In no way, shape or form do I ever intend this project of mine to serve as a travel blog; but, being that I do enjoy traveling and tend to do so more when I’m in Europe, I figure I should share that part of my life as well.
The sequel to last week’s anecdote, today’s post will cover specific details regarding my weekend in Istanbul. I wrote in the previous post that while researching for my trip, I came across incredibly useful blog posts of some ladies who had been to Turkey before. Along with TripAdvisor reviews and forum threads, I used all the information at my disposal to carefully select accommodation and activities that fit not only my budget, but also personal preferences. Who knows; perhaps my humble, little blog will prove helpful to a future traveler one day!
Ready? Let’s begin with…
Good news for both Italians, whom comprise the majority of my readers (grazie!), and the nationals of fourteen other European nations–you will only need a valid form of ID to stay in Turkey for less than 90 days. Here you’ll find the complete list of exempt nations. (Until this trip, I had yet to utilize my coveted Italian passport!)
As for U.S. citizens who are planning to visit Turkey solely for tourism or business purposes, you’ll need to apply for an e-Visa, for which the fee is roughly $20. It will also be possible to obtain one once you arrive at the airport, but it will cost more.
*Top tip: If required, obtain the e-Visa prior to arrival. You’ll not only save yourself some money, but also precious time. The passport control lines at the airports in Istanbul are no joke, and the last thing you’ll want to be worrying about upon landing is more paperwork!
The official currency of Turkey is the Turkish lira, but euros are widely accepted in Istanbul. As soon as I exited the plane, I found an ATM and withdrew about 200 lira (roughly €40/$50). For four days, it ended up being more than enough.
*Top tip: Have both lira and euros readily available, as some small businesses (restaurants, supermarkets, shops, etc) will not accept euros.
My roundtrip Turkish Airlines flight cost me a pretty penny, but was on time and quite pleasant. For just a three-hour flight, I was offered several beverages and a hearty meal. From Malpensa Airport (MXP) in Milano, there are direct flights to Atatürk (IST), the largest and busiest airport in Turkey. Atatürk is also the closest to the center (hence the hefty price!), but–if you want to spend less on airfare–you can fly into Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, located on the Asian side of Istanbul, which is about a 45-minute drive from the city.
For convenience’ sake, I chose to fly into and out of Atatürk as I read it would only take 30 minutes via shuttle to reach the center. Ironically, it took me about an hour and a half on Friday when I arrived!
Map of Istanbul. Credit: Book Turkey Tours.
*Top tip: Allow plenty of time to reach the airport on the day of departure, as the traffic within and out of the city is actually nuts. (I just learned that the government is constructing a third, international airport; so, yay, good news!)
Since I had spent so much on airfare, I wanted to spare my coins when it came to lodging. After reading all the major travel website reviews, I was convinced and decided to book a private room at Second Home Hostel for three nights. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, I don’t recommend this particular one to be your first; but, if you’re a seasoned traveler, Second Home is great. The main reason I chose this accommodation was for the rave reviews from solo travelers.
I was also quite surprised at how affordable this hostel is, given the fantastic location in the center. My total came out to about €23 per night, but–and I just checked now–for a bed in a female-only dorm from April 20th until April 23rd, you’ll spend €30 for just three nights. Below are my opinions on some other important aspects:
- Location–As I said, you really cannot beat it! Situated between the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ parts of the city–on a busy avenue lined with hotels, restaurants, shops and a small supermarket–Second Home is optimally located. At the end of the street, you’ll find Gülhane Park, that also serves as a tram stop that will transport you right to the Old City. Meanwhile, the road at the other end will take you about ten minutes by foot to reach the Eminönü port.
- Staff–The staff was super friendly, although only the manager spoke English, which was a bit misleading since they advertised that they “speak your language”. Luckily, the manager is there often enough to offer help or resolve any issue that may arise.
- Rooms–My private room comprised a rather huge bunk bed, nightstand, desk/vanity, small wardrobe and several hangers. The mattress was very comfortable, as were the sheets and heavy blankets, which were very necessary since there was no heat in the room. I found only one outlet, but it was enough for me. My only complaint was that my room had a very strong odor of sweat, so I actually had to go out and buy an air freshener (LOL) to somewhat mask it, which leads to my next point of….
