[Travel Advice] Istanbul

Random Observation/Comment #439: Have you ever woke up thinking you were going to South Africa to find out you were tricked to go to Istanbul, but then landed in Bulgaria? That’s why I love being a bear.

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Things Istanbul does well:

  • Street food – You will certainly eat well here. Prepare for a lot of meat and sweets.
    • Kumpir potatoes – yes yes yes. Basically mashed potatoes with random stuff in it. I would suggest against the Tahiti we sauce because the dill makes things taste odd, but everything else is fair game
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    • Stuffed mussels – I didn’t have this on the street, but the one from the pier near the ferry was pretty good. It’s a cold, not so mushy, treat with a spicy pilaf jammed into the middle of the mussel
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    • Fresh Orange juice – I got it at the corner stores instead of on the street and it was awesome. Beware of street vendors cheating on the price. Always ask for the price first before it is prepared. The pomegranate juice was way too tart for me.
    • Turkish ice cream (Dondurma) – I’m putting this last because I’m a bit on the fence on how thick and gelatinous this is, but it comes with a show.
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    • Note: Salt seems to be their number 1 street food condiment. I thought they’d have more hot sauce
  • Regular food
    • Iskandar kebabs – if you like spicy tomato sauce with lamb, you’ll love this. It’s perfect to the last scoop when you can be Italian and mop it up with bread.
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    • Puffy bread and feta – I like popping it with a knife when it’s fresh. It’s spread with feta and butter, and also goes well with hummus
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    • Turkish chai tea or Apple tea in cute cups – all the locals drink Chai. They have sugar cubes everywhere if you want it sweet, but I think plain tastes great.
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    • Turkish delight – bought by weight, it’s got a texture and perfect amount of chew that doesn’t stick to your teeth. So many different flavors for all adventurous sweet eaters.
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    • Baklava – get the kind with the green pistachios on top instead of the plain. It adds the extra flavor. I also love eating it with a fork and knife because you can see the layer of sugar ooze our when cutting through it.
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  • Stray cats – if you’re allergic to cats, Istanbul is not for you. I found stray cats everywhere and stalking for food. I’m 100% guilty of feeding them because you can’t really resist a kitten looking at you with those longing eyes.
  • Bazaar stores – Damn there are a lot of street vendors here. You’ll find specialties in lanterns, ceramics, spices, jewelry, scarves, and typical tourist stuff. I’d personally aim for the ceramics and scarves for the best prices and highest quality.
  • Mosaics – really incredible attention to detail, especially inside the mosques along the walls. Most of the mosaic museums have creepy depictions of The Lion King rated R, but it’s all pretty interesting.
  • Mosques – these are incredibly beautiful and almost always crowded. I’d suggest the Sultanahmet Camii (blue mosque), Hagia Sophia, and Suleymaniye Mosque.
  • Hamam Turkish Spa – we went to the fancy touristy one (Suleymaniye Hamam) and it was fantastic. I love the part where they use a pillowcase to make bubbles and spread them over you before the massage.
  • Turkish flags – they love their flags.  They’re everywhere and float proudly above the city.

Things Istanbul can do better:

  • Too many people asking us to eat at their restaurant – this happens in most major cities like in Rome or Little Italy in Manhattan, but I felt Istanbul was a tad more aggressive. In fact, I would likely eat a place that didn’t ask us to come in because that’s where all the locals would go.
  • Staring country – I get that I don’t look like I’m from this area, but you don’t need to treat me like a specimen.  I think I’ve already gotten used to being the token Asian everywhere.
  • Taxis always take the scenic route to rack up the meter – probably true in most countries, most taxi drivers take some small short cut side street that winds up having traffic for 15 minutes, or they’d go a longer way that might take a shorter amount of time to ‘avoid traffic’, but the meter ultimately charges by distance. Also, smaller side streets are nerve rackingly tight and often look like one ways. I would never drive in Istanbul downtown.
  • Iffy Street food
    • Street corn – this tastes like nothing or just salt. The texture is all wrong because it’s supposed to be crunchy, but they oversoak it and make it taste almost rubbery.
    • Chestnut – From my experience, it wasn’t baked long enough and sometimes has a weird green mold inside. I’m not sure if it was the particular vendor I went to, but it was definitely disappointing (since I love chestnuts – I guess I’ll just need to wait until Christmas)
    • Watermelon – the fruit itself is actually quite sweet in Turkey, but they cut open the watermelon on the street probably an hour in advance. Not that there were flies, but even the dust from the  air sticking to the fruit is probably not healthy.

