Tips For Turkey Trip Planning: A First-Timer’s Guide (2023)
I once saw someone describe Turkey as “bewitching”, and that feels about right.
Over the past few years, Turkey has become one of my absolute favorite countries to visit…one of those places that pulls you back over and over. It’s steeped in millennia of history and culture, has everything from crazy fairy landscapes to gorgeous turquoise beaches, from ancient tombs to Ottoman mosques. The people are warm and welcoming. The food is BOMB.
And it’s giant…so with so much to choose from and such a big area, doing some solid research on Turkey trip planning is important.
Planning a trip to Turkey?? Here are some posts to help you out!
I’ve laid out everything I can think of that you might need to know about planning a trip to Turkey, including what to pack, how to plan an itinerary, cultural considerations, transportation, safety, and more. I know you’ll fall in love with this amazing place and its people just as much as I have!
How this post is structured:
- A super brief history
- Safety thoughts
- Important considerations (visa, currency, etc.)
- What to wear
- Where to stay
- How to get around
- Areas of Turkey
- Planning an itinerary
- All sorts of other stuff (food, souvenirs, language, miscellany)
A (super brief) history
Turkey is a relatively young country from a political or national standpoint (founded in 1923), but the people, history, and culture have been established there for thousands of years.
Many people think of the Ottomans (who dominated the region from the Middle Ages until the early 1900s), but many civilizations from Assyrian to Hittite to Persian and Greek and Roman have settled here over the millennia.
Because of this melting pot of cultures and layers of history, you can find everything from Byzantine palaces to Roman amphitheaters to ancient Lycian tombs to Hittite ceramic traditions to World War I battlefields. Turkey has something for seriously everyone when it comes to history.
Fun fact that even I forget frequently: Istanbul isn’t the capital of Turkey, Ankara is.
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Is Turkey safe to visit?
This is a common question, and definitely one I had before my first trip (my mom was also freaked out). Obviously, no place is “safe” unequivocally, but you may have some preconceptions about Turkey from the news that aren’t as true. While bad things can happen anywhere, I’ve felt very safe there, including as a solo female traveler.
The first time I visited Istanbul was in 2016, and @farewhispers and I ran into a few different types of protests or demonstrations given the unrest at the time. We always just headed in a different direction if we came upon something that felt off.
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And I’d say that anywhere, really. Just like you should anywhere you go, stay alert and listen to your instincts, particularly in places with heavier tourist and Westerner crowds. You should also take normal precautions against pickpockets and other petty crime, just like with any travel.
Istanbul is like any big city, so treat it so. Out in the more remote areas I found it very chill and felt as safe as I do anywhere. It’s recommended you avoid the border area of Turkey with Syria, as this is where a lot of the violence has been concentrated in recent years. My boat captain told me I was being crazy and that the area is amazing and no less safe than anywhere else, but I’m sure my mom would disagree 🙂
For women, I’ve found Turkish men in Istanbul (especially in the crowded touristy places) fairly persistent in calling after you, even walking beside you trying to get your attention and they flirt pretty aggressively. However, I’ve found them to be remarkably good-natured about it when you brush them off and I never felt unsafe (this isn’t true everywhere I’ve been). It’s like that whole back-and-forth (including the brush-off) is part of the “dance”.
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Important trip planning considerations
[Update: As of late December 2023, no e-visa is required for US citizens] Turkey requires visitors from many countries (including the U.S.) to get an e-visa. This is super easy though, and can be purchased ahead of time from this official website (only $20 last I checked). Just make sure to take a screenshot or download the PDF, because they don’t email it to you. You can get it when you arrive, but might have to wait in line for a while.
The currency is the Turkish lira. Credit cards are easily accepted in Istanbul and other smaller cities, but in more remote areas it will rely more on cash. You should always have some cash anyway. I always use ATMs to get cash out rather than using a money exchange. This post gives detailed tips for how to handle money overseas.
As you start to build your itinerary, you’ll need to do some digging into when certain things are open or closed. For example, most mosques are closed or have very restricted hours on Fridays, so it’s not the best day to plan visits to them. Hagia Sophia is closed Mondays. Also make sure to check and see if you’re traveling over any public or religious holidays, as these can make things more complicated and places might be closed.
