This past September I returned from a week-long cruise that included stops in Athens, the Greek islands, and two destinations in Turkey, including Istanbul. When I booked the trip on go-today.com, I was more excited about visiting Santorini and Rhodes, than Istanbul. In fact, with all the drama going on in the Middle East, and Turkey’s snug location between Bulgaria, Georgia, Iraq, and Syria, I wasn’t exactly eager to toss myself into the fray. Furthermore, everything I read about Turkey warned that women traveling alone or in groups needed to be particularly careful, as men there can be aggressively flirtatious and may even get grabby. Just what you want to hear when you’re traveling with three very attractive females.
On the day that my boat docked at the Yolcu Salonu (or Passenger Terminal) in Karakoy, my anxiety was a bit on red alert. As my group stepped into the busy streets of the modern heart of the city, I was waiting for the swarm of men to descend. But it seems as though my concerns were unfounded. The people were friendly and the men were much more respectful than I was lead to believe. That said, we had an excellent time in Istanbul, although there are a few things I suggest you should NOT do there. Here’s my list of dos and don’ts for your consideration!
DO Cruise the Bosphorus
We purchased (through go-today) a guided tour of Istanbul for a few hundred dollars that included an amazing boat tour of the Bosphorus. The boat was a little crowded–but the view of the city from the water is spectacular. The coastline is dotted with beautiful castles and villas, yachts dash along the waterway, and sunbathers prostrate on tanning decks.
DON’T Worry About Your Attire
Istanbul is very progressive and women wear just about whatever they want to, from burqas to mini shorts. We dressed pretty conservatively, as suggested in most of my guides, but it really wasn’t necessary. The ONLY time to wear pants and sleeves is in the many mosques, but even they offer cover ups just in case.
DO Check Out a Nargile Bar
In the evening, after our boat tour, we asked our tour guide to suggest a nargile bar. There are several in the area near the cruise ship terminal. We went to Ali Baba Nargile, which was filled with young Istanbulians, but the main waiter knew English. The atmosphere was lively–TVs played American rap music videos–and our loud laughing and photo taking didn’t seem to annoy anyone.
DON’T Eat the Pretty Treats There
The one thing I should warn against at Ali Baba, and may be true at other nargile bars, is that they sat us at the “tourist” table. What I mean is that only our table was adorned with delicious-looking figs, fruits, nuts, and bottled water. But as soon as you touch it the fees will magically appear on your bill. My advice, have them clear the table–to remove the temptation.
DO Visit the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque
These architectural marvels should not be missed, but they are on the main tourist circuit so get there as early as possible. The lines become long, fast. We were lucky to get into the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also called the Blue Mosque) first, but had to endure a gargantuan line to get into the Hagia Sophia.
DON’T Curse Out the Rude Tourists
Unfortunately, with such long lines tempers flared. On a few occasions, we had run-ins with tourists of a certain background–maybe Russian. They literally shoved me and my mother out of the way to get through the turnstile first, but I think it had something to do with our brown skin tone.
DO Take in the Expansive Topkapi Palace
This site is a true wonder filled with ancient artifacts that once belonged to the Ottoman Sultans that lived there for hundreds of years. The palace is grand with many rooms to explore and the views from its perch are amazing.
DON’T Get Lost
The palace is in a bustling area with busy streets, dozens of tour buses, and street vendors on every corner. It’s very easy to lose your bearings. In fact, my mother and sister were relying on me to remember where to board our tour bus but we got separated–leaving them with no clue on how to get back. They were seconds from getting left behind (the cruise ships wait for no one!!) when another passenger recognized them and delivered them to the proper place.
DO Shop at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar is huge and we only explored a fraction of it. It’s chock-full of sweet treats, spices, plates, lanterns, carpets, art, jewelry, and the list goes on. The Spice Market is much smaller but has the same goods. The vendors are generally nice but can sell aggressively. That, together with the excessive crowds, can make either seem overwhelming. So be on your guard and keep your money in a safe place. Be sure to look around before you buy, as many of the shops have the same items for varying prices.
DON’T Buy Without Bargaining First
Don’t be afraid to haggle with the vendors and don’t hesitate to walk away if they don’t want to bargain. I guarantee you that you’ll find the very same item three stores down. When buying candy or teas, you can request samples–yummy!
Do Buy a Handmade Silk Carpet
Many of the guided tours make unscheduled stops at carpet and jewelry stores. My feeling is that they must get a cut if they bring someone that ends up buying. Nevertheless, a Turkish carpet is a coveted luxury that can range in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand or more, depending on the age, size, quality, and uniqueness. My mom bought a tiny silk carpet for about $1,000 and a larger hand-knotted wool carpet for a few thousand. They shipped both back to America for her, but some might prefer to carry such a prize home themselves.
DON’T Expect to Be Impressed By the Food
Okay, I only got to try the food in the tourist trap areas, so not the best option for local, authentic cuisine. But what I had sucked. I wish I could be specific and detail the meal, but it wasn’t memorable at all. We did stop into a pastry shop called Karakoy Gulluoglu near the cruise ship and my impression was that the place was famous for its sweets. But, in my opinion, they were a bit too sweet.
I didn’t get to go to a Turkish bath house or the Basilica Cistern but I certainly think that both would have been worth a visit. With only two days in Istanbul, I couldn’t squeeze them into the itinerary.