Friday, February 21, 2020

Longer Travels {Turkey}

I took an almost full week long trip to Turkey with two amazing girlfriends at the end of January.  And it was the trip of a lifetime.  Turkey was better than our expectations and one of the most amazing countries I have ever been to -- we all fell in love with the country.
But first things first -- so many people have asked us, is Turkey safe?  And the short answer is yes.  The long answer is still yes, but with a little more explanation.  Turkey has been considered "off limits" for many Americans for many years, mainly because of political unrest and various terror attacks (most recently the ISIS attacks within Istanbul and the terrorist attack at the airport in 2016).  Because of the past attacks, there was a large police presence in Istanbul and most sights we went to required you to go through metal detectors (sadly this is pretty common in most major tourist sights around the world).  At the airports within Turkey, you had to go through security just to enter the airport, then go through regular security before going to your gates.  And while most of the country is considered safe, there are parts that you should still avoid (especially the regions near the Syrian border).  Turkey is also a mostly Muslim country and fairly conservative, especially regarding women.  While we never ever felt unsafe, at times it was very obvious we were a group without any males (this was most noticeable at dinners or walking home after dark).  It was also quite obvious we were tourists which is to be expected, but we were often the only white people as well as the only English speakers.  Men did try and talk to us when walking around the touristy areas, especially shop owners, but it was mostly easy to ignore and I recommend you do unless you are genuinely interested in purchasing something.  But again, not a bad thing and we never felt unsafe.

So now onto to the actual tips and tricks for Turkey!  We flew into Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) which is one of two international airports in Istanbul (this is the smaller one and on the Asian side).  Americans do need a visa for Turkey but it is very easy to get, apply online here and I recommend doing it in advance -- make sure you print out your visa to show at customs when you arrive in Turkey.  Overall going through customs (both coming and going) was super easy and we had no issues.

Once we arrived in Turkey, we had a previously booked private car take us to our hotel (we booked through our hotel before we even arrived in Istanbul -- it was cheaper and easier than a taxi).  Both the airports are a ways outside the city (easily an hour drive without traffic) and there are shuttles that will take you to various spots into the city but a private car was easier.  While in Istanbul we stayed at Nowy Efendi Hotel and it was amazing.  I cannot recommend this hotel enough -- seriously the best place I have ever stayed in my life.  The location was perfect, the beds were so comfortable, the breakfast was great, the views were amazing and most importantly -- there was the best receptionist ever.  He was the most lovely Kurdish man who was so kind and helpful.  We never wanted to leave!

In case you didn't know, Istanbul is the only city in the world to sit between two continents (Europe and Asia) and you can cross into either side by crossing the Bosphorus (a very narrow strait running through Istanbul, separating the two continents).  We had about a day and a half in Istanbul and our only full day we did a guided tour -- our tour guide gave us a lot of information, but you could easily do the major sights on your own as they are all fairly close to each other and easy walking distance.  Most of the sights are in the Sultanahemet neighborhood (basically the center of old Istanbul, on the European side), so I do recommend staying in this area.  We sadly never got over to the Asian side (other than the airport), but we had heard the Kadiköy neighborhood was amazing.*  But anyways, the various major sights --
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Obviously you can't go to Istanbul without seeing the Hagia Sophia.  It is considered an architecture marvel and it was easy to see why.  Originally built as a church is 537, then converted to a mosque in 1453 and finally it became a museum in 1935.  The building has collapsed, been rebuilt, added to and more over the many years -- it is still under restoration so while there is a fair amount of scaffolding inside the main nave, you can still see quite a bit.  While the outside is gorgeous, the inside is just as amazing -- the huge dome, the centuries old mosaics and my personal favorite part the unbelievable seraphim angels (four in total in the corners under the dome).

Topkapi Palace
The palace was built in 1453 by Mehmet the Conqueror -- he lived here until his death and subsequent sultans lived here as well until the 19th century.  The sprawling palace gives you a glimpse into the daily life of the sultans and their families and their lives were quite colorful (you can visit the old harem where the concubines lived, guarded by the eunuchs).  The palace grounds are gorgeous, even in the winter and has great views of the city.  We loved the treasury and the kitchen areas.

Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
Commissioned by Sultan Ahmed, it is a huge mosque and famous for the blue İznik tiles inside (how it got its name).  Across from the Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet Park, it is pretty impressive to stand in the middle and look at the two iconic buildings.  The mosque is very large with many domes and six minarets (the most of any mosque built at the time) -- it is free to enter for tourists but you must be aware of prayer times as then it is closed only for worshipers.  To enter the mosque, go into the courtyard and go through the side door (there are signs) where you remove your shoes (place in the bags provided and take them with you).  Women need to make sure their heads are covered, if you didn't bring a scarf with you then you can rent some outside the mosque.  The inside is currently being restored and is covered in scaffolding, but you can still see some of the gorgeous tiles and get a feel for the grandeur of the mosque.

