Istanbul vs Iceland
May 13, 2012 10:56 PM   Subscribe

Travel decisions: Iceland or Istanbul?

My boyfriend and I will be travelling to the UK this coming October, to visit my family. We have about 4 - 5 days during which we plan to take a side trip.. somewhere. We've both been to the 'usual' destinations (Spain, France, etc) so are looking for something a bit more adventuresome. We've narrowed it down to two options - Istanbul or Iceland. Help us decide! I've listed my considerations for and against each place below.

We'd both love to go. I worry that 4 days won't be enough to fully explore the entire country, and if that's the case then I'd rather save it for a longer trip. I've read some other askme posts about Iceland which lead me to believe that while Reykjavik is neat, you really ought to get out and explore the rest of the country as well. Is 4 days enough time? I'm happy to rent a car if that's necessary, but would honestly prefer not to have the hassle. Still, I'm dragging my boyfriend across the world to visit my family and Iceland is his first choice, so if it's doable or worth it, I can definitely be persuaded.

I've travelled in India and Senegal and loved both places (more than Europe), so this is feeling more 'adventuresome' to me than Iceland. I feel like we could easily see the city in the time we've got. The boyfriend could be talked into it but wasn't as "OMGexcited" as I was at the idea. Seems like it will be a more "hustle and bustle" trip as opposed to a relaxing nature-oriented trip. Looking through some past questions, my vision of exploring amazing ancient cities on foot seem to be.. perfectly matched to Istanbul.

We'll probably book lodging through AirBnB for whichever location we decide on, and airfare from/to London seems to be comparable. Other pertinent information: We live in Portland, Or; have passable French and Spanish between us; I am an EU Citizen and he is not. I loved art history, he is more contemporary-art minded. We're in our mid 20s and definitely qualify as foodies (that sounds pretentious - but we're not.)

Have you been to either of these places? What's October like? How much time do you need? Alternately, is there a third, perfect location we haven't considered yet?
posted by girlalex to Travel & Transportation (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Istanbul is my favorite city in the world, and I've been to quite a few. I spent two weeks there and could have done a month, which I can't say for any other city I've been to. That said four days is fine - a couple days for the usual (but amazing) tourist haunts and a couple for wandering / sitting at the street cafe drinking apple tea and playing backgammon. I haven't been to Iceland but I do get the same impression about having to get out of town, and I think you'll have a lot of your limited time taken up with transit.

[This is me resisting writing 1000 words about how amazing Istanbul is.]
posted by MillMan at 11:51 PM on May 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Istanbul in October is lovely. The architecture and art is amazing. The food is delicious. The people are generally warm. To my eyes, it was worth going just to see the mosques. Never seen any buildings as beautiful on the inside.

It is also 13 million people making around $15k each per year. It's a little on the busy, noisy, dirty and hard-sell side of European cities. Lots of hustle.

It's also not as massive as you might expect from those numbers. It's incredibly dense, not towering or cavernous. Not NYC. Outside of a sort of 6km-on-a-side old city enclosed in the Theodosian walls, and Beyoğlu north of the Golden Horn, and Üsküdar across the Bosphorus, you get into pretty predictable infinite suburbs stretching to the horizon. Worth wandering around in, but self-similar. I was surprised how compact the central areas were, how much of it I could walk easily.

But even inside that region you'll have a ton of stuff to get absorbed into. The street-level culture is just amazing. It's like walking a city-sized labyrinth with something stunning and ancient and elaborate at every turn. There are many many layers of interesting history and culture to dig through. It would be hard to get bored.
posted by ead at 12:05 AM on May 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Both are great.

As you surmise, Istanbul is going to be an urban destination with all that implies - walking, crowds, cars, cafes, etc. Iceland is going to be more of a "one day for Reykjavik, then drive around or bus around to otherworldly natural spots" destination.

I'd guess at that time of year Iceland will be chilly, rainy, and windy, so figure that into your plans if you are thinking of hiking. (Double check this though - I went in March and I don't know if October is parallel. Weather when I was there was not bad, but we definitely wanted coats and hats for hiking.) I think you're right that you wouldn't have enough time to see the whole country in 4 days, but you could have a great time in the southwest. I think it would be a great, much more chill vacation with some time to decompress away from people, so you might think about whether that will be valuable for boyfriend. Wandering Istanbul you will be constantly surrounded by people.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:08 AM on May 14, 2012

Forgot to add: chilly is good, because it makes the ubiquitous hot tubs even more glorious.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:11 AM on May 14, 2012

Istanbul is great for historical art, better than one would expect for contemporary art (the Istanbul Modern is worth seeing), fantastic for food (though potentially the really good food is a bit harder to find than it might be in Iceland. The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul had the worst kebaps in my experience!) and if you can get out of the city and see some of the suburbs along with Bosphorus it is beautifully cosmopolitan and in places, quite sophisticated. Ortakoy is a beautiful place, for example.

