The ultimate Turkish cultural bucket list

There is no better time than now to start checking off that list of exhilaratingly varied cultural experiences and destinations that Turkey has to offer. For many of us who tend to visit the more frequented destinations in Turkey, it is important to recognize that there is a lot more to this country than meets the eye. From multiculturalism to religion, history to diverse nature, there are a lot of different sides to this country we call home. Thus, it is our duty to learn as much about the nature, history and traditions here as possible. In other words, to truly understand Turkey, go on a culture trip!

Check out these top ten cultural adventures to add to your Turkey bucket list:

Go to a camel wrestling match

The camel wrestling season has officially begun in dozens of towns and villages throughout western and southern Turkey. Every year, this festival-like event is highly anticipated by locals, the competing camel owners and most of all by the animals themselves. While the name infers aggressive physical contact, in fact the wranglers make sure to pull the animals apart the moment things get heated. For the animals it is an opportunity to live out their animalistic nature and exert energy in the way they were meant to do, all while under the watchful eye of their owners. For many deveci (camel owners), their camels are the loves of their lives. They painstakingly prepare elaborate, spectacularly colored decorations while adding to the wonderful spectacles of these festive daytime events. In addition to watching the camels proudly parade around and contend with each other by trying to lock necks, there are also wandering musicians, camel-wrestling themed gift stands and vendors cooking up kangal sucuk (spiced sausage). Many people pack a picnic and bring portable tables and chairs and make a whole day of it. The eight provinces where camel wresting festivals take place are Aydın, Izmir, Muğla, Çanakkale, Balıkesir, Antalya, Manisa and Denizli. There is a whole calendar of dates for dozens of different towns, of which Selçuk is hands down the most popular destination. This year Selcuk’s camel wrestling festival will take place on Jan. 16. Coming in a close second, especially amongst the expat crowd, is the camel wrestling festival held in an area designated for the sport in Bodrum’s Kizilağaç neighborhood. There are truly so many noteworthy destinations hosting camel wrestling festivals that it behooves me to mention a few more. These include Çanakkale, Bergama, Kuşadası, Didim, Bafa, Güllük, Mumcular and Demre, to name just a few.

Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival

While there is time to plan for this one, I advise you do so soon as you won’t want to miss the 661st Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival, which will take place from June 27 to July 3. Not only is this visually captivating event the world’s oldest continuously running sports competition, but the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling matches (beginning on July 1), take place in Sarayiçi, an Ottoman stadium that once served as the private hunting grounds for Ottoman sultans. In the days leading up to the competition and throughout, the region of Edirne has a festive atmosphere, making it a perfect time to discover Turkey’s Thracian region.

Wrestlers fill the arena at the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne, Turkey. (Shutterstock Photo)
Wrestlers fill the arena at the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne, Turkey. (Shutterstock Photo)

Dance in Edirne for Hıdırellez

Known for its multiculturalism and especially its Circassian and Romani populations, Edirne hosts two other colorful festivals that make for a great time to plan a visit. The first is Hıdırellez, the ancient festival celebrated throughout the Turkic world, the Balkans and in Turkey to usher in the arrival of spring. Edirne is home to the biggest festivities for this special event held on the evening of May 5. Up until 2019, when the 9th International Edirne Band and Liver Festival was held in the last week of April, every year Edirne would celebrate the thinly sliced offal delicacy it is famed for along with performances by skilled local musicians. Hopefully, the tradition can resume this year.

Tour Eastern Turkey

Some of the most magnificent historical sites and cities in Turkey are located in the eastern portion of the country, which admittedly for many an expat and visiting foreigner feels like quite a trek. However, there are tour companies based throughout Turkey that offer guided tours on a bus that take you from Adana to Hatay, Mardin, Diyarbakir and Gaziantep as well as to sites such as Nemrut Dağı, the Church of St. Peter, the Harbiye waterfalls, Zeugma Mosaic Museum and Gaziantep Castle. You get to experience the Artuqid architecture of Mardin, the Hans of Diyarbakır and the cuisine of Gaziantep all from the comfort of a luxurious bus and accommodation in different cities along the way.

