16 Things to Know Before Traveling to Turkey

The ancient Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey
The ancient Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Kristen and I can both safely say that Turkey was one of our favorite countries we’ve traveled to yet! Its history and culture are virtually unparalleled, the food is great, and everything is pretty cheap. 

It’s been ruled by the Ancient Greeks, the Roman Empire, the Seljuk Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. You can find the ruins of Hattusa, the capital of the ancient Hittite Empire, within Turkey’s borders, as well as those of Gobekli Tepe, one of the oldest known settlements in human history. Ephesus was at one point the largest city of the ancient world and is today one of the most complete Greek ruins you can find anywhere. Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, at once European and Middle Eastern. In the far eastern part of the country, you can find the distinct Kurdish culture. The Cappadocia region in central Turkey has a unique landscape literally not found anywhere else on Earth. 

Having said that, it is definitely going to be a foreign country to many western travelers, so I’ve put together this list of Things to Know Before Traveling to Turkey so you won’t be caught off-guard!

1. It’s a modern country, but there are many cultural differences

Istanbul trams by the National Archaeological Museum
Istanbul trams by the National Archaeological Museum

Turkey in its current form came into being back in 1922, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Having said that, it’s been an inhabitated land for thousands of years. This makes for an interesting mix of modernization and ancient holdovers.

For example, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world, bustling in every sense of the word, where you’ll find light rail running alongside dudes carrying cargo in hand-drawn rickshaws. The new airport is one of the largest and most modern in the world…and you’ll find squat toilets inside.

2. You’re going to need a visa to enter, and keep your HES code handy.

Make sure to apply for a Turkish visa with at least a few weeks to go. You won’t be able to board a flight to Turkey without one. 

In the time of covid, Turkey also requires you to have a HES Code. This is a way to contact trace you in case of infection. With the exception of most restaurants, bars, cafes, and hookah lounges, everywhere else is going to ask for your HES code. You’ll need it to get a bus ticket, a plane ticket, enter a museum, etc. You may want to screenshot it and keep it on your phone.

3. The Istanbul airport is now located about an hour outside the city

The New Istanbul Airport
The New Istanbul Airport

Istanbul used to be served by Ataturk Airport, which was located fairly close to the historic center of the city and its most popular areas. 

That is not the case now. Ataturk was indefinitely closed to passenger traffic in 2019 and there are no plans to reopen it. Passengers now fly in and out of “New Istanbul Aiport” (IST), which is located almost a solid hour’s drive north of the city. The new airport is huge and very modern (airport workers even get around on electric scooters and Segways), but it is a pain to get to and from the city. Expect to pay around $40 to get to the city if you hire a taxi. You can get there via public transit for considerably less, but expect the trip to take over an hour and a half and involve at least one transfer.  

4. Be ready to present your passport for everything...including Wi-Fi

When you land at Istanbul airport, you will not be able to access internet right away. Instead, you’ll need to find a podium looking thing with Free Wi-Fi written on it. Except, to access this wi-fi, you’ll need your passport number. You’ll also only be able to get on for an hour at a time. 

Turkey requires your passport for just about everything other than eating or shopping.  

I recommend traveling with a copy of your passport to present to officials, and not walking around with your actual passport. If it gets stolen or held for any reason, you’re kind of screwed. Either bring a paper copy of your ID page or have a photo of it saved to your phone. 

Lastly, please remember the old traveler’s maxim: NEVER hand your passport to a foreign cop. 

5. They use a different electrical outlet

Turkey uses the European electrical outlet, aka Type F, which is two round prongs, like so:

Type F (European) plug and outlet / Image courtesy of PowerPlugSocket.com
Type F (European) plug and outlet / Image courtesy of PowerPlugSocket.com

I use and recommend an Epicka travel adapter, but you can find any number of them out there. 

6. Everybody smokes.

Like Greece–though not as bad–everyone in Turkey smokes. Travelers coming from the US, where smoking rates are declining and there are widespread antismoking ads, may be shocked at the level of tobacco use in Turkey. If you’re sensitive to the smell of smoke, you may not appreciate being on a bus surrounded by the smell of cigarette smoke as well as the intermittent coughing and hacking going on around you. 

7. They have little concept of personal space.

I’m not trying to knock the people of Turkey here! But I do like to give a realistic idea of what to expect for westerners while abroad, and the fact of the matter is that personal space is not really a high priority here. It’s not uncommon to be at a museum and to turn your head to find someone literally right behind you, looking over your shoulder. 

