Where East meets West: A guide on solo travel to Istanbul

Can a solo female traveler go to Turkey and explore Istanbul without worrying about her safety?

Not only is my answer yes, I also believe that Turkey is a great destination for solo female travelers and a perfect introduction to the Middle East.

Last September, when I proudly announced that I was travelling to Istanbul alone, I was met with the usual amount of skepticism, worry and doubt, mostly from my family. The common notion that Turkey is a ‘Muslim’ country in the Middle East was their main concern. And when a young 24-year old Indian woman decided to explore Istanbul on her own, my family couldn’t digest it well.

But I calmly reassured them that Turkey is a very safe country and that I was going no matter what they said; I continued to plan and coordinate my first solo trip.

Aya Sofya/Hagia Sophia: a basilica turned into a mosque which is further turned into a museum

Aya Sofya/Hagia Sophia: a basilica turned into a mosque which is further turned into a museum

Here are my 6 tips for solo female travelers in Istanbul.

Turks are the most hospitable people

After spending six months in Germany, I arrived in Istanbul with a huge suitcase, another huge backpack, a laptop bag and a hand bag. You can imagine how I was struggling not just with my luggage but also with the underground metro, the directions, the language, the address of my hotel and what not.

A young Turkish man who happened to be in the same metro not just helped me in searching my hotel, but he also carried my suitcase, delayed an appointment of his and made sure that I safely reached the hotel. Not once did he try to flirt with me or take undue advantage of me being a foreigner and totally lost in the big city.

You just need to give people a chance. Honestly, I have felt safer in Istanbul than I have ever felt in Delhi.

The Turkish hospitality is amazing. Turks are kind and very friendly. One can’t and shouldn’t stereotype a country because it is a Muslim country and lies in the Middle East. Turkey is a very east-meets-west country, with many girls dressing the same way as Westerners, working and living just like you or me. There are good people and bad people in every country. You just need to give people a chance. Honestly, I have felt safer in Istanbul than I have ever felt in Delhi.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Make friends on Couchsurfing

As I was doing a solo trip in Istanbul and didn’t know anyone there, I thought it is a good idea to make some friends beforehand. So I logged into Couchsurfing and searched for students and young people living in Istanbul who would be interested in meeting people from other countries and have a cultural exchange with them.

I made two friends via CS, whom I then met while I was in Istanbul. They showed me around, which is yet another great way to explore a city with a local and going off the touristic track rather than with a map and a Lonely Planet in your hand. Needless to say, I’m very glad I took this step as I made some great friends and spent amazing time with them which I’ll always cherish.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Book your hotel in a well-crowded place

This is the single most important thing while travelling solo. Istanbul is pretty much safe but still to be on the ‘double safer’ side, I would suggest that one should book hotels in well-crowded and touristic places. When I booked my hotels in Turkey, I did a lot of research and carefully chose ones that were perfect for women travelling alone.

Research where you will stay. Read the reviews; ask other people who have been there for suggestions. Don’t sacrifice saving a few bucks to stay in a hotel in a bad area. When you check in, think about what the area will be like after dark and if you have to walk back alone.

When you check in, think about what the area will be like after dark and if you have to walk back alone.

I would suggest looking at websites such as Neredekal and booking.com  for hotel bookings. Sultanahmet is a good area to book a hotel in. Taksim is very central, but probably costlier. Fatih is again a good area and is also well connected with trams and a metro which directly goes to the airport.

At the Topkapi Palace and the Prince Islands in my background.

At the Topkapi Palace and the Prince Islands in my background.

Blend in

Nothing works more than a warm and friendly tourist who really wants to know about the country and its culture rather than just sight-seeing and clicking away photos. Don’t be afraid, interact with people and ask questions if you have any. Locals love to talk about their surroundings and narrate little stories attached to the various monuments.

Although I saw tourists in all kind of clothes, I would suggest carrying a scarf and a thin cardigan all the time. It can get a little chilly in the evenings and it’s always nice to feel warm with a hot chocolate overlooking the Bosphorous.

At the Blue Mosque

At the Blue Mosque

Say ‘No’ when you have to, but politely

Turkish men are flirtatious and they will approach you, try to chat up with you and ask for a coffee, etc. This happened to me several times during my week long trip in Istanbul. But not once did any one of them tried to force themselves upon me after I politely but firmly said, No.

