Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Istanbul in September: where to go and what to do (part 1)

As you already probably know, two months back we returned from our trip to Turkey. Turkey, especially Istanbul has always been on my mind as a potential travel destination, but every time when the decision was made on where to go, Turkey stayed as the 2nd or 3rd option. So this time there were no doubts – we had to go to Turkey. Furthermore this time we were limited on time and money. We couldn't afford a vacation more than two weeks and also the costs of the trip should have been kept low (we had already a trip to Italy/Switzerland in June/July this year). And in this respect Turkey is a perfect place to go – it's relatively easy to reach and the price level is lower than on average in Europe.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul




Why Turkey? I have always been tempted by Istanbul – a city where historically eastern and western civilisations have met. The fact about Europe on the one side of Bosphorus and Asia on the other side was always interesting to me. The things I knew on Turkey before the trip were mostly related to the history lessons at school + I've been closely following the debate on Turkey and EU related matters and the political instability that occurred in the country in the recent years. As you already well know me and Anna are kind of gastronomic travellers – we like to know the local food. Before our trip to Turkey I knew about Baklava, Turkish coffee and Tea. I also had some knowledge on the usage of local vegetables and lamb. However I had no idea generally on Turkish cuisine and its wines. In Istanbul we also wanted to see the architecture and find a great deal in one of the countless Bazaars + it was rather intriguing to visit the Asian side.

In addition to the temptation to see Istanbul, we also wanted to go to a bit wilder place. A blog of a Latvian girl, living in Turkey already for a while, was just the right guide for us (http://bosforazvaigzne.lv/ - a great blog on the life in Turkey, however in Latvian language). Inuta gave as a great idea to visit a distant village in the south of Turkey (will tell about it in the part 3 of this travel review).

Why September? I think that this is the perfect time to visit Turkey – it is still very warm (about 28-30°C), the water in Mediterranean Sea is warm and the bazaars are full of fresh local food.  

Itinerary of the trip this time was really simple. We planned to spend three days in Istanbul. Then we would take the domestic flight to Dalaman from where we would travel further to the south to reach our quite place in the woods and mountains of Turkey's wilderness. J On our way back we would spend again tree days in Istanbul. Looking ahead I can say that this is a very well balanced itinerary as it is kind of exhausting to spend more than three days in a row in Istanbul.

Preparation and the flight

When travelling to Turkey the obvious choice is to look for an airfare at Turkish Airlines. This is what we did and got a fairly priced airfare from Riga to Istanbul. The interesting thing at least for us was the flight duration. Usually it takes around 2.5h to get to Central Europe (Brussels, Frankfurt, Munich etc.) from Riga. You kind of expect that Istanbul is further away and that it will take more time to get there, but that's not completely true. If you look on the map, Riga and Istanbul are almost on the same meridian. So it takes only about 2h 40m to get to Istanbul. It is also nice that the checked-in baggage rules are so relaxed at Turkish Airlines – a 30 kg baggage is included in the airfare price. And the food on Turkish Airlines flight (free of charge) was absolutely astonishing. Before the flight (in the process of purchasing tickets) you can chose between different special offers for those who are on a special diet. Plus there are two or three regular offers in each flight. We took the seafood offer and it was great + some Turkish wine and a piece of Baklava was offered giving a chance to taste a piece of Turkey while you're approaching it. So briefly – the flight was one of the most comfortable we had in the last years. And the price/quality ratio is fantastic. J

First evening in Istanbul

In the airport (we arrived at the Atatürk Airport which is mostly used in case of international flights; the other one - Sabiha Gökçen is more used in case of domestic flights) you have to stand in a queue to the passport control. The good thing is that for citizens of Latvia there is no need for visa. But don't forget to check the necessity of visa or other documents before travelling to Turkey (remember that Turkey is outside EU). Then another queue in currency exchange (it is best to change a small amount of money in the airport, the exchange rates are way better in the city centre) and we were ready to leave the airport.

There is a metro line in the Airport that connects to the centre of Istanbul. That is the cheapest and quite often also the fastest way how to reach the city centre (Taksim or Sultanahmet). There are two ways of paying for the ride – you can by a token that costs 1.5 Turkish Lira (TL) for one segment of the trip (so you have to use another one if you're changing to another metro or light-rail). The other way is to get the Istanbulkart – a pre-paid card that can be used in most transports of Istanbul – buses, metros, ferries, trams and funiculars. I would definitely recommend you to get an Istanbulkart – it's cheaper (comparing to tokens) and it's easy to use.


Blue Mosque

When travelling to the city centre (from Atatürk Airport) choose M1 line. If you're heading to Taksim square or Sultanahmet you have to get off at Zeytinburnu station and change to a tram that's heading to Kabatas. On overall the trip will take you about an hour. If you decide to take taxi (be sure to check the most common types of taxi scams for Istanbul in Wikitravel) the trip could be a bit shorter, but that depends on the traffic situation. And Istanbul is a place with great congestions; if you're unlucky enough you can find yourself sitting in congestion for hours.

In our case the M1 metro ride was very comfortable, but the change at Zeytinburnu wasn't so pleasing anymore. It was already dark outside (our plane arrived in the evening part) and the crowds on the platforms and later in the tram were overwhelming. There was very little space in the tram, especially taking into account our luggage. It was also quite odd that we didn't see any other tourists – the tram was full of locals, what seemed a bit weird because this is the main line for tourists to reach the city centre. Apparently the vast majority of tourists do take taxi. J  I must admit that it was a bit worrying to spend ~30 minutes sandwiched by the locals because just before the trip I was reading some general advices on the pickpockets in the public transportation of Istanbul. J However everything was fine in the end, we reached our desired tram stop – Sultanahmet. Our hotel was only some 5 minutes away from the stop. On our way to hotel we managed to see the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya, and the Obelisk. We found our hotel (Timeks hotel; a great location – in the middle of Sultinahmet, 5 minutes away from tram to Kabatas, + a great price; However – don't take the breakfast here – really not worth the price, just go and find yourself some place on the main street). After we found our hotel went back for a small walk to take a look at the Blue Mosque – on our arrival there was a beautiful full moon over the Mosque. A bit mysterious look and just the thing we needed for our first night in Istanbul. I suppose this will be the view I'll always remember thinking of Istanbul and this was a great start for our trip. We also ate our first Kebab and drunk a glass of pomegranate juice. The Kebab as you would expect was great, but the juice was a bit to sour (we got the impression that the pomegranates weren't completely ready).

Second part of this blog can be found here.


Blue Mosque, Istanbul
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