Istanbul's inexpensive pleasures are overlooked by Americans
Seattle Times travel writer
ISTANBUL, Turkey - Sifting through credit card receipts is not my usual way of recalling what I love most about travel. But I caught myself smiling as I reviewed my expenses on a recent trip to Turkey.
The bill for our hotel in a peaceful historic quarter of Istanbul was $40. The price included a breakfast of feta cheese, olives, boiled eggs, tomatoes and cucumbers which we ate each morning on our rooftop terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque.
A dinner for two of fried eggplant, salad, chicken kebabs and Turkish wine was $15.
A bus ticket for a ride along the Bosphorus cost 32 cents.
Turkey is one of the world's great travel values, and Istanbul remains one of the most exotic cities. Why then doesn't it rank higher among the places Americans visit?
Certainly the massive earthquake that struck Turkey a year ago has had something to do with it. Istanbul was largely spared, but travelers are still wary. A glance through online bulletin boards shows that those who do go tend to worry over logistics such as getting to and from the airport (a 20-minute, $13 taxi ride) or finding a private guide.
Turkish authorities need to do more to get the word out.
Istanbul is an easy city for travelers to navigate. Nearly everyone speaks some English. Public transportation is good and taxis are cheap. Most of the major sites are within walking distance of each other, and there are few reports of pickpocketing and other petty tourist crimes.
Best of all, Istanbul is a bargain. Many hotels and restaurants post their prices in dollars to sidestep declines in the Turkish lira, but travel costs are still lower than they are in most of Europe.
The right neighborhood
Sultanahmet, the city's historical core, is everyone's top choice, and it was ours too. It's true that a large number of tourists find their way here. So do aggressive carpet salesmen and pesky touts. But whatever the downsides, Sultanahmet claims one major advantage: All of Istanbul's major mosques, palaces, museums and bazaars are within walking distance.
Filled with small pensions and hotels, many in restored Ottoman houses, Sultanahmet feels more like a village than a part of a big city. From the rooftop of the family-owned Side Hotel & Pension, across the street from the $270-a-night Four Seasons, my husband Tom and I could look out at the sparkling Sea of Marmara and hear the Muslim call to prayer coming from loudspeakers at neighborhood mosques.
Outside on the quiet, traffic-free streets, touches of Turkey unfolded around us. We learned to ignore the carpet salesmen and restaurant touts. Far more pleasant were the simit-sellers - men balancing wooden trays on their heads filled with bread rings covered in sesame seeds - and the shoeshine men with their kits fashioned from etched copper and colored tiles.
In between visits to the major sites, we smoked apple-flavored tobacco through a water pipe at a Turkish-style cafe, relaxed at low tables with glasses of hot apple tea, and shopped for miniature woven carpets designed to be used as coasters. to take back as gifts. Lunch one day was a borek - a large square of pastry filled with cheese and dusted with powdered sugar. We watched as the baker whacked it into bite-sized pieces with his knife, and rushed it out to our table on a crowded sidewalk near the Grand Bazaar.
We had heard about Istanbul's two-tier pricing system - one price for tourists, another for the locals. The borek maker's prices were the same - about $1 for a large square. Still, we knew that we sometimes paid more for things because we were in Sultanahmet. It's one of the trade-offs for staying in an area that comfortable and convenient. It's also one of the reasons why it's important to get away from Sultanahmet at some point, and explore other parts of Istanbul.
A good place to start is the Divan Yolu, Sultanahmet's main street full of travel agencies and cheap restaurants, where a tram line connects the area with with Eminonu, the waterfront piers near the Galata Bridge. Spanning the Golden Horn, the bridge joins ancient Istanbul with the more modern European side. Across the bridge is Beyoglu, a warren of old streets filled with antique shops, music stores, jazz clubs, cafes and food markets.
We could have taken the bus to Beyoglu, but we walked instead, joining the throngs crossing the Galata against heavy traffic. We passed men with their fishing poles cast over the railing and street vendors peeling and salting cucumbers.
If we had been hungry, we might have ducked under the bridge for a grilled mackerel sandwich for sale at the dockside stalls. But we headed instead to the Tunel, a mile-long underground rail line built in 1875. The five-minute uphill ride on a packed tram car led us into Beyoglu, near the Pera Palas Hotel, the elegant, century-old hotel built for passengers of the Orient Express.
Beyoglu is also the the start of Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only street lined with smart shops and cafes, and a tram line leading to Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. About halfway up is the Cicek Pasaji, an old flower market converted into dozens of small fish restaurants.
As we wandered through, the touts shoved menus at us. After a while, we gave in, and sat down at one of the long tables in the covered courtyard for a lunch of cold beers, fresh squid and smoked eggplant.
Busing along the Bosphorus
When Istanbul residents want to escape the city, they head to the towns and villages along the Bosphorus, the narrow, 20-mile-long strait that separates the city's European and Asian sides.
Turkish Maritime Lines runs an excursion boat that's popular with tourists, but opportunities to get off and explore are limited. A bus seemed the better way to go.
