Category Archives: planning

So you’re visiting Istanbul: read this

Istanbul-Bosphorus250MN052213After living in Istanbul for over two years, I’ve amassed a fair bit of advice and recommendations for visitors. Every few months, especially towards summer, I get emails from friends and friends-of-friends wondering what they should do with a day/week/month in the city. So rather than continue sending the same email around, I thought I’d collect everything I’ve written or forwarded into one post, from the general to the specific.

Google Map of my favorite Istanbul spots

Misconceptions about Istanbul: Chances are, if you are planning a trip to Turkey, you don’t think everyone rides camels and has a harem. But in case you have a nervous aunt, you can send her this post.

Istanbul in 2 days: my very quick-and-dirty advice for first-timers. A few updates:  if it’s a reasonable drinking hour, look for a rooftop bar to see the city instead of Galata Tower; Buyuk Hotel Londra is my favorite. Also, the Ortakoy mosque is under renovation, but the neighborhood is still fun to visit.

From How to get the most out of Istanbul. Advice so great I wish I’d written it myself. They also have great stories about lesser-known spots all around Turkey, such a drool-worthy quest for anchovies.

Your Turkish food gurus are the good people at Istanbul Eats/Culinary Backstreets, with a blog, a book, an app, and excellent city tours to help you find amazing hole-in-the-wall eateries.

More great food tips from the Rome-based (but also well versed in Turkish food) Katie Parla, who now has a spiffy new app for the city.

Istanbul on and off the beaten path: A fairly standard list, but I wanted to compare the standard tourist attractions with some lesser-known spots.

Where to shop outside the Grand Bazaar: Note: the wonderful Kagithane House of Paper no longer has a shop in Galata, but they still have stores in Nisantasi and inside Bej Kahve in Karakoy.

Istanbul after dark Another oldie but goodie I wrote in my early months on Gadling, mostly to post about

Google map of my favorite places in Nisantasi

SantralIstanbul: One of my very favorite off-the-beaten-track museums. I last visited it with a friend when I was eight months pregnant and had the “brilliant” idea of taking the ferry. We hired a small boat to take us the rest of the way, and while sitting on the smelly Golden Horn with a strange and sketchy-looking man was less idyllic than imagined, it was an experience.

Eating kosher in Muslim Istanbul: Not relevant for too many visitors, and not the most useful post if you are hoping for a bevy of options, I’m afraid, but thought I’d share our experience with a past guest.

Escape from New York (?)

My family at Brooklyn Bridge Park, where we were married June 6, 2004.

If you’ve been looking for me on the interwebs, you might want to direct your browser over to, or better yet, Facebook or Twitter.  If you’ve been wondering about all the Detroit links and thoughts about other cities I’ve been posting on those social networks, keep reading. We arrived back in Brooklyn on Labor Day, after a month of travel in New Zealand and South Korea, and over two years living in Istanbul. Since arriving back, in between trips to Target and IKEA (moving back into an apartment after a few years away is nearly as much work as moving anew), we’ve been pondering what’s next for us. Ideally, we’d be packing and planning for another overseas assignment, but as life rarely happens as you plan, we’re looking for a plan B as well as a new place to call home, whether it’s in between expat stints or for the long haul. My husband’s consulting job has moved from client-side to pre-sales, and he can now pretty much work in his underwear from a coffee shop or from home anywhere in the US. Since moving abroad and having a baby, I’ve been working freelance in travel writing (need an article about Istanbul or travel with a baby? Email me) and public relations, and hope to stay more or less at home for a bit longer, especially  in a place where daycare isn’t on par with college tuition.

Perusing real estate ads and feeling a bit confined in our one-bedroom in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, we’ve come to the conclusion that IF we a) sell our apartment with a decent profit AND b) I go back to work full time, we can maybe afford a decent two-bedroom and be slaves to a mortgage and exorbitant NYC daycare costs. OR we could move to Detroit (yes, Detroit, really). But before I get to that, here’s some background on what we are looking for in our next city: Continue reading

Newly discovered travel resources

Summer is officially on in Istanbul and I’m in high travel-planning mode, with trips planned to beach town Bodrum tonight, Kosovo (long story) next weekend, a weekend in late July to a neighboring country, and a weeklong TBD trip in August for my 30th birthday. In addition to my usual methods of obsessive research (see this Jauntsetter post I wrote last year), I’ve found a number of new resources enormously useful:

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One week to Istanbul!

