Turkish lifestyle is a vivid mosaic; juxtaposing the West and the East, the modern and the ancient
Life in Turkey is a rich variety of cultures and traditions, some dating back centuries and others or more recent heritage. The visitor to Turkey will find a great deal that is exotic, and also much that is reassuringly familiar. The intriguing blend of East and West makes up the Turkish lifestyle.
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The official language of the country, Turkish is spoken by 220 million people and is the world’s 5th most widely used language. Today’s Turkish has evolved from dialects known since the 11th century and is one of the group of languages known as Ural-Altaic which includes Finnish and Hungarian.
Turkish is written with the Latin alphabet with the addition of 6 different characters. Turkish is completely phonetic – each letter of the alphabet has only one sound-, so each word sounds exactly how it is written. During Ottoman times Turkish was written in Arabic script, that a limited number of people were able to write. In order to improve literacy and therefore to overcome the difficulties of learning and reading Turkish using Arabic script, Turkey switched to the Latin alphabet following the initiative started by Atatürk in 1928.
English has replaced French and German as the chief secondary language taught in school and is becoming more widespread. English is widely spoken and understood by many throughout Turkey. German, Russian and French are also spoken especially in popular holiday destinations.
Although 99% of the population is Muslim, religion is seen as strictly a private matter in Turkey. In fact, Turkey is the only secular country in Islamic world. Secularism is enshrined in the constitution that religion has no place whatsoever in governing of the country. Like other European countries, the weekly holiday is Sunday – not Friday as many are mistaken- and the Gregorian calendar is used in Turkey. The constitution secures the freedom of belief and worshiping. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, people of many different faiths lived together in peace, and since then this diversity has been preserved. Today there are 236 churches and 34 synagogues open for worship in Turkey.
Tourists visiting Turkey are unlikely to see much evidence that they are in a Muslim country, except for the call to prayer which can be heard 5 times a day. People wear contemporary dresses like any western country, and especially in big cities and popular holiday destinations, one can easily spot many who are closely observing fashion of Paris, London, Milan. There is probably no difference between the way in which people dress in especially large cities in Turkey and the rest of Europe. It is only in smaller villages, more remote areas and the east of the country that dress codes are more local. It is quite common for village women to wear headscarves but this is generally as much out of practical and cultural than religious considerations.
The only time when you need to worry about dress codes is when visiting a mosque. Everyone should wear clothes which cover their legs, so no shorts for either sex. Women should also make sure that their shoulders and head are covered. Shoes should be removed before entering a mosque. There is usually a rack or storage area where they can be left or you can carry them with you in a bag. Mosques are usually closed to visitors during prayer times.
There are two major Islamic Festivals which are celebrated in Turkey. The dates of both change each year, according to lunar calendar. Eid (Ramazan or Şeker Bayramı) falls at the end of period of fasting. Greater Eid, the Feast of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı) falls almost two months after Eid, when wealthy believers usually sacrifice a sheep or a cow and it is distributed to the needy including friends, family and neighbours. Government offices and some other institutions are closed during these periods but life in resorts continues much as usual, and many Turks also head to the holiday destinations.
Visitors to Turkey are often pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the Turkish people, who will go out of their way to assist and happily spend time chatting. Hospitality is a cornerstone of Turkish culture, and Turks believe that visitors should be treated as “Guests sent by God”. This attitude has survived to the 21st century and does not appear to have been diminished by mass tourism. In fact, quite the reverse, most Turks welcome the opportunity to meet foreign visitors, learn about different cultures and practice their language skills. It is usual for Turks – even the men – to greet each other by kissing on both cheeks. As a tradition, Turkish people treat their national flag as sacred. Therefore one should avoid insulting or showing disrespect to the Turkish flag.
Turkish cuisine is known as one of the world’s best. It is considered to be one of the three main cuisines of the world because of the variety of its recipes, its use of natural ingredients, its flavours and tastes which appeal to all palates and its influence throughout Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The cuisine originated in central Asia, the first home of the Turks, and then evolved with the contributions of the inland and Mediterranean cultures with which Turks interacted after their arrival in Anatolia. Turkish cuisine is in a sense a bridge between far-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, with the accent always on enhancing the natural taste and flavour of the ingredients. There is no one dominant element in Turkish cuisine, like sauces in French and pasta in Italian cuisines.
While the Palace cuisine was developing in İstanbul, local cuisines in Anatolia were multiplying in several regions, all displaying different geographical and climactic characteristics. These cuisines, after remaining within regional borders for centuries, are now being transplanted to the big cities and their suburbs as a consequence of large scale urbanisation and migration towards new urban centres. As a result, the national Turkish cuisine has been enriched by the contribution of a great number of local recipes.Turkey is self-sufficient in food production and produces enough for export as well. This means that Turkish food is usually made from fresh, local ingredients and is all the tastier for it.
A main meal will usually start with soup and the meze, a variety of small cold and hot dishes which are made for sharing. In many restaurants a waiter will bring these round on a tray for you to inspect and make your choice. Tarama salad, cacik (taziki), dolma (vine leaves or peppers stuffed with rice), börek (pastries) , arnavut ciğeri (cubes of fried liver) are amongst the many types of mezes found in most of the restaurants.
The main course is usually meat or fish. Turks always eat bread with their meal and main courses are usually served with rice. Typically çoban salatası, a salad made of tomato, cucumber, parsley and onion, dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, will be offered as a side dish. Lamb is the most popular meat and prepared in a variety of ways, including “şiş kebap” (grilled cubes of seasoned meat on skewer). “Köfte”, which are like small lamb burgers are well worth trying. Those who prefer something hot and spicy should try “Adana kebap”, which is made of minced lamb but with the addition of hot peppers and spices formed around a flat skewer. There are numerous variations and regional specialities of kebap. Somewhat rich but very tasty, is the İskender or Bursa kebab, named respectively after Alexander the Great and the town in which it is originated, which is slices of döner meat laid over small bites of a freshly cooked flat bread and covered with tomato sauce and hot butter all served with yoghurt. Turks traditionally are fond of stews called sulu yemek or ev yemeği (home cook) and therefore there are many restaurants offering these foods which are usually displayed in the entrance of the restaurant in large containers.
Fish and seafood restaurants are widely found in Istanbul, in the other big cities and in the coastal resorts. Mostly fish is simply grilled to bring out its natural flavour and there is a wide variety of seafood meze including midye tava (fried mussels), kalamar (calamari), midye dolma (mussels in shells stuffed with seasoned rice). It is worth asking for recommendations but some of the tastiest are levrek (sea bass), çupra (sea bream) and kalkan (turbot). Fish is also sold by weight in specialist restaurants where some customers prefer to make their choice from the fishes offered on a large display.