Not Constantinople
April 25, 2011 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I’m beginning to think about a trip to Istanbul (from the DC area) in September or October (dates somewhat flexible). Detailed questions and background inside…

I lived in Ankara for two years in high school, but that was a long time ago…1986 to 1988. I never managed to get to Istanbul though, mostly because I was busy being a sullen teen. Also, I never really learned Turkish, except for a few words, and I pretty much only remember “hello” and “goodbye” at this point. Questions:

Tour/no tour? I’m pretty much against any sort of tour, but at the same time I’m kind of intimidated at the thought of doing this all myself. We had a great time on our own in London, but this seems a bit more difficult due to the language barrier.

Where to stay? We’re not into “luxury” but we’re not “hostel-type people” either. We love small boutique hotels, but I’m not sure if anything like that exists in Istanbul.

What to do? We like to walk, eat, go to museums, and see live local rock music. We are not into anything sporty or beachy or overly touristy.

Where/what to eat? I love Turkish food, and am pretty familiar with the basics, but Mr. Arkham doesn’t eat meat or poultry (only fish). Will he be stuck with salads and cheese?

General tips? Safety issues? Photography etiquette? I’m somewhat familiar with the culture, but I know Istanbul is much more cosmopolitan than Ankara…and I’m sure things have changed in over 20 (!) years.

Thanks for any info you can provide…already bookmarked all the previous Istanbul questions I could find. AskMefi is the best travel resource ever!
posted by JoanArkham to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
It's been about 10 years since I was last in Istanbul, and I'm terribly jealous of your trip. Unless things have a changed a whole lot, you'll be fine operating in English, and probably fine getting along without a tour - I worked from the Lonely Planet Guide, for the most part - although you might get some good stuff out of a tour built to your interests.

Does "overly touristy" include markets? Because the Grand Bazaar is quite an experience. The catacombs, Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, and a ferry trip up the Bosphorus were highlights for me. But mostly I just wandered around. As I recall, Istanbul is very walkable.

I had a really interesting evening once hanging out with my traveling companions and a group of young rug merchants. Not something I would've tried on my own, but we did end up hearing a good local band. If you don't come up with any venue suggestions before you go, stop in a music store and ask the staff for recommendations.

Plenty of seafood was available when I was there, so Mr. Arkham should have some options. In terms of etiquette, Istanbul is very accustomed to tourists - as I recall, the only new etiquette that was emphasized was how to prepare to enter a mosque.
posted by EvaDestruction at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2011

My favourite food blog Eating Asia, although based in Malaysia, has done some amazing writeups on food in Istanbul and beyond (link goes to their Turkey posts).
posted by Gortuk at 12:39 PM on April 25, 2011

We were in Istanbul last summer. We stayed at the Raymond Hotel near Sultanahmet. It was clean and convenient for walking around the old city and the tourist stuff, the staff were nice and it was pretty reasonably priced. The archaeology Museum and Topkapi palace are nearby, and worth a visit. A boat tour up the Bosphorus is an enjoyable trip, and you can also add on a trip to Dolmabahce Palace if you like.
One of the previous threads also recommends having a sundowner at the rooftop bar of a hotel in Taksim Square for a great sunset view of the old city. I would definitely second that.
posted by Jakey at 12:54 PM on April 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I did Istanbul without a tour with three people who new maybe a dozen words of Turkish between us (although my wife did learn the word "expensive" which was enough to embarrass a guy she was trying to haggle with). English was fine for getting around.

In terms.of.sights, my biggest recommendation is to see Chora Church, which has amazing Byzantine art.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:00 PM on April 25, 2011

There is also Istanbul Eats. I think a pescatarian will end up not having a problem.

I'm not an expert - went once five years ago, but we are going again in three weeks and I've been doing a bunch of planning for it.

No Tour. Its certainly the next level up in difficulty from London, but there isn't anything about it that makes me think you need a guided tour. Unless you have a particular specialst area of interest where there is a specialist tour (we're doing the Istanbul Eats tour of the Bazaar area, but that's just a half day).

Hotels: Last time I stayed in Sultanahmet, (here) - and it was lovely - but the neighborhood itself is very touristy. Based on that experience as a well as a bunch of feedback from friends who have lived there, this time around we're staying in Cihangir, which is part of Beyoglu ( I don't quite understand the nabe nomenclature to be honest). We're renting an apartment, but there are def a bunch of boutique hotels in that area. No particular reccs 'cause we decided pretty quickly to do the apartment thing, but there are def a bunch of options - some of them look very cool. An incredibly demanding aquaintance recently stayed in galata here and heartily endorsed it.

