I was lucky enough to have friends that had been to Turkey, to question about things like where to stay etc. It was a great help so I thought I would make a few quick notes about what I enjoyed, to help those of you that are travelling there and haven’t access to insider tips. So here are a few things that helped me on my way during my 2013 Istanbul at ramadan experience.
This is a no brainer. If its the first time you are visiting Istanbul, then Sultanahmet is where you should stay. Yep, it is a bit touristy but for a reason. It is a decent area and is easy walking distance to the major sites like the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, Sophia Hagia, the Basilica cistern, the palace, the main museums.
Personally I stayed at the Anatolia Suites and had a 2 bedroom apartment that I shared with my friends. The position had a a bit of an ocean view and was in a quiet street. The night staff was particularly awesome and the info I learnt off him made my stay that much easier.
One thing I learnt was how to use the trams and transport cheaply!
Apparently getting around Istanbul used to be tricky but the tram has made getting about the european side of the city easy as pie. I had never caught a tram before in my life or indeed all that much of any kind of public transport. I have lived most of my life in rural areas where things like that don’t exist, so if I can sort it out, then anyone can. I found it easier to find my way around Istanbul than I do Sydney! The only potentially off-putting thing is that the trams could be very crowded at times – so be prepared to get squished at certain times of day. The journeys were cheap and short though so I didn’t find it a real issue.
If you are going to be in the city for more than a day or 2 and especially if you are with family, The way to use public transport cheaply is to buy an Istanbulkart card. You can buy one at the kiosk selling news papers etc just a little up from the tram stop at sultanahmet. They are probably elsewhere too but this is the only one I can steer you too. They cost 6TL and you load them up. I think I paid 20TL at first but that included 14TL credit. This cards makes tram, bus, metro, ferries & funiculars much cheaper and you don’t have to keep buying tickets all the time. (note this is for local ferries not the tourist ones that are much dearer). You can use the one card for multiple people too, just keep scanning it at the gates. I think it works out that you are saving money after about 6 trips or so. – so worth it for a single on a longer trip and way cheaper for a group after only a few uses. The 3 of us used the one card and we looked totally like we were in the know. (Or maybe i was just imagining the admiring glances of other tourists) :) In my mind I felt like quite the legend.
Until it came to recharge the card, i did this in askaray….. my hesitance in working out the english version and in inserting notes into a machine obviously showed, a trendy young gum chewing local girl grabbed my card, loaded the cash and handed it back with a half exasperated, half welcome to turkey kind of grin. A big thank you to that beautiful unknown helper.
General notes on shopping.
I didn’t find the shopping all that spectacular or cheap but there were some notable exceptions.
If you think of leather jackets as belonging to motorcyclists only then you are in for a pleasant surprise. There were the nicest leather jackets I have ever seen. I don’t know abut the ethics involved in the leather trade in Turkey but I was very much seduced by all of the stylish cuts and colours. If i hadn’t such a strong limit on my bag weight (I had gotten a budget flight on air ariana via slovenia) it had a much smaller weight limit than what i had travelled to switzerland on, so souvenirs were limited. There is a whole leather area in the grand bazaar and many shops in sultanahmet are devoted to them too. Not sure where the locals buy them but in terms of researching a variety of styles, the grand bazaar is worth a look. Gulserins and the leather jackets were what took my attention in the bazaar , otherwise it was just a bit of fun having a look around. I really wish they had maps available though as even with the signage, it is tricky to find your back to any particular store. Outside of the grand bazaar had a lot of road side stands and shops. I found the prices were generally better here and got some cute little necklaces for my daughter at one.
If super high and fabulously outrageous heels are your thing then leave plenty of space in your suitcase, because Turkey is the place to shop for these. In general though the sizing of shoes only goes up to 40 for ladies at best (38 in some places), one lady told me women’s feet don’t get any bigger than that. I just didn’t know how to respond… I just looked at my feet and left the shop. Heels are not my thing but the roman sandals I had packed with me started to feel more like a roman torture device. After i had spent a few hours walking in them and I was desperate for something less painful. Just outside the entrance to the grand bazaar pretty much directly between the tram stop and one of the front entrances, I finally found a shop with ladies shoes in larger sizes. I am a 41 european (thats 10 in australian sizes) but they even had 42s for ladies. I found a very comfortable pair of leather sandals that saved my poor feet from more blisters. I was so happy that i bought 2 pairs which was silly as they were not that spectacular to look at but they were comfy and i will pack a pair again for my trip to Morocco in a few weeks. I highly recommend them if you end up in the same predicament.
This is a lot less touristy an area and was useful in getting some idea on how much locals pay for t-shirts etc as the roadside stands frequently had marked prices. I also bought a red leather hand bag while in this part of town, some sweets from the awesome turkish sweet shops and a few other bits and pieces. I don’t even have a sweet tooth but everything looked so inviting and there were several things worth tasting that were gluten free eg turkish delight, halava etc. i didn’t get the tourist trap vibe as strongly here but it was also somewhere i might not feel comfortable hanging around at night by myself. The weirdest shop i saw was a butcher slash clothing store.
Food and drinks
Water, if you are buying water and not filtering it yourself then it is cheapest from the little corner stores everywhere. There is not a lot of english spoken in the shops as a rule but enough to make the basic transactions. Most things have prices on them too, so whatever your language you should be able to figure it out.
Cafe pallet was my favourite eating spot in istanbul. Sure, there were cheaper places but this one was very reasonable for sultanahment and the food was a cut above every where else i tried for breakfast and lunch. They did freshly squeezed juices in a number of varieties like apple and carrot – not just orange like most other places. The omelettes that were my staple gluten free fare while there were lovely and beautifully presented. The lovely owner made little changes every day with decorating the plates and was really super friendly. Wifi was also available. We became regulars.
Nearby was another evening spot to eat the hippodrome. A touch above prices is some other spots but still extremely cheap by australian standards. They were willing to alter dishes for me (make them gluten free) and the waist staff was very personable.consequently i ate here at least 3 times.
I also tried a cheap, more local -oriented restaurant on the other side of the tram line. Prices were amazing and they had one waiter that spoke some english. The food wasn’t anything to rave about but at that price i was happy. Thre was one place that was a complete tourist trap – rip off. It was a fish restaurant on a triangular corner near our suite. They promosed all this free stuff but then charged an arm and a leg for it. They served water without asking and then charged twice the going restaurant rate ( which is substantially higher than the retail price as it is). Avoid it.
There is so much more I could say and so many more photos I could post but I have to post this and catch a plane in a few hours – back to Egypt!! If you have any questions, please comment below.