Many thanks for the many comments, emails, tweets, etc, on this blog, all very valuable and helpful! Some updates:

  • I leave for Istanbul on Tuesday, April 27! Flying Turkish Air, hoping for an upgrade since I’m flying a fully refundable coach ticket.
  • I’ll be in Milan May 6-10, staying at my cousin’s place and possibly our fabulous client Principe di Savoia with daytrips planned to Venice and the Lakes region.
  • I bought a Kindle and started loading it with Turkey travel guides, Stieg Larsson novels, and looking for epic novels.
  • My NYC fun list has been cut down due to the mammoth workload I have in my apartment, though I’m still planning on lunch at Peter Luger’s, Tim Burton MoMA exhibit, and a few others.
  • Why is my NYC fun list cut? I’m going through ANOTHER bed bug hell, this time in my living room. This means all the hundreds of books, winter coats, and unfinished projects have to be bagged and stored in another room. AHHH, it’s hard to contemplate, but it will get done somehow.
  • To my dismay, YouTube and WordPress are BANNED in Turkey. I have learned of a number of ways to get around this, including H’s VPN and numerous proxies, but I’ll update (hopefully) once I’m on the ground.
  • Due to the ash cloud, H had an interesting experience getting to Turkey. Original flight was routed through Kiev to Istanbul, but he ended up stranded in Moscow, unable to leave the airport due to lack of visa though he was born in Russia. On the plus side: he found himself drinking beers in the airport with Jeff Koons and Onyx!
  • We finished watching season 2 of Breaking Bad and started season 3, so good! I can continue on iTunes, any tips on watching Showtime/HBO shows online? I’ve resisted watching Treme so far because I know I might not be able to watch the whole season, but want to continue with Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara.
  • Lots of friends plan to visit me in Turkey over the summer, let me know if your plans take you there!

Back to the purging and packing..

Mary G.’s Grand Tour

While I spent much of my childhood on family trips around New England and the US, save a trip to New Zealand with my mother at age 8, I didn’t really become a world traveler until age 24 and have been accumulating passport stamps as often as possible ever since.

My mother Mary, on the other hand, has never been to Europe but due to my Istanbul move, that’s going to change next month.  To sweeten the deal, I have a cousin in Milan who is moving back to New Zealand over the summer, so now is our last chance to visit a family member in Italy. Originally, we thought about adding London to the trip, as a Europe “warm-up” and a place she’s always wanted to visit, but decided 3 countries was too much for 2 weeks. Besides, the trip is more about visiting family living abroad than seeing the top cities of Europe.

Now that my move and my mother’s trip are imminently approaching, I’m heavily into planning mode. A tentative itinerary:  Mary would fly from Raleigh, NC, arriving in Milan on a Thursday in May. I’d follow the next day, and stay through Monday or Tuesday. We’d then fly together to Istanbul and she’d stay 5 nights with me and return home Istanbul-Raleigh. Some thoughts/questions:

  • Any recommendations for airline booking sites best for open-jaw tickets? I generally use Kayak and was recommended the excellent for intra-Europe flights, but always on the lookout for other ideas.
  • Skyscanner found me a gonga deal on the Milan-Istanbul flight: $60 on budget airline Blu Express, any feedback on the airline or how to get from Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport to downtown?
  • We definitely plan to see the Last Supper and see an opera at La Scala in Milan, other must-sees for first-time visitors? Day trips from Milan?
  • In terms of timing, any advantage to booking the trip for early May rather than mid-May? Since I’ll be arriving in Turkey the last week of April, I’d rather have a few weeks to get acquainted before hosting visitors but if the cost difference for hotels is significant, I could be flexible.
  • Finally, I’m looking at hotels for Milan and possibly Istanbul (in case we aren’t settled in an apartment) and open to ideas. Worth using some Marriott points for the Milan Marriott?

Any and all advice for a European first-timer is appreciated. Though it won’t be my first time to Italy, it will be my first time in Milan, and my once semi-fluent Italian is quite rusty, my hand-gesturing is almost native. I’m excited to experience two fantastic countries with someone experiencing Europe for the first time.

