Helene’s Guide to Istanbul

Turkey Itin­er­ary: Istan­bul (8 days) -> Pam­mukale (3 days) -> Olu­d­eniz (4 days) ->
Olym­pos (6 days) -> Antalya (3 nights) -> Konya (3 days) -> Goreme (7 days) -> Amasya (3 days) -> Tra­b­zon (6 days) -> Erzu­rum (2 days) -> Kars (2 days) -> Van (4 days) -> Dogubayazit (1day)

Get In: Bus from Varna  $30 Euros/person
Stay: Air BNB room $20 EURO/night

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A view of the spec­tac­u­lar Hagia Sophia

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Nor­mally I like to tell a story about each city we visit, but recount­ing the 8 days we spent in Istan­bul day by day would be nearly impos­si­ble.  There are 2 rea­sons for this: firstly we were there nearly two and a half months ago (we’ve been really busy lately!) and sec­ondly because Istan­bul was jammed packed with activ­i­ties.   With­out fur­ther ado, I present to you my tips/tidbits to enjoy­ing Istan­bul and Turkey in general.

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Look­ing mis­chie­vous in the Blue Mosque

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The stun­ning inte­rior of the Blue Mosque

Go to a Hamam (Turk­ish bath).  There are plenty of options in and around Istan­bul of vary­ing degrees of over­priced tourist joints and the sim­pler local ones.  We chose to go to a Haman on the Asian side called Aziziye.  For 40 TL ($20 CAD) each, Tim and I got the full mas­sage & scrub down package.

The place was seg­re­gated for men and women so we wished each other good luck and dis­ap­peared into sep­a­rate entrances.  I walked in look­ing like a deer caught in head­lights.  The lady at the counter, in bro­ken Eng­lish, told me to take off all my clothes, with the excep­tion of my under­wear.  She gave me a small towel and I entered the steamy bath room, which was hot like a sauna.  It had about 5 older ladies in it, and of course we were all top­less, just in our under­wear.  She gave me a large plas­tic basin and sat me down near a water tap and told me to pour hot water all over myself.

Not know­ing what to do, I gen­tly driz­zled small amounts of water on my arms.  One of the old ladies in the room was not impressed with my meth­ods.  She grabbed my basin filled it with water and with­out warn­ing threw the whole thing over my head.  She motioned for me keep doing it. Not want­ing to get the royal splash treat­ment again I listened.

After 10 min­utes of this, a big fat old lady told me to lie down on the mar­ble slate in the room.  She was going to be wash­ing and mas­sag­ing me.   For the next 20 min­utes, I was lath­ered up, scrubbed down, and lightly mas­saged.  Of course large buck­ets of water were thrown on me in between each step.   After­wards, she told me to get up and go sit by the tap again.  She stood in front of me, grabbed my head, stuck it in between her big saggy breasts and washed my hair. I was basi­cally motor-boating her.  She dumped more water on my head and then repeated for a sec­ond round.

It was a lot more per­sonal than I was expect­ing to get with her, but I guess she did just scrub off all my dead skin so we were kind of even.   All I can really be thank­ful for was that she was wear­ing under­wear.   I can hon­estly state that I have never felt as clean as I did after­wards.  I’m happy I got to expe­ri­ence a real bath used by locals, and not a prissy place full of tourists and a more “con­ve­nient” experience.

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Tim’s way of let­ting me know I need a haircut

If you’re a guy, get a hair­cut and a shave.  Turk men like to be well groomed.  Tim went for a hair­cut and I jeal­ously sat and watched the atten­tion detailed process he went through.  They not only cut your hair, but tweeze your eye­brows, thread any loose hairs on your face, clean your ears, shave your face & neck old style with a blade, mas­sage your head and shoul­ders, and wash your hair before & after the cut.  It took about an hour and cost 20 TL ($10 CAD).   A few weeks later I went for a hair­cut hop­ing that I would get pam­pered, but instead I was in and out in 15 min­utes for the same price as Tim.  Totally not fair!

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Local Fish­er­men

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The touristy Spice Bazaar

Drink lots of tea. Turks love tea.  You will be offered tea every­where and you should accept.  At my height, I was drink­ing 8 – 10 cups/day which is noth­ing com­pared to what they drink.