As far as guide books to the big attractions (which while touristy you've gotta do, and its not touristy in a Times Square sort of way) - I heartily recommend this book : "Strolling Through Istanbul"
posted by JPD at 1:00 PM on April 25, 2011

Like EvaDestruction we went just under ten years ago, and had a great time, no guides required, people very friendly and it was easy to get by on just English. I can't imagine it having changed much. One warning: if you so much as look at anything for sale you are in negotiations to buy it - you probably want to get thick skinned on that or you will be coming home with a lot of rugs.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on April 25, 2011

Nthing that you should skip the tour.

As far as small, boutique hotels go-- check out The Little Hotel Book. (Caveat: My spouse and I found its offerings a bit too tony for our taste, but then we are definitely pension/hostel type people!) It's updated annually, so be sure to get the most recent version.

English: As long as you're on the European side, you will be able to speak English pretty much everywhere you go. Communication may be halting at times, but ultimately you'll manage. On the Asian side, all bets are off. (This isn't to say that no one speaks English, just that it's not ubiquitous.) We managed a day-trip to the Asian side quite well, but we annoyed a few waiters and shop-keepers, despite our best efforts.

Stuff to do: The Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum is amazing, and not at all touristy. The Pera Museum is also supposed to be quite good, though I didn't manage to make it there. If you're into music at all, especially jazz, classical, or avant-garde, I can't recommend Lale Plak enough. I spent so, so, so much money there, and would do so again in under half a second. If the staff recommends anything to you (especially if the recommendation is based on your other purchases) I advise you to buy it without question.

Where to stay: We stayed in Pera, and I was extremely pleased with the experience. It's a busy, partisome area, but it draws locals as well as tourists, and the streets are full of music, food vendors, and waves and waves of happy people having a lovely time. (We saw not a single drunken asshat, which is astonishing.) During the day, you can wander through narrow arcades full of stores with ancient vinyl and antique grammophones for sale.

Re: the Grand Bazaar: The thing is huge. I mean, it's really freaking astonishingly galaxy-class huge. The indoor bit is but a mere fraction of the whole. And while the indoor bit is indeed touristy (as are the outdoor bits immediately adjacent), if you let yourself wander, you'll quickly find the parts where locals go to buy wedding dresses, wooden spoons, and underwear. It feels like another planet, and it's glorious.

Food: Turkish breakfast will probably suit Mr. Arkham very well. For the other meals, there's definitely a lot of meat, but fish is also quite plentiful. If all else fails, your husband can live mostly on meze and be very, very, very happy. Also, even though it's billed as a tourist destination, I recommend Galata House. It's sort of Russian-Turkish fusion food, served in a restored English prison. Go prepared to listen to torch songs (by one of the two owners, either live or recorded) and to talk urban planning (with the other owner.) I heart the Galata House very much.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:44 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the guys are fast! I have a bit of Turkish bargaining under my belt, but I'm going to have to keep an eye on Mr. Arkham and his unfailingly polite "stop to talk to everyone" Midwestern ways.
posted by JoanArkham at 1:52 PM on April 25, 2011

Um, yeah. If Mr. Arkham stops and talks to everyone, he will find himself returning home with many, many rugs. Not that such would be a bad thing, necessarily...
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:20 PM on April 25, 2011

I was there for several days a year and a half ago. Absolutely loved it.

I would recommend staying in Sultanahmet. Yes, it's touristy - for a reason. We stayed in Hotel Nomade:

Highly recommend it. The rooms are small, but the roof deck is fantastic and they serve an awesome complimentary breakfast there. It is a couple blocks away from the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern (see this!, the street cars and a bunch of great little restaurants.

As I said, the neighborhood is touristy, but in a nice way. And it's the old part of town. We got out into other areas, but Sultanahmet just seemed the best place for home base. You can walk to most of the top attractions from there.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:22 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey, I can answer this! I was just in Istanbul two weeks ago.

