This year for our anniversary (which we celebrated early due to plans to already be out of the country in February instead of May, when our actual anniversary is) we spent twenty-four hours in Istanbul, Turkey on our way home from Tanzania and Kenya. Twenty-four hours is not long enough to fully explore Istanbul. It is long enough to know that this ancient city is entirely worth another visit.
Before I get to the meat of this blog update, I have to put in a little plug for Turkish Airlines. It's awesome. I could stop there, but I don't think this would be very informative without a bit more detail. Since we flew out of DC the Turkish Airlines schedule was challenging. Our flight left around 11pm, and we arrived in Nairobi, Kenya around 3am. Was that fun? Not really, mostly because the Kenya airport is being rebuilt after a fire, so they have nothing except an outside cafe and a really sketchy bathroom. It was nice to make it through customs and immigration in about five minutes. We waited longer at baggage claim than we did to purchase our visas, and that, my friends, is a major win. Aside from the schedule, though, Turkish Airlines is probably the nicest airline I've ever flown. Their Istanbul airport is beautiful with lots of cool shops (and free Turkish delight samples). Each flight is begun with the flight attendants handing out [more] Turkish Delight. The food, though still airline food, was surprisingly good. You can choose what meal you want when purchasing your tickets online. You don't have to pay extra to choose your seats. All of these were major pluses in the pro column and completely made the slightly inconvenient schedule more than worth it. Not to mention, for the two of us to buy tickets, we saved over $1000 by flying Turkish over British.
Okay, moving on to actual Istanbul. In order to leave the airport you do have to buy a Turkish Visa. You can do this online prior to your trip, or you can buy it in the airport. The price is the same, and it's very easy no matter which you choose to do.
We stayed in the Arden City Hotel in Sultanahmet (or the Old City) which was lovely, and I highly recommend it. Judging from the many hotels we researched in planning our night in Istanbul, it seems that you can rent a room with a king-sized bed in a 4-star hotel for about $60/night. In many cases this includes breakfast.
Arden City Hotel is conveniently located just a few blocks from a number of the major Istanbul attractions such as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. We did not tour Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque due to time constraints and long lines, but we did walk around them and explored little side streets in their vicinity.
Rooftop meals seemed to be a theme of our time in Istanbul. After wandering around the above historic sites, we wandered down to the water to find some lunch. After checking out a number of menus that offered sandwiches and the like, we decided that something that seemed a bit more Turkish would be the order of the day. A couple of blocks from the water we found a little hotel that had a rooftop restaurant and a small but semi-unrecognizable menu. Perfect! We only had a day, so we had to make everything an adventure, especially including our meals. Kyle ordered something with lamb, and I ordered some curry dish, and then we waited.
Our lunch finally did arrive, and it was worth the long-ish wait. I don't have pictures of it because nothing lasted long enough for that, but trust me...it was delicious. Fresh veggies and tender meat with lots of spices and the creamiest, most decadent curry sauce I've ever tasted. Most of the time when I eat out at a restaurant I try to think how I could duplicate the meal at home (and we usually end up improving it in the long run), but this meal just had to stay in Istanbul. It was too good. Everything was fresher even than what I could buy in SC. Yes, we do have tomatoes in our garden. We also have neighbors with chickens. All of that could be purchased locally. The freshness of the bulk of the meal could easily be duplicated. But the spices...oh, the spices! Even the spices were fresh and local. That I just don't have the means to do (unless you know someone who grows and sells curry, cardamom, and other Eur-Asian spices in SC in which case WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOR THE LAST THREE YEARS?!?!).
From lunch we did some more wandering and eventually ended up in the Grand Bazaar. If you ever want to get lost and have the most fun imaginable doing so, go to the Grand Bazaar. I don't even begin to understand how big it is. We entered by the diamonds and made our way through traditional clothing, scarves (be still my heart!), pottery, instruments, weapons, and probably some other items that we didn't even notice. There were just too many booths crammed to the ceiling with things. Lots and lots of things. Brightly colored things and spicy-smelling things and soft things and dangerous-looking things all being sold by men with slicked-back hair. After being in African markets just a few days before, the Grand Bazaar actually seemed pretty low-key. No bibis (grandmas) grabbed us and thrust their wears on us or in our hands in an attempt to force us to buy them. Just the guys calling to us trying to tempt us into their shops, promising good deals "just for us".
Considering I was dressed in my best "out of Africa" clothes, I was pretty sure I could be taken for nothing but an American missionary. But, with Kyle's black hair, brown eyes, and olive skin, everyone assumed he was Turkish, which I guess clearly made me something other than American. I had a few people call out to me in Spanish, and, since I could actually respond in Spanish (as long as I repressed the Swahili that just kept bubbling to my lips), I guess I maybe managed to keep up the un-American illusion.
After managing to find our way to an exit that was at least close to where we wanted to be, we made our way back to the hotel to get ready for supper. I, of course, couldn't resist wearing the new scarf Kyle had bought me, and all that walking had really bolstered our appetites. Again, we wanted something traditionally Turkish. Our hotel had advertised a rooftop restaurant that we were planning to try, but the concierge told us that it wasn't open for the season yet. So, we hit the streets to see what we could find again. We didn't have to look far. The hotel across the street was the tallest building around and also boasted a rooftop restaurant. This one was open. And it was perfect. The panoramic views were breathtaking, and the fact that the restaurant was lit with nothing but twinkle lights on the ceiling and candles on the table made for the most romantic supper out we've ever had. If only I'd packed a cocktail dress rather than jeans.... No one seemed to mind, though.
Again we both ordered something that we didn't recognize and again we were both thrilled that we had. Supper was just as perfect as lunch. I finished mine off with a Turkish tea, and Kyle tried a Turkish beer, and then it was time for one last shopping trip (we could not possibly go home without Turkish Delight and Turkish Baklava) and bed.
Our hotel included a continental breakfast, so we partook of that before meeting our ride back to the airport. Turkish breakfasts should be a thing of legend. I don't know what most of what I ate was, but it was all so good. Our favorite was this kind of slightly-sweet coconut sponge cake. I've since tried to find a recipe for it, but Turkish Coconut Sponge Cake doesn't yield many results from Google. :'( If you know what that stuff was, please tell me!!
We signed up to earn frequent flier miles with Turkish Airlines, so I'm sure Istanbul will get another visit in the not-too-distant future. That will be a great day, indeed.