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Check your Midnight Express stereotypes at the door - this is a rapidly modernizing country with one foot in Europe and one in the Middle East. It's not all oriental splendor, mystery, intrigue and whirling dervishes but it is a spicy maelstrom of history knocking up against a pacy present.
The Turkish people have an unrivalled reputation for hospitality, the cuisine is to die for, the coastline is a dream, and many Turkish cities are dotted with spectacular mosques and castles. And while costs are rising, Turkey remains the Mediterranean's bargain-basement destination.
There's an enormous variety of things to see and do ranging from water sports to mountain trekking, archaeology to night-clubbing and river rafting to raki drinking. Whether you leave Turkey with magnificent carpets, amulets to ward off evil, belly-dancing tips, an appreciation of its history, or just a tan, you're likely to want to go back for more.
Turkey is generally safe, but domestic and regional tensions result in occasional waves of low-level violence, particularly bombings. Such bomb attacks are often aimed at targets that represents Western interests, such as banks and consulates.
So far, travelers have not been specifically targeted by terrorists and suicide bombers. However, there is always the danger that travelers will find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The best defense is to maintain a modest profile and be aware of current events.
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Full country name: Republic of Turkey
GDP: US$183.7 million
Facts for the Traveler
Visas: Citizens from a long list of countries
do not require a Visa to enter Turkey. This list includes some
South American, European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries, so
it is worth checking out whether or not you will need a Visa. However,
travelers from Canada, the UK, the USA, Australia, Hong Kong, and
a number of other countries do need a visa to enter Turkey. Holders
of UK and American passports can obtain a Visa on arrival at the
point of entry to Turkey. Those from the UK will pay 16 and Americans
20 . All other travelers who require a Visa must apply for one
before leaving for Turkey. Fees vary as do the lengths of time
travelers are permitted to stay.
When to Go
Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, since the climate will be perfect in Istanbul and on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. It will be cool in central Anatolia, but not unpleasantly so. Visiting before mid-June or after August may also help you avoid mosquitoes. The Black Sea coast is best visited between April and September; there will still be rain but not so much of it. With the exception of Istanbul, Turkey doesn't really have a winter tourism season. Places catering to backpackers usually see Anzac Day as the official start of the season; those catering to package holiday-makers get going in early May. Peak season is from July to mid-September, when most Turks take their holidays. The best time to visit eastern Turkey is from late June to September. Don't plan to venture east before May or after mid-October unless you're prepared for snow. Try to avoid traveling during Kurban Bayrami, Turkey's most popular public holiday; you may also want to avoid the fasting month of Ramazan.
The dates for Muslim religious festivals are celebrated according to a lunar calendar; the dates are locked in every few years by Muslim authorities. Only two religious holidays are public holidays: Seker Bayrami , a 3-day festival at the end of Ramazan (30 days in December-January when a good Muslim lets nothing pass the lips during daylight hours), and Kurban Bayrami (March-April) which commemorates Abraham's near-sacrifice of Ismael on Mt Moriah. In commemoration of God permitting Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead of his son, every Turkish household who can afford a sheep buys one, takes it home and slits its throat right after the early morning prayers on the actual day of the bayram. Family and friends immediately cook up a feast. You must plan for Kurban Bayrami: most banks close for a full week, transportation will be packed and hotel rooms will be scarce and expensive.
Secular festivities include camel-wrestling in mid-January, in the village of Selçuk, south of Izmir, and National Sovereignty Day , April 23, a big holiday to celebrate the first meeting of the republican parliament in 1920. Celebrations abound in summer: there's a sloppy oiled wrestling festival in early June at Sarayiçi, near Edirne; the country Kafkasör Festival near Artvin in northeastern Turkey in the 3rd week of June; the International Istanbul Festival of the Arts (late June to mid-July); Bursa's Folklore and Music Festival in mid-July and Diyarbakir's Watermelon Festival in mid or late September. The whole country stops, just for a moment, at 9:05am November 10, the time of Atatürk's death in 1938.
Money & Costs
Currency: Turkish Lira
Turkey is a low-slung dollar burner. You can travel on as little as 20.00 per day using buses and trains, staying in pensions, and eating one restaurant meal. For 25.00 - 40.00 you can travel on plusher buses, take well-cushioned train seats, kick back in one and two-star hotels and eat most meals in restaurants. For 40.00 - 80.00 per day you can move up to 3 and 4-star hotels, take the occasional airline flight, and dine in restaurants all the time.