I would say no tour. I got around with my copy of Lonely Planet Istanbul and a friend who had been there for a couple of days before me. I found Istanbul very easy to get around in. Neighborhoods like Taksim or Sultanahmet are very walkable. The public transit is easy to figure out and take from place to place. I speak no Turkish at all and rarely had problems understanding people or getting them to understand me. Everyone spoke enough English to answer my basic tourist questions and many people spoke it fluently or close to.

Istanbul, especially Sultanahmet and Taksim, is jammed full of little hotels. I booked one hotel through Expedia and another through TripAdvisor, I think. Read the reviews, figure out your price point, and make a reservation. I stayed at the Citadel Best Western. It was right on the Bosphorus and I could see Asia from my hotel bed! The staff were helpful and the breakfast buffet was excellent.

We were there for 4 days and I left without seeing a lot of the things I wanted to. There's certainly plenty to do, especially museums. I never got to the big archaeology museum, for example. Go to Topkapi and pay the extra for the harem tour, and get the headsets or a tour guide. We took a 2 hour boat ride up the Bosphorus and I recommend that or the ferry all the way to the Black Sea and back. Go to a Turkish bath. I went to Cemberlitas and would definitely recommend it. Much of the big touristy stuff is definitely touristy. Ayasofya, for example, but still very much worth seeing. Don't miss the cisterns. You will not run out of things to see and do.

Food: I am also a pescetarian, with the added challenge of eating low carb, and I did just fine. I did indeed eat a lot of salads and they were excellent. The cheese! Oh, the cheese! My hotel breakfast buffet had six kinds of cheese. I was in heaven. Plus the lebneh. I ate a lot of hummus and omelettes, too. The seafood I had was all very good (grilled octopus! fish kebabs bought off a boat!) and I certainly didn't have any problems finding enough to eat.

Safety: I felt very safe the whole time, including get caught up in a large political demonstration being followed by riot police. The men trying to get you to buy things are annoying as all hell. Ignore, ignore, ignore. My traveling companion was being more polite than me, and she ended up in unpleasant conversations trying to get away from them. They're just trying to get you to buy something, but some of them have conversational gambits that can be uncomfortable. Single women attract the most attention.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:25 PM on April 25, 2011

Couple of etiquitte/streetsmart things to be aware of:

Shoe shine guys (often with elaborate steampunk-esque kits) abound in Istanbul. A common trick is for one to walk ahead of you and drop his brush, apparently without noticing. You, being a good and helpful soul, pick up the brush and rush up to return it to him. The shoe shine guy thanks you profusely and then asks if he can give you a free shoe shine as a reward. If it works according to the standard script, you will then accept the free shoe shine, but you will be so taken with the guy's niceness that you will insist on paying for it anyway, probably at a rate several times what he'd charge a local. If you accept the "free" shoe shine but don't offer to pay for it, things occasionally get nasty. The best thing to do is just to ignore dropped shoeshine brushes.

Ataturk: You may remember this from when you lived in Ankara, but seriously: Do not disparage Ataturk. Depictions of Ataturk are all over the place, in pretty much every restaurant, and in pretty much every market stall. As you would expect with popular imagery of this type, a bit of it is a little campy, in that "Collectible Elvis Plates from the Franklin Mint" way. Do not remark on this publicly. Do not. Talking smack about Ataturk is an actual crime, even if you're really just making fun of a spectacularly ugly tea-set, and you can actually be arrested for it.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 2:45 PM on April 25, 2011

Also, Taksim is full of little bars and clubs. If you want to see the nightlife, you may be better off staying there. There seemed to be a huge variety of musical styles available for your live local music needs.

I really enjoyed my trip there, wished it had been longer, and am already trying to figure out when I can go back.
posted by gingerbeer at 2:56 PM on April 25, 2011

Mr. Palmcorder here. Istanbul is a wonderful place to visit, but if you are attempting to find something that is off the beaten path at all you may have trouble. The street 'grid' is medieval spaghetti, signage is haphazard and maps can be worse than useless. It's better to give yourself over to wandering.
posted by Sauce Trough at 4:16 PM on April 25, 2011

Milage may vary, but every time we made an effort and went somewhere vaguely fancy for food it was disappointing, and every time we got a cheap meal it was awesome.
posted by Artw at 4:21 PM on April 25, 2011

We spent about 5 days in Istanbul back in February, neither of us spoke more than a couple of words of Turkish, and that really wasn't a problem in the end. I'd also go without a tour, its accessible enough to be able to put things together yourself and decide where/what you want to see.

