Istanbul, Constantinople! (Turkey)
I’ve briefly touched on the topic of Istanbul in a previous post, but the city of Istanbul is my second favorite global metropolis in the world, so I feel it’s time to further, and more deeply examine my adventures there. In addition, I get asked about Istanbul, and Turkey in general, more often than most other places. It’s one of those cities (and countries) that borders between the East and the West, and it’s generally a great “starter” place to beginexploring the world. Inherently, people seem to pick up on this, and instead of jumping into a place such as Cairo, which has a large language/cultural barrier, people choose to ease into the East and Middle East through the relatively easy gateway of Turkey. Of course, there’s much more to both Istanbul and the rest of the country than simply being a great bridge from the European tradition into the more diverse traditions of the East, but I feel that people are often drawn to Turkey for this very reason.
For starters: Turkey is a first world country, possibly 2nd world in some remote places, but overall, a very clean, very well organized country with a well functioning government, lots of modern infrastructure, and great sanitation. It is comparable to Western Europe in this respect. Also, almost everyone there speaks enough English for a native English speaker to get around without needing a guide. It’s easy enough to hail a taxi or to figure out the bus or trolley system without needing local assistance. Bargaining for items IS part of the culture in Turkey, but key items like bus passes, museum tickets, or hotels, are fixed price and non-negotiable. This is important because I know most Westerners HATE bargaining. Sure, in the bazaars and souks of Istanbul you’ll be pushed to bargain, but it’s really not essential to be a good bargainer to get by in Istanbul.
That being said, I myself was also drawn to Turkey for a similar reason. In 2010, I decided that was high time to start pursuing one of my lifetime goals–to travel the world and visit every single country. I had traveled the entire USA and North American continent prior to 2010, and felt I had exhausted myopportunities for travel on this continent, and looked at branching out. I studied maps, read a lot of travel guides, joined the forums on TripAdvisor, and tried to determine what places interested me the most, and what places would be the best for a first time overseas traveler such as myself. Of course, I had been overseas as a child, but as an adult, potentially traveling alone, I wanted to make sure that I acclimated myself in a relatively easy place before jumping into more difficult countries, such as say, Turkmenistan or Iran.
After some research, I settled on a tour through Eastern Europe that would conclude in Istanbul, which happened to be (in 2010) the European “Capital of Culture” city. Each year, the European Union names ones city to be it’s “Capital of Culture” and throws a lot of money at that city for renovations and varying cultural events and tourist attractions. I figured that 2010 was as good a year as any, if not one of the better ones, to visit Istanbul for the first time. And I was right! Being the “Capital of Culture” leant the city a very festive atmosphere, gave it more touristy events to attend, and in general lead to improvements in both accessibility to the city and improvements in local transport. Hotels were also prepared for tourists and there were many tour guides out and about, willing to give travelers free or discounted tours of the city.
My Eastern European trip began in Prague, visited Budapest, Kiev, Sighisoara, Bucharest, and then ended, as mentioned, in Istanbul. Two friends from America ended up traveling with me, which was a nice addition to thetrip, although I would have gone alone, had it been needed. I planned the entire adventure myself, and most of our traveling was by rail between the cities.
Istanbul was no exception. To get to the city, we took a 3 day long train from Bucharest, and let me tell you, that whole ordeal was probably the worst decision I made in planning the trip! Not that it wasn’t beautiful to roll into Istanbul by rail and to see the countryside unfold from nothingness, into suburbs, into the city, and sure it was beautiful after days and days of emptiness to finally catch a glimpse of the Sea of Marmara, BUT….3 days on a sleeper train in the economy class with 6people to a cabin in the extreme humid heat of August with no air conditioning was a nightmare. In addition to those conditions, and no dining car on the train, and very few eateries at most train stops, our train also decided to stop for a day, in Dimitrovgrad, Bulgaria, with no discernible reason or explanation. It seemed like we were stopping to pick up more passengers, when suddenly, without warning, the engine to the train just took off, leaving the 12 passenger cars behind it sitting on the tracks. My friends and I tried to cajole answers from the warden of our sleeper train car, but he was a jovial Turkish man who spoke zero English and who proceeded to happily laugh away our distraught faces with a wave of his expressive hands, and then offered us Turkish tea, distilled from “recycled” bathroom tap water. Since he obviously was not going to tell us what was going on, I organized a recon mission and visited a few other stranded sleeper cars, finally stumbling across a pack of barefoot, acoustic guitar laden Italian hippie boys who told me, in broken English: “The engine, it just goes, sometimes, you know? Bye engine! Will come back when it is time to go.”
