Feminist Passport: Your travel guide to Turkey

Gabrielle Hickmon

You want to see the world, but sometimes the world is an unfriendly place. That’s why HelloGiggles is bringing you Feminist Passport, a guide to all of the most inclusive hotels, restaurants, shops, bars, and sights to visit on your next big adventure. Because travel should be for everyone.

You’ve probably seen pictures of the hot air balloons in Cappadocia, and maybe you learned in school about the many civilizations that have occupied the city of Istanbul (or is it Constantinople?). Whether Turkey is newly on your radar or has always interested you, the country has something to offer everyone. Go south to the Mediterranean, straddle continents in the northwest, or find somewhere in the middle in a city that can only be described as out of this world. If it was up to me, you’d do all three and more.

Turkey, like every other country, is complicated, with views on women and LGBTQ+ people that vary based on the city or region you’re visiting (sounds a lot like the U.S., doesn’t it?). As far as tour guides go, things are pretty gender-balanced—about 45% of guides are women—though that doesn’t reflect broader workforce trends: only about 30% of women participate in the labor force in Turkey, or they work in unregistered capacities. Tourism is one of the easiest ways to empower women economically, since there are so many opportunities to share what you’re good at and turn a profit. Women all over the country are taking advantage of this by joining the tourism industry in droves. It was amazing to see that happening on the ground in Turkey.

Thanks to Intrepid Travel, I got to spend seven days previewing the company’s new Women’s Expedition to Turkey that launches this month. I’ve included some activities on this list that you’ll experience if you travel with Intrepid to Turkey, as well as some spots I think you should definitely check out on your own. Trust me—it’s worth the journey.

1 Visit Small Projects in Istanbul.

Learning how to make earrings at Small Projects.
Drop Earrings Not Bombs from Small Projects/Muhra Istanbul.

Small Projects Istanbul is a registered Turkish NGO serving about 200 Syrian families who were forced to leave their home country due to the conflict there. In addition to functioning as a community center in a Syrian neighborhood in Istanbul and providing enrichment, integration assistance, and activities for Syrian and other displaced families rebuilding their lives, Small Projects also operates a women entrepreneurs’ collective, Muhra. Muhra, which means female foal in Arabic, was chosen for the name of the enterprise not only because of its pronounceability, but because it represents new life, hope, and things starting again—symbolism especially poignant for the women behind the brand.

Muhra’s clothing combines Syrian style and motifs with Western silhouettes, offering everything from hand-dyed scarves and bags to shirts with illustrations of powerful women and slogans such as, “Be a voice, not an echo.” In addition to shirts, scarves, and bags, the women of Muhra produce beautiful handmade drop earrings under the moniker Drop Earrings Not Bombs. When I visited Small Projects, I was taught one of the 10 ways to thread the earrings and let in on the women’s process. Right now, women are paid “per piece,” and Mulhra/Small Projects is actively working to increase their reach so they can pay the Syrian women more from the profits of the business.

2 Stop by 45 bar.

When you need a break from wandering the city of Istanbul, stop into 45 bar in the Beyoglu neighborhood. I asked around for queer-friendly businesses to support, and I learned 45 bar is one of few openly LGBTQ-friendly establishments in Istanbul—a city where pride parades have been banned for the last five years (tear gas was used on marchers who protested the ban in 2018). Though same-sex sexual activity was decriminalized during the Ottoman Empire in 1858, which carried forward to the founding of the current Republic of Turkey in 1923, and transgender people have been allowed to change their gender since 1988, LGBTQ+ people in Turkey still experience legal obstacles, discrimination, harassment, and violence, the banning of and violence at the pride parade being just one example. Views on LGBTQ+ rights vary throughout the country, with Istanbul being less conservative than other areas, and 45 bar is a safe place for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies to gather. I was personally trying to have a relatively dry trip in Turkey, so I can only recommend the apple tea and hookah for a chill high and a pleasant, albeit virgin, drink experience. Whether LGBTQ+ or an ally, you can feel good about stopping into 45 bar for a break and supporting a business that embraces queer people in a city where public support can be hard to find.

