I think. I’m in love.
It’s euphoric and thrilling and a little scary at the same time. But I want more. How can I put it: I got 99 problems, and they’re all different places I want to visit. And it all began in Istanbul.
So, let’s talk Turkey:
About a year ago, two best friends set out for a vacation.
Me: Okay girl, what do you think about Morocco?
Friend: How about Italy?
Me: You’ve been to Italy. Let’s go somewhere we both haven’t been.
Friend: That’s easy, you haven’t been anywhere.
Friend: Okay, wherever, just not Morocco.
Me: How about GREECE?
So, we decided on Greece through a group travel company called Contiki. We were so excited – being friends as long as we have been, it was high time for us to put our BFFship to the test and actually travel together. Plus, how fun would it be for us to meet fellow travelers on this island hopping voyage. For almost a full year, it was all conversations of bathing suits and suntan lotion, when all of a sudden, during booking our flights – we got a little wave of spontaneity in us.
Me: Hey girl, did you notice the option for a 19-hour layover in Istanbul? Should we get off and explore?
Friend: 19 hours? Let’s go a few days early and make a weekend of it.
Me: OK 🙂
Layovers are a tricky thing. At first you’re like ugh, what a drag, I just want to get to my destination. But then like a greedy part of your brain is like ooo, a layover, that’s like a bonus vacation. Except we took it a step further and stayed 4 nights and 3 days. We approached it as an appetizer to the “real” vacation – Greece – but it turned out to be a place where I left a piece of my heart, and I someday plan to return.
So what do two non-Turkish girls do in Istanbul for 3 days and 4 nights? 😉 Here are the highlights:
- Turkish Bath
- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Grand Bazaar
- Rooftop view near Bazaar
- Spice Bazaar
- Bosphorus Cruise
- Fish Market
- Stock Market
- Tons of eating, tons of walking around, and some train riding
Most of these were done on our last full day there on our guided tour through Walks of Turkey tours, which I highly recommend. (If you’re able to request a tour guide, ask for Yasmin. I don’t know the other guides, but I can’t imagine they’re any more knowledgeable and personable than she was.) The rest of our time was mostly spent taking strolls near our hotel and eating. 🙂 So it kind of went like:
Night 1: Walking around/eating/sleeping
Day/Night 2: Daytime exploring/visiting Nişantaşı to shop/eat
Day/Night 3: Individual exploring: Turkish Bath & Grand Bazaar (my favorite day)
Day/Night 4: The guided tour which was an 8-hour tour and absolutely captivating
To keep this blog post digestible – because it’s kinda long – I’m going to stop you here to let you know that I’ll break this down day by day below. After that, I’ll give some practical tips that may help another traveler going to Istanbul for the first time. So, scroll on as you see fit. P.S. the good stuff is on Days 3 & 4.
When we first arrived that Saturday night, I was pretty quiet. I get that way when I’m not sure how I quite feel about something, but at that time it was somewhere between excited and nervous. Understand, that up until I left, many friends and acquaintances responded to my Turkey vacation plans with warning and fear, you know like “be careful”, “I heard it’s dangerous out there right now”, “don’t say you’re from America”, “please don’t go.” So even though I obviously didn’t listen (typical of me), I still felt a little nervous. But I tried to block out the negativity and just enjoy it.
Note: I know those people all meant well because they care. Thank you, if you’re reading. And thank you for those who were super positive and encouraging!
The route from the airport to the hotel gave me a drive-by glimpse into some of the neighborhoods. Tall old grey apartment buildings stood proud and erect, speckled with colors from clothes hanging over the patio fences and the red Turkish flags displayed on windows. Similarly, the cars on the road were mostly old, and though that might not be the case in the more affluent parts of Istanbul that we missed, very rarely did I see luxury models. Traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as people warned me it would be (although, hello, I’m from LA), but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a constant symphony of car horns. Drivers here make their own lanes, drive in between lanes, text and drive with their stick shift cars, all while blaring their own Turkish music and honking at each other. You know, the stuff we do here, except there no one seemed to be worried about getting a ticket or anything.
Within 30 minutes, we get to our hotel and it was perfect. My friend and I had such a tug of war about choosing a hotel, actually. Istanbul lodging is so low-priced that you could find a decent hotel for like $20 a night. SERIOUSLY! But, because we wanted to be within walking distance of the highly regarded Nişantaşı area, we got something a little more “luxurious”. And the Arts Hotel in Istanbul wasn’t expensive, but comparatively speaking it wasn’t cheap, but I’m grateful we chose this as our hotel because not only was it clean and artsy with a good breakfast buffet, but the staff was amazing.
Hover over pictures to see captions.