Edited to add: Fantastic linkage and advice from Jessica of a must-read for anyone visiting Italy!

Looks like you’re talking about a 4-5 day stay in Milan, yes? That’s definitely time to get all the highlights in, plus take a day-trip (or two, if you end up hating the city!). I happen to really like Milan, but I’m looking at it from the perspective of someone who’s planning to live there – and I’m the first to admit it’s not ideal for most tourists in Italy.

Having said that, I do think it’s absolutely Italian – it’s just not the “Tuscan sun” side of Italy. 🙂

Anyway, I’ve written quite a bit about Milan, so here are some articles that should help get you started:
* General Milan travel guide, with lots of links to other Milan-related articles:
* My suggestions on the top 10 things to do in Milan:
* Information about seeing The Last Supper (warning: get your tickets ASAP!):
* Going to the La Scala Museum:
* A few options for day trips from Milan: (which reminds me, I need to update this article)

Other Milan thoughts:
* I’d recommend staying in the city center, if for no other reason than it’s close to the things you’ll want to do/see and it’s a helluva lot prettier than the outskirts (although the outskirts are cheaper). Really, even some parts that can be called “city center” are kinda meh looks-wise (around Garibaldi station, for instance), but again, this isn’t “Tuscan sun” Italy… And hey! Look at that cathedral! Now THAT is pretty, eh?
* Milan is (in my opinion) Italy’s most international city, so you’ll run into plenty of English-speakers (your Italian may come back to you, but the English might be nice for your mom).
* Having someone you’re visiting who’s familiar with Milan (your cousin) will help you steer clear of the so-so food and whatnot, I’m guessing, which is never a bad thing. But do yourself a favor – seek out Il Massimo del Gelato (you can read about it on the Tour del Gelato on my friend Sara’s blog, link below) and get a scoop of the mango flavor. You will be transported. I promise.

On Monday the 5th, I have another Milan article set to publish – “Things You Should Know About Milan” – so that’s one I’d also recommend you take a look at… When it’s live, of course. 🙂

Other thoughts:
* My friend Sara Rosso (@rosso on Twitter) blogs at Ms. Adventures in Italy ( – she lives in Milan and has some good Milan info on her site.
* Another expat friend is Katie Parla (@katieparla on Twitter). She lives in Rome, but is a guidebook author for both Roma AND Turkey, so she’s got you covered on both counts.
* Another blogging friend, Melanie Renzulli (@italofileblog on Twitter), lived in Turkey for a couple of years. I think she just moved back to the US within the last year or so, so she might be another good source of Turkey info.

Staying connected in Turkey

New calling cards by the amazing Brooklyn Limestone.

Since I started thinking about my pending Istanbul move, after the initial excitement subsided, panic began to set in. How will I find English-language books to read?! Will I have to give up my beloved Android smartphone and my constant connection to Google?! How will I watch the final season of Lost?! I’ve spent weeks researching and pondering solutions and welcome any advice or input.

Books: Kindle or traditional?

I tend to read a lot, a book or two a week, and while that might change as I won’t have 1 hour+ commuting time anymore, I need access to new reading material regularly. Magazines and newspapers I can read online on my laptop, but books are another story. While I’m sure Istanbul has a few English-language bookshops, not sure how the selection and pricing will be, plus I don’t want to be amassing books while I’m living abroad. Kindle is the only e-reader you can use outside the US (to my knowledge) as long as you download on a computer with a US billing address and I’d appreciate the ability to carry multiple books (especially guidebooks) while traveling. Looking at pros/cons of each, I’m still undecided:

  • Kindle pros: large selection, low per-unit price, convenient for traveling, and no buildup of physical books. Cons: high initial price, not the same as actual books, unsure of technology and “feel,” and what if it gets lost or stolen?!
  • Book pros: Proven technology, English-language bookstore or exchange = instant community, no entry cost might add up to less over time, better reading experience. Cons: Higher per book price, less convenient to acquire and smaller selection.

