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Trip Report Keira-Caitlyn Travels to Turkey...adventures in Istanbul and Ephesus

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Greetings, fellow travelers! I have just returned from a trip to Ephesus and Istanbul (May 4-May 10) and here is my lengthy trip report about it. There’s probably a lot more detail than you might prefer here, but different people want different information, so here it goes.

About me: I’m an American 43-year old solo female traveler. I’m currently in the process of finishing my doctoral dissertation. I’m a non-smoker, non-drinker, vegetarian. I have bad knees but they generally don’t affect my mobility too much – sometimes I have to stop and sit for a few minutes. I have asthma but it’s well-controlled and rarely acts up. I have bad allergies which I get shots for and have prescription meds for. My primary interests during travel are: architecture, history, art, and culture. I go at a fast pace and do a lot of things each day. I often get a lot of negative comments about that, but it’s my preference. I travel internationally for vacation about once per year. I typically only get one week of vacation a year, so I try to make the most of my time. I get a lot of comments about that too – that I need to spend more time someplace – but that’s not within my control right now.

Why Turkey: I have wanted to go for more than 10 years – it’s a bucket list item. I wanted to experience the cultural diversity of Turkey. I wanted to see a Wonder of the Ancient World and ancient ruins. And I really, really wanted to see the architecture – particularly the tiles, mosaics, and other decorative details. I would have liked to have gone hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, but time and money did not allow for that this trip (and while there, I found out that the balloons had been canceled 4 days in a row due to weather, so it was good I did not plan to go this time!).

Was I scared to go? I got asked this question a lot. No, I wasn’t. I’ve paid attention to the politics of Turkey. These two areas have been very quiet for the past year conflict-wise. And let’s be honest, America is no stranger to violence, and there’s plenty of opportunity to get hurt or killed at home. I’m not going to take high risks, but I’m not going to let that stop me from traveling. I felt 100% safe the whole time I was there - everyone was happy to see a tourist and I felt very welcome.

Booking my Trip: I started watching airfares and hotel prices (and package deals) about 1 year out. I booked a hotel/airfare package through European Destinations about 4 months out. I chose flights with layovers in Paris, just in case something prevented me from getting to Turkey.

Packing: I’ve been traveling internationally long enough that I have it down to a science. I have a standard packing list that I adjust slightly for the weather. Weather in Istanbul/Ephesus was going to be a lovely 70F-ish the whole time, so I packed lightweight clothes. I do carryon only for the flight over – an underseat laptop-type bag (without the laptop), and a small suitcase that goes in the overhead bin. I check the suitcase on the way back.

My Hotel: Hotel Erguvan in Istanbul. 4 stars. Amazing location. Great staff. Lovely room with comfortable bedding and good water pressure. Good wifi. About 3 blocks from Hippodrome/Ayasofya/Blue Mosque (about a 5 minute walk). Breakfast included in the room rate. I would definitely stay here again.

My flights: Delta/Air France codeshare. Both of my flights over (ATL-CDG/CDG-IST) were on AF. My first flight back (IST-CDG) was operated by Atlas Global, and my connecting flight (CDG-ATL) was AF again. Flights were uneventful.

Airport Transfer: I booked Safe Airport Transfer online for both arrival and departure; most transfer companies were competitively priced. They were timely and courteous.

Tours: I booked a small group day tour for Ephesus from Istanbul, and private guides for all my days in Istanbul. I booked them about a month in advance. I will talk more about that as I get into the daily descriptions. Prices ranged from $70-$200/day for the private guides, so very affordable for me. I like private and small group tours. I feel that they add a lot to what I am visiting. In many cities I don’t use guides, but due to the low price and the fact that I wanted to see things that were spread out around the city, it made more sense for me to hire guides to help me navigate. Again, my preference, I realize it’s not for everyone.

Day 1: Thursday - Arrival
My plan arrived at 5pm at Ataturk. Passport control took forever. I arrived at my hotel at 7pm, where I was supposed to meet the agent from Daily Istanbul Tours to pay the balance of my Ephesus tour and get my travel documents. When I arrived, he had already dropped them off with a note to just pay tomorrow. I got settled into my room – room #12. I went out to grab some dinner at a restaurant down the block. I then went to bed for my early departure to Ephesus the next day.

Stay tuned for my daily adventures!

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    Great start to your report. Looking forward to the rest. We were in Turkey 2 years ago and loved it. I'll admit that I might have some trepidation about going now, so I'm happy to hear you had no problems.

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    Day 2: Friday – Ephesus Day Trip

    4am comes early! I got up and out the door for my 5am airport transfer. I got breakfast at the airport – a multilayered cheese and phyllo dough pastry thingy (I ate them almost every day for breakfast, very yummy). Domestic flight to Ephesus at 7am on OnurAir - uneventful. My driver picked me and 2 other people up at the airport and drove us to Ephesus. The other two passengers were dropped off elsewhere. At my meeting point, I sat with a representative for about 10 minutes until my guide and driver showed up. The representative, Ismael (sp?) was very kind and let me practice my newly learned basic Turkish phrases with him while we waited. The van arrived with my guide Fatima and the other two people on our tour – an Egyptian lady and an Italian man. I had chosen Daily Istanbul Tours because they guarantee daily departures and small groups with fluent English-speaking guides. Having a group of three was great!

