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All my life I dreamed of going to Istanbul, and I finally made it. Some things were impressive, some things could have been a lot better and one thing couldn’t have been worse.Photos of Istanbul
Istanbul is the first country I’ve traveled to that I needed a visa for. I purchased one in advance, which only cost $20. It would have been $30 when I arrived, which still isn’t much, but every penny counts when you’re traveling the world. The Turkish visa is good for unlimited entries of up to ninety days in a six month period of time.
I officially arrived in Istanbul at 8 AM on July 18th, the day my visa started. I had an overnight bus which left Skopje, Macedonia at 7 PM the previous night, and traveled via Greece. That was a disappointment for me, as I really wanted to see Greece. At least I could have seen the coastline, but it was too dark to see anything from the bus overnight.
When I arrived in Istanbul, I dived right into trying to work out the local transportation. I followed some locals to the metro station and took it into town. From there I was to get a tram to my hostel, but I decided to walk instead as it was only about four kilometers. However, after three kilometers I was tired and really needed to use a bathroom. Hey, I’m human too! I checked hostelworld and found I was right next to a hostel which was one of the cheapest in town. So instead of walking the final kilometer, I checked into the Cordial House Hostel, used the restroom, took a shower and dropped my bags off so I could explore the town in comfort.
I started with the Arasta Bazaar behind the Blue Mosque. This bazaar primarily focuses on textiles, carpets and jewelry, but also has its share of spice and sweet shops. In the more touristy portion of old Istanbul, it was more eye candy than anything else.
Then it was exploring the area around the blue mosque. There are several ancient monuments, such as the Walled Obelisk, Egyptian Obelisk, Serpent Column and German Fountain. I continued through to Gülhale Park next to Topkapi Palace and finally went to explore the Grand Bazaar. That’s when I noticed how few people there were in town that day, and why.
The Grand Bazaar was closed!
It turned out I had arrived the day Ramadan ended and everyone was feasting with family after a month of fasting. Consequently, half the places in town were closed for the next three days, and I suppose most tourists knew this as they hardly showed up either during that time. So I pretty much had the city to myself. With hardly anything to do.
By this time it was getting close to dinner time and I set out in search of a good place to eat local food. I walked around the entire peninsula, from the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque all the way around to Galata Bridge, and then went back to my hostel. It turned out that one of the highest rated restaurants in the area for local food was next door to the hostel!
Having built up my appetite, I sat down at Ortaklar for a chicken kebab. I was surprised how good it was. I mean, I know that technically kebabs come from Turkey, but I’ve always thought of them as fast food. This was anything but. I would relate it to a fancy Mexican dinner, but with a Turkish twist. Fantastic to the last bite, as were the two free cups of Turkish tea I was given afterwards.
Satiated, I went back to the hostel to work on the blog for a few minutes before passing out in the common room. It turned out I had less sleep on the overnight bus from Skopje the night before than I thought.
Another hot day. I went across Galata Bridge and up İstiklal Avenue (translates to Independence or Freedom Street) to Taksim square to meet with a Couchsurfing host who was unable to host me, but still wanted to meet up. I almost missed our meeting time when I saw all the dolphins in the Bosphorus from the bridge. While I did get a recording of one jumping out of the water, I wasn’t good enough to get a picture of one. Sigh…time for a better camera.
The next several hours were spent talking about the town, the culture and the history of Istanbul, among other things. She also took me to some good places to eat, but just like the day before they were all closed for the holidays. I did get to try a “wet” burger at Kızılkayalar. These world famous burgers, selling for less than €1 each, are like a New York meatball slider. Mouthwatering delicious and probably not that healthy, but well worth it and the perfect snack to go with a pint.
İstiklal Avenue was also a great place to get sweets and drinks. I purchased several cups of orange juice from a seller for 1 lira each (about €.40) walking up and down the street. And then I found Galata Tower Sweets just below the tower itself. I meet Jayhun (spelling) the manager, who gave my friends and I (on several occasions) several samples of Turkish delight and samples of fresh, homemade apple tea. He also briefed us on the different types of delight, how it was made, etc. His information on Turkish teas was also great, and my friends purchased the raw ingredients to make their own.
After that it was back to the bridge for photos of the sunset, which turned out to be spectacular every day I was in Istanbul. The only problem with sunsets is my camera just isn’t good enough to do it justice, but I still took several dozen photos trying. Finally it was time to grab my bags from Cordial House and move to the hostel I would be meeting a friend at in a couple days. Best Island Hostel. I’m not usually one to complain in my blog, but this turned out to be the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in. I’ll wrote a full blog post about that soon, along with information on how to avoid a bad hostel.
With the Grand Bazaar open again, I went to explore one of the most famous shopping districts on Earth. What a great experience. There was so much for sale. Photos will never do it justice. The sounds of all the traders and sellers made a song of their own. But the most impressive by far were the smells. Nearly each stall had its own scents wafting out, whether spices or Turkish delight or soaps or rugs. And the whole area in an enclosed building right out of some fantasy movie. I’ve been to a lot of bazaars in my travels, but nothing like that. Walking through, listening to Evanescence and eating Turkish delight was simply blissful.
The bazaar continued outside, where the prices dropped from dirt cheap to ridiculously cheap. This is where the locals did their shopping, and some products could be purchased for one twentieth of what they would cost in the US or other countries. A little bit further was the spice market. If the smells in the Grand Bazaar were impressive, those in the spice market were simply heavenly. It was one of those really rare moments when I actually started walking slower. Well…at normal speed. Just a little longer to enjoy such a crazy potpourri of odors mingling through the air.