(Legal) ways to watch American TV

I won’t be ashamed to admit I like TV, and I can get over the loss of DVR and set times that I expect to watch shows, but I’ve invested a few years in Lost and need to know how it ends. Also need to see how tragic the new Jersey Shore in Miami will end up. Not to mention 30 Rock, The Office, and the myriad Law & Order-type procedural dramas I watch. So I look to the internet to recommend the following:

  • Websites to download/watch shows outside of the US like Hulu (which doesn’t work abroad)
  • Long-running TV shows I can watch on DVD and pretend they are new. I’m catching up now with season 2 of Breaking Bad and working my way through Freaks & Geeks.

Phone and internet without roaming

H. and I both have T-Mobile’s myTouch Android phones and love the ability to use the internet, Gmail, Google Maps, and other fine products offered by Google. We can unlock our phones and go with Wi-Fi, but I need to read up on the finer points of buying SIM cards in Turkey, I’ve heard things that they limit the time you can use a foreign phone. I’ve set up a Google Voice number that can forward all calls to another number or just be used as voicemail in order to put on my personal “calling” cards shown above and can use Nimbuzz to use Skype on the actual mobile phone device, but welcome other ideas/tips/problems.

A return to long-form blogging

After nearly a year’s absence, I thought I’d blow the dust off this puppy.  I’ve been all about the “microblogging” recently, keeping up with Facebook updates and Twitter (follow me @thenotoriousmeg), but haven’t had the attention span to write anything substantive.   But given the state of the economy, who knows how much longer I’ll be able to travel, so I might as well document it.

2008 was a banner year for my passport, ringing in the New Year in Nicaragua, closely followed by an all too brief trip to Paris (my first), two work trips to Italy in spring and summer, an epic trip to Portugal for which the Husband stayed on an extra two weeks alone, Labor Day week in Barbados for a gonga deal (no real photos from this trip), and ending the year in Istanbul (photos and commentary to come).  Wow.  I feel fortunate as hell.  I wish I could go back and write about each place (and perhaps I will at some point), but a few things I realized in the course of all these travels.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium

We thought that the answer to the mileage run conundrum would be Alaska, as it's a cool 7,142 miles round-trip with an obligatory stop in Chicago.  H has always wanted to go to Anchorage, while it's not high on my list, so it seemed like a good choice for our purposes. However, the only flights arrive Anchorage at 11:15pm with a red eye (and stopover!) on the way back, the bulk of the journey on the hated Alaska Airlines.  But, for a few weeks, we played the hold and release game, holding the same flights over and over to buy time before actually buying the tickets.  Eventually, though, the tickets went up to over $600 and it seemed less and less worthwhile for a two day trip.

Over the holiday weekend, I tried another tack and looked at Europe flights, after reading this Portfolio Seat 2B column. Not wanting any flights that involve London Heathrow even as a layover stop, I compared fares in continental Europe.  Amazingly, the cheapest and least painful tickets were to Brussels, for a 3 night trip.  The irony here is that Belgium is just where I wanted to go for Christmas originally.  I am massively jealous, and am insisting that H bring me Belgian chocolate (I imagine the fries and beer wouldn't travel so well) and visit the Christmas markets.

H and I have sort of started watching The Amazing Race, as we watch Cold Case on Sundays and TAR often runs into the Cold Case's start time.  If the application deadline weren't today, we would totally apply for the show. How awesome would a hotel publicist and a business traveler be on that show?!  H can be the expert in packing for an around-the-world trip in one carry-on and bitch about how it's like these people have never flown before, and I can help local hotels to create "newsy" items and packages around their village ceremonies and customs ("After a day at the market, bring in a chicken for a complimentary welcome cocktail!").  We can't lose!

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Who knew making travel so painful would be so fun?

Generally when booking a trip, I try to find the least painful flights with no connections or at least the easiest connections.  I never check bags if possible and try to fly at the least congested times.  For my theoretical summer 2008 trip, I'm trying to find flights to Europe that don't go through Heathrow, so I can avoid that kerfuffle.  But right now I'm dealing with something different: the mileage run:

Husband is/was a frequent flyer; he was flying to CA back and forth every week until April, now he's working more locally.  As of today, he has
89,137 elite-qualifying miles, 10,866 miles shy of the all-important Executive Platinum status.  Our upcoming trip to Nicaragua will add another 4,240 miles, leaving 6,626 to go.  Why is this so important?  Well, aside from being automatically upgraded on domestic flights when available, getting bonus miles on all flights, and generally being treated like a human being: there are the eVIPs.  These are systemwide upgrades you can use to fly first class at coach prices.  These precious things have allowed us to fly to Chile and Ireland in first class for a few hundred bucks a ticket and get miles at the same time.  There's also the skip the line element: at Heathrow for one, we were able to totally skip a line like this.  But beyond that, it's just a matter of pride.  H will be damned if he flew 90,000 miles just to barely miss out on the EXP goodness. 