Stayed in Sultanahmet, which I recommend: nice and quiet to walk in, close to some big touristy sites, and easily accessible by public transport [tram/taxis]. This is the hotel we stayed in [Basileus Hotel] and it definitely played a big part in our enjoying our trip, the staff were really excellent: very helpful in showing us around on the maps, and recommending places to go to [it was a spur of the moment trip so we hadn't really done any research beforehand, but we picked out a list of things we'd like to do and they helped us decide which were worth it and which were not].

Its a nice 5 minute walk from the coastal hotel area to the avenue with Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. And from there its a short stroll to Topkapi Palace. But the one site you really must see would be the Basilica Cistern. Really breathtaking.

For concerts and nightlife we just picked up a copy of Time Out Istanbul at the airport [there are English and Turkish versions I believe, so look for the English one]. There are a number of concert venues and we were lucky enough to catch two fun acts [Easy Star All-Stars and an indie Scottish group called Unknown Orchestra] I'd guess theres a lot more going in September/October than freezing February, so take a look and you'll find something fun.

Other fun things:
- Go to the top of Galata Tower and catch the sunset over Istanbul.
- Get on a tourist boat for a ride along the bosphorus. [bonus points - grab a ferry and hop to the Asian side of the city which apparently has some rather "in" towns]
- Walk through Istiklal Avenue in Taksim with the crowds and be sure to check out the side roads. Istiklal itself wasn't all that, but there are some gems tucked away in the alleys.
- Definitely go to a Turkish Bath: we went to Çemberlitas because Cagaloglu [which came highly recommended] was closed for a month to film a documentary. I found Cemberlitas excellent, but my [female] SO didn't have the best experience, YMMV.
- Catch a Whirling Dervishes show.
- Walk into Haci Bekir in Eminonu and sample the dozens of flavors of loukoum/Turkish delights.
- Find Inci Profiterol in Istiklal Avenue and gorge on yummy profiterols.
Safety issues? Photography etiquette?
We had no problems lugging around our SLRs in tiny side streets late at night, at no point did we feel unsafe. Then again it made us stick out as tourists and meant in the touristy streets the restaurant "greeters"[?] kept trying to get us into their restaurants. It gets annoying. Just ignore it.

Oh also: contact your hotel ahead of time to arrange an airport pickup. We landed at the airport thats on the outskirts of the city and paid a hefty taxi fare to get to our hotel, when apparently there are shuttle buses that do the trip for a fraction of the price.
posted by xqwzts at 4:43 PM on April 25, 2011

I went on a tour of Turkey some time ago and, although I was grateful for the logistical convenience in the countryside, we were left pretty much to our own devices in Istanbul, which was great. We plan to go back, just ourselves, to Istanbul.

On our trip, we stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood which was immediately convenient to the Aya Sophia, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Sultanahmet Square, restaurants, Basilica cistern, etc. If you choose to visit any mosque, wear decent socks; women should have a scarf handy. The archeological museum was awesome, as was Topkapi Palace. Istanbul should present no language barrier to any English speaker. Walk to the Galata Bridge for dinner and take an easy streetcar ride home.

I am a vegetarian (not vegan) and had no trouble at all. There are, however, many restaurants in Sultanahmet and on the Galata Bridge that specialize in seafood. "Pudding Shops" offer a myriad of cafeteria-style Turkish options.

The archeological museum was awesome. Go, have fun, have some raki and don't neglect to try salap from the square vendors (so incredibly delicious). The one weirdness about Istanbul is that they have a local prohibition against bringing in water or other beverages to your hotel room. If they find empty bottles, they will charge you for them, so be discreet.

Watch the bizarre movie "Topkapi" before (and maybe after) you go. Read some Orhan Pamuk.
posted by Sissinghurst at 4:58 PM on April 25, 2011

Read some Orhan Pamuk.

My Name is Red is a must read if you are visiting the palace.
posted by Artw at 5:00 PM on April 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tour/no tour? I’m pretty much against any sort of tour, but at the same time I’m kind of intimidated at the thought of doing this all myself.

No tour. However, if you go to Cappadocia, a tour will be useful because the tour will provide a bus that allows you to go to the various empty Greek villages. I've heard that getting a hot-air balloon tour is worth the money if you go out there.

I'm still in hostel-slumming-it-mode, but I've heard great things about the Kybele Hotel, which is also in Sultanahmet.

