If you haven't been to Turkey or simply don't know much about it, chances are your perception might be a bit skewed. It's a modern European country with spectacular landscapes, warm people and some of the most historical and spiritual sites in the world. It's a Muslim country but it's secular, and a very small percentage of women cover themselves from head to toe in black; instead, many dress no differently than their American counterparts.
Another misnomer is that Turkey is in the Middle East. In fact, it is located on two continents, Europe and Asia. The European portion of Turkey is called Thrace, while the Asian part is known as either Anatolia or Asia Minor. Istanbul in particular is arguably as European as anywhere on the Continent. In fact, during my first stroll in the city, with its cosmopolitan street life, shops and restaurants at every turn, historical sites interspersed with trendy nightclubs and city traffic on both sides of a major river, I was reminded of London. Of course, Istanbul's skyline is accented by the minarets of mosques more than the peaks of tall buildings.
Here is some advice for making your trip to this fascinating country unforgettable.
A compelling pastime in Istanbul is shopping; the Grand Bazaar houses hundreds of vendors selling everything from arts and crafts to jewels, and don't forget the country's justly famous rugs that look like they belong framed on the walls of museums.
Every great vacation needs a little nightlife and this where I thought my trip to Turkey would be lacking, but I again was pleasantly surprised. Its lively main street, Istiklal Caddesi, in the area called Beyoglu, is packed day and night with young people shopping, dining and bar-hopping.
Days could be spent exploring the city's historical sights: ruins from ancient Roman times, intricately tiled palaces where sultans held court, stunning mosques that soar to the sky. The famous Blue Mosque (so called for its beautiful blue tiles) is steps away from the Hagia Sophia, a basilica-turned-mosque and now a museum that is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Even just a few feet away from these glorious structures, they did not look real. Not until you walk through their doors will you realize that you aren't walking into a painting.
The same can be said for the Byzantine Basilica, built in the sixth century. It is dark and its floors are mostly covered in water, with many candles lit to show people the way. Staring at the orange light on the water is almost like meditating.
For archaeological sites, comfortable shoes and a cap are recommended. For mosques and churches, cover extremities—if it's warm, carry a long-sleeved shirt and a long skirt or pants to don, as shorts and short skirts are forbidden. When entering a mosque, shoes need to be removed, so I'd recommend wearing socks. Women are required to wear headscarves, which many mosques provide, although I did not observe this being enforced.
Two Weeks in Turkey is Perfect
I was only able to spend six days in Turkey, but two weeks is more ideal. I highly recommend a drive from Kusadasi to Pamukkale, visiting Ephesus on the way. It's hard to imagine any location in Turkey that encompasses a fuller serving of history, religion and beautiful landscapes than Ephesus.
Here, large portions of the amphitheaters, Library of Celsus and the Temple of Hadrian all remain intact. To think you are walking on The Marble Road and touching walls and columns that were touched by people thousands of years ago is an overwhelming feeling; there were times I felt hypnotized.
Even if you are not Catholic, or even religious for that matter, you can't help but feel a sense of cleansing when you visit the home of the Virgin Mary. It is a simple hut, a small room where candles are lit and an altar is set with a statue of Mary waiting for the next visitor to kneel down and pray.
Use Your Head
Turkey, like any place, does have the potential for tourist-related crime, including pick-pocketing and con jobs. Take the same precautions as you would anywhere–don't travel alone, carry only small bills, don't wear flashy clothes or jewelry and be very careful who you get friendly with. Con artists don't look like con artists; they will pretend to be your friend.