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Five Things I Ate in Istanbul

My biggest regret about my week in Istanbul is that I didn’t eat enough.

Seriously. I spent so much time running around trying to see things in Istanbul that I actually didn’t have time to eat all the Turkish food I wanted to try. This is almost unthinkable for a food-loving person like me. But there you have it.

I didn’t eat İskender kebap, which is my favorite dish at the Turkish restaurant back home in Melville. İskender, along with shawarma, is only served between 12:00 and 3:00 p.m. at most Istanbul restaurants, and we rarely found time for lunch until about 5:00. I never ate the famous Turkish dessert künefe, which my Instagram follower @sarahmariesny describes as “Christmas in your mouth”. I didn’t have Turkish ice cream (too cold), and I never tried those deep-fried sticks that look like churros, which were for sale on every corner. (I’m not sure why I never tried the churros.)

But despite all this complaining, I did eat a lot of wonderful food in Istanbul. Istanbul is like Paris; it’s a city that takes eating seriously and delicious food and drink is everywhere — from fancy restaurants to cafés and street-side carts.

Istanbul kebab restaurantSultanahmet Koftëcisi, one of the most famous köfte restaurants in Istanbul. More on köfte in a minute.

Rather than focus further on my culinary failures in Istanbul, I will tell you about my culinary success.

Five things I ate in Istanbul:

1) Köfte (Kebab)

Kebab is a wide-ranging term that encompasses a variety grilled meats and accompaniments. Every street in Istanbul has at least half a dozen kebab shops.

The most popular type of kebab is köfte, a cylinder-shaped meatball made of minced lamb or beef (or both). I love köfte and had it every time we ordered kebab.

First kebab IstanbulOur first dinner in Istanbul, at a tiny dive (can’t remember the name) near Galata Tower. No one spoke English so we gestured for the chef to give us the house specialty. The köfte were yummy and I loved the sticky rice and chili sauce that came on the side. The green chili pepper was only slightly hot.

Sultanahmet koftecisiKöfte, chicken kebab, fresh yogurt, and bean salad from Sultanahmet Koftëcisi, which is across the street from the Hagia Sophia. This was a great meal.

Hamid kebabKöfte and various side dishes from Hamdi Restaurant in Eminonou. Hamdi has an amazing view of the Golden Horn but I thought the food was a bit overpriced and the service was mediocre. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my food.

2) Pide

Pide is Turkish pizza. It’s similar to Western pizza, but with Mediterranean-style toppings and a boat-shaped crust.

PidePide from Nizam in the Şişli district of Istanbul. This particular pide was tasty, but very similar to an American pepperoni pizza. I think we should have gone for one of the more adventurous pides with a fried egg on top. Next time.

NizamKids photobomb my shot of Nizam while Meruschka (post-pide) looks confused. I love this picture.

3) Turkish breakfast

There are many variations, but every Turkish breakfast seems to include cheese, fresh veggies, and some kind of meat and bread.

One morning we took the advice of Kutlu, our Context Travel guide, and had breakfast at Numli Gurme in Karaköy. This restaurant is huge, with a complicated ordering system, but eventually we figured it out and had the best breakfast of our trip.

Istanbul breakfast1Breakfast platter for two: cheese, veggies, olives, and meat. The cheeses in Turkey, especially the variations of feta, are phenomenal. Not shown here: basket of bread and a small dish of fresh butter with candied figs. It was the best butter I’ve ever eaten.

4) Kumpir

Kumpir are stuffed baked potatoes on steroids. We had Kumpir at a fast-food restaurant called Patsosis off İstiklal Street. The customer goes to the counter, orders kumpir, and the guy behind the counter pulls an insanely huge potato from a piping-hot oven. He cuts open the potato and mixes the inside with several spoonfuls of butter. Then the customer surveys a spread of more than a dozen toppings and tells the guy what to pile onto the potato. Here’s a video demonstration.

KumpirMy kumpir.

The butter pirate was the best part of my Patsosis kumpir experience.

Butter pirateA pirate made of butter (and a bit of cheese and pepper) surrounded by kumpir ingredients. The kumpir man scooped butter from the backside of the pirate into the potatoes.

5) Fish sandwich

Fish sandwiches have a glorious history in Istanbul (read more here), and the best place to get them is on the fishing boats at Eminönü Pier. We visited that pier one evening and watched hundreds of people cram onto permanently docked boats to order cheap, delicious fish sandwiches. We’d just eaten so we weren’t among the throng.

