Monday, February 04, 2013

Istanbul Travelogue

Last month we finally realized our plans to travel to Turkey, which were years in the making!  I think it was 2008 when we found out our friend M also wanted to go, and we all decided that we would visit Istanbul (at least) together as soon as we could get a time that worked for all of us.  That ended up being almost five years later, but it was worth the wait. Scroll to the bottom for photos if you don't want the nitty-gritty details. They summarize the trip nicely.

For those who want nitty-gritty details:

We flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, which was really nice - the food was not bad, and they handed out menus beforehand so you would know the options and sides with each. They had TVs in the seats with games and a flight cam! I know a lot of this stuff is par for the course nowadays but I actually don't end up on many flights that have that stuff.  When we arrived at the airport, we bought visas for 15 Euro each then went through passport control.  You may be able to do this in advance of your trip (and depending on your country of citizenship you may need to) but if you can just get it there, there's no reason to worry about it earlier.  It was very quick.

M arrived about an hour later from the US, and we got a cab to our apartment, which was my first-ever successful booking through Airbnb. We ended up having to call the owner to give the cabbie directions; he seemed frustrated but we gave him what turned out to be a huge tip anyway. We just felt glad to not be victims of a "scenic" cab trip as so many people report being in Istanbul.  (For the record, we had no bad cab experiences during the trip at all - except that many have no seat belts in the backseat.) We almost got the wrong apartment when someone else was due to show up at the same time as us for a different one in the same building - there were a few awkward minutes when we thought we might have ended up in an apartment bait-and-switch, but thankfully not.

With the apartment came a 10% discount at Cafe Ops nearby so we went there for dinner, which was just ok. My impression of the neighborhood was of a place that was semi-blue-collar with arty young people making significant inroads. (Pretty much the perfect balance for my tastes - like our beloved East Boston.) Afterward we walked over the nearby Galata Bridge to look at the mosque on the other side (which turned out to be the New Mosque). We stopped at a bakery full of baklava and Turkish delight, too. The bridge itself was full of fishermen and food carts on top, including pilaf in glass carts where you'd expect to see popcorn and just-caught fried fish on sandwiches. On the lower level it's full of super-aggressive restauranteurs. A guy in front of us got stopped by one who blocked his path and asked him why he wasn't hungry. It was interesting to see once, but we didn't walk across on the bottom level a second time!

The next day we were awoken at 6:23am by the muezzin at the mosque down the street, coming through loudspeakers right into our windows - with the echoes of others around too. Nowadays they don't go sing on a minaret (like we all learned in school), but just do it through a microphone to speakers on the minarets. It was eerie to hear for the first time.

We had breakfast at a beautiful cafe next door. It seemed a little overpriced but was a nice place to sit. We then went to the Tophane tram stop to ride to Sultanahmet, home of lots of major sites, but there was no way to buy tickets there so we had to walk to the next stop down. We got single-ride tokens because there didn't seem to be a way to buy multi-use cards there. After riding to Sultanahmet we stopped at Tourist Info to ask about multi-use cards and it turns out they can only be bought at certain newspaper kiosks -so they ARE available, it's just not obvious where to get them.

It was easy for the three of us to agree on our first stop - the Hagia Sophia! There was already a line, though it wasn't too long (yet - when we went past later it was crazy) and went quickly.  Admission is 25 Turkish lira, about 11 Euro. A little expensive, as most of the sites turned out to be.  Admission fees, while completely necessary for maintenance of old sites, do generally make it harder for me to really appreciate things - but nothing could hinder my appreciation of the Hagia Sophia.  It was amazing. Any part that isn't covered in painted patterns is covered in mosaics. You should go there (early in the day).

M brought our buddy Rick with her and I have to admit that he came in handy for finding decent food when stuck in very touristy places (where I always just dread having to find good, reasonably priced food). We had lunch in a nearby courtyard cafe that he recommended and it was pretty nice. This was also about the time we first saw people selling spirographs on the street!  I think that's the first time I've ever actually had any level of interest in what one of those people was selling.  (They're the same guys that usually have those light-up things you toss in the air, or the balls you splat on walls, etc...)

