“Did you ever feel unsafe when you were there?”
That’s the question I got asked the most after my return from Turkey. I get it. At least from a news headline perspective, Turkey hasn’t been the safest destination for tourists in recent years, with 2016 being the deadliest one. In that year alone there were a total of five terrorist attacks in Istanbul including one that struck at the heart of its tourist epicenter, the historic and immensely popular neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Then less than six months later, three gunmen opened fire and detonated bombs at a security checkpoint inside the now closed Atatürk Airport killing 45 people and wounding hundreds more. And did I mention in 2016 there was also a coup d’état against state institutions including the government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in which there were tanks in the streets? If you want to know why he’s so unpopular and hated by many, click here.
When walking through Sultanahmet Square, the site of the deadly suicide bombing in January 2016 that resulted in the deaths of 13 foreigners, it was definitely on my mind. The 12 German tourists who were killed that morning were simply standing around the Obelisk of Theodosius listening to their tour guide when their lives were cut tragically short. But as life in modern times has shown, borders won’t stop evil from seeping through. Turkey is considered unsafe by some due to the borders it shares with Iraq and Syria, for starters. And yet, evil has transcended “safe” countries like England, France, Germany-the list is endless.
Was travel there different from other countries you visited in regards to safety?
I know Turkey is not a Middle Eastern country but it was my first time visiting a nation so near to that part of the world. The only thing that was different was when arriving at the airport, I had to have all of my luggage (huge, heavy roller suitcase and all) go through a security x-ray machine. So yes, that meant lifting 20 some pounds up onto the security belt. And then after checking your bags, there was still the normal security to go through (again). A minor inconvenience considering the horrific severity of what happened three years ago at the city’s airport.
In Istanbul, at least in the tourist areas, there were armed men everywhere. Some had small guns, while others toted huge ones you’d expect to be used on a battlefield or special ops mission. A bit jarring to see, especially as I am not of a gun minded preference, but c’est normal in that part of the world. However, I didn’t notice many when I traveled to the Asian side of the city for my food tour, an area more residential and filled with locals.
I dressed modestly and had no issues
I’ll admit, prior to visiting I was extremely nervous that my red hair and pale skin would attract unwanted attention. I’ve spoken with travel bloggers who have been to countries like India in which they said locals would come up to them just wanting to touch their red hair. Well, as someone who’s a semi-introvert, I can say that would freak me out. I was even planning on wearing a scarf to cover my hair (not just for visits to mosques). But I had no problems whatsoever. Sure I got looks and stares, but nothing that left me feeling uncomfortable (unlike in Nicaragua in which catcalls and unwanted attention is a serious issue).
The whole time I was there I dressed modestly. I did this out of respect for the country’s culture but also for myself. Don’t get me wrong, I saw PLENTY of women, both foreigners and locals, dressed in “night club” attire (even in the daytime) but to me, when I’m in my own country, I can dress exactly as I want.
Istanbul is very much a “late hours” kind of city
My flight into Istanbul didn’t land until midnight. By the time I went through immigration, collected my baggage, found the driver I had hired in advance through my hotel and then made it to my hotel in Sultanahmet (about a 45 minute drive), it was nearly two in the morning.
But it amazed me on the drive in to see all sorts of people about, young and old, corner stores and restaurants still open. This very much reminded me of a scene in one of my favorite films Cairo Time, in which the characters of Tareq and Juliette are walking the streets of Cairo late at night (although to be honest, so much of my time in Istanbul reminded me of the film).
In Istanbul, most restaurants (save for ones geared exclusively towards the tourist demographic), won’t open for dinner until 19:00 or later. But even walking the darkened and ancient streets of Sultanahmet back to my hotel from dinner, I never felt unsafe.
Tourism is one of Turkey’s biggest industries
After the horrific events of 2016, tourism suffered greatly in Istanbul, its largest and most popular city. Major cruise lines canceled all sailings there and the country received a fraction of the visitors it had in previous years.
One of my tour guides even told me that after 2016, he worked as a flight attendant for a year because there was so little work for him guiding. Thankfully he was able to quit (apparently he hated it) as tourism started to slowly rebound. And starting next year, major North American cruise lines like Holland America and Royal Caribbean will return to Istanbul.
I don’t support or like how President Erdoğan has repressed the free speech of its citizens. But I wouldn’t have him be the reason I didn’t visit an incredible country like Turkey. My tourist dollars help provide livelihoods to the countless kind and good Turks I met on tours.
I never once felt unsafe when I was there
Istanbul is a huge city that’s home to 15 million people. As such, the old adage of “use the same precautions you would in any other major city” apply to Istanbul. Use common sense, always be aware of your surroundings, and don’t trust anyone you’re hesitant about.
I had long wanted to visit Turkey and it truly was a bucket list-worthy trip in every regard. There are many other cities in the world I want to visit but look forward to the day when I return to Turkey, perhaps by cruise ship and see the famous Roman ruins at Ephesus.
My personal tip-I added my embassy’s phone number to my cell phone contacts since you can’t always depend on data to be working or that there’s WiFi in the case of an emergency and you would need to contact it.
Note: I also visited the region of Cappadocia but that’s an extremely rural area. I also never felt unsafe there but you can hardly compare one of the largest cities in the world with a rural locale. I’ll be writing more about Cappadocia in a guide in the coming weeks.
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