Stay Safe in Turkey
Dial 155 for the police from any toll-free phone. However, in rural areas there is no police coverage, so in such areas dial the Jandarma (military police), a military unit for rural security.
Turkey’s big cities, especially Istanbul, are not immune to petty crime. Although petty crime is not specifically directed against tourists, it is by no means an exception. Robberies, pickpockets and muggings are the most common types of petty crime. However, thanks to the recent development of a network of cameras that monitor streets and squares – especially the central streets and busy squares – 24 hours a day in Istanbul, the number of kidnappings and muggings has decreased. As everywhere, common sense applies here. (Please note that the following recommendations apply to large cities and most small to medium-sized cities generally do not have problems with petty crime) Keep your wallet and money in your front pockets and not in your back pockets, backpack or shoulder bag.
You must drive defensively at all times and take all necessary precautions when driving in Turkey. Turkish drivers routinely ignore traffic rules, including running red lights and stop signs and turning left from the right lane; these driving practices are the cause of frequent road accidents. Drivers should be aware of some specific driving practices that are widespread in Turkey. Drivers who have problems with their car or have an accident will pull over to the side of the road and turn on their emergency lights to warn other drivers. However, many drivers place a large boulder or pile of stones on the road about 10-15 metres behind their vehicle instead of turning on their emergency lights. You must not use a mobile phone while driving. It is strictly prohibited by law.
Don’t leave your camera or mobile phone out for too long if it’s a new and/or expensive model (they know what to take, no one will bother stealing a ten-year-old mobile phone as it would be very unprofitable). The same goes for your wallet if it is overflowing with money. Give a wide berth and move away from the area quickly if you see two or more people start arguing and fighting as this can be a ruse to get your attention while another person relieves you of your valuables. Be alert, this often happens very quickly. Watch your belongings in crowded places and on public transport, especially trams and city buses.
Avoid dark and deserted alleys at night. If you know you will have to pass such a place at night, do not take too much cash with you, but rather deposit your money in the hotel safe. Avoid crowds of demonstrators if the demonstration does not seem to be peaceful. Even in seaside resorts, if you go to the beach, do not take your camera or mobile phone with you if no one is looking after it while you swim. If you notice that your wallet has been stolen, it is advisable to check the nearest rubbish bins before reporting the loss to the police. Thieves in Turkey often throw their wallets in the trash to avoid being caught with the wallet and to prove that they are thieves. Of course, it is very likely that your money is gone, but your credit cards and papers might still be there.
Also have a look at the section on scams in the article on Istanbul to get an idea of the types of scams you might also encounter in other parts of the country, especially in tourist areas, not only in Istanbul.
When entering some museums, hotels, metro stations and almost all shopping centres, especially in big cities, you will notice security checks similar to those at airports. Don’t worry, this is standard procedure in Turkey and does not imply any immediate risk of attack. These security checks are also carried out in a much more relaxed manner than at airports, so you don’t have to take off your seatbelt to avoid the alarm when you go through the metal detector.
Even if it is a bit off topic, it is advisable to always carry a passport or other identification document. You may not be asked to show it for a long time, and then suddenly a minibus is checked by the traffic police (or the army, especially in eastern Turkey), or you meet a law enforcement officer who has time on his hands and you have to show your papers. In some government buildings you may be asked to temporarily hand over your passport in exchange for equipment such as headphones for simultaneous translation, etc., and you may be asked to keep your passport in an open box with the local IDs, which can be a bit disconcerting. Hotels may ask you to hand over your passport until you have paid the bill, which puts you in an uncomfortable situation. When approached, they will always ask you to return your passport once the registration process is complete. Showing a personal business card, a credit card or two, or knowing the address of a reputable hotel can solve the non-payment situation, but any decent officer will tell you that you are wrong and will regret it next time. However, if you are treated politely, the police and the army can be very friendly and even offer to drive you to the next town (no joke).