Basilica Cistern
A huge subterranean structure that is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul was built in 532 -- it was originally designed to serve the palace and surrounding buildings and could hold up to 80,000 cubic meters of water.  It was closed and forgotten until 1545 (and became a dumping ground) and then cleaned up and opened to the public in the 1980s.  You walk along raised wooden platforms and while it can be a little creepy, it is really cool and should not be missed -- pay special attention to the various columns in the cistern and make sure you see the Medusa heads.
A large park/walkway area where the Byzantine emperors used to have chariot races -- this was the center of life for the Byzantines and the Ottomans.  Various statues and obelisks are spaced throughout the promenade, most have been ransacked or damaged but still cool to see the famous, very old park.

Süleymaniye Mosque 
This large mosque sits on top of one of Istanbul's hills so it has a gorgeous view of the city.  This mosque was finished in 1557 and was commissioned by the sultan Süleyman I.  We did not go inside this mosque as we missed the opening hours but we were able to enjoy the views and the outside of the mosque.

Grand Bazaar
This HUGE bazaar originally was opened in 1461 and has obviously grown over the years and has become a huge tourist attraction.  It is maze-like and large and you probably will get lost.  There are numerous entrances into the bazaar so don't worry about trying go in/out the same entrances (each entrance does have a guard + metal detector that you will need to go through before entering the bazaar).  While you for sure need to experience the bazaar, be warned -- you will have shop owners pretty much harassing you to buy things or look in their store.  We were again the only group of just women so men paid a lot of attention to us, we never felt unsafe just got annoying at times.  And of course you can find and purchase anything you ever wanted or needed within the bazaar -- we found the most amazing little store selling Turkish linens/towels with the sweetest old man owner.  It was really fun wandering around seeing all the stores.

Obviously there is so much more to do in Istanbul -- you could easily spend a full week here and not really see it all, the city is huge.  This is what we were able to do in the short amount of time we had on the ground in Istanbul, just means I need to go back to see more of the city! 

We also did a food tour in Istanbul and it was amazing.  We were so impressed with our guides and ate the most amazing food (and even in a very heavy nut-filled food culture, they were able to accommodate everything for me).  We tried so many different foods, including things that aren't the typical touristy things -- we had some weird but amazing non-meat kebab type thing (so good) and then what we called a Turkish churro (again so good).  We went to a rooftop bar -- highly recommend doing in Istanbul, there are so many so just pick one -- and enjoyed some tea.  We then had the most amazing kebab dinner at a restaurant, it was some of the best food I've had in my life.  And then finishing off our meal with some dessert and Turkish coffee -- so good!

Antalya + the Turquoise Coast 
From Istanbul, we flew to Antalya (south western Turkey on the Mediterranean) to see another part of the country and to experience the gorgeous Turquoise Coast.  Since we went in January, it was completely in the off-season but we still had an amazing time.  We flew Turkish Airlines down to Antalya out of the newer Istanbul airport -- Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European side.  This airport was INSANE.  Once finished it will be the world's largest airport (and probably the nicest too) -- it was so clean and had the coolest features (libraries, garden terraces, every single store you could ever need or want).  Once on the airplane, we taxied for easily thirty minutes before we even took off, it was crazy!  Also highly recommend flying Turkish Airlines if you ever get the chance.  Even on our short one hour flight, we had in-flight entertainment, free food + drinks and actual leg room!
Once in Antalya we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel.  We had read to always negotiate/ask a price before jumping in a taxi but all the taxis we took in Antalya had meters and never over charged us.  We stayed here and it was great -- good location, good breakfast buffet.  Antalya is the largest city in the Turquoise Coast area which is why we chose to stay there and the town itself was awesome.  The old town (known as the Kaleiçi district) was adorable -- winding roads, restored Ottoman houses, wrapping around a gorgeous Roman-era harbor.  The views from the edge of town were amazing.  We wandered past Hadrian's Gate built in 130 AD for the Roman emperor's visit to Antalya.   For food in Antalya -- we ate at a small kebab restaurant/stand where a bunch of locals seemed to be eating (just pick a popular one and you won't be disappointed).  For dinner we ate at Hasanağa in the old town.  It was so good and we ate our weight in meat.  We also had tea Cay-Teas, an insanely adorable tea house.