Throughout the day, and the day before, I had asked several locals what was a good place to eat. I was shocked at their answers. MacDonald’s and Burger King. Why? Because they were the cheapest places in town. I’ve boycotted the Golden Arches for eighteen years, and Burger King for nearly as long. So I asked on Facebook if I should give up my boycott to “eat like a local,” or if anyone had any suggestions for me.
The suggestions came fast, and they couldn’t have been better. The first one I accepted was from Kate at AdventurousKate who recommended a tiny whole in the wall called Kismet Muhallebecisi and their chicken pudding. What an interesting concept. So interesting that I wrote a whole blog post about it here.
The next day I met a few friends from hostel who had heard about a free walking tour online. We all went out in search of it by the fountain in front of the Hagia Sophia. After several minutes without success, we found other travels looking for the same tour. It turns out that the tour was a scam to get tourists to simply show up to the fountain where others could try to sell them boat tours on the Bosphorus, or other paid tours.
So instead we did our own little tour. We explored the Blue Mosque, walked back up İstiklal Avenue and got more Turkish delight, checked out the different shops and drank more of the orange juice. we also went to another restaurant which had been suggested to me on Facebook, and incidentally was the same restaurant my couchsurfing host had tried to take me to a couple days before when they were closed. Balkan Lokantasi. It turns out there are several of these restaurants around Istanbul, and they really are one of the best places to eat. The buffet style menu is dirt cheap, and the quality is exceptional. For About €5 I ended up eating way too much food.
Around 4, another traveling friend arrived in town. After dropping off her bags at the hostel, we headed out for dinner. Or breakfast for her after her flight. I was still stuffed from Lokantasi, but I made room for another local dish, and of course more Turkish delight.
Wednesday was the big day. We started off exploring the Basilica Cisterns. This ancient cistern is awesome. Measuring 9800 square meters (105,000 square feet), they are the largest of several hundred cisterns beneath Istanbul. 336 marble columns 10 meters high support the ceiling, and the complex is capable of containing 100,000 tons of water! This is a structure built nearly 1500 years ago!!! Not only that, the water is fed via aqueducts from the Belgrade Forest 19 kilometers north of the city. Safe to say, this was my favorite part of Istanbul. For your own plans, the cost is 12 lira to enter, and credit cards are not accepted.
After that, we all went to the Hagia Sophia. This impressive church is now a museum, and unfortunately partially under construction. There is a short video presentation when you enter. Otherwise, there is not much of a museum to it. It was originally the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and then an imperial mosque. The cost to enter is 30 lira, which is about €12.
After that it was once again up İstiklal Avenue, stopping to get some tulumba (Turkish churros) which almost made me sick for being too sweet, and then lots more Turkish delight at Galata Tower Sweets. Finally we went for lunch. Rosie and I tried manti. This is a Turkish ravioli made with lamb and yogurt, among other ingredients. Nothing like Italian ravioli, but rather filling. Then we all had Turkish ice cream, which will be the subject of another post in the near future.
The rest of the day was spent wandering around more of the city. Another trip to the Grand Bazaar, a walk in the Gulhane Gardens, etc. That night though we had some impressive entertainment at a local cafe. Soon after our pizza arrived, the waiters started passing around strips of toilet paper, which we then waved in the air to Sweet Caroline. This was followed by a YMCA dance and finally a Macarena dance, with all diners participating.
This was play day. As in a ferry ride to the Prince Islands for 6 lira and swimming in the Sea of Marmara. For the first time in my travels, and the first time in years for that matter, I actually managed to get sunburned. Not badly, but I’m sure to see some peeling soon. Hey, I needed the tan.
The Prince Islands are definitely tourist destinations. The restaurants are all touristic. The beaches are for tourists. Actually, on the island we went to there is really just one beach to enjoy and that beach has an entrance fee. The rest of the island just has rocks leading down to the water, We decided to just get some sun on the grass and then go for a short swim off the rocks.
That turned out to be quite an adventure. Even though we were in the Sea of Marmara, all the boats and ferries going by created quite a few waves. After I swam by myself for awhile, I invited the girls in too. They just weren’t ready for the force of the waves pushing them into the rocks. So I protected them, putting myself between them and the rocks. I noticed the rocks had some coral on them, but I didn’t really grasp the consequence of my actions until a few minutes later, when I saw my hands, shins and feet were bleeding from dozens of razor sharp cuts. Oh my! But they didn’t have a cut on them, so I was happy!
We grabbed a bite to eat at the least touristy restaurant we could find on the island, had some ice cream and then grabbed a ferry back to the mainland. I took a shower at the hostel, grabbed my bags and headed to the bus station to catch the last ride to Sofia, Bulgaria.
Overall, Istanbul is not in my list of favorite cities. Maybe it was just because the city was so huge. When we took the ferry ride for over an hour to the Prince Islands, the city just kept going. There are 14 million people who live in Istanbul. And the land area of the city is not that great, compared to other cities with the same population. It has the same population as the Los Angles metropolitan area, but is smaller than Los Angeles city itself, which only has less than 4 million.
I also met some of the rudest people in my travels in Istanbul, which was unusual for me. There was the ice cream vendor who threatened to hit us with his crow bar when he overcharged us. There was the hostel staff at Best Island Hostel, one of which would argue with everything, and another one who was texting the girl in the bunk next to me every fifteen minutes to have sex with her. There were the several locals who gave me wrong directions. There was the fake advertisement for a free walking tour. I’m not saying that everyone there was bad, but more than other places.
I will say that Istanbul is one of the great cities on Earth, and it was worth the trip. But I don’t think it’s a place I would want to visit again. But I will definitely visit Turkey again. There are many places in Turkey that I would love to see, such as the hot springs in Pamukkale, the rock formations in Cappadocia, ruins of Troy, etc. Someday. Oh boy does the bucket list just keep getting longer!