Istanbul – Your Introduction to Turkey
This is the second of what promises to be many posts from one my all time favourite countries, Turkey. In the first post I gave the reasons why Turkey should be on every world traveller’s radar, even in these pandemic times. In this post I’ll introduce the reader to one of the world’s greatest cities, Istanbul, the only one that straddles two continents. Alison and I will spend a couple of days relaxing and exploring the city before joining our Adventures Abroad group for a comprehensive tour of Western Turkey. I hope you’ll join us for what promises to be an amazing three weeks.
Getting to Turkey
The starting point to making sure you are permitted to join an Adventures Abroad tour is being fully vaccinated. Right now that definition includes two doses of a recognized mRNA vaccine at least 14 days before travel, but it appears that the great majority of North Americans are opting for a third booster shot. While being fully vaccinated is currently not an essential requirement for entry to Turkey, it does mean that you will not need to provide a negative Covid test before getting on the plane to Istanbul. What you do need is a valid passport, a visa which you can purchase online at this site and you must complete a Turkish entry form at least four days before flying. You can complete the form online at this site. Once submitted you will receive a response with a QR code which you should print off as well as have a copy on your smart phone. This code will need to be shown at checkin and at customs control. So to sum up, you need a passport, visa and entry QR code to enter Turkey and you must be fully vaccinated to join the AA tour.
Alison and I filled out our entry form on line in Malta and received a reply within hours. We flew from Malta to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines which is one of our favourite carriers. It is a member of Star Alliance so you can use your points to book tickets or collect them if you purchase your tickets.
Since our last visit to Turkey a gigantic new Istanbul airport has opened which claims to be the ‘Best Airport in Europe’. If being the best means being a ridiculous distance away from the city it serves then it is definitely a winner. It is also impersonal, interminable and uninteresting, but other than that it’s great. Once you’ve walked seemingly miles from your gate to customs then things go pretty smoothly, unless like me, you’ve got the dates wrong on your visa. I purchased the online visa before making the decision to go to Malta first and the Turkish tour was to start the same day as the visa. However, there was a two day gap between the end of the Malta tour and the start of the Turkey tour. I had completely forgotten about this as I confidently handed our papers to the customs guy. When I saw the frown on his face it immediately dawned on me that I had screwed up. Luckily things were easily fixed as we were able to purchase real visas by only walking a few more miles to find an ATM to get Euros and then finding visa control and going back to customs.
I consoled myself that at least I had a colourful visa in my passport instead of a black and white printed form. Yeah, and those grapes were definitely sour.
So only two hours after landing we collected our luggage and got in a cab for our destination in Istanbul, the Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel. Did I mention that the airport is a ridiculous distance from the heart of the city?
Turkish highways are excellent, but once you get closer to the actual city of Istanbul things slow down considerably. I could not help but notice how much the footprint of the city had grown since my last visit. At fifteen and a half million people, Istanbul is by far the largest city in Europe, exceeding Moscow by over three million and former world leader London, by over five. There are thousands of new apartment blocks that have sprung up like proverbial mushrooms on the way into the central city, a sign of a country that is now almost 77% urban, a figure not that far from the US or Canada. However, these are not the red brick soulless structures of the Bronx or the concrete Brutalist monstrosities of Moscow, but much closer to the apartment buildings that are springing up along the Bicentennial Highway in my home city of Halifax. In other words, they actually look liveable, a fact driven home by the many colourful Turkish carpets that are airing out on many of the balconies.
Traffic comes to a complete halt in a number of the tunnels that lead into the city, but then unexpectedly speeds up again only to dwindle to one lane each way as you reach the Beyoglu district. At last, you come to the Galata bridge across the Golden Horn with its magnificent view of the Mosque of Suleiman, which everyone on their first visit confuses for the Blue Mosque, and you know you are in some place special. Passing by the Sirkeci railway station where the Orient Express once disgorged its passengers, you enter a rabbit warren of narrow streets under the shadow of the walls of Topkapi Palace. Bustling hardly describes the activity that takes place in this area which you will come to know as the Sultanhamet. It seems impossible that your driver won’t run over one of the gazillions of pedestrians who seem to think they are invincible, but it doesn’t happen and just like that you pull up to the Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel and your Istanbul adventure begins for real.
Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel, Istanbul
In my previous post I mentioned that one of the reasons I like to travel with Adventures Abroad is that they almost always put you up in really interesting hotels and the Sura Hagia Sophia is a great example. Given its name you won’t be surprised to learn that it is only minutes away from Hagia Sophia and all the other wonders of the Sultanhamet. You really couldn’t ask for a better location in Istanbul.
Despite my screw up with the visa and the 90 minute drive from the airport we were still here well before the usual check in time. However, that was no problem. I had arranged through AA to purchase a voucher for the two nights we would be here before the tour officially started. As is customary if you are travelling on your own, copies were taken of our passports and we were asked for our proof of vaccination forms. While they were checking to see if our room was ready we were given the first of the many, many cups of tea we would enjoy in Turkey. I don’t now if there has been a national awakening or not, but my recollection from previous visits was that the preferred beverage was Turkish coffee. If you have never tasted Turkish coffee, my admonition is, then don’t. It’s like espresso on steroids, bloody awful. On the other hand the tea is really good and unlike the way most Turks drink it, perfectly good without ladles of sugar. And don’t worry, you can actually get decent coffee in Turkey.
The Sura Hagia Sophia is a sprawling hotel that seems to be a combination of a number of buildings. Despite being room 3109, our room was actually on the second floor which was good because the elevators are tiny and with Covid, better avoided if possible. We had only one flight of stairs to ascend.