Dodging a crowd of men hawking boat cruises, we found the ticket kiosk for the buses near the Eminonu docks. We bought two tickets for about 30 cents each. Two Turkish women in colorful silk headscarves showed us where to catch Bus 25 E, which travels along the European shore to the village of Rumeli Kavagi. Here we could catch a public ferry back to Istanbul.
Our first stop was a crafts market at Ortakoy, a suburban village near the Bosphorus Bridge.
Families and groups of men playing backgammon take in the scene at Ortakoy's waterside cafes. After browsing around the market, we found a line of seafood stalls. A group of women cooking fried mussels on a stick with yogurt sauce insisted we try some. They were delicious. At three for 50 cents, we bought several and snacked on them while we waited for the next bus.
Turkish buses are usually crowded, and young people (men and women) are expected to give up their seats for older riders. Out the window, we could see that waterfront foot paths connected most of the Bosphorus towns. It was a sunny afternoon and a walk along the beach looked tempting.
At Sariyer, a fishing village on the upper end of the Bosphorus, we got off the bus and hiked the next mile and half to Rumeli Kavagi. The roadside path cut away from the water along a steep cliff. We walked about a half-mile uphill, then climbed down again to the shore and into Rumeli, where we passed fishermen gathering their nets along the rocky beach.
Near a row of open-air fish restaurants was the public dock. We checked a schedule written on a piece of cardboard tacked to the ticket window. There was a ferry leaving at 5:10 p.m. The fare was $1.25 each.
Families returning to the city from Sunday outings had taken many of the seats by the time we boarded. We found places across from three men dressed in suits. They fingered colored glass prayer beads and talked as we took in the sights we had missed seeing on the bus. As the afternoon sunlight faded, we passed by castles, domed mosques and fortresses and finally the lavish Dolmabahce Palace, the last home of the Ottoman sultans.
When a waiter came around with tiny glasses of hot tea served on china saucers, the men across from us each took one, and so did we.
It wasn't until the boat pulled into Eminonu an hour and half later that we realized no one had come around to take our tickets.
The ferry system employed someone to sell tea, but no one to collect tickets. Somehow I don't think this would have happened on the tourist boat.
Soon we'd be back in Sultanahmet - a nice enough area, but also a place where no one forgets to collect your money. Especially the carpet salesmen.
I was glad we had gone exploring.
Carol Pucci's phone message number is 206-464-3701. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
General information: Information on Turkey is available from the Turkish Government Tourist Office. Phone: 212-687-2194. Web: www.tourismturkey.org.
U.S. citizens must have visas, which can be purchased at the airport upon arrival for $45 each. Only U.S. dollars are accepted.
Useful Web sites include www.turkeytraveller.org and www.lonelyplanet.com/upgrades (click on "Turkey"), Lonely Planet's Web site. An excellent guidebook is the illustrated Eyewitness guide to Istanbul. Other useful books include the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey by Tom Brosnahan and Pat Yale; and Lonely Planet's World Food: Turkey.
Best times to go:
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Istanbul. May is an excellent month. The weather is warm, but not yet hot, and many hotels offer off-season rates. Summers are hot and attract swarms of tour groups. Some hotels have air conditioning, but many of the smaller ones do not.
Where to stay:
The Sultanahmet area is the most convenient area for visiting the major sites. There are a number of small hotels and pensions in restored Ottoman houses throughout the area. A good choice is the family-run Side Hotel & Pension, Utangac Solak 20, across from the Four Seasons, where double rooms with and without private bath range from $25-$50 in the off-season, breakfast included. Phone: 011-90-212-517-65-90. Web: www.sidehotel.com. A more elegant choice is the beautifully restored 16-room Kybele Hotel, Yerebatan Caddesi 35, Sultanahmet, with off-season doubles going for $75, including breakfast. Hundreds of handmade colored lamps hang from the ceilings of all the rooms and lobby areas. Phone: 011-90-212-511-77-66. Web: www.kybelehotel.com.
Taxis are inexpensive, and most drivers are honest. Make sure the driver has the meter turned on and set for daytime (gunduz) fares. Nighttime (gece) fares are higher. The fare from the airport to Sultanahmet is around $13. Buses and shuttles are also available. Taxi drivers sometimes collect commissions for taking passengers to certain hotels. If you already know where you want to stay, make it clear that's where you want to go.
The tramway is a convenient way for getting around Sultanahmet. Tickets are 30 cents each and are available from nearby booths. Trams run every five minutes or so to and from the docks at Eminonu.
Buses depart from a central terminal at Eminonu. Tickets can be purchased at nearby booths or on the bus as it stops along the way. A useful route is 25 E, which makes frequent runs along the European side of the Bosphorus. The entire trip takes a little more than an hour.
Dolmuses, private minibuses, are less common in Istanbul than in outlying areas, but they are another option. Dolmuses are like shared taxis, running regular routes, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way. Ask the fare when you get in, then pass your money to the driver through the other passengers to the driver. He will pass your change back.
Bosphorus boat trips: Turkish Maritime Lines runs twice-daily tourist excursions along the Bosphorus. The trip takes six hours and makes several stops. This is mainly a cruise, with limited opportunities to get on and off. Fares range from around $2.50 to $5, depending on the day of the week. Public ferries criss-cross the Bosphorus at various points on the European and Asian sides.
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