Mar 2010: Istanbul – Trip Report

Photos are at Travel Photos – Mar 2010: Istanbul.

Why Istanbul and Planning

When we first announced we were going to Istanbul for vacation, everyone asked us “why Istanbul”. It’s a little bit of a convoluted story. Suzanne had carried over a weeks worth of vacation from last year. Normally this isn’t allowed, but her company gave everyone a week extra of unpaid vacation for economic reasons. Since Suzanne had to work over the Christmas shutdown week, they let her keep it. However, in late January, she found out that it had to be used by the end of March, so we started figuring out what to do. I wanted for just us to get away. We looked at several options including a cruise, Bermuda, and Paris, but had settled on spending a few days in Charleston, SC (a few hours from Jack and Mary Lou’s) for cost and time considerations. However, in February, I attended a lecture of Arthur Frommer (of guidebook fame) at the Boston Public Library. He mentioned some very good deals to China on his website. When I checked, I couldn’t find the China deals, but I did find a great deal for a short jaunt to Istanbul (through Central Holidays). It wasn’t going to be much more than SC. We figured what the heck, we weren’t likely to get another opportunity like this again. So Istanbul it was.

Celal Sultan HotelIn terms of planning, since the deal was a flights and hotel package, we had the main things covered. All we had to do was to plan our sightseeing, dining, and shopping. For sightseeing, we relied heavily on Rick Steves’ Istanbul 2010. (We have used his books for other destinations and find them generally good, though we recognize that most people either love them or hate them.) For dining, we relied quite a bit on the Trip Advisor reviews as well as comments on Rick’s boards and Fodor’s Europe Forum. For other things, it was a combination of The Turkey Travel Planner, Rick’s book/boards, the Fodor’s Europe Forum, and the TripAdvisor Istanbul board. One thing that helped quite a bit was generating a Google Map[urldisplaymode=nomap] for the trip. I had done this for out trip to Germany and Italy in 2007, but Google has made some changes to make it much easier (like the ability to resort the list). Coupled with printing at Google My-Maps Print Converter, which can do numbered markers automatically, it was quite a bit easier for this trip.

Sun 14-Mar: Getting to Istanbul

We had horrendous weather on the Saturday before we left, to the point where Mary Lou’s flight into Newark was canceled. The best she could do was to fly up Sunday, arriving around 12:40. This was fine as we weren’t supposed to leave until 5:30.

When we got up Sunday morning, I took a quick check downstairs in the basement and found that we had some water again. The sump was working, so it wasn’t a lot and basically only boxes got wet. However, it really wasn’t something we really wanted to deal with. To add to our problems, Suzanne’s work was flooded in the rain. NOAA had been predicting the Raritan River to crest at 27 ft, which would mean their plant would be fine. Instead it crested at 36 ft, meaning there was several feet of water in some of the building. She thinks her office is likely okay, but doesn’t know the extent of the damage as nobody had been allowed into the plant before we boarded the plane.

On Sunday morning, we got a call from Mary Lou that they’re going to have to fly around some major storms in our area and would be an hour late. Not a huge deal as we still had time. In the end, she was only a few minutes late as they were cleared to fly the normal flight path. After picking her up and lunch at Jersey Gardens Mall (right near the airport), we headed out to JFK. Checking was smooth. However, our flight was delayed in boarding by 30 mins and then we sat on the ground for another 90, eventually taking off 2 hours late. Unfortunately, we didn’t make up any time en route and arrived that late. Let me tell you, when the flight is already just over 9 hours, sitting on the tarmac for an extra one and a half isn’t so much fun. I did however end up watching three movies and getting a bit of sleep.

Mon 15-Mar: Arrival in Istanbul

Outer gate to the Topkapi PalaceOur arrival in Istanbul was uneventful. The passport control line was quite slow. We had prearranged for a car to pick us up (through Backpackers travel), which worked well. We had to wait a few minutes for a room at the hotel (the Celal Sultan), but it was likely worth it as we had a view of Hagia Sofia. (The room itself wasn’t huge, but was a fine size by European standards and not the smallest one we ever had.) The hotel itself was quite nice and the staff very friendly and helpful, not that we had any problems.

After unpacking a bit, we headed out to visit Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman Sultans reigned until the 1830s. It was very nice. The weather was decent, sunny, but a touch cool. We then walked around some of the main shopping streets of Sultanahmet (the old city), stopping by a grocery store for a few things before heading back to hotel for a break.

After our break, we headed out to do some more walking up Divan Yolu. Dinner was at Tarihi Selim Usta Sultanahmet Koftecisi (at Divan Yolu 12 — not to be confused with the Koftecisi at Divan Yolu 4). The food was pretty good; we had köfte and shish kabob along with rice pilaf and a salad. Add in a couple of Cokes and it came to 43 TL ($29). However, the menu is quite limited, basically only köfte and shish plus sides and dessert. Back at the hotel, we struggled to stay awake to talk to Kyle at 10. We made it, but not by much. (We used Skypeout to talk to Kyle. Since we had free wi-fi at the hotel and had brought the laptop, this was convenient and cheap — only a couple of cents per minute.)

Tues 16-Mar: Istanbul’s must sees

Hagia Sophia at duskAfter a good breakfast at the hotel, we hit Hagia Sofia. It’s quite a building, though the Pantheon in Rome remains my favorite ancient architecture. Then it was on to the Blue Mosque and a walk around the Hippodrome. We then headed up to the Grand Bazaar, which was quite an experience. It’s a bit intimidating and some of the shopkeepers were a bit pushy, but it was still worthwhile. The call to prayer while we were there made it feel quite exotic as it echoed through the halls. We didn’t end up picking anything up. We then headed out towards the Spice Market. Thinking we were lost, we asked for help only to find out we were just down the street. After a quick lunch, we walked through. It was also a worthy site. (We ended up going through here at least three times.)