    First stop – Isabey Camii. This was a great choice for first stop. Fatima explained about mosque protocols, and the history of this particular one. It was a great intro to Muslim culture (although I knew a fair bit coming in). It’s small so did not take long to cover, and then we had some free time to take photos and wonder around. There were two cats on the premises that a nearby shopkeeper cared for. Cats are everywhere in Turkey – and as a cat lover, it was a great perk! They appear to be very healthy, some are friendly and some are not.
    Second stop – Ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. Yes, this is what I had been looking forward to! It was not crowded at all, and we had plenty of space (when ducking some of the larger school groups) to move around. Amazing! Fatima had lots of funny stories to tell, especially about the toilets and the brothel. The Library of Celsus was my favorite part – absolutely stunning! We spent several hours covering the ruins and I took a lot of photos. Definitely my favorite part of Ephesus. I think my tour mates were less enthused or maybe they were just tired and hot, but whatever. And a dozen cats there at least.

    Side notes: There is almost no shade so be prepared! It’s very hot! I had brought a hat and then brilliantly left it in the van but I was able to buy another at the market. There is a market right across from the ruins entrance that sells hats, scarves, bottles of water, and anything else that you might need. I had brought sunscreen with me, and promptly slathered myself with it. I bought 2 bottles of water and drank both. No bathrooms there though, so pace yourself! I did manage to avoid sunburn!

    Third stop – lunch! We stopped not too far away for lunch at a buffet place that was included as part of the tour. Food was decent, a lot of vegetarian options. Paid 10TL for some fresh cold lemonade. I drank a lot of lemonade in Turkey - it’s not as sour as in America, almost more like limeade to me. Delicious!

    Onward to the fourth stop – House of the Virgin Mary. I’m not a religious person, but I tend to find religious places interesting. This one was so-so; I didn’t get any spiritual vibes from it. It’s a small one room place with an altar. A quick see, then a walk over to the candle lighting area and the wishing well. I finished ahead of my tour mates, so I sat with Fatima and our new driver, who turned out to be representative Ismael (our other driver evidently had not been feeling well so they swapped out during lunchtime). I practice my Turkish some more, and they taught me some additional words.

    Next, Temple of Artemis. One of two Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence. Oh look, it’s a giant marble pillar in the middle of a swampy field! Yes, I knew that is what it would be going in, but it really was not impressive at all. Checked the box that I saw it, took some photos. Fatima had a book with a layover in it, that showed how the Temple would have looked in its prime. The history of the site was interesting to listen to.

    We did stop at a carpet-weaving school on the way back to the meeting point, and got to see carpets being made and some info about how these ladies are trained. We got education about the different types of fibers, and got to walk on carpets of the different fibers so we could feel the difference. I got to try some apple tea - it's more like cider. It was very interesting. I thought it would a horrible sales pitch kind of thing but it wasn't. Maybe because it was a school rather than just a shop.

    I was then taken to the meeting point for airport transfer. The drive between Ephesus and Izmir is pretty – lots of farms (peaches everywhere) and green space. The transport van was full of people, and we were all nodding off at various points from our day’s adventures. A quick plane ride on AtlasGlobal, and I was back in Istanbul. My driver dropped me off at the hotel around 9pm. Too tired to do much else, I ate a protein bar that I had brought with me, took a shower, and went to bed after the last call to prayer. I’m sure I would have become accustomed to it over time, but I could not go to sleep before the last call to prayer the whole time I was there. Things were always quiet by 10pm though.

    Stay tuned for more adventures!

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    Day 3: Saturday morning – 4 Main Sites

    Up with the sun at 6am! I wish it was this easy for me to get up early at home! Wrote in my journal about the previous day’s adventures, then headed up to the (enclosed) rooftop terrace breakfast room. An assortment of breads, cheeses, meats, yogurt and cereal. Hard boiled eggs, and order made-to-order. I had a cheese-and-phyllo dough pastry, a couple different types of cheese, a hard-boiled egg. Simit, which is very common in Turkey – it’s like a sesame bagel, you can buy it from street vendors, with a crumbly cheese that is spreadable, like cream cheese. Simple but very filling breakfast. More lemonade. It had started to rain, and my tour guide for the day called to say he was running a little late. No worries.

    My tour guide Cem arrived (booked through ToursbyLocals), and we headed out in the light rain. Glad I brought my travel umbrella! The hotel had umbrellas available, but I have a rather indestructible one that I love because it can handle wind not just rain. We took a short walk up the hill from my hotel to the Hippodrome, and he explained each of the obelisks to me.

