10 Things To Do While Volunteering In Turkey

by Dana Carmel Bell

There’s no shortage of sites to explore and things to do in Turkey. It is a country steeped in history. Spanning both the European and Asian continents, Turkey offers an eclectic lineup of things to do for those wanting to get a better feel for Turkish culture. Read on for 10 places and experiences that will be the cherry on top of your already delicious volunteer experience in Turkey. From kabobs to history, you’re sure to get a taste of it all!

The Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey

1.  Visit Istanbul

Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, sits in both Europe and Asia. History will come to life in Sultanahmet, the old section of the city. In Sultanahmet, you’ll find famous sites such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and an underground reservoir known as Basilica Cistern. Taksim Square is another of Istanbul’s hotspots. More modern that Sultanahmet, you’ll find Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Avenue, a long pedestrian-friendly shopping street. At the end of this avenue, you’ll find nostalgic Tünel, the second oldest subway line in the world.

2.  Prince Islands

This chain of nine islands off Istanbul’s coast in the Sea of Marmara offers the perfect place to unwind. In Byzantine times, princes and other royals were exiled to these islands giving the chain its name. During the 19th century, the Prince Islands were a vacation destination for Istanbul’s upper class. Motorized vehicles are prohibited on all the islands so once you disembark from your ferry ride, rent a bike or take a horse and buggy ride to explore. Take in the historical sites such as the Hamidiye Mosque or the Ayia Yorgi Church and Monastery which was built in the 6th century.  

3.  Cappadocia

Located in Central Anatolia, Cappadocia is a scenic region of Turkey steeped in culture and religious history. Known for its thin volcanic rock spires called fairy chimneys, Cappadocia is full of caves and underground cities. They were built by early Christians to avoid persecution from raiding Muslims. Take a tour of some of these underground cities such as Derinkuyu and Kaymakli. The cavernous homes include kitchens, stables, churches, cemeteries, and anything else early Christians needed to live their lives underground.  Also, take in an aerial view of fairy chimney country with an early morning hot air balloon ride. Visitors shouldn’t miss a chance to stay in one of the region’s many cave hotels.

Hot air balloons flying over Cappadocia, Turkey

4.  Ephesus

Ephesus was a major city in the Roman Empire for several years, second in size only to Rome itself. Once occupied by the Greeks, the city holds much importance and history for Christianity. It is home to one of the seven churches of Asia addressed in the Book of Revelation and Apostle Paul sent a letter there while he was imprisoned in Rome. The House of the Virgin Mary, believed to be the last home of Jesus’ mother, is found here. It is easy to find ancient statues and ruins including the Library of Celsus, the Great Theater of Ephesus, and the Ephesus Archaeological Museum.

5.  Pamukkale

A visit to the city of Pamukkale, meaning cotton castle, includes hot springs and travertine terraces made of sedimentary rock. For thousands of years, people have been traveling to this city in the southwestern Denizli Province to bathe in the mineral pools. Nearby is Hierapolis, an ancient Greco-Roman city located on the hot springs. Pamukkale and Hierapolis are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

6.  Ankara

Ankara is Turkey’s capital and second largest city behind Istanbul. There are several museums and archaeological sites including the Ankara Citadel whose foundations were laid by the Galatians and completed by the Romans. Ankara is also home to several mosques, parks, and abundant shopping. Visit the old shops in Cikrikcilar Yokusu, meaning Weavers' Road, where you can find bargains on traditional fabrics and hand-woven carpets. Look to Bakircilar Carsisi, or the Bazaar of Coppersmiths, to find jewelry, antiques, and embroidery.

Anıtkabir in Ankara, Turkey

7.  Visit a Bazaar

Covered markets known as bazaars are common throughout Turkey and are set up in most districts throughout the week. Some bazaar vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables while others specialize in clothing, home goods, jewelry, and antiques. In Istanbul, the two most popular bazaars are the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. The Spice Bazaar, originally named the Egyptian Bazaar because it was built with Egyptian funds, is Istanbul’s spice trade hub and the second largest bazaar in the city.

8.  Take a Food Tour or Cooking Lesson

Turkey delivers exquisite and diverse cuisine. One of the most well known is the Turkish kebab which features a variety of meats on a stick. The savory and easily enjoyed bites can be marinated or plain, steamed or grilled, but anyway they are a Turkish must try. Others are the pizza-like dish known as lahmacun and karniyarik, which literally means split belly and is eggplant filled with seasonings, vegetables, and meat. In Turkey, trying to figure out what to eat and where to eat it may feel daunting, so a great way to explore local cuisine is to take a food tour. Cooking classes, which are easy to find, are another great way to discover more about Turkish cuisine.

9.  Catch a Whirling Dervish Performance

The Whirling Dervishes are followers of the Mevlevi Order, a Sufi order of Islam, who believe in practicing the perfection of worship by whirling in remembrance of God during a formal Sama ceremony. The ceremony usually entails singing, playing instruments, reciting poetry, and other rituals. The Whirling Dervishes can be seen in Konya, the Turkish city where the Mevlevi Order was founded in the 13 century. In Istanbul, catch a performance at the Galata Mevlevihanesi (“Whirling Dervish Hall”), the Basin Muzesi (“Press Museum”), at the Dervish Dede Efendi Evi House in Sultanahmet, or the Hodjapasha Dance Theater.

Hammam Spa Table, Turkey

Hammam Spa Table

10.  Clean Up At A Hammam

A lack of indoor plumbing led Turks to adopt the Roman and Byzantine tradition of public bathing. Turkish bath houses known as hammams were not only for bathing, but also for socializing. They usually have separate quarters for men and women but some only allow couples to visit. The baths typically consist of three interconnected rooms – a hot room, a warm room, and a cool room. Visitors will change into a traditional sarong known as a pestemal before going into the steam room. From there, they will be asked to remove their clothes and lie down on a naval stone so attendents can scrub them down with an abrasive kese mitt for exfoliation. Next, visitors will be bathed and massaged with bubbles before a rinse, then ending their journey with a relaxing stay in the cool room.

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