Our Viator excursion was anything but what we expected.
In a recent post, Istanbul in an Instant, we spoke of our excitement to be in Istanbul for the day and our desire to experience a little bit of everything. We were very much looking forward to taking part in Viator's Istanbul City Tour with Bosphorus Strait Sightseeing Cruise, which promised a city tour, a boat tour, and a tour of the spice market. Unfortunately, nothing went as planned or expected.
The mishaps stared when we were dropped off at our meeting point. A staff member of one of the restaurants listed as a landmark immediately ushered us through their doors and into the main dining hall. When we explained that we were not there to eat, but simply to meet a tour group outside, they became very agitated. They didn't want to let us leave, then tried to demand tips for helping to unload our bags. The day was not off to a good start!
When we finally were able to walk down the road to our main meeting point we were met by a lone tour bus driver who seemed utterly bemused that we were there 15 minutes early! Finally after much discussion it was finally decided that early arrivals were able to sit in the restaurant courtyard. So we sat for the next 15 minutes, ignored by the gathering tour guides who were talking and smoking a few feet away. To say our welcome was anything but warm was an understatement. Finally, when the clock struck the hour, one of the tour guides called our number and waved us over to a newly arrived tour bus.
Once on board the mini bus, our guide introduced himself (but didn't ask us our names) and explained the tour itinerary - a boat tour and a cable car ride. Huh!?!?! Where was the city tour; the spice market tour? Where did this cable car ride come from? Feeling a bit stunned, we looked through the company's brochure and, sure enough, that was what the tour consisted of. We're not sure why the local tour provider's schedule didn't correspond with the description advertised by Viator. We decided to go with the flow (it's not like there was anything we could do) but we were honestly very disappointed that our tour was nothing like we expected.
As we made our way to the pier to take our boat ride, the guide did point out a few different sites of interest as we drove by. He seemed quite knowledgeable but lacked enthusiasm, and this commentary certainly didn't constitute any kind of tour, as 15 minutes would go by without any information. After weaving our way through the thick traffic we finally made it to the boat. I soon learned that the promise of a "private" boat was rather hollow, as technically all boats in Istanbul are private in some way, unless they're a public ferry! Once on board we were joined by another tour group. While the boat had both an enclosed first level and an open air top level, the commentary could only be heard from where the guide stood on the top level. Unfortunately, it had rained in the morning and puddles of water covered the chairs and benches and our efforts to dry a seat with a nearby cloth were rebuffed and the cloth was taken away. Therefore, in order to hear any tour commentary we had no choice to stand on the top level in the mist.
Throughout the course of our 90 minute boat ride of the Bosphorus we heard standard commentary identifying the main sights along the shores, from ancient mosques to new luxury hotels. I enjoyed seeing the sites both on the river and on the banks but the commentary was rather uninspired. After standing for the better part of an hour and a half, I have to confess I was eager to get back on (dry!) land.
Our next stop was Pierre Loti hill, where we had 10 minutes or so to admire the view before joining the line to ride the cable car back down to sea level. The views from Pierre Loti hill were beautiful, and I enjoyed looking down to see the old graveyard hidden among the trees.
The cable car experience was...interesting. The experience of lining up was the stuff of Disney nightmares, with people crammed, pushing a bit, chaos all around. But once we got on the cable car we were treated to gorgeous views of the city as it settled into dusk. It really was a lovely site and we got a good sense for just how big the city was.
We had very mixed feelings about this tour. Any one of the snafus - the attempted restaurant shakedown, the lack of a warm welcome, the unannounced and unexpected change in tour program, the wet and uncomfortable boat ride, the uninspired boat tour commentary, the crazy lines at the cable car - would make for a less than successful day but together they made for a comedy of errors. Any bright points, like the amount of time spent on the water or the beauty of the landscape, were almost missed between all the problems.
I would only recommend this tour to someone who was very interested in seeing the sites of the Bosphorus and wouldn't require extensive background information or guidance. At nearly $50 a person it didn't represent good value and it didn't give us a good feel for the city as first time visitors. Fortunately, we had enough time free in the evening to see the spice market on our own time and do some additional exploring to make our visit to Istanbul feel more complete.
PS: Want more opinions on tours in Istanbul? You can see a list of tours and reviews here.
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We were partners with Viator for this experience. This did not influence my review and all opinions remain my own.