Istanbul 2010


Aug 1st, 2011, 01:12 PM
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Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 120
Istanbul 2010

My roommate and I - two American women in our late 20s - spent just under a week in Istanbul last summer. This was the second half of our Egypt/Turkey trip. (My Egypt trip report is here: I realize that this is a bit late to be posting, but I've received so much help from Fodorites that I wanted to try and give back.

First, a few summary comments:
Overview of the trip: While I would have loved to explore other areas of Turkey, on this trip we focused solely on Istanbul. We spent six days in Istanbul in late June, which was a nice amount of time. It allowed us to see things at a leisurely pace and even revisit some of our favorite sites. We're independent, budget-type travelers, so the hotel was chose was pretty basic (but clean and comfortable) and we mostly ate streetfood rather than at restaurants.

General impression: I LOVED Istanbul. It's my favorite of the cities and countries that I have traveled to. I would go back in a heartbeat. Istanbul is this great mix of east and west. It's exotic enough to be exciting but familiar enough to be easy and comfortable. The public transportation is very accessible and the people are great.

Favorite experiences: Eating baklava and fresh squeezed juice while people-watching in the park between Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque; the Topkapi Palace; massage and scrub at the hamam; the whirling dervish show at the art and cultural center; bargaining in the Grand Bazaar.

The food: As I mentioned, I don't spend a whole lot of money in restaurants when I travel because the street food is usually so good (well, in many countries). In Turkey I ate mostly donor kebabs and baklava. Oh the baklava! It was amazing - dripping with honey yet still crisp and crunchy. We befriended one of the candy chop owners and visited him each day to pick up a tray of baklava. The Turkish delight and other nougat candies look good, but I didn't really care for them. There are numerous juice stands where you can get fresh squeezed juice from any number of fruits. I also ate at least one ice cream cone a day. The ice cream in Turkey is interesting - it has kind of a gummy quality to it, not as creamy as I'm used to. That doesn't sound very appetizing, but it's good and cheap too.

Okay, now on to the step-by-step report:

As this was the second part of our trip, we flew from Cairo to Istanbul. The airport is a ways from the center of the city, but public transportation was easy and convenient, and we got to our hotel without any problems. We stayed at Hotel Ida in the Sultanahmet area. It was a great (though touristy) location - just steps from the Ayasofia and Blue Mosque. The hotel was really narrow and teeny, but the room was clean and comfortable. There was always someone at the front desk to answer questions. The hotel has a small rooftop seating area with a partial view of the Blue Mosque on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other side. A traditional breakfast of rolls, ham, olives, and eggs is served on the roof each morning.

That first day we just had a few evening/night hours to get familiar with our neighborhood. We walked up and down the streets of Sultanahmet and eventually purchased donor kebabs, Turkish delight, and baklava, which we ate in the park between the Ayasofia and Blue Mosque. The park is a well lit, safe, happy place with a fountain where people sit on the grass to eat, relax, and take pictures.

Day 1: The next morning we made the short walk to the Blue Mosque, timing our arrival with the mosque's opening. There was already a bit of a line, but because of our early arrival, it wasn't too crowded. I came prepared with a scarf to cover my head. The mosque was absolutely stunning. The morning sun streamed through the windows, and the whole interior glittered. I had been dying to see this mosque since my Humanities of the Islamic World class in college, and the experience did not disappoint.

Next we headed across the park to the Ayasofia (Hagia Sophia, St. Sophia). It was a zoo! In addition to the numerous tourists and tour groups, it seemed like a bunch of school groups were also there to purchase admission tickets. The church/mosque/museum is huge though, so once inside it didn't feel so crowded. The scale of the building is enormous and impressive. It has more of a masculine, strong feel, as opposed to the Blue Mosque's elegance. My favorite aspect of this visit was a cute, slightly cross-eyed cat that was sitting quietly and expectantly on one of the benches within the building.

There are a number of cats and dogs in Istanbul. I read somewhere that although they are technically strays, the government registers them. Shopkeepers feed them, so they're generally clean and well cared for. All of the animals I encountered were friendly (I like animals), but don't necessarily seek attention. The dogs especially trot around as if they have places to go, people to see and many times won't stop to be pet, which I find really funny. There was a carpet shop around the corner from our hotel that was home to a beautiful white cat with one blue and one green eye. She had four kittens - three white, one black and white, that were a major attraction for everyone staying in the area.

We spent the afternoon at the Grand Bazaar. What a feast for the eyes! I am a terrible bargainer, which really frustrated me in Egypt, so on this first visit to the Bazaar I decided that I wouldn't buy anything. Instead I walked around taking note of the items that interested me and getting an idea for prices. I'm glad I did this, it made the whole shopping experience much less stressful for me, and I had a lot of fun just enjoying the array of goods in the bazaar and chatting with the shopkeepers.

Day 2: The next day was our Bosphorus day. We planned to use some instructions I had printed off of a website to take the public ferry quite a way up the Bosphorus and then visit a palace on the way back down. However, we couldn’t find the right ferry station. Instead of one big ferry station with boats leaving for different stops, there is a small station and dock for each stop. We decided instead to do the plan backwards and boarded a ferry to Üsküdar, a stop right across the Bosphorus on the Asian side. There we visited the Beylerbeyi Palace, which was the summer home to the last two Ottoman sultans. It was a small palace and not overly grand, but it was open and airy.