Well then! Of course, that extremely helpful tidbit of information was accompanied by several invitations to kiss the boys, listen to them stomp the ground and dance around their bongos and guitars, and to perhaps pet the crotches of their dirty harem pants. I was not interested in any of that, so I took my leave and returned to try to sleep in my 110 degree F train car and pray for the engine to return soon.
The problem then arouse, several hours later, regarding food. The local train station in Dimitrovgrad was not exactly full of food. In fact, about all they offered were the ubiquitous European “digestive biscuits”. At this point, we had been on this train for 48 hours from Bucharest, Romania, and hadn’t eaten a thing. We were all starving. And, most importantly still, I WAS RUNNING OUT OF SMOKES!!!
Anyone who knows me well will tell you that when I’m about to run out of cigarettes, all hell breaks loose. Screw food. Screw bathing. I need nicotine! So I sent my friend Mark on a mission to go find some smokes. Which,turns out, were even more scarce than food items, or working plumbing (the other issue was the toilets on the trains just emptied directly onto the tracks, which is fine when you’re moving, but when you’re stuck, um, shit piles up?). Luckily, he found me some cigarettes after walking 12 miles to and from the nearest store, and also returned with provisions. Lydia, my other friend, had given up all hope and had turned into a zombie and laid, despondent, on her 2′ x 4′ “bed” aka dirty platform. She hated me for booking the train, and still does, but at least Mark, who was an ex-military, had my same attitude, which was “fuck it”. I used the time to write odes to tuna sandwiches from Subway, fresh guacamole, and spicy goat tacos. Mark sang to himself.
Eventually, an engine came and we began moving again, but when we reached the Turkish border, there were two more issues. One–Americans need a visa to enter Turkey. From what I had read, you could give someone $20 USD at the border and get a visa there, saving yourself the hassle ofhaving to get one beforehand. However, that is only true, I found out, when entering by air, at the Istanbul International Airport. Whoops. So, all three of us travelers were about to get denied entry to Turkey after being on a train for 3 days. Lydia, again, looked murderous. Of course, I’m crafty, so after thinking about things for about 10 seconds, I walked up to the best looking Turkish guard (all Turkish men are beautiful, btw) and, pulling my top down to show cleavage, began to cry. Of course, he immediately asked what was wrong and several other guards came over too. Long story short, I cried my way into Turkey and slipped the cute guard $100 USD cash as a thank you. Works every time.
So second issue was that there had been major flooding in the northern part of Turkey and the railway lines had been washed out. So about 2 hours outside of Istanbul, we had to switch from the train to a bus, and then we were driven into Istanbul proper, finally reaching Büyük Otogar, or Istanbul’s main bus terminal, which was a lovely old station, with classical 1800s style high vaulted ceilings, lots of glass windows, and tons of money changing shops and various eateries. Finally! We were there!
Long story short: don’t take a bus to Istanbul if you’re coming from Europe, especially Eastern Europe. It may sound fun and all, but it’s not. The state of the railways between Istanbul and say Bucharest or Budapest is NOTgood, and especially in Bulgaria, the service is spotty, the trains are slow, and they are ill equipped (i.e. no food cars). Plus, you might end up in a sleeper bunk with a bunch of Russians who tell you “Ah it’s hot! No fans! Just drink VODKA!” and who then pass out and fart for 3 days straight. Not good. Just fly into the beautiful, modern, gorgeous, and amazing Istanbul Ataturk Airport! Truly, it is a first class airport, highly modern, fully serviced by local transport, and conveniently located to the city. I regret not flying into Istanbul the first time I visited and every time thereafter, I’ve flown in. Enough said.
Once in Istanbul, we checked into the Hotel Niles, which more than made up for our horrendous “train from hell” ride. The hotel was located perfectly–across from the Grand Bazaar, and within walking distance of all theother major tourist attractions (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). When checking us in, the staff took the time to give us a free map, locating with a pen where the hotel was and telling us how to get to all the local hotspots.
