwill through its streets. Muslim and non-Muslim pilgrims come from throughout the world to visit his tomb.
The small mosque and semahane to the left of the sepulchral chamber contain exhibits such as musical instruments, the original copy of the Mathnawi, Mevlâna’s prayer rug, and a 9th-century gazelle-skin Christian manuscript. There is a casket containing strands of Prophet Muhammad’s beard, and a copy of the Koran. On the left of the mihrab for a seccade (prayer carpet) bearing a picture of the Kaaba at Mecca. Made in Iran of silk and wool, it’s extremely fine, with some three million knots (144 per square centimetre).
As the museum is considered a holy place, there are plastic shoe covers at the entrance, and it is a must to use them. Additionally, I recommend those who love poetry to buy the collection of poems that is rarely found elsewhere at the souvenir shop near the exit of the museum.
4) Atatürk and Turkish War of Independence Museum
The museum, which has many belongings of Atatürk and his fellow fighters, consists of 4 sections. In the first section is Atatürk’s personal belongings and gifts presented to him from the governments of foreign countries. In the second section, there is a panorama which depicts the Çanakkale Wars, the Sakarya War and the Battle of Dumlupınar. This section also displays some oil paintings. In the third section, an atmosphere is recreated in which the War of Independence and the revolutions are attempted to be retold. Finally, the fourth section is entirely Atatürk’s library, consisting of 3123 books.
While I toured around, there was suddenly some tight security clearing the museum. It turned out that some important visitors; the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, were visitng. Luckily, I managed to take photos and watch the changing of the guards. So, learn from my mistakes and do check for any surprise visits before going to the museum, or else you may not be able to enter at all.
DO experience the hot air balloon in Cappadocia
This was an experience I will always remember. My group and I were picked up at around 5am. Pick up times vary depending on the season and what time the sun rises. We were taken to the Royal Balloon lodge for some breakfast and some well needed coffee. During this, the drivers waited to hear where we would be taking off from as the whole adventure depended on the direction of the wind. Once everything was confirmed, we were taken to the take off point, where 4 big balloons were being inflated.
For those who prioritise safety and comfort, I highly recommend the Royal Balloon company. The pilots are well trained, friendly and good looking too!. Though it is more expensive than most companies, one can rest assured as insurance is also included and they use the highest insurance in Cappadocia. Our own hot air balloon accommodated 13 people including the pilot. The ride was supposed to last for an hour but our pilot was gracious enough to take my group on an hour and a half ride instead! After the ride, they prepared champagne but for those who opt not to drink, they will provide orange juice instead. Finally, each rider will also receive a medal (how cool is that?).
Again, if you’re planning to go during winter, please wear at least 3 layers of clothing so as not to freeze to death.
DO buy leather goods
Turkey is a heaven for leather lovers. Most luxury brands get their luxury goods manufactured in Turkey. But locally, factories sell high quality leather without the brand name, at a lower price. Do note that, ‘cheap’ means that the price ranges from RM 2000 and above, but these goods could last a lifetime under proper care.
The company I went to was KUZU LEATHER, and the sales associates were friendly. They even showcased a mini fashion show for us to see their latest winter collection. The leather goods my family purchased were very well made, and each came with a warranty. The great thing is that, if anything happens to these leather goods customers can ship it back to Turkey, where the team will fix it and will send it back in a month.
DO go to Pamukkale
The surreal, brilliant white travertine terraces and warm, limpid pools of Pamukkale hang, like the petrified cascade of a mighty waterfall, from the rim of a steep valley side in Turkey’s picturesque southwest.
The geological phenomenon that is Pamukkale is truly spectacular in its own right. Translating to “Cotton Castle” in Turkish, it is the site of the Greek-Roman city of Hierapolis’s remarkably well-preserved ruins. With such a unique combination of natural and man-made wonders it’s little wonder that Pamukkale-Hierapolis has been made a Unesco World Heritage site. With over two million visitors annually, it is also Turkey’s single most visited attraction.
The best way to approach the ancient site is to walk up through the formations on the travertine path, starting at the south gate to the site. To prevent eroding or staining the delicate calcite deposits, visitors are not permitted to wear shoes or even sandals while doing this. Instead, you have to bring your footwear (and everything else they’ll need to explore the ancient ruins) along in a bag. If you come in swimwear, you can splash in the warm, aquamarine pools en-route, and later swim in the antique pool at the top of the terracing. I recommend taking the whole day to make the most of the travertines, pools and remains. However, during winter, it can get very slippery, so be aware.
DO bathe in the hammam
Before one can decide whether they hate or love going to a Turkish bath or hammam, they need to experience it at least once. That being said, entering a Turkish bath can be a daunting experience.
You can choose to visit a historical hammam or a Turkish bath in a hotel. Personally, I feel that a traditional style is the best way to get the perfect Turkish bath experience. An attendant will wash and massage you for about 15 minutes, and you don’t have to bring any equipment. This service will cost you about 95 TL.
DO go for the Bosphorus cruise
This Bosphorus cruise in Istanbul enhanced my intrigue and obsession with the former capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. On the shore banks stand hundreds of ancient and modern landmarks that cannot be ignored. We also passed numerous neighbourhoods, all respected by locals for one characteristic or tradition.
The Yali houses are the most impressive and dominant shoreline landmarks. Built during the Ottoman Empire, their architectural styles blend discreetly into the scenery. Often made from wood, they were the summerhouses of rich Ottomans. Other notable properties include the yali of Huseyin pasha built in 1699 and the Erbilgin Yalisi, listed as the fifth most expensive house in the world when it went on sale for 100 million USD. Occupiers of the many yali houses are those who can afford property on one of the most important water straits in the world.
DO learn some basic Turkish
Turks are proud of their language and if one tries to converse with them in their language, countless of possibilities will hail such as free tea or even free goods!
DON’T shop at tourist hotspots
There will be plenty of food stalls and souvenir shops along the streets of Istanbul. If you see something that you really like there, buy it. This is because in most cases, prices are marked up at tourist attractions. For instance, most tour guides would bring tourists to Grand Bazaar and Spice Market one or two days before departure to their homeland. A silk scarf sold at a unbranded shop would be cheaper than at the Grand Bazaar, and with even better quality too.
DON’T forget to tip
Tipping is appropriate (and often expected) in restaurants and after taxi journeys. A tip of 10% is fine – feel free to tip more if you are particularly happy with the service. It is also customary to tip your hairdresser, beautician or barber (again, around 10% is fine).
DON’T get drunk in public
Although you can drink alcohol in many parts of Turkey, it is a bad idea to get drunk. It is not a generally accepted behaviour in this country.
DON’T insult Atatürk
Do be aware that the Turkish people have a deep respect for the Founding Father of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk. Make no jokes or even side remarks about him. This also goes for the government, the Turkish flag, the military, as it is illegal to do so.
DON’T take pictures of people without asking permission
Older people, in particular, are afraid of the camera and consider it “the evil eye.” Don’t take pictures of any woman wearing a veil, people praying, or any military facility.
Thus concludes this short guide to get the most of this mesmerizing country. So, what’s next? DO book your tickets to Turkey as soon as possible, and you will never regret it.
Written by Masturah Merican