I should mention pretty early on that I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that many people we encountered in Istanbul did not speak English. Please realize I’m not trying to sound like a snobby American who thinks we should all speak it, I’m just saying that I expected that in a place known for it’s tourism, that it would be used more, but it was not. Some of the staff at our hotel spoke English, but most did not. And note that this is not a complaint, just an observation. In fact on our guided tour – Day/Night 4 – our tour guide Yasmin said tourism has gone down so drastically in Turkey that the hospitality industry has taken a hit lately and therefore the need to speak English is not so relevant as it once was. True to her word, my friend and I were actually the only two people on the “group tour” for that day. That said, it was kind of difficult for me to connect with the people because it’s my natural inclination to want to talk to people. I learned something new about myself while on this vacation – I’m way more social than I thought I was, and I feel a sort of sadness that I can’t explain when I can’t connect with people. I felt like a fish out of water; in fact, it made me feel sort of depressed for the first two days and I couldn’t wait to leave.
*Queue the violins*
I know, so sad, right? I’m just being real, and I give that truth because it’s what makes this experience in Istanbul all the more enriching for me. Also, it’s an aspect of travel I didn’t expect to encounter, and it might be good for people to be aware of it so they’re not surprised if it happens to them, or if they meet someone new to their city who doesn’t speak the language.
Anyway, so yeah, Day/Night 1 we arrive, settle in. Walk around. And buy fruit from a street vendor on our way to dinner- white mulberries and mini apples (see the pics?). I wish we had more of these street vendors selling fruit in LA.
We stumbled upon a charming little restaurant with a big woodsy street patio and overall rustic appeal called Kırıntı. Since we didn’t see a host or anything, my friend sat herself on the street patio while I looked inside for a server for menus. I found a server and asked him if we can sit outside, he shrugs and says he doesn’t speak English and walks off. Luckily, another server came along and pointed me in the direction of an even better outdoor patio that totally looked like a countryside backyard lit up with string lights.
Our server didn’t speak much English, but he was so nice, and told us that he wishes to one day visit Los Angeles where we live. I ordered salmon and my friend ordered the sandwich below, both meals were phenomenal. Our server also recommended a FIRE dessert called mille-feuille. It was so good. If you know me at all, you know I loooooooooove a good dessert, and this one was one of the best. (Anyone know if you can get this in LA?)
On the way back from dinner, we passed by some serious club scenes. We were tired, and not dressed for dancing, but we were eager to do something that didn’t involve knowing Turkish – the universal language of shaking what yo mama gave you. We decided to head back to the hotel to get ready and come back – after all it was Saturday night.
Unfortunately, we made it back to town too late and the clubs were closing when once we arrived. On a positive note though, all dressed up and no where to go had us two girls walking around Istanbul pretty darn late, 2 am late. And no one gave us trouble. I didn’t see any drunk people, dudes hollering, or even homeless people that might’ve caught us off guard. Just cats.
Side note: Did you know that Turkey is famous for their cats? Yup, roaming all around the city are cats. It’s not a joke – there are cat parks even! Like people donate cat food outside of some parks, and sometimes go in the park to pet some of them. The cats there go anywhere they want, and there’s so many of them, it’s not like you could really even control it.
Day/Night 2: On this day we slept in. Had the provided breakfast buffet at the hotel (the best of all the hotel breakfasts during our whole vacation). And then we walked to the Nişantaşı Besiktas area where we discovered a little college town and some parks around the Bosphorus strait. It was nice to get out and stretch our legs and sort of just roam around. One place on my list to visit, was the Besiktas Football store. We really hoped to catch an actual soccer game while we were there, but our time there was just short enough to miss a game. But I still wanted to get a little memento from there so I literally came, saw, and got the t-shirt.
From there we found a really cool hipster-ish type bar/restaurant called Joker 19 that looked so much like something we’d have in LA – you can even bring your dog! That was cute and all until some of the cats started showing up.
We walked back to our hotel, about 40 minutes away, and talked about what we wanted to do for Day 3. We knew our Day 4 was our all-day tour, so tomorrow would be the only day for us to do the stuff not on the itinerary. I was dead set on a Turkish Bath and the Grand Bazaar; she was up for anything. We said we both wanted to see a belly dance dinner show.
We arrived at the hotel, had dinner, and I quickly fell asleep.
Day/Night 3: I woke up ready to hit the ground running – today was the day we were going to do fun stuff! But my friend was sick. She wasn’t sure she could make the Turkish bath. “You can go without me,” she said.
There were a few ground rules we had when we planned this trip: 1. No drinking (oops) 2. No flirting or talking to guys 3. No traveling without each other
I was conflicted. I didn’t want to go alone. I was 50% bummed to not be with my bestie and 50% scared to go alone. But I reeeeeeally wanted a classic, traditional Turkish bath. I mean who knows the next time I’ll ever come here again. So I went to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı and it was an absolute dream!
