Crazy travel plans? Nah.
When I decided to visit Turkey this summer, I didn’t exactly scream my decision from the rooftops. I told my friends and chatted about it with fellow travel bloggers, but that was basically it. I told my parents that I was going to Izmir, Pamukkale, Cappadocia, and Rize before visiting Georgia and Armenia. I left out the fact that I would be spending my birthday in Istanbul–alone. Since they had never heard of the places I was visiting, and since they didn’t really know much about the geography of the area, they happily accepted my summer plans.
You see, Turkey has a pretty bad reputation, especially to non-travelers. Earlier this year, American woman Sarai Sierra was found dead in Istanbul. It was her first trip abroad, and the tragedy put Istanbul, and women travelers, in the spotlight. How could she have gone to such a dangerous place alone? She had children and a husband…what a stupid woman! The accusations flew (especially in the comments sections) the moment the story hit the news, and many of them pivoted on a central idea: women should not travel alone, Turkey is a dangerous place, and the victim was to blame.
Between sensationalized news stories and popular culture (Taken 2, anyone?), no wonder it seems like a scary place.
But as savvy, empowered women who know the truth about solo female travel, I hope you’re raising your eyebrows and questioning the premise of Turkey’s reputation at this point.
Simply put, from my personal experience and that of others, I’m going to unequivocally say that YES, Turkey is a safe and fantastic place to visit, especially as a woman! I even had some whacky experiences while I was there, but never once did I feel like I was in real danger.
Don’t listen to the hype.
Let’s break down two of the most common concerns that I’ve heard about Turkey. An American woman was cruelly murdered there, and it’s inherently dangerous. Plus, it’s a Muslim country and they hate Americans, making it even more unwelcoming and dangerous.
According to data on homicide rates by country, from The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Turkey’s 2009 murder rate is lower than the U.S.’s: 3.3 murders per 100,000 people and 2,320 total homicides. The U.S. had 5 murders per 100,000 people, and a total murder rate of 15,399. Realistically, the most common incidents in Turkey revolve around thefts such as pickpocketing. Like in many countries, the bad guys tend to want your stuff, not your life.
Often, the sticky situations that women encounter arise from cultural misinterpretations. Western women can be a lot more forward, especially when compared to Turkish women. We smile at everyone we meet. We’re polite, friendly, and open toward strangers. But, in Turkey, these signs of friendliness from women can be misread as flirtation. And just as Turkey has a (false) reputation for being a dangerous place, foreign women sometimes have a reputation for being promiscuous (also false.) These issues can be avoided by dressing modestly and by being aware of your own body language.
When I was traveling there this summer I usually wore long skirts and t-shirts that covered up my chest. I never had any problems. A friend met me in Izmir, and she complained about the treatment that men gave her when we first arrived. She wore shorts and t-shirts. While walking around the city in a long dress, I was mostly ignored. Sometimes, men will leer and make catcalls anyway, but it’s typically harmless, and its hardly behavior that only happens in Turkey. Don’t engage with them, and you’ll be fine.
As for Turkey being a Muslim country… so what? Yes, it’s a predominantly Muslim country, but that isn’t a bad thing. It’s interesting. It’s new and different to many people. And isn’t that why we travel – to experience and learn things about different cultures? And, contrary to what certain news stations might want us to believe, all Muslims do not hate Americans. If anything, most of the Turks that I met thought it was awesome that an American girl was traveling to Turkey on her own, and they strived to give me good advice to make sure I had a wonderful time in Turkey.
And I did have a wonderful time. A hostel or hotel owner, the restaurant owner down the street, the owner of a local shop… they’re all great resources and are usually willing to help if you give them a chance.
The people in Turkey are some of the nicest people I’ve met traveling.
Mustafa, the owner of one of the hotels I stayed in, drove us to a lovely open air museum, helped us book a hot air balloon ride for a great price, directed us to a great day hike, and chatted with us for hours.
I ate at the doner place where this guy worked at a few times while I was in Istanbul. We chatted about our lives–he’s a Kurdish engineering student trying to make money over the summer.
Hiking with a brother & sister pair that we met while exploring the Kaçkar Mountains–a place that we never would have made it to without the help of a Turkish friend I met during the first part of my trip.