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What to wear in Turkey
This is a common question, particularly for women travelers. Turkey is a Muslim-majority country, but is more secular and less conservative than others, particularly in a major city like Istanbul. In Istanbul you can kind of dress however you want, but I’d still avoid skimpier outfits to better fit in and not draw attention to yourself. Plus, if you’re visiting mosques that will cause you issues.
Overall from a cultural respect standpoint I’d dress a little more on the conservative or modest side for women. Just keeping skirts from being too short, tops from too revealing, etc. On the Turquoise Coast you’ll definitely find people dressed like any normal beach town, and regular swimsuits and bikinis are fine.
Women do not need to wear a head scarf unless you’re entering a mosque (so I always just keep one in my purse when I’m in Turkey). In fact it can be seen as disrespectful for non-Muslim, Western women to wear them around just because (or at least so I’m told).
See my detailed Middle East packing list, which has a ton of Turkey info
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Mosques specifically require some planning ahead. Mosques will require women to have shoulders and upper arms covered, and knees as well. I typically try to group my mosque visits together on one day and wear a long skirt and have a cardigan with me for safety (my headscarf can cover my shoulders as well). Pants are fine, but I’ve seen mosques make women put skirts on over leggings or tight pants.
Men should wear pants (no shorts) and have their upper arms covered as well (no tank tops).
One other tip for mosques: you’ll have to remove your shoes to enter, so bring some socks to walk around in.
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Where to stay (accommodation)
You have tons of different options in Turkey, from apartment rentals to hotels to villas (and more). I’ve used Airbnb in the past to rent an amazing apartment in Istanbul, though Turkey has more strict rules for Airbnb hosts. I love doing rentals though, and this is a great option. I also rented a boat on Airbnb for a couple days on the Turquoise Coast and sailed with Sadi and Meryam…HEAVEN.
There are many great hotel options too, including lovely boutique and luxury hotels for really quite affordable prices. I’ve raved about my stays in Cappadocia, Istanbul, and Fethiye, and the prices for hotels this nice were super reasonable. I’m sure there are hostels but I’ve never looked into that.
One thing to be aware of is that hotel booking sites such as Booking.com are blocked once you reach Turkey, so I recommend booking your housing ahead of time. Paypal is too. I still booked my hotels through Booking.com for my last trip though, and just made sure I had the phone number in case I needed to get a hold of them.
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How to get around (transportation)
How you get around in Turkey is completely up to you, and there are many options. Because of the large distances, flying is often easier and cheaper, and helps you make the most of your time in the country. Where it would take 8 hours to drive from Istanbul to Cappadocia, it’s just an hour’s flight. The only downside can be that most flights will require a connection in Istanbul.
Turkish Airlines is the national airline, and flies internationally as well as domestically. They’re a great experience, and have frequently won awards within Europe. There are several domestic and local carriers as well, including Anadolu Jet and Pegasus. You can learn more here.
Driving in Turkey is a good option if you have a lot of time, and gives you lots of flexibility and ability to see lots of more out-of-the-way areas. From what I’m told, the roads are pretty good and that roadtripping can be great. I would NOT attempt to drive in Istanbul, though.
While there are buses that can take you throughout the country (including overnight), this wouldn’t be my first choice due to the great distances. I’ve heard good things about the experience overall, however.
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Within towns and cities (including Istanbul), walking is a definite option…I love wandering through different neighborhoods. Public transportation within Istanbul is great, whether that’s the tram/metro in the main areas, the funicular, or the ferry (which I *highly* recommend trying out). Make sure you get an Istanbulkart card and then refill it.
Within Istanbul there are lots of taxis, but also LOT of scams. There’s an app called BiTaksi that I’ve used and is great, lets you call or even schedule a taxi, know what your fare will be, and pay by credit card if you choose. You can use Uber, though it’s more expensive. There are official taxis at the airport that I do trust, and just make sure you know what the price is before you get in.
If you need a cab you can also go to one of the official taxi stands/ranks, and they should all use their meters…doesn’t keep them from taking the long way or scamming in some other way, but is more legit.
