A swirling labyrinth of streets, vendors beckoning to come hither, sparkling lanterns lining shop fronts and the smell of roasting meats and spices wafting through the air; we’ve arrived in Istanbul.
Making our way from the Ataturk airport (IST), we took 2 metros to the Sirkeci station and then attempted to navigate to our hotel. Walking down the surprisingly bustling street (for a Wednesday night at almost 10pm), we heard calls from every which way like “Hello Charlie’s Angels!” or “Deal, deal. I give you deal, princess.” The familiar feeling of being in Mexico multiplies with the nearby call of the seagulls.
Arriving at our hotel, hidden away in a quaint alley, we’re greeted with the most welcoming staff — offering up grand smiles and kind words. The Sirkeci Mansion smells like a spa and instantly I’m filled with joy and ease. Taking our bags, the adorable bell-boy showed us to our room, never parting from his genuine grin. We inquired how his day was going and he nodded in delight, saying “Yes. Thank you.” Kelsey and I turned to each other, holding back giggles — knowing that this was only to be the first of many language barriers.
Entering into the room, we said our thank yous and plopped down on the big white bed. To our delight, a plate of Turkish Delight was mounted on the bed-side table and we immediately grabbed a handful. Having never tried the famed Turkish Delight before and only reading about it (mainly from Chronicles of Narnia) I was very intrigued and curious. It’s difficult to put into words –the texture, similar to the consistency of mochi, but a bit harder and sort of cake like, minus the flour, but coated in powdered sugar? Whatever it was, it was good, and we quickly devoured the entire plate.
Before arriving in Istanbul, I had done some in-depth research about their delicacies and common cuisine (especially breakfast – I’m fascinated as to what the normal breakfast meal is in different countries) and had read that honey, cucumbers, an array of cheeses, olives and other goodies were the go-tos. So I was thrilled when we came across this sheet of honeycomb just waiting to be dug into!
Our one day of exploring the “Old City” of Istanbul, with all the known attractions and famous mosques consisted of: Hagia Sofia (AyaSofya), Blue Mosque, lunch overlooking the water, getting followed by wild dogs and cats, the Grand Bazaar, the most magical shisha place (ever) and an authentic home-style Turkish dinner. *We opted out of the Topkapı Palace — although it looked absolutely stunning from pictures, based off of friend’s descriptions and reactions coupled with the insane amount of tourists, it didn’t seem to be worth waiting in line and forking up the cash. So pictures sufficed for us.
I feel silly saying this, but walking around the Hagia Sofia felt a bit like Disneyland — all the grass is groomed, the bright blue fountain spurted water above the verdant palm trees, the walkways lined with white and gold fencing and food carts were abundant. However, taking a step inside, the atmosphere changed drastically and an overwhelming sense of peace filled the room. Grand chandeliers hung form the ceiling and colorful mosaics lined the walls. With construction beginning in 537, the air was thick with history and stories of a bygone era.
The Grand Bazaar definitely did not live up to the hype and honestly, we could have skipped that part. While in my mind, I imagined something more akin to the souks in Morocco and merchants with all sorts of trinkets. It may have once been like that, but today it was just a hoard of people in a maze of covered passages with overpriced souvenirs and kitschy items. Definitely not worth making the trek to and not even pretty for pictures. I wouldn’t bother with going here!
One of the favorite parts from our trip – after a day of doing all the ascribed ‘touristy things’ and must sees while in the Old City was actually the part where we got lost and just wandered. Although it’s fun to be able to say that ‘you did’ those things, the real part of experiencing a new place and culture is when you can just surround yourself, get lost and truly BE in it.
Strolling down the wobbly cobblestone road, we came across an outdoor oasis decorated with colorful lanterns and plush patterned couches next to a table with shisha. Giving off the air of the caterpillar’s lair from Alice in Wonderland, we shrugged our shoulders and said, “Why not?”
We sat down on one of the vibrant couches, ordered shisha, tea and a Turkish coffee. Reggae versions of familiar tunes filled the air — Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars and a myriad of other musicians. Settling in to our seats, our wait – Kemal (who had exceptionally cool style, a bit of a grungy rock ‘n roll vibe) set up our pipe and delivered our drinks.
The atmosphere – tranquil, relaxing and yet vibrant and full of life at the same time. Kelsey and I giggled as we ‘cheers’ed to life and just knowing that THIS, in the present moment – living freely, fully and completely was just what life was about.
Then the shisha went to my head and I dizzily sat back in my seat. A few minutes later, a kind older gentleman dressed in a blue suit, sort of resembling Walt Disney asked if he could sit with us. We kindly obliged and scooted over, making room for him.
Chatting with him for a bit, we learned that he’s actually a childhood friend of the owners and this is his favorite place to relax and cap off a long day with a cigarette, a tea and an engaging game of backgammon. Before we knew it, a plate of baklava arrived as well as two more teas – the waiter telling us, “It’s for you. He bought it.”