The hotel was simply beautiful! Our room was a suite and it came with a HUGE marble bath, Turkish style, and supremely outfitted rooms with high ceilings, A/C, fast wifi, and beautiful decorations mixing local Turkish flare with European elegance. The rooms were very affordable, the staff helpful, and the rooftop restaurant had breathtaking views of the Bosphorus harbour. Breakfasts were free on the rooftop, and every morning we sat amidst palms and plants, watching the sun rise over the sea, and listening to the caged birds on the roof while we snacked on a wonderful breakfast spread. I couldn’t have been happier with the hotel, and I befriended the owner after raving to him about how beautiful his property was. Later, upon my return to Istanbul in 2011, he remembered me and hooked me up with a free room. I’ve stayed in contact with him ever since.
After checking into our hotel, sleeping soundly, and having a few solid meals, us three traveling companions hit the city to see the sites. Istanbul is verymodern, clean, and the streets are easy to walk and wonderfully twisted and meandering. It is somewhat hard to follow the streets on a map for this reason, as the city itself is old and not laid out on a grid like most American cities, but to me, that’s part of it’s charm! I loved getting lost on the back streets of Istanbul, and peering in windows of shoe factories and stores selling clothing, leather, textiles, and the like. There are few people to hassle you on the streets, and lots of opportunities to use public transport. In addition to taxis, which periodically drive around the city, and which use meters if you ask them to (or not, as I prefer to bargain on a flat rate), there are also public buses and a wonderful trolley/electric tram system that happened to stop right near my hotel.
These trams run through various parts of the city, but I primarily used the tram to get from my hotel down to the waterfront, and along the way, to stop and see the Blue Mosque and the HagiaSofia, which sit right across from each other. I also used it to visit my favorite, FAVORITE spa on earth, the Cemberlitas Hamami! They are pretty cheap, and you gain entry by putting money into a machine and receiving tokens that you then put into a turnstile which allows you entry to the station to wait for a tram to come by. The machines that dispense these tokens have a choice for English speakers and are easy to use.
Before I go any further, I’m going to have to take a moment to describe the Cemberlitas Hamami because it is truly one of the most magnificent spas I’ve ever had the pleasure to relax in. It’s not a spa like you would think of in America, but more like a gorgeous public bathhouse, which is what hamamis (or hammams) initially were. It was constructed by Mimar Sinan in 1584, and is still housed in the same beautiful building. The interior has been renovated of course, and it’s divided by gender into the men’s and women’s areas. The entire place is made of white marble with soaring domed ceilings, punctuated with small windows which let in the natural light in soft, warm streams. I can’t speak for the men’s side, but on the women’s side, there are lockers, and you are given a small packet of items and told to undress. In the packet of items you’re given, you have a disposable bikini bottom and your own personal scrubbing mitt. Once you’re unclothed (everyone walks around topless in the hamamis, it’s very refreshing, and totally acceptable because all the employees are women and all the patrons too), and your personal belongings locked up, you take your mitt and walk into the main room of the hamami. It’s a HUGE white marbled room with 8 corners, and with a magnificent domed ceiling and a large marble platform in the middle, probably 9′ in diameter, with small enclaves with spigots dispensing water of varying temperature around the outside of the room.Once inside, you’re given a Turkish towel (made of cotton, thinly woven, not absorbent like Western towels) and you’re told to lie on the marble platform. Underneath this platform, and invisible to you, is a large cedar fire which heats up the marble and the entire room. It’s hot to the touch, so you must lay your towel down and then lay on top of the towel. Once you do this, you just lay there and soak up the heat and the humidity and gaze up at the domed ceiling with it’s little rays of light shining through. There are bath attendants, all old, motherly women, who then come around one by one to the women laying on the hot marble stone and once they arrive, they douse you with lukewarm water and start SCRUBBING! And boy do they SCRUB! After you’ve sat around in the heat and humidity for awhile, your skin starts to shed and these women then come around and remove all the layers of dirt and dead skin from your body. I’ve never had cleaner skin or softer skin than after a visit to the hamami!
After scrubbing, the attendants then rinse you again, this time with cold water, and bring you over to an enclave along one of the sides of the room. They wash your hair there with water from plastic buckets and cheap shampoo, but god, is it ever so amazing! I don’t know what it is about having someone wash your hair, but it’s one of those things in life which is extremely underrated in pleasure. Especially when done by a matronly older woman, it’s like being a child again, very comforting, very soothing.Once done with this, you’re taken to a cold plunge pool and a shower, and you’re done. That’s it, really. Nothing fancy, although they do offer basic mud facials and hot oil massages, which are also great and are added on after your bath. But a simple bath in such an old, elegant place is more than enough for me. It’s the ambiance, it’s the older women, the communal safeness of being in a women’s only environment, the casual gossip and talking and the hot white marble and the tradition that makes the experience so wonderful. And after you’re dressed again, skin clean and soft and pink, you go to the rooftop to have a cup of Turkish coffee with a smoke–ahhhh god, there’s nothing better!
