We spent the past six weeks in Istanbul, Turkey, evaluating it as a long-term destination for more extended travels. Istanbul is the largest city we’ve been to in our travels, with an official(ish) population of 16 million, and whispers of it having more than 20 million people due to the influx of refugees from the ongoing Syrian civil war. It was also wracked by inflation while we were there. We saw prices of common toiletries jump by 20% in our six weeks in Istanbul, and the currency exchange rate fluctuated wildly.
As a result, we wound up withdrawing 500 Turkish lira at a time, meaning that we were hitting up the ATM every few days. Thank goodness for our Schwab checking account (#aff), which doesn’t charge us ATM fees, enabling us to take out small amounts rather than needing to take out large amounts of cash.
We stayed in the Tarlabaşı neighborhood. A gentle description would be a neighborhood in bloom. It is where a lot of Kurdish and Syrian refugees land, and many of them never leave. It is not a visually appealing place. We overpaid for an AirBnB there (which I will not link to), because, although the interior of our place was nice and roomy (more on that later), the Internet was spotty at best, and it wasn’t convenient to anything. It was advertised as being in Taskim, but it was not in Taskim. It was a 15 minute walk to Taskim and a 10 minute walk to Istakal Street. We also found Istakal, as well as the Old Town around Sultanahmet to be unbelievably crowded. Think Times Square at New Year’s all of the time.
The area itself was safe. We had no issues. Of course, we weren’t returning home from bars staggering drunk at 2 AM, either, and we weren’t poking around in side streets with big cameras. We got to know the shopkeepers around, and all was fine. They were as curious about us as we were about them. But, it was not conveniently located to much that we felt like was positive about Istanbul. Also, the infrastructure there was pretty low standard, as one would expect in such an area. Our Internet speeds were very slow, for example.
The area that we discovered that we loved and kept coming back to was the Asian side of Istanbul, particularly along Bagdat Cadessi (Baghdad Street) to the southeast of Kadıköy. It was calm, clean, and not nearly as crowded as the European side or parts of Kadıköy. We loved Moda as well, but it was a little too far removed from everything else that we wanted to see and spend time doing in the Asian side. If we return to Istanbul, we are definitely staying in that area.
If you are planning a long-term stay in Istanbul, and it is your first time, then just know that you are going to spend between a week to two weeks just doing all of the tourist attractions. We saw cruise ships docking in the Galataport area a lot of times and marveled at how tourists could get any sort of a sense of Istanbul in an eight hour visit. It was impossible.
That said, we did enjoy a lot of the sites. We loved Dolmabahçe Palace. It is extremely ornate. Furthermore, there is a free audio guide in English that is very informative. Make sure that you bring a driver’s license or some other form of identification, as you need to trade it for the audio tour wand. My wife was very impressed with Topkapı Palace, particularly given the time period in which it was built. I was less impressed, so do it first, unlike the order that we did it in! The English audio tour guide, also free and requiring the exchange of ID for the system, was not informative at all. We were both wowed by the Rüstem Paşa mosque. It was just breathtaking in its beauty. We also did the Hagia Sofia, and it was immense, but not particularly ornate. While we would have loved to have done the Blue Mosque, it was surrounded by scaffolding, and the guides on the tours that we took advised against it.
As always, we did free Guruwalk tours (#aff). The first one was from Taksim Square to the Galata Bridge, and our guide was also a teacher at a madrasa, so that was an excellent opportunity to get our introduction to Islam, particularly as it is practiced in Turkey (I know…it’s Türkiye, but for the sake of addressing my audience, who comes mostly from the United States as well as my laziness in identifying the alt-codes for the umlauts, I am going to reference the country as Turkey). The second wound up being a two part tour. The first part was through the main sections of what people think of as the Old Town – the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, etc. The second part, after a late lunch, was a boat tour of the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, ending in Uskudar and doing a walk through Uskudar learning where to grab good food and Turkish coffee. We did have to pay an extra $30 for the tickets on the boat tour, which was totally worth it. Naturally, we also tipped our guides.
