Istanbul travel notes
June 7, 2009
Linda and I spent four nights in Istanbul May 21 – 25, 2009. We flew Turkish Airways nonstop from Nice. The three-hour flights both ways were full and on time. However, Istanbul Airport was not so efficient. On arriving at immigration there are three sets of lines: Visas, Passports and Turkish Citizens. There is no indication of who should go where. Fortunately we had read that we would need to buy a visa on entering and so waited in that line for twenty minutes. Other visitors waited in the long passport lines and then at the window were told to go over to the visa line. Anyway, we paid our US$20 for the Visa and then spent another twenty minutes in the passport line. It is always curious why these lines move so slowly when we spent about 20 seconds at each window. Our baggage was alongside the carousel when we finally got there. We were met by a greeter from our hotel who escorted us to the hotel car and driver in the parking lot. It appeared that the taxi line was not long.
The airport was also somewhat disappointing on the way out. One has to pass full security, including x-raying all bags just to get in. Then you go through security again at the entrance to your boarding gate. We were planning to use up our last Turkish currency at the airport shops. There were many of them, but they did not have Turkish goods except at one with long lines.
We stayed at The Four Seasons Sultanahmet. (There is also a Four Seasons down on the Bosphorus.) Our room was comfortable, quiet and well equipped. The staff was always cheerful and helpful. We made extensive use of the concierge desk for restaurant reservations, tourism guidance etc. They were well informed. We ate in the hotel’s Seasons restaurant only for breakfast. It is well regarded, but has international cuisine and we wanted to be in Turkish restaurants. The breakfast is an extensive buffet on days when the hotel is full. One can eat outside in the central courtyard which is a nice setting, but it is quite expensive just for a breakfast, which I don’t usually eat. I took up going to a café on the nearby touristy Akbiyik Street for a coffee.
There is a bar on the hotel’s rooftop where we went once for an apéritif before going out. There was a dinner party on the small roof terrace you can see in the first photo. The second photo shows the view of Haghia Sophia while we were having our apéritif and the third shows the same view when we went back up after returning from dinner that evening.
We also had an apéritif in the very nice bar with a piano player downstairs when the roof was taken over by a wedding party. The location of the hotel is perfect for tourism. It is a short walk to the three most important historical sites: Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is not far away. To return up the hill to Sultanahmet, one can take the efficient tram. If one does not want to pay the high price for the Four Seasons, the nearby Yeşil Ev looks like a good choice. We had a nice lunch in its garden courtyard.
Istanbul is a very spread out city with a lot of hills. Outside of Sultanahmet, it is not a good walking city like Paris or Rome. We took taxis to several restaurants, one tourist site and back to the airport. Each ride is an experience in itself. The traffic is bad, sometimes horrible; the streets can be twisty and in bad repair; the drivers are friendly, but sometimes in a big hurry, even if we were not. But the price is low. We never had trouble finding a cab for the return journey. The tram is excellent if it is going where you want to. One buys tokens at the booth by each station for 1.40 TL, drops one in the turnstile and gets on the next tram which was never more than a few minutes wait for us.
We arrived at the front gate of the Topkapi Palace grounds at 8:50. We joined the vague line and chatted with an English teacher from Anatolia who could barely speak English. At 8:55 the outer gates opened and any illusion that this was a line disappeared. But most of the people were in groups and did not go to the ticket office which is just before the inside gate, a five minute walk through the palace park. So we bought our tickets and entered the palace. Linda was first in line for the audio tour rentals on the right, while I went to the left and bought tickets for the Harem. We were able to go through the Harem at our own pace, listening to most of the audio guide descriptions. Interesting. We had read that one had to be in a guided tour group, but on this Saturday there were guards in every room and everyone was at his own pace. It wasn’t clear what the guards were protecting as there are no pieces of furniture or objets in the rooms. There are a lot of tiled walls and lovely mother-of-pearl and wood doors. After leaving the Harem, we went on to the room where Imperial costumes were on display, which was sensational; then on the treasury where many gold and jewel encrusted items are in glass cases, including the famous Topkapi dagger. We stopped for coffee and pastries in the little café with a fabulous view.
We wandered around and saw various other pavilions and courtyards. We saw the chest holding the mantle of the Prophet in the Sacred Relics Pavilion. By the time we left after 11:00 the crowd of tourists was immense. Most of them seemed to be from the Turkish countryside, including many school groups. We were very happy that we had been there at Topkapi’s opening that morning and had been able to see most of it in relative calm. We still had time to go to the nearby Archaeology Museum before a late lunch at a little kebab place across the street from our hotel, which you can see on my left.
I will not go into our visits to the other main tourist sights, with one exception. They were not oppressively crowded and I don’t think our experience provides any lessons that are not in any guidebook. There were a lot of tourists in Istanbul. One day there were five enormous cruise ships docked. But these tourists, and most who arrive by plane, are in guided bus tours which have an entirely different pace than ours. This is also true of the large number of Turkish tourists. There were few other tourists at the four restaurants we went to for dinner even though three of them are highly recommended in the guides and blogs. We were not as active as we might have been, just enjoying the highlights and the nice ambience of our hotel and its neighborhood. The weather was perfect during our entire stay.
We did take a taxi to Kariye Camii, the Church of St Saviour in Chora, to see its 14th century mosaics, which are not as deteriorated as those in other churches in Istanbul. We were able to listen to the guides of several tourist groups in both English and French. It was interesting, but we did not see anything Byzantine in Istanbul which comes close in quality or interest to the mosaics in Monreale or Ravenna.
We did not take the boat ride up the Bosphorus. There was one leaving from Eminönü at 10:30, arriving at the Black Sea at noon. There were two hours for lunch and seeing the town and then a return trip from 2:00 to 3:30. However, the water was choppy and I didn’t want to be trapped on a boat trip if I started to get seasick. We did see almost half of the Bosphorus on the taxi and boat ride to our dinner at Körfez. I’m glad we saw it, but it didn’t make me think we had missed a lot by skipping the big boat ride.
Shopping in Istanbul was a problem for us. There is certainly a lot for sale and some of it is probably of high quality. The Grand Bazaar is the largest in the world. Carpets, jewelry, ceramics and metalwork are everywhere. But we ended up just buying four reproduction Iznik plates. Despite all the offerings, we did not find any way to browse. As soon as we looked at anything, the high pressure salesmanship became unbearable and we would just leave. We found two worthwhile exceptions: the Iznik Classics shops in Sultanahmet and the shop at Topkapi Palace. The Istanbul Crafts Center next to the Yeşil Ev Hotel sounded good, but was disappointing.
I have filed separate blogposts on our four restaurant dinners and one of the lunches. There is also an extensive post here on our walk through the Grand Bazaar and then in and around the Spice Bazaar, which was our favorite part of the trip.