    We then went to the Blue Mosque. Cem spent some time in the atrium telling me about the history before we went in. Note: covering your shoulders does not mean JUST covering your shoulders. I had a short-sleeve shirt (halfway down to elbows) and was told that was not sufficient. The scarf I brought was long enough to cover both my head and my shoulders, but just a heads up on that. Sleeves need to be down to the elbow or below, I'm guessing. Also, I was told my wide-leg business trousers were “too tight”. I still don’t get that, because there were people in there with skinny jeans on. Anyway, I put on the loaner skirt. My guide thought maybe it was an issue with the material – but they were a jersey knit, not a thin material. *shrug*. They have all the gear to lend you if you need it – scarves, skirts, jackets, etc. Also, next I will bring a scarf pin because it was hard to angle up to take photos and not have the scarf fall. Some of the local ladies were using lovely jeweled and decorative pins, others had simple safety-pin types. Stunningly beautiful tiles and stained glass windows.

    Across the way to the Ayasofya. A lot of it is under renovation, and the scaffolding interferes with much of the viewing. I enjoyed it nevertheless. Beautiful details. Cem was great with me asking a lot of questions about the mixture of symbolism and history in there. There was also an art exhibit in there, which was interesting. I took a few minutes to look at that after taking photos of everything else.

    Up next, Basilica Cistern. It’s very dark in there, so not much photo taking. Very cool though! Of all the places I saw during my time in Istanbul, this was the most crowded. The highlight are the Medusa heads at the end. Those are the only photos that turned out.

    I had asked Cem (and some of the hotel staff, among others) about the Whirling Dervishes. Again, I am always curious about spiritual/religious things, but I was afraid it would be too touristy/not authentic. There was only 1 company that was constantly recommended – Hodjapasha. So Cem took me by the box office and I bought a ticket for that evening’s performance. Then we stopped nearby for lunch and had menemen (Turkish omelet). It is not like an American omelet – more soupy, and you scoop it with bread. Very yummy!

    Stay tuned for the afternoon's adventures!

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    Day 3: Saturday evening – Whirling Dervishes!

    Side note: a regular C (without accent) is pronounced like a soft J. So the Turkish word for mosque, cami (the extra “I” at the end means “of”), is pronounced as jami. Similarly, my guide’s name – Cem – is pronounced as Jem.

    Off to the show! It was a fairly straight (but long) walk. But of course I got off-track and had to ask for directions (I was one street off). FYI, all the shopkeepers I encountered spoke almost/fluent English, so if you need directions, ask one of them. They will of course offer you tea or coffee if you want to come in and browse their stores, but they are very polite and do accept “no thanks” graciously, unlike the carpet salesmen.

    I arrived about a half hour early (as directed) at the Hodjapasha theatre, and found a seat in the lobby. I ended up chatting with several other tourists and we exchanged stories about our adventures so far. One said she was informed you could not buy tickets the day of the show, so she was surprised I bought mine that day. Perhaps that was because my guide brought me, or because they were not sold out. The audience was mostly full when we did take our assigned seats though. Seats are assigned at time of purchase, so the earlier you buy, the more front-row you are. There were only 4 or 5 rows I think. I was in the 4th row, center. I had a good view.

    It was not just a bunch of twirling, as I had feared. Instead, there was a lot of ritual to it, including bowing, before and between the twirling. It was a very calming experience, although I did not experience the supposed hypnotic effect. The show was about an hour long. There was a scrolling red electronic sign over the exit door that said “verify your seat here” or something like that, and it was really distracting during the performance since it was on the edge of my peripheral vision. I would recommend seats on the right side (if facing the stage), so that your back is to the sign. There was also traditional music being played for most of the performance. I was glad I went, and I bought the music CD afterwards in the lobby.

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    Oops, I posted out of order!

    Day 3: Saturday afternoon – A Walk on the Asian Side

    Out into the rain again and off to the Marmaray metro for a walk on the Asian side! One of the reasons that I had hired Cem was that he was one of the few guides that offered an Asian side tour. I did not have time for full day tours of the main sites (which he lists as the Imperial tour) and the Asian side, so I had contacted him to ask if we could do a custom combo in 1 day. He was very accommodating – so we did the 4 main sites from the Imperial tour, and then a neighborhood walk on the Asian side.

    Although it had been raining on the European side, it was sunny and dry on the Asian side! First stop, a mosque just outside the metro station – I think Semsi Pasa Camii? This was perhaps my favorite mosque for its authenticity. It’s an active mosque, and it feels spiritual. Outside of most of the mosques, there are coatracks with gown/scarf combos. It’s like a choir robe or graduation robe, with the scarf sown into the collar. You just grab one, put in on, and then either put it back on the rack or in the “dirty clothes” bin based on the site.

    We walked through Uskadar neighborhood, while Cem described the history of the neighborhood – and more generally the Asian side of Istanbul. We walked through the fish and vegetable market. Since this was only a half day on the Asian side, I did not get to Kadikoy neighborhoods, Beylerbeyi Palace, Camlica Hill, and some of the other things over there. Next time!

    We stopped for dessert at this lovely second-floor café above a shop. Tres leches with caramel sauce – the best I ever had! – and more lemonade. I may have to email Cem to find out the name of that place – I would like to revisit it. In the shop below, I tried a sample of orange Turkish Delight. It was so good. I decided to wait to buy some though, since we were heading off to the Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Market) where I could buy the freshest Turkish Delight. I came to regret this decision though, because I did not find orange flavor later.