We kept hoping he'd be staffed on another project that would require flying by year's end, but now that it's November, we are starting to sweat those last 6,626 miles.  I've been spending more and more time each day trying to figure out the most horrific flights that will bring him closest to the 100k goal without costing us a fortune.  Unless tickets are very cheap, this will probably be a solo trip, so I am taking great joy in finding the most painful flights for maximum miles.  Some contenders, all over Thanksgiving, may I add:

La Guardia to Boston to LA to Reno: 3175 miles, 14 hours including layovers
Return via LAX to Newark: a piddly 2,841 but pretty good for $579

LGA to Chicago O'Hare to Dallas to Calgary: 3,052 miles, 13 hours including layovers
Return through Dallas: 2,890, still nearly 700 miles short

So the key, I think, is to choose cities as far across the country as possible that don't offer many direct connections.  American Airlines in their infinite wisdom, makes it impossible to get to Reno without flying to California.  And Calgary is north of Seattle, why wouldn't you fly to the southwest first?! Sucks for anyone who might need to get there in a convenient way, but great for us.  I'm going to have to spend much more time studing the boards at and searching American's website if we are going to be serious about getting these miles, but I'm enjoying the journey.  Which H certainly won't.

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Travel planning

Yoinks, I have been lax with posting, will get back on it this week.  I have officially bought tickets to Nicaragua, planning to stay 8 nights on the Corn Islands over Christmas, and heavily into planning.  I've discovered a few new resources, aside from the usual guidebooks/magazines/TripAdvisor (which should be taken with a massive grain of salt).

  • Newspaper articles:  Okay, fairly obvious, but now most major newspapers have archived their travel sections online.  I find the articles to often be more current and accessible than travel magazines, who are usually writing for a more affluent (read: spendy) audience.  Check New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and USA Today for good profiles and articles.
  • Email writers:  Since working at Conde Nast Traveler, I've emailed the writers I already know who have written articles about destinations I'm interested in.  It just occurred to me to not stop there, I could email writers I don't know!  So, I emailed the writer of the LA Times article on Corn Islands that originally got me interested and she has responded with great information.  Most newspapers make it pretty easy to email staff writers, Googling also helps.
  • Search photos:  My new obsession is going to Flickr and Webshots and searching for photos from Corn Islands.  These can tell me a lot more than the hotel's website or anyone's review.  I can actually see what the beach looks like, how far it is from the room, whether there are monkeys on site (very excited about this, I pretty much live for monkeys and there seem to be quite a few living on both islands), etc.
  • Beyond Google basic: I will say without mild hyperbole that I have a PhD in Googling, I love to search and used Google Scholar constantly when I was in school.  For trip planning, I find searching News and then Blogs is really helpful in finding random people's trip recaps and photos that don't show up on a regular search, and now Google's Picasa can be added to my photo search.  Fun fact: my Suitcase comes up on Google Searches now for most of the properties on the Corn Islands!  Have I plugged the Suitcase enough?! It really rocks.
  • Other guidebook options: This is sort of a catch-all category.  It won't work for every destination, but if you can find a good travelogue/memoir for your place, it can be way better than a guidebook.  I wish I had taken Pete McCarthy's book to Ireland rather than Fodor's.  For guidebooks, Lonely Planet has just put out a cool new feature: Pick & Mix, so you can buy just a chapter of a guidebook rather than the whole thing.  It won't work for my Nicaragua trip since Nica is half of the guidebook, but it is super cool and I will use for a future trip.  Finally, I'm listing and looking for guidebooks on, so I can get books without paying for them and rather than sell them on for pennies, I can trade for stuff I want!  They have a Facebook application now too, which I've added to my growing list of applications, like the highly addictive Traveler's IQ Challenge

Anyway, back to work, will continue the Finnegan's Wake of a travel recap later today.

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