After 12 hours in the air and waiting at the Frankfurt airport, we were relieved and thankful we had arranged for the hotel staff to pick us up at the airport. For first time visitors to Istanbul I recommend this approach. Tension drained from my shoulders when I saw the neatly printed sign with our name on it.
Our hotel, the Hotel Peninsula, is located on a pedestrianized street about a block (and about €400!) from the Four Seasons Hotel. I have completed a full review of the hotel so I will only say that we recommend it highly as excellent value for money. It is a five to ten minute walk to the major sites of the Sultanahemet area: Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Hippodrome Square.
We were fortunate to visit Istanbul for four days during Ramadan and then return for three days for Eid (the holiday following Ramadan.). A festive air prevailed throughout the city. In the evening, families strolled through the parks and grounds surrounding the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome. Temporary food stalls along the street provided everything from snacks to full meals. Although many individuals we spoke with, adhered to the daytime fast, we were able to eat where, when and what we wanted.
Istanbul is the cleanest city I’ve visited in Europe. Graffiti on walls and buildings is at a minimum and the public transit system (tram, buses, dolmus’, Metro and ferries) is clean and efficient.
In our seven days we saw a lot. Yet, we also missed a lot. Guide books provide ample expositions of the sites. I only offer some hopefully helpful hints for visitors. Primary among them is: arrive early or late to the major sites to miss the crowds. Prioritize your time. At the Topkapi Palace, is your main interest the harem complex or the treasures or the holy relics? Visit your interest first before tides of organized tours swamp you.
Although the Blue Mosque is magnificent, we preferred the New Mosque adjacent to the Spice Bazaar. The Blue Mosque had more the feel of a tourist attraction than a serene place of worship.
Aya Sofya’s mosaics are up the ramp to the left of the entrance. We arrived at opening and went directly to them and were rewarded with an unimpeded view. We were able to contemplate them in silence for a few minutes before crowds started to form. The massive “temporary” works rising to the dome’s apex have been there for decades. Repairs and refurbishing continue throughout the year.
For lovers of mosaics a visit to the Chora Museum (aka Kariye Camii Sok) is a must. One is able to get to the museum by public transportation and a short walk but a taxi ride is about 10 to 12 YTL from Galata Bridge. The church is small and I can almost guarantee that it will be crowded whenever you visit but it is worth it. The mosaics are magnificent! To properly view them, bring pocket binoculars.
I was going to give the Basilica Cistern a pass until my daughter recommended a visit. I’m glad I heeded her advice. I went early and avoided the crowd. Lighting, gentle classical music and solitude combined to create a serene setting, so different from the hustle above on the streets.
A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a must but only to experience the patter of the merchants, not to buy anything. We found the streets surrounding the Bazaar to have reasonable prices and merchants willing to bargain realistically. For a truly exciting shopping experience inquire at your hotel where and when local street markets occur.
A note on shopping. It will appear to you that everyone or everyone’s brother, cousin, father or friend has a carpet shop in Istanbul and indeed throughout the country. You will be approached; take it in good humour and keep walking. If you stop, be prepared for a loooong chat where each one of your arguments regarding your non-interest will be countered. I thought I had the perfect rejoinder to the inevitable “Well, what do you want? I can get it for you.” “Another wife.” With only the slightest hesitation and smile, the response came: “Well, my mother is a widow.” Then we both had a good laugh, shook hands and I was on my way. I did find the constant need to bargain for everything wearying. Whatever the posted or stated price of the article, start negotiations at a third of the price. Consider yourself lucky to walk away with the article at 2/3 the original asking price. Generally food at markets and in stores is not negotiable but I found that by having a questioning look on my face and by motioning to a lady Turk shopper at my side if she thought the price OK, would sometimes get me a reduction. Also you can negotiate lower prices at restaurants, particularly, the fish restaurants under Galata Bridge where competition is fierce – and prices totally unreasonable unless one bargains.
Istanbul offers a wide array of food, from simple fish and kőfte stands near the ferry terminals to fine hotel dining. We found that lokanti restaurants (cafeterias) offered good value for money. One has the added bonus that one need only point to what one would like. A filling, tasty meal with beverage can be had for around 10 YTL. We found the Can Restaurant a door down from the Pudding Shop mentioned in many guides offered good value. Fish sandwiches (two fish fillets with onions and lettuce on a fresh bun) from street vendors are 3YTL. We followed a Turkish friend’s advice and stayed away from the stuffed mussels also on offer by street vendors. Our hotel (and all those I researched) included breakfast in the room’s price. A Turkish breakfast consists of: hot hard boiled eggs, freshly baked bread and buns, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, yogurt with a variety of compotes, cookies and sweet rolls and coffee or tea. This was true for all the places we stayed in Turkey.
Our flight south to Antalya started from Sabiha Gőkçen Airport, on the Asian side outside of Istanbul. Any money saved by booking a cheaper flight from this airport would be wiped out by the approximately €60 taxi ride to the airport. Havas offers a bus shuttle for 10 YTL that takes about an hour. It departs its Taskim stop near the Turkish airlines office every hour on the hour. We found security check-in at airports to be less onerous than in North America.