The Hamam/Turkish Bath
If you’ve never visited a hamam before, you should. It’s a spa, essentially, and you get a centuries-old treatment of having your body scrubbed in a traditional bath house in a way that is ancient and legendary. Here’s how it goes:
- You arrive there and disrobe, put your ish in a locker, and wrap yourself in a towel.
- As per tradition, you have a small glass of pomegranate juice before you enter the bath. (Phones are not allowed past this point, hence the lack of pictures.) After that, you are escorted to the actual hamam.
- In the hamam, you are directed to a large round marble slab in the center of the room. You set your towel aside and lay on the heated marble naked, staring up at the dome ceiling where light cut-outs pour in ample amounts of natural light.
It was heavenly. So you just lay there, close your eyes, and relax, alone with your thoughts, and the sun, and the sound of water from the baths (and several other naked women).
The bath itself reminded me of being a kid when my mom would scrub me while I sat. It’s very maternal, – gentle and relaxing – yet just abrasive enough so that they get all that dead skin off. It doesn’t hurt though, it’s just enough of an exfoliation so that they can scrape off all that dead skin you never knew you had. The whole thing takes about 45 minutes After you’re done, they escort you back into the lobby area where you await your massage, or just chill.
After my bath, I was walking on a cloud. I get back to the hotel, and embark on the second part of my tour – the illustrious Grand Bazaar. I was so excited. I ask the concierge for directions. He draws me a map: catch the train, switch trains, exit at SultanAhmet. Then he does something so kind I wanted to hug him. He pulls out his wallet and hands me his Metro card. He said that there should be enough money to get me there and back, but there was a chance that I’d have to add Turkish Lira to it. God Bless that man.
So there I was, walking to the Metro like I knew what’s up. I marveled at how cool it was that I was there and on a subway, and amongst the locals, in this city. On the outside I just looked like a regular commuter, but on the inside I was jumping up and down!
This train went into SultanAhmet, where all the historical landmarks are – Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Basilica, and the Grand Bazaar. Old shops and narrow streets, all with the breathtaking blue water backdrop of the Bosphorus. Damn this place is gorgeous, I thought. Water on one side, and historical landmarks on the other. We’d be here again tomorrow for our tour, but I was so glad to be doing this alone and at my own pace, because moments like these can’t be disturbed.
The Grand Bazaar
The Bazaar is right off the train exit. It was Monday but it was crowded. I was so ecstatic, but also trying really hard to remain cool and lowkey and like a total hardass so I wouldn’t get hustled. I really kind of worked myself up with all these thoughts:
- OmG, I’m actually here!
- Don’t talk to anyone.
- Negotiate, Susie!
- Oh wow, that’s so pretty.
- Where are the Turkish lamps?
- How cool, they’re addressing me in Turkish, I totally blend in.
- Look like you know what you’re doing, Medina!
The voices in my head were starting to overwhelm me and plus with all the excitement of my day, I actually think I forgot to eat. I planned to get myself a kunefe a few train stops down, and head home. Mmmm kunefe … so good.
But I never got that far. I got distracted by bright lights that flickered from a doorway outside the main part of the Bazaar. Ah, the Turkish lamp shop – a beautiful menagerie of color and shapes that gives you the illusion of walking into a fairy tale land. I involuntarily floated over to this shop, this was one of the things I wanted to get from here – the reason I brought two damn suitcases (something I hated myself for in Greece)!
Every time I thought I knew which one I wanted, another one with equal amounts of sparkling beauty competed with it, and I couldn’t make up my mind. The shopkeeper interrupted my thoughts when he greeted me “Merhaba.” I said it back trying to act all local, but he called my bluff and said something else in Turkish that totally sold me out. Luckily he spoke English. He asked me if I had any questions, but I didn’t. He offered me tea or coffee as I shopped (typical in the Bazaar), I said no thanks. I wanted to still bask in this moment of being in these bright colorful twinkling lights.
Ugur (pronounced “oor”) left me alone for some time, but came back to ask me if I wanted to see anything else up close, or as a combination with another lamp. There were just SO many options! I sat as he showed me some of the lamps I liked most (and that could reasonably fit in a suitcase). Can you imagine working in a place like this – it’s like walking through a damn kaleidoscope. I ended up taking him up on his offer for tea and buying two lamps.
I was pleased leaving that shop – I had made my first Turkish friend. All of a sudden, my social anxiety sort of melted away and I fluttered around the Bazaar like the social butterfly that I am, making conversations with other shop owners.
The next day when we went there for our tour, I ran into two of my new “friends” and hugged them. Our guide Yasmin was so confused. She’s like “how do you know these people?!” Haha
Ah, I find this day sort of bittersweet. It was our last day there, but the first day I really started to love this place.
