We arrived in Istanbul around 9am only to endure another headache. Some countries, like Egypt, require visitors to purchase a visa. Turkey also had this policy and required US citizens to buy a $20 visa immediately after getting off the plane but before passport control. However, there were no money exchange kiosks in the area and the visa booth only accepted US dollars and Euros. Why does a country’s airport not accept its own currency?! We only had Jordanian Dinars and Israeli Shekels as we expected to be able to exchange. We were forced to withdrawal money from an ATM in order to pay the visa fees.
Once through passport control, we found several exchange booths but absolutely none accepted dinars or shekels. We were forced to withdrawal again in order to get Turkish Liras. After that, we took a taxi to our hostel in the modern neighborhood of Taksim. We had originally planned on couchsurfing, but our host bailed at the last minute, requiring us to make hostel reservations. We booked three beds in an eight-person bedroom. When we arrived, our room wasn’t ready so we left to explore. We wandered around until stopping to eat brunch. I had a traditional Turkish breakfast of an egg/tomato stew and Turkish coffee.
Afterwards, Allison and Caroline went to the Turkish baths. I chose not to go because I don’t like the experience of being massaged/scrubbed by other people and swimming naked in front of strangers. I also didn’t want to pay the entrance fee for something I don’t enjoy! Instead, I explored our neighborhood and walked all the way to the Bosphorous River.
That night, we met up with Marco, a guy we met in Cairo through Caroline’s friend. He was also traveling in Istanbul with his roommate, so we decided to get a few drinks and catch up. I had looked online before going out and found a cool bar called Mama’s Shelter to go to. It is located on Istanbul’s main nightlife street called Istiklal. We wandered around until finding Mama’s Shelter, which turned out to be more of a restaurant/lounge than a bar. We left and found a different place that was more our speed. We talked for awhile until I decided to invite over a table of Turks. They gave us the low-down on the city and told us we MUST try the street food. Istanbul is famous for its two most popular street foods: oysters and chestnuts. Later that night, they treated me to four oysters and they were delicious! The street vendor stuffs each oyster with rice so it isn’t overly fishy.
The next morning, we planned to see all of the famous sights. First, we walked from Taksim to the historical district. We got in line for the Hagia Sophia – the famous church that was converted into a Mosque during the reign of the Ottomans. Afterward, it was changed into a museum. We had heard that the line to purchase tickets and then entire the Hagia Sophia often took 2 hours, so we were prepared to wait. While in line, we met Daniel, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan and decided to take a vacation to Istanbul on his own. We talked the entire time while in line and then decided to spend the rest of the day touring together!
The Hagia Sophia was beautiful, but I don’t understand why it is such a famous sight. The history is interesting, but it wasn’t especially breathtaking. I am glad I was able to see it, but the conversation and great company made waiting in line more enjoyable than the actual Hagia Sophia!
Afterwards, we went to the Blue Mosque, which was built by the sultan who admired the Hagia Sophia but wanted to make a more impressive mosque. This building was actually breathtaking and I preferred it much more than the Hagia Sophia. Every inch of the inside of the mosque was covered by intricate stone decoration! The only unenjoyable part was having to walk barefoot on the sticky, plastic covered carpet as shoes are forbidden inside of the mosque. That was an unpleasant experience.
The next place we ventured to was the Grand Bazaar, a large souk similar to those in Amman. Allison bought several bowls and Caroline bought a scarf. I have been looking for a hipster t-shirt for my friend at home and I found one, but the experience of purchasing it did not go as expected. Haggling is expected in the Middle East and especially in souks. It is almost insulting if you do not try to haggle. I saw a t-shirt and asked how much. The shopkeeper said 15 liras, so I offered 10. He immediately crumpled up the t-shirt, threw it on the floor, and turned around. This behavior is not common in haggling and was quite offensive, so we simply left. I suppose I will have to find a hipster t-shirt elsewhere!
Next, we tried to find the old walls of city, but instead stumbled upon an old Roman aqueduct built around 300 AD! This was my favorite thing we saw because it was so old. The city street was constructed underneath it, so cars can drive through the holes! I thought that was really cool.
That night, we tried the hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street. Allison and I shared a weird spicy vegetable dish and some mint flavored yogurt dip. I even bought real Turkish baklava! It was probably the best meal I had while in Istanbul. Afterwards, we tried to find somewhere to go, but all the bars looked sketchy or intimidating, so we simply came back to the hostel and went to sleep. That night, two new people came into our mixed dorm room. One of them proceeded to snore the entire night and keep everyone awake. I cannot stand snorers so this was especially aggravating.
During our final day in Istanbul, we planned to go to the Asian side of the city via the ferry. I LOVED the ferry ride. Being on the water is so relaxing and I love seeing the city from afar. The entire city reminded me of the coastal cities in Iceland because of the pervasive smell of fish. We planned to get sushi on the Asian side, but couldn’t find anywhere. The entire street we were walking down was residential, so we gave up and went to the first café we saw. We each ordered a different dessert: one hay nutty dessert, one rice pudding, and one sugar balls. Each was a bit strange, but delicious.
After our stint on the Asian side, we began our journey to the airport. We walked to the Grand Bazaar, which was closed. While Allison searched for more bowls, Caroline got ice cream and I got the street chestnuts. They were good, but not very well seasoned.
We took the train to the airport this time. Since it was Cinco de Mayo, we wanted to get the airport early and order a margarita. We went to the airport bar but each cocktail was 38 Lira, or $20! We decided to nix that plan and simply wait instead. Our flight home was uneventful. There was a strange couple that sat in front of us that proceeded to change their son’s diaper directly on the seat. The smell was so bad that several rows were laughing and the woman next to us offered us hand sanitizer to block the smell.
We finally arrived back to our apartment around 12:30am and had to wake up the next day for re-entry orientation and the Arabic post-test. I had my last exam today and now I am 100% done with classes and Arabic forever!
If you want to see more pictures from Istanbul, you can see my Facebook album here!