Between the years of 1999 and 2002 I lived in the small Aegean city of Izmir, Turkey. I will never forget the warm and enduring friendships I made during my time there, the amazing food I was introduced to, or the kindheartedness and hospitality of its people. The country where I rang in the new millennium has always had a special place in my heart; and though I was fortunate enough to travel throughout the country but I never had the opportunity to visit its crown jewel Istanbul except by passing through its airport. It took 13 years for me to get my chance to visit…
In October of 2015 I was living in Niamey, Niger and Anna was living in Bangkok, Thailand. Istanbul seemed like the perfect middle ground for us to meet, and an excellent place for us to discover together! After a bit of research I decided we should stay in the Sultanahmet area of the city as it was within walking distance of most of the historical sites and had plenty of reasonably priced boutique hotels. The hotel handled the airport pick-up service and Anna and I timed it so that we would arrive fairly close to the same time together. Because we arrived so early in the morning we were able to check-in but not able to have our rooms. So we dumped off our luggage and headed out to have a few Efes beers (yes, for breakfast!) and an extraordinary view of the famous Blue Mosque.
Once we were able to get into the room we freshened up from our travels and hit the road. First stop: lunch! I researched through Trip Advisor and found a wonderful seafood restaurant nearby called Balıkçı Sabahattin which is famous for its small mezze dishes and seafood. After my time in Niger it was a real treat to dive into all these fresh salads without fear of the consequences later. We enjoyed a small bottle of rakı with the meal because as the Turks say, “Eating fish without rakı makes the fish cry.” I’ve never wanted to have crying fish weighing heavy on my conscious, so drinking rakı with it when I can seems the least I can do.
If you just have a couple of days to discover Istanbul I would recommend staying in the Sultanahment area. The majority of the “must see” sights are within walking distance of each other (The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, and the Basilica Cistern to name a few), and there are tons of reasonably priced places to stay, dine, and drink. There are also many places where you can get rooftop views of the sites as the sun sets or just to soak in the scene with the call to prayer emanating from all the mosques nearby.
Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. Most of the hotels and tourist sites are on the European side (where we stayed). There is plenty to see and do on the European side and for the most part the Asian side is mostly a residential area that doesn’t get much tourist love. For the best vantage of the two continents divided cross the Galata Bridge near the Egyptian Bazaar and head up to the Galata Tower. It’s only 9 stories tall but you can get an amazing view of Istanbul straddling both continents. There is also plenty of bars, restaurants, and shopping as you make your way to Taksim Square (a very politically charged area of Istanbul — as Haight-Ashbury was in San Francisco at one time). All of which is laid out within a maze-like network of cobblestone streets with a steep incline which is sure to give your calves a workout and earn you a beer (or çai and a sweet).
Many folks do not recommend dining at any of the seafood restaurants that are located under the Galata Bridge. I am willing to bet that there is some truth to them all essentially being overpriced when compared to other seafood restaurants throughout the city, and that the food is essentially the same at all the restaurants. That being said, I am glad that we did it as it was one of the highlights of our travel experience. We essentially spent about $100 on a meal of various mezzes that filled us up (not great food, but not bad, and really scratched that itch for Turkish food), a few beers, 3 bottles of rakı (where the REAL expenses came in), all whilst listening to the soulful voice of Sezen Aksu and watching fishing lines dance over the bridge guardrails (sometimes getting a lucky catch!) as the sun slowly sank behind the Blue Mosque providing an amazing skyline. The owners treated us well, and plied me with just enough booze to improve my Turkish without fully unleashing my wallet. I’ve no regrets for the meal under the bridge. In fact, it was so nice we went twice!
I’m a fan of the Hop-On, Hop-Off style service for an easy way of orienting yourself to a new city and discovering where all of the landmarks are to visit. I first discovered it in Paris, and I’ve used it ever since in those cities that offer the service. It’s nice to be able to get on and off wherever you want and convenient that the stops are usually nearby the sites folks want to visit. We got two tickets on the Big Bus tour (which we found out is cheaper to get online). Anna and I enjoyed our open air, double decker bus style orientation of Istanbul. However, because of the traffic, the amount of folks using the service, and frequency of the buses on the route, we found it a great service for orienting and seeing the sites but not for being able to use it as a transportation service (hopping on and hopping off again whenever we pleased). But for getting a quick tour and orientation of the city this is still a great service and deal. What IS an excellent transportation service is the Istanbul Tram which has lines that go throughout the city with convenient stopping locations and a set fee for riding the line (as opposed to a calculated fee for which stop you want to go to–a fee to ride the line is the same one stop or all the way to the end of the line).
We took a boat trip to Princes’ Island. Many well to do folks have summer homes there and it’s a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. The island is quite small, and you can hire a horse and buggy to give you a tour around the island. I can see how folks living in the city would want to do something like this, as it would be decompressing from the chaos of the city. But for Anna and I we found it a little boring, and for the amount of time we spent getting there, waiting for a ferry to return, and then the additional travel time to get back we found it not worth the effort. If a horse and buggy ride is high on your to do list I would recommend it. Otherwise, skip it.
I am not much of a shopper (that’s Anna’s thing). But I did enjoy the time we spent getting lost in the Grand Bazaar. I liked the history of it all–it’s amazing to think this place has been around for centuries (it began construction in 1455 and was completed after 1730). Granted, the prices needed to be seriously negotiated–the begin with a price that is seriously inflated. I also enjoyed the Egyptian Bazaar. If given a choice to visit one or the other I would choose the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s not out of the way, it’s compact so you can get in and out quickly, and to me it seemed more vibrant and alive. But if you like mazes and shopping then you’ll probably love the Grand Bazaar!
If you like to travel to have a cultural experience, eat good food, see historical sites, and shop until you drop, then Istanbul should be on your list of destinations. I know that since my visit Turkey has had some political turmoil and bombings, nowadays I don’t think there’s a 100% “safe” place to travel. I personally wouldn’t feel unsafe visiting Istanbul now, not anymore unsafe as visiting Paris–both of which have had their share of recent terrorist activities.
We were super fortunate to connect with one of my long time friends, Selen, who was kind enough to treat us to a Turkish feast on one of the evenings. I’ve known Selen since ’93 when folks were connecting on the young Internet in mIRC channels. It was such a treat to be able to see her!
For Anna and I it was one treat to the next, with a lot of walking to earn the next beer/meal. Every few steps you’d see someone making homemade mantı (think Turkish raviolis in a yoghurt sauce) or rolling out and frying up fresh gözleme (think Turkish crepes with meats, spices, and cheeses inside). Every turn a new dining adventure. When we left we filled our luggage with cheeses, meats, olives, figs, dates, nuts, and the best sun dried tomatoes you can imagine for a fraction of the cost in Asia or the States. I actually felt like we made money on that trip just in shopping savings! Looking at these pictures, and remembering the fantastic time we had, I feel like it’s about time for another shopping trip, too.
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