Discovering Istanbul as a tourist

Just another day at the office

Thanks all for reading and commenting on my pity-party post, I wanted to dispell the myth that I’m sitting languidly at a cafe and having charming shopping expeditions to local fish markets.  After two weeks in the city (first at the airport and now in an apartment), I’m starting to adjust to living in limbo a foreign country. A week in an airport hotel made me a crackerjack Istanbul transit user, well-acquainted with all of the hotel staff, and adept at running across highways, and now we’ve been moved to an apartment in Nisantasi for at least the rest of the month. I went to Milan for a few days and returned to Turkey with my mother to play tourist for much of last week, along with running the many errands that come along with settling into a new place. Unfortunately, the internet in the apartment building was down for much of last week, making any updates infrequent and my “to look up when I have internet” list a mile long. Every day as a new expat is a series of major and minor fails, a few satisfying wins, all in a constant state of bafflement and very different from just visiting a city.  More on life as a new expat to come, but first a few observations/discoveries from my time as a tourist here.

Make time for the “2-star” attractions First off, seeing Hagia Sofia is a must, no way around it. It is awe-inspiring and beautiful, particularly as it was constructed in 5 years (ahem, World Trade Center memorial and Boston’s Big Dig). They now charge 20 TL to get in and it’s pretty much always crowded, but so big you don’t notice. If you dig the mosaics (and who doesn’t?!), definitely take the time to visit Chora Church though it is trickier to get to than the Old Town sights. While the Blue Mosque is also amazing, it is packed with tourists on cell phones without head scarves (I find this appallingly rude in someone’s house of worship) and I think the nearby Rustem Pasa mosque is far more peaceful. Topkapi Palace is another must-do, with an incredible treasury of jewels the size of your head and far-from-the-fantasy Harem. I skipped visiting Dolmabahche Palace again last week in favor of the lesser-visited Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian Side. It is smaller and much less grand but way less crowds and you get to say you went to Asia for the afternoon. Both are only by guided tour, you’ll be able to see a lot more in the smaller palace. Note: for Beylerbeyi, you can take bus 15 from the Üsküdar ferry to the Çayırbaşı stop right by the big bridge, last time I missed the stop as the bus was crowded.

Get out of Sultanamet: My first visit to Istanbul was in December 2008, and while the weather was atrocious, the city was far less full of tourists and the streets were fairly empty of touts. When I stepped off the airport shuttle (soon to become my nemesis) in Sultanahmet my first week, I was overwhelmed by the amount of tour buses and “helpful” Turks eager to guide you to the Blue Mosque or let you weigh yourself (yeah, that’s a thing, dudes with just a basic scale sitting on the sidewalk for hire) and was quickly accosted by one such guide, but shrugged him off and tried to high-tail it out of the old city. If you visit Istanbul (especially in high season, which is most of the year), absolutely go to see the amazing attractions and museums in Sultanahmet, but then get the hell out. It’s like Times Square with more aggressive ticket sellers and overpriced tourist traps await you at every turn. That said, I did stumble upon Medusa Cafe near Hagia Sophia that while may still be a little on the pricey side, has a very pleasant garden and a decent menu.

Wander Istiklal Caddesi often. When I say get the hell out of Sultanahmet, I should say go right to Taksim Square and the long (mostly) pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi in the New City. While still touristy in its own way, it’s a whole different vibe than the Old City, with an abundance of shops and cafes. Each side street off the main drag offers interesting spots to browse and people watch and there is almost always some form of protest, performance, or human drama going by. My first week I bought a Turkish phrasebook and awesome mapguide at Robinson Crusoe and this week a got a hard-core map the size of a phone book at the Istanbul Kultur bookstore. I plan to send all of my visitors there first to soak up the chaos of the city and then wander over to the other side of town via…

Walk across the Galata Bridge Even as a new Istanbul transplant, I can say this is one of my favorite things about the city. Amazing views of the skyline and Bosphorus, with dozens of restaurants below served by pushy waiters and dozens more fisherman on the top level who are angling in all kinds of weather (see pic above). I’ve seen men in suits fishing next to men in sneakers, it is probably the only place I’ve seen where most of the fishermen wear leather shoes. Also noted on the bridge last week: a fruit vendor who sells only bananas, making me wonder if it is an in-demand item for fishermen.  It’s a lovely walk and a good way to transition between the old and new parts of the city.

Buy an Akbil if you are here for a few days I’ve heard a lot of talk about the new Istabulkart but it seems to be dead in the water for now and the Akbil is still the way to go for transit. The Akbil (smart ticket) is a little metal doohickey you can add money to and use for pretty much every form of transportation. While the transit system leaves a lot to be desired (lots of transfers you pay for, packed train cars, and not enough ground covered), it is possible to get around fairly easily, especially with the Akbil. When you are a tourist, you’ll probably just take the tram along the Bosphorus, but I used it extensively to get from the airport to the city (my record is Sultanahmet to airport hotel in under an hour, on a tram, metro, and shuttle bus) and it makes transferring much easier and cheaper, with the first ride costing 1.50 TL and transfers in the next 90 minutes only .75 TL each. Note that you can use it for multiple people but you won’t get as much of a discount this way. You pay a 6 TL deposit when you get the Akbil; we didn’t have time to return on our last trip and left it as part of our tip to the housekeeping at the hotel.

If you want to buy something specific, LEAVE the Grand Bazaar. Browsing the many shops at the Grand Bazaar is a must-do tourist trap, a lot of fun and fascinating to see the currency traders (see Free Exchange Market description here), but I’ve left empty-handed each time, feeling like I’m going to get ripped off no matter what. However, there are a lot of shops just outside the Grand Bazaar that might charge more money than you would bargain for at the GB but you feel more relaxed and confident of quality. I was on the hunt for towels for my new apartment and after drooling over the offerings at Abdulla, I found more reasonable but still beautiful towels at Al Hammam. My mother was seeking an Evil Eye for the cobalt blue glass, but after looking at many cheap versions made in China in the Grand Bazaar, we headed to the wonderful Paşabahçe glass store for a much better one actually made in the country. Note: there are many branches of this shop around town, including one on Istiklal, the top floor is like a museum of beautiful glassware and the bottom is like a Crate & Barrel with loads of useful stuff.

There is much more to be said on visiting Istanbul, but those are my initial discoveries and tips. In addition to excellent guidebooks from Rick Steves and Frommer’s, I find this website indispensable: Turkish Travel Planner.  Next up: more of my (mis)adventures setting in as an expat, weekend in Milan, and some photos at some point.

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