Travel series #3: Turkey

Pamukkale travertine cliff at sunset (with Roman tombs)

In my travel series, I talk about the places I visit from a dietitian’s perspective, keeping in mind the “toilet culture”, so that you will know what to expect if you are looking to travel to these destinations.

I’ve never been to Turkey before and I didn’t really think I would ever go. But my husband had been thinking about it, and when our friends asked us to join them on their month-long adventure, the answer was an easy “yes”. We would spend the first week in Istanbul and then rent a car to have a road trip around the western part of the country. It would be a trip full of historical sights, ruins, sea, and cats. For me, I would also have to sneak in some work, business woman as I am, so it wasn’t a complete vacation.

In any case, there’s so much I could tell you about the trip, but I’ll try to be disciplined and tell you only the best parts to keep the post short(er) and sweet.

The first impression

You’ll quickly notice the sheer number of mosques in the country, and if you don’t see one, you’ll hear one five times a day. Sometimes it felt like it’s a battle of the mosques when they all start their call at the same time. I didn’t mind it, as often the “singers” where really good and it was lovely to listen to, but then they would wake you up at 5 am when the day’s first call to prayer was sounded.

If you are a lady and you are wondering about what clothing to bring, I’d say that in most places you can wear whatever you please, and shorts and tops are not a problem. The only place where I felt I needed to be more conservative, was Konya. There wasn’t a single local that wore shorts there, not even men, and it was hot! Mosques, or course, have a dress code, so make sure your clothing covers your knees, shoulders, and hair.

Apart from this, Turkey (or perhaps it was mostly just Istanbul) was not what I expected at first glance. And I’m afraid to say that this was not in the most positive sense (which might be because we stayed at Taxim square). The Turkish economy has had a tough time, including horrible inflation, and we could feel this. This was not exceedingly obvious, and I imagine some people wouldn’t notice anything, but as an example, in many places the restaurants and even one of the hotels wanted us to pay by cash – probably to avoid credit card fees at least. And I totally get it, but in this day and age, you can’t expect someone to carry around the equivalent of 200$ or so in cash! We were thankfully able to work it out.

Beware that especially in Istanbul, the prices are inflated and likely increased even further for tourists. Never go to a restaurant that doesn’t show prices on their menu! The biggest mistake we made was that we paid 18$ for a few bananas, some strawberries and walnuts in a corner store in Istanbul – the real price should’ve been way less than half of what we paid. Our hotel receptionist was sorry for us, he knew the little shops would try to get as much as possible out of tourists not yet used to the exchange rate. Worse, our friends paid 60$ for a 10-minute taxi ride, a total scam! If you take a taxi, know how much the ride should cost and don’t get in before agreeing on a good price. Istanbul has a decent and cheap public transportation system, so I’d recommend utilizing that instead of relying on taxis.

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul (be prepared to haggle, this is how they do business here!)

The people

That all said, my goodness the people were nice! The highlight was our hotel in Konya – the people working there, especially this one lady, were great! They insisted on carrying our luggage to the rooms, and even put our friends’ food into the fridge for them. Also, at breakfast, even though they didn’t serve yogurt, when we asked for it this same lady would go and buy some for us immediately. Each morning she’d have yogurt ready for us, without us asking for it again. So sweet!

We met multiple people we chatted for extended periods with, learning about them and about their lives in Turkey. I even got a 10-year-old girl asking to take a picture with me – it must be the blonde hair. 