As an aside, Turkish coffee is not derived from the coffee itself. The coffee that is imported into Turkey comes mostly from Yemen (a fact which quite surprised me). It is the preparation that makes it Turkish coffee, and supposedly, the best Turkish coffee is prepared over hot coals in a pot called a cezve. These are normally found in coffee shops called kahvesi. Look for that on the sign of the place. There are usually small tables with small chairs, and the coffee is served in tiny cups, almost demitasses. Lots of places will offer Turkish coffee, but they aren’t quite as authentic as those.
The third tour that we did was of the Fener and Balat area. It was quite interesting from a historical perspective, but not as interesting from a visual perspective. We had one tour, in Kadıköy, cancelled on us because the guide got sick, and it was only offered once a week. We’d definitely do it if we go back. However, if you want to see Kadıköy, make sure you check out a map of the street murals there.
Here’s just a sample of the over 30 murals that we saw on our wandering tour.
Here are some of our observations about Istanbul (in no particular order):
- Food is generally just as cheap to buy at a restaurant or a stand as it is to cook at home. We ate out most of the time while we were in Istanbul (with an exception described below). We bought yogurt and granola for breakfast and had our first cup of coffee or two at home. However, for the main meals we ate out a large portion of the time. It was also quite tasty. Most of the places that we ate at were halal, meaning they adhered to the Islamic rules of food preparation, so we did not eat pork while we were in Istanbul. If bacon is a must-have for you, then Istanbul is not your city.
- Wine and beer are not cheap. Given that Turkey is an Islamic country, then it is more difficult to find wine and beer. That isn’t to say that wine and beer are not available. We found them in many places, but there were many restaurants where they were not served, because the restaurants were halal. However, we did enjoy the beers at The Populist (both locations). I liked Efes beer, which is the most common Turkish beer that we saw. They were reasonably priced, but like what you’d see in Western Europe, and not the budget-friendly deals on food that everything else represents. That said, we had a great wine experience (more below).
- The best place to save on dining out is at a lokanta. They are also called lokantsi, but, basically, they are buffet type restaurants where you go through a line (imagine school lunch or a Picadilly’s) and choose what you want, and they ring you up. We met some guys who were of Turkish descent on one of our walking tours, and they said that going to lokantsi reminded them of eating at grandma’s. Though our grandmothers never cooked Turkish food, had they cooked Turkish food, it would have been like what we had at every lokanta where we ate.
- Turkish hot drinks are served at near boiling temperatures. Turkish coffee is prepared by boiling water, adding coffee, boiling it, scooping foam off, and serving. I saw some tea machines in restaurants that were set to 99 degrees Celsius.
The Turkish have mastered the art of serving tea as a 430 degree liquid. Their tea servers use magic instead of science. I’m surprised the glasses in which they serve tea don’t melt.
— Jason Hull (@hull_j) July 2, 2022
- The Turkish carpet salesman stereotype is strong near the Grand Bazaar. I cannot tell you the number of times that people asked us if we wanted to come into a carpet shop. It was absurd. The hard pressure sales tactic of shoving a menu in your face or following you halfway down the street must work, because it was prevalent, particularly in the Old Town of Istanbul. This is one of the reasons we really liked the Asian side. The hard pressure sales were almost non-existent.
