It is cliché to call Turkey a bridge between continents and cultures; yet, there is no other phrase truly summarizes Turkey’s identity. Turkey is a large peninsula located at the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its land in western Asia is called Anatolia and its land in southeast Europe is called Thrace. Turkey’s neighbors are Greece and Bulgaria to the northwest, Georgia to the northeast, Armenia, and Iran to the east, and Syria and Iraq to the southeast. Diversity within Turkey mirrors the diversity around it.
Anatolia’s abundance of fresh water and fertile soil, genial climate, and geopolitical position made its land desirable for many civilizations throughout the history. Akkadians, Hittites, Trojans, Persians, Romans, Seljuks, and Ottomans are among the many who ruled the area. Turkey inherited the rich history of its land and amalgamated the traditions and cultures of its predecessors and made them its own. Each corner of the country is distinct from each other, creating a cultural diversity that reveals itself through music, dance, and food as well as religion and language.
What to see
Home to the resting place of many civilizations, Turkey has countless archeological sites and museums. It is difficult to choose from them if you have only a week or two to spare.
Istanbul itself requires at least a full week to do it justice. As the latest capital of Ottoman Empire, it has many palaces, mosques, traditional Turkish baths, and museums to visit. If you want to follow a traditional touristic route, you could start in Sultan Ahmet where the most visited places like Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Basilica Cistern are. From there, you can cross the Golden Horn and from Galata Bridge you can watch small boats sailing below. Your next stop would be Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas where you can take in its great view of the city. After you complete the tour of the palace, you can walk to Ortakoy and eat kumpir, a trademark food of Ortakoy made by stuffing baked potatoes with different garnishes of your choice. Finally, you can conclude the day with a scenic Bosporus tour. If it is you are lucky you might even see fireworks over the Bosporus.
If you are into Greek history, there are great ruins of ancient Greek cities in the west, such as the famous ruins of Ephesus in Izmir. Cappadocia is another favorite destination in central Anatolia. Over hundreds of years, the strong winds shaped the soft volcanic landscape into a visual wonderland of intricate rock chimneys and valleys, which you can witness from hot air balloon rides. The soft rock made it possible for early Christians to dig underground cities to hide from the Romans who persecuted them. If you are interested in both seeing historical ruins and enjoying the warm waters of the Mediterranean, the south coast of Turkey is the place, like Antalya and Marmaris. The north and east of Turkey are also breathtakingly beautiful and full of history. In the north, you can visit beautiful cities of the Black Sea coast where you can behold the brightest shades of green. In the east, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Kars, and Gaziantep are among the many cities that are untouched by tourism unlike other parts of the country.
Turkish people are known to be very friendly, especially to visitors. A guest is considered sent by God and he or she is supposed to be treated with utmost respect and warmth. If you ask someone to tell you how to get to an address, it is very likely that that person will take you there himself. Many traditional Turkish families save their best china and accommodations for their guests.
Unfortunately, people can also be rude in Turkey, especially in big cities. You might encounter people who do not know how to wait in line or do not respect personal space. Also, some shop owners or waiters in touristy parts of the country might be too insisting. It is always good to be straightforward with them and say no (hayir in Turkish) firmly.
Many foreigners think Turkish cuisine is all about kebabs. It is true that kebabs are a very important part of our cuisine, but they hardly represent the richness of it. Each region in Turkey has its own unique cuisine and each one has vegetarian dishes as well that bring out the Mediterranean flavors. Some of the most famous foods from Turkish cuisine are: grape leaves wrapped around rice or meat (sarma), vegetables cooked with olive oil, Iskender kebab (gyro meat put on a pita and served with special sauce and yogurt), pilaf, meatballs, Turkish pizza (lahmacun), and mezes. There are also various Turkish desserts made with syrup like baklava or milk desserts like rice pudding or kazan dibi (a milk desert that is baked in the oven until the top is caramelized).
If you are feeling particularly adventurous, the stuffed mussels (midye dolma) served on the street is a must.
There are many modern and traditional restaurants in Turkey. You can get great food cheaply. However, there are not many international restaurants and the ones you can find are expensive.
Turkish is the official language in Turkey. It is a part of the Altaic language family. We use the Latin alphabet. The second most spoken language is Kurdish.
The currency in Turkey is Turkish Lira (TL). Smaller units are called kurus. Ten kurus make 1 TL. It is highly possible to get a 100 TL or 50 TL notes from an ATM. This is inconvenient, because many cab drivers and shop owners do not accept large bills.
You can find ATMs anywhere in the country. You can shop with your debit and credit card as long as it is Visa or MasterCard. It is easy to find exchange offices for changing currency. US dollars and Euros have a strong exchange rates with Turkish Lira, at 1.5 TL per dollar and 2 TL per Euro respectively.
Turkey is a very safe country for visitors. However, there is theft and robbery, especially in the big cities. If you are careful about where you keep your money, you should not encounter any problems. In Istanbul, there are people who grab a woman’s bag from her shoulder and drive away, even dragging the victim until she lets go, endangering the life of the victim. To prevent this from happening, never hang your bag on your road-side shoulder and always walk closer to the building side of the sidewalk. If someone grabs your bag while they are in a car or on a motorcycle, just let it go.
Population: 73 million
GDP: $729 billion
GDP per capita: $13,392
Official language: Turkish
Largest city: Istanbul
Capital city: Ankara
Foundation of the republic: 29 October 1923
Foundation of the parliament: 23 April 1920
Recommended time for visit: April-June and August-September
Serap Yigit received her bachelor’s degree from Bogazici University, in Istanbul, Turkey and her master’s degree from Leiden University, in Leiden, Holland. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington, in Seattle, studying visual attention. Currently, she’s studying at the Visual Attention Laboratory of Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a visiting graduate student.
Smita Pranav Kothari, a proud Indian, is an EC partner. She likes to help new partners adjust to life at the B-school as the HBS International Partners Club Co-chair. She is taking Journalism classes at the Harvard Extension School. Besides learning about different cultures and learning international languages; she loves traveling, cooking, dancing and watching movies.