The food

I wish I could say I loved the food in Turkey. I mean, it was tasty, especially the baklava and the beans, and the breakfast was decent, but for a vegetarian, our diet in terms of dinner was repetitive: cheese pizza (or pide as they call it there), beans and pilaf (yum!), and vegetarian mantı (ravioli-like dish) a couple of times, and salads. It’s tough when most dishes are not on the menu for you, and we of course preferred balanced meals – protein is what is most often missing in vegetarian meals abroad. What helped us, is that they had these “tradesmen’s” restaurants (lokantas) that were very affordable and low hassle, and usually had a vegetarian bean dish with rice and salad on offer. We typically paid about 12$ for a meal for two in these places. That said, eating out was stressful as almost every restaurant was the same, with short menus and hardly anything for vegetarians. Our meat-eating friend, on the other hand, had a great time, as there were lots of delicious meat and chicken menu items. So, if you eat meat, you’ll love Turkey, but if you are vegetarian, or even vegan, be prepared to eat the same things over and over again. And look into your restaurant options in advance – doing some research helped a lot! By the way, it’s a custom that someone hangs out at the door to the restaurant inviting people in – for the most part you can ignore them, but if need be, you can tell them you already ate and drank and they can’t argue with you that they have something you need.

Beans, lentil soup, pilaf and salad at a lokanta restaurant
A breakfast plate in Istanbul – super delicious, though 12-15$ for the portion (the salad was sold separately)

Breakfast, contrarily, was quite good in that each hotel had a rich breakfast buffet. But as with dinner, everywhere it was about the same – vegetables, eggs, cheeses and deli meats, olives, bread and spreads. Sometimes cereal and yogurt. And tea. Always lots of strong black tea. In terms of nutritional value, I was always able to get protein, vegetables/fruit and carb for breakfast, but rarely whole grain. Almost every breakfast was the same for me: bread with butter, two boiled eggs, cheese and lots of vegetables. About half the time I also had yogurt with honey. I started craving oatmeal at some point, I’m not kidding! But at least the breakfast was ample and it did give us a really good start for each day – shouldn’t complain.

Snacks we carried around all the time. We ended up in a routine in which we had a sturdy breakfast and a good dinner, but to bridge the gap we needed lots of snacks. We found very nice dried fruit and nuts in the grocery stores for a good price, and additionally we ate pop corn, chocolate, fruit and baklava. Sometimes we’d buy a simit from a street vendor for small money – this is kind of a bagel with sesame seeds.

Baklava – walnut on the right, pistachio on the left
Tulumbas and cherries

Sweets and desserts were excellent, my favorites being baklava and tulumba (fried dough doused in syrup). Ice cream from a traditional vendor was creamy and tasty, and they had exotic flavors such as violet and rose. Very good! I avoided the trickster ice cream sellers, as I didn’t feel like working for my ice cream. 

The sights

Ahh the sights. There’s so much to see in Turkey, and it’s all top of the shelf quality! So many Unesco sites. However, the prices had more than doubled from last summer, so especially Ephesus was expensive! Some places, like the Hittite capital Hattusa was was really cheap, on the other hand.

The places we saw:

Istanbul: the blue mosque (free), a couple of other mosques (free, all beautiful inside – take your shoes off when you go in, and ladies cover your head and hair), the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian spice market and Galata tower. We also took a ferry to the Asian side (less than 1$ / ride), which was a lot quieter and had a big park nearish the ferry station. Tickets to Yenikapı palace were outrageous, as were Hagia Sophia tickets, with not the whole place visitable, so we skipped these two. My favorite thing in Istanbul was just to walk the streets and pet all the cats. The bazaars are something to experience, but the crowds were incredible even though it was off-season. We bought some Turkish delights (made in Syria) and lavender oil. We were considering to buy a Turkish rug, but we didn’t even try in Istanbul as we knew we’d have to have more information about what prices to expect, how to haggle etc. But we’d get our chance later.