October is good there.
It is definitely not nature-ish, except that the Bosphorus is spectacular. I mean, it is very densely populated and is a city, and one that doesn't place great value on parks and the like. But there is plenty to do there for 4 days. French, Spanish and EU citizenship all irrelevant. But there are plenty of English speakers in the city and visas are easily acquired on arrival.

I lived there, and I've never been to Iceland.... which I have heard is also excellent! It's pretty cheap? Does that tip the scales at all?

In terms of coverage, Istanbul could definitely stretch beyond 4 days but you could see a lot in that time as long as you stayed pretty focused on old-city and Taksim. Public transport can take a bit of getting used to... there are no regular stops on Dolmus's (mini buses) and you have to ask the drivers to stop in Turkish! But anyway, no prob for you probably-- stick with the funicular, tram and walking and you'll see plenty. There are regular buses too.

I imagine both would be excellent!
posted by jojobobo at 12:59 AM on May 14, 2012

I was in Iceland last October, and can confirm the chilly, rainy aspect. Also, daylight gets pretty scarce. Think 8am to 6pm at best. If you guys are really interested in seeing the country, especially outside Reykjavik, you'll almost certainly want more than 4 days in October.

All that said, I'm going back to Iceland this October.
posted by dogwalker at 2:08 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm actually here to suggest a 3rd location (based on your question you were open to it) that I think may hit the criteria for both you and your partner: the Caddadocia region in Turkey.

I replied to this question in great detail about a few day trip to that area. I'm not going to hit all the same points here so you can look at that answer, too, to see if something else hits your interest.

I also need to mention some biases in advance, so please also take this into consideration (as in, other previous responses may be better if they don't have these biases). I've travelled a lot in Europe and Africa before. I'm also driven by novelty. If it resembles something that I've seen before, it does hold my interest as much. So where I am going with this is that Istanbul did not really hold my attention that much. Had I not been to Europe that much before, the art would have been more novel.Had I not seen mosques before, it also would have been novel. But to me, it was very similar, a crowded city/hustle and bustle/and if I could go back in time I would done a day or two max in Istanbul and spent all the time in Capedocia.

The things in Capedocia that I think would meet your list combined list is there is more nature. One of the highlights of my time there was getting a hiking trail map from the tourist center and walking out and into Pigeon valley. The landscape was really unique. It is not uncommon to see horses wandering around (unfences) and people tending to the land. As you walk or wander, you may find a church in a cave and you pay someone to open the door. You are one of the few people there. There are many other hiking areas there but there was just not enough time.

If you like adventuresome (actually I'm not sure what you mean by could mean anything in terms of travel), but I also loved the outdoor museums,especially the Zelve outdoor museum.I had to take a bus and walk a few miles but it was not as touristy. You see old churches/communities carved into caves. To see them,you sometimes need to climb ladders, crawl through a few tunnels, etc. It met my desire to explore and was a phenomenal high.

If you see the Goreme outdoor museum (similar,more tourists), you can walk around the land outside the area. There are other churches/formerhabitation places in caves...and you can walk through and explore. Almost no one is there.

I also paid for a day tour of the region (there was not much time)-it was the easiest way to see an underground city.This also captured my imagination/interest because I haven't seen it before.

Never been to Iceland, it is on my list of places to go, but I can't speak comparatively to it.

posted by Wolfster at 4:34 AM on May 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

They're two vastly different experiences. I love Istanbul. I would love to live there. Spending 4 days there is more about the "city experience" than anything else (and that sort of thing is one of my favorite vacations).

With 4 days in Iceland, you can spend a day in Reykjavik, 2 days taking "adventure tours" (hiking on a glacier, ice-climbing, going to Thinvellir, etc.), and the 4th day at the Blue Lagoon before you leave. If you're comfortable that this is "enough", then go for Iceland.
posted by deanc at 5:00 AM on May 14, 2012

Here is a consideration: if you are from the US, it will be much easier (and cheaper) to jet off to Iceland some other time than it would be to travel to Istanbul some other time.
posted by gjc at 6:12 AM on May 14, 2012

I've been to both and I agree with above that the weather is not as good in Iceland in October.

I went to Iceland last year for the fabulous Iceland Airwaves music festival. We were there 4 days with one day to spend seeing the countryside. The weather was very windy and changable. It was sunny, then hailing, then raining. Kind of amazing actually. I don't like the heat, so it was perfect for me.

If food is a big consideration, Iceland is not really known for it's cuisine. Most restaurants are international. We did go to one cafe serving traditional food, but they are rare. So if you want to eat new exciting foods, go to Istanbul.
posted by Gor-ella at 6:31 AM on May 14, 2012

PS. If you have any more questions, feel free to memail me!
posted by Gor-ella at 6:34 AM on May 14, 2012

I went to Iceland in September.
You really have to get out of Reykjavik, although it is a very lovely city.
Even a 15 minute drive outside of Reykjavik there is a strange change in the landscapes that looks like nothing I've seen anywhere else on earth.