- Cleanliness–The floor of my room was covered with a stupid amount of long, black hair upon arrival, so I had to clean up a bit (I have slight, self-declared OCD). Overall, the entire property is well-maintained and cleaned daily, but it is obvious that it is not a five-star hotel. The common toilets and showers were weathered and dimly lit, but always equipped with hot water, toilet paper and soap (for which I was very grateful!).
- Airport shuttle–So, there was a bit of confusion on both my and the hostel’s end regarding transportation. For €25, I had previously contacted Second Home via e-mail and booked private transportation from Atatürk to the hostel (from the other airport, it’s a bit more). This van was supposedly “private”, but I shared it with a couple whom were staying in the Old City. However, for only €5, Second Home arranged a shuttle to bring me to the airport on the day of departure. The manager, though, forgot to inform me that this shuttle was the “public” one, and we made about six other stops before finally arriving to the airport. (I actually almost missed my boarding time!)
*Top tip: If booking your lodging through a third party, like I did, contact them to confirm that they received your payment and reservation. Check your credit card to make sure the amount is correct. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions, either, even if you think you’re being obnoxious. Prior to my arrival in Istanbul, I had emailed the hostel numerous times to make sure all is in order. (I even called them several times since the staff wasn’t very responsive to email in the beginning.)
I had read about a spectacular, transcontinental walking food tour of the city, one of the many offered by a small company called Istanbul on Food. Without hesitation, I booked the ‘Taste of Two Continents’ tour for the Saturday after I arrived, and it ended up being my favorite part of the trip!
- Cost? I paid $100, with an online deposit of $20 and upfront payment the day of for the remainder. They accept lira, euros and dollars the day of the tour.
- Worth the money? Yes. Yes. Yes.
- Duration? The website stated six to seven hours, but ours ended up lasting about eight.
- Where did you go? We started in the Old City, then crossed the Bosphorus by ferry to the Kadıköy zone.
- Total stops? Twelve!!!! (..those are happy exclamation points..)
- What did you eat? The question is, what didn’t I eat?! (See below for some of the delicious food!) All jokes aside, the company really succeeded in creating an authentic experience, with both traditional dishes and more modern takes of Turkish cuisine.
Simit, or Turkish bagel (typically covered in sesame seeds) with Nutella
Iskender kebap at the famed Iskender family restaurant
Delicious, Turkish taco (I forgot the real name :l)
Ayran, a savory yogurt drink made with water and salt
Turkish coffee and four types of baklava
It’s safe to say that by the end of the day, we were extremely thankful that it was a walking tour!
*Top tip: There will be a lot of food, so pace yourselves. (..and bring digestive enzymes..)
The next day, on Sunday, I had reserved a spot for a free, walking tour of the Old City. I’ve participated in a few similar tours in other European cities before because I find them to be not only incredibly affordable, but also very informative and interesting. Organized by the travel company, Viaurbis, the tour covered the main landmarks in the Old City. I’m not sure if it was the incessant rain, information given or the guide herself; but, I found the tour extremely boring. During my visits to Madrid, Barcelona and Berlin, I had managed to stay engaged and focused throughout the duration of the tours; but, this was a total and complete flop for me.
I also, foolishly, hoped that it would improve, so I decided to remain until the end (THREE HOURS LATER!) and then tipped her because it lasted way longer than stated on the website, which was somewhat nice. A lot of people would argue that it is unnecessary to tip the guide if the tour wasn’t good, but–in my opinion–guides still deserve a tip because, although the tour is technically “free”, they still need to make a living.
*Top tip: If a free, walking tour is terrible, do not stay until the end (lol)! Opt to wander by yourself and explore freely, especially if you’re tight on time.
…..and that’s all, folks!
Writing this has actually made me a bit nostalgic about my trip. Turkey is a such a beautiful country, and I hope to visit again soon! (Cappadocia, I’m looking at you…)