Galata tower – busy streets
A mosque in Istanbul – can’t remember which one!
The Grand Bazaar
An affectionate mosque kitty in Istanbul

The roadtrip:

  • Çanakkale: drove around to see the Gallipoli war sights from World War I. A beautiful place with a sad history. Also went to Troy as it is in the vicinity – just saw the museum, which was nice enough, but found out that the ruins were a mess and not worth it. Ticket was a steep 27 e for both the museum and the ruins. If you are into war history, you’ll enjoy Gallipoli, but I can’t say I recommend Troy museum, if you are planning to see other ruins from that era, considering the cost.
ANZAC beach with a bunker
  • Selçuk: stayed here for the Ephesus ruins. 40e per person, while the locals would pay about 2.5e! Crowded! Nice ruins of course, but hard to get into it because of the crowds. Not sure if I’d recommend, especially if you are planning to visit places such as Pamukkale/Hierapolis etc. The town itself was cute, and St. John’s Basilica in the old town a delight! Tickets to the basilica were about 6 e each. In the area there is also an obscure abandoned Turkish bath (hamam), which was really cool.
Ephesus library
Troy museum
The abandoned hamam from 15th century
  • Pamukkale: the famous travertine pools and the ruins of Hierapolis atop the white cliffside. Tickets were 30e, but this time totally worth it! Walking barefoot up the white travertine was a treat, and the ruins up top were fantastic. Take snacks and make sure you have enough time, as it’s an extensive place. It was crowded at the pools, but we stayed until sunset and it quieted down remarkably. Wonderful experience – I’d recommend.
  • Fethiye: a beach town. We came here to see the ghost town Kayaköy, which was an amazing, yet a sad place – this is an abandoned Greek village that was emptied in 1923 in a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The Turks wouldn’t want to settle in the town because they believed it was haunted by Greek ghosts. Nearby there were multiple other ruins, of which we visited Pinara. Free entrance, almost no one there, beautiful nature and lots of rock tombs to marvel at. Recommend both! And, the second half of the drive between Pamukkale and Fethiye was breathtaking!
Kayaköy ghost town
Pinara rock tombs (just a fraction of them)
On the road near Fethiye – breathtaking
  • Antalya: another beach town, a big city! The old town was lovely and there were lots of ruins nearby. We visited Termessos, which is unique in that it was neither Greek nor Roman – they were their own thing! We were almost completely alone. A very scenic and beautiful place, not very well kept and paths were littered with rocks sometimes, but worth the visit. Entrance fee was 3.50 e per person to get into the national park where the place was located.
The view from Termessos – you can see Antalya!
  • Konya: some call it the spiritual center of Turkey. Indeed, this is said to be the most conservative town in Turkey. We visited for the whirling dervishes and Rumi’s tomb. The Mevlana museum, in which Rumi’s tomb is located (Rumi’s first name was Mevlana), was packed with people, though we did visit on a Saturday, and apparently it was a “museum day” which probably added to the crowds. The building and the tomb were beautiful, but it was slightly difficult to get into the feeling due to the crowds, and partially due to the hot weather that day. I wanted to be respectful and wore a long dress with a cardigan to cover my shoulders, so it was a bit sweaty. The dervish ceremony was something I won’t forget – as a person with a spiritual side, I appreciated the devotion of the dervishes and the beautiful ceremony and music. Çatalhöyük, the Neolithic settlement I’d seen in my history books was only a 45-minute drive away, so visited that as well. I’d recommend all of the above. Konya also had the lowest prices – for example a kilo of baklava here was 4.50$ as compared to other places where the price was 10-20$ per kilogram.
  • Remember when I mentioned we’d get another chance to by a Turkish rug? There were multiple opportunities, as every city sells them, but in Konya, a man with great English approached us as we were finding our way around town. It turned out that he had his own rug shop, and he wanted to show us his rugs. Typically I wouldn’t agree to follow him, but since my husband and I had been thinking about getting one already, we figured why not. He made us an offer we couldn’t refuse and left the shop with two kilims. We paid 200$ for both, though he said not to tell anyone :D. His reason for selling us for such a low price was the fact that I was Finnish and he had once had a Finnish girlfriend in Antalya. He even told us how he met her, but who knows if these stories are true. The experience was actually fun and we got rugs that we liked for a fair price.
The whirling dervishes
  • Cappadocia: a highly visited area in central Turkey due to its volcanic rock formations. The rock is dotted with man-made cave dwellings, churches and tombs, to hide from persecutors. Lots of Christians came to live here and the evidence is everywhere. Most strikingly, people for hundreds of years have dug their homes deep into the rock, creating underground cities in which to hide during difficult times. I visited the Kaymaklı underground city (13 e per person) and it’s hard to imagine being able to live in such a place for long periods of time. An amazing feat to say the least, and a testament to human ingenuity and perseverance. Just be aware that this is one of the most expensive parts of Turkey and our most expensive meals were had here. Know that you can choose to see rock formations and churches for free, while others are paid. Overall I would recommend, it’s too unique to be missed if you are in Turkey.
Volcanic rock formations
A rock church in Church Valley
Sword valley
  • Hattusa: we stopped here on our drive from Cappadocia to Ankara. Tickets were 3 e per person and you could take your car around the big city. This is the Hittite capital contemporary with ancient Egypt. Beautiful surroundings also. Loved it and would recommend. 
Hattusa city gate