If you are planning to visit Eastern or South-Eastern Anatolia, keep up to date with the latest news. Although it offers many beautiful places, the situation is far from safe due to ethnic conflicts and protests that sometimes lead to violence. The region is far from being a war zone, but take precautions when visiting this unstable place. However, the actual risk of a threat is not very high if you stay on the main roads and follow common sense (e.g. avoid demonstrations).
Be careful when crossing roads as described in the section “Walking”.
In the Turkish wilderness there are both venomous and nonvenomous snake species (yılan). In fact, the rainforests of the northeastern Black Sea region are home to a small snake that is among the most venomous in the world. In the south and especially in the south-east of the country (also in the cities) there are a large number of scorpions (akrep). So be careful when sleeping on open roofs, which is common in the south-eastern region in summer. If you are stung by one of them, seek medical help immediately.
As for wild mammals, the most dangerous are undoubtedly wolves, bears and wild boars. All these animals live only in mountainous areas (in almost all regions) and your chances of spotting one are very low (with the exception of wild boars, which are not so rare). Wolves and bears do not attack unless you follow them or aggressively disturb them (or especially their young), but wild boars are known to attack at the slightest provocation.
The biggest animal threat is from stray dogs (or sheepdogs in rural areas). Do not think that you will encounter gangs of aggressive stray dogs near St. Sophia Gate or the Beach Club. They are mostly found in rural areas and in decentralised parts of cities. They are generally discreet and are usually more afraid of you than you are of them. Rabies (kuduz) is endemic in Turkey (and most parts of the world) [www], so anyone bitten by a dog or other carnivore should see a doctor urgently, despite what your hotel or other well-meaning foreigners may tell you.
Many stray dogs you see in cities wear plastic “earrings”. These earrings mean that the dog has been cleaned, vaccinated (against rabies and a number of other diseases) and neutered and then sent back to the streets, as this is the most humane treatment (compared to keeping it in a cage or crate-like environment or putting it to sleep). The process is underway, so we can expect the stray dog problem in Turkey to disappear naturally in the future.
Much of Turkey is at risk of earthquakes.
In the police stations of Ankara, Antalya, Istanbul (in Sultanahmet) and Izmir, there are “tourism police” departments specifically for tourists where travellers can report the loss and theft of their passports or other criminal acts of which they might become victims. The staff is multilingual and speaks English, German, French and Arabic.
Stay Healthy in Turkey
Dial 112 from any phone, anywhere, free of charge for an ambulance.
Food safety – Food is usually free of parasites or bacterial contamination, but still be careful. Look at where the local people prefer to eat. Do not eat, at least in summer, produce sold outside that the locals do not eat. They can spoil quite quickly without needing to be refrigerated. Wash and/or peel fresh fruit and vegetables thoroughly. They may be free of organic contaminants, but their skins are likely to be heavily contaminated with pesticides (unless you see the label “certified organic”, which of course is not very common). The food in the western parts of the country is mostly acceptable for (western) travellers, but the further east, south and north-east you go, the more you will encounter unusual contents in the food, such as goat or goose meat or hot/heavy spices. These contents may or may not cause diarrhoea, but it is advisable to have at least some anti-diarrhoea medication nearby, especially if you are travelling to places a little off the beaten track.
Water safety – As tempting as it may be on a hot day, try to avoid water from public reservoirs and wells (şadırvan), which are often found near mosques. Even though tap water is usually chlorinated, it is best to drink bottled water only, except in remote mountain villages connected to a local spring. Bottled water is available everywhere except in the most remote and uninhabited areas.