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Typ­i­cal store in the Spice Bazaar

Take a pub­lic ferry ride.  A trip to Istan­bul is not com­plete with­out a boat ride across the Bosporus Strait.  You will get offered many cruises for any­where from $10 — $25/person.  But really, you can just hop on one of the pub­lic fer­ries and ride across for $1.50.  A much bet­ter deal and you get to cross with the locals.  We ended up tak­ing fer­ries every­day as it was more con­ve­nient, and way bet­ter than being stuffed in a packed tram car.

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Fer­ries & the Golden Horn

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View of the Bosporus from the Palace

Go Sight­see­ing in Sul­tanamhet.  Learn from our mis­take, and do not buy the museum pass.  It barely saves you any money and is only valid for 72 hours.  It really pres­sures you to try and see every­thing in such a lim­ited amount of time.  We would have pre­ferred the flex­i­bil­ity to visit just one thing each day at our own pace.  We ended up going to a cou­ple muse­ums we would have passed on, just so that we would get our money’s worth.  We do how­ever highly sug­gest vis­it­ing the Basil­ica Cis­tern.  Very rea­son­ably priced, and a great way to get out of the hot sun and stay cool and it is really inter­est­ing to see the under­ground  water canals.

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Ancient sculp­tures at the Arche­o­log­i­cal Museum

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Tombs older than you can imagine

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Angel Tim in the Basil­ica Cistern

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Canals of water in the Basil­ica Cistern

Our visit to the Hagia Sophia was nice, but pricey.  The Blue Mosque was also very beau­ti­ful and free.  If you are on a tight bud­get, skip the Hagia Sophia.   I think that if we had a guide with us, we likely would have appre­ci­ated the mosques a lit­tle more.  Unfor­tu­nately, teamed with the high entrance fee, a guide was totally out of our bud­get.   We actu­ally pre­ferred sit­ting between the two, right around sun­set , and enjoy­ing the archi­tec­ture from the outside.

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Helene!

Walk down Istik­laal Street at night.   This street is so con­densed with locals and tourists.  You can’t help but feel a cer­tain spark of energy as you walk past loads of restau­rants and shops.  Every alley leads off to loads of restau­rants and bars, all more than happy to accept your hard earned dol­lars.  One dis­claimer how­ever, do not under any cir­cum­stances accept a free beer from any­one you meet on this street.  I thought this scam was well known and pop­u­lar knowl­edge, but we met 2 peo­ple who fell vic­tim to this.  One guy got away only los­ing $20, but the other guy had a hell­ish evening and got scammed out of over $500.  He later retrieved some of it, but not with­out pay­ing a finder’s fee for it.

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Istik­laal by day

Cats. Lots of Cats.  Much to my amuse­ment, Istan­bul is a cat lov­ing city.  Every­where we went, there were always at least a few cats hang­ing around.  One night on our 20 minute walk back to our room, I counted 30 dif­fer­ent cats.  I’m sure if I tried harder, I could have got­ten that num­ber up to 50.

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Cat pho­to­bomb

Ven­ture away from the tourists.  This sounds like such a clichéd thing to write, but it’s true.  There are a lot of tourists in Istan­bul and many things are priced accord­ingly.  But once you leave the tourist area, the food was bet­ter and cheaper.  We took a ride on the tram and got off at a ran­dom sta­tion far from the sites and walked around.  We couldn’t believe how much cheaper every­thing was.  Nobody spoke Eng­lish, but it didn’t really mat­ter to us.  The same applied when we crossed over to the Asian side of the city for a day.  This is where we found the cheap Hamam and barber.

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On our way back to our place

Catch a sun­set over the Golden Horn.  We were lucky as the place we rented had a great rooftop view of the city. One of my best mem­o­ries was sit­ting as the sun set and lis­ten­ing to the var­i­ous mosques’ call to prayer. It felt like a scene out of a movie.  We would go on to hear the call to prayer many times, but this was cer­tainly the best.

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Sun­set over the Golden Horn

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Mega­phone view

Stay in a local home.  We chose to rent a room on Airbnb, and ended up stay­ing in a local neigh­bour­hood, right out­side of the super busy Tak­sim area.  The owner was really friendly, infor­ma­tive, and help­ful.  We met loads of locals, who hap­pily greeted us every day.  It was a lovely way to expe­ri­ence the Turk­ish hos­pi­tal­ity.  I can only imag­ine that Couch­surf­ing in Istan­bul would be just as rewarding.