    We took the ferry back, and laughed at how it was sunny on the Asian side, and overcast/rainy on the European side. It was clearly visible in the skyline. We walked over to the Spice Market so I could buy some Turkish Delight. I sampled many different flavors, deciding to fill my box with traditional pistachio, pistachio pomegranate (my favorite!), pomegranate, Nutella, rose petal, and hazelnut. A box is about 100TL ($35 USD) and they vacuum seal it for you to take home. I shared the box with my friends and co-workers, and it’s almost gone already. Will buy more than one box next time! I also bought some pomegranate tea (it’s more like Hi-C drink than tea).

    Cem dropped me back at my hotel after that. He was a great guide – one of my favorites – and I highly recommend him. If anyone wants his contact info, just let me know. I had about an hour before I had to leave for the Whirling Dervishes so I just laid in the bed to rest my weary feet and knees, and wrote in my journal.

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    Yup, you beat me for the Istanbul trip report :)
    It's great you got to see many things in Istanbul and had a good guide.

    Turkey has also been on my bucklist for a long time. But I started to plan for the trip and watch airfares 1 week before going ^^
    So it's amazing to read about your trip which you prepared for so carefully.

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    I'm one of those people that has trip itineraries laid out for the next ten years! I do start planning well in advance, but I envy you for being able to just pick and go on short notice. I always worry that if I try to do that, I would pay insane prices. Of course, Turkey is super cheap right now, so even last-minute fares and hotels were probably very inexpensive.

    Turkey was supposed to be my graduation present to myself, but I moved the timeline up to go as a "I survived my final year of internship" reward (I should be finishing sometime between October and December). So you could say I've been planning this trip since 2008 when I started working on my doctorate.

    Looking forward to your trip report as well! The more we can get the message out that Turkey is wonderful and safe, perhaps more people will go!


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    Day 4: Sunday morning – Rumeli Fortress, Karakoy neighborhood, and more!

    Up with the sun, and a lovely breakfast on the rooftop terrace again. The rain had cleared out, with promises of a beautiful day for my tour – although rain predicted again in the afternoon. My guide Ugur picked me up from my hotel at 8:30am, and off we went. I hired Ugur through the TourHQ website. We created a custom itinerary based on what I wanted to see, which was scattered across town but we made it work!

    Our original plan was to see Rumeli Fortress last, but due to a soccer match later that afternoon that would block up traffic in the area, we opted to see it first (and with the predicted rain later, this was a doubly good idea). A tram and bus later, we were climbing the fortress! We were the only people there, and we explored the whole place (well, except the stairs and such that were blocked off). It was a lot of fun! Great views of the Bosphorus Strait.

    We headed over to Kilic Ali Pasha Camii and fountain. Beautiful stained glass windows – some of my favorites, even though they were not the fanciest. They used some orange-colored glass, which I did not see much of in other mosques. They were vacuuming the floors while we were there, so we were allowed to freely walk around and take photos. It’s lighter and brighter than other mosques, too. I enjoyed it. The fountain was lovely too, with its depictions of local fruit trees.

    A stroll through the colorful Karakoy neighborhood, with its artistic graffiti walls. We had to stop at the famous Karakoy Gulluoglu for baklava of course! We got a variety – traditional pistachio, a pistachio pocket, walnut, chocolate, and milk. Topped with vanilla and chestnut ice creams! The traditional and walnut were my favorites. Ugur’s favorite is the milk.

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    Day 4: Sunday afternoon – Hagia Irene, Topkapi Palace, and dinner with OC!

    Next stop: Hagia Irene (Ayairini). I have a co-worker named Irene, so I told her I would go here and take some photos – but it was on my list to see anyway as an extension of Topkapi Palace. This is a really cool place! It’s very simple compared to other places I had been – perhaps that was why I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of decorative paint details; but they are mostly faded and therefore subtle. It felt spiritual. There is some renovation going on so the stairs are closed off. There’s a giant net strung across the upper balcony – to catch the bird poop since the upper windows are open. I was told they use it for concerts now – I wish I had had the opportunity to see it being used that way; perhaps next visit.

    Topkapi Palace – magnificent! All that gold detailing! The courtyards are beautiful and I enjoyed strolling around in them, looking at all the ancient cypress trees and well-manicured lawns. It was the end of tulip season, and there were still a few left blooming. A wonderful assortment of Iznik tiles – mix and match patterns and colors in all the rooms (with predominant blue, of course). The painstaking details in the ceiling paintings! All of it was absolutely stunning. There are several sections that you cannot take photos in, such as the armory. It had some interesting and ornately decorated weapons in there.

    My knees needed a break from all that walking before we entered the Harem section, so we stopped and had some Turkish tea at the café on the premises. It was a lovely day and we had a wonderful view overlooking the water. Lots of smokers there though, and soon my allergies (and my guide’s allergies) were starting to act up, so we moved on. The Harem section of Topkapi Palace is definitely worth seeing. I took so many photos of the architectural details!

