My trip to Istanbul was inspirational, educational, a gastronomic pilgrimage, exciting, touristy, lots of walking (not complaining), relaxing and highlighted the value of planning a trip to Turkey well.
For the benefits of my friends, any Romans and fellow countryfolk, I am going to break this guide into the following 5 parts.
Apart from the above topic, I’ll also touch upon –
2) Key tips that might be useful
3) Getting there / Local Travel
4) Places that are worth visiting in Istanbul
5) Things worth buying, maybe
So lets start with – you guessed it right – food. And I’ll let the expert whet your appetite before I suggest any meals that are worth a steal. So take it away, Anthony (a man whose love for food and sarcasm that is so close to mine). I know, self-praise. But what the hell, that could have easily been me.
2) KEY TIPS THAT MIGHT BE USEFUL
Is Istanbul safe for women traveling alone?
Well, I have been told by two women, who were traveling in Istanbul alone that they found salesmen and tour guides were more bold and persistent when it came to selling their wares to solitary woman. Young men on the street were more prone to ask questions, try to strike up a conversation, flirt, follow a bit etc.
This wasn’t the case when they were moving around the city with another guy.
It was also observed that the city was very cosmopolitan. Young couples holding hands or sharing a fleeting kiss in the tram/metro were not a rare sight at all. This is somewhat unexpected in an Islamic country.
Verdict: If you are moving around with a group, and generally confident, you will not be bothered at all.
How do we get about – communicating?
English is spoken mostly by the young urban population, or by shopkeepers in the ‘Sultanahmet region’ – which is where the droves of tourists descend. However, once you start moving away from the center, and want to try some street side food, the Queen’s language is unlikely to help much. It is highly advised to learn some Turkish words and phrases. A strategy that worked for me was to declare, in Turkish, – “That I do not know Turkish, only a few phrases, please answer in English”
I felt words like – ‘Slow down, please bear with me, some more time’ – were useful
I would follow that up by asking things like – “What is this? How much? Is this beef or lamb? Where is this? Thank you etc.” in Turkish. Brace yourself for replies in Turkish. So based on your limited vocabulary if you can understand what they are saying, great!
It is also a lot of fun to step into an eating joint, and observe how people are ordering things – like the buffet meals – and following them up to the till to understand how it works.
How do we get about – finding our way?
Maps maps maps! They are very useful. Your hostel / hotel will have maps of the ‘Sultanahmet’ area that are very useful for visiting the beautiful historical sites in the city.
If you take the Havatas from Sabiha Gokcen to Taksim square, there is a Tourist Information Center near the bus stop. It looks like the entrance to a house / office in a European-Victorian house. You can get some free maps and leaflets. However, the maps given by the hostels / hotels are much better for exploring, trekking the ‘Sultanahmet’ area.
How do we get about – local travel?
This is their equivalent of an Oyster card or Metro card. Buying this is highly advised. It costs 7TL (of which 5-6 TL is refundable) and then you load the card with another 7-10 TL. If I remember correctly, each journey costs between 1.5 TL to 3TL.
I did not use the public buses, so I am not sure how that experience will be. I have heard that they are fine. I understand Taxis can be cost effective if the purchasing power of your currency is better than the Indian Rupee!!
BACK TO THE FOOD – Part 2
3) GETTING THERE / LOCAL TRAVEL – Part 1
Part 1 is about getting to Istanbul proper.
For my classmates going from the the UK.
a) I took (Sl)Easy Jet from London Luton Airport
– I booked my tickets around 07 Nov 2012 for a flight on 15 / 16 Dec 2012. Since it was holiday season, I think I paid around 100-120 pounds for a one way ticket. So maybe that is one place where you can save.
– Easy jet lands at Sabiha Gokcen Airport and that is not, as you will realize at the end of this sentence, Kamal Ataturk International Airport.
– Sabiha Gokcen is over in the Asian side. Now that doesn’t mean it is somewhere in the Indian subcontinent. It is only 1-2 hours away from ‘Sultanahment’ by bus / taxi or mini-van ride (depending on traffic). ‘Sultanahmet, the somewhat ‘central part’ of the city is where you will find nearly ALL the historic sites, and history inspired tourists gaping at them.
– So how do I get to ‘Sultanahmet’? Cheap, you say? Well for starters, get some currency exchanged at the booth called ‘Post Office’ when you step just outside the departure area after collecting your baggage. Outside means just outside. Don’t be silly like me and exchange it at the ‘Post Office’ booth next to the baggage reclaim area. To be honest it doesn’t make much of a different. The exchange rate inside was 1 pound = 2.4 or 2.5 Lira and just outside was 1 pound = 2.7 Lira.
– You could be silly like me and believe the somewhat attractive Turkish girl that appears to be the only one that speaks English at the Airport and will claim to offer you a very cheap and convenient shared taxi / mini-van to Sultanahmet that will drop you just outside your hostel
This is a good option if you want to be dropped off just outside your hostel. However, at 35 Liras per person I realized that it was a bit expensive. The mini-van is certainly safe, convenient and quick (depending on traffic). The day we landed was the day of the EPIC football game – Galatasaray Vs Fenerbache – so there was traffic, but nothing compared to traffic in an Asian city.
The Havatas bus service leaves Sabiha Gokcen Airport every 1 hour. These buses take 12-15 Turkish Lira to drop you off at Kadikoy (which is still in the Asian side) or at Taksim Square (European side, closer to Sultanahment).
From Kadikoy you can take the Tram / Metro to the port, take a Ferry and get to Sultanahmet in Istanbul. (3.5 + 2 TL)
From Taksim bus-station you can walk to the nearest Metro station (5-10 minutes) and take the Metro / Tram to Sultanahmet (3.5 TL)
We took the Havatas on our return journey from Taksim Square to Sabiha Gokcen. It was very comfortable – clean bus – plenty of space – not crowded.
b) Turkish Airlines from London Heathrow
– I’ve heard it is a cheap option. A fellow traveller took Turkish Airlines to Kamal Attaturk Airport, transferred at the airport and took the Turkish Airlines flight straight to Kayseri airport. This city is 75 kilometers away from Cappadocia.
3) PLACES THAT ARE WORTH VISITING in ISTANBUL
Hagia Sophia / Ayha Sofia