I looked at Kelsey, our eyes wide and thrilled to see our first baklava — this was actually the next treat on our MUST EAT list. Taking a huge bite of the pistachio, honey goodness, I let out a deep sigh of content before winding up with baklava in my hair. Kelsey giggled as she blew out a cloud of hazy smoke. The BEST shisha in Istanbul located just next to Gulhane Park – Gulhane Sur Cafe & Coskun Bazaar.
Later at the hotel, Kelsey and I replayed our day, our experiences and the fabulous time we had at the shisha oasis (basically repeating it out loud, to make sure it wasn’t all a dream). I was baffled and so taken back saying, “I can’t believe he bought us baklava and teas!” (At the end of the afternoon, it had amounted to two plates and I think 4 more teas). Kelsey went on to say, “Chels — think of it rather as a cultural exchange, Turkish hospitality – he really wanted us to truly be there, experience life as he knows it and welcome us in. Don’t think of it as free.” This girl, so wise in her words. I quickly realized how flawed my words had been, not realizing the entirety of what I was saying and knew she was totally right. It was about being there, with no agenda, enjoying and embracing — truly feeling something, with them. That’s where the magic happened.
Following up our impeccable afternoon, Kelsey and I had reservations at ‘Erhan Restaurant‘ somewhere down the road from the Blue Mosque. Stomachs growling, we were anxious to stuff our faces with a place we had read so much about. Following the Google Maps directions, we ended up in a dark alley and started questioning our sanity. Did we really have the right address? Is this place super hidden and off the grid? Should we really be in a dark alley at 9pm in Istanbul? Heading back to a better lit street, we stopped in a small hotel to ask for directions. The guy there tried to help us, but had no idea where this place was. Starving and a bit annoyed, we went outside looking for the number of this restaurant. Fortunately, a young guy came up to us and asked what we were looking for. He replied that he knew exactly where it was and he could escort us there. We were a bit hesitant as we thought it might be a gimmick, we kept our distance, but to our chagrin – he actually took us to the restaurant with the noted sultan standing out front.
Looking over the menu, we truly couldn’t decide what to order and chatted with the owner (Erhan), asking him what his favorite and most popular dishes were. He pointed to a few different options on the menu and we replied, “Surprise us!” He grinned.
A delicious meal of Testi kebab served out of a terra-cotta pot, pita & nan bread served with a yogurt dip, potato puree and rice pilaf, baklava dripping in chocolate sauce, fresh orange juice and rose-hip tea. We were so happy. And stuffed. But mostly happy. Good food, good company and a great restaurant. For more on Erhan Restaurant — click HERE!
Leaving Erhan’s Restaurant, Kelsey and I wandered the streets, taking in the scenery of Istanbul at night. The minarets illuminated by golden lights and standing concrete against the midnight sky. We tossed around ideas and times of when we needed to leave for the airport the next morning and modes of transportation, when serendipitously we walked straight into an airport shuttle shop that was just about to close for the night. How perfect is that? We forked up some Turkish Lira (60TL for transportation to SAW airport when a taxi was going to cost around 160 TL) and made our arrangements to meet the shuttle outside our hotel at 5:45am the next morning. Realizing it was now close to midnight, Kelsey and I dashed back to our temporary home, stopping one last time to take in the sights.
The next morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn – grabbed a few bites to eat from the array of breakfast foods being set up and set out for a misty drive, crossing over the bridge from Europe to Asia.
And that, for us, was the Old City of Istanbul.
Note: In order to step foot onto Turkish soil, you need a Turkish Visa – even through all my research about Istanbul, this is not something I came across. Filing through the Passport Control at the airport and stepping up to prove my identity, the man at the desk quickly demanded my Turkish Visa. My heart began pacing, “Shoot. My what?!” I silently panicked and then asked, “I need a Visa if I’m only going to be here for 5 days?” He nodded his head yes and pointed to the back of the corridor, past all the people waiting in line. “There, you buy Visa. Back, right.” Okay, I took a deep breath, shrugging off the sudden influx of stress and tried to calm my nerves. Trudging my suitcase alongside me, I headed to the back of the room and looked around for the Visa counter. Upon finding it, I hand the lady my card and she told me, “No. Only cash.” And pointed to the small sign next to her. “Okay. How much again?” She replied “80 Turkish Lira same 30 US Dollar” and pointed to the ATM down the hallway. Lugging my suitcase and frustration to the ATM, I pulled out 300 Turkish Lira – figuring it would be best to have on hand for any other mishaps, taxi rides or sudden need to buy baklava. Heading back to the counter, I dished out the 80 Turkish Lira and handed her my passport. She gave me a blank stare and then bluntly stated, “You have US passport. Only pay US dollar.” Seriously?! Hauling my ass back to the ATM machine, I pulled out another lump sum – this time in US dollars and then bitterly walked back to the desk. Avoiding an aspersion, I gently set down my passport and bills, smile on my face. She stamped my passport, pasted in a colorful sticker and sent me on my way.
**So obtaining the Visa sticker prior to Passport Control will save you a bit of time and frustration. **