- Turkish hospitality is as advertised. Aside from the hard pressure salespeople (who, to be fair, are just doing their jobs, it’s just that I don’t like the jobs), we found the Turkish people to be warm, hospitable, and curious. On many occasions, I did the head-to-head greeting touch with people because of the warmth that they showed, and the occasions warranted the gestures. We went to visit a friend of mine in Ankara while we were there, and they prepared a feast, gave my wife a gift, and took us around like awesome tour guides. A great story is the hospitality of a random stranger. I decided to surprise my wife one day by taking her to what I thought would be a wine tasting at the Büyülübağ winery. I looked and saw a location on Google Maps for the Asian side of Istanbul. I texted the number and they confirmed that they could do a tasting at the time that we wanted. We went there, and were a little surprised to find that it was in a very industrial-looking area. Undaunted, we went up and down the stairs not finding the “tasting room.” Then, we went around the back and saw an office. Eventually, a woman came out and asked my wife if she could help her. My wife said that we were looking for the Büyülübağ winery to do a tasting. The woman said that this was the corporate headquarters, but we were welcome to come in. She brought out a booklet describing the wines. In a couple of minutes, a gentleman came out and introduced himself as Alp. It turns out that Alp was the owner and founder of the winery, and he brought us into his office to do a tasting of four different bottles. ON A MONDAY AFTERNOON! We spent 2 hours chatting with him and tasting their incredible wines. We would have happily left whenever; after all, it was a business day, and here we were, two random people who showed up at their doorstep. It turned out that the woman who greeted us at the door was Alp’s sister, and his wife also worked there. We bought two bottles of wine, which were amazing (I particularly love the wild fermented Cabernet Sauvignon), and now, because of their hospitality and the quality of the wine, we’ll tell everyone we know who ever comes within sniffing distance of Turkey to look for and try their wines.
- There isn’t a weird head tattooing MMA cult in Istanbul, but it may appear that way. Why? We saw a lot of strange headbands and red dots around the heads of many men, and we saw a lot of broken noses as well. It’s because Istanbul is a very popular area for hair transplants and nose jobs. The doctors are, apparently, very skilled, and the prices are very low for the procedures. I wear my thinning pate proudly, and I shave my head a lot. It’s cheaper and less painful than a hair transplant.
- This was our first time in a Muslim country, and learning about the Muslim culture was fascinating. In some circles in the U.S. media, Islam gets a bad rap, as if there aren’t Christian extremists as well. Yes, there is a scale of acceptance within Islam, just as there is a scale of acceptance within Christianity and any other religion. However, almost all of the Muslims we met here had a very tolerant and accepting approach to their religion and to other people. We had never been in a majority Muslim area and we didn’t know what to expect. It was refreshing to talk to people about their faith and learn more. We left with a much more positive view of Islam and the practitioners of the faith. Now, that said, the majority practice Sunni Islam, and everyone we talked to were Sunnis. I’d hope Shia is the same, but we can’t say because we didn’t really experience it.
- You will see a wide range of people in Istanbul. This goes along a lot of axes. In women, we saw anything from mini-skirts and bikini tops to full burkas (surprisingly, usually accompanied by some sort of fashion accessory, from shoes to name brand purses), though, again, the freedom that even burka-wearing women experienced here was different from what we would expect to see in other areas of the world. Also, we saw a lot of Kurds, Syrians, other visitors from the Middle East, and Africans. I guess that’s to be expected in a city that has 16-20 million people and is the crossroads of so many cultures.
- They are tolerant of LGBTQ+, but only up to a point. One Sunday, we were coming back from going somewhere, and we noticed that all of the entrances to Istakal Street were blocked off by police in riot gear and with riot shields. At the entrance to our street was a police station, and there were a gaggle of police in riot gear there as well. Naturally, we wanted to make sure there wasn’t something we needed to know about, so my wife went up to a policeman and asked him what was going on. “This is for your safety,” was his answer. We didn’t make the connection at the time that it was Pride Day, and just over the hill, police were beating and arresting participants in the Pride Day activities. That said, our area was known for housing a lot of transsexuals, and we saw gays and trans in the Taksim area. So, we felt like the bag was mixed for LGBTQ+ people here.
- Pedestrian areas and sidewalks aren’t 100% safe to walk on. Our Airbnb host (who was a fabulous person and whom we really enjoyed getting to know…but was not the owner, to whom we feel the disappointment about our listing) said that when she traveled in Turkey, people immediately knew she lived in Istanbul because she walked in the street instead of on the sidewalk. We thought this was a curious statement to make until we walked on the sidewalks. First off, there are scooters and motorbikes everywhere, including sidewalks. Also, even on pedestrian streets like Istakal, there are still cars and motor scooters and bikes frequently on them. Furthermore, there were shin-bashing concrete blocks all over the sidewalks, meaning that looking up to see things (or to avoid the crowds or the scooters) was a dangerous preoccupation. Hence, we walked in the streets quite a bit.
