Visiting Istanbul for the first time? You'll find a proverbial city at a crossroads.
When we land in Istanbul, I’ll officially be entering my first hybrid country. Am I in Europe or Asia? Does this count as visiting the Middle East? It’s hard to say in this multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city and I can’t wait to embrace it all – assuming we can squeeze it all in! We’re in Istanbul for just 12 hours, as this is just considered a ‘stopover’ on route from Brussels to Bangkok. Taking into account time spent in the airport, we’ll have about 8 hours to discover the city. No problem, right?
We’re thrilled to be partnering with Viator to discover Istanbul. Our tour will include a bus tour, a boat tour, and a brief visit to the spice market. With a little luck, we’ll finish before sundown and be able to squeeze in a short visit to either the Blue Mosque or Haiga Sofia. Since our time is tight, we’re concentrating on seeing the old city.
Come evening, we’re meeting up with our friend Katie from KatrinkaAbroad.com. We’re counting on Katie's local expertise to expertly guide us through a Turkish eating extravaganza. Traditional baklava, coffee, and maybe even ice cream are all on my list!
I've been researching public transportation routes to and from the airport so we can get around quickly and economically. We’re also planning to get our Turkish visas in advance to save time at the airport.
Leaving to Chance:
We’re leaving the evening completely in Katie's hands – we trust her judgement when it comes to delicious food and neat things to see after sunset and we can’t wait to follow the leader!
What will we do with our backpacks? Fortunately, the Istanbul airport is a rare one with public luggage storage. I’ve already made a note of their location and hours.
With so little time and so much to see, I’m happy to be joining a tour. I don’t want to waste any time getting lost or waiting in line and I really just want to see the highlights. This is a great example of how a guide tour can save you time, money, and hassles.
Splurges and Souvenirs:
Our visas, at $60 apiece, are splurge enough for us!
SOOO... How Did Our Day Go?
In a word, our experience in Istanbul was mixed. Things got off to a slightly bumpy start. We purchased electronic visas in advance but unfortunately that didn't translate to any time saved on the ground. The concept of an electronic visa seemed lost on the customs officers. They kept looking in our passports for the visa and I kept trying to tell them that they wouldn't see it.
Fortunately I had copies of my receipt. The receipt proved to be equally confusing to officers, who eventually stamped our passports and slid them back to us. We stood there for a moment a bit stunned then we sprung into action! Have you ever seen the Ikea "START THE CAR" commercials? It was basically an airport version of that, with us trying to inconspicuously sprint away from customs before they changed their mind about e-visas.
Unfortunately, between the e-visa snarfu and a disembarking delay, we had used up all our cushion of spare time and had no choice but to keep our bags with us and spring for a taxi to make it to our tour on time. Happily, our taxi driver zipped through traffic with ease and double checked that he was dropping us off at the right place. Our fare came to 41 Lira and some change and he rounded it down to an even 40 so we wouldn't have to split another bill. This tiny gesture of kindness was very touching, but little did we know it would come to stand out in a city where everyone seemed determined to part us from our money. Being swarmed by touts was a regular occurrence throughout the day - apparently I look like a gal who really desires faux designer perfumes!
Our tour, which we were so looking forward to, wasn't as we expected. The situation is deserving of its own blog post (read it here!) but suffice to say we were disappointed. Even worse, it wasn't as advertised and we did not experience a city tour nor a spice market visit. With a dedicated team of touts trailing us throughout the day (and, frankly, with some members of the tour team acting as salesmen), it was a frustrating afternoon.
If I could re-do any aspect of my trip, it would be my tour of Istanbul. I would have followed the self-guided tour of the old city detailed by my fellow travel bloggers The Barefoot Nomad, who did Must See Istanbul in 6 Hours. (Update! It's been over a year since I wrote this post and I'm STILL recommending this blog post. Seriously, it's awesome!)
Since our tour didn't stop at the spice market as planned, we decided to seek it out ourselves. The spice market was everything we hoped for, with endless sights and smells to process. While it would be impossible to give precise directions, if you happen to visit the spice market, I hope you can discover the same chicken donair stand that we found. It was on a short, small side passage which was next to an outside doorway near the New Mosque and it sold delicious chicken donairs (shaved, roasted, spiced chicken on baguette with cabbage and onion salad topping) for just 2.50 Lira). My goodness, it was unbelievably tasty! (Update from 2018 - We returned to look for this vendor again but a new shop is in its place. SO sad. He was the best!)
Following our visit to the spice market (and our delicious snack!) we set out to visit the New Mosque, which was only a few feet away. The New Mosque features stunning architecture and lovely mosaic designs and, with the hustle and bustle of the market just a few paces away, it was surprisingly calm, quiet, and peaceful inside. First time visitors will be happy to see comprehensive, multilingual signs detailing the rules of appropriate dress and behavior and there are complimentary headscarves on loan, as well as plastic bags for carrying your shoes. Our visit to the New Mosque offered us a reflective reprieve in the middle of our busy day and gave us the chance to get in touch with the city's spiritual side.
Our evening took an exciting turn when we next met up with our friend Katie for an insider's tour of the city by night. First up - food, of course!!! We went up some stairs, across a bridge, around several corners and after 20 minutes we found ourselves at what looked like a combination grocery store/deli/restaurant. With Katie acting as our guide we were able to choose a selection of grilled meats, sides, and salads. It was all so delicious and it was a great introduction to traditional Turkish cuisine. I tried simit bread for the first time, along with local olive oil and pomegranate molasses syrup. There was a big basket of simit on the table and I kept diving in for more! I lived in Istanbul I'd be eating simit all the time.
No meal would be complete without some sweet treats at the end, so we followed Katie through more streets and alleyways before coming across a shop she declared to have the best baklava in the city. After one bite, I have to say I'm inclined to agree! Ryan also experienced Turkish coffee for the first time. While the texture was quite a bit different from what he's use to, it was still a delicious experience and was well worth trying.
With our stomachs full, our feet rested, and caffeine coursing through our veins, we set out to follow Katie on a path to see her favourite sites of the city. Under her expert tutelage, Istanbul came to life. We took an underground funicular (the second oldest subway line in the world!) and emerged on some of the most vibrant, bustling, energetic streets I've ever seen. We followed Katie through the madness to a series of side streets and alleys and finally to an utterly unremarkable door. Up, up, up we went, about 6 stories of the tightest, steepest, winding stairs, at each level passing a random assortment of businesses, until we finally reached our destination. At the very top we entered a tiny, twisting, smoke filled bar with giant fish tanks as decor and a combination of low couches, beanbag chairs, and speakers to sit on. If my life depended on it, I would never be able to retrace my steps back again!
And suddenly - just like that - our time in Istanbul drew to a close and Katie walked us to the airport bus stop. For my first time in a hybrid city, I had experienced somewhat of a hybrid visit, with many ups and downs. Istanbul has proved itself worthy of a second visit but next time I'll do the touring independently on my own terms.
Previous stop: Day 6: Brussels
Next stop: Day 8 On Route to Bangkok
Related: Our Viator Tour of Istanbul
Update! We've since been back to Turkey! Here's what we were up to:
Ancient Ebru Painting In Istanbul
Istanbul's Top Budget Hotel
Holy Wisdom in Trabzon, Turkey
12,000 Years of History in Southeast Turkey
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