Working through the holiday season this year meant I needed to find another way to consume my remaining vacation days. We’d been looking for a long weekend in December as far back as June, and when Istanbul made the short list, Sarah scoped out a place for us to stay and some airfare. We found Istanbul to be a fascinating blend, over millenia, of Greco-Roman, Ottoman, and modern European culture and architecture. The weather disappointed us most of the trip, but there is a reason Istanbul has an off-season. That said, it was not overrun with other tourists, and that allowed us to appreciate how mobbed it must be in the high season.
Arrival and Departure
We took an early morning flight from Munich to Atatürk (IST), enjoying breakfast in the Business Lounge. You know how we do.1 The flight was fine. The airport was clean and pretty modern-looking. Exiting through customs, we were looking for taxi signs, and only found them way down at the left end of the arrivals hall. We kind of figured they’d be more prominent.
We showed the next available driver our hotel’s address, asked “How much?” and he pointed at the meter — a good sign. It was smooth sailing until we got to the hills below Taksim. Traffic pretty much ground to a halt, except for jerky forward motions — our driver, maybe Turkish drivers in general, are not fond of using the brakes.
For our departure, we enlisted a shuttle service the hotel recommended. The price was almost the same as the taxi on the way in, but in a nicer vehicle. And it was still kinda jerky — despite almost no one else on the road at all with whom to jockey for position.
We snapped up a deal at Lush Hotel through jetsetter.com, hoping for a spot in town in a neighborhood good for exploring on foot. It was easy to seek out recommended restaurants and discover some of our own. It was on a street parallel to the big shopping street, and there was a lot going on outside — especially at night. One morning, very early, it felt like we were participating in a wedding reception, instead of merely being able to hear it.
We got a lot of our info about Istanbul from our Frommers Turkey book from back in 2009, so we were unprepared for some of the changes to the public transit system. In short, here is what we learned:
- Buy an “Anonymous” (i.e., transferable) Istanbulkart for ₺6. If your travel party will never split up, you only need one card. Enter through the turnstile and hand the card backwards to the second (or third, fourth, etc.) traveler so that all may pass through. This is perfectly legal and valid. There are no fares on the transit system differing by length of journey or speed of travel, so the system only needs to track entries, and never exits. Nice!
Now, where can you buy that card? We never figured that out. The website (linked above) says 1500 points of sale, but damned if we could find one. We asked for some hints from the hotel (“Walk down to Kabataşi and look for a bakery near the station to sell you one…”). We did that — and the bakery dude couldn’t help us. He could only sort of point and say “upstairs.” We gave up, finally, amid mounting frustration and took a taxi back up to Taksim Square. Our concierge was very gracious and lent us an anonymous Istanbulkart for the rest of our trip. That worked beautifully. Refilling it as necessary was super-easy: all the stops we needed had automats for loading cash onto the card.
You have to pay separately for each mode of transport: bus, tram, funicular, and some ferries are in the system, but you can’t start your journey on one type of vehicle and finish it on another without paying at least twice. If you’re traveling alone, the journey from your transfer onward may be at a discounted rate if it’s within a certain amount of time following your initial fare purchase, but you lose that benefit if you pass the card on to your fellow traveler behind you upon entering through the turnstile.
A lot of this food felt familiar to us, thanks to the large Middle Eastern population segment in the Detroit area:
- Tavuk Şiş
- roasted eggplant dip, effectively Baba ghanoush
- Tulum cheese, which reminded me very much of Brânză de burduf from Romania
These recommendations from Frommers, Lonely Planet, and Trip Advisor rang true:
No. 19 was a little harder to find, but we’re so glad we put the effort into it. You choose your starters and main dishes from what the cook has prepared that evening, and half-portions are allowed, which means you can try many dishes — and we did!
We stopped in often at desserty-looking bakeries for çai (tea), elma çai (apple tea), or türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee), and something sweet. We were never disappointed. Our favorite was the Hafiz Mustafa on Taksim Square (couldn’t find an English version of their website, but the pictures are nice).
We signed up for a cruise on the Bosporus and tour of the Spice Bazaar. We stocked up on some exotic teas and a bottle of pomegranate molasses.2 It was fun taking in the smells and sounds of the marketplace, but we tend to dislike aggressive attention from the hawkers, wherever we are.
Man was it cold on that boat!3 Maybe the cruise is more of a warm-weather activity. Our tour guide gave us lots of info about the landmarks we passed along the cruise route, but I think I was too cold to retain any of it.
The Sultanahmet neighborhood has a ton of neat stuff to see. We spent more time in this neighborhood visiting the attractions than anywhere else. Reserve a whole day in your schedule for the Topkapı palace complex; if you get there in the morning and are fascinated by it, like we were, you’ll be glad you’ve got the time.
It’s a Byzantine church that was rather hastily converted to a mosque after there had already been a church on that site for like a thousand years, and is now officially a museum. A large portion of the interior was under construction; that might be part of the price you pay for going in the off-season. Don’t miss the upstairs sections!
It’s really an active place of worship. Respect the shoe rules — the security people there are quite insistent. (We had no problem following the rules, but not everyone was paying attention or had the English skills necessary.)
Apparently, it was a temple of some sort before it was converted to a water supply. If the wind is howling and driving rain into your face outside, this is a peaceful respite. Be careful on the steps down into it — they’re slippery. The Medusa head at the base of one of the columns was pretty cool.
Topkapı Palace Complex
We bought the combo ticket which included the palace and the harem. Highlights: the calligraphy and the historical culinary exhibits. Try to eat before you go — we spent an exorbitant amount on lunch at the cafeteria. The food was good, but not really worth it. Everything else about this museum visit was certainly worth it!