Fortunately I found myself hungry one evening in Kadıköy, as we waited for a ferry back to the European side of town, and spotted a lone fish sandwich vendor outside the terminal. Meruschka and I each ordered one.

Istanbul fish sandwichGrilled fresh fish, lemon juice, lettuce/tomato/onion, and a light sauce.

Istanbul food-9507Here I am, taking a pretend bite of my fish sandwich for the camera. (Photo: Meruschka Govender)

I stuffed the sandwich in my face while we sat on the ferry. It was great. But beware of the raw onions.

Bonus #1: My Favorite Meal in Istanbul

The best meal I had was at Café Vodina in Balat, where I went during our tour with Fest Travel. Our appetizer was dolma, or stuffed grape leaves — a dish I had never been crazy about before this meal. The dolma were served warm, stuffed with a bulgar wheat mixture and smothered in thick yogurt.

Istanbul dolmasHeaven inside a grape leaf.

Our main course was manti, a Turkish ravioli/dumpling stuffed with meat and spices and also topped with yogurt.

Istanbul mantiThis bowl of manti was the single best thing I ate in Istanbul.

Bonus #2: My Favorite Drink in Istanbul

Istanbul has great coffee, tea, fruit juice, beer, and wine. But the best beverage discovery I made in Istanbul was salep, a hot, creamy drink made from the tubers of orchids that is served only in Turkey and a handful of middle eastern countries (and only in winter). Drinking salep is like drinking a warm version of the most delicious ice cream you can imagine.

SalepA cup of salep on our ferry ride down the Bosporus.

Istanbul foods and drinks that I enjoyed but didn’t have space to write about in this post: Turkish coffee and tea, apple tea, pomegranate juice, Turkish delight, baklava (yummmmmmm), other Turkish pastries, lentil soup, and roasted chestnuts…I’m sure there were more but these are the things I remember.

I’ll have more to say about Turkish food when I write about Cappadocia — coming up soon.

Istanbul: A Travel Blogger’s Dream (and Nightmare)

When I was invited to attend the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul, I decided to stay on for an extra week. I bought a guidebook, consulted with friends, and made plans with Meruschka, who was also traveling to Istanbul for the forum. A week should be plenty of time to explore the city, I thought — visit all the best tourist attractions and maybe fit in some locals-only activities. Right?

Flag guyA man sells Turkish flags outside the Spice Bazaar.

Ha! Wrong.

One week in Istanbul is nothing. We didn’t scratch the surface…In fact we didn’t even touch the surface. Meruschka and I spent a lot of time being lost and wandering aimlessly and taking hundreds of photos, which was awesome but we didn’t manage to do half the things we planned.

Suleymaniye mosqueThe Süleymaniye Mosque, largest mosque in Istanbul and reportedly the most beautiful. Alas, we never made it.

Istanbul reminded me of a few important travel lessons:

1) When visiting a huge, frenetic, culturally rich, ancient city like Istanbul, sometimes you have to throw out your guide books and to-do lists. Getting around takes time and it’s easy to get lost and distracted.

2) Getting to know Istanbul, which has tens of millions of people, thousands of historical sites, and a language barrier for those who don’t speak Turkish, is exhausting. Cut yourself some slack and don’t try to do more than a couple of planned activities each day.

3) Calm the f*ck down.

Actually, the only important lesson is #3.

Hence, I don’t feel qualified to create one of those “Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul” posts that travel bloggers love to write. But I can provide a haphazard list of ten things we did that were really cool.

Cool Things I Did in Istanbul

1) Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is the most famous historic building in Istanbul, and the one tourist site that Meruschka and I made absolutely sure to visit.

Hagia Sophia outsideThe square in front of the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia insideThe Hagia Sophia was a cathedral for nearly 1000 years, before becoming a mosque and then a museum. Unfortunately a large part of it was under renovation when we visited (hence the scaffolding).

Hagia Sophia MeruschkaMeruschka in one of the Hagia Sophia’s upstairs halls.

2) The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, right across the way from the Hagia Sophia, was the one place I managed to visit during my eight-hour layover in Istanbul last October. Obviously I had to go again so that Meruschka could also see the mosque’s signature blue-tiled ceiling. I had fun people-watching on my second Blue Mosque visit.

Blue mosque guyYou have to be both Muslim and a man to step into the main prayer area that takes up most of the inside of the Blue Mosque. This guy decided to sneak a selfie after he finished praying. 

3) Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, also right near the Hagia Sophia, is a huge water storage facility built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. The cistern contains 336 stone columns and two enormous Medusa heads. You have to see it to believe it.

Underground cisternsA small part of the Basilica Cistern.

Underground cisterns MedusaGiant Medusa head.

4) The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is jaw-dropping for its sheer size; according to Wikipedia it attracts 250,000 to 400,000 visitors a day. (This seems impossible to me, but who knows.) Be prepared for some friendly heckling from the vendors, who can smell a foreigner coming from miles away.

Grand BazaarOne of the main halls in the Grand Bazaar.

5) Neighborhoods of the Golden Horn

We took an amazing (albeit freezing) walking tour of Istanbul’s most historic neighborhoods — Fener, Balat, and Ayvansaray — with a local company called Fest Travel. This section of Istanbul has a huge number of Byzantine-era churches, ancient synagogues, and mosques, most of which would be hard to find without a local expert.

Armenian churchInside a historic Armenian church in Balat.

6) The Trams of İstiklal Street

İstiklal Street, which we first discovered on a walking tour with Context Travel, became my favorite street in Istanbul. The wide street is closed to cars for most of the day, and can only be traveled on foot or via the Nostalgic İstiklal Cadessi Tram.

Istiklal street carThe Taksim-Tünel Tram, chugging up İstiklal Street. We managed to ride the tram on our last night in Istanbul, through the tunnel that runs up Galata Hill. 

 7) Galata Tower

Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. We never climbed it, but we looked at it from just about every angle.

Galata towerGalata Tower at nightfall, shot on my first day in Istanbul.

8) Ferry Cruise on the Bosporus

The Bosporus Strait divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Taking a ferry ride up the strait (we caught the ferry from the Eminönü terminal for the equivalent of about $5) helped me get a feel for the geography of the city and put Istanbul’s massive size into perspective.

View from boatOur boat was surrounded by dive-bombing seagulls for the duration of the 1.5-hour ferry ride.

View from boat2The European side of the Bosporus.

View from boat3The Asian side of the Bosporus — I have no idea what this exquisite building is. (UPDATE: Thanks to my rockstar reader Catherine, I now know that this is the Palace of Kyyksu.)

9) Street Markets in Kadıköy

We only made it to the Asian side of Istanbul on one evening, which is a shame because I was dying to do more exploring there. But I was enamoured with our one stroll through the streetside fishmongers, spice stalls, bakeries, and cafés in the Asian neighborhood of Kadıköy.

Kadikoy marketFishmonger in Kadıköy.

10) Chora Church

The Chora Museum, similar to the Hagia Sophia, is a sixth-century Byzantine-church-turned-Ottoman-mosque-turned-museum. Unfortunately it was also under renovation when we visited; the exterior of the church was surrounded by scaffolding and the majority of the interior was closed. (This was a bummer, especially since no one told us that the inside was mostly closed until after we’d paid our full admission fee.) But still, the mosaics and frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the church — even the few we were able to see — were worth the bus fare and admission.

Chora ChurchByzantine fresco in the Chora Church.

Bonus place: Buyuk Valide Han

The Buyuk Valide Han is difficult to find without a local. (We were lucky to go with Sezgi Olgaç, a Turkish Instagrammer who showed us around one afternoon.) It’s an old inn that now houses a warren of craftsmen’s workshops, whose roof happens to possess the best view in town. The han’s roof used to be a well-kept secret, but now the entire student population seems to know and gather there every afternoon for selfies.

Buyuk Valide HanThere was a long line of people waiting to climb on top of this mound on the roof. Each person or group spent at least five minutes getting her/his photo taken in a variety of poses. 

Buyuk Valide Han viewI skipped the line and shot this a few feet down from the crowded mound. Still not a bad view.

Looking back at this list, I take it back. We did a sh*tload of stuff in Istanbul. There are even a few things that I left out — like Topkapi Palace and the Spice Bazaar and all the beautiful graffiti — because this post is too freaking long already. And don’t even get me started on the food — I’m saving Istanbul’s food for a separate post.

A quick note about terrorism in Turkey. Terrorism is on everyone’s mind and there’s no denying that Turkey has had some issues lately. But terrorism is also an issue in France, Kenya, England, Indonesia, the United States, and several other top tourism countries. Isolated terrorist incidents, in my opinion, are no reason to avoid visiting an incredible place like Turkey. I made that decision before I went and it was the right one for me.

Heather stepsThe rainbow steps of Cihangir, home to the city’s cutest cats. (Photo by Meruschka Govender.)