Visit a mosque

Islam is an integral part of everyday life in Turkey. From the language to traditions, holidays and the daily call to prayer, Islam is embedded everywhere in Turkey and it is an important part of the culture to discover, whether you are Muslim or not. From the architectural wonders created by Ottoman architect Sinan and his predecessors and students to any of the over 80,000 mosques inhabiting the country, visiting a mosque is a revelatory experience for anyone. Just don’t go on a Friday if you don’t plan to take part in the prayer ceremony.

Watch a Sufi ceremony

Rumi, known in Turkey as Mevlana, was one of the greatest Sufi poets of all time and every year his death on Dec. 17, is celebrated as his “wedding” in Konya. The events surrounding Şeb-i Arus, which is Rumi remembrance day, start ten days prior, in which Konya is transformed into a spiritual, intellectual wonderland filled with mesmerizing performances from Whirling Dervishes. Don’t fret, if you don’t want to wait until next year, the Galata Mevlevihanesi Museum in Istanbul is a historic lodge that performs whirling dance ceremonies for audiences.

Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey. (Shutterstock Photo)
Whirling Dervishes in Konya, Turkey. (Shutterstock Photo)

Archeological sites and museums are a must

One of the most fantastic aspects of being in Turkey is experiencing the country’s rich history. Many an Istanbul resident may have overlooked some of the gems in the city such a the Underground Cisterns, Topkapı Palace and – my personal favorite – the Archeology Museum. Embrace your sense of wonder and make visiting some of Turkey’s spectacular sites a priority. Göbeklitepe is of course the champion of sites and Ephesus is breath-taking, but Assos, Pergamon, Troy, Tlos, Kaunos, Knidos and Phaselis are all ancient cities worth centering a vacation around.

Visit a village

With the exception of Turkey’s three main metropolises, much of Anatolia consists of towns and villages. When following the tourist trail or residing in one of the big cities, village life can escape the foreign eye, but believe me there is a lot to digest there, literally. From the locally produced products and specialties to handcrafts, there are gifts and experiences such as enjoying a tea if invited and watching local villages communally prepare specialties such as pomegranate molasses, all some of the most precious experiences one can have here in Turkey. To do so, plan a holiday in a region such as Canakkale’s Assos or Izmir’s Sirince and visit any of the nearly 90 villages in its surroundings, or visit Faralya and villages located along the Lycian trail.

Pamper yourself

You have got to admit, the Turks have pampering and beauty care down pat, as the inventors of the Turkish bath and purveyors of the thermal springs sprinkled throughout the country. Take solace in these self care rituals and experience what everyday life was like up until relatively recently, when going to the hammam and getting massaged and scrubbed was part of a weekly ritual. These days, most Turks make do with a coiffeur or a barber, but Turkey offers top-notch experiences for both men and women that are guaranteed to make you feel refreshed.

The Laz lay of the land

No extended stay in Turkey would be complete without a visit to the country’s beloved Black Sea region. A vast expanse of spectacular nature, plateaus and mountain ranges from Bolu all the way to Artvin, the entire region offers a completely different perspective of Turkey. From the architecture to the lush trees and forests, coupled by a wild sea and even wilder people known for their humor, love of life and strong connections referred to as the Laz. You can easily combine a ski trip to Kartalkaya with a visit to Bolu to get started on your Black Sea immersion.

Bonus: Join a halay! Last, but certainly not least, is the joyous Halay dance in which people cross their arms over the shoulders of their neighbors to link up like a chain and then do some fancy footwork as they traverse around like a train. It sounds more complicated than it is, so don’t be shy. If you happened to witness a halay, then trust me, just stop whatever it is you are doing and join in to what will certainly be a momentous occasion!

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