- Public transportation is great, but use an app like Moovit. We found that to get anywhere outside of the Taksim/Galata area, it was much easier to use public transportation. We took buses everywhere. We used the Istanbulkart (thanks, Jimmy and Mack, for giving us yours! We paid it forward in Izmir.), and found that, once we got on the right bus or train, the trips were easy and very cost effective. Each leg usually cost the two of us $0.75. However, it was often confusing to figure out where your bus stop was and what direction to go. Once we started using Moovit, our mistakes decreased significantly. Even then, we, on at least four occasions, got on buses expecting to get off at a certain stop only for the bus to stop and discharge everyone well short of our destination. That said, we really liked the Metros, the trams, the funiculars, and the ferries.
- When you arrive in Istanbul, if traveling by air, take a Havabus to get close to your destination, and then take an Uber. Havabus costs each time we went to the Istanbul airport (IST code) were 52 Turkish lira per person. Otherwise, you’re going to have to deal with a taxi driver, who will probably try to rip you off. Our taxi to our apartment cost twice as much as our Uber back to the airport from our apartment. For our trips to Izmir and Ankara, we used the Havabus system with no issues, although we had to walk 15 minutes to the pickup point. You can pay with cash or credit card. If paying cash, there will be a stand or a rep. If paying with a credit card, you can just pay the driver.
- If you’re going to catch COVID, Istanbul is a pretty good place to do it. I developed a cough and hoarse voice after about the 4th day in Istanbul. Fortunately, we had brought a bunch of rapid tests on our trip, and while we used up some when my wife caught COVID on our cruise ship over to Europe, we still had some left. Low and behold, as soon as I dropped the solution onto the test, both lines filled in. My wife still went out exploring around, but I stayed in, sleeping and reading. We used the local food delivery service, Yemeksepeti, which was great! We had fantastic food delivered to us for dirt cheap. Our average bill for delivery of delicious meals, including tips, was a little under $10 per meal. While I recovered fairly quickly (thank you, science, for the vaccines!), I did have a lingering cough. I finally decided to go to the doctor to check on it, and, the next day, I had an appointment with an internal medicine specialist, who confirmed that I had a very mild form of long COVID, which was easily treated with prescription medicine. The out of pocket cost to see the doctor was $104.39, and the prescription cost $4.48, both of which I expect to be reimbursed from our insurance. Fortunately, one of the few upsides of our apartment was that it was very large (for a 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment), so we were able to be comfortable while I convalesced.
- They love cats here! This is both a Islamic and a Turkish thing. From what we have been told of the Islamic faith, there is a love of cats, and then, additionally, it’s also a part of the Turkish culture. Dogs are liked here, and they’re also well taken care of (the strays are tagged and quite fat, so they’re obviously well-fed), but cats are everywhere, and they’re adored.
- Trash pickers are common but not appreciated. We would sort our garbage and try to leave the recyclables separate and easy to get to, because every few hours, someone came by with a cart to dig through the trash to pick out the plastic, glass, and cardboard. We saw something similar when we were in Medellin, Colombia, but, unlike there, where they were very well revered for helping the environment, they were thought of as lower-class citizens in Istanbul, which, to us, was quite a shame.
- Istanbul is a great place to restock on items you may need. I bought new shoes and several shirts. My wife bought scarves, dresses, and other clothes. We stocked up on medications. While brand name clothing accessories are the same as everywhere else in the world, if you’re not a clothes horse and don’t care about names, you can get some great deals. We wouldn’t want to buy major electronics here, but, otherwise, there were great deals to be had.
- Even Starbucks is cheap. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that we bought coffees from Starbucks in the land of amazing coffee, but, sometimes, you need a convenient bathroom, and they have good bathrooms. Venti iced caffe lattes were about $1.75. Try to get that in the U.S.