In addition to the Cemberlitas Hamami, the Grand Bazaar, which is right next door, is amazing too, although overwhelming for most Westerners. As soon as you walk in, you’ll see stalls selling all manner of goods, although mostly touristy stuff like carpets, glassware, linens, etc. and as soon as you walk in, you’ll get SWAMPED by salesmen, all telling you to visit their store. Some may even physically grab you and direct you to their specific store. Some will follow you around and continually harass you until you yell at them to screw off. Don’t be afraid to be loud and direct–match their directness and pushiness and they will back off. It’s really not a big deal, although many women especially find it intimidating since most of the salesmen (all of them really) are men and are totally all about hitting on you as well as selling you items. All it takes is a firm NO more than once and you’re good, and if it ever does really feel threatening, just start yelling loudly and every local woman in the area will come to your defense and handle the situation for you.Despite this though, the Grand Bazaar is worth a visit for it’s beautiful displays of spices, carpets and all manner of other bric-a-brak. It’s the place to take the photo that most travel agencies use when they advertise “Turkey” and a great place to pick up cheap souvenirs. Like I said earlier though, be ready to bargain and bargain hard. Also, near the entrance there are some really good gyro places, and during the winter, little carts selling roasted chestnuts and sesame seed round pretzel like breads also congregate here. Also, if you have the time, hit up the Spice Bazaar as well, which sells more local stuff and less touristy items. At the Spice Bazaar, which is down near the waterfront, a bit of a walk from the Grand Bazaar, you’ll find lots of local food and medicinal items that will blow your mind–stuff like eels, and leeches, and what not. It’s much more colorful and less crowded and intense than the Grand Bazaar. What to say about the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia that hasn’t already been said? They are both beyond description, akin to the Eiffel Tower, or the Taj Mahal. They sit across from each other, and are both easily entered via ticket booths at each location. Usually, if there are any lines, they aren’t long, even during the high season. The Blue Mosque is an actual mosque that is still being used (the Hagia Sophia was a church, then a mosque, and is now a secular museum). Be aware of this when entering the Blue Mosque and be respectful of it’s status as a house of worship. Ladies this means covering your heads and shoulders and not wearing pants (long skirts instead), men it means no shorts, and for both men and women, removing your shoes and not taking flash photographs. You will be told to do these things anyways, and will be given a place to put your shoes and if you need a head or shoulder or leg covering, there are some clothes available for this as well. If you’re so inclined, you can visit during the Friday prayers, and listen to the imam, which I recommend doing to give you a deeper understanding of the Muslim faith. Topkapi Palace is nearby both of these locations as well, and is worth a visit, especially to see the all the beautiful old weaponry and jewelry! Plus there are many cultural events and art exhibitions here and it’s just beautifully located with great views and a relaxing atmosphere. Be sure to try some of the dondruma, or Turkish ice cream, which is sold by vendors who lift it up, spin it, twirl it, then place it back in it’s freezing tin all afternoon long. Turkish ice cream is thicker and chewier than Western ice cream and comes doused in pistachios and honey and is really, really tasty! There are tons of vendors lining the way to Topkapi Palace.
The Basilica Cistern must also be on your list of places in Istanbul to visit! It’s super creepy and very atmospheric and, at it’s most basic, is a tour of the now empty Roman water cisterns that lay underneath the city of Istanbul and that were constructed in the 6th century. You descend into the largest of the many empty water cisterns (there’s still a small amount of water in them, lit up beautifully by warm yellow lights and filled with koi fish) and walk along planks to the back of the underground chamber to two large pillars that are supported by two large carvings of Medusa’s head. One head is upright, the other reversed, and no one really knows whyexactly they are placed there. The whole place is dark, damp, filled with the sounds of dripping water, eerily lit and absolutely wonderful!