If you’re out in other areas of Turkey, you could consider hiring a taxi driver for a certain amount of time or all day to take you to a lot of places. I did this in Cappadocia, got a taxi to my first place and then he offered to wait and take me around to other spots (some I wanted, and a couple he recommended that were less-known). Trust your instincts and make sure you negotiate to what is a fair price on both sides, but this was a great option for me, and Osman and I had a fun afternoon!
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Areas of Turkey
Turkey is giant. To put it in context for people in the U.S., Turkey is a little bigger than the state of Texas…and *long*. One of the most common mistakes people make is to try and cover too many different areas in one trip, particularly if that trip is less than two weeks.
Geographically, there are seven regions within Turkey, and each could give you a laundry list of reasons to visit and things to see. If you’re planning your first visit to Turkey though, there are typically a handful of “must-see” places to put on a shortlist for your trip. Here are a few thought starters…
- Istanbul: Duh. One of my favorite cities in the world, centuries of history, the previous capital of the Byzantine Empire (as Constantinople), the only city that straddles two different continents…I could go on and on.
- Cappadocia: Located in the Central Anatolia region, this is one of the well-known places in Turkey. It has a mystical cave-riddled landscape, with “fairy chimneys” popping up and hot air balloons rising in the sunrise every morning. It’s a photographer’s dream and full of interesting history.
- The famous Turquoise Coast: Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast is sheer heaven for those who love sparkling aqua water, sun, and that beach vacay feel. It’s an iconic sailing destination, known for the traditional wooden gulet boats that cruise up and down the coast. Run off the side of a mountain in Olüdeniz, one of the top paragliding destinations in the world. Soak up the sun in a luxury hotel. Expore ancient Lycian tombs.
- Ephesus: One of the most complete, still-standing Roman cities you can visit, super cool, and an easy day trip from Istanbul if you so choose. If you’re a bible scholar this is also super interesting.
- Pamukkale: Dreamy white travertine terraced pools…though I feel like the reality of being there isn’t quite the same as the Instagram photos you see. But it’s still on my list.
But these are seriously just thought starters because there is SO much to see and do.
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Planning a Turkey itinerary
To build on the last section, here are some ways you can start to think about planning a trip to Turkey and how an itinerary can come together. My biggest Turkey trip planning advice is not to cram too much into your trip…you’ll just feel rushed and enjoy it a lot less!
I have a general post on my trip planning process that talks about the steps I take, tools and websites I use, and more. I broadly talk about it as inspiration > research > reality. And yes, that middle part is critical for planning a trip to Turkey due to its size and sheer amount of choice—research, research, research!
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What do you care about?
Figure out what is drawing you to the country. Is it a particular area, city, historical site, or experience? Do some research and make a list, then prioritize.
Currently Turkey has 18 UNESCO World Heritage Site (with many more being nominated). Then on top of that, the country has a breathtaking diversity of landscapes on offer. If you’re looking for excitement, there are all sorts of active sports and hiking, including some of the best paragliding in the world. You can stay in a cave hotel, do a multi-day sail, or learn how to make traditional Turkish foods. It’s got stunning coastline and waters if you’re looking for a beach vacay.
See how I planned my last epic 7-day Turkey itinerary
How much time do you have?
Knowing how much time you have can help you figure out how much you can fit in. It’s also important to know your travel style and the type of trip you’re looking for…a rush of exploration and adventure, or maybe something super relaxing and chill. I’m often looking to explore as much as possible, but on my last trip I also was celebrating a big birthday and wanted to spend a few super relaxing days on the coast.
Here are a few thoughts, just to give you a starting place:
- If you only have 2-3 days, pick one place and just focus there. This is a perfect amount of time to see Istanbul for the first time, and then you don’t have to deal with lots of extra travel time.
- If you have closer to a week, then you can do two or three places, depending on travel logistics. For instance, if you had five days you could probably do Cappadocia and a day or two in Istanbul. Or Istanbul with a day trip to Ephesus or Gallipoli. Or a few days on the coast with a day in Istanbul.
- If you have a week, I’d focus on just two places and do them well, but you could potentially squeeze in a third. I had almost a week on my last visit, and spent two days in Cappadocia, three days on the coast, and a half day in Istanbul (the rest was travel/re-positioning).
