Rich history, vibrant culture, delectable cuisine and stunning architecture await you in Istanbul, the "heartbeat of Turkey", where East meets West.
If you’re aching for a new cultural experience, but only have a long-weekend or so to spare, be adventurous and journey to Istanbul. Within a few short hours you could find yourself basking in the Middle Eastern flair of Turkey.
The price is right too, considering the low cost of a round trip flight, the fantastic array of budget options once you are there. I usually do at least a bit of itinerary planning in advance, however, our trip was more of a whimsical flight of fancy.
We did nothing in the way of preparations; we simply bought a plane ticket and left a week later. Not a problem: the nice people at the Istanbul airport information desk directed us onto a bus to the centre, which leaves every fifteen minutes.
Immediately upon our arrival in Istanbul we landed a simple hostel smack in the middle of Sultanahmet, the old historical centre. Sultanahmet is the best place to look for a cheap to mid-range hostel or hotel.
Taskim Square has several modern middle to upper-end hotels. This side of the city is a fantastic location for any traveler since it is flanked by the outstanding Hagia Sofia (The Church of the Divine Wisdom), which has been standing for 14 centuries) and the Blue Mosque, one of the most breathtaking of Istanbul’s many mosques.
The Topkapi Palace should definitely not be missed. It was the regal home of the sultans from the 1400’s until the early 19th century. There is a separate fee to take a tour of the harem, and I highly recommend playing the extra money to view the intricate tile work and marvelous spectrum of color within.
Other sights to check out include Hisar (the Byzantine citadel), Ataturk’s Mausoleum, and the Presidential Mansion. A trip to Istanbul is not complete without a stroll down the main strip, Istiklal Caddesi (although its hard to avoid if you are staying in anywhere near the centre!) I found the architecture all over the city to be very beautiful with its relentless detail and unique style.
A splendid and relaxing way to take in the culture after a day of exploring the various mosques is to sit down in an open air restaurant, tables sprawled across dozens and dozens of those gorgeous Turkish carpets, several locals lazily digesting their delicious meals while sitting back and smoking tasty apple tobacco from a large shisha.
Gaze into the distance as smoke tendrils spiral up to mix with the background view of the mosques as Islamic prayer blares from loudspeakers throughout the city. All this combined with delectable shish kabobs (lamb), spinach filled fried rolls, or other Turkish delights.
Almost everywhere you go (restaurants and shops alike) you will probably be offered Turkish apple tea, which is both delicious, and a fun way to get to know the locals a little better.
Vegetarians won’t find much in terms of the main courses, but should have no problem sticking to the loads of tasty appetisers and side dishes. Raki is the drink of choice for the locals, although some travelers find the grape brandy to be bitterly pungent. Be adventurous and give it a try at least once!
I am not a fan of haggling but I still recommend spending some time perusing the myriad of open-air markets and shops. Prices are reasonable to begin with and you can often knock off a significant chunk of the marked price. Rugs and pillow covers are sold in copious amounts all over town and are definitely the most common Turkish souvenir.
There are other items to browse as well, such as jewelry, clothing, food goods and a variety of smoking implements from simple pipes to large shishas.
Although many people will probably point you in the direction of the Grand Bazaar, there is nothing there that you can’t find elsewhere in town for comparable prices and I personally found the gargantuan size and hordes of pushy sellers to be quite overwhelming and unpleasant.
If you have the chance to purchase a lovely Turkish rug, there are very reasonable shipping arrangements to get it home hassle free. Keep in mind that quality ranges from poor to fantastic so be sure to shop around before making a final choice (its hard, they are all quite beautiful!)
Istanbul has a plethora of travel agencies spread all over the centre, so it is quite easy to make final plans for where to go and how to get there once you are already there.
Buses go everywhere you could want to go in Turkey and for a very low cost. Browse a book of photos to help you decide where you’d like to go. The agent will arrange everything from the bus rides to accommodation giving you the option to keep it cheap and simple (good for the backpacker) or higher quality and higher price.
If you’ve got an extra couple days to spend in Turkey, I highly recommend using one of these agencies for at least the core of your itinerary. We popped into one the morning of our second day and were on a night bus six hours later.
When to go: spring (April to June) or autumn (September to November)
Where to stay: Its simple to go and find a hostel when you arrive, but if you’re planning in advance, some recommended places follow;
Budget hostel: Cordial House Hotel and Hostel; Dorm bed - US$6/night, (Sultanahmet/centre), Room - US$8/night. Divanyolu Cad. Peykhane Sok. 29, Istanbul 34400, Phone: +90 212 518 0576 Cemberlitas email: cordial@ dominet. in.com.tr
Middle/Upper Price Range Hotel: Barin Hotel: US$30- 100 /per night. Fevziye Cad. No.7, Sehzadebasi, Istanbul 34470. All contact info/book online at www. placestostay.com
If you’ve got the time, try adding one of the following locals to your trip:
Ephesus, the most well preserved ancient city in all of Turkey; Pamukkale, fizzy, hot springs so therapeutic that Cleopatra herself traveled to it for a dip in the gorgeous ice blue water; a boat ride along the coast out of Selçuk (gawk at heartbreakingly beautiful, mountainous landscapes lounge in the hot sun and dive into the ocean to refresh, during the occasional stops).
No matter where you go and what you see, I guarantee Turkey will stir your senses and leave you with long lasting memories.
Some general things to consider:
Do the math before you exchange money and make sure that you are given the correct amount
Be sure to checks the zero’s on your bills, as a 1,000,000 and 10,000,000 Turkish lira bill can often be confused when hasty!
Do as the travel books suggest and wear long sleeves and long pants or skirts when in any Mosque or religious area. I highly recommend women wearing such clothing at all times, unless you are comfortable with large amounts of harmless, verbal harassment
Many restaurants and shops in Istanbul take credit cards, but it’s a good idea to take cash if you leave Istanbul.
If you decide to face the heat and travel in the summer, bring a hat or buy one there, use copious amounts of sun block and be sure to get water when you have the opportunity. The sun, particularly in the open ruins can be scorching and quite dehydrating.