First, I apologize for the title. I just coluldn't resist.
DH and I have recently returned to chilly Chicago from two wonderful weeks in Turkey. The advice and suggestions we received from the members of this forum were invaluable. Our trip was immeasurably better for it and we thank you all for your gracious input. As first time visitors to Turkey we made what I believe is a common circuit -- visiting Istanbul, Cappadocia, and Ephesus. Going with this assumption, I won't take time here to describe the grandeur of Hagia Sophia or the elegance of the Blue Mosque or the stunning landscape of Cappadocia, but instead will share some of the favorite moments and events that made our first trip to Turkey so memorable, and will offer some information, advice and suggestions that might be of use to future travelers.
To help make sense of some of my report, this was our itinerary:
Depart Chicago Thursday, October 18, nonstop to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines
Arrive Istanbul at 5 PM, Friday October 19
Rented an apartment in Sultanahmet, October 19-23
Departed Istanbul October 23 for Cappadocia (flying to Nevsehir on Turkish Airlines)
Stayed in Aydinli Cave Hotel, Goreme, October 23-27
Returned to Istanbul October 27
Rented an apartment in Beyoglu, October 27-31
Took day trip to Ephesus, October 30 (flying round trip to Izmir on AtlasJet)
Returned to Chicago November 1, nonstop on Turkish Airlines
We left Chicago on October 18, arriving at Istanbul's Ataturk Airport about 5 PM the evening of October 19. We found Turkish Airlines to be a perfectly fine airline; they didn't lose our bags, had better than average food and entertainment offerings, and kept to the schedule admirably. Ataturk is very big and busy and bustling -- there are an incredible number of flights in and out of that airport. Allow plenty of time (more than you'd expect) to get through visa and passport control when you arrive, and then again for security and check-in at the international terminal for your flight home. The arrival process took us over an hour; first the visa line (have $20 cash ready for each person if American, other amounts in other currencies for other nationalities) took about 30 minutes (only two of the several windows were manned) and then the passport control line across the aisle took another half hour or so. Then collect your baggage and exit the baggage claim -- that's where you'll find the ATMs and ground transportation. As you exit, there will be a long line of guys behind a waist-high barrier holding signs with names on them. If you have arranged for a driver, look for your name -- but be open-minded about what your name might be. I was expecting to see a sign with our last name, or my first and last name, or DH's first and last name. We looked and looked ... hmmmm, had we been stood up? Finally DH noticed a sign that said "Jim and Becky / Shellie's" -- our first names and the name of our apartment owner. And, also be prepared to wait some more; the guy holding the sign with your name is not your driver. He's on a cell phone talking to your driver (or someone -- a dispatcher maybe?) and he'll tell you to stand someplace and he'll fetch you when the driver arrives. If you're lucky that should be within 10 minutes, but it was over 30 minutes the night we arrived (the traffic was just unbelievable that night).
When we left two weeks later we allowed more than two hours at the airport and had only minutes to spare: security as you enter the airport; a huge, slow-moving line for passport control and then to check baggage and get boarding passes (although they were just restarting flights to New York after Hurricane Sandy when we were leaving on November 1 and that contributed to the confusion -- many people had tickets but no seat assignments, resulting in lots of unhappy arguments in a variety of languages); then another security check; then two more passport controls before reaching the gate. Also, don't wait for a boarding announcement at Ataturk; just watch for the people suddenly lining up and filing through.
Transportation: I mentioned earlier that the traffic was absolutely horrible the Friday night we arrived. It took us over two hours to get from the airport to our apartment in Sultanahmet (about three blocks from the Blue Mosque). There was absolute gridlock. We heard the next day from fellow tourists that they had been on a bus tour of the city that night and after the bus didn't move for an hour (literally) they got off and walked back to their hotel. While we never saw traffic that bad again in our two weeks, we used trams and ferries and trains whenever possible. Not only are they easy to figure out, but they have unobstructed travel pathways and they have set, relatively inexpensive fares. We took a cab only once, from the Chora Church to Pierre Loti, and the driver wanted 35 TL for that relatively short trip. I balked but still ended up paying him 25 TL -- it was early in our vacation and I didn't want to get in a big argument. At peak times the trams at popular spots, like Eminonu, were packed, sometimes *really* packed. For most of the "big" attractions in the old city (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topakpi Palace) it's easier, and more fun, to walk. I arranged for drivers from the airport to our two apartments in Istanbul, finding it easier to connect with apartment owners when there is an arranged time, and no worry about a cab driver trying to find an apartment's address. I have no idea what a cab would have cost for the two hour-plus ride from the airport on that first night. I also arranged for a driver for the early morning airport trip when we went to Cappadocia. For subsequent trips to the airport, when we were staying in Beyoglu, we took the Havatas bus that leaves from Taksim Square. 10 TL each and a posted schedule that they stick to. In Cappadocia I booked a driver and guide, as DH had no desire to rent a car and I had no desire to try and figure out road signs or best routes to various sights. I also booked a driver and guide for our day in Ephesus. We like to travel independently, but to also use our time wisely. We had only one day for Ephesus, and I didn't want to spend it dealing with car rentals and maps and an irritable DH when we got lost...