I could go on for hours and hours about all the things we saw, ate, drank, etc.  Tim and I both agreed that Istan­bul is a city we would like to spend a cou­ple of months in and really get to know.  Sure, the sites are really inter­est­ing, but I have a feel­ing that there is so much more to this bustling place to discover.

Some more photos:

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Kids play­ing in the streets

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Shop­ping in the Grand Bazaar

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Busy day at the docks

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A glimpse into a small street

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More tourist shops!

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I think the cats liked my top

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Police wait­ing for an orga­nized peace­ful protest

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The famous fish sand­wiches being prepared

Turkey Itin­er­ary: Istan­bul (8 days) -> Pam­mukale (3 days) -> Olu­d­eniz (4 days) ->
Olym­pos (6 days) -> Antalya (3 nights) -> Konya (3 days) -> Goreme (7 days) -> Amasya (3 days) -> Tra­b­zon (6 days) -> Erzu­rum (2 days) -> Kars (2 days) -> Van (4 days) -> Dogubayazit (1day)

14 thoughts on “Helene’s Guide to Istanbul

  1. Reiter Gaston

    Bravo encore pour ces mag­nifiques pho­tos et vos com­men­taires à vous deux, bonne route et au plaisir un jour de vous revoir en Bel­gique, chez nous…Christiane & Gas­ton Reiter

    Reply
  2. Martin Bachvarov

    Amaz­ing time in Istan­bul. I should go again after a decade since my last visit. Lucky you Helene & Tim.
    PS: I made my south­ern Eurotrip, next goal — cen­tral, then Baltics & Scandinavia:)

    Reply
  3. Tim Fisher

    Ask and you shall receive! You have to under­stand, all I knew about what I was get­ting into was what a Turk­ish guy told me, “it’s a mas­sage that feels so bad that your happy it’s over and you feel good because your not feel­ing any­more pain.” I didn’t know about the sauna, or exactly what they meant by bath. My ver­sion of the story isn’t as funny, but it was cer­tainly a unique expe­ri­ence unto its own.

    I walked up the road and entered the men’s entrance. I was greeted in Turk­ish by employ­ees play­ing cards. They pointed to a room and told me to enter. I wasn’t really sure what I was sup­posed to do. There was a sort of mas­sage table, and hooks for me to hang my clothes.

    A guy entered and exited a cou­ple times ges­tur­ing some­thing while point­ing to my shoes, and he hung a towel on the wall. I took it as a sign to remove my shoes. I was wrong…It actu­ally meant to remove all my clothes, wear the towel, and lock all my belong­ings into the room. I’m not sure what the mas­sage table was for

    Once I got into the baths the guy pointed to 3 places, ges­tur­ing some­thing to the effect of first…the sauna, sec­ond the bath, third the cleaning/massage. So, I entered the sauna, and it was so unbe­liev­ably hot. I don’t know what the tem­per­a­ture was, but it was cook­ing tem­per­a­ture. The guy didn’t tell me how long to stay in there, so I just kind of guessti­mated around 5–7 min­utes, more or less until i was com­pletely soak­ing wet from my own sweat. I left the sauna and went into the baths sec­tion. There was only one other man there and he was just sit­ting doing noth­ing. The baths were more like sinks, really. As Helene pointed out, you just fill a bucket with water and poor it onto you. The cold water felt unbe­liev­able. A minute or two later the guy ges­tured me to go to another area and he started por­ing hot water on me. I under­stood this was the wash­ing part.

    The scrub­bing con­tin­ued for a while in much the same way Helene described it, then I had to lie down on a mar­ble rock. This is where the painful part began. Basi­cally, the guy con­tin­ued to scrub dead skin off my back and cracked every bone in my body. At this point the only other cus­tomer began his scrub­bing, and his washer/scrubber kept ask­ing me, “he is very good mas­ter, yes!?”

    …Very good master…yes. We don’t really use the term mas­ter in Eng­lish other than to describe British pupils, but the master/slave idea is kind of a hard one to get my head around.

    Lastly, I was told to go back into that room with my clothes and mas­sage bed. At this point I still wasn’t sure if I was to still receive a mas­sage. It wasn’t entirely clear to me I had received a mas­sage, but I did feel happy it was over because there was no more pain, so I just paid the guy and went to get a hair cut.

    Reply
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