Time for my first blog takeover! Guest blogger Hanna, from Italy, is here to give you her tips on travelling alone as a woman in Istanbul.
Regular readers may remember I’ve written about solo travel in New York and going solo in Prague, so it was great to get Hanna’s perspective on visiting Istanbul – a city that spans two continents and has its own Women’s Library promoting the history of women in Turkey (somewhere for the bucket list)…
When word got out about my plans to travel to Istanbul, I was flooded with the usual objections and warnings from people I knew, especially as I’m a lone female. Yet Istanbul was perhaps one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever taken, despite the stereotypical image of the country as being unsafe.
All too often the media feeds us the concept that Muslim countries are unquestionably risky destinations, instilling fear in us and creating an idea that these countries are not worth visiting. Nevertheless, I didn’t cancel my trip, but I did read up before travelling to pick up some hints on what to expect when alone in Turkey. Here are some tips I’d like to pass on, particularly for solo female travellers.
Be informed and do your research
I read beforehand that a lot of taxi drivers can charge exorbitant rates; instead, I used public transport, which was cheap and an easy way to get around. There’s a metro line but also a tram line, as well as buses running just about everywhere. If you’d prefer, you could let your hotel arrange your transport for you, but this will obviously cut into your budget. During your visit, make sure you take a ferry ride on the Bosphorus (the river that runs through the city).
Before booking up a hotel, try to find one with good peer reviews, and sacrifice a bit more to stay in a well-lit neighborhood with 24 hour services if you can afford it. Check out venere.com for accommodation ideas. I stayed at the Hotel Ibrahim Pasha in the Sultanahmet area, which was an affordable boutique hotel recommended by the Guardian (and the decor was as impressive as the journalist suggested!). Despite the rooms being a little bit small, it was perfect for me as a female traveller, and other women stayed there too. I was right in the middle of historic locations, so it meant I only had a short walk to start sightseeing.
Sultanahmet, known as the Old City, is an excellent location with easy access to a lot of the big sights, such as the Blue Mosque (opposite my hotel!), Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, the Hippodrome, and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Check the opening hours before you turn up at some of these attractions, as Monday can see many of them closed, whilst the Covered Bazaar is closed on Sundays.
Travel with common sense
If you feel uncomfortable walking alone at night, book a taxi from a reputable local firm (check your guidebook for ideas, and agree a price before you start your journey), or join an evening group tour – culinary walks are a tourist favourite and will see you taken to different street food stalls, cafes and restaurants. Alternatively, plan your day so you’re back at the hotel before nightfall if you’re jetlagged or tired from a long day of sightseeing.
As with any trip, be street smart and don’t flash your valuables around. In Istanbul I also tried to avoid too much eye contact or too many chats with the men on the streets, as this can be interpreted as flirting and can give the wrong impression. Turkish men do flirt a lot, so don’t be surprised to hear catcalls or be approached, sometimes with persistence; either ignore them or say some firm words in Turkish from your guidebook and get the message across.
Keep your wits about you near the Grand Bazaar, which is a prime area for thieves and bag snatchers. By all means take photos and soak up the atmosphere, but be aware of where your valuables are. Also, don’t get involved in any public demonstrations or protests on the streets – these typically take place on Taksim Square and in Kadikoy. If you do encounter trouble, there’s a big police presence in Istanbul.
Travel light and smart
While you’ll see all styles of clothing worn in cosmopolitan Istanbul, like mini-skirts and heels, rural Turkey is more conservative. Wherever you are, even in central Istanbul, you might not want to make it too obvious you’re a tourist by attracting unwanted attention. Blending in might not be fashionable, but it means you can get from A to B quicker and with less hassle.
I’d recommend packing light cotton pants (trousers), long skirts, and loose shirts, as many of the sights to see are places of worship, like the Rustem Pasha mosque. You won’t be allowed to go in without a head scarf and with skirts above the knees or in shorts; as a woman you’ll need to remove your shoes in a mosque as well. Outside of a mosque, you don’t need to wear a headscarf.
You can also bring a pair of jeans, depending on the season when you travel – Istanbul can be very cold in winter, though many tourists don’t expect this! Of course, you don’t need to bring many changes of clothing if you plan to do some shopping. The bazaars are fun places to haggle, or you can try the Galata district: an up-and-coming place with vintage boutiques.
Make time to relax
If you want respite from the main tourist areas, visit Beyoglu’s Miniaturk, a miniature museum which includes 126 mini replicas of Turkish monuments! Beyoglu is also a good stopping point to grab something to eat, with everything from ocakbaşı and meze to kebabs and wraps available. Wash it all down with aryan, a yogurt drink, or a glass of raki. For a quiet break anywhere in the city, seek out a traditional tea room, where you can sip a cup of tea and have a rest before rejoining the melee.
Keen to try out a Turkish bath? I didn’t leave Istanbul until I experienced a real hamam. I went to Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, a 16th century building on the site of the Temple of Zeus. The online reviews looked promising (again, another bit of research!) and I wasn’t disappointed. After mulling over the options, I chose the traditional style and was treated like a princess.
There’s no mixing of the sexes here, so you’ll be in a female-only area if you choose to visit. After spending days exploring on my feet, it was a wonderful experience getting pampered, scrubbed (known as goyage), cleaned, and massaged. Definitely a good, if expensive, way to culminate my trip!
When it comes to travel, any place in the world has its own risks (including where you live), so don’t get too paranoid. In this day and age, women are more independent than ever, and yes, they can go traveling alone in places like Istanbul; all I’d suggest is exercising a little caution and using common sense to stay safe.
For further advice, take a look at the Virtualtourist website, which has other warnings about Istanbul, but put all advice in perspective and don’t be deterred from experiencing this magical city.
Bio: Hanna is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Italy with her husband and son.