More important is managing your body language. Turkish women pay no attention to strange men. Foreign women may think it is rude not to respond when a handsome young man asks “Where are you from?” Turkish men may read more into your message than you intend to offer. I saw dozens of single women who visited Turkey and seemed totally fine and well with their experiences in Istanbul.

At the Dolmabahce Palace

At the Dolmabahce Palace

Least to say, be smart and alert

Needless to say, one should stay alert and be smart whenever one is travelling, be it India, Europe or the Middle East. The usual things apply, like don’t accept food or drinks from total strangers, take care of your belongings, be conscious of your surroundings, etc.

If you are concerned about being alone, then don’t be alone. Stay in a hostel and make friends, join a day tour or research group activities. There are plenty of ways to be with people when you are travelling alone.

Over time you will learn caution, and learn to read situations better while traveling that can keep you from getting into danger. This takes time and experience

Panoramic view of the city from the Galata Tower.

Panoramic view of the city from the Galata Tower.

 

Disclaimer: This article was first published on Women’s Web on March 12, 2014. 

Budget Trip to Europe: my two cents

Europe, the dream trip! But what with the falling rupee and the rising euro?

While Europe is one of most desirable destinations for Indians (thanks to YRF), it is not easy for young Indians and students to just pack their backpacks and hop on to the next flight. Europe can get quite expensive if you don’t plan and travel smartly. Budget is the need of the hour and here are few travel tips that I have compiled from my numerous trips to Europe.

The Louvre, Paris. January 2010

The Louvre, Paris. January 2010

 

  1. Start with finding a great airfare

Research, research and research. You can get really good deals if you look hard and know how to use search engines. Plan your trip and book your flight well early in time. Turkish Airways and Qatar Airways offer some great prices. Even Russian Airlines are quite reasonable and allow you a baggage that is enough to start a living in Europe. I have travelled twice with Turkish Airlines and my experience was fantastic; easily reliable, great food, friendly hostesses and a spectacular view of the Bosphorus while stopping over in Istanbul.

  1. Look for hotels with value, not frills

On your first trip to Europe, have a plan largely for the places you want to cover, but a hotel booking only for the city where you are landing. Book a place only while leaving the previous one, and for that http://www.booking.com/ is a great tool. Here, you can book cheap, safe and totally refundable accommodations and pay only when you arrive at the hotel. It has no pre-booking charges and is pretty reliable. Another great Hotel-cum-Hostel for young people, students or solo travellers is the famous German chain called Meininger (http://www.meininger-hotels.com/). It has a hotel/hostel facility and is located in six different European countries and is a great place for socialising with fellow travellers.

  1. Visit the local tourism board

That to me is the single most important tip I find when travelling in a foreign country for the first time. With not much time to do any research before visiting Western Europe this year, my friends and I perfected a little routine. We’d hop off the train, make a beeline for the tourist office, find out which walks/sights would fit in our day, get some maps and brochures and set off exploring on foot. It worked really well for small places as well as cities like Amsterdam and Brussels. The office staffs often give good tips on what can be avoided and where one can have a good meal. It often happens that they (and sometimes hostels as well) have information they you wouldn’t usually find in guidebooks. When I was travelling around Belgium, I found these ‘Maps by the locals’ (http://www.use-it.be/) which were absolutely brilliant in their recommendations and youthful style. Do try them if you ever go to Belgium!

  1. Travelling within Europe

Once you arrive for your first European vacation, you’ll confront the matter of transportation between cities and countries. Take advantage of rise of Europe’s budget airlines, including carriers such as easyJet and RyanAir. A good place online to start checking for budget airlines within Europe is Euroflights.info, which is organized by country and city. Simply click on an airport to find out how many budget airline options you’ll have in that place. Depending on where you plan to travel within Europe, acquire a Eurail pass. I found that if you are travelling in Eastern Europe it doesn’t save money because the tickets are so cheap, it’s better to buy them individually. In Western Europe it can help if you travel long distances, especially in countries like France and Switzerland where they’re so expensive.

  1. Pack smartly

Possibly the easiest thing to do when you want to pack lighter is to use a smaller bag – that way when your bag is full, it still won’t be too big. It is possible to travel with just the outfit you are wearing and thee-four others if you pick the right things. Pack your clothes in layers, so that you can mix and match later and accessorize it to make a great outfit.  I take leggings & stockings which doesn’t take any space. You can even stuff them in handbags. Pack for all four seasons. The weather is very changeable in Europe. So always take sweaters /jumpers and leggings and a raincoat/sturdy umbrella!

