A few days ago, the song Istanbul (Not Constantinople), was stuck in my head which probably was my subconscious telling me to get a move on and start writing again. We were in Istanbul for a little over 48 hrs, which was plenty to get around and take in the sights, smells, and inhale plenty of lokums (aka Turkish delight).
We got to go to Istanbul for FREE as a stopover on our Italy trip via Turkish Airlines. Back then (and probably now too), you needed a visa to go to Turkey. The best part was you didn’t have to step into a Consulate to get one as you could get one in 5 minutes (or less) online.
Public transportation is the cheapest option if you arrive at the Atatürk Airport. Buy an Istanbulkart from one of the shops downstairs (As you’re exiting the airport). Each card was ~ 10 Lira which included 4 Lira worth of fare. Each journey was 1.95 Lira on trams, metro etc back in 2015. The Istanbulkart can be loaded with money from ticket machines or the ticket office throughout your trip. You can use 1 card for multiple people as long as there’s enough money to cover the fare.
At the Atatürk Airport, follow the signs to Metro/Subway, go down the escalator (or elevator), through the sliding glass doors, turn right and follow the signs along the huge underground walkway to the Havalimanı (Airport) Metro station. This walkway is beneath the parking garage and connects the Domestic and International terminals. You’ll find a small shop near the exit door where you can buy the Istanbulkart.
Pass through the turnstile, descend the escalator (or elevator) and board a Metro train towards Aksaray. The Havalimanı (Airport) station is the end of this Metro line, so you can board any train—they all go toward Aksaray. Get off at Zeytinburnu and switch to tram T1 if you want to get to the Sultanahmet area (Old town). Also taking the Metro/tram is the best option if you want to avoid rush hour traffic on the roads. Make sure to carry at least 10 Turklish Lira coins in 1 Lira denominations coins to use at the ticket vending machines as most don’t accept bills or credit cards.
Places to see in Old Town
We were kinda beat from our flight (although it was a short one) so we checked into our hotel which was literally a 2 minute walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop, and went around exploring the neighborhood. Since it was evening already, none of the sights were open so we walked by the Obelisks and found an Aladdin’s cave of sorts, if you will, filled with gorgeous Turkish lamps. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed so I don’t have any to show. After much convincing, S finally gave in and let me buy a mid-size ceiling lamp which I promised to bring back without breaking (it actually ended up taking 3/4 space of my carry on luggage!). There are plenty of restaurants in the area with hawkers (yes, the restaurants have someone standing out on the street to bring people in) so beware. We obviously had to avoid the hawkers and ate at the Anatolian House Cafe where the food was fantastic! On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by to try some Dondurma (Turkish ice-cream made with Salep – flour made from the tubers of orchid ), but wasn’t a fan.
Things to Eat: Simit(bread covered in sesame seeds), Lahmacun (kinda pizza with a mix of spiced minced lamb meat, diced peppers & freshly cut parsley), Içli köfte (fried wheat shells filled with spicy meat), Menemen(scrambled eggs cooked with peppers & spice), Künefe (cheese pastry soaked in syrup), Lokma(turkish donuts), Fasulye(beans), Gözleme(very thin & fresh griddle-cooked bread dough folded around a filling such as spinach, potatoes or cheese).
Next day was a full-day as we had to cover a lot of ground. Staying in Sultanahmet was a good choice as most of the attractions are walk-able. After an amazing Turkish breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel, we walked over to the Sultanahmet Cami/Blue Mosque. Entrance is free as this is a place of worship. Women are required to cover their heads with a scarf (also be sure to dress modestly with shoulders and legs covered). If you don’t have a scarf, the mosque will lend you one for free. The inside of the mosque is absolutely stunning. We tried to go to Hagia Sofia after but it was closed for visitors on Mondays (which we did not know before). We took some pictures of the outside and headed over to the Basilica Cistern. This is an underground aqueduct in the middle of the city which was really cool to see. Be sure to rent the audio guide to get a better sense of the place. After, we walked up the hill to Topkapi Palace. The Palace is perched on the hill overlooking the Bosphorous on the other side. The grounds are pretty big so be prepared for a walk. Next stop was the Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi) so we hopped on the tram and got off at Eminönü. We could have probably walked this but were too tired after walking all morning. This bazaar is really small compared to the Grand Bazaar but I really liked this one better.
After a bunch of Spice and Lokum shopping, we realized that the one check-in bag we had was probably not going to cut it and bought a cheap duffel bag on the walk up to Sulimaniye Mosque. Again, this walk is hilly too so be prepared. We got some fresh pomegranate juice off the street vendor (I know, this was a first for me!), but dang was it refreshing! After the Mosque tour, we walked back down to the Grand Bazaar. By this time, S was tired and cranky and didn’t seem very happy walking around. Also, people smoke inside the bazaar so if you’re like us and turned off by the smoke fumes, then you should probably skip this place. We literally made one stop (to buy me a pair of earrings) and made our way out. Rounded off the night with delicious dinner at Cafe Rumist.
Good Souvenirs(s): Lamps, Coin purses, Lokum, Spices, Jewelry, Rugs, Tea.
Next day was travel day (back home)!. One thing we didn’t get to do was try the Hamams. Well, saving it for next time.