It has been a while since I spent this amazing week in Turkey and a lot has changed since then, mostly politically, in the country. A long period of riots and a near coup have come and gone but none of that has impacted its stunning architecture and mind-blowing natural phenomenon. They did impact my trip though as the first major riot on Taksim square started on the last day of my trip there when I was about 50 meters away…more to come on that. I did happen to spend a day and night in Istanbul recently driven by a misconnected flight to Porto. The traffic had gotten worse, but the taste of food and the historic beauty was well preserved.
Turkey has been high on my list of places to go to because of its history, culture, and of course architecture. Direct flights made it easy to plan and visa was online and hence quite easy. The tricky part was how much to try to see in the week I had. Istanbul divided into three parts by the Bosphorus with each having its unique culture and identity. The old town has all the history, architecture and traditional food. The famous mosques and the legendary Hagia Sophia are all located here. The newer areas around Taksim Square form the more modern part of the city with luxury fashion stores, fine dining, and more European culture. The third part is mostly residential, though there are lines of amazing restaurants right next to the water. Interestingly the first two parts are in Europe and the third is in Asia – so Istanbul is both European and Asian, or maybe it is neither.
There was very little research that went into this trip, an opportunity presented itself and I jumped on it. It was only once I landed that I even found out what the conversion rate for a Turkish Lira was. The time was to be nearly equally distributed across Old Town Istanbul, the newer part of the city near Taksim and Cappadocia. The travel to Cappadocia meant 2 domestic flights, but then the fairy chimneys and the mysterious land are an absolute must-see.
The best part of the country is that awesome Turkish food is available everywhere. Closer to the monuments, it is more pricey, but still quite good. You can look up some locally famous joints in guidebooks or ask the hotel and the food will be marginally better but much cheaper. If you are staying in the old town, such places are hard to find, but there are still some gems around the bridge across from the Sulaimani mosque. The thought of kebabs, hummus, and Iraqi bread with all the salads still make me crave a trip back.
Transport in Turkey is a bit of a mixed bag, though I totally enjoyed walking around as you could stop a new beautiful mosque every 100 meters. The surface tram that runs in the old town is very useful in moving between the mosques, grand bazaar, and a lot of other historic areas. The challenge is the taxis – Istanbul drivers are known to be very good at taking you for a ride. I myself experienced this a few times and I got conned even when I was fully prepared. Once I a cab driver turned from an empty street to a jammed by way just to charge almost double what I should have paid. Be on guard and ask your hotel how much you should expect to pay if you plan to take a cab. On the other hand, when I was caught in the riots, a cab driver went out of his way to get me to the airport.
Airports in Turkey are fabulous and very efficient but usually located far outside the city. Cappadocia airport is almost 2 hours away and it takes almost an hour to get to the city from Istanbul airport as well. This makes the travel to and back from Cappadocia a much longer exercise than it should be, given its an under 2-hour flight.
In the old town stay close to the Ordu Cd. as that is the road on which the tram runs. The closer you get to the Hagia Sophia the more you will pay for the room. Stay closer to the Grand Bazaar and then you can take a tram down to most places. I stayed in a DoubleTree 10 min further from the Grand Bazaar, on foot. All said and done, the area around the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is the place to be late evening when the sky turns beautiful and people just walk around and appreciate the beauty of these magnificent monuments. In the new town, Taksim Square and the Istiklal St are the places to be. While staying in a hotel 50 meters from the square got me right in the middle of the riots, Turkey is now a peaceful country, and staying close to the action is always fun. There are a number of cheaper properties in neighborhoods just outside of the main commercial areas. I would not recommend them as the time wasted in getting there and back will be quite a buzzkill. Traffic in Istanbul can be quite heavy and trains can be crowded.
In Cappadocia there are a number of cave hotels. Pick an authentic one and that is a one of a kind experience. I ended up in a windowless cave, but it was still quite amazing and comfortable. The town is actually quite small and easily walkable across, so location is not that much of a factor.