3 Eat and shop at Kadineli restaurant in Cappadocia.

First of all, the food was amazing at Kadineli restaurant. Second, it is women-owned and operated, meaning you can feel good about every aspect of eating here. I had the Turkish ravioli, but there are vegetarian options that taste amazing, too. You can’t go wrong with Turkish coffee on the side and halva for dessert, of course. Just trust me on this one. When you’re done eating, pop downstairs and around the corner and support the women’s co-op by picking up a few new items. They have everything from cute bags to snacks, and with the Turkish Lira to USD conversion, it’s hard to talk yourself out of a purchase.

4 Buy a magic carpet from Ruth Lockwood at Tribal Collections.

Ruth showing off her wares

I thought we were just stopping by a carpet store to do some quick shopping. Girl, was I wrong! Beyond selling amazing rugs, Ruth Lockwood of Tribal Collections is an amazing woman with an amazing story. Plus, she will actually spend time with you to make sure you’re getting not only a quality rug, but one that you really like. A New Zealander who moved to Turkey 31 years ago and a carpet dealer for 29 of those 31 years, you can be sure Ruth knows her stuff. Take your time around her shop and if you’re lucky, Ruth will spend time with you breaking down the history of the carpets you’re seeing. The day I spent with her was easily a favorite of my week in Turkey.

In turkey, carpet weaving is a traditionally female task, with designs passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter (further evidence that buying a rug in Turkey is a feminist endeavor). Historically, each tribe or group had its own carpet-making style, and the carpets you see in Ruth’s shop are often one-of-a-kind. While many of the carpets at Tribal Collections were crafted by unnamed women, Ruth encourages customers to note the symbols throughout the rugs that mean different things and tell you the story of the woman behind the rug. “It’s about who she was as a weaver and a woman,” said Ruth. Keep that unnamed woman in mind when you buy. Make sure your new rug feels right under your feet. Make sure the story the weaver was telling resonates with you, and know that your purchase is even more special because carpet-weaving traditions are dying out in Turkey as more women go to college and move into city apartments that don’t have space for a loom. With around 1,000 rugs at any given time, you’re sure to not only learn the history of carpet making and the women behind the craft, but find at minimum one carpet you like at Ruth’s.

The most important carpet test: how it feels on your feet!

Find a rug that you feel connected to and buy from Ruth, she’ll take good care of you.

5 Head to the Mediterranean coast and spend time on the water with Sebahat Yilmaz.  

Sebahat showing off her boating license.
Sebahat, our skipper, and me.

Every stop in Turkey was better than the one before it, and my time spent with Sebahat Yilmaz and her husband Mehmet on their boat was a major highlight and amazing way to end my experience in Turkey. Sebahat is one of just a few female boat skippers in Turkey, and has been working as a skipper for 15 years. She initially worked with her husband as a boat girl selling bread, embroidery, and Turkish pancake to the larger boats around the Mediterranean, but always dreamed of having a big boat and the business that came with it. Eventually, she exchanged gold wedding gifts from her in-laws to buy a fishing boat. Then, with money from the fish boat, Sebahat and her husband bought their big boat. Now, her family owns three boats in the Kekova harbor and she drives people all around the Mediterranean coast.

Sebahat is also an amazing cook and doesn’t use any recipes—everything she makes she learned from her mother. I personally would follow Sebahat anywhere, and enjoyed my time out on the water with her so much that I actually felt safe enough to get off the boat and swim in the open ocean, a big deal for this pool girl.

Sebahat is a bit off the grid, but she’s a mainstay on Intrepid’s tours. If you’re interested in meeting her and spending a day together out on the water, consider an Intrepid adventure.

A few bonus recommendations for your trip to Turkey: Mama’s Kitchen in Kas on the coast—it’s owned and operated by a woman who also owns the land her restaurant is on (talk about boss). Get your fortune read through Turkish coffee. Or take a belly dancing class and tap into your sexy while learning about the art and history of belly dancing.

Turkey is a place I’ve always wanted to visit, and one I’m sure I’ll return to. I can’t wait to check back in on the places and people mentioned above on my next visit. I hope these recommendations help you support women and LGBTQ+ individuals and businesses on your trip.