Would I recommend that Turkey be the first destination you take on if you’ve never traveled much before? Maybe, maybe not. It really depends on the individual, but I’m pretty confident that most street-smart travelers could take on Istanbul at the very least. I found Turkey to be an easy place to get around and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite countries. So don’t let the hype scare you away from a fabulous place. It’s the 6th most visited country in the world for a reason.
Would you travel to Turkey? Let us know in the comments! And if you have any questions about visiting Turkey, please ask away – I’m happy to help!
My wife went to Turkey in 1986 on high school foreign exchange (I went to Thailand that same year) & has been taking about returning. In fact, it was my friend’s trip there the prior year that convinced me to sign up with AFS. Thanks for challenging the myths. I think the US is one of the most dangerous countries but I traveled solo around it for 6 months, camping alone. The best time!
That’s fantastic! I would have loved to visit Turkey before it got popular- I’m sure you’ll notice some changes going back, but it’s still so, so wonderful. Funny you should mention the U.S.- people I meet while traveling always always mention how dangerous it can be. A solo camping adventure sounds AMAZING though!
I appreciate the article about solo female travel but I have one caveat. I feel that the author ought to be wearing a shirt with sleeves in the picture. I realize that Turkey is a lot more modern these days than it once was but I still feel that it is more respectful and safer to have your shoulders covered in a lightweight, loose fitting shirt with sleeves when traveling in a Muslim country. Thank you though, for the rest of the advise.
You make a good point! I usually did wear shirts with sleeves or a scarf over my shoulders- that photo was taken while on top of an abandoned building with a group from my hostel. I did find that Istanbul was way more modern than other parts of the country, and Western dress was completely safe, but that doesn’t mean it’s respectful. I had a scarf in my bag and popped it over my shoulders after the photos, but I should have gotten a photo with it on for a more positive example. Thanks for reading and being frank!
I can relate to the author’s experiences traveling solo as a woman and I’m glad she is encouraging smart travel. I have yet to make it to Turkey — while living in Greece years ago now, people there (Greeks, Turks, Macedonians — men and women) advised me not to travel to or around Turkey alone (they didn’t really advise it for Greece either at the time). Besides being aware of one’s current surroundings and the culture of the place, it’s important to understand the political climate as well. A “safe” place may become more risky depending on the circumstances at the time an a risky place can become dangerous.
You’re so right, Andrea. It’s always super important to stay up to date on current events when you travel, and make an informed travel decision from there.
Have made 3 solo trips to Istanbul. Was careful to wear long skirts or loose long pants and long sleeves. Walked around everywhere alone during the day without problems, shopping and visiting every museum and local market I could find. Started my explorations at dawn and was back in a nice, safe hotel by dark. Avoided eye contact and the “hissing” sounds that, I was told, were to get my attention. I love the culture, history and general feeling of Turkey. Never had any problems.
Thank You for this article. I am planning on going to Istanbul soon. My husband will be working all day in a conference at a Hotel. I have the opportunity to see and tour beautiful sights on two women’s day tours. I am a small American Woman and am a little afraid. I guess it is the unknown and like you mentioned in your article the way the news sensationalizes everything.
Hello Megan!!!! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful travel experience about travelling alone in Turkey 🙂 That really gave me a lot of hope as I myself am planning to make a trip there and travel on my own too 🙂 I am from India, and, know some things about the Muslim culture, so I am well aware of how the women should dress up while on their trip 🙂 I am planning to visit many cities and towns, to be honest, as I have many friends in Turkey and I would like to meet them as well 🙂 If you could suggest me anything useful for my trip there, I would be very grateful to you 🙂 Thank you…
Turkey is fascinating but potentially dangerous. As a middle-aged woman who has travelled extensively, I sat and watched the people on the street and paid attention to the locals. When big men are checking over their shoulders and tell you that a country is dangerous…listen. Mind you, guided tours and travelling in groups may ensure that you are safer, but such travel also prevents meeting or seeing some locals. Guess it boils down to luck. I survived and saw some amazing things and actually loved the edginess and differences. Unfortunately some men presume that Western women are promiscuous and may hit on solo women. Be careful who you trust and snub any lechers. What they call showing interest we read as harassment.