Food: Turkish cuisine is absolutely delightful. Some of our best meals were in the least impressive-looking places. On our first morning we took an Istanbul Eats tour -- Culinary Secrets of the Old City. We got an immediate introduction to Turkish foods, including white cheese, dried fruit, simit (like a Turkish bagel covered with sesame seeds available in street carts all over the city), kaymak (a very rich cross between cream cheese and clotted cream) with honey, pide (Turkish pizza -- sort of), lentil soup, rose lokoum (Turkish delight), roasted lamb, and Doner kebab. We also sampled kokoreç, sweetbreads bound up in lamb intestines, which is apparently a real favorite, but for us – not so much. The tour is a great introduction to Turkish food, and Istanbul, and we highly recommended. We had many great meals, but some of the best, in no particular order:
• A grilled fish sandwich at the Eminönü docks. There’s a boat/grill just as you get off the ferry that goes up the Golden Horn to Eyup. Freshly grilled fish, plus tomatoes, onions and lettuce on a crusty roll for something like 6 TL. Plus a little spool table to eat it on.
• Çiya Sofrası. Just a couple of blocks from the docks at Kadikoy, we had read a lot about this, and we incorporated lunch there with a trip to the Asian side. The cold mezes (appetizers) were exceptional, and the hot selections were delicious. If you speak Turkish you can sit at a table and order, but the rest of us go in and scoop up the mezes onto your plate (sort of like an American salad bar) which is then weighed – keep the ticket and your waiter will collect them to add to your bill. Hot selections are opposite, and someone will explain what each dish is. You can choose full or half portions (unless you eat A LOT, choose the half portions), and you select the one(s) you want. Those are delivered to your table. No alcohol. We had a generous selection of mezes and half portions of four different hot dishes and spent a grand total of perhaps 40 TL. http://www.ciya.com.tr/index_en.php
• Hayvore. Specializing in Black Sea cuisine, especially hamsi (sardine- or smelt-like fish eaten whole). A small restaurant just off of Istiklal Caddesi, it has friendly service and wonderful food. Order off the menu or go to the counter and choose from the selections (much like you do at Çiya). The Hamsi Pilav is absolutely to die for. Turnacibasi Sokak 4, Beyoglu
• Topdeck Cave Restaurant, Goreme. The menu changes daily at this small restaurant in Cappadocia. The menu has three selections -- lamb dish, beef dish, chicken dish – and the chef prepares whatever looks good and he feels like. DH chose the lamb and got a spicy stew on bulgar, and I had simple but delicious chicken with vegetables. Those, plus a meze plate, a couple of glasses of wine, baklava and coffee set us back 75 TL. Very small, so reservations are essential. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Topdeck-Cave-Restaurant/377918352227751
• Hoca Paşa Street. This little street in Sirkeci, tucked between the train station and Gulhane Park has a number of pide and kebap restaurants, besides a mosque and a cultural center. Much has been written about Kasap Osman, and this is good, but the other choices won’t disappoint for a quick, tasty, cheap meal. http://sirkecirestaurants.com/what-is-hoca-pasa-street-sirkeci-restaurants-istanbul/
• Asitane. Right next to the Chora Church, this Ottoman restaurant is in a lovely setting and the service is impeccable. We had lunch and DH got a shrimp dish and I had the Asitane Lokmaları, which they call “Asitane Treats” – basically an appetizer sampler. While the dishes were lovely to look at, they were somehow bland. But the couple at the next table had chosen the prix fixe “Sultan’s Sampler” (or something like that) – a multi-course extravaganza for 135TL each – and that looked quite spectacular. http://www.asitanerestaurant.com/English/
We also discovered many foods and tastes that became favorites. Pomegranates are in season, and juice carts and windows are all over. Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is rather tart, but is really yummy mixed with orange or pineapple. Sour cherry juice (which is sold in grocery stores next to the orange juice) is surprisingly good and a nice change. The tomatoes are amazing; I had a tasty spinach/goat cheese lasagne at one of the places on Hoca Paşa and it was covered with chopped fresh tomatoes, which took it over the top. We got a couple of lufer (blue fish?) from a fishmonger and I cooked them up one night – these are amazing fish. I developed a real taste for Börek (cheese-filled flaky pastry). I first had it as part of a meze selection at a restaurant in Cappadocia – hot, crispy, flaky exterior contrasting with the slightly soft, cheesy interior. Yum. You can find many Börek shops in Istanbul, and I spent considerable time trying to find another sample to match that first one. None quite made the grade, but it wasn’t for lack of searching! We found lokoum to be unremarkable, although DH really liked the pistachio we got at Haci Bekir (there are several locations – we shopped at the one on Istiklal Caddesi). Baklava was ubiquitous, but the best we had was at the Old Greek House restaurant in Mustafapasa. We were told that grandma makes it in her kitchen down the street and they walk it to the restaurant. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I know it was wonderful.
More to come …
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First, I apologize for the title. I just coluldn't resist.