DEC 05,2012 - DEC 10,2012 (6 DAYS)
We arrived at Istanbul in early December. It was cold and occasionally rainy. If you visit the city in the winter, make sure you have warm clothes and a decent umbrella.
Our flight was with the low-cost Pegasus airlines, and it cost us 99$ for a each direction from Israel, and a total of 207$ per person, taxes included. I guess you can find an even cheaper flight if you move the dates a bit.
The advantage with Pegasus, besides the price, were the times of departure: our plain took off from Israel in 5:20AM and landed in Turkey 2 hours later, and we left Istanbul on a 21:05PM flight, so we had the days of arriving and leaving pretty free to travel as we’d like. Of course, as in every low-cost airline, no food on the plane unless you pay for it.
Istanbul has 2 airports – Ataturk airport, close to the old city, and Sabiha Gokcen, which is relatively far from the city. Pegasus airline uses S.Gokcen airport.
Transfer: Some of the hotels in Istanbul offer free transfers for the flights lending in Ataturk airport. There is also a metro line from Ataturk to the city, and with only one or two change of lines, you can reach most of the tourist accommodations areas – like the old city or Taksim squere. Since we landed in S.Gokcen, we organized in advance a private transport to the old city. We did that through the Hotel we booked, and it cost us 40 euro for 2 passengers. It was a low price, but keep in mind that if you land in Ataturk you’ll get the same service for free. In any case, it was nice landing in the airport with someone waiting for us, instead of haggling with the local drivers. On our way back we paid 50 euro for a spacey van that picked us up at the hotel.
There are also shuttles that run between the hotels and the airport in regular hours, and it cost 10 euro per person. The problem is the hours are not flexible, and you might half to wait a couple of hours in the airport (The last shuttle for our flight, which took off in 21:05, was on 15:20). The shuttle also picks up other passengers from different hotels, so the drive might take a while. You should also bear in mind that there is heavy traffic in Istanbul and the exits from the city are jam-packed part of the day. When we left the hotel on Saturday our van picked us up at 17:00, and we arrived at S.Gokcen airport only in 19:50. We were lucky to catch our flight…
the main dilemma for visitors in Istanbul is weather to stay in the old city (Sultanahmet) or the new city (near Taksim square and Istiklal avenues). You can fins ups and downs in each decision.
Taksim square is a central point, and Istiklal avenues that leads up to it are a very lively pedestrian street, full of local shops and branches of international fashion houses. The alleys and sideways crossing the avenues offer nice hangouts, restaurants and coffee shops, as well as colorful markets, so the area is very in the evenings.
A Christmas tree in Istiklal avenues
On the other hand, most of the site in Istanbul which are considered a “must see” are located in the old city, like The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), Topkapi palace, the Grand Bazaar etc. if your hotel is near Taksim square, you’ll have to take a taxi or metro there, since the old city is not in walking distance.
A view from Topkapi palace
We decided on the old city, and booked a hotel which was 3 minute away from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, around which you can find some of the important sites of the city. Since the weather was cold, it was more convenient, and we almost didn’t use any public transportation. Still, during the evening the old city is not the best place to wonder around: it’s pretty empty, and you won’t find the lively atmosphere Taksim square has to offer. Another disadvantage was the restaurants near the hotels, that were relatively expensive, since they cater mostly tourists.
Istanbul offers a verity of accommodations, and the choice isn’t easy. We decided on a boutique family hotel called Ada Hotel Istanbul (http://www.adaistanbul.com/), which was recommended by some friend and travel sites.
The hotel is in a short walking distance from all the main sites, and the owner was happy to assist us when we booked the room, and during the stay itself. He recommended us where to go and what to see, but at no point put any pressure to buy a tourist deal from his agency, and gave us plenty of space to ourselves. So we felt confident we are I in good and honest hands (in a city full of peddlers, you get a vague feeling almost everyone is trying to swindle you).
Since it was winter season, we were offered to upgrade our room for the same price (79 euro) – if we’d pay in cash. The room was smaller than expected, but very cozy. We had a view to the old city and the sea of Marmara, and it was nice waking up to the site of old city, with its mosques and rounded domes. The bathroom had a Jacuzzi, and the room had central heating, which is very important in the winter. The hotel offers free WiFi connection and free international calls (like many hotels in the city). The price included breakfast, which is served in on the roof floor. The breakfast was rich and tasty, with all sorts of salads, pastries, pancakes with different filling each day, cheese and yogurt, different spreads and more.
if you are in Istanbul you won’t want to miss a visit to a Hamam (Turkish bath), especially if you travel in the cold season. But since we had some bad experience, I recommend you’ll make some checks before choosing one.
We decided to try the historic Cagaloglu hamam – a public Turkish bath which was established more than 250 years ago. It is located in the old city, and takes pride in every possible way in the face that it appeared in the list of “a thousand Places you should see before you die”. The hamam is also recommended by travelers sites.
We arrived at the hamam more than an hour before closing time (22:00 in December). Near the entrance sat a group of men (apparently masseurs), but none of them even bothered to get up. There was no one in the ticket booth to help as well. We entered into the women section (the hamam has a separation between men and women, like some of the other hamams in Istanbul. If the separation is important to you, you’ll be wise the check in advance), and a group of women – none of them spoke English - sent us back to buy tickets in a most aggressive manner. All through the visit the service was very unpleasant.