- Istanbul is smoky, but not as bad as Split or Izmir. We don’t know if it’s because the percentage of people who smoke here is less or because the ventilation in restaurants and cafes is better, but we didn’t notice the smoking as much here as we did in other places. One friend had a theory that since Istanbul is more conservative than Izmir, people are more likely to smoke in Izmir than in Istanbul, as some practitioners of Islam (of which there seemed to be more in Istanbul than in Izmir) would stop smoking. There was a fatwa issued against smoking, but a lot of people didn’t seem to get the memo.
- Treat yourself to a hamam at least once. We went to a pretty touristy one, the Çemberlitaş Hamamı, and had a really good experience. It’s like massage, bath, and Bikram Yoga all mixed together. Sexes are separated. After getting changed into the towel (and nothing else), you go into a hot room, where they give you a few minutes to get warmed up. After that, someone comes and scrubs you with a loofah to get rid of tons of dead skin (I laughed out loud when the gentleman showed me how much excess skin he’d rid me of). Then, you get soaped and rinsed off with very warm water. Afterwards, you get a head wash and massage. Subsequently, after a quick bathroom/shower break, you go into a separate area to get a massage. Total per person was about $55, including tip. I went back later to get a shave, which cost me a little over $6, including tip.
Here are some other travel-related observations that we’ve made:
- Temperatures are really important to us. We don’t know what the lower limits are for our travels, but days in the mid-80s here got to be pretty uncomfortable, probably because we walk so much. We were putting in about 7 miles of walking a day, and having that sweaty back syndrome is not fun. I built a full-time travel optimization Excel model (for those of you new here, I used to be a Certified Financial Planner, and I used to build Monte Carlo models for clients), and one of the variables I added was a maximum average monthly temperature in a given location.
- Going on Guruwalk tours (#aff) is a good way to meet fellow travelers. We spent several days hanging out with people that we have met on our Guruwalk tours (#aff), and we’ve made some friends that we hope turn into lasting relationships as a result of meeting them on the tours. Of course, anyone who is going to take a free tour of a place to get the lay of the land is someone with whom we’re immediately going to have a few things in common!
- Don’t just read about the good neighborhoods to stay in; read about the ones to avoid. Had we really done our research before booking our place to stay in Istanbul, we would have not wound up where we were. We had plenty of options, but we just didn’t quite do the stubby pencil work enough. Now we know.
- COVID-19 quarantine was a good opportunity to explore something new. I started playing with DALL-E, the artificial intelligence “art” generator.
- The neighborhood you stay in affects your perception of the city. There’s no way that we could have known just how much fighting the crowds of Taksim and Istakal would irritate us on our way to the Taksim metro, but it certainly put a damper on our perception on Istanbul. There’s no way we could have known, though, until we experienced it. That said, we said on multiple occasions that had we stayed in the Asian side and been doing the occasional trip to the European side, our perception of our time in Istanbul would have been very different. We suspect that a return visit will see us view the city very differently. It’s not that we didn’t like Istanbul (we did), but our enthusiasm was dampened by where we stayed.
While we were there, we ended up spending $6,313.30. This includes the amortized costs of getting to Europe on our transatlantic cruise as well as the flight from Split to Istanbul. I did take out the costs of the trip to Izmir and our flights to Ankara and back.
|Credit card spending||$1,421.97|
|Flight from Split to Istanbul||$658.02|
|Amortized travel costs to Europe||$1,351.14|
Converted to a monthly cost, our costs came out to $4,753.61 per month
|Credit card spending||$1,029.80|
|Flight from Split to Istanbul||$658.02|
|Amortized travel costs to Europe||$978.50|
In conclusion, Istanbul was a very interesting and different experience for us. It opened up our eyes to Islamic culture, although we also realize that Islamic culture in different countries can mean different things. If we return, we would definitely stay on the Asian side and then make the occasional, and perhaps quite infrequent trip to the European side. If we find that we need a budget, non-Schengen Zone European destination, we’d definitely return.
What were your experiences, and how did they compare to ours? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!