  1. Find local food

Sometimes eating out is great. If you find a decent restaurant with authentic food, you get a window into the culture. Be sure to try the specials and native drinks. Don’t just order a hamburger. Not only will you be disappointed, you won’t be trying anything new. Going to grocery stores in other countries is very illuminating. Try and see what you find. It can be surprising and fun. Cooking on your own will also save money.

Special tip for vegetarians: People usually scar others by saying we don’t find veggie food. But I’ve seen the hidden treasures of veggie delights in all the villages/cities that I travelled. They will have baked beans, breads, vegetable / minestrone soups, baked / roasted potatoes and ample green veggies.

  1. Visit Europe in the off-season

You know that winter is not the time to visit European beaches, but perhaps you don’t know that there is serious money to be saved by visiting other attractions here in the so-called off-season. Venice in March? Paris in January? It might sound unorthodox, but many times lower airfares and hotel rates await those who are willing to travel to Europe in the off-season. Take a look at some of the advantages and plan for the potential pitfalls.

Every trip is unique in its own way, you just need to make sure that you have important things organised and first landing booked. Once you arrive, Europe is sure to take you on a roller-coaster ride.

Disclaimer: This article was first published on Women’s Web on January 1, 2014.

Au revoir Freedom! Hope to see you back home too..

Dear Freedom,

I’m writing this letter to you because it’s time to bid farewell now. It has been a wonderful time with you as my company and I think I owe you at least a farewell note. I hope when you read it, you are inspired to accompany me further. Right now, you are leaving me stranded. I don’t blame you, but I hope to see you again not where you are right now, but at my home, in my city and in my country.

I was away from home, in a far-off land. I roamed the streets alone with my camera and a book in my hand. I wandered day and night with no sign of fear in sight. I walked, ran and danced, without carrying a pepper spray in my hand. I wore a bikini at the beach and a coat when it was cold. The weather decided my clothes and not age-old customs or poking noses. I sat in my room and read the news back home. Their voices made my heart gloom, but I still enjoyed my foreign ride. I slowly forgot to look behind my shoulder from the corner of my eyes or to make an angry face while walking past a group of men. Not once did I feel why it is so difficult to be a woman. I went to bars and clubs for a drink or two and returned home drunk yet safe. I have waited for night buses at wee hours or early mornings. I have traveled in empty metros after a night full of fun and frolic. I had keys to my front door and could walk in and out whenever I wanted. I sat down under a tree or at a bench for hours, without encountering any weird gestures or awkward questions. Nobody asked me where I was going, with whom I was going and when will I be back. I had no one to answer except myself. I didn’t have to plan my outings before sunset or ask a trustworthy friend to drop me home. I made friends with men and women alike. I was alone with strangers at a lot of occasions without fearing the outcome. I asked for directions and help from different kinds of people. Not once did I fear that they would misdirect or misuse me. I talked with strangers on buses and trains during my various travels and shared a joke or two with them or ate lunch together. I did not avoid meeting anyone’s eyes as those eyes didn’t seek my flesh. Sometimes I felt, I’m another person living a distant dream and the things I experience don’t belong to me. It tasted bittersweet. I swam in the Mediterranean and climbed up the Alps. I did adventure sports from bungee jumping to scuba diving to sky diving. Nobody said how could a girl do this. I spent an entire night at a railway station in a country whose language I did not speak. I woke up the next morning untouched and unscathed. I did the simple act of walking back to my home at night. I felt so ecstatic while doing this. I felt as if I have some sort of power which I can finally use. I have been brought up in a relatively free-er environment than I would say my fellow citizens. But I would still never forget the time I spent with you, with zero incidences of sexual harassment or something even close to it. I used to talk of freedom well before that, but I never would’ve imagined what freedom really is if I hadn’t lived outside of my country. Even now, I sometimes cannot believe that I have lived the better part of my life in a lack of basic freedom.

I have to go now, it is my time. It will take some time getting used to do things without you, to be careful again, to not trust strangers so easily, to dress cautiously, to not wander alone, to come home before it gets dark and to many other things I’m not looking forward to. But I’m inviting you over, will you come Freedom? Will you visit me in my home? And will you stay with me forever? Will you? …

P.S. This post is in reference to my five-month research stay in Germany and to my various travels in and around Europe.

Women_freedom_by_rush2anthony

 

 

Disclaimer: This article has also been published on Women’s Web and Youth Ki Awaaz