I know we recently had an Istanbul thread, but I don’t believe it addressed this point. I’m interested in visiting Istanbul (not Constantinople), but I only speak English.* Assuming that I’d be sticking to the fairly ordinary tourist destinations - the Old City, perhaps a bit of the nightlife - should I be able to get by all right?
*Old joke: A man who speaks three languages is trilingual. If he speaks two languages, he’s bilingual. If he speaks only one language - why, then he’s an American!
It’s one of the world’s major tourist destinations, so no you won’t have any problem at all. Even away from the really touristy areas, a lot of people speak a bit of English. They realise that not many people outside Turkey speak Turkish.
You’ll be fine. My wife does speak something related to Turkish but she only used it away from the tourist areas when we got lost near the Western wall. It was never an issue near the tourist spots or where the nightlife is.
I went there a year ago. Not a bother at all. In fact, every single person I met in the tourist areas was really keen to show off their (usually superb) English language skills.
Agree about the cabbies. They also drive like fucking maniacs. I preferred the train/tram/bus.
I did go to a few off-the-beaten-track places, and in particular to some out-of-the-way locals’ cafés and restaurants. There was indeed a linguistic barrier there, so we ordered by pointing at other people’s plates. It was mutually amusing, and well worth it for some great and unusual food.
(But the best food I had was something I highly recommend: go down to the boats just by the Galata bridge on Sultanahment side. There you get mackerel, pulled straight from the sea, filleted, whacked onto a barbecue, spritzed with lemon, served in a pita bread with salad and chilis, for about $2. Utterly divine. Even despite the breathtaking antiquities, this is my most vivid sensory memory of the entire trip.)
Or, try a Dolmus, a kind of shared taxi/minibus. They’re everywhere, very cheap, and you get to meet the locals. You jump in a spare seat, pass your money forward to the driver (a fixed fare for the journey, ISTR), and the other passengers pass the change back. It’s rather sweet. Then you just shout something in Turkish when you want to get out. I didn’t quite know what to shout so I resorted to a Tarzan-esque “me out here.” Seemed to work.
I agree with all the posters above. I spent 5 weeks in Turkey with no initial skills in Turkish at all. (Well, okay, on the drive to the airport we popped in a Berlitz Turkish CD but … man, it is awful! It’s like “here’s how you say ‘hello’; here’s how you say ‘good-bye’; here’s how you say ‘pardon me kind sir but I am interested in procuring some authentic Turkish carpets from your fine establishment and would like to seek your assistance in choosing one of the perfect colour palette’!” … wha?)
Istanbul was by far the easiest place to get along without Turkish; we didn’t encounter anyone who couldn’t speak English. We tried engaging them with our Turkish but then they’d just laugh and start speaking English to us Most signage was in Turkish with English translation, or just in English.
A few things I learned on my trip that might help you, though, if you want to try out a few words:
Hello = merhaba (pronounced like mare-ha-bah)
Thank you = teşekkür ederim (pronounced like tesh-eck-koor ed-air-em); or for a more informal ‘thanks’, it’s teşekkürler (tesh-eck-koor-lair)
How much? = ne kadar (ne kuh dar)
Yes = evet
No = hayir (high ear)
Good-bye = hoş çakal (hosh chakal) if you are the one leaving; güle güle (gew lay gew lay) if you are the one staying.
I don’t know Turkish = Türkçe bilmiyorum (Toork-chay beel-me-yore-um)
Even if you pronounce them terribly most Turkish people seem pleased that you are putting in the effort! And they’ll typically quickly pick up on the fact that you aren’t going to be able to continue the conversation in their language
I was there in Istanbul 2 years ago. Cabbies understood my english well and we could communicate perfectly ! Once cabbie even acted as a bit of a guide .
I am an Indian from India and do not speak Turkish. People were friendly to tourists, and there were plenty of tourists around.
We spent a month there…you’ll get along fine on the European side with just English. My favorite dishes there were ‘manta’ (a kind of pasta dish) and ‘pide’, their flattish version of pizza. Yum.
A funny side observation: it’s considered normal there to short-change tourists in cash transactions. I was really annoyed the first couple of days, and then realized I was being shorted amounts like forty cents…fifteen cents…really nothing. I think I the worst I got short-changed was a whole dollar once when I was buying a ticket to this little tram that takes you up a hill. But whatever, I realized it wasn’t a big deal.
The Hagia Sophia is worth seeing: not so much as a spectacle (there are many far, far more attractive old mosques and cathedrals in Europe) but in terms of what it is: there aren’t many really large standing 1500 year old buildings about. It’s also interesting from a religious/secular and political point of view because it has been both a church and a mosque, but now it is a museum because (iirc) Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary secular leader of Turkey, refused to allow it to become a focal point of contention between different religions. Simply by learning the background to one bulding you learn a lot about the history of Europe, and Turkey as the point where east meets west.
The Grand Bazaar, which is the largest covered market in the world: leather, carpets, jewelery, etc. The mosques are very cool indeed. I never had a problem with English either. My partner in crime mistakenly tried speaking Arabic to a Turk and just got a dirty look for his trouble.