I never was able to find the dock for the ferry I wanted, so I took one of the tourist Bosphorus cruises. This option didn’t let me get on and off of the boat, but it was a nice 1 ½ hour cruise that took me up and down a portion of the channel, staying close to the coast for good photo ops. I really enjoyed it. Next I crossed the Galata bridge, took a funicular up one of the hills, and arrived at the Galata tower. I climbed the tower and was rewarded with spectacular views of the city.

That night we attended a Dervish show at the Art and Cultural Center. The performance was really neat; the effect of watching the men whirling around in their long white skirts was hypnotic. The venue was really cool too; the Art and Cultural Center is located in a historical Turkish bath building. We weren’t allowed to take pictures (it’s a religious ceremony), but there was a restaurant near our hotel that had a Dervish show each night which did allow photos. So the next night we sprung for a restaurant meal in order to get a few photos of a whirling Dervish. The restaurant version did not seem nearly as authentic or religious – the guy just got up on the stage and started spinning – but I did get some good photos.

Day 3: The Princes’ Islands. This is a group of small islands about an hour’s boat ride from the ferry dock. It's a favorite place for the locals to go to get away for a day. We got to the dock about an hour early, which was fortunate because the waiting area was already crowded. Once the gates opened we all scrambled to the boat to get a seat. After an hour or so we disembarked on the biggest island, Büyükada. Because no private cars are allowed on the islands, bikes and horse-drawn carriages are plentiful. We took a long carriage ride all around the island, taking in views of ocean, Istanbul's Asian coastline, and the island’s gorgeous houses. The homes weren’t anything you’d see on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but they were charming. After the ride we grabbed sandwiches and then ice cream and strolled around the island a bit more until it was time for our return ferry trip “home.”

That evening we headed up to Taksim Square and Istiklal Street. This is the more modern part of Istanbul, and things surely were hopping! I really wasn't interested in doing any shopping here, but I did enjoy the long walk up the street and back.

Day 4: I took more pictures at the Topkapi Palace than I did in any other single location on this trip. We paid an extra entrance fee to tour the harem and headed straight there, as soon as the gates opened for the day. This was by far the most beautiful part of the palace complex and well worth the extra entrance fee. Arriving right as it opened was a great move, since this major tourist attraction fills with people as the day goes on. The walls are covered in tiles – blues and red and oranges; vines and leaves and my favorite, the Ottoman tulip. It is every bit as ornate and beautiful as Europe’s Baroque and Rococo-style palaces but less overdone and gaudy, in my opinion. Rather than one large building, the palace is a compound of many buildings. Many of the rooms and halls outside of the harem were not as interesting in and of themselves, but they did house incredible jewels and treasures of the empire. Who knew emeralds could be that big!

I had purposely saved our next activity for the end of the trip. I wanted to go home feeling relaxed and clean, so we waited until this day to visit a Turkish bath. Cemberlitas and Cagaloglu seem to be the most popular baths for tourists. I didn't have strong feelings about which to choose, and we ended up at Cagaloglu. It was fabulous! I paid for both a scrub and a massage. The lady doing my scrub probably thought I was an incredibly dirty person; all of the dirt and sunscreen oil from the past two weeks seemed to come out of my skin. The massage was long and thorough. After I was done they gave me this big, fluffy, warm towel and I went back to the little changing room and just lay on the bed for a good twenty minutes. After the beauty of the Topkapi palace and the relaxing, cleansing bath treatments, my day felt complete. I could have stayed there for hours.

Day 5: Our last full day was kind of a review day for me. My roommate had decided that she wanted to see Ephesus, so she purchased a one day tour with a company that she found. I spent the day partly on my own and later met up with some friends who had flown in from Dubai. My main object of the day was shopping. I hit the bazaar and the Spice Market and picked up a woven bed cover and pillow cases, some ceramic jewelry, scarves, and a ceramic tea pot, as well as cinnamon, saffron, and apple tea from the spice market.

I met up with friends to visit the Suleymaniye Mosque, which was closed for renovations. Disappointing! But we did find another mosque (I don't recall the name), where I observed Friday prayer. I also explored the Beyoğlu area while my friends ascended the Galata Tower (I had done that a few days earlier). I really like this area; it seems to be kind of a funky, up and coming neighborhood. There are lots of boutiques and outdoor restaurants. Lastly, we went to Taksim Square for some Turkish pizza.

I took leave of my friends and headed back to Sultanahmet for my final Turkish experience. I bought a big tray of baklava and a fresh squeezed orange juice and settled on one of the benches in front of the Blue Mosque for the last call to prayer of the day. What a perfect way to end the trip!
memejs is offline  
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Aug 1st, 2011, 03:00 PM
Join Date: Mar 2007
Posts: 212
Thank you for your report. I feel I was reliving mine from last fall!

Nice to hear about Hotel Ida. We came really close to booking there, but settled on Hanedan instead.

We also befriended the same kitty, the beautiful Turkish Van with the blue and green eyes. By November she was pregenent again!
aimeekm is offline  
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Oct 9th, 2011, 05:48 PM
Join Date: Oct 2006
Posts: 157
Thank you so much for your trip report. Ran across it while finalizing our 5 day layover in Istanbul in February 2012, after our visit to Kenya. Appreciated your sense of pace and recall. Gave me a real feel for what to expect. Thanks to an air miles mess up, our 3 day stay was increased to 5 days. Very excited about this stopover so I can plan a longer visit to Turkey in the future.

Thank for taking the time to write a report!
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Oct 9th, 2011, 06:23 PM
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 3,433
Thanks for an interesting read! My husband and I would love to visit Istanbul someday.
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