We fly from Dubai on another late (but cheap flight), arriving in Istanbul in the early hours of the morning. We’d found an apartment to rent before arriving in Turkey on-line, but on checking-in we found the place had been occupied by someone else, to make matters worse we started to feel the cold chill of Europe on our skin. These little upsets did not detract us from falling just a little bit in love with this unique Asian/European destination.
We were here for four days to get ourselves re-acquainted with Europe, the colder weather, the time difference and spend some time online trying to find a villa to rent in southern Turkey for a month. We had decided that this is where we will spend a bit of time in Turkey playing house with little luxuries like our own kitchen; plan our next travel moves and spend some time exploring and catching up with a bit of work.
Getting to Sultanahmet from Sabiha International Airport
Our flight from Sri Lanka was cheap for a reason, it deposited us at Istanbul’s second airport (Sabiha Gokcen). With the visa on arrival purchase ($20 and a small queue) immigration processes (bit of a chore), baggage collection (smooth) and a transfer of around 40 minutes we knew we would not hit Istanbul centre until after midnight.
The transfer from the airport was easy using the Havatas buses (they are available at the airport and manage their timings to coincide with arrivals) and the fare was reasonable at 12 TL direct to Taksim square. The taxi from Taksim had some trouble finding the place so we called the owner to direct us the final few hundred metres. When we met him he looked not only sleepy, but also a little sheepish as he told us that he had given our room to someone else thinking we were them, interesting story! He eventually found us a bed in the house next door, in a very cold room, after he evicted some poor Turkish guy out of his bed despite our protestations. We managed to get to sleep at around 2am. Not the best of starts to our Istanbul experience.
Next day we got up early and decided to go in search of some other accommodation in the vicinity, we had little faith in the owner to solve his double booking problem, although he did assure us he would ask the South Americans who’d told him they had our booking and were now sleeping in our bed to leave.
Fate smiled upon us and for the same price we were going to pay for this very basic apartment/room, we got a beautiful place in a hotel with inclusive breakfast. The Saruhan is a beautifully clean, well managed family hotel that cost us 64 TL a night. The room was as warm as the welcome and the wifi fast, along with a big TV and the powerful hot shower; we were very happy with the change. It was also a five minute walk from the main tourist areas of Sultanahmet, just perfect. We went and picked our bags up from the house we’d been stuck into and negotiated with the owner that we were only going to pay half the price we’d agreed for all the hassle of the double booking and the Arctic conditions.
Despite the warmth of our new hotel room, we were freezing when we stepped outside, our only warm weather attire consisted of one hoodie each that had served us well for the last year in Asia, but was not enough to keep out the European chill.
We hopped the tram to Aksaray, changed to the metro and made our way to the Istanbul Forum shopping mall to stock up on warm clothes and find the essentials for our upcoming skiing trip to Bulgaria.
Two hours later we had everything we needed for our trip and managed to keep the spending under 150 GBP per person shopping wisely at Decathlon and Inter Sport for our bargain goggles, ski pants, warm socks, ski coats and a few thermal undergarments.
If you are going to be in Istanbul for a few days we recommend getting hold of an Istanbulkart. This is a contactless top up card that you load with money and then use on all buses, trams and metro trains around the city.
The card gives you a discount as opposed to buying the individual jetons (tokens). A single journey on the tram, bus or metro system will cost you 1.95 lira no matter how far you go. So it makes sense to plan your sightseeing to avoid short transfers from bus to tram etc. You only need to buy one card (10 lira deposit which you can get back once you return it to a shop at the end of your trip) and it is quite acceptable to pass the card back to your travelling companion at the turnstiles or on buses. The system is easy to navigate and we found all the transport we wanted to use arrived quickly.
Our First Taste of Turkish Food
You will never be more than a few hundred metres from a street vendor, snack bar or full blown restaurant in Istanbul. If you want to eat cheaply, a kebap (that’s not a typo its the proper name for the anglicised kebab) will cost you four or five Turkish Lira.
If you want to avoid meat you will find plenty of cheese and vegetable filled pastries, breads or Turkish pizzas to satisfy your vegetarian palate. The Turkish pizzas (lahmacun) are an oval shaped flat dough bread topped with cheese, tomato olives and meat (you can find aubergine vegetarian varieties too) .
One of our favourites was a lahmacun served on very thin flat bread with a tomato topping with a smothering of spiced lamb, delicious when accompanied by a Turkish salsa salad of olives, tomato, coriander and peppers.
If you want a sit down meal you can eat away from the main tourist restaurants for about 15 TL which will get you a lentil soup or salad to start, a main course of kebap or kofte (meatballs) served with spicy rice, salad and enough bread to feed a family of ten. If you are not full you can end with a serving of sweet things from the Turkish menu; trust me there are a mind boggling array of them to choose from.
In the restaurant you will pay around 7 to 10 lira for a large 500ml beer or the same for a small raki with water. If you buy your beer from the local shops this will cost you around 3.5 to 4.5 depending on whether you take the bottle or can.
Food in Turkey is great, although if you are not keen on bread you might struggle they put the French to shame in the volume of bread and pastries produced.
In a very short time in Istanbul we had managed to get ourselves sensibly dressed for the weather, navigated our way around the great transport system and found some tasty local food and drink to satisfy our palate. In our next Istanbul post we will begin to gorge ourselves on the cultural and historic delights that the city has promised us.