The most common volumes for bottled water are 0.5 litres and 1.5 litres. There are also, to varying degrees, huge 19-litre bottles (known in the West as bureau jugs, this is the most common type used in households and delivered to homes by water shop staff because it is far too heavy to carry). The general price of bottled water in half-litre and one-and-a-half-litre bottles is TRY0.50 and TRY1.25 respectively at kiosks/shops in the city centre (it can be much higher at tourist or monopoly locations such as the beach, the airport, the café of a popular museum, the kiosk of a roadside recreation facility), while it can be as cheap as TRY0.15. or TRY0.35 in supermarkets in winter (when the number of bottled water sold decreases) and slightly more in summer (but still cheaper than kiosks). In intercity buses, water is served free of charge in 0.25-litre plastic cups at the steward’s request. Kiosks everywhere sell chilled water, sometimes so cold that you have to wait for the ice to thaw before you can drink it. Supermarkets offer it both well chilled and at room temperature.
If you cannot find bottled water – e.g. in the wilderness, on the Eastern Highlands – always boil your water; if you cannot boil water, use chlorine tablets – available in pharmacies in big cities – or devices such as LifeStraw. Also avoid swimming in fresh water that you are unsure of its purity, and in seawater in or near major cities, unless there is a beach that has been declared safe for swimming. Finally, be careful with the water, don’t be paranoid.
Hospitals – There are two types of hospitals (hastane) in Turkey: private and public. Private hospitals are run by associations, private parties and private universities. Public hospitals are managed by the Ministry of Health, public universities and public social security institutions. All medium to large cities as well as the major resorts have private hospitals, in many cities even several, but in a small town you will probably find only one public hospital. Be aware that public hospitals are usually overcrowded. So expect to wait a while before you can be treated. However, this is not a problem for emergencies. Although it is not legal, you may also be denied access to public hospitals for expensive surgery if you do not have state (Turkish) national (Turkish) insurance or the cash to pay in advance to replace it, although presenting an approved credit card may solve this problem. Emergency situations are the exception and you will be treated without prepayment etc. Travel medical insurance is highly recommended as the best private hospitals are self-pay and their rates are much higher than public hospitals. Also make sure that your insurance includes air transport (e.g. by helicopter) if you are travelling to rural/rural areas on the Black Sea or in the eastern regions so that you can be taken to a city with top hospitals in time. In the outskirts of the cities there are usually also polyclinics that can treat simpler illnesses or injuries. In the villages, you will only find small clinics (sağlık ocağı, literally “nursing home”) with very limited equipment and staff, but which can effectively treat simple diseases or provide antibodies against snakebites, for example. On road signs, hospitals (and roads leading to hospitals) are marked with an “H” (on a dark blue background), while village clinics are marked with a red crescent, the Turkish equivalent of the red cross.
Every hospital has a 24-hour emergency service (acil served). Suburban police clinics are not required to provide one, but some of them are still open 24 hours a day. Village clinics certainly have very limited hours of operation (usually from 8am to sunset).
Dentists – There are many private dental practices in the cities, especially along the main roads. Look out for diş hekimi signs in the area, it won’t be long before you see one. Most dentists work by appointment, although they can start treatment as soon as you arrive without an appointment if their schedule is right. A simple treatment for a gap in your teeth costs about TRY 40 on average.
Normal toothbrushes and noodles (local and international brands) can be bought in supermarkets. If you want something special, you can go to the pharmacy. You can brush your teeth with tap water.
Pharmacies – There are pharmacies (eczane in Turkish) in all cities and many towns. Pharmacies are open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but every town has at least one on-call pharmacy (nöbetçi eczane). All other pharmacies in the town usually have their name, address and telephone numbers in the shop window. Most basic medicines, including painkillers such as aspirin, are available without prescription, but only in pharmacies.