The hotels

I admit, we didn’t stay at the most expensive hotels as we were traveling on a budget. But still, almost every single hotel seemed to be holding on for dear life! Door handles breaking off, showers leaking all over the place, fridges not working, lights not working, safes not working, cigarette smoke coming in from the neighboring rooms as the Turks didn’t respect non-smoking signs etc etc. The best hotel we stayed at was the Holiday Inn in Ankara – this hotel was luxurious as compared to the others. Also, our hotel in Selçuk was pretty good, if basic, and the cave hotel in Cappadocia, which was on the more expensive side, was quite nice, but not without problems. Let me know if you’d like to know which hotels we stayed at.

The toilets

We were learning some basic words in Turkish from a YouTube video and the dude on it said that in Turkey you will not have problems with toilets. I was wondering what he meant, and found that for the most part, it was true. Not surprisingly, restaurants and cafés have restrooms, though not always the nicest. Conveniently, every mosque has a restroom also, and since mosques are everywhere, so are restrooms. Very often these were also quite good and well maintained (women don’t need to wear scarfs to use the toilets, in case you are wondering). One thing to know is that not all the toilet stalls have a seated toilet, and instead have a squatting toilet – a ceramic hole in the floor, but usually there is at least one Western-type seated toilet. Most of the time there was soap and toilet paper available. Another nice feature of the seated toilets was that each of them without failing had an in-built bidet. Just turn the nob on your right side next to the toilet bowl and it will spray water. This was nice for me as I caught a stomach bug in Istanbul (TMI?). The sights had toilets also, and sometimes just outside the entrances there were also paid ones. The only attraction where they didn’t have free toilets was Kaymaklı (30 cents).

The roads:

Renting a car was perfect for seeing a lot of Turkey. It’s great to have the freedom to go anywhere you want, as there is so much to see. And the roads are excellent! However, the driving culture is such that people drive fast, they don’t stop for pedestrians, they run red lights, and they don’t always know how to drive in a traffic circle. In their defense, Turkey has two types of traffic circles – ones that are “normal” in which the car entering the circle yields, but they also have ones that are the opposite! Just look for the yield signs and you’ll know which one it is. Some people drive on the shoulder, so walking along big roads is dangerous. You definitely need to be aware when you drive, but overall it’s not an exceedingly difficult country for a driver.

In the end, Turkey has incredible nature and history and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit! Overall it is an affordable destination where you can travel on a budget, but keep your wits about you and you won’t be duped into paying the “tourist price”. Lots of friendly people, and an opportunity to make friends everywhere. There are places that are crowded, and places where you get to be on your own. I’m happy to give you more pointers if you’d like, just get in touch!

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!



PS. If you would like to travel, but aren’t sure if it would go well because of your gut symptoms, get in touch with me so that I can help you calm down your gut and prepare well for your trip. You can make a free appointment here.

PPS. Don’t forget my free offerings on my home page here (scroll down until you see them!)

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