Keep in mind that high inflation has rendered the single lira completely worthless. A simple restaurant bill or taxi fare runs into millions of liras.
In cheaper restaurants it's not necessary to leave more than a few coins in the change plate. In more expensive restaurants, tipping is customary. Even if a 10-15% service charge is added to your bill, you're expected to give around 5% to the waiter directly and perhaps the same amount to the maitre d'. Porters expect a dollar or so; in taxis you might like to round up the bill; in other situations, for example, helpful guardians at archaeological sites, delicacy is required. Although a tip may be initially refused through politeness, you should offer the money a second and third time. After three refusals, you can safely assume they really don't want the money.
Turkey's capital is a sprawling urban mass in the midst of the Central Anatolian steppe. It's very different from the Ottoman town of Angora which preceded it on this site, a quiet place where long-haired goats were raised and their fleece knitted into fluffy jumpers. Since 1920 when Atatürk set up his provisional government here, Ankara's main business has been government but several significant attractions make it worth a short visit.
Most visitors head straight for Hisar, the Byzantine citadel atop the hill east of the old city, and the nearby Museum of Anatolian Civilsations. A couple of km to the south is Atatürk's mausoleum, a monumental building, spare but beautiful, that echoes the architecture of several great Anatolian empires. The Presidential Mansion is preserved as Atatürk used it, with decor and furnishings of the 1930s including billiard table and cigar-and-brandy nook. There's a lot of ancient history around too. Roman Ankara was a city of some importance, and Roman ruins are dotted in amongst the mosques and monuments of Muslim Anatolia. Most of the cheaper hotels and restaurants are in old Ankara, a km or so northeast of the train station.
Antalya is the chief city on Turkey's central Mediterranean coast. As well as several km of pebble beaches and a historic Roman-Ottoman core, Antalya is a good base from which to explore the quieter beach towns and more spectacular ancient cities of the region. Side, 75km (47mi) east of Antalya, is the increasingly popular beach town once chosen by Mark Antony and Cleopatra for a romantic tryst. Alanya, 115km (71mi) east of Antalya, is another sea-sun-n-sand joint with a mini-Miami feel. Patara is a party town a few hundred km south-west of Antalya. The beach here is a simply splendid 20km (12mi) long and there are Roman ruins in amongst the dunes. You'll have to do your sunset-watching elsewhere, however, as the beach closes at dusk to give sea turtles access to their nests. The towns along the Mediterranean coast are all linked by bus and dolmus services (especially frequent in summer).back to top
Bodrum is the South Aegean's prettiest resort, with a yacht harbour and a port for ferries to the Greek island of Kos. Palm-lined streets ring the bays, and white sugar-cube houses, now joined by ranks of villas, crowd the hillside. Boating, swimming, snorkelling and scuba diving are prime Bodrum activities. At night Bodrum's famous discos throb, boom and blare, keeping much of the town awake until dawn. Both Turkish and foreign visitors complain about the ear-splitting cacophany, but the local attitude seems to be, 'If you wanted peace and quiet, why did you come to Bodrum?'. If this sounds like your kind of town, you can grab a bus to Bodrum from just about anywhere - it's 4 hours to Izmir by road. There are frequent ferries to Kos in summer, and a hydrofoil to Rhodes between May and September.
Of Turkey's hundreds of ancient cities and classical ruins, Ephesus is the grandest and best preserved. Indeed, it's the spunkiest classical city on the Mediterranean. Ephesus was Ionia, a flourishing cultural centre during the Greek Empire, and a busy provincial capital during Roman times.
Ionia's Temple of Diana was counted among the Seven Wonders of the World, and the city was generally renowned for its wealth and beauty.
Sts Paul and John took up the quill in Ionia and the Virgin Mary is said to have spent her twilight years here. A walking tour of the ruins will take at least half a day, and if you're here in summer, start early, because it gets stinking hot by high noon. Places you'll come across include the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers, in which seven persecuted youths slumbered for two centuries, then woke up and ambled down to town for a meal; the colossal Harbour Gymnasium; the grand marble-paved Arcadian Way; the impressive Temple of Hadrian and a scattering of Roman fountains, pools, brothels, libraries and public toilets.back to top
Straddling the Bosphorus, its skyline studded with domes and minarets, Istanbul is one of the truly great romantic cities. Its history tracks back from Byzantium to Constantinople to its place at the head of the Ottoman Empire. Today it hums as Turkey's cultural heart and good-time capital.
