A Day in Istanbul

istanbul

My trip to Turkey was memorable, mainly because it was the first time that i traveled on my own. Sure I’ve gone on several trips before without anyone with me, but I always knew someone at my destination— be it family or friends. For the first time, I was going to a foreign country by my lonesome, a non English speaking country at that. The thought of it was exciting and scary at the same time.

It was actually done on a whim. I needed to go to Europe to attend a friend’s wedding, and the cheapest flight at that time was via Turkish Airlines. I’ve never been to Turkey, so i thought it would  be a better idea to visit the country for a few days instead of just a layover. The price would be the same anyway. When I booked that flight I didn’t really know much about the country… I know that Istanbul is the present day Constantinople— I remember that much from world history class. heh. Beyond that, i didn’t really know anything.  I only did some research maybe a week or two later. First thing i found out— it was a Muslim country. No, I am not Islamophobic. It’s just that there are several aspects of Muslim culture that are very different from what I am accustomed to. I may have to be watchful of my every action at all times, else i might inadvertently offend someone. All the paranoia fueled by Western media also made me even more apprehensive. But after a few more googling, i found out that the country was relatively safe, free from terrorist threats (at that time), and the Muslim culture was more of the progressive rather than the conservative type. Since I was traveling alone, safety was my number one priority. I wouldn’t want to get into an accident (or die!) while traveling. When all my doubts were put to rest, I started looking for places in the country I’d like to visit.

Since the plane would be landing in Istanbul, I started looking for a place to stay. Now I was quite a newbie back then, so searched for a cheap hotel on booking.com instead of a hostel. Another newbie move: i was looking for guided tours instead of planning to explore on my own. Looking back, if i stayed in a hostel and if i didn’t join a tour group i would have saved a lot of money. Rookie mistakes, I know. But the place I eventually chose wasn’t bad. It’s called the Tashkonak Hotel.

tashkonak

A single room costs about 50 USD a night. Pretty pricey for the budget traveler, but at that time i thought it was real cheap. I got my money’s worth I believe. The room was clean, it had air conditioning, the bed was comfy, the breakfast buffet was really good, and the staff were really helpful and friendly. The location was excellent as well. It’s located in Sultanahmet,  the old part of town, so all the attractions of note are within walking distance. It’s kinda hard to find at first though since it’s located in one of those small alleys. The taxi I rode was going around in circles before we eventually found the place. Here’s a tip: download the Ulmon City Maps app. I’ve discovered a day later that the Istanbul Map is 100% accurate, right down to the smallest alleyway. If only I opened that map app instead of the more famous one (that starts with a G), we would have found the hotel sooner.

First order of business: I had to pay for the tour I booked online. I booked a day trip to Ephesus and I had to find the tour company’s office. Luckily, it was near the hotel where I was staying. The company is called Go Turkey Tours and I couldn’t recommend them enough— here’s why. After I paid, I asked them if there was a city tour scheduled on that day. I was surprised when the owner told me I didn’t need a tour guide since I can easily find everything nearby.Here was an opportunity for them to make more money, and he just said I can walk around and explore on my own. He even gave me a map, and recommended several places to visit complete with a short history of each attraction. he even recommended places to eat– without asking for a single cent! They also offered the cheapest tour rates for a solo traveler. Go ahead and inquire if you don’t believe me. I contacted more than 20 tour companies and their rates are way more expensive than Go Turkey Tours. So if you are a solo traveler who wants to join a tour group, I highly recommend this tour company. Here is their website if you are interested: Go Turkey Tours

After paying, I decided to wstart exploring. The first place I wanted to visit was the Hagia Sophia. Just take a look at these pictures, and you will see why:

sophiaoutside

sophia

Entrance cost about 15 USD. The place accepts credit cards, and there are machines selling tickets for credit card holders. There’s a really long line outside, which isn’t surprising since most tourists make this their first stop. It took me about an hour before I got inside. The place is massive. Once inside, i guarantee you will be in awe. It used to be a Christian church, later converted to a Mosque, and now it serves as a museum. Try to read on the structure’s rich history before visiting the place, that would make you appreciate the place more.

bluemosque

Right across is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more popularly known as the Blue Mosque. It was built about 4 centuries ago to reassert Ottoman power. As with the Hagia Sophia, reading up on the structure’s history would add more to the experience. The place is massive as well, it’s the biggest Mosque I have ever seen. It’s still being used as a mosque and there are lots of people praying inside. Being a top tourist attraction, non Muslims are allowed to go inside the Mosque. Just be at your best behavior at all times. It’s a place of worship, visitors should be mindful of all actions and show no signs of disrespect. Entrance is free, you’re just asked to give a donation before you exit.

mosque inside

Next on my list is the Basilica/ Underground Cistern, which is also nearby. Entrance cost 20 Turkish Liras. Some of people with me were underwhelmed, but i thought the place was very atmospheric. It’s also very cool inside, a perfect place to relax for a bit especially if you’re visiting during the summer.

cistern

Oh and toward the end you get to see upside down giant Medusa heads. Not sure about their purpose, but they do make the place a bit creepy.

medusa

The next place on my list is the Grand Bazaar. I’m not really into shopping, but it’s on the list of most people, so i thought I’d check it out. The entire complex is very huge, and stores were selling a variety of products. I bet anything under the sun could be found here. It’s also a bit too crowded for my taste, so i left after about 30 minutes. I wasn’t planning on buying anything anyway.

grandbazaar

I was already a bit tired by then, so I thought of proceeding to my last stop: The Bosphorus River. I thought it would be the perfect venue to relax. i was also planning to take a Sunset Cruise, so I thought of going early so I still have time to walk around the area. When I got there, I was surprised to see how crowded it was.

bosphorus

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was a continuous breeze in the area, it’s a welcome respite from the summer heat. No wonder a lot of people hung out in the area. I crossed the bridge over the Bosphorus that leads to the Asian side.

bridge

I didn’t go very far, but from what I saw the Asian side looked very similar to the European side. I agree with some people that it’s less developed, but the differences are not very apparent unless you look very closely.

cruise

Cruises can be expensive or cheap. it depends on what cruise you choose. Some are very basic, and they cost about 20-30 Turkish Liras. Of course the luxury cruises go much higher than that. Taking the local ferry is a cheap option. Not sure about the price, but I’ve heard it’s about 1-2 Liras. Ferries can get very crowded though, the locals use it as a means of public transport. The cruise was the perfect way to end the day. The dinner that was included was quite tasty for the price i paid. Watching the sun set on the cruise was very relaxing, it completely recharged me and I was more than ready for the things I’ve planned for the next day. Then I remembered the flight to Izmir was at 6AM. i had to be at the airport by 5AM. Argh.

Good thing I brought my pills, i would be able to sleep early.

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