Is it pleasant and safe for a woman to travel alone in Turkey?

I had heard various good things about Turkey over the years. Apparently the people were friendly, the food was great, and the sights were amazing. But again, most of the feedback came from men or couples. What was it like for a woman travelling alone? I decided to find out.

After my horrible experience in Egypt, I don’t take anything for granted when it comes to Muslim countries. Because Turkey is a secular country, and very close to Europe (part of Istanbul is even in Europe) I was hopeful of a good outcome. My recent trip to Athens provided the perfect opportunity to test the waters without a big time commitment. I gave myself 14 days to find out if Turkey was comfortable for a woman travelling alone.

I spent most of my time in Istanbul along with a few days on a small island called Büyükada in the sea of Marmara. Istanbul is a large cosmopolitan city with tons of things to see. Büyükada is basically a village where Istanbulites go for a day or two to escape and relax. It sees very few foreigners. I was curious to see if I would be treated differently in both places.

The good news are: I had no problems whatsoever during my two weeks. For the purpose of full disclosure, I am an average-looking 51-year old woman with dark hair. If you are a 25-year old gorgeous blond, your results may vary. Most people in public-facing jobs such as waiters, hotel clerks, and transit employees are men. The only women I interacted with are the ladies who set up the hotel breakfasts and one hotel employee in Büyükada. Overall, I found the Turkish men very decent, friendly, and helpful. I didn’t hear a single slur, cat-call, angry muttering or anything of the sort.

I think the biggest danger in Istanbul (for everybody, not just a solo woman) is to be dragged into a carpet shop or mediocre tourist restaurant. That, and being run over by a car or motorcycle racing around a corner, apparently coming out of nowhere!

Most of the big sights like Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque are located in Sultanahmet, and this is where most travellers stay. It is a lovely area, very clean, with little traffic, and many many shops and restaurants catering to tourists… as well as the touts that come along with them.

Restaurant street in Sultanahmet

Restaurant street in Sultanahmet

The restaurant touts and some carpet shop owners stand outside their door and try to get you to come in. It may take you a few days to stop answering when someone calls out “Hello, where are you going?” as you walk down the street. As soon as you answer, you’ll be engaged into a conversation that may very well land you in a shop or restaurant. They are very smooth.

The night I arrived, it was dark by the time I got off the tram and started walking around looking for my hotel. Every block or so, a guy would ask me where I was going and when I told them the name of my hotel, or the name of the street I was looking for, they pointed me somewhere, even though half the time it was the wrong direction. It was a good thing I had hand-drawn directions with me.

The following day, I was walking down the same streets wearing the same apple green jacket and they all seemed to remember me. I hadn’t learned to keep my mouth shut yet, so when one of them asked me what I was looking for, I said that I was looking for a place to have some tea and go to the bathroom before visiting Hagia Sofia. (Can you say “too much information”?).

The man invited me to use the “clean” bathroom in his carpet shop (“I’m not buying any carpets” I said). When I came out, he told me that his friend would take me to a place to have some tea near the attraction I wanted to visit. As we got nearer I became suspicious. Sure enough, the “tea place” turned out to be another branch of the same carpet shop! In exchange for some free tea, I sat around for about half an hour chatting with the owner and being shown carpets. Of course I kept saying I couldn’t afford to buy a carpet to make really sure there were no unrealistic expectations. Then I took their card (trying to be polite) and walked out.

Suckered into a carpet shop

Suckered into a carpet shop

The day after that, another guy called out to me as I was walking down the street asking where I was going. To be sarcastic I said “Blue Mosque” as obviously this is easy to find: it dominates the skyline of Sultanahmet and European Istanbul. But the guy started following me saying he could show me where it was. I said “that’s ok, I know where it is”. But there was no shaking him at this point. Of course he had a carpet shop!

At the mosque he offered to take my picture, and said we could meet afterwards to have some tea… He even suggested that we go right away and that I come back to the Mosque another day since there was a line. At that point I had to curtly say no, that I was not interested. I got in line and stopped paying attention to him, so he left. I was a little mad. How presumptuous of him to think that I would drop everything and change my plans to have tea with a perfect stranger whose help I didn’t even seek in the first place?

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque – you don’t need a carpet shop seller to find it!

This demonstrates that although as women we’ve been raised to be polite and courteous, in Sultanahmet you may have to act in a way that feels “rude” to you, unless you want to be visiting carpet shops all day!

In restaurants, the service varied from polite but indifferent, to very friendly. At one small restaurant, the owner kept offering me more tea every time I stopped by so that he could chat with me longer. There was maybe a touch of flirtation going on there, but nothing aggressive. Apparently it is rude to refuse an offer of tea, unless you are in a big hurry.

Turkish tea

Turkish tea

Many of the guys who asked me where I was from turned out not to be Turkish after all. There seems to be a lot of immigrants from the Middle East in Istanbul. They were nice as well. The only not-so-nice people were an Arabic family who ended up pushing me off a bench in Büyükada. I was there first but they kept squeezing more people and bags next to me until I got up in exasperation.

Büyükada was quite sedate and had no carpet shops, which was a relief. I found people even friendlier than in Istanbul. I thought at first that it might be a little conservative since the hotel specified that couples had to provide a marriage certificate in order to share a room! But as a solo woman traveller none of this impacted me.

Büyükada

Büyükada: escape from the big city

Upon my return in Istanbul, I rented an AirBnB room in the “new” part of town across the Bosphorus, between the Galata and Tophane neighbourhoods.There weren’t any tourist restaurant rows there, and no touts. Nobody talked to me on the street, and I moved around like a local. Of course this area is nowhere as pretty as Sultanahmet. You win some, you lose some.

So now I have my answer. There is no problem whatsoever about travelling alone in Turkey. I plan to return in a not so distant future and visit more of the country, especially the southwest: places like Ephesus, Pamukkale, the turquoise coast around Antalya, and especially Cappadocia. 🙂

The guidebook I used while in Istanbul was Pocket Istanbul by Lonely Planet. It’s nice, compact, and includes a map of the city.

 

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