Turkey is a special place for us. Dan’s father’s family came from Turkey in the early years of the 20th century, and in 2000 we traveled to Luleburgaz, the town where Dan’s grandfather was born. Now we had a new family reason to visit Turkey. Our daughter Emily has been teaching English in Istanbul for the past two years, but like many “locals,” she hadn’t had a chance to see some of the most famous sites in this fascinating city. So we got to be tourists with her!
For our American friends, let us answer a few basic questions. We felt safe everywhere! Security was present but unobtrusive. To be honest, any place has its risks, but street crime and gun violence is far less prevalent in Turkey than in the US.
Hotel rates were very reasonable. We stayed at the Ramada City Center, where we had a large suite and a lavish breakfast buffet for about $180/night. For only $4/person we saw a first-run film in a modern, super-comfortable Cineplex. A 2-hour boat cruise on the Bosphorus cost $5/person. Taxis were inexpensive, and the subway system would be the envy of any city in the US: fast, clean, safe and quiet. Restaurants were plentiful, and Turkish food is world renowned for being fresh and delicious!
Most significantly, the Turkish people were very friendly and helpful in every encounter. The secular and pluralistic Ataturk legacy is strong, but just as in the US, the values and institutions of freedom and democracy need continued support and reinforcement. We observed that women in Istanbul dress in all different styles. Some wore hijab, but the vast majority was dressed in standard western clothes.
We were often asked questions about life in the US, and it was clear that people were well informed about our current political situation, undoubtedly much more so than most Americans are about events in Turkey.
We went to many of the more well-known tourist sites, but one highlight was the Jewish Museum at the Neve Shalom Synagogue near the Galata Tower. Jews have been living in Turkey since the 4th century B.C., but large influxes came in 1492 when the Spanish Inquisition was in full force and then again during World War II. Turkey welcomed the Jewish people in those difficult times, and they were integrated as contributing members of society. Israel and Turkey have normalized relations, and there are several flights a day between Tel Aviv and Istanbul.
Crises in the region have significantly impacted Turkey. The country has taken in over 4 million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other war torn countries. Housing, feeding, and caring for so many families has strained the economy, but Turkey has done more than any other nation to address the magnitude of the current refugee crisis.
Regional problems and Turkey’s own political situation have contributed to a decline in tourism, and that is understandable and unfortunate. We hope that the situation will improve in the future.
Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe, and it is also a hub for many Africans. Istanbul is building a new gigantic airport that will be in full service by 2028, and have six runways, the world’s biggest duty-free shop, and a capacity of 200 million passengers.
At Istanbul Ataturk International Airport we enjoyed reading the departure boards showing an almost an endless list of flight destinations and cities, a few of which we had not even heard of! We had spent a few days in Scotland beforehand, and Turkish Airlines, which provided excellent service during our 4-hour flights to and from Edinburgh, has non-stops from almost every city in Europe. If you are in Europe, consider adding on a visit to Istanbul. There are over 75 flights a week to Istanbul from Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Atlanta, and Miami.
We are looking forward to returning to Turkey and to seeing more of this remarkable country and meeting more of its remarkable people!