8. The concept of courtesy is a little different here.

Again, I’m not saying the Turkish people are rude, but there is a very distinct lack of what we would call “common courtesy.” You may be in line at the bus station to get a ticket and someone might barge right in front of you with no “excuse me” or apology. Yes, it can be a little rude. I don’t think it’s done to be mean, but you have to be a little more…proactive…in your daily life. 

9. You may see a lot of people with horrible red rashes on their scalps.

9 times out of 10, this is not an illness. It’s actually hair implants.

Hair implantation is very popular in Turkey due to its low cost. A procedure that may cost $12,000 in the US may only cost $2,100 in Turkey. Many foreigners will even travel to Turkey just to have the procedure done for a fraction of what it would have cost back home. If you see someone with half their head wrapped in bandages and the other half puffy and dark red, it’s very likely due to this procedure. 

Image courtesy of HairTransplantinTurkey.org
Image courtesy of HairTransplantinTurkey.org

10. Turkey is a Muslim country, though a relatively liberal one

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

This is significant for a few reasons:

1. You will hear the call to prayer several times a day, and

2. When visiting a mosque, women are required to cover their heads.

The call to prayer is that chanting/singing that anyone who’s ever seen a movie set in the Middle East has heard. It is a reminder for muslims, if they are able to do so, to do their daily prayers. Every city and town has one or more mosques, and those mosques will have one or more high towers, called minarets. In the past, criers would climb to the top of these minarets and call out to their neighborhoods that the time had come to pray. It seems like nowadays a lot of it is pre-recorded, but you will still hear the call to prayer loud and clear across the entire city. 

Interior of Hagia Sophia
Interior of Hagia Sophia

Many mosques, especially in Istanbul, are incredibly old, huge, and beautiful, and so are open to visitors. Perhaps the most famous of all of these is the Hagia Sophia, which dates back all the way to the 6th-century AD. You don’t have to be a muslim to enter, although everyone must remove their shoes, and women have to follow one extra step: they must cover their heads. Men are not required to do this. I’m not sure on the exact reason for this, but it is a requirement. 

This interesting attitude towards religion means you can also very different styles of dress: you can pass woman dressed in relatively revealing attire and then two seconds later a woman in a full burqa.

11. You may want to consider getting a VPN

There are some weird laws regarding the internet in Turkey. Some websites are banned outright (like Wikipedia, for some reason that escapes me), and others are severely restricted…like Booking.com. 

Get this: If you are using Booking.com or its mobile app while in Turkey, you will not be able to reserve a room. The reason for this also escapes me. 

That’s where VPNs come in. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and is useful to have at home but especially so when abroad. In very basic terms, a VPN allows your mobile device to be in one country but access the internet in another country. So if, for example, you’re in Turkey, you can use a VPN to log into an internet server in the US. You’ll essentially “trick” a site like Booking.com into thinking that you’re logging in from the US or another country, and not Turkey, and thus be able to reserve rooms. 

Having said that, VPNs are also useful overseas as an added security measure, especially when dealing with credit card information. 

Kristen and I use NordVPN and were able to get around Turkish restrictions using it. They’re fast, affordable, come highly rated, and Kristen and I both highly recommend them. 

12. Learn some Turkish words and phrases...and be prepared for people to still not understand you

English is not super widely spoken in Turkey, and the Turkish language can be rather finicky (i.e., never before have I had such difficulty in getting people to understand the word for “coffee:” kahvesi).

Even so, it’s best to have a few useful phrases in your hip pocket for when communicating with the Turkish people. 

The good news is that locals are by and large very, very helpful. There were several instances in which people would whip out their phones and use Google Translate to communicate with us. Even so, I recommend knowing the following words and phrases:

Yes = Evet

No = Hayir or Yok* (ha-yeersh or yoke)

Please = Lutfen (loot-fahn)

Thank you = Tessekurler (te-she-coo-lehr)

Okay = Tammam

Where is…? = …nerede? (use it after the word you want to say)

How much? = Ne kadar?

*Interestingly, there is direct translation for a straightfoward, polite “no” in Turkish. Hayir is the closest, but the word itself can be a little strong, so don’t use it too strongly. Yok is what you’ll hear most people say, but it’s considered to be very informal, kind of like saying “nope.” We heard and used yok the most but either one will work. 