Mosquitoes – It is a good idea to have mosquito repellent on hand. Although the risk of malaria has long disappeared throughout the country (except in the southernmost areas near the Syrian border, where the risk was very low until the 1980s), mosquitoes can be a nuisance at night between June and September, especially in coastal areas outside cities, including resorts. In some cities, especially near deltas, the mosquito population is so large that people leave the streets during the “mosquito round”, which occurs between sunset and one hour after. Aerosol repellents containing DEET (some are suitable for applying to the skin, while others, in large doses, are for making a room mosquito-free before bedtime, not for applying to the skin, so choose wisely what you buy) are available in supermarkets and pharmacies. There are also solid repellents in tablet form that can be used with their special indoor devices that have a power socket. They release odourless chemicals into the indoor air that disrupt the mosquitoes’ senses and prevent them from “finding” you. The tablets and associated devices can also be purchased in supermarkets and pharmacies. Caution. You must not touch these tablets with your bare hands.
Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (Turkish Kırım-Kongo kanamalı ateşi, or KKKA for short) is a severe viral disease transmitted by a species of tick (Kene). It can kill the infected person in a very short time, usually within three or four days. This disease has claimed more than 20 victims in Turkey in the last two years. The greatest risk is in rural areas (not urban centres) in the provinces of Tokat, Corum, Yozgat, Amasya and Sivas, all of which are in an area where the tick that transmits the disease thrives because of its location between the humid climate of the maritime Black Sea region and the dry climate of central Anatolia. The authorities recommend wearing light-coloured clothing, which makes it easier to spot a tick hanging on the body. It is also recommended to wear long trousers instead of shorts if you plan to walk in areas with dense and/or tall grass (the usual habitat of ticks). If you see a tick on your body or clothing, do not attempt to remove it under any circumstances, as the tick’s head (and the mouth in which it carries the virus) could then bore into your skin. Instead, go to the nearest hospital immediately to get urgent specialist help. Late arrival at hospital (and diagnosis) is the main cause of death from this disease. The symptoms are very similar to those of influenza and a number of other diseases, so the doctor should be informed of the possibility of Crimean-Congo haemorrhage and be shown the tick if possible.
The Black Sea coastal region, the Marmara region, the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts and eastern Anatolia are generally considered free of the disease (and also of the tick species that transmits the disease), with no fatalities. Nevertheless, you should take the precaution of visiting the nearest hospital if you are bitten by a (most likely harmless) tick. Also remember that ticks are not active in winter when you are in the danger zone described above. Their activity period is from April to October, as is the danger period.
Public toilets – Although many main squares and streets in cities have public toilets, if you can’t find one, look for the nearest mosque where you will find public toilets in a corner of its courtyard or below. Although there is no shortage of cheap toilet paper throughout the country, it is unlikely that you will find toilet paper in almost all public toilets (with the exception of toilets in restaurants – this of course includes roadside restaurants, hotels and most cafés and bars). On the contrary, you are likely to find a bidet or a tap (Don’t be perplexed. Practising Muslims use water instead of paper to clean, and paper is usually used to dry after cleaning). So it’s a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper in your backpack when you go sightseeing. It is best to take your own toilet roll home or to the bathroom of the hotel you are staying in, as the smallest size available in the Turkish market is 4 rolls per pack (8 rolls per pack is the most common), which would take a very long time (actually longer than your trip, unless you come all the way to India by land). It’s not expensive, but it takes up unnecessary space in your backpack, or unnecessary space in the trash if you don’t use it liberally and take the unused rolls home as an unusual souvenir from Turkey. In the best areas of the country, there are toilets by the road that are maintained and an attendant willing to collect TRY 0.50 to TRY 1. from the tourist for the privilege of using a toilet. The toilets are tuvalet in familiar Turkish, but you will more often see toilet signs with diagrams and doors marked Bay or Bayan (with their rather rudimentary translations: “men”, “women”).
Menstrual products – Different types and models of disposable sanitary pads are widely available. Look for them in supermarkets. However, Turkish women prefer tampons much less than European women, so they are less common. They are only available in some pharmacies.
Hamam – If you haven’t been there yet, you’ve missed one of life’s great experiences and you’ve never been clean. In a bath (hamam) you can find your inner peace with history and water.