After lunch we walked through the Hippodrome, an area where there used to be chariot races back in Roman days.  There's not much left of that, but there are some interesting things - an obelisk from Egypt, the base of an old sculpture, and a fountain given to Istanbul by a German kaiser. It's right next to the Blue Mosque, so we went in there, too. It really is blue inside - gorgeous. At this point I'm going to admit confusion on the issue of non-Muslim women covering their heads inside mosques.  Almost no one was and no one was enforcing it.  Signs did say to do it.  As for removing your shoes, though, there is no question - they must come off and they provide baggies so you can carry them with you.  This is enforced.

Next stop - the Grand Bazaar, an incredible maze of shops. It was really fun to check out all the stuff and feel the atmosphere - I could have stayed for much longer, and do not consider myself a recreational shopper -  but it's annoying that nothing has marked prices so you always have to ask and then it gets all involved and you have to haggle. I know that's supposed to be part of the attraction but having just arrived, I didn't have a good idea yet of the value of anything, so I felt a bit lost. My husband did get a copper coffee pot. I liked the embroidered pillowcases and blankets, fish locks (answering an old question of mine!), scarves, and Arabic calligraphy, but wanted to look around shops more before actually picking a souvenir. We broke for tea and a snack at cafe in the center of the bazaar, then walked to the nearby Spice Bazaar (not without getting a little lost) which was smaller and slightly more chill but still pretty crazy.  We saw Iranian saffron which seemed like an interesting thing to bring home (you can't buy stuff from Iran just anywhere!) but we don't really have a use for it. We still have an unopened pack of saffron my mother-in-law sent us years ago. I thought we might find something else Iranian later, but we never did.

Ricky helped us out again for a restaurant recommendation - we ate at Hamdi right near the Spice Bazaar, which was really good. I had a pistachio kebap and my husband had a yogurtlu which he talked about for the rest of the trip. We also had our first kunefe of the trip - M's first kunefe of her life! (And not the last!) They gave us free tea afterward and I felt obliged to drink it, which was dumb becuase I was totally unable to sleep that night as a result. On our way back to the apartment we stopped at a grocery store for some breakfast supplies and interesting junk food. They had monster sizes of tomato sauce, olive oil, and other stuff! Then we lounged at apartment and talked about ideas for the next day.

The next morning we had breakfast at the apartment then headed out to Chora Church, which isn't so easy to get to. Guide books gave us several suggestions and we ended up going the tram route. We got lost after getting off the tram because we didn't have a map and were confused by historical stuff we read that referred to the church as being outside city walls (it may have been, but it isn't now!), but I liked checking out the area while lost. I like to see non-touristy neighborhoods to get an idea of the life of regular people in a given place. The church was full of beautiful, finely-detailed mosaics...and lots of clicking cameras. It's very worth going out of your way to visit. The attraction extends even to stray cats, one of which wandered in while we were there!  (I wonder if they have to pay the hefty admission fees?) We stopped at a shop outside the church for 5-lira trivets as gifts, then had lunch on a street nearby - doener for only 3 TL (1,25 Euro)! If only everything we ate were that cheap!

We took a repulsively crowded train back to Sultanahmet and visited Topkapi Palace. It is pretty expensive and costs even more to visit the highly-recommended harem, which I didn't think was as amazing as promised. The best parts were all very dark so you couldn't really see them well. It was definitely something special, but as ever I guess I still have some kind of mental block on appreciating castles and palaces as much as I appreciate religious buildings and side streets. And I resented the steep prices. Unless you are a castle grump like me, don't take my disappointment in this one too seriously! Most people love it.

We were really cold after walking around the palace grounds, so we got hot drinks at a shisha joint nearby afterward.  There was an older Australian couple next to us taking hundreds of photos of themselves smoking shisha.  We wandered around and then back across Galata Bridge to a köfte place near our apartment, then had baklava at a supposedly famous baklavaci nearby. We didn't know anything about its fame until we were in there and they had videos about themselves from all around the world playing repeatedly on big TVs.  I thought the baklava was delicious, but really, can you screw up anything that involves that much sugar syrup and pistachio?

