A  weekend in...............

We spent a 4-day-weekend in Istanbul at the end of March, (1999) and I really didn't intend to write a piece on it, but due to popular demand and the urging of several travel-challenged friends in the States,  here it is! 

We spent all four days in the city and enjoyed the stay very much.  I should add that
there have been bombings and travel warnings for the last few months in Turkey,   but there was plenty of security and we felt very safe! On the other hand we were there (right there, but an hour afterward) when a suicide bomber blew herself up in the busiest square in the city and injured 10 people. 

But enough of that. I want to tell you how much we enjoyed ourselves, not about the security situation.

We stayed at the Merit Antique Hotel which is located on the main street in the old part of town.
The name of the street is Ordu Caddessi but don't let that fool you.  The street changes name more than once not far from the hotel.  The hotel is one of the most unusual I've ever seen as it is made of 4 renovated buildings connected together by a pergola type arrangement with the lobby and restaurants located in the cross shaped area between the buildings.  The hotel is on the same street as the grand bazaar and other attractions like the blue mosque and the Topkapi palace, and it has a tram station directly in front of it.  The tram is very convenient (and cheap) and will get you just about anywhere in this part of town.  It are also the fastest way of getting around.

The center of the more modern part of the city is the Boyuglo area and Taksim square. This is on the other side of the river from where we stayed.  Radiating from Taksim square is Istiklal street which is the longest  car-free pedestrian shopping street I have ever seen.

The people in Istanbul are very friendly and very helpful.  If you stand on the street for more than 30 seconds with a map in your hand (and a dumb look on your face), someone will invariable come over to ask if they can help.  The taxis are cheap and the taxi drivers very honest, although they do sometimes take the loooong way from one place to another in order to beat the traffic.  This works but it drives up the fare as well.  When I complained to one driver about it he became insulted and returned part of the fare.  As I said, I found the taxi drivers very honest.

The city is crowded, noisy and exciting. The outdoor markets are overwhelming in their intensity and the density of people.  We hit them all I think and were in the spice bazaar at least three times.

Here are the main attraction to see:

Topkapi Palace and museum

The Blue Mosque

Sofia Museum (used to be a mosque)

Sultan Ahmet Mosque

Suleymaniye Mosque

Dolmabache Palace
(we missed this one but we did see it racing by in a cab)

The Spice Bazaar (at the foot of the Galata Bridge) and the GrandBazaar.  There are several other bazaars as well but these are the major attractions.  Haggle your day away!!

Galata Bridge  - Absorb the atmosphere of the area and walk across the bridge.

The Underground Cistern - This was fantastic and should be visited.

A cruise up the Bosphorus   (we somehow missed this)
The Ak-merkez - the biggest shopping center in Europe.  It's worth a visit.  Our second cup of coffee here is the reason we missed the bomb in Taksim Square!

The Fish Market in Kumkapi  (If you like fish.)  You've never seen fish so artfully arranged.
If you like fish restaurants, go the Kumkapi area in the evening where the restaurant owners will
compete for your business.  They prepare the fish adequately but simply.


The Princess Islands
I've saved these for last because we enjoyed them so.  They are such a contrast to the clamor of Istanbul.  They are a 45 minute ferry ride south of the city and they are carless and absolutely delightful!!  They are beautiful, serene, quiet, and well worth the trip.   We visited two - Burgaz, one of the smallest, and Biyukada, the biggest.  The main means of transportation is horse and wagon.  They were well worth the visit.

The best restaurant we ate at was "The Four Seasons" on Istiklal Street (#509).  It is run by a British couple who have been in Istanbul for a long time.  It has an eclectic European and Turkish menu and, of course, proper English is spoken.  The service was excellent, (the turkish coffee was perfectly prepared at our table) and the food was terrific.  I couldn't find a web site, but here's a site with restaurant recommendations including details for the The Four Seasons.

We also enjoyed the "hamam", or turkish bath. We both went to the Cemberlita turkish bath which is apparently pretty old and very well known.  They have separate men's and women's sections.  I recommend to the men to get the full treatment which includes a massage which is just great. This "full treatment" costs about $16 and was well worth it.  On the other hand, Alisa doesn't recommend getting the lady's massage because it wasn't professional and not very appetizing. She also prefers a male masseur and since this was done in the women's area, there were only women present.  Although it is against the rules, the attendants will blatantly ask you for a gratuity (baksheesh in Turkish), while also explaining that it is forbidden.  How they ask depends on their English which is pretty terrible.   My masseur used sign language and I understood him perfectly well.  On the other hand, you're lying on a slab of marble with no clothes on so he has to wait for his tip until after you're done and you've had a chance to think about it while getting dressed.   A tip of a dollar or two is well received (in any currency).

Oh yes, I forgot about the money.  As of this writing the Turkish pound is 390,000 to one dollar.  That means you are a millionaire big time in Turkey. A million pounds is about 2 and a half dollars. You have to get used to it because it is very confusing with all those zeroes on the bills.

Here are some things to remember:

1.  Crossing the street is a dangerous business.
2.  Nobody drinks the tap water.  Everybody we saw drinks bottled water.
3.  You may think that if you've seen one mosque, you've seen them all.  That's not the case
     in Istanbul.  The major mosques are incredible in their size, beauty, and grandeur.  There are
     almost 3000 mosques in Istanbul (but you're not required to visit them all).

Here are some of the best pics from this trip.

And here are some links that may help you in planning a visit to Istanbul:
ANATOLIA - a good site for general information on Turkey and Istanbul
TURKEY TRAVEL GUIDE - a travel guide for all of Turkey
HOTEL GUIDE - A very extensive hotel guide for Istanbul
ISTANBUL LIFE -  a big collection of links for Turkey and Istanbul
ISTANBUL CITY GUIDE - an excellent site for information about everything in Istanbul
TURKEY-ON-LINE - a commercial site but full information


Updated - May, 2003