Lastly, the Bosphorus waterfront in Istanbul is probably it’s most famous vista. It’s here that many movies have been filmed, many promotional tourism photos taken, and probably billions of personal “look I’m in Turkey!” Instagram photos have been uploaded. It’s the scene that you see in your head when you think of Istanbul, so it’s worth a visit. It’s at this point that East meets West–where the continent of Europe ends and the continent of Asia begins. Most of Istanbul that tourists see (and all the places mentioned above) lay on the European side, so when you visit the waterfront you’re looking out at Asia. From the waterfront, which is lined with ornate floating restaurants that will cook you freshly caught fish while you wait, you can catch short or long term cruises up and down the Bosphorus straight. I took about an hour long cruise and it was really wonderful to see the city of Istanbul rise up from the water. They are not expensive and the cruises are really just medium sized passenger boats, lined with benches and equipped with a snack station, that loop around the local waterfront area, but they are fun none the less. You can buy tickets from any of the agents standing near the docks, and even haggle with them for a better price than the one listed if you’re so inclined.Overall, Istanbul is one of my most favorite cities, second only to Hong Kong. I can’t say enough good things about it! Just remember that there is a $20 USD departure tax when exiting the country (as well as entering) so keep $20 USD on you to pay it! Other than that, have fun, and know that Istanbul is an incredibly beautiful city, easily navigable, and absolutely worth a visit! My favorite time to visit is in the winter–around February–and while it does get cold and even snows in Istanbul, if you lay in your hotel room on a frosty early morning, and listen to the call to prayer, and smel the roasted chestnuts cooking….I’m sure you’d agree with me that there’s really no better place to spend a few winter (or summer) weeks!
To Stay: Hotel Niles. Rates fluctuate from $100/night during the off season (winter) to $200/night during high season (summer). A 10% discount is offered on cash payments if booked through the hotel website. Rooms are gorgeous, decorated in the continental style with small local flourishes (such as a turkish bath in some rooms). A lovely terrace at the top of the hotel has an amazing view of the Istanbul harbor and every morning a large breakfast spread is put out on the terrace for guests, free of charge. The hotel is located within walking distance of all major tourist attractions in the city (Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, etc). Airport transfers from Ataturk Airport are roughly $30, one way.
To Eat: The Han Restaurant. The best hummus in the city! I was quite naive when I first visited Istanbul and mistakenly thought that hummus was a common local dish. It’s not. Hummus is an Israeli/Jordanian thing, and it’s hard to find in Istanbul. However, the Han Restaurant has some amazing hummus on the menu, and it’s located very conveniently, right next to the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, on the road that the tram runs along and along the way to the waterfront as well. The dining area is also quite nice, with pillows to sit on and low tables in the common Turkish fashion, as opposed to a more Western dining style. The waiters are friendly and they remembered me every time I visited, so kudos to them! The menu ranges from a few items of Western food to Turkish staples. Prices range from $5-25 per head.
To See: Cemberlitas Hamami–There won’t be too many times in your life when you’ll get the opportunity to have a Turkish bath in a building dating back to 1584, so do it – particularly because this hamami was designed by the great architect Sinan and is among the most beautiful in the city. Bath, scrub, and soap massage (plus hair washing) is TL90 (roughly $40 USD). Self service bathing is TL60 (roughly $30 USD), but I highly recommend spending the extra $10 and getting the full “Sultan’s Bath.”
Grand Bazaar/Spice Bazaar–Both are free to enter, and well worth visiting, particularly the Spice Bazaar as it has more local items and less pushy salesmen. However, if you’re looking for a kitschy souvenir, try the Grand Bazaar, which also has lots of great street food stands near the entrance.
Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque/Topkapi Palace–For TL80 (roughly $35 USD) you can buy a 3 day museum pass that includes the Hagia Sophia and Topkai Palace. Otherwise, the Hagia Sophia entry is TL30 (roughly $13 USD), the Blue Mosque is free (you must enter using the south door; the north front entrance is for Muslims only), and Topkapi Palace is TL30 (roughly $13 USD) for the museum and an additional TL15 (roughly $7) to enter the harem section. You can buy Topkapi Palace tickets and museum passes online here.
Basilica Cistern–Open every day from 9am to 6:30pm, with an entrance fee of TL20 (roughly $9 USD). Located across the street from the Hagia Sophia.
To Get There: DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN! 🙂 Turkish Airlines has many direct flights to Istanbul from locations throughout the United States (New York and Los Angeles, mainly). In addition, United has direct flights from Newark and Los Angeles. Roundtrip ranges anywhere from $700-4000, depending on route, time, and fare class.