--Visit the town of Vik on the South coast---the sand is Black and you feel as though you are in Hell.

--Visit Dettifoss waterfall in the Northeast if you want to feel like you are at the edge of the earth.

--At Husey on the East coast you can stay at a little hostel and go horsebackriding.

-- I recommend renting a car. Me and my two friends rented a tiny little Citroen in Reykjavik and drove counter clockwise around the whole island on the Ring Road. It took us around 9 days. we slept in the car, so we could park anywhere the hell we wanted (on the edge of a cliff, in the middle of a huge valley, in a farmer's field, on a beach, etc.)

-Skip the blue lagoon and instead visit the affordable community swimming gyms for hot springs. Blue Lagoon is a nice tourist trap which offers not much more than those lovely community gyms.

If you don't leave Reykjavik you don't see Iceland. Did you know they sent astronauts to train in Iceland's interiour before they were sent to the moon? Gives you an idea of the geography there.
posted by costanza at 7:08 AM on May 14, 2012

I love both places. They are SO SO SO different. And gjc is right - it is way cheaper and easier to get to Iceland from North America than it is to get to Istanbul from North America.

I've been to Iceland twice, for four or five days each time. I spent most of my time in Reykjavik both times, plus adventure tours. I went in March and December - so, yeah, the weather is not *great* and in October there's going to be less daylight than you're used to, but I kind of loved it. The short days in December (really, really short) made for a relaxing visit. And whoever said that bad weather makes the hot tubs even more awesome is right. Plus: more time to spot the Northern Lights. I had a lot of great food in Iceland, though for the most part it was the same kind of stuff I would eat in the US. People are very friendly and good-looking. In terms of culture there is nothing ancient and not much "old" about Iceland. I did not rent a car, which meant to get out of the city I had to take tours (there is very little public transport in Iceland). I loved the tour of the Snaefellesnes peninsula I took with GoEcco .

I've spent four days in Istanbul, too. Istanbul is intense - as crowded as New York or London, and the people are more in-your-face. The cultural tourist sites are AMAZING. The food is delicious (and often cheap), although the corn on the cob is not as good as it looks. You can get a rabbit to tell your fortune. There is hot tea service on ferries and intercity buses. Someone is always trying to sell you something. I'd actually recommend staying at a hotel that offers breakfast because Turkish breakfast is the best breakfast, but since it includes like 10 different things, all of which need some prep, you probably won't bother with it if you're self-catering. (Actually I specifically recommend, for a first-time brief visit to Istanbul, that you stay in a hotel in Sultanahmet with a rooftop terrace.)

Short-short version: Iceland is chill. You can't see the whole country in four days but so what? Istanbul is intense. You can't see all of Istanbul in four days either. Basically, you're going to have to decide which kind of vacation you want to have.
posted by mskyle at 7:18 AM on May 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Iceland will definitely be more expensive. I've been to both Istanbul and Iceland.

Istanbul is really cheap for food, drinks, activities, and accommodation and given the population I think more likely to have an AirBnB scene? - i'm not sure about Iceland.

In general Iceland is really quite expensive and to make the most of it you really need your own car to drive around I believe. Food in particular is quite pricey because a lot of it is imported / flown in. Its an amazing environment and so remote. The problem is you might have trouble finding AirBnB accomodation in the smaller towns around Iceland. and a basic hotel will be 80 Euros a night (double).

just one consideration..
posted by mary8nne at 7:45 AM on May 14, 2012

It is not true that a basic hotel in Iceland (at least in Reykjavik in the off-season) will be 80 Euros a night - I think you could safely budget 50-60 USD if you look for deals. My last trip I stayed in a boring-but-comfortable hotel for $40 a night, but that was in December. My rule of thumb for Reykjavik at least is that services and experiences are very reasonably priced, but goods (including food) are very expensive.
posted by mskyle at 11:59 AM on May 14, 2012

Yes also what mskyle said: Turkish breakfast is absolutely the best breakfast.
posted by ead at 10:26 PM on May 14, 2012

Iceland Hotel Search;

I think finding a 50-60 USD hotel is going to be a bit tough outside of Reykjavik. or do you mean $50 USD per person?

That website lists a lot of the Hotels in Iceland. - there really are not that many hotels. And as it heads towards December some of the hotels in more remote areas do actually shut down for the season.
posted by mary8nne at 7:06 AM on May 15, 2012

Iceland Air usually has a deal on where you can go to London via Reykjavik out of North America and your Iceland stopover for however many days you want comes at no extra cost. I have been dying to do that trip for ages!
posted by gohabsgo at 4:20 PM on May 15, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! I think we've decided to save Iceland for another time, and are both super excited about the possibility of cave hotels (CAVE HOTELS) in the region suggested by Wolfster.

gohabsgo, I so wish we could take advantage of that offer they've got, but for this trip we need to be in London for 1-2 days and then have 5 days to kill - so the layover part doesn't work - maybe next time!!
posted by girlalex at 7:31 PM on May 16, 2012

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