The heart of historical Istanbul is Sultanahmet, the district centred on the Byzantine Hippodrome in the oldest part of the city. The city is best explored on foot, as most sights are within easy walking distance of one another. If the pace does get too much, a çay bahçe (tea garden) is never too far away.
Off the Beaten Track
Many Cappadocian valleys boast collections of strange volcanic cones, but the ones near Aktepe in northern Cappadocia, known as the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, are the best-formed and most thickly clustered. While geologists might congregate to appreciate the effects of differential erosion, everyone else just likes their other-worldly appeal.
Most of the rosy rock cones are topped by flattish, darker stones of harder rock that sheltered the cones from the rain that eroded all the surrounding rock. This process is known to geologists as differential erosion but you can just call it kooky.
Today the Gallipoli battlefields are peaceful places covered in scrubby brush, pine forests and farmers' fields, but this strategic peninsula has held the key to Istanbul for a millenium. Momentous battles have been fought here, including the 9 months of ferocious combat between Atatürk's troops and the Allies in WWI. Gallipoli is a fairly large area to tour, especially without your own transport (it's over 35 km (22mi) from the northernmost battlefield to the southern tip of the peninsula). The two best bases for a visit are Çanakkale on the eastern shore, and Eceabat on the western, from which several companies run tours. Talk to other travellers before choosing a tour, as some guides tend to rush their charges around. The great battles of Gallipoli are commemorated each year during March (usually from the 12th to 19th) and it can be a bit tricky getting a hotel during this time. Ferries run from Eceabat, 45km (28mi) south-west of Gelibolu, across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale.back to top
Harran, in Kurdish southeastern Anatolia, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited spots on earth. The hills around the town are surrounded by crumbling walls and topped with ruined buildings and it all looks so deeply ancient that it's not hard to believe Abraham was one of Harran's early inhabitants. There's a fortress on the eastern side of the town, and some good mosaics in the 8th century Ulu Cami (a mosque).
Today's residents, some of whom still live in quaint beehive-shaped mud houses, get by on a mix of farming, smuggling and the sniff of wealth as water starts to filter through from the vast Southeast Anatolia Project (a dam). There's not much in the way of accommodation in Harran; most visitors base themselves in Urfa, 37km (23mi) west, which has good bus connections to the rest of Turkey.
Compared to Ephesus, Troy is quite dull. Some say that it loses something without Brad Pitt running around, others see this as an improvement on the representation. Either way Troy is no stunner - the drawcard is its sheer history. Excavations have revealed nine ancient cities on the site, with Troy VI or VII believed to be the setting for The Iliad .
When amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated Troy in 1871, the pants of classical studies boffins around the world became decidedly damp. Up to this time, Homer's Iliad was assumed to be based on legend, but post-digs, Troy became the Homeric city of Ilium, site of an epic battle between the Achaeans (Greeks) and the Trojans in the 13th century BC. Excavations by Schliemann and others have revealed nine ancient cities, one on top of another, dating back to 3000 BC. Troy VI (1800-1275 BC) is the city of Priam and the one that engaged in the Trojan War.
For afficionados this is all amazing, but unless you've read The Iliad , or have a keen appreciation of archaeology, you may find little of interest in Troy. Apart from a hokey replica of the Trojan horse, there's little to catch the amateur eye. That said, this is the site of one of the world's grandest tales, so soaking up the atmosphere should be just about enough
Water sports are big in Turkey because of the beautiful coasts and beaches. Yachting , water-skiing , snorkelling and diving are well represented. Because of the many antiquities in the depths off the Turkish coasts, scuba diving is regulated - check before you immerse yourself in treasure. Turkey has plenty of mountains there for the climbing - the mountain climbing scene is small but enthusiastic. There is decent skiing at Bursa, on Mt Erciyes near Kayseri, and at Palandöken near Erzurum. Equipment can be rented at the slopes, but don't expect Alps-league facilities. Cycling through Turkey is eminently possible and mostly delightful, but you may wish to bring your own bike (and spares) as renting and selling good bikes is not yet widespread.