We also went to a hamam in Antalya and it was pure bliss -- we went to Demirhan Hamam.  It is not for the faint of heart -- you wear your underwear/bathing suit bottom but nothing else, but there are separate bathing areas for men and women.  We went for the full tourist package (even though we were the only tourists there).  We started off in the warm room (for lack of a better word) laying on a marble slab just relaxing.  We then moved to the steam room then the sauna and finally to the scrubbing...  Everyone is in a small room with marble slabs to lay on and a female worker scrubs about 20 layers of skin off your body not missing an inch.  You could legit see the skin coming off.  And while it sounds disgusting and rough, it actually wasn't that painful and we were left with the softest skin ever.  After the scrubbing, the worker stands you up and just starts dumping water on you to get the dead skin off; this part was the worst honestly because the minute you catch your breath, more water is being dumped on you.  Then you are scrubbed with some super foamy soap and washed off again (the soap part was amazing).  We then got served tea and had face masks while relaxing half naked in the lobby area.  Finally we were led to the oil massage -- a full body massage which was heavenly.  It was two hours of pampering (and scrubbing) and we all left absolutely loving the experience.  If you go to Turkey, you really should experience a hamam.
Our other full day in Antalya we took a tour to see more of the area.  Once again we were the only English speaking people on the tour and while our guide did speak English, everything was mostly in German and Russian.  But we had a blast and loved seeing more of the Turquoise Coast.  Our first stop was the ancient archaeological site of Myra -- known for its intricate honeycomb rock tombs known in ancient Lycian culture; there is also a very well preserved Roman theater.  This place was really cool.  We then took a boat for a short tour past the island of Kekova to see Batik Şehir (the sunken city) -- an ancient Lycian settlement now mostly underwater due to earthquakes in the 2nd century, but the water is so clear you can see a lot of it underwater.  On our boat tour we also went past the village of Kaleköy which is protected because it is on top of the ancient city of Simena.  This village looked amazing and comes alive with tourists in the summer -- for sure need to figure out a way to get back here with Trevor and Serafina.  And our final stop was Church of St Nicholas, yes the St Nick... Santa Claus.  This church was actually quite amazing, not what we were expecting at all but very cool nonetheless.  The church was built to honor St Nicholas who served as bishop in Myra in the 4th century, and yes this was the man that became the inspiration for Santa Claus.  St Nicholas was buried here but his skeleton was later stolen by the Italians!  We also learned on this tour that Mary (the Virgin Mary) was born in the area as well.  Seriously, the history of all of this just had us in awe, it just made us love Turkey even more.

The food in Turkey was amazing, seriously amazing.  We kept wanting to try and eat more things but we were so full all the time!  Turkey is a large meat loving country with few vegetarian options, but I eat meat and it was so good.  The lamb kebap (same as kebab) we had on our food tour was so good, so so good.  But despite all the meat, everything is served with vegetables as side dishes and they were also just as amazing -- we ate vegetables for every single meal and it was fantastic. We also had some amazing dips/spreads to eat with bread at most meals too.  Our favorites were a tzatziki type dip and an tomato salsa type thing, we could not get enough of either of these.  And while I didn't get to eat most of the sweets (ALL were filled with nuts), my friends loved trying all the various kinds of Turkish delight and baklava.  Then the drinks -- we had so much amazing tea.  Our favorites were apple tea (super touristy) and pomegranate tea (even the fresh squeezed pomegranate juice was so dang good).  The normal traditional black tea was good too, but add sugar, it can be bitter!  Aryan is a weird yogurt drink that is quite sour and while I am happy I tried it, I don't ever need to drink it again.  The Turkish coffee was so strong and so good.  Not like any coffee you have had in your life (again add sugar, it is strong and bitter).  Basically, just eat and drink everything, spend your whole trip eating!   

This trip was so amazing and even a month later, I am still on a high just from thinking about it.  It also took me forever to write this post because I don't feel like my words (or even the pictures) can do Turkey justice.  It was simply fantastic and as we kept saying over and over -- "better than we expected."

*If you were to go to the Asian side, I would recommend taking a water taxi rather than driving as the traffic going across the city (and especially the bridges) can take quite a while due to traffic and it is not possible to walk to the Asian side.  And speaking of traffic -- be prepared for it when going to/from both airports, especially Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) on the Asian side.  While maps say it takes about an hour from SAW to the old center, it can easily take double or triple that in traffic.  On our way back to Spain, we planned on two hours extra getting ourselves to the airport and while we didn't need all of that time, we were happy to have the extra time as we did get stuck in some traffic.

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