I wanted to start writing about the Istanbul trip as soon as I could after I got back, but catching up at work has been crazy plus I caught a wicked cold there which made air travel home just AWESOME, so I’ve been sleeping a lot 🙂 Thought I might break it up into things that would be helpful to know about going there, rather than a day by day rundown of activities. And just to be clear because I did obsess over this to a ridiculous degree: The trip went fantastic. I never felt unsafe at any time. People were kind and helpful (especially the folks at my hotel) and I would really like to go back someday and do it again, solo or otherwise.
Flights: If you can get a direct flight from the US to Istanbul, I highly recommend it (I booked this trip through Orbitz). It will probably be from JFK on Turkish Airlines. I dislike JFK even more than ATL (who knew that was possible) but in this case it was a necessary evil. I’d rather change planes and deal with security in this country while I still have my bearings instead of running around an airport in Germany or the UK all half asleep. I loved the service on Turkish Airlines – the free wi-fi, the huge selection of free entertainment, the food and the little toiletries. Wish I could have slept on the plane but that never works for me. When you get to IST you will be directed to counters on your right where you purchase your visa. American citizens must pay $20 (yes, American dollars, not lira). You get a nice stamp in your passport then you keep walking down the hall and eventually you come to immigration where they will stamp your stamp. Easy peasy. Then you’ll be out in the baggage claim area and there’s a bathroom on your right. Duck in and wash your face and brush your teeth – you’re a hot mess. It’s a wonder they let you in the country.
Metro System: Follow signs to the metro and on your right are machines for tokens but you want the one on the end where you can get an Istanbulkart (I’m assuming here you are cheap like me, love riding subways, and were smart enough to choose a hotel within waking distance from a metro station). The card will cost you 6 lira (they consider this a “deposit” but I never took the time to figure out how to get it back) and you can add money on to use it right away. You can also refill it at many stations when you run low. The card is good to use on any form of public transportation, including ferries. One metro ride will cost 1.95tl, but if you have to change stations you will have to pay again. It’s not like most subways here where as long as you are underground you can get to connecting stations for free. Almost certainly, anywhere you are going you will start on the M1 line and change at Zeytinburnu to get on the T1 line going towards Eminönü or Kabatas. I stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood and went as far as the Çemberlitas station. My hotel, Sultan House, turned out to be much easier to find than I thought it would be after a five minute walk in the right direction. Which reminds me: bring a compass! It’s easy to get turned around because all the roads are curvy. Many streets have signage but not always. If you know what direction the thing you are looking for is from where you are, you’ll have no problem as long as you use your compass. There were plenty of times I would have been SOL without it.
Money: I could have changed money at the airports or in the city, but I like to prepare for a trip ahead of time as much as possible so I ordered foreign currency from my bank. What I forgot to ask was if I could have small bills only. Unfortunately, most of what they gave me was 50 and 100 lira bills. I asked if I could send them back and get smaller bills and they said no. (Screw you Wells-Fargo!) As I suspected, no one wants to take a 50 or 100 lira bill, unless you are actually spending 50 or 100 lira. Which I never am, since I buy little souvenirs that cost under 10tl at a time for the most part. Even my dinner was inexpensive, usually about 8tl, because I like to get something to go and eat in the parks rather than a more expensive sit-down place. Not only do they not want your large bills, but I found that Turks have a hatred for making change in any amount that burns hotter than 1,000 suns. Even using a 20 at the grocery store for a 9tl bill got me a dirty look from the cashier. And here I am with most of my money in 50s and 100s. I even had some people lower the price on what I was buying (54 to 50, 23 to 20), just to avoid making change. I’ve never seen this change avoidance anywhere. Luckily, there are plenty of non-shady currency exchange places that advertise “no commission” and I would sheepishly bring a 100 into one every day and ask for 20s. If you want to get money ahead of time from your bank, make sure they can honor your request for small bills. If not, they suck. 😛 By the way, don’t expect a receipt for anything you buy. Write down your purchases at the end of the day with the approximate US value so you aren’t caught in a panic on the flight home trying to remember everything to put on your customs form. If you buy something expensive, you should probably insist on a receipt in case you need it, but reputable sellers understand this. My other money tip: always keep a few 1tl coins in your pocket. A free public bathroom in Istanbul is a rare thing. More likely it will cost you 1tl, maybe even 1.50. The guys as the counter will not be interested in making change.
Toilet Talk: Since I brought it up and now I’m thinking about it, be prepared. Not just with your lira coins, but bring a pack of Kleenix. Sometimes you’ll be handed a napkin. One. Napkin. I don’t use half a roll to pee, but I do like more than that. And if you’ve never seen one, get ready to use a “squatty potty”. Not all are squatties, but you’ll run into at least one. Don’t be afraid!