- Make sure you build in travel time, due to the distance between areas. If you’re flying between different places (or taking public transportation), allow for extra time as well, as flights can be delayed.
Don’t forget to build in time for spontaneous adventures or to just wander aimlessly. Chat with a local, sit and drink a Turkish coffee and people watch, or wander down some side streets and window shop.
Then once you have a rough sketch of an itinerary, think about what might make it a little extra special. My first time in Istanbul we took both a walking food tour on the Asian side and a food tour where we ate dinner in a local Kurdish family’s house—both such amazing experiences! Whether a cool experience, something less-known/under the radar, or a unique accommodation, find one or two special pieces to include in your trip.
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What else?? All the rest of my Turkey trip planning tips
Okay, so now we’re getting to a somewhat miscellaneous collection of Turkey trip planning tips, but that doesn’t make them less important. They just don’t group as naturally.
First, let’s talk about the food in Turkey. IT IS SOOOOOO GOOD!!! Turkish food has become one of my favorite cuisines, and it’s one of the things I love about exploring the country. I’ve done a whole post on Turkish foods you have to try, and each time I visit I sample new ones. Make time for food, and I highly recommend food tours as a way of trying a lot (but find ones that aren’t just crazy touristy).
Alcoholic beverages are interesting in Turkey. They are 100% legal despite it being a Muslim-majority country. You’ll find plenty of people who drink, but also many who don’t for religious reasons. Binge drinking and overconsumption isn’t generally part of the culture, and they have VERY strict drunk driving laws.
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From what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t drink the tap water in Turkey, just to be safe (I’ve heard mixed reviews). Stick with bottled water.
Public bathrooms are really hit and miss. For women, you might get a regular, decent Western toilet, or you might get a hole in the ground.
There are two different types of outlet plugs that work in Turkey. They also work on a 220v voltage, so if you’re from somewhere like the U.S. that typically works on 120v voltage, you should make sure to only bring electronics that can support 220v as well (or you’ll need a converter plug too). Most modern electronics and small appliances are fine (though hair straighteners tend to be dicey).
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One thing I always research ahead of time is what to buy in certain countries, and the types of souvenirs I might want to take home. Let me tell you, Turkey is dangerous for me! I learned that I have a weird ceramics obsession that has never manifested anywhere else. But the colorful ceramics are a must, and I also get my perfume in Istanbul. From linens to spices to wine, there’s a lot here…here’s my guide to what to buy in Turkey.
I’ve never gotten it myself, but have heard from many people that the Turkey Museum Pass is 100% worth your time and money. It currently costs 315 TL (about $55 USD), is good for 15 days, and is accepted at many museums and major archaeological sites in places like Istanbul, Ephesus, Pamukkale and Fethiye. This post from Yoga Wine Travel gives more info on the pass and whether it’s worth it. I’ve never gotten it because 1) I’m not a big museum person anyway, and 2) it doesn’t cover as much that I cared about.
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English isn’t widely spoken, especially outside of Istanbul. It’s good (and quite frankly, polite) to learn some words in Turkish before you visit. Here are a few to get you started!
- Good morning – Günaydın! – “goon eye dun”
- Thanks (formal) – teşekkür ederim – “tesh shecker uh dare um”
- Please – lütfen – loot fen
- May I please have? – ” ______ alabilir miyim, lütfen?” – “all uh ball eer me um” – used like “Bir birra alabalir miyim lutften”, may I please have one beer? It’s a little more polite than “birra, lutfen!” “Beer please!”
How much? – Kaç para? – “kahtch par uh”
Are you ready to plan a trip to Turkey yet???
Have I convinced you that Turkey the most amazing place and you absolutely can plan an epic adventure? Hopefully these Turkey trip planning tips and all my other posts on the country have given you everything you need for your own travel planning, but please don’t hesitate to give me a shout in the comments if you have any questions! And check out my detailed post on planning my 7-day (or 10-day) adventure!
Other travel tips you need in your life:
- A Travel Bucket List for Your 30s
- Trip Planning Tips: How to Make Every Trip a Little Epic
- The Best Travel Pillows for Different Sleepers
- 20+ Tips to Survive & Thrive on a Long Flight
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