More Turkey posts on the way.

My flight to Istanbul was provided courtesy of Turkish Airlines, the World Tourism Forum, and Blogger Casting. Opinions expressed are mine.

Istanbul sunset

Cats of Istanbul

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Turkey, most of which I spent in Istanbul.

The main reason I went to Istanbul was to attend a travel conference called the World Tourism Forum, where I listened to speeches and panels with leading tourism professionals and met other travel bloggers from around the world. I also wanted to explore Istanbul (I’d been once before, but only for eight hours) and check out at least one other destination in Turkey.

And there is one other big reason why I went to Istanbul: the cats.

Istanbul cats-2This might be the cutest cat in Istanbul. Or it might not be. There are thousands of cats competing for that honor.

Everyone knows I love cats. I photograph them everywhere I go, and my own cat writes frequently on this blog. But my love of cats can’t compare to the cat-love that encompasses the city of Istanbul, and in fact all of Turkey.

Istanbul cats-2-4Cat on a wall in Cihangir, Istanbul.

Istanbul’s Multitude of Cats

There are hundreds of thousands of cats in Istanbul, most of which are strays. By “stray” I mean that the cats live mainly outside and aren’t “owned” by any one person. But the stray cats of Istanbul, as a whole, are exceptionally well cared-for. Most of them look healthy and well fed (bowls of cat food appear everywhere on Istanbul’s streets), and unlike feral cats in other places these cats are usually keen to socialize with humans.

There are various theories and explanations for why cats are so ubiquitous in Turkey, most of which center around the fact that cats hold a special place in Islam. As the popular Muslim saying goes, “If you’ve killed a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” However, Turkey’s passion for cats seems to go beyond religion. To me it just seems like Turkish people, as a whole, really love cats. And I don’t blame them.

Although I did make time for other activities, I could have spent my entire stay in Istanbul following, petting, and taking photos of cats. I’ve compiled my favorite cat pics for this post.

Istanbul cats-2-3On our first free afternoon in Istanbul, Meruschka and I visited a neighborhood called Cihangir that is home to a charming family of cats. (The cats of Cihangir even have a dedicated Facebook group.) We met the cats on a beautiful rainbow-painted staircase, where we spent at least 45 minutes taking photos.

Istanbul cats-8420Kitten of Cihangir.

Istanbul cats-2-5Mama cat of Cihangir.

Istanbul cats-8468
Feeding time on the Cihangir steps.

Istanbul cats-8500I went a little cat-crazy in Cihangir.
 Istanbul cats-8571Cat on a cobbled street, Galata.

Istanbul cats-9817Golden cat, Galata.

Istanbul cats-8846Cats on a chilly day, Fener.

Istanbul cats-9963Cat in front of a trendy coffee shop, Balat.

Istanbul cats-9491This cat, shown with my Turkish blogging colleague Murat, crashed our Travel Massive networking event at Hush Hostel in Kadıköy. He was the sweetest most affectionate cat ever, until a pizza appeared on the table. Then he became an aggressive, ravenous, lunatic cat who is clearly used to having his way with human food.

Istanbul cats-0271Pretty cat by a pretty door, Eminönü. People leave out boxes and pieces of cardboard for the cats to sit on, since Istanbul’s streets and stone floors are cold in winter.

Istanbul cats-9661Cat and graffiti, Beyoğlu.

Istanbul cats-9624I think this is my favorite picture that I took in Istanbul, shot on İstiklal Street during a walking tour with Context Travel. You can’t tell in this photo, but the regal cat in the man’s lap only has one eye. I wish I could have gotten their story, but he didn’t speak English and I didn’t want to hold up my tour group. I could tell he was a lovely man though, with lovely cats.

I should mention that there are also lots of stray dogs in Istanbul, although not as many as there are stray cats. The dogs also look relatively healthy but not as well cared-for as the cats. I noticed that lots of the dogs, especially in central tourist areas, have tags in their ears, which I assume means they have been spayed/neutered.

Istanbul dog-0098An Istanbul dog in Sultanahmet.

I’ll probably have more to say about Turkey’s cats and dogs in future posts.

Read more about the cats of Istanbul here, here, here, and here.

Five Things I Can’t Wait to Experience When I’m Back in Istanbul

Three months ago, I flew to the United States via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It was the best deal I could find and I decided it would be fun to visit Istanbul during my layover, even if it was just for eight hours.

In the blog post I wrote about that eight-hour layover, I finished by saying, “Next time, Istanbul, I’m coming for a week.”

