Turkey for tourists
Most of my posts are meant for people considering SU Istanbul, or those who are interested in life outside of the West. This one is meant for neither- instead, it’s for any non-Istanbul SU Abroad student who is thinking of spending a weekend in this city or any other in Turkey. Think of it as a mini “survival guide”. For a real survival guide, visit turkeytravelplanner.com. It’s extremely detailed and accurate and literally guides you through the major destinations here. Mine will be a short, broad version. I’ll start with Istanbul first, and then go to the rest of Turkey at the end.
The first step is getting here. Because Istanbul is the 5th most visited city in the world, most major airlines fly direct to here. Istanbul has two major airports: Atatürk on the European side, and Sabiha Gokçen on the Asian side. Most likely you’ll be flying to the former, which is good because you can get nearly anywhere from it via the metro.
You may be lucky to score a cheap ticket on one of Turkey’s four major airlines. Turkish Airlines is the country’s flagship airline and 48% owned by the government. Its quality of service is unbelievable. Seats are comfortable and have a lot of legroom, planes are brand new, and each flight includes a full meal, even if it’s only an hour long. Longer flights have a huge in-flight entertainment collection with massive tablet-like screens, two full meals, free alcohol service, hot towels, Turkish delight, and sleeping kits. In most circumstances, this will also be the cheapest ticket available thanks to generous exchange rates. Next up is AtlasGlobal, the second-tier airline. Planes are slightly older and less comfortable but have generous legroom. You get either a free cheese sandwich or piece of cake with every flight (your choice) as well as a non-alcoholic drink. AG runs airport buses in most major cities so this can turn into the best option if you’re flying somewhere other than Istanbul. Third is Pegasus, the budget airline, which operates like a US carrier (no free food or drinks). And lastly is Onur air, which I have never flown but have noted many bad reviews online.
If you land at Sabiha Gokçen, you pretty much have to take a taxi. If you land at Atatürk, don’t take a taxi. You’ll get ripped off and the taxi driver won’t speak English (and you won’t speak Turkish, so problem). Instead, the airport is connected to the city’s public transportation system via the metro, and reusable RFID cards can be purchased before entering the station. Follow the signage to the M1, which runs from Havalimani (airport) to Yenikapi. Buy your card for 8TL (about $2.75) and pre-load 20TL onto it for the weekend. That’s all you’ll need. If you’re staying in the historic area (close to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, etc), Karakoy, Besiktas, or Karakoy, you’ll want to transfer to the Tram (T1) at Zeytinburnu because that will take you closer to your hotel. If you’re staying on the Asian side (Uskudar, Kadikoy), you’ll want to transfer to the Marmaray line at Yenikapi. If you’re staying in the Taksim area, transfer to the M2 at Yenikapi. If you don’t want to take the metro, I suggest hiring a transfer service rather than taking a taxi. It’s slightly more expensive (unless you get ripped off by the taxi driver) but far more comfortable and safer.
The first step is finding the hotel, the second is finding food. Luckily, most places you’ll likely go to will have English menus. Meat is always a good option here- chicken, lamb, and occasionally beef are all prepared well and taste good. Döner is the national dish and is amazing if you’ve never had a taste before- especially if it’s over rice. If you wind up in a place with no English available, here are some words to get you going: http://www.foodrepublic.com/2014/05/07/90-turkish-fooddrink-words-and-phrases/
Tipping, by the way, is only recommended (not expected but it’s nice) at restaurants and cafes, and the usual amount is 10% (no more than a lira or two). Tips are always in cash. Do not tip anywhere else.
Navigating the streets and public transportation can be scary, but there’s an app for that! Trafi offers a real-time guide of everything transport in Istanbul. Download the offline version for a digital map no matter where you go. On the plus side, pickpocketing isn’t a big concern in Istanbul, unlike other European cities, which means you don’t have to walk with your hands in your pockets every single minute. However, it’s still good to be wary. Another tip: there’s a massive deference to elderly people here, so if you see an old lady or man get on a full train or bus, give your seat up before they even ask.
Money is also not a problem. Convert your euros at one of the many stores that offer the service (marked by massive LED signs), or withdraw some from the thousands of ATMs spread across the city. Turkey is very much still a cash-based society. You can use a card, but old school is the way to go.
During your time in the city, the T1 will be your go-to mode of transport other than your feet. It can ferry you easily between the Hagia Sophia and Dolmabahçe Palace in Kabatas, as well as the ferry stations. If you want to visit Asia (why not?), take the ferry from Karakoy or Kabatas to Kadikoy, which has an outdoor bazaar, a large park directly across from the Hagia Sophia, and an impressive Nazi-era German train station. It’s worth a visit if you have time to spare. AVOID the neighborhoods of Fatih and Uskudar, which are more conservative and you will definitely be out of place. If you want to come to Ortaköy for a nighttime view of the bridge (and waffles/ice cream), take the 30D bus from the Galata Bridge all the way up to the Kabatas Lisesi stop and walk to the right, towards the water. Be sure to go inside the mosque- it’s beautiful.
At the sites themselves, there are some important things to consider. First and foremost, if you’re visiting a mosque, DO NOT LET YOUR SHOES TOUCH ANY CARPETS. This is extremely offensive in Islam- even if the carpets are outside. Mosques will also not charge entrance fees, but it’s nice to leave a tip to help with maintenance. And finally- women are required to cover their hair with a headscarf (you can rent one at the entrance if needed) as well as their legs if any skin is showing (so no leggings, ladies). Men, on the other hand, cannot wear shorts. You don’t want to find out what happens if you try to go inside with shorts on. Lastly, stay away from mosques just past noon and 3pm, when the call to prayer will be sounded and they close for 30 minutes to allow the devout to pray in peace. At the Grand Bazaar, the crucial thing to know if you are lost is that the entrances are the highest points. So just walk uphill and you will find your way out. Many places in Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces don’t allow photos, and flash is forbidden pretty much everywhere else, so keep it off.
When it’s time to leave Istanbul, make your way back to the M1 and arrive at Atatürk no less than 2 hours before your flight. You will have to go through security twice- before entering the airport and at the normal place, so pack efficiently. Congrats! You made it through the weekend!
If you’re going somewhere other than Istanbul, try to catch a ride on AtlasGlobal, either direct or via Istanbul. The free airport buses (which go directly to Bodrum, Selçuk, and Alanya from their respective airports) are amazing and take a lot of stress away from the trips themselves. All three cities are walkable from the bus stations and have great sites- check out my reviews earlier in the blog.