    Time for a late lunch! We stopped by the famous Pudding Shop on the way back. I had a zucchini with cheese – which interestingly came with a potato on top. It was very good.

    We stopped by a ceramics workshop, and I got to see a demonstration of a piece being made using a kick wheel. They use ground quartz in their clay, which makes it more durable. I bought a tea cup (although they call it a coffee cup, since tea is served in a little glass vase which sits in a saucer bowl) in a traditional Iznik design. I also bought two handmade bowls for myself, and a small handmade bowl as a gift to my neighbor kid who was taking of my cats while I was away. The shop bubble-wrapped all of it for me to take home safely.

    Side note: All the drinks are very small sized (maybe 4-8oz?) except for water bottles. So you stop, often, for a tea or coffee or two. I like it!

    My guide and I then parted ways. Ugur was another favorite guide of mine – and I would recommend him without hesitation. He was informative and had a great sense of pacing – we got everything done that I wanted, I never felt rushed. I will definitely hire him again when I go back. If anyone wants his contact info, just let me know.

    I walked back to the hotel; this was really the first time I had walked around Istanbul by myself. As expected, I had several salesmen try to chat me up as I passed through the Blue Mosque/Ayasofya/Hippodrome area, including two annoying carpet salesmen. I don’t like to be rude, but sometimes you just have to be to get them to go away. I never felt threatened or in any way unsafe though, just annoyed.

    After a brief rest, I went down to the lobby, where otherchelebi was waiting for me. He graciously picked me at my hotel, rather than me having to navigate the city at night. He gave me a brief tour around town, pointing out different areas and landmarks. Then we went out for dinner – I don’t know what the place was, but it was a fancy neighborhood. I had artichoke risotto – delicious! I tried a yogurt drink – good, but sour and thick. We had profiterole for dessert (cream puffs), which was also delicious. It was great to finally meet OC after all my questions and our discussions on the Fodors forum over the years! We had a wonderful time.

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    Day 5: Monday morning and early afternoon – Golden Horn

    Up and about early once again. There was a thunderstorm the previous night, and it seemed to have blown all the rain clouds away. I was grateful for this, since predicted rain on an all-day walking tour might have not been so fun. My tour guide Ozlem picked me up from hotel – she was a half hour early, but I was ready to go! I booked her through Daily Istanbul Tours – they usually do this as a group tour, but I had sent an email inquiry about the “Off the Beaten Path” tour, and they were happy to book me a private tour. I did not know who my guide would be until she showed up. We started off with a taxi ride – my first in Turkey. Ozlem said it was easier to take a taxi to get to our start point, so we did.

    Side note: Traffic is crazy in Istanbul! People drive insanely, cutting each other off, and pedestrians just step out into the road whenever they want. I also noticed that most people were not wearing seat belts (including the taxi and airport transfer drivers), including one car I saw with a toddler climbing all over the front passenger seat!

    We started at Chora Church. The exterior reminded me of the Hagia Irene. The mosaics and frescos are absolutely stunning! One of the really cool things about this place in particular is that they did not replace missing mosaic pieces. So there are several panels with missing sections or pieces. It really adds to the authenticity of it. The eyes were removed/blanked out from many of the images, which has an interesting logic behind it, and allowed the images not to be destroyed at the time. Ozlem did a fantastic job at explaining each of the scenes. She was well-versed in Christianity, including extensive knowledge all the Bible stories depicted. Of all my guides during my trip, she was the one that provided the most historical details about people and places. Even though I’m not Christian, I appreciated this place and would definitely put it on the “do not miss” list.

    We then walked through the Balat and Fener neighborhoods, visiting the exteriors of various mosques, synagogues and churches –there were far too many to name here. Anemas Dungeon was unfortunately unviewable since it is under reconstruction and the area is covered in scaffolding. It was nice to see areas away from the tourists, where people were going about their daily tasks. We visited the exteriors of the Greek Lycée of Fener and the Church of Mouchliotissa.

    Side note: This city of Seven Hills is no joke, y’all! I spent almost all of my time on the European side walking up or down hill. Many of them are steep – especially in this part of town. I had to pause and catch my breath several times along this walk. It’s definitely not for anyone with mobility issues.

    We did stop in at Panagia Vlaherna Meryem Ana Church, which was still set up from Easter service. It was lovely, and we were each given a small bottle of holy water. We also went to the Church of Panaghia Blachernae – I think that is the one that had a couple of priceless mosaics in it. The Patriarchate and the Church of St. George was interesting, and they were nice enough to let us use the restrooms even though that area was not open. No photography allowed inside though.

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    Day 5: Monday afternoon and evening – Suleymaniye Camii, and a Turkish bath

    We finished up the area a bit earlier than planned, so Ozlem asked me what I wanted to do with the remaining time. I asked to see the Suleymaniye mosque, since that was not something I had been able to fit into the itinerary. We headed off through the side alleys between the Grand and Spice Bazaars. We stopped to grab some lunch – I’m not sure what they are called, but they are similar to flatbread pizza without the tomato sauce, filled with cheese and toppings of your choice. I had spinach in mine. Ozlem had a vegetable one – it had bell peppers and some other things in it.