Istanbul 2016 post-1810Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

I meant what I said; eight hours in Istanbul is certainly not enough and I wanted to come back for a longer stay. But let’s face it: Istanbul is a long way from Joburg. I knew I wanted to go back but had no idea when such an opportunity would arise – months, years, maybe never.

I guess the travel gods heard my prayer. Because a few weeks ago I received an invitation to attend an international conference called the World Tourism Forum, as part of a global delegation of bloggers, during the first week of February. Guess where the World Tourism Forum takes place? That’s right. Istanbul.

Istanbul 2016 post-1898Istanbul!

The conference lasts for three days but I’m going to stay for a week afterward. (See? I meant what I said.) I haven’t made specific plans yet and I’ll probably just wing it to some extent. But I’m sure I’ll have no problem filling the time.

Here are a few of the things I’m looking forward to when I’m back in Istanbul:

1) The photography. Istanbul (and all of Turkey for that matter, from what I’ve seen and heard) is a photographer’s dream. It’s an ancient place with layer upon layer of colors and textures and shapes.

Blue-mosque-ceilingInside the Blue Mosque.

2) The architecture. I only had time to visit the Blue Mosque and walk past the Hagia Sophia last time. But I saw enough to know that Istanbul has some of the most beautiful and historic buildings in the world.

3) The food. Again, my layover only allowed me time for a quick breakfast and some coffee and baklava. But Turkish food is one of my favorite cuisines, as you know if you’ve read my posts about Turkish restaurants in Joburg. I’ll be experiencing the real thing this time, and lots of it.

Turkish-delight-shopTurkish sweets.

4) The people. From what I’ve experienced so far, both here in Joburg and briefly in Istanbul, Turkish people are friendly, kind, funny, and welcoming. I’m looking forward to meeting tons of people and shooting a lot of portraits.

5) The cats. CATS! When I was in Istanbul last year, the very first photo that I shot was of a cat. They’re everywhere, literally. Cat-watching can entertain me for hours, if not days, and I can’t wait to get up close in personal with every one of Istanbul’s millions of cats.

Istanbul 2016 post-1789
A beautiful Istanbul cat. And part of a pants leg.

One interesting plot twist: It’s winter in Turkey, and it will be cold. I haven’t experienced winter in the Northern Hemisphere – like actual winter, with below-freezing temperatures and snow – since I moved to South Africa in 2010. So that will be interesting. But I’m up for the challenge.

I leave tonight. Istanbul, here I come. For a week.

My flight to Istanbul will be provided courtesy of Turkish Airlines, and my stay is courtesy of the World Tourism Forum and Blogger Casting. To get an idea of what the city has to offer, watch this awesome two-minute video about Istanbul.

What to Do (and Not to Do) During an Eight-Hour Layover in Istanbul

Two days ago I was sitting in Atatürk Airport in Istanbul, wishing that I weren’t.

Three weeks before that I flew through Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, en route from Johannesburg to Washington D.C. Istanbul is not exactly on the way from Joburg to D.C., and the flight included an eight-hour layover. But the price of the ticket was right ($825, or about R11k), and I thought it would be a great opportunity to briefly visit a city that so many of my friends have raved about.

I made the most of that first layover, catching the train into central Istanbul, seeing some sights, and arriving back at the airport in time for my connecting flight.

Aksaray-mosqueThe Pertevnial Valide Mosque in Aksaray, Istanbul. The mosque was built in 1869. 

On my way back to Joburg from D.C., I had another long layover in Istanbul. I decided I was too tired to make the trip into town this time. I’ll just hole up in the airport and work on my blog, I thought.

I cannot overstate what a big mistake that was. Eight hours is way too long to spend in any airport, and especially one like Atatürk, which is super crowded with inconsistent wifi. As I slogged around the international terminal, looking for a place to sit and get online, I cursed my poor judgement. But I figured I’d pass the time by writing a blog post about what I did during my first layover, so no one else makes the same mistake.

I started the post in the airport but was too tired to finish it until now, a day after I made it home to Joburg. As it turns out, sitting around Atatürk airport is actually more tiring than journeying into town.

So, here’s what I did with eight hours to kill during a layover in Istanbul.

1) I got off the plane, followed the signs to immigration, and presented my $20 (R285) Turkish visa, which I’d bought online in advance. (You can also buy your visa at a kiosk in the airport but I think it costs a few dollars more.) There was no line at immigration, at least not when I passed through at about 6:00 a.m.

