Istanbul, Turkey travel tips

As we’ll probably mention again later, prices of just about everything in Turkey is surprisingly high. In Istanbul in particular, we couldn’t afford to eat at the kind of restaurants we would have liked to, in part because of the cost of eating out, but also because all the sites are expensive as well so our daily budget has been wreaked. Also, since Turkish breakfast is included in almost every hotel stay, like so many other budget travelers, we usually only ate one meal besides breakfast.

Where we ate:

  • Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftescisi Selim Usta – Always packed with locals, this place has a short menu – kofta, white bean salad, ayran seem to be all anyone gets. The kofte were nice, though not spiced quite enough for our taste: YEH
  • Ramazan Street Fair in the Hippodrome – Some items here are overpriced (6 YTL for a stuffed potato? As if.) or weird (what’s with the spam-like doner kepap) , and savory items are scarce, but there’s more amazing sweets here than you could try during the time the fair runs: YEH!
  • Refik Restaurant – We can’t understand why this mehanes (restaurant for Turkish mezes and raki) place is highly recommended by Time Out Istanbul, Chowhounders, and the guidebooks. Bland, unimpressive, overpriced food and tourists at every table. We bailed quickly and went elsewhere: NAH
  • Konak Restaurant – With what may be the widest variety of meat dishes in Turkey, this is one Istanbul restaurant that won’t break the budget. Their Iskender kebap was butterly wonderful and, with a salad and soup, fed two: YEH
  • Şehri Safa – We may have the name of this chain wrong, but it’s not worth seeking out anyway. Affordable food, small-ish portions, just ok: MEH
  • Fish grills near Asia-side ferry stops – For 3 YTL you get a fresh caught grilled piece of fish with toppings. One of the cheapest and tastiest meals we had in Istanbul. Be sure to go to one that has a hot, busy grill: YEH
  • Lale Restaurant a.k.a. World Famous Pudding Shop – They have vegetables! Real vegetables made into food that you can eat for dinner! 10% off if you show them your copy of Rick Steve’s Istanbul. It’s no destination, both the food and the waiters are a little salty. Our waiter, after I asked the price of beer then decided to not get one, tried to defend their prices by pointing out that beer is the same price in the U.S. Yes, but our beer is good. Your beer is Efes!: MEH
  • Nazar Fast Food – One of the many fast food doner kebap places in Sultanahmet, it’s mediocre but cheap: MEH

Where we stayed:

  • Mavi Guesthouse – This place looks and smells like it’s run by a bunch of young, clueless guys, which it is. Their Turkish breakfast was skimpy (it included a tasteless package of spreadable “cheese”). The bathroom smelled and looked like it wasn’t cleaned during our stay and the hallways were noisy. For the same price there are much better places to stay: NAH
  • Hotel Metropolis – Named the cleanest hostel by some reputable website or other. Nice guys, free internet, gorgeous views from their common areas. Bonus is the nice Turkish breakfast around the corner in their comfy restaurant. Tell them Ephemerratic sent you: YEH!!

What we saw:

  • Semi-legal shuttle service at Ataturk International Airport – At 3 a.m, as the door closed on the shuttle van, which looked a little worse for wear, the sidewalk sales guy told the van full of tourists “Good luck” which made us all laugh and worry: YEH
  • Aya Sofya – Also spelled ‘Hagia Sofia,” this mosque turned secular museum is truly awe-inspiring. Even with the ever-present scaffolding for restoration work, it was one of the highlights and (almost) worth the price of admission (20 YTL each): YEH!
  • Istanbul mass transit system – Though they penny pinch by charging you every time you transfer, and make it difficult for short-term visitors to do anything but buy tokens one at a time, the transit system is incredibly efficient and incredibly crowded: YEH
  • Topkapi Palace – Whoever sets admission prices has gone mad at this place. 20 YTL admission, plus 15 YTL extra for the Harem. For that, you get to wait out one of the inevitable throngs of cruise ship tourists, who arrive by the hundreds. Many of the museum-like areas have not been updated (or dusted) in 15 years: MEH
  • Istanbul Arkeoloji Muzesi (Istanbul Archeology Museum) – This place is HUGE. A lot of the areas will only appeal to history or archeology dorks, but there’s so much else to enjoy. Like other sites, many areas could use a dusting and they should replace the threadbare carpet in the sarcophagus room. Don’t miss the truly creepy childrens’ exhibits: YEH
  • Sanat Galerisi – We followed some very un-Istanbul murals and signs for art to this gallery of modern artist Ilhami Atalay and his talented family. Feel free to buy us one of their beautiful paintings: YEH
  • Grand Bazaar – This former shopping mecca has jumped the shark, selling out to the tourist shoppers: NAH
  • Süleymaniye Camii – The entire interior of this mosque was closed for conservation so we could only see a nearby cemetery and Sultan’s mausoleum. Worth confirming if it’s open before you go, the work is extensive: HUH?
  • Spice Bazaar – The interior area leans towards the tourists, selling the horribly chemical “apple” tea and other weirdly hued fruit variations and dusty pre-packaged spice. Skip the interior and instead head to the streets just outside for dirt-cheap dried fruit, nuts, spices and cheese in narrow lanes mobbed with locals. Interior is “Nah,” surrounding streets get a: YEH
  • Rüstem Pasa Camii – Hopefully you won’t go through the shock that we endured as we watched three ignorant tourist women, heads disrespectfully uncovered, violate the clearly off-limits prayer area to take prohibited flash photos. May they get travelers diarrhea. If you have extra time in Istanbul and you’re in the area, it’s a nice mosque to check out: YEH
  • Local ferries – For about a buck, you can take any local ferry anywhere. Be careful as a return ferry may not be running by the time you want to head back (you should easily find a bus instead). Best deal in Istanbul: YEH
  • Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) – If I could go back in time, I would visit the Blue Mosque before the Aya Sofya because the mosque seemed a little small by comparison. No matter, it is a divine space, both spiritually and architecturally: YEH