The Blue Mosque
The guided tour started at exactly 8 am. Our “group” was to meet at the “entrance” of the Blue Mosque, only the group consisted of only my friend and me, and the Blue Mosque has 8 entrances. We couldn’t find our tour guide, so we headed into the Mosque by ourselves.
I’d never been to a mosque before, but I knew I’d have to cover my head and take off my shoes. The Blue Mosque has attendants at the entrance who will give you covers and take your shoes, in case you’re ill prepared. The Mosque, though a famous landmark, is still actively used and is closed to visitors during prayer time.
After the Blue Mosque and a few rounds of phone tag, we find our tour guide Yasmin. She is so smart and knowledgeable about everything she showed us.
The Hagia Sofia was our next stop, and frankly one of the ornate places I’ve seen to date.
The Hagia Sofia had been a church that turned into a mosque turned back into a church. Iconography from both Christianity and Islam adorn with holy place and it is the most beautiful edifice I have ever laid my brown eyes on. It’s incredible the amount of detail that is in the decor of the now-museum; I believe one full day tour could be dedicated alone to this place because each painting and pattern has a story, let alone the history itself of the place and how different rulers influenced it in their own ways.
From there, we headed to the Bazaar again, but first, we made a pit stop. 🙂
Kunefe – High on the Bucket List
I hadn’t had kunefe at all since being here and it was high on my list of things to do. We got it at this restaurant called Hafiz Mustafa which has other desserts, food, tea and coffee. And of course Turkish Delights.
The only negative about having your favorite dessert in the region that perfects it, is having to return home without finding a comparable version.
The Grand Bazaar (again)
So we go back to the Bazaar. I feel like a boss this time – running into people I know, hardballing vendors, basically showing off in front of my friend. I bought most of my souvenirs this day: hookahs, jewelry, olive oil, tea, Turkish bath soaps and scrubs, I couldn’t shop too much though because we still had things to do on our tour.
The Rooftop View of Istanbul
Yasmin took us to the rooftop of a store just outside of the Bazaar. Rooftops are commonly places to hang out, and who could argue with that when you have a view like the one behind me. It was hot this day, and we had been walking around ALL day and were not amused to have to climb all those stairs with all our stuff from the Bazaar. But, this view humbled me, and the breeze cooled us down. I was beginning to really love Istanbul in this moment.
Our poor tour guide. At this point she had mentioned several times that we got a lunch included with our tour. My friend and I were like ‘nah, we’re okay’ but sweet Yasmin kept bringing it up. It dawned on us that she might actually be the one who was hungry. So we got some doner kebabs at a restaurant just before embarking on the Bosphorus Cruise, which is a ferry ride along most of the coast of the Bosphorus – which would show us more of Istanbul.
The Bosphorus Cruise
As incredible as this boat tour was, this was when the real pang of disappointment hit me. Being on that hour-long cruise showed us the 90% of Istanbul we totally didn’t see. I was both mesmerized and disheartened that there was so much of this beautiful historical city that I was missing. Four nights is not nearly enough time for just this part of Turkey, let alone the whole country. How naive that we originally just wanted this trip to be a layover quick sight-seeing opportunity.
I knew right then and there that I would have to come back to Turkey and do all the things I had on my wish list to do (catch a soccer game, see a Dervish dance or belly dance show, see the Galata Tower, go to a club, Bodrum, Marmaris).
We ended our trip by the end of the boat ride – exhausted yet enchanted by Istanbul.
Needless to say, I will definitely return. I had a slow start to being receptive to this place, but by the end, I loved it. Even though this post is insanely long, there’s a lot that happened besides what I’ve included here, that made me really appreciate the people and culture.
To anyone toying with the idea of going, you should. It wasn’t scary. People weren’t mean. In some cases, they were not overly friendly, but they were obliging, and respectful. I mentioned not feeling unsafe when walking late at night on the streets, and no one harassed us any other time either. Customs gave us no problems, everything was fine.
If you do go, however, here are some tips:
- Learn some Turkish. Or at least don’t expect people to know English. On my 3rd day there, I found people in the historic district and Grand Bazaar who knew English, but it’s just easier for you if you have a basic knowledge of phrases.
- Turkish Lira is 1/3 the value of our dollar, so 3 TL is $1 for us, so shop away!
- Allergy medicine – if you’re allergic to cats.
- (For women) Something to cover your head with if you plan to visit the mosques
- An extra set of underwear, if you go to the Hamam
- Dress tastefully. This place has a large religious population (95% Muslim), so don’t expect to see people dressed like they’re on Spring Break, and don’t be the a-hole who decides to do it. (As I understand it though, if you’re going to the beach cities in other parts of Turkey, you can dress more liberally.)
- The Grand Bazaar bathrooms cost 1TL to use.