I loved the Taksim Square/Beyoglu neighborhood. I could walk around there and shop there forever.

but I'm going to have to keep an eye on Mr. Arkham and his unfailingly polite "stop to talk to everyone" Midwestern ways.

Train him ahead of time to ignore, ignore, ignore. It's hard to get over your instinct to accept invitations for small talk, but you have to do it.
posted by deanc at 5:46 PM on April 25, 2011

Sissinghurst: "The one weirdness about Istanbul is that they have a local prohibition against bringing in water or other beverages to your hotel room. If they find empty bottles, they will charge you for them, so be discreet."

That is weird. Also, completely not in evidence at either of the hotels I stayed at, or either of the ones my friends stayed at on this trip. It was perhaps very local or overturned or is now completely ignored?
posted by gingerbeer at 8:32 PM on April 25, 2011

My husband and I went to Istanbul last September and had a fantastic time. Our visit coincided with Ramadan, and we thoroughly enjoyed being there during that time, seeing how locals celebrate. Note the Grand Bazaar is closed during the Seker Bayram.

We stayed at a boutique hotel in Sultanahmet - the Turkoman Hotel, not too expensive, and great views and location. Yes, this is a touristy area, but all the main attractions really must be seen - Aya Sofia, Basilica, Blue Mosque, etc. - simply amazing.

We didn't join any tour group and never felt like we missed out. Instead we got advice about where to go & eat from the young guys working at our hotel. It is a very walkable area and the public transit is easy to use.
posted by feidr2 at 9:45 PM on April 25, 2011

I'm in Istanbul right now! You definitely won't need a tour guide, my husband and I are getting along fine with our Eyewitness Guide. Our highlights so far are The Cisterns, Topkapi Palace, and the Fortress of Europe. Definitely get the extra ticket for the Harem in Topkapi. And don't trash your feet like me and use the trams - they are very easy (you just buy tokens at machines at stops, then put them in the turnstile at the stop). We are staying at the Galata Residence over Galata bridge - it's very affordable and while a little shabby, totally clean and friendly. Taskim is nearby and there are tons of nice restaurants and shops here - although it's up a big hill!

If I could hijack your thread - has anyone done a Turkish bath before? We are keen but a little freaked out by the logistics. What do you wear? Are there lockers? How long does it take?
posted by ukdanae at 1:09 PM on April 28, 2011

As I said above, I went to the Cemberlitas baths. This is specific to there, although I imagine the others are similar. Yes, there are lockers. You enter, specify what you want (bath, massage, etc.) and pay. You get a scrubby loofah sponge thing and tokens indicating what you've paid for, and a pair of underwear (for women at least.) There are helpful attendants at every stage to point you in the right direction, and they are used to slightly confused tourists.

You undress upstairs, put on the underwear, put all your stuff in a locker, wrap a towel around you, and take your loofah, tokens, and locker key back downstairs. An attendant will direct you into the absolutely beautiful marble bath area, put your towel on the heated marble, and motion for you to lie down. You lie there, blissfully absorbing the heat and the steam for a while. Then she comes back and bathes you, which consists of pouring buckets of warm water over you, sudsing you up, scrubbing, and pouring more warm water. Totally luxurious. My attendant didn't speak much English and just directed or moved me into the positions she wanted (rolling over, sitting up, etc.). Then there are a couple of pools, a cooler one and a warmer one. You can hang out in them as long as you want. You can also lie on the warm stone longer if you want. I got a massage after that, which was good but not great. When you're done, you wander back to the lounge area in a blissed-out stupor, and have tea, or water, or just sit, until you want to get dressed and go. I was there a bit over an hour. It can easily be longer or shorter depending on how much time you want to spend at the various stages. No one rushes you through anything.

The underwear thing was a bit odd. It's essentially cheap, disposable underwear. All the women were wearing them. So only partial nudity in the baths.

I loved it. Easily one of the highlights of my visit.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:45 PM on April 29, 2011

Thank you gingerbeer, that is exactly the kind of detail I needed! Tomorrow is our final day and I think we'll cap off the trip at Cemberlitas!
posted by ukdanae at 9:32 AM on April 30, 2011

Enjoy it! I left bemoaning the fact that we have no such establishments where I live. I could get used to little old ladies pouring warm water on me as I lie under a dome designed by a master architect.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:54 PM on April 30, 2011

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