The next morning I managed to record the morning call to prayer from our apartment window.  Well, most of it.  I didn't get up beforehand but let it wake me up and then fumbled around with the camera and window, eventually getting it on the outside sill. It's worth checking out if you haven't heard it before. We later found out one of the lines in the prayer is actually "prayer is better than sleep" which we thought was funny. :)

We had breakfast at the apartment, then rode the Tünel - an underground funicular rail - up to Istiklal Caddesi and walked toward the famous Taksim Square. We stopped at a börek joint just for tea and ended up getting börek too since everyone else was eating it and it looked (and was) really good. Then we ducked into an arcade and ended up buying some evil eyes and scarves for friends and ourselves. We made it to Taksim, which was kind of disappointing...there isn't really anything special there.  From the way people had described it, we imagined a place much more full of activity.  To be fair, it's partly under renovations of some kind, and we were there mid-day, so maybe it's crazier at night. I wouldn't necessarily recommend going there.

We had lunch nearby at a place which was apparently popular with business people, but just okay. We walked back to the apartment via Cihangir - mentioned to us by a local as a cool neighborhood to explore - but didn't really go off on the side roads too much because we felt a little hurried to get to our next destination. When we got back to our neighborhood we stopped at a place called Kunefecizade for kunefe. The name would have you believe they were specialists in kunefe preparation, but...they took it pre-packaged out of the freezer right in front of us. Still, they set up a space heater specially at our table and it was nice to be there.

Then, on to our last goal of the day - we took the public transit ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadiköy!  This is symbolically a ride from Europe to Asia, as the Bosphorus Strait divides the two continents at this point.  Considering, however, that Europe and Asia are really one continent by pretty much any normal definition of continent, I guess there's not so much to it.  Still, my first time in "Asia". :)  There were great views on the water but I couldn't really get pictures because the boat was moving really fast! Gulls followed the ferry hoping to get fed. Kadiköy had some cool streets with a big market going on and not as much of the merchandise was touristy stuff. It was just intended as a fun, cheap boat ride, but we all ended up looking back on this neighborhood and the trip over as one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul!

We rode back at sunset, although there wasn't much of one since it was so cloudy. Then we stopped back at the apartment to research restaurant options for dinner in our books and online and ended up at Falls in Galata near Galata Tower thanks to strong Tripadvisor recommendations. It was kinda touristy and drinks were really expensive (20 Turkish lira for raki!) and no one else was there the entire it wasn't really what we expected, but some of the food was good. Afterward we wandered back to the apartment and had some wine we picked up earlier at the grocery store!

The following morning, we headed off to our next destination.  After a couple of nights there, just D & I returned to Istanbul - M had more time and stayed on longer elsewhere - for one night at a hotel and then our morning flight back to Germany.  On that last morning in Istanbul, it snowed and was gorgeous. We stayed at Hotel Albinas, which I can definitely recommend. Even though it was a bit past midnight they offered us tea while we checked in. The next morning after breakfast we had some time to go outside while the snow was falling on Sultanahmet! Earlier in the week I'd thought to myself that it would be cool to see Istanbul in the snow, and then it really happened! We had neither much time nor the proper cold-weather gear so our walk was short but lovely. Then we checked out. The hotel gave me a tiny purse as a parting gift. I have absolutely no use for it and it's kinda ugly, but I was still stupidly charmed by the gesture. Then we cabbed back to the airport. Our flight was delayed 2.5 hours, but we thought we came out pretty well since not many planes seemed to be taking off. By the time we left the snow seemed to be tapering off. Then, back to Frankfurt and reality!

İstanbul Jan 13
Soon: other stuff we did in Turkey!  


  1. WOO! Man you should have bought a fish lock, for real.
    Here's a good use for some of that saffron, yo:

    Make them at Christmas!

  2. My very favorite place that I have been has to be Turkey. And like you, I taped the call to prayer. I found it haunting as we walked through the streets. The colors, the smells and the tastes made this an amazing experience. Thanks for taking me back!

  3. Saffron=risotto alla milanese, bouillabaisse, biryanis and paella. For future reference.

    I'm so impressed that you got AirBnB to work. I've never figured that out.


I love commenters!