After the visit, we walked over the Galata Bridge and back, checking out the fish market on the Galata side. A walk back to the hotel rounded out our major chunk of the day. We took a break to relax a bit, then I headed out to do some “sweet light” photos of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. For dinner, I had made reservations at Sarniç (Soguk ÇeÅŸme Sokagi), which is housed in a Roman era cistern. Considering its location is off the main track, I can’t imagine they get much walk in traffic. However, the setting was superb as was the food. It was even decently priced (soup, two dinners, a beer, and a tea was 96.50 TL/$65). After dinner, we stopped by the bakery for some baklava for dessert.

Wed 17-Mar: A dreary day

Kad?k?y streetIt was another full day. Our first stop was the Archaeological Museum, which was a real highlight. There are a large number of Greek and Roman artifacts as well as a very nice exhibit on artifacts from the ancient near east, including cuneiform writing tablets from 4500+ years ago. We also got to see the famous Greek discus thrower statue for a second time as it’s on loan from the British Museum, where we had seen it in 2002. We then hopped the tram to “New Istanbul”, across the Golden Horn. After a ride up the funicular from Kabatash, the end of the line, we headed up the funicular to Taskim square. We had a decent walk down the Istiklal shopping street, stopping in a few places for gifts.

By this time, the weather had turned kind of dismal, with a light rain. After a walk back down to the Galata Bridge, we decided it wasn’t a good day for a cruise on the Bosphorus. Instead we opted to catch a ferry to Kadıköy, across the strait on the Asian side. We walked around here a bit, but it was kind of cold and the rain was pretty steady. After a small lunch in a cafe, we headed back to the ferry dock and back to Europe. (However, it was successful as I was able to buy some safety pins to “fix” part of the zipper on my camera bag which had broken.)

After the ferry ride, we stopped by a few toy stores by the dock/Spice Market to pick up something for Kyle. A second wander through the Spice Market and we headed back towards the hotel, stopping a few places on the way. After a break, we headed out for an enjoyable dinner at the Enjoyer Cafe (25 Incili Çavush Sokak; 62 TL/$42), picking up some cake and baklava on the way home for dessert. All in all a good, but kind of wet, day.

Thur 18-Mar: Our final day

Along the BosphorusToday was our last day in Istanbul. Since we had seen most of the highlights we wanted to hit earlier in the week, we decided to sleep in a bit. We eventually got going around 10:00, popping down to the Arasta Bazaar to check it out. Next we headed back up Divan Yolu where Suzanne wanted to stop back by an inexpensive, small “Target-esque” store to pick up some tea glasses. (Six were only $2.) After a tram ride to the ferry port of Eminönü, we hopped on a boat for a 90 minute cruise up and down the Bosphorus. We really wanted to do a cruise, but didn’t want to take most of a day as the ferry ones do. This was a good compromise and only 9 TL ($6) each. It was a nice time, but got quite cool and windy. (Suzanne moved downstairs where it was enclosed while I stuck it out up top for photos.)

After a brief stop for lunch, we walked back to the hotel to drop off some purchases, stopping a few places on the way. We then decided to hit the Mosaic Museum, in the Arasta Bazaar, which was a nice way to spend some time. The 6th century mosaics are from the Byzantine Palace and are very impressive. Some final few shopping stops and we ended up back at the hotel, doing a few things before dinner at Mozaik, which was quite good. I made one last stop for a döner kebab as I hadn’t had one yet (and had them for lunch nearly every work day for the last several months I was in Marburg). It was good, but I prefer the German style meat which is mixed lamb and beef and not so strongly flavored. Back at the hotel, it was time to pack for our return trip. Dinner tonight was at Mozaik (Incili Çavush Sokak 1; 87 TL/$59). Dinner was quite good and the place had a very nice atmosphere. After picking up one final round of dessert, it was back to the hotel to finish packing.

Fri 19-Mar: Return trip and back home

The Blue MosqueOur trip back was fairly uneventful. The car we had scheduled to pick us up from the hotel was bit late, and it was scheduled a bit later than would have been ideal, so it was a little anxious. However, we had no problems getting to the airport in plenty of time. After a brief stop at the Duty Free to blow our few remaining Lira (when ended up bringing home only 0.50 TL), it was off to the lounge to await our (45 min delayed) boarding. The flight itself was as good as a 10 hour flight could be. (I did manage to watch a total of seven movies between the two flights.) We were quite impressed with Turkish Airlines and would definitely fly them again, aside from the fact that their only flight from the US is to Istanbul.

We encountered no delays once back in the US. However, on the drive home from JFK, traffic was horrendous. It took us almost two-and-a-half hours for what would be maybe an hour without traffic. Of course we knew traffic would be bad, so we had a car service pick us up instead of asking Mary Lou to drive both ways through rush hour. We were exhausted, but had a great trip.

It was a very nice trip and we really enjoyed Istanbul, even with the pushy shopkeepers and restauranteurs. The layers of history are quite impressive, and, in some ways, far more apparent than Rome. I think our 3 1/2 days was a good length to at least scratch the surface and we saw most of what we had planned. Coming in the off-season was a bonus, aside from the cool weather, as the crowds were very manageable. (Admittedly, we lucked out having only one day of rain. The previous week it rained almost every day.) Will we go back? Probably, but probably not for some time as there are so many other places we’d like to go. (Also, I think it would be better for Kyle to be older if he were to come.) It would be interesting to see more of Turkey as well, since I imagine the more rural areas are quite different from the huge metropolis of Istanbul.

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