What better way to immerse yourself in a culture – leaving behind all fear and plunging into an adventure – than to travel solo?
I’m a firm believer in this, that’s why I prefer to travel solo and have since I backpacked Europe solo as a teen. And, I’m not alone; more than half of Intrepid Travel’s bookings are from solo travelers and the number seems to be growing.
Between the chaos of a strange land and the madness of learning a new culture, traveling as a solo female may seem intimidating, but every time I venture into the world solo I come away with a deeper understanding of the countries I visit and my place within them.
When I travel alone, I leave behind my North American life to integrate in a different culture.
My most recent adventures took me on a three week solo adventure to Turkey. By the end of the Best of Turkey tour I was broke and owned more Turkish towels than clothing, but I’d experienced a country so comforting to a solo female traveler that I felt broken-hearted getting on the flight home.
Here are the top five things I learned – and want to share with you – while traveling as a solo female in Turkey:
In Turkey you’re beautiful
It’s a title to a book, but I believe it summarizes Turkey well. As a female foreigner, there are few places in the world you’ll visit where locals don’t stare as you walk past. Turkish people, however, are very friendly and accustomed to social interaction.
They may smile, they may ask where you’re from, but that’s all I experienced. I would smile back and I found I was never barraged with questions, instead left to be. I felt comfortable wherever I went: from small coastal towns to the bustling Istanbul.
… but, dress appropriately
In the metropolitan city of Istanbul, the dress is comparable to in North American culture, though it’s worth keeping shoulders and knees uncovered. High heels are an option… if you want to tour around a large city in heels (not for me; running shoes, please). Away from the big Turkish cities, women dress more modestly, true to Middle Eastern culture.
Regardless, I found it’s easiest to blend in and dress conservatively wherever you are. I brought headscarves for the mosques and always wore flowy knee-length skirts and T-shirts, whether I was in Istanbul or small cities like Antalya. The flowy clothes also helped with all the delicious Turkish food I ate – so that’s a bonus.
When packing for a trip here, it’s worth reminding yourself that as a traveler you have a responsibility to be respectful. And it’s by blending in that you are much more likely to understand the culture and people.
It’s easy to meet friends
The first morning of my trip, I walked into the fourth-floor dining room of my hotel. My flight was delayed the night before (a long story that includes lost luggage in Germany), so I missed the welcome meeting. I saw a group of travelers sitting at a table and walked up to them.
“Hi, are you on an Intrepid Travel trip,” I asked? After a bunch of yeses in all sorts of accents, they asked me to sit with them. It seemed instantly we were talking about where we were from, what brought us to Turkey and, like that, I knew I found a group of travel companions and, more importantly, friends.
It’s fair to say – ask any of them, I’m not just writing this – that, by the day, we became closer. We spent all our time together at local hammams, hot-air ballooning over Cappadocia at sunrise, sleeping on the bow of a sailboat on the Mediterranean, and simply drinking a beer at a local bar.
As a solo traveler, I’m more open to conversations with others and their stories than I would be traveling with a friend (who’d keep me in my comfort zone). I spent time getting to know other travelers, they did the same. What makes Intrepid Travel so special and easy for solo travelers is its small group sizes; you don’t get lost in a crowd of tourists. Instead, you’re able to have intimate conversations with the other travelers and leave your trip with a new group of friends.
To acknowledge the little things
After leaving the group with a tearful goodbye (yes, there were tears from many of us), I spent another night in Istanbul solo. After checking in to my hotel, I walked to a rooftop bar to reminisce on my trip. A local was sitting beside me, sipping on the local beer, Efes, and he said: “Do you see that river,” pointing to the river ahead? “That’s the Golden Horn River, which separates the European part of Turkey from the Asian part.”
Here I was, sitting at the crossroads between two continents in one country, completely stunned at this little – yet large – detail of a country I fell in love with. Then I got to thinking, as only a cynic could, if I was with someone else, would this local have started up conversation with me? Would I have learned about this “little thing” if I was with someone else?
I want to say no, but I guess I’ll never know. However, what I did learn is that when I’m traveling solo I pay attention to everything, even the little things, because there are no distractions. And, those little things make the countries I visit all the more special.
You need a local leader
I couldn’t have traveled Turkey solo without a local leader. The locals only speak Turkish and I can’t speak Turkish… shockingly. The country is vast in a history I would’ve known little about without Salih, my local leader. The tour also have us local experiences – like eating a meal in the floor of a cave home with a family in Cappadocia – that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
Intrepid Travel’s leaders are experts on their country; they make the trip seamless, so you don’t have to worry. Who would’ve thought I didn’t have to worry when traveling solo in Turkey?
As I write this love letter about my time in Turkey, I’m reminded that I traveled solo but I wasn’t alone. I fell in love with a country and a culture, the group of travelers and the entire experience. The country will never leave my heart and neither will all the people I met along the way.
I immersed myself in Turkey and I felt it.
That’s why I love to travel solo.
Want to experience the magic of Turkey for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours there.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Kasi Dundas x3, Intrepid Travel, Kasi Dundas.)