    Side note: Food in Istanbul was very salty, particularly dough-type dishes! A lot of Americans would probably be just fine with this since our food contains a lot of salt too, but I don’t consume much salt so I took longer to eat my food (drinking in between bites to wash the salt away).

    We then resumed our journey. I peeked into the Grand Bazaar (just to say that I had been there) but did not feel like doing any shopping, so we continued up to the mosque.
    Suleymaniye Camii. We wandered through the graveyard, looking at the markers with their details. It seems that purple irises are cemetery flowers – never saw them anywhere else in Istanbul. A lovely and peaceful area. It was prayer time when we arrived, so we did not go in. The exteriors were stunning though, and I spent a bit of time walking around looking at and taking photos of the all the details. Definitely a place I would like to revisit, and on the “not to be missed” list.

    Ozlem dropped me back off at the hotel, and I took a short nap before my scheduled appointment at the Ayasofya Hamami. This is one of the top-rated hamams, and on the expensive side – but I figured I would go ahead and treat myself to the fancy VIP package Ab-I Hayat. It includes the traditional body scrubbing, clay body mask, bubble wash, facial mask, head/neck/foot massage, aromatherapy massage, and some fruits and Turkish delight. I got changed into a wrap for my top (not sure why, because I took it off at the first rinsing and never put it back on), and this “underwear” that reminded me of those surgical face masks. Not comfortable, I would have rather been naked. And a robe and shower shoes.

    After I got changed, I was lead to an area with a fountain and given a bowl to pour water on myself for cleaning. This was fine, but I got really bored with it after a few minutes and was getting impatient for the rest of the service. My attendant, Handan, then came and scrubbed me. I am not sure why, but I thought it would be a rough scrub, like at the Korean spa near my house. But it was very gentle – the exfoliant was similar to what I use at home. I then was covered in the clay body mask, and laid down on the heated marble steps of the area I was in. At first I tried sitting as instructed, but I was so slippery I kept sliding off the step, so Handan told me I could just lay down. Then the mask was rinsed off, and I went to a different area for the bubble wash. That was actually a lot of fun- the bubbles were several feet high! Again, very gentle. I was then put back into the bathroom and shower shoes, led to a resting area where I drank Turkish tea and ate Turkish delight while my massage room was being prepped.

    I was then taken upstairs to a private massage room. The facial mask and massages (similar to Swedish style) were relaxing. The Judas tree scent she was using was a bit overpowering though. Afterwards, I went back down to the “Cold room” – it’s not cold, it’s just a regular temperature room where you cool down after your services. I was served a platter of fruits – grapes, oranges, Asian pears, and some other things. I skipped the yogurt drink and had more Turkish tea. I sat for about 20 minutes cooling down (not that I was feeling hot, but I was advised by several people to fully cool down before leaving). I then got dressed and went back to my hotel, feeling very calm.

    I took a nap, then headed out for dinner and a walk around Blue Mosque/Ayasofya/Hippodrome areas since it was a beautiful night and a full moon. A lot of people out and about. I took more photos, and had several men try to chat me up – some salespeople, one looking for a hookup, but most just wanted to practice their English. It was fine, and then I headed back to my hotel room for the night.

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    Day 6: Tuesday morning – Dolmabahce Palace and Bosphorus Cruise

    Up extra early – not intentionally, the stray dog pack that stays on the hill across from my hotel was barking loudly. I think there are actually two packs of about 6 dogs each, and sometimes they are together peacefully, and sometimes they bark at each other.

    It was my last day in Istanbul and I was determined to make the most of it. Since I had some extra time, I started packing, feeling sad about leaving – not ready to go home yet! Breakfast in the rooftop terrace again, and ready to head out! My guide Atakan picked me up from my hotel, and off we went. I booked Atakan through ToursbyLocals for two separate 4-hour tours – a morning tour of Domabahce Palace and Bosphorus Cruise, and then an evening tour of Taksim Square/Istiklal Street.

    We took the tram and headed off to Dolmabahce Palace. It’s very European and grandiose, which was a nice change-up from some of the other buildings I had seen so far. The gates are lovely, and I took a bunch of photos of them. The grounds are also lovely, with fountains and animal statues.

    They have two guided groups – Turkish-speaking and English-speaking. I’m not sure how far apart the groups are, but they are timed. Atakan was not sure if he would be allowed to guide me inside; I guess it’s at the discretion of the entrance person. We were in luck though, and we were allowed to go in with the Turkish group. We hung back a little bit, so that we could talk privately. It’s unique feature is that it is mirrored – meaning that whatever is on one side of the room, is duplicated on the other side, like a mirror image. It seems that knowing this, gifts from foreign leaders were given in pairs. The Asian room is particularly stunning.

    We also visited the Harem section of the palace; had about a 10-minute wait for the next group admission so we had some tea in the little café there. The Harem ticket is extra, but I think it was worth it. Lots of beautiful details.

    Side note: Funny story about how small of a world it is. When I posted my photos from the grounds of the palace on my FB page, one of my friends knew someone who was (unintentionally) in one of my photos.

