We had booked a flight from Istanbul to Cancun for a friend’s wedding months in advance. In the time between booking our flight and arriving in Istanbul, the threat of terrorism had increased dramatically. We toyed with the idea of changing our flight, but after a lot of discussion, we both agreed that the odds of anything happening to us when we were there was extremely unlikely.
When we arrived, we both had our guards extremely high. For the first time in a while we were both worried about something bad happening to us, especially since we had made it through the majority of our trip without any issues. After spending some time being in Istanbul, we began to let our guards down. Similar to Egypt, it was a lot less scary in person than the media made it seem like it would be.
Getting to Istanbul
Before we finalized the cities we were visiting in Eastern Europe, I searched to see if there was any city that would have inexpensive airfare to Istanbul. I was happy when I stumbled across Wizz Air, a discount airline based out of Budapest. Since we wanted to see Budapest, this worked out perfect.
Wizz Air is a discount airline that charges for everything – from checked bags, carry on bags, assigned seats, beverages and more. Whenever I book tickets on a discount airline I always make sure that I read the fine print very carefully. I noticed that the carry on baggage had smaller dimensions than RyanAir. Since our backpacks barely fit the RyanAir sizers, we paid for both our carry on luggage and checked large backpacks.
After checking in, we waited at the gate to board the bus which would take us to our plane. It appeared that we were going to be leaving on time, but all of the passengers on the plane ended up standing on the bus for 25 minutes. I wasn’t overly surprised since I know that one of the ways that discount airlines keep their costs low is by having the bare minimum number of employees. Once everyone was on the bus, the agents left our gate and headed to another gate to board a different plane.
When we finally boarded the plane we were happy to see that we had a row to ourselves. Similar to a lot of discount airlines, the seats did not recline, a feature that I love since I absolutely hate when the person in front of me reclines. The flight itself was uneventful and we landed safely at SAW, the older airport in Istanbul which is further from the city center.
When we booked our Airbnb room, we asked our host how to get from the airport to the B&B. He told us a taxi was easiest, but we went the public transportation route to save a few bucks. We were guided to take the Havatas Bus to Taksim Square for 14L or $4.75 each. Once we got to Taksim Square we had to do a few hops on public transportation to get where we needed to go.
Things We Saw & Did in Istanbul
One of the most iconic sites in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque. The look of the mosque was very familiar to us as Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski in Sofia, Bulgaria and the Citadel of Salah Al-Din in Cairo, Egypt were both designed after the Blue Mosque.
Admission to the mosque was free which was perfect for our budget. Out of respect for the sacredness of the place, women had to have their hair and shoulders covered. While a lot of tourists purchase scarves for this purpose, I opted to use the loaner cloth that is provided at the mosque.
Inside the mosque was pretty but not quite as beautiful as I imagined that it would have been.
Hagia Sophia Mosque
Right across from the Blue Mosque was the Hagia Sophia. It is larger and looks quite a bit different than other mosques that we had seen. Personally, I didn’t like the exterior nearly as much as the Blue Mosque.
There was a long line of people waiting for the museum which was 30L or $10. We’re not museum people so we decided not to go. If we were museum people, we could have purchased a 5 day museum pass for 85L or $28. This pass would give us access to several museums around town for a fixed price over the course of 5 days. If you are a museum person and plan to visit at least 3 museums, it really is a great deal.
Between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia is Sultanahmet Square. The square has a lot of benches, green space, and a large fountain that people can sit and enjoy. During the evening the mosques are lit up and the fountain has a timed light show which is nice to watch.
When we were visiting, they also had a special exhibit going on outside the Hagia Sophia. The world’s largest tulip carpet had been laid out in a beautiful design. The tulip carpet contained 563,000 tulips and covered 728 square meters. We were lucky to see it as it was only there until the end of April.
Sultahahmet Square is also where Andy was able to get his ice cream in Istanbul. The ice cream in Turkey is different than the ice cream we are used to in the U.S. Andy described it as almost a mixture of ice cream and taffy.
The Basilica Cistern was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 532. It is the largest surviving cistern and has a total of 336 columns. The purpose of the cistern was to hold water that would supply the great palace. The water was pulled into the cistern through aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.
In 1545 the cistern was rediscovered. Residents that had homes over the cistern told a scholar that they were able to get water by lowering buckets below their homes, sometimes even pulling up a fish in the water.
Due to the neglect over the years, the cistern needed to be cleaned and renovated. In 1987, it was opened to the public and is now one of the top attractions in Istanbul.
We paid our 20L or $6.50 fee to enter the cistern. After going through security we learned that we could not take our tripod with us. It was disappointing but we were able to leave it in the office and could pick up when we finished the tour.
While the cistern wasn’t the most exciting place that we visited, it was interesting and the cool temperature was a welcome reprieve from the heat of the city. Our favorite part was seeing the materials that were used to build it. Many of the columns were built with temple ruins and even had a few carvings of heads.
The worst part was how difficult it was to take pictures without our tripod. Since it was so dark, the camera needed to be held completely still or the photo would turn out blurry. After a lot of tries, we were finally able to get a few good pictures.
We wanted to check out the Topkapi Palace but were not interested in the 40L or $13.25 entry fee to go inside. The pictures that I had seen online reminded me of every palace that I’ve ever seen – extremely ornate rooms, paintings, fancy furniture, etc.
