Embrace The Opportunities!
Has it ever happened to you that right before you go on vacations, right before you board that plane which will take you to that place/country you have been daydreaming for days having spent significantly amount of time planning, completing the itinerary, packing, etc… and just when that long-awaited day finally arrives and you are just about to board that plane, you get hit by reality…
…you have to change your travel destination…
Erase the images of your travels that have been playing in your head for days and create a whole new picture! Ok I can do that, after all I love having spontaneous travels…but then there’s the logistics issues: Book a new hotel, transportation, do research about your new destination, activities, tours… What’s there to do in Istanbul, Turkey anyways?!… turns out a lot! Where else can you walk in the footsteps of Roman emperors and Ottoman sultans; sleep in a neighborhood that is home to such international icons as the Hagia Sophia (AyaSofya), Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace; or sip tea as you bargain hunt your way through a twisted warren of lanes in the Grand Bazaar – the world’s oldest shopping mall? I couldn’t be more glad that I ended up in this beautiful city.
However, is better to have at least some knowledge of the city you are about to go to than reading all about it and planning the logistics during an 8 hour flight. Although there are some adventurous-junkies out there that would rather not plan anything…but for the rest of us, some planning would give us peace of mind (i.e. safely sleeping under a roof!)
So if you ever end up in Turkey (you know… just randomly) make sure to check out these must do’s:
- Sultanahmet (Old Constantinople): Take a stroll in the old town’s heart which is easily accessible from the tram station Sultanahmet, the tram costs about 4 TL (~$1.50). Once you are there it would be hard to miss the Blue Mosque and AyaSofya (which are directly across from each other); Topkapı Palace and Basilica Cistern are also walking distance from there.
- Boat ride through the Bosporus strait, Marmara sea, and Golden Horn strait: So there’s two ways to take a boat ride: the touristy way with a “tour guide” for $35.00 and the local way with no tour guide for $3.00. I prefer the second one, which happened when I accidentally boarded the wrong boat thinking it would take me across the golden horn strait (5 min) and took me to Kadıköy instead (20 min). If you just want to ride on a boat for the experience and see the breathtaking view of the landscape of Istanbul while feeding the seagulls, then I recommend the second one. You just won’t have a “tourist guide” pointing at buildings and giving you some background stories.
- Eat Fish in Eminönü: Wandering around the city is my favorite way of exploring a new place. It is free and provides the most breathtaking views and invaluable experience of your entire trip. Wander through the bazaars, the old streets leading down to Eminönü, and walk across the Galata bridge during the sunset while seeing the numerous fishermen with buckets full of fish from the golden horn strait; and while you are crossing the Galata Bridge, make sure you also cross under the bridge where you would find numerous restaurants. The best thing to try is Balik (fish) on bread, is a simple dish but very popular.
- Spice Bazaar/Grand bazaar: The Grand Bazaar (the oldest shopping mall in the world) and the Spice Bazaar was my favorite experience! Walking through the bazaar you will find numerous markets full of spices, sweets, nuts, teas, souvenirs, oils, rugs, hookah/nargile, etc. Definitely bring cash and be prepared to haggle with prices.
- İstiklâl Caddesi: This avenue is full of life! I recommend walking through this street at day time and night time. From Taksim square all the way to down to Şişhane station and even all the way down to Galata Tower if you are up for it. Here you will find numerous restaurants, shops, souvenirs stores, and bars/clubs at night time.
- Galata Tower: Going up is about 15TL (~$6.00) the views are breathtaking! According to history, around 1632 Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew as an early intercontinental aviator using artificial wings for gliding from this tower over the Bosporus to Anatolian side (6 kilometers away).
A note about the Turkish culture/hospitality:
The Turks are among the nicest people I have ever met. I was really astonished in several occasions where people would just offer their assistance without expecting anything in return (i.e. paying for my tram entrance when my card ran out saving me the trouble of going to the automatic machines to re-charge it, providing tokens for the boat when I realized the machine didn’t take coins, always greeting you with Turkish coffee or Çay (black tea) as a gesture of hospitality anywhere you go…which brings me to the next topic, food!
Turkish Cuisine is among the top 3 of the entire world! (Wikipedia said so) but I surely enjoyed the food. Döner kebab is extremely common and so delicious! My favorite is lamb kebab and is usually served with ayran which is a yogurt type beverage and it’s considered a national drink in Turkey. Turkish Coffee (kahve) and Turkish Tea (çay) are also commonly served as a gesture of hospitality (çay is normally served for free at restaurants after the meal) Oh and don’t forget the baklava! Although it is literally everywhere that it would be hard to miss 😉