Lessons learned:

  • Drive on Sunday morning. We rented a car at the airport for a day and drove to Iznik (4 hours south east into Asia part of Turkey). We found the Sunday traffic to be excellent.
  • Prayers occur 6 times a day. The mosque loud speakers will have their holy prayers and sermons 6 times a day. On our trip, it was 4:30am, 6am, 1pm, 5pm, 8pm, and 10pm. The prayer times are two hours before dawn, dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and last light.  If you understand it, the prayers are actually all different and include some current events details about things you should pray for around the world.  I’d avoid going to a mosque at prayer times and on Friday morning to early afternoon (which is when they have their weekly group prayers in mosques)
  • Don’t eat or drink everything that looks good. Prime example is Turkish Coffee. It’s the thickest sludge that makes my ears twitch and nostrils flare. I like coffee, and this is too much coffee for me. Also see the above street food that’s Iffy on taste and hygiene.
  • If you travel in a big group, use Splitwise for splitting expenses. I started using this to split monthly bills with my gf on the apartment, but this works wonders for big groups on trips.
  • Learn how to haggle. It’s slightly different in the Grand Bazaar from other Middle Eastern or Asian countries because they have so many tourists pass by that they usually don’t decrease their price by more than half. They use a stern negotiation technique and will often not budge unless you bucket a few items together. My advice would be to know the price of each item individually and then bundle together so the owner feels like he would be losing more if you don’t purchase them.

Our itinerary:

  • Day 1, Th: Arrived at 7pm, took a car to our Airbnb apartment in downtown Istanbul, went out to eat dinner at Sar Restaurant (which was crappy compared to Buharas), slept early.
  • Day 2, F: Touristy walking seeing Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Camii, Grand Bazaar, Buharas for dinner (Thank you, Trip Advisor)
  • Day 3, S: Mosaic Museum, Topkapi Palace, Rode the seabus from Bosphorus pier for a 2.5 hour 12TL trip on the water, ate a fish sandwich from the pier, Grand bazaar again, took a taxi to Bosphorus Brewing Company for a local beer and some great food
  • Day 4, Su: Rented a car from the airport, Drove to Iznik (4 hours) through crazy roads, walked around Iznik seeing their crumbly bits and taking photos, Drove back and returned cars, ate at Kayikci for seafood shared platters
  • Day 5, M: Early morning Suleymaniye mosque and then Turkish spa (Suleymaniye Hamam), walked around but really needed to nap after the bath, bought final set of stuff from Grand Bazaar, ate again at Buharas (seriously that good), Hookah just to try it
  • Day 6, T: Airport home by noon, drank a lot of amazing soup at the HSBC international lounge

So how was it? It was really nice.*

I’d grade it as a moderate level bear trip. Learning the language helps, but everyone speaks English and you’ll be fine exploring the whole city by foot or with the tram/metro. It’s easy to find some food you can get behind and also explore your comfort level.  I could definitely live with eating 3TL chicken doners all day and occasionally getting slapped around by half naked men for hamam at night.

Overall, the people are happy and the atmosphere is not too crazy adventurous, but adventure is certainly out there. I heard good things about the nightlife. Maybe there’s some more Istanbul to discover in my future.

~See Lemons Love Istanbul

* Welcome to the bear family!

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