The tickets prices start at 30 euro (40$), and it includes only the entry to the hamam (self service). A treatment including a scrub and 10 minutes of massage is 50 euro – not including tip (it is customary to leave 25% of the total bill). Payment is cash only.
Each visitor receives a private changing booth where you can leave your personal belongings (no cameras are allowed inside the hamam), a towel, flip-flops, soap and a silk gloves for scrubbing. After we changed clothes the we were encouraged to take the scrub treatment (35 euro), but declined because of the late hour and just took the basic deal. We went inside the hamam itself, which is an impressive building with domes, a central stage with benches and faucets around it. The hostess that led us inside didn’t tell us what we were supposed to do and just left us to ponder for ourselves. The central stage, which to our knowledge is supposed to be warm, was cold and unpleasant to sit on. After some time 2 girls who purchased the extended package arrived. They received the massage on the central stage, and during it they – and the masseurs as well – were naked. If you have problems with undressing in public you should bear that in mind.
In short, we sat there for about an hour, and it was the most expensive shower I ever took. It was one of the bigger expanses of our trip, and it was totally unjustified, especially considering the attitude of the workers. We recommend checking other alternatives in the hotels in the new city or in other hamams in the old one. Çemberlitas Hamami, for example, is an ancient hamam which appears on the map the Turkish tourist office published. You might prefer a more tourist-packed place, but one in which the workers have a more pleasant approach.
Istanbul offers more than 20 different public transportation means, such as trams, buses and ferries. The light rail system connects the sites in the old city and continues through Galata bridge to the new city. Each section of the trip costs 3 TL (Turkish Lira), and you have to buy a token outside the station. If you change lines you have to buy another token. For example, a trip from the old city to Taxim square requires 2 lines.
The ride on the tram is smooth and pleasant, and in the old city one passes every 5 minutes. When we wanted to visit the more distant sites, like the church of Chora, we also used the bus. Some local people were glad to help us in finding the right line and station to get off.
On a clear day with blue sky you might like to take a boat tour on the Bosphorus, a cruise which gives another splendid view of Istanbul. There are 2 main options: you can take a cruise for the entire day from the city to the black sea (6 hours for the round trip), and see some very nice spots along the way, both in the European bank of the river and in the Asian one. The trip cost 25 TL with a company called IDO, and it departure from the pier near the south-east part of Galata bridge. There are 3 daily cruises, and if you take the early one you could get off the boat twice along the way and continue with the boats of the next tours. On the second cruise you could get off once, and in the last time you’ll have to stay on the boat through the entire cruise.
The other option is to take a shorter cruise along the banks of the Bosphorus – up until Rumelihisarı (Rumelian Castle) on the north and back. This cruise is about an hour and a half, it costs 12 TL with a Turyol company, and it departures every hour on the hour for a pier located south-west of Galata bridge. Besides these 2 companies – IDO and Turyol – you can find a lot of ticket scalpers south of the bridge who will offer you private cruises, but I don’t recommend using their services. In the summer there are more option, the cruises are more frequent and you can also take an evening cruise.
A view of Bosphorus strait
the best rate of exchange we found was in the area of the Grand Bazaar. Other tourist sites offer a decent rate as well, and in some of the places you can pay with dollars or euro.
Though Turkey is considered a cheap country to visit in, Istanbul itself is very touristic and the prices are not very low. For us, a trip of 5 days (4 nights), including flights, accommodations, entry the some sites food and the hamam experience cost us around 700$ per person.
one of the best things in Istanbul is the food. You can enjoy Kebab in different shapes, forms and flavors (with eggplants, with pistachio etc.), and in most local restaurants you’ll find a side dish of vegetables and bulgur with tomato sauce. A plate with kebab will cost you 12 TL and more, and in the more touristic sites you might have to pay double. The most popular soup in the city is lentil soup, which is served with a slice of lemon and hot pita bread. No matter where you’ll go, someone is bound to offer you some Rahat Lakum (“Turkish Delight”), but we preferred the fresh kanafeh, which was a bit different from the orange kanafeh we knew from Israel.
By the Egyptian market there is a small restaurant where the local people usually eat after doing their shopping. You get your plate only minutes after ordering, and don’t be surprised if you will be sited with other guests already dining. The place offers kebab, lentil, kanapeh etc in very reasonable prices.
You can buy a ticket for 72 TL (around 40$) which includes a pass to most of the important site, such as Hagia Sophia (Ayasofia), Topkapi palace, Topkapi harem (different entrance), the museum of archeology, the mosaic museum, the Turkish and Islamic arts museum and the church of Chora museum. The ticket is valid for 72 hours, and you can enter each site only one time. It doesn’t include audio guides, which cost an extra 10-15 TL, depending on the site. You won’t find any maps or printed guides on most of the places, so you might like to get yourself a guide (like EyeWitness) if you don’t want to miss the important features of the big and crowded sites.
Inside Hagia Sophia
The Siloam inscription in the Archaeology museum
Suleymaniye mosque offers a great view of the new city and the golden horn.
Outside the mosque
Inside the mosque
Istanbul has a long and magnificent history, and the city is full of interesting sites and places to visit. You’ll be wise to plan your days in advance. Remember that during the winter the days are shorter and most of the museums close around 16:30-17:00. Mosques are open until the evening, except during praying hours, when the tourists are asked to exit. Most of the popular site are closed one day of the week, so don’t forget to check which day it is before leaving the hotel.