    Due to all the line-waiting (and probably my lingering to take lots of photos), we were cutting it tight to make our Bosphorus cruise at noon. We headed out to the trams, but they were running late so we hailed a taxi and made it to the dock with 1 minute to spare! But we made it, and promptly took seats on the upstairs deck with a good view. Atakan did a great job of explaining what I was looking at, and of course I recognized several of the sites that I had already seen. It was a lovely day, and a very pleasant experience.

    Side note: The cruise is 1 ½ hours long. It is very windy (and subsequently chilly) on the water, so you probably want to bring a jacket with you. Also, the wind is very noisy, which can make it hard to hear – I heard my guide just fine because he was sitting next to me, but the audio on the videos I recorded is terrible.

    For the afternoon, I had booked a Turkish tile painting class. After the cruise, Atakan took me over to the meeting point for the tile class, and we agreed what time to meet up later that evening for our second tour.

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    Day 6: Tuesday afternoon – Turkish Tile Painting class

    Just for something different, I had booked a tile painting class. I thought it would be fun to paint a tile in a traditional Iznik style, and have it as a souvenir to bring home. I booked the class through Bazaar Turkey. It turned out to be a private lesson, since no one else signed up.

    Alp and Sema were great! Sema was my instructor, but she does not speak English, so Alp was there as interpreter.
    First, I selected my design – they had the more traditional flower designs, and also ones with animals. I chose a traditional one with tulips and carnations, their national flowers. So you take the design stencil (which has lots of small holes poked in it) and place it over the tile, and smudge the design in charcoal. Then you outline the design in a thin line of black paint. That took forever, and I had begun to regret picking such a complicated design! But I got it done. I did smudge out some of the charcoal with my palm and fingers from moving the tile around, but I was able to reference the stencil to figure out the lines. Sema also helped me with the smudged out areas.

    I painted it in traditional colors – red, turquoise, royal blue (and two shades of green for the leaves). That was the fun part. It’s definitely not a masterpiece – I am not talented at painting – but it was fun and now I will have something to remind me of my trip. Since I was leaving the next day, they bubble wrapped it for me to bring home, and I will find a local ceramics place to glaze and fire it for me. If I had been there longer, they would have done that for me but it takes a full day.

    Alp walked me back to the tram station, and I walked back to my hotel through Ayasofya/Blue Mosque/Hippodrome area without incident. I grabbed some food at a nearby restaurant, and then took a nap before my evening’s adventures.

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    The tile painting class sounds cool!
    That's the kind of things I really like to do, this and ceramics workshops. Maybe next time.

    You've seen plenty of interesting things in your trip. Careful preparations do pay off ^^

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    You should definitely check it out next time you are in Istanbul!

    Yes, I did see a lot of different, interesting things - everything I planned (plus some) this trip, but lots of things left from when I come back!

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    Day 7: Tuesday evening – Istiklal Street/Taksim Square

    Atakan picked me up once again at my hotel, and off we headed to Istiklal Street, where nightlife happens! Lots of restaurants and shops on the ground level, with nightclubs on the upper levels. While not packed, there were a lot of people milling around. We opted to have dinner at Otantik Anadolu Yemekleri – we had Turkish pancakes, which are more like a quesadilla than American pancakes. I got mine with cheese. As I noted before, much of the dough-type foods in Istanbul were salty, and this was no exception. It was good though. Also ordered some baklava for dessert, but was only able to eat one of the three pieces. Drank a few Turkish teas.

    Side note: You will see Syrian beggars occasionally. They do not bother you, just sit on sidewalks with signs asking for help (often in English). On Istiklal Street, they are more active though. We saw a (presumed) mother with her child laying in the middle of the street, with the mother ministering to her child. (I did not walk over to see what was supposedly wrong with the child). We also saw young (maybe 5-6 years old) Syrian children alone, either with signs or begging. They did not approach us though.

    We continued our walk down Istiklal Street, looking at all the fancy gates and buildings of the embassies, looking at the shops, and people-watching. I had been bummed to find out that the Hard Rock Café in Istanbul had permanent closed – I collect t-shirts from Hard Rocks in the cities I visit – but they had just opened a new store this week here on Istiklal Street! Sadly, I discovered this 10 minutes after the store had closed, and was unable to get my t-shirt. Oh well, I shall get one of my next trip.

    We ended up at the Monument of the Republic, and I took some photos but my camera sucks at night photos even with the flash, so they did not really turn out. I realized at this point that I did not have any photos of Atakan – I had been trying to take at least one photo of each of my guides in Istanbul. It was too dark there, so we went further down the square to find a better lit place – and got some photos together.

    We took the funicular and headed back to the hotel, where Atakan dropped me off. I highly recommend Atakan – he was a lot of fun and very informative! My only hesitation in hiring him again would be that he is a heavy smoker, and I’m sensitive/allergic to smoke. While several of my guides were obviously smokers, he was the only one who actually took smoke breaks during our tour. (To be clear, he did not take time away from my tour, but rather when I was taking photos or using the toilets, he would go smoke). If anyone wants his contact info, please let me know and I would happy to share it with you.