Aysha, a woman selling tea and coffee by a crater lake in Cappadocia
Aysha, a woman selling tea and coffee by a crater lake in Cappadocia

13. Turkey is a very affordable country

Turkish lira
Turkish lira

Turkey uses the lira, which is divided into 100 kurus. 

As of December 2021, the dollar is worth 12 lira (although very recent articles show it may even be more now). The dollar is very strong right now and you’ll find Turkey to be a wonderfully cheap country. You can expect to find the following prices for common items:

Turkish coffee = 12-20 lira

American coffee/Nescafe = 10-15 lira

Chicken shish plate = 25-65 lira

Meat kebap plate = 45-80 lira

Lamb plate = 60-90 lira

Turkish coffee, served in small amounts, but strong
Turkish coffee, served in small amounts, but strong

Baklava (4 small pieces or 1 big piece) = 20-40 lira 

Hookah/shisha/narguile = 50-120 lira (though an actual hookah lounge shouldn’t cost you much more than about 50 lira)

Winter coat = 200-350 lira

Sneakers = 200-300 lira

3-pass ticket for metro/tram/bus = 17 lira (Istanbul)

Intercity bus ticket = 60-160 lira

14. There are cats and dogs freaking EVERYWHERE

Q: Who runs Turkey?

A: The stray cats and dogs, of course. 

Cemetery cat
Cemetery cat
Cemetery cat
Cemetery cat
More cemetery kitties
More cemetery kitties

Where it differs greatly from other places with a similar situation is that the stray cats and dogs in Turkey are actually very well taken care of. It’s rare to find a mangy or emaciated mongrel on the street; to the contrary, most of them will be quite fat!

Cat shelters set up by the Istanbul municipality
Cat shelters set up by the Istanbul municipality

You will also notice that almost all the pups have ear tags. This is part of a social program to neuter and vaccinate all stray dogs in Turkey, so they can be free of fleas, ticks, and other parasites. 

15. You can buy luxury handbags for a fraction of the price...but there's a catch

Genuine fake Gucci bag
Genuine fake Gucci bag

One of the best things to do in Turkey, particularly for the ladies, is to shop. Every city of a certain size will have a market where you can find stalls upon stalls of everything you could ever wish for: coffee, tea, sweets, watches, jewelry, paintings, electronics, clothes, bags, food, everything. Istanbul especially just puts most other places’ shopping options to shame. 

Of particular note for ladies and gents alike are designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Yves St. Laurent, Gucci, and Fendi. You will find luxury handbags, purses, belts, and wallets in stalls all over the city and country. What will shock many visitors is the price of these sought-after items: handbags that would normally retail for $3,000 and up can be found in the Grand Bazaar for $160.*

So, the important question: Can you be seen with a nice Fendi bag for a 20th of the price? The answer: Absolutely!

Another question: Will it actually be a Fendi bag? The answer: Ehhhhhhh, not really. 

If you spend some time in the markets, and if you get a particularly candid vendor, you’ll probably hear them use the term “genuine fake.” You might assume that this is just a *wink wink nudge nudge word for cheap crap from China that they’ve marked up. Believe it or not, “fake” and “genuine fake” are actually real terms with very different meanings.  

Genuine fake Yves. St. Laurent purse
Genuine fake Yves. St. Laurent purse

Fake = fake products made in China, often in sweatshops. 

Genuine fake = fake products made in Turkey, often under the supervision of former luxury brand designers and manufacturers themselves. 

So, is a fake Louis Vuitton a fake Louis Vuitton? Yeah, of course. It’s not the real deal. But the level of craftsmanship is usually going to be higher than something out of East Asia and therefore command a slightly higher price tag, but still look good and last you a while. 

*And that’s before you haggle! I helped Kristen get some small Gucci and YSL bags down to between 250 and 350 lira–about $18 to $25. I expect a more seasoned haggler could get them for even less. 

Pro Tip: NEVER accept the first price they give you in the bazaars. You can learn more about the basics of haggling here.  

16. There is way too much culture and history to see in a short visit.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesus
The Library of Celsus at Ephesus

Turkey is an incredible country with incomprehensible history, so don’t try to see everything in a short time. As one of my college professors once tole me: “See less, experience more.”  

Kristen and I at the incredible Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul
Kristen and I at the incredible Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul

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1 Response

  1. intellichick1 says:

    Great advice! Sounds like an amazing country.

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