I probably say this about most places I go to for the first time but Istanbul might very well be one of my new favorite cities. It has the perfect blend of a European, Middle Eastern and North African feel—which makes a lot of sense since it sits almost as a center point between the three. The Grand Bazaar is reminiscent of the souks in Morocco, the tree lined streets with bustling cafes makes you feel as though you are in any major city in places like Italy, France or Spain, and the daily call to prayer, abundance of mosques and desert-like climate make it seem like the Middle East. For those travelers who like diversity, Istanbul has it.
An interesting thing I noticed about this city is how late everyone starts their day. It’s amazing how in just about everywhere in the world except the US, people start their mornings late and stay up late to enjoy the evenings. Just like I’ve found in Hong Kong, Dubai, and most of Europe, Istanbul is sleepy in the morning and super happenin’ at night, which I loved.
One of Istanbul's current claims to fame is their brand spankin' new airport. And boy are they proud of it. Apparently the old one was pretty ragged, and I have to give them credit: the new one is really nice. It has tons of shops to peruse while you wait, good eateries to grab a bite, and is extremely clean. The only real downside I found was that there wasn't a Priority Pass lounge, so I was on my own when it came to free food or WiFi.
As an aside, it would be nice if the airline told us that we needed an entry visa though when I got there. I went to go through passport control (thankfully the lines weren’t that long) and he sent me back through the line to get a visa. Since all flights that come into the country are through Turkish Air--and since everyone who isn't a Turkish citizen needs a visa--you really would think that Turkish Air would give you the courtesy of telling you that before you get off the plane. But nope. So I'm telling you now. Good news is you can pay in dollars, euros or Turkish Lira, and it only cost me 25€.
I did a short stint in Istanbul, so be forewarned that I wasn't able to do a whole lot. But for those of you on a quick stopover like me, use this as a guide to hit all the important spots, have a nice meal or two, and see the sites in this beautiful Turkish capital city.
I stayed at the W Istanbul and I would definitely recommend it to the younger crowd. It's very sexy and very modern, yet still Turkish-feeling. The rooms are ornate, with deep reds and dark colors, with Turkish-looking accents. I was upgraded to a suite, which was incredibly spacious. It was street-facing though so it didn’t have a balcony or one of those cool patios I saw showcased on the Bonvoy app, but was still a good room.
The service was also great; a gentleman whisked my bags away and brought them into the lobby so quickly that it actually made me a little nervous about someone taking my bags—I hardly had enough time to verify that he was even a W employee (other than the old school bellman attire) before he darted off with my bag. Thankfully though, it was there waiting as soon as I paid my driver and walked in. The check-in process was also fast and easy, and everyone on staff was kind and helpful, with someone at the concierge even finding me tickets to a sold out soccer game that evening.
The few downsides are that the food is expensive and the rooms are a little tired from use. The food and drinks in the lounge have US prices... a little annoying in light of the fact that I paid only 53 Turkish Lira (about $9) for my entire meal just 20 yards away. And although the room was cool--probably much cooler to someone in their 20s--it did look a little tired, which is probably because it's right in the heart of the cool bars and clubs and probably gets a ton of travelers who are a lot younger than me.
If luxury is what you're looking for, I would highly recommend staying at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanhamet. Note that there are two Four Seasons properties in Istanbul: one in old town and one in Beşiktaş, which is where the W also was. I prefer the one near old town because its rooftop terrace has the most incredible views of just about any hotel property I've ever been in. You can sit and have food or cocktails with the stunning Hagia Sophia in the background. Even if you're not staying here, lunch in the courtyard downstairs and at least one cocktail upstairs is a must.
One of the smartest things I chose to do during my short stay was to do a small group three hour walking tour. I took a 3 Hour Express Walking Tour that I found on TripAdvisor. It was supposed to be a maximum of only 8 people, and fortunately for me, I was the only person who showed up, which meant I got a private tour. What was also great about being by myself was that we were able to go at my pace, which is quite a bit faster than most people, so we really crammed a bunch of stuff in.
My guide, Timur Cömertpay, is a local, licensed guide that was incredibly knowledgeable and spoke excellent English. We started the tour off near a restaurant in old town and began our walking tour by heading toward the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or more commonly known as "Blue Mosque"). Here, my guide was kind enough to snap some photos of me outside the mosque, then I grabbed a head scarf at the entrance (which is required for women, but not for men) and then went inside. Admittedly, we didn't spend a whole lot of time inside since most of it was being renovated and was blocked off to the public, but it really was beautiful. Having a guide to hear all about the history of the mosque was a plus.
From there we walked through Topkapi Palace and then went to view Hagia Sophia from the outside. The Hagia Sophia mosque was so beautiful that I actually came back in the afternoon and had lunch nearby, just so I could see it again.
After the mosques we walked further into Old Town toward the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, where my guide and I stopped for Turkish tea and some sweets and then continued our walk through the Bazaar, stopping at some spice stores along the way.
One of the coolest--and certainly most unexpected parts about my trip to Istanbul was having the opportunity to go to the Besiktas vs. Andorra Soccer game. When I was walking back to my hotel later in the afternoon, I noticed a lot of people cheering and chanting outside of the Vodafone Arena—a brand new (or at least it looked it) stadium on the European side of town, right on the water. I found out there was a game that evening, so I asked the hotel concierge how I could get tickets. I’m fairly certain I overpaid, but figured it would be worth the experience. So in the evening I changed clothes and headed back toward the stadium for the game.
The stadium was about a half a mile from my hotel, and traffic through that area was horrible so I decided to walk. I didn’t mind the walk at all until I got to the first security gate to find that they don’t allow GoPros. The woman who searched my bag said she would either have to confiscate it or I would have to bring it home. My ticket said the game started at 7:45, and this was at about 8:10, so I wasn’t thrilled about going back, but at the same time I didn’t hear any noise in the stadium yet and people didn’t seem too antsy to get in there. So I walked the half mile back, returned the GoPro to my room, and walked another half a mile back where I came from. Surprisingly, they also did not allow in any coins. What was even more surprising—yet a pleasant one—was that I got searched three times at three different entrance checkpoints. I later found out this wasn't the normal procedure but because the prime minister of Turkey was actually there! So cool.
Oh, and I’m not sure if it’s because most people are Muslim or if they’re just trying to keep it safer, but there was absolutely no alcohol sold inside the arena. Only shorty fried sweet pretzel things, chips, popcorn and prepackaged hamburgers that looked like pancakes. Oh, and you can’t drink but you can smoke in the arena, right in your seat. Pretty fucking backwards if you ask me.
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And much to my surprise, it was not until about 9:30 that the game actually started. So by the time the match began, I was pretty tired after my eventful day, but it was still wildly exciting. The people next to me were all fairly perplexed as to why I was there--and particularly why I was a woman who was at a soccer match by herself--but after about an hour they warmed up and tried to get me to join in on their Turkish chants (which I obviously didn't understand a word of, but caught onto rather quickly since the entire stadium containing thousands of people were chanting them).
Though the whole experience was odd, I would absolutely recommend it to someone passing through. The environment is lively and the sporting event was different from any sporting event I've been to in the States (and trust me, I've been to a lot of them).
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