By Art Petrosemolo
Tourists come to Turkey to visit the historic ruins, to cruise the Aegean Sea, to enjoy the beaches, or to see the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is usually part of the trip but may not be the focal point.
For this traveler, it was Istanbul and Istanbul only. The historical sites along with the hustle and bustle of the bazaars and markets in this modern city where East meets West was always high on my bucket list.
That itch got scratched this summer with six days in Istanbul primarily in the Old City. It was all that I expected, and more.
My wife and I stayed in a small, boutique hotel (Levni) within easy walking distance (albeit uphill) of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Grand Bazaar. Restaurants and shops were a stone’s throw from the hotel’s unique front and rear lobbies.
We were six days on the ground in this Western-type city with a strong Muslim influence. Like any traveler these days, we spent weeks researching websites for tips, as well as Turkish tourist information sites, to be sure we knew what to see and what to expect on our visit.
Turkey’s summer weather wasn’t a shock but that doesn’t mean 90-degree plus temperatures and high humidity are easy to endure. We did our touring and shopping in the morning and spent the hottest part of the day relaxing by the hotel’s indoor pool or taking a midday nap in the air conditioning.
There was always a breeze on our July visit. It was noticeably cooler and bearable in the shade outdoors at lunch. By 6 p.m., the temperature drops just enough so the breeze makes dining al fresco a pleasure and most of the Istanbul restaurants we saw had accommodations for outdoor diners.
Highlights and Tips:
Getting There – Istanbul isn’t close. Your options for direct flights are best with Turkish Air, which recently started direct service from Dulles. Turkish Air – and Delta – also fly Istanbul nonstop from JFK. We flew British Air via London, which made the trip about 12 hours portal to portal.
Hotel and Transportation – Choose your hotel carefully so you are central to what you wish to do. There are plenty of taxis in Istanbul but the traffic is maddening and it can take you, at times, much longer to get there by taxi than by walking or taking the efficient tram system.
If you taxi – and we did – be sure the driver resets the meter before you begin. Remind him. The starting meter should be 2.75 Turkish lira.
We chose, with the help of a travel agent, the Levni, a small hotel on the edge of the old city. It provided a wonderful buffet breakfast daily and the restaurant is good if you decide to eat in. Hotel staff were warm and helpful. The room was small but clean, with a modern bathroom and air conditioning that worked well.
Money – The American dollar was worth almost $1.80 Turkish lira on our visit, which was great. We changed our money ahead of the trip at a U.S. bank. You can exchange money at U.S. airports before departure.
It did not seem as easy or at least it was not as obvious where to change currency in-country. Merchants took lira, credit cards, or U.S. currency. Travelers’ checks, once the staple of keeping your money safe, are rarely accepted. It appears the wave of the future will be debit cards in the currency of the country you visit, but in Turkey during the summer of 2012, debit cards were available only for pounds sterling.
The Important Sights – The key ones are the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and the Ottomon palaces. You can do them all on your own but entrance lines can be daunting. We took a city tour on our arrival and a Bosphorus boat tour the last day. The tour expedites entry to sites and gives you lay of the land if you plan to return later on your vacation.
Food and Water – Bottled water is the norm and everyone has it. Sometimes hotels transfer from large containers to smaller ones but in the restaurants you purchase water by the liter or half-liter and open the bottle yourself.
The food is great with lots of fresh fish, vegetables, and fruit. Meat kabobs of beef, lamb, vegetables and rice are popular everywhere. Many restaurants post photos of what you are ordering. In small street cafes, you can even walk right up to the grill where the chef is cooking, point, and ask.
Hamdi is a restaurant on the Sea of Marmara not to miss for its famous kabobs. Eating on the roof terrace with a view of the sea is a must, and we had to wait a day to reserve a table.
Communication – Everyone speaks a little English and everyone wants to be helpful. Usually the hotels have people designated as “guest relations” and they are key in sorting through reservations and tours.
What to Purchase – Everyone talks about buying Turkish carpet – handmade, double knots, natural dye, wool, and silk. But you know the saying, “there is no free lunch.” If you want good carpet – an investment – you need to do your research, know what you want to spend, and go for it. Many people sell carpet in Istanbul and you just aren’t sure if what you are looking at is machine-made in Pakistan with synthetic dye being passed off as authentic.
We wanted to purchase two, 5-by-7 carpets. We researched the dealers and spent a quiet afternoon as planned at a fourth-generation shop called Antique Carpet & Kilim in a very old building near the Grand Bazaar. Don’t look for its website; they don’t have one, but they do have 9,000 carpets on several floors.
It takes time to purchase a carpet. They need to give you the spiel and it’s polite to listen. You need to drink tea, Coke, or water, which is tradition. Then they start literally throwing the carpets. In two hours, we saw nearly 100 carpets before we settled on a classic blue design and an exciting, modern Scheherazade design of reds and blues. Antique and Kalim offered to ship the carpets to our home as part of the price but we chose to have them fold and wrap them so they fit nicely in our suitcases.
The cost? It isn’t Costco so prepare to spend, as we did, more than $1,000 for each piece. We believe we got a fair deal.
Something Different – Turkish baths (Hamami) have been part of Turkey for centuries. Men and women are in different parts of the facility, although one site now does co-ed Turkish baths.
This wasn’t for my wife but I took the plunge, literally, for a 60-minute scrubbing and massage that was invigorating. They used soap and rough washcloths and rinsed in hot, warm, and cool water. The dead skin literally floated away. I’ll only ever have one Turkish bath but it is one I will never forget. The cost was under $100 U.S., including tips.
Bargaining – If you aren’t prepared to bargain, you won’t be comfortable shopping at the bazaars and even at the high-end carpet dealers. Know what you want to spend and tell them. At the bazaars, I never started higher than 50 percent of the asking price. If we couldn’t meet at an agreed upon price, we walked away and didn’t look back when they chased us. Many times, the next shop will meet your price on the same goods.
For me, one way I judge a trip is whether I’d go back again. Years ago, I loved Hong Kong so much that I went three years in succession and one of those trips was a long weekend.
Istanbul may not be for everyone. It is as busy as London and Paris, and with traffic maybe worse (there are no stop signs in Istanbul). But if you enjoy nonstop activity in a truly unique city, where the U.S. dollar is worth more than the local currency and Westerners are welcome, it could be just your vacation.
Yes, I’d go back and soon.