The rooms are not super large, but have everything one needs including a fridge, good internet and a decent bathroom with a good shower. Most of the hotels in Turkey have at least one English station on the TV, usually CNN or BBC, but with today’s internet that is almost superfluous.
In the next post, I’ll focus on some things you can do in the Sultanhamet if you are here for the first time, but for the rest of this post I’m going to stick with what you can do at the hotel.
Galeyan Restaurant, Istanbul
After unpacking and getting settled in we both realized that we hadn’t eaten since the morning in Malta. The street that the Sura Hagia Sophia is on is actually a one way lane that must have at least a dozen restaurants with outdoor seating, each with their own menu waving charmer assuring you that his is the best restaurant in Istanbul. It reminded me of an old Mad Magazine cartoon of four restaurants in a row. The first restaurant sign says ‘Best in the Country’ and there’s nobody there. The second says ‘Best in the State’ and there’s nobody there. The third says ‘Best in the City’ and there’s nobody there. The fourth simply says ‘Best on the Block’ and there’s a lineup.
We chose the Galeyan Restaurant which is connected to the Sura Hagia Sophia, has an authentic Anatolian menu and did not have its own barker trying to allure customers. It turned out to be a wise decision and over the four days we stayed in Istanbul, both before and after the Adventures Abroad tour we ate here a number of times and were never disappointed.
The first thing I usually order in Turkey is an Efes which is the national beer of Turkey. It might not win too many awards from beer aficionados, but it’s a nice pilsener that looks and tastes like beer which is all I ask of this beverage. It’s much better than the beer flavoured water that masquerades as ‘lite beer’ and not so hopped up that you can barely finish one glass. BTW Efes is the Turkish name for Ephesus.
The next thing that comes at all these sidewalk cafes in Istanbul you don’t have to order. This is lavas or puff bread and it is complimentary and usually comes with a couple of dipping sauces. I mentioned in my first post on Turkey how much I like the food here and the bread is a big part of it, especially puff bread which frankly I could be satisfied just with this and a few Efes.
However, the menu at Galeyan is pretty extensive and it is a great place to have your first encounter with Turkish cuisine. These are grape leaves stuffed with sour cherries, olives and cheese and man is it good.
And here’s a hummus salad which is something my daughter Lenore who is a vegan, would approve of. Actually it too was very good. You don’t need to worry about eating raw vegetables like lettuce in Istanbul. The food preparation standards are quite high.
Lastly we have another vegan entree, this vegetarian flatbread. You will find dozens of different toppings for flatbreads throughout Turkey and they make for a quick, tasty and inexpensive lunch.
Harmony Spa at Sura Hagia Sophia
The first time I ever went to a Turkish bath or hammam was in the city of Bursa which is famous for its hot springs. There have been baths there since Roman times and the one we went to dated back to the 16th century. It was the closest thing to what it must have been like to attend a real Roman bath that I have ever experienced. However, while many hammams have a great, steaming pool like the one in Bursa, the actual Turkish bath is something quite different.
A traditional Turkish bath consists of a body scrubbing with a cloth mitt known as a kese, followed by a foam wash and then a massage. These are all done by an attendant or tellak. The Harmony Spa at the Sura Hagia Sophia offers this service and unlike the one at Bursa, they provide Turkish baths for couples. More traditional hammans strictly segregate the men from the women. I strongly recommend that you have at least one Turkish bath during your stay in Istanbul.
This is the room where the body washing and foam rinse takes place. Alison and I each had our own tellak, two diminutive young women who were very friendly and professional. We were both amazed at how strong their fingers were. After about 45 minutes in this room where your skin is exfoliated you are taken to the darkened massage room for another 45 minutes. If at the end of this experience you are not so relaxed that you feel like you might just float away, then maybe you aren’t really human.
Breakfast at Sura Hagia Sophia
There are lots of great things about the Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel in Istanbul and the star may be the breakfast buffet. It may well be the best I’ve ever encountered. Due to Covid and as we had experienced at the Hotel Valentina in Malta, the servers are behind plexiglass and you point to what you want. If you are expecting a North American type buffet, forget it. No bacon for you. However, the choices are so great here that I dare anyone to not find something they like. I’ll let the pictures to the talking.
Olives are a staple in Turkey and they come in many different colours, sizes and flavours. Since I love olives, especially black olives this was one of my first stops.
Another staple is yoghurt to which you can add a great variety of nuts, seeds, dried fruits and my go to topping, honey. The honey in Turkey is simply exquisite.
While you don’t usually find salads on North American breakfast buffets, they are found in all Turkish buffets and are made with many types of vegetables, pasta and grains.
This is only a portion of the many fresh fruits on display.
And then there are the cheeses. During our stay at the Sura Hagia Sophia I tried every one of these and didn’t find one I didn’t like.
While you’re not going to get bacon that doesn’t mean that you can’t get your meat fix. The cured roast beef was especially good.
Want something hot – there’s plenty to choose from and they’ll make your eggs any way you want them.
There are seven types of bread which you can top with any number of jams, jellies, honey and other confections.
How about some breakfast dessert? Check.
And you must have at least one piece of Turkish delight.
There is also coffee, tea, cappuccino, lattes, milk and all kinds of juice. Here’s my first breakfast in Istanbul.
Well, that’s it for this post. We’ve got ourselves into Turkey and into a great hotel in Istanbul. We’ve had some great meals and a Turkish bath. What a great start to this Turkish adventure.
In the next post Alison and I will visit a place that is not on the Adventures Abroad itinerary, but should be on yours – the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. I hope you’ll join us.