    My adventures in Istanbul had come to an end for this time. I absolutely loved this city. I felt completely safe the whole time I was there. The sites are fantastic, and the people are warm and friendly. The weather was perfect. The prices are cheap. Now is a great time to go if you can!

    I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventures, and that it will help you if you are planning a trip to Ephesus or Istanbul.


    P.S. Stay tuned for additional notes and random commentary, and a link to my photos.

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    Oops, that last post should have been titled Day 6: Tuesday evening, not day 7.

    Day 7 was just an early pickup at the hotel for transfer to the airport, and a flight home through CDG.

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    Other Notes and Random Commentary:

    I forgot to include that on Day 4, my guide and I parted ways at the Column of Constantine. It’s definitely worth a visit/walk by. There are a ton of pigeons hanging out there, and ladies sell birdseed so you can feed them. I did not feed them, since many other people were doing so, but it reminded me of feeding the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice (which was a lot of fun).

    I noticed most of the women were wearing pantyhose. That’s not something I see much anymore, so I thought it was interesting.

    Money: The currency exchange rate when I went was 1 USD = 3.53 TL. When I left, it was 1 USD = 3.58 TL. I used ATMs to withdraw money (there are several at the airport arrivals hall, no need for currency exchange before you go) in TL. Some ATMs offered the choice of TL or Euros. Euros (and some extent, American dollars) seemed to be accepted everywhere I went. Almost everything is cash only except some fancier restaurants, some shops, and hamams.

    Tipping: Standard tipping is 10-12%.

    Transportation: I used trams, buses, metro (subway), funicular, and taxis. Public transportation was very efficient, never had to wait more than 5 minutes for it to arrive. The two times we took taxis were uneventful – I had heard nightmare stories about the taxis, but did not experience any problems with them trying to change the price or argue about the amount paid. I was with my guide both times though, not sure if that had any bearing on the situation.

    I did not buy the transit card, since I was not planning to do any solo travel transportation. I just used my guides’ transit cards (a single card can have multiple users, and you get discounted rates the more you use in a certain timeframe), and settled up with them at the end of the day.

    Museum Card: I did not buy the museum card. Most of my guides had pre-purchased tickets for me, or we just walked up and bought on site (never spent more than 5 minutes in a ticket queue). Many of the sites I went to did not accept the museum card. I have not done the cost-analysis to see if it would have been cheaper, but I suspect it would have been. Most sites are 15TL-40TL each. Some sites have a base price, and then an extra charge to see additional areas (like the harem).

    Smokers: Most people seemed to be smokers in all adult age groups. My allergy meds were fine to manage it for the most part.

    Cat-calling (sexual harassment of women): I did not experience this at all despite getting lots of warnings from friends and fellow travelers, nor did I see it happening to others.

    Gypsy kid thieves: I did not see any of this either. No single or groups of kids approaching people, despite warnings from friends and fellow travelers.

    Post Office: I tried to go to the post office 3 times during posted open hours – but they were never open. I had asked my hotel, but they were unable to provide stamps, and none of the vendors who sell postcards had any stamps either. The post office at the airport is only on the arrivals hall – how stupid is that? Who needs to mail a package as soon as they get off a plane? So some of my postcards got mailed by my tour guides, and the remainder got mailed from the Paris CDG airport (the Relay stores sell stamps on every terminal corridor).

    Hamams: They seem to be divided into two categories: mixed gender for couples/families, or single gender. The first category does not allow a solo person. Therefore, if you are a solo traveler, be aware that you will have fewer options for having a Turkish Bath experience.

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    Super report. You've given me reminders of my last trip there, and reasons to go back.
    P.S. I had a rental car, since we were staying in the outskirts of the city. I am used to city driving so it may be me... but must say that I found the drivers to be most'accomodating'. It seems like chaos, but once you understand the rules, easy going.

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    Michel_Paris, thanks!

    You give me hope that if I ever have to drive there, I shall survive. I have no intentions of renting a car anytime soon though! I live in a big city with insane traffic, but it pales in comparison to Istanbul!

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    This was a great trip report and a fun reminder of my trip to Istanbul in 2011. There was a carpet shop around the corner from my hotel that housed a mother Turkish Van cat and her four little kittens. They were all beautiful - with their white fur and green and blue eyes - and seemed to be a popular attraction of the neighborhood.

    I bought a ring in the Grand Bazaar that is made of oval ceramic (think pearl ring, but made of ceramic instead) and has a red Ottoman tulip on it. It's my absolute favorite piece of jewelry and if something ever happens to it I will seriously consider another trip to Turkey to buy another one!

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    Thank you Aqrep_55 and memejs.

    Memejs, your ring sounds lovely! I noticed that a lot of things are made in ceramic there, but with the quartz in the clay, their ceramic is more durable. I hope your ring never gets damaged.

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    The mosque I visited on the Asian side was Üsküdar Mihrimah Sultan Camii, not Semsi Pasa Camii.

    Other info:

    The name of the shop in the Spice Bazaar where I got the super-awesome Turkish Delight is Bosphorus. It's next door to Alaaddin, if that helps with location.

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