2) I found an ATM and withdrew 200 Turkish lira (about $70 or R1000). I had cash to spare at the end.

3) I followed the signs to the Metro (airport signs are in English and Turkish) and rode down the escalator into the Metro station.

4) I was a little confused when I got to the Metro. There weren’t many English signs and I couldn’t read the Metro map. Also, I had no idea where I was going — I had a vague plan to go to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia but didn’t know where those places were. So I did what everyone else around me was doing: I looked helpless and waited for the station staff guy to assist me.

5) The staff guy helped me buy a plastic “istanbulkart” and put some money on it. I’m not sure how much, but it was definitely less than 20 lira. I tried to communicate that I wanted to go to the Blue Mosque and he said I should go to the Sultanahmet station via Aksaray. I nodded obediently, walked through the turnstile, and boarded the train. The airport is at the end of the red M1 line (see map here).

MetroCandid shot inside the Metro.

6) Once inside the train, I asked for help again. I found a lovely man, Ahmed from Lebanon, who said he was headed in the same direction and would show me where to go.

Ahmed and I took the M1 line to the second-to-last stop, Aksaray, and exited the metro station. We came up out of the station and walked straight ahead, about three or four blocks, to the Aksaray tramway stop. (This is the important part — you must transfer from the metro to the tramway to get to Sultanahmet, and those two stops are a few blocks apart.) We boarded the tram and rode the blue T1 line four stops to Sultanahmet. I thanked Ahmed and got off. Both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia were right there.

The entire train ride, walk, and tram ride took a little over an hour in total. The trains run a couple of minutes apart. I arrived at Sultanahmet around 7:15 a.m.

7) I immediately spotted the Blue Mosque (it’s just across the street from the tram stop) and walked toward it, stopping periodically for cat photos. Istanbul is full of cats.

Istanbul-catIstanbul cat.

8) When I arrived at the mosque, I was told by a young man hanging around outside (trying to lure tourists to his family’s carpet shop — a popular activity among local men in Sultanahmet) that the mosque doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. I took a walk around the area to kill time.

Blue-Mosque-outsideThe courtyard of the Blue Mosque.

9) I strolled across a large square (politely rebuffing several young carpet salesmen) toward the Hagia Sofia. The Hagia Sofia, an ancient church that later became a mosque and is now a museum, is huge and impossible to miss. The grounds around the Hagia Sofia are populated by a friendly pack of dogs.

Hagia-Sofia-and-dogsHagia Sofia and dogs.

The Hagia Sofia was also still closed, so I finished my stroll and walked back to the Blue Mosque.

10) By the time I got back to the mosque there was already a line forming outside. Entrance to the mosque is free, but tourists must dress conservatively (no shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless tops) and women must cover their heads with a scarf. If you don’t have a scarf you can rent one outside the mosque. Visitors must also remove their shoes before going inside; plastic bags are available to carry your shoes in.

There were lots of people inside the mosque already but it was still relatively quiet.

Blue-Mosque-vacuumVacuuming this carpet is no small task.

Blue-mosque-ceilingThe tiles on the ceiling are what give the Blue Mosque its name.

11) I decided to skip the Hagia Sofia and instead spent the next hour or two wandering around the neighborhood. There are tons of restaurants and shops in the area. I stopped for breakfast and coffee at a street-side café, bought Turkish delight and baklava, did some souvenir-shopping, and took more cat pictures. I had a ball.

CoffeeStrong Turkish coffee.

Turkish-delight-shopCandy shop where I bought Turkish Delight.

TobaccoTurkish tobacco for sale. I like how it’s displayed with Marlboro cigarettes on top.

CandyCandy for sale in the Metro station.

12) I allowed myself a generous two-and-a-half hours to travel back to the airport and get to my gate. (I was specifically advised not to take a taxi to the airport — apparently traffic is crazy and the train is faster.) I needed the extra time. Atatürk has an extra security check point at the airport entrance, where everyone has to send their luggage through an X-ray machine, in addition to the usual security at the departure terminal. Security was also extra tight at my boarding gate (as it is worldwide for U.S.-bound international flights), where I passed through two more check points and had my carry-on baggage searched.

I had 20 minutes to rest at the gate before boarding time.

In summary:

DO go into Istanbul if you have a long layover (seven hours or more) at Atatürk.
DON’T suffer through eight hours in the airport. I don’t care if you’re tired or nervous. Just don’t.

Next time, Istanbul, I’m coming for a week.