We figured that we could still go and get some great pictures outside of the palace. The money that we saved on admission, we used to go to a nice dinner that night.
When we were headed to the pier, we took the long route and walked through Gulhane Park. Even though it was a weekday afternoon, there were a lot of people around which was somewhat surprising.
I loved all of the flowers in the park and it seemed that everyone else did as well. In fact, we saw a few tourists standing in the flowers, crushing them, to get their picture taken.
While parts of Istanbul reminded us of Egypt, the park definitely did not. We loved the clean, green space that the park provided.
Andy remembered watching a show on TV that talked about the fish sandwiches off the pier. I vaguely remembered watching the show as well. When we arrived at the pier, there were 3 boat restaurants that all had the same menu and the same price. We chose the boat that had an available table and each ordered a sandwich for 8L or $2.65.
When the sandwiches arrived we happily posed for pictures before taking our first bite. Once I took my first bite it tasted like regret. OK, maybe not regret, but it tasted terrible. The roll was quite large and the piece of fish was very thin. The small piece of fish turned out to be a positive since it was extremely fishy and still had the skin on it. To complete the terrible sandwich there was wilted lettuce and very strong, raw onion. I tried to make the sandwich better by adding the lemon juice and salt at the table, but it didn’t help much.
I still can’t, for the life of me, figure out why there were so many people at the fish sandwich restaurants. The sandwich was absolutely disgusting and all 3 restaurants were at full capacity.
2 Hour Boat Ride
Since the Bosphorus strait runs through Istanbul, we decided to see if there were any boat rides that we could take. We found a 2 hour boat ride for only 12L or $4 each. This was exactly what we wanted so we happily purchased our tickets.
Naturally, to have the best view, everyone wanted a seat on the upper deck near the railing. When we boarded the boat, 20 minutes before it was due to leave, every railing seat was taken. We took a seat and figured that we could get up to take photos if needed. Partway through the ride, enthusiasm waned and we were able to snag some great seats.
It wasn’t the most exciting boat ride as we went up the strait for 1 hour, then turned around and headed back. After we turned around, we decided to head downstairs where the boat was enclosed since it was warmer and we were protected from the wind.
Our flight out of Istanbul was out of IST, the newer, larger airport that is closer to the city center. Because it is the city’s main airport, it is much better connected to the city via public transportation. We were able to take a single train from our B&B all the way to the airport which was extremely convenient.
When we arrived, we were corralled into a vestibule that required everyone entering the airport to put their bags through an x-ray machine. This made us both nervous as with the current political situation, we did not like being in a small place without an easy exit. Sadly, a few months after our trip, there was an attack at the exact place that we were worried about.
Once we made it through the initial security, we checked into our flights and proceeded through security at the airport. It was the most thorough security that I have ever experienced, going through a total of 6 checkpoints between entering the airport and boarding the plane.
We boarded a bus to get to our plane, something that we almost came to expect during our trip. Once on the plane I was happy to see that we were towards the front, had a lot of leg room and our own personal TV. In preparation for our flight, both Andy and I both visited the Turkish Airlines website and studied the movie listing. Andy took it a step further, creating a list of the movies he wanted to watch along with their run time. In order to arrive in Miami without jet lag, we needed to stay up for as long as we could on our nearly 13 hour flight. The TVs made this very easy since there were a number of great movie options.
By the time we landed we were ready to get off the plane and head to the hotel. I was completely dumbfounded when, seemingly the second after the wheels hit the ground, I saw many of the foreigners get out of their seats and start opening the overhead bins. The man seated behind us saw Andy’s disgusted face and started shouting at him. I was shocked at this because not only was it extremely rude, but the man behind Andy was insanely disrespectful the whole flight – pulling on his seat to stand up, shouting across the plane to his companions and generally being a jerk. I didn’t even know what to say or do at this point, just watching the whole situation with my jaw dropped. I was extremely happy that we were back in the US, because I knew that if this escalated, we were on our turf. Fortunately, it didn’t escalate, the guy backing off when the flight attendant came back to yell at people for standing up.
Our final step was making it through customs. We were absolutely dreading all of the questions that we were going to be asked with countries like Colombia, Egypt and Turkey in our passports. I was relieved when we had an automated kiosk for entry and had the single nicest customs agent that I have ever seen.
Even though there was a lot of political tension and threats of terrorism in Turkey when we were there, I’m glad that we still went. We both felt bad that we had a lot of family and friends who were worried about us traveling to Istanbul, but didn’t want to abandon our plans because of an extremely small risk of something happening.
We expected that Istanbul would be a lot like Egypt. There were similarities in that the people were very friendly, there were a lot of people that we were interested in selling us things and there were many mosques with the call of prayer what seemed like every hour. Unlike Egypt, people who approached us were extremely honest in the fact that they were talking to us because they wanted to sell us something and the city was very clean.
While having a drink in Istanbul, a hard feat in an Islamic city, Andy and I did a lot of reflection. We looked back on not only our time in Istanbul, but over the 8 months we were on our trip. It felt absolutely surreal that this trip of a lifetime was ending. It was a bittersweet feeling because even though we were ready to go home, we didn’t want it to end.