Our trip to Turkey was highly motivated by the fact we had dear friends living for a while in Istanbul, who we were wanting to visit for a long time. It was not totally impromptu, but it was certainly the least prepared/organised trip we ever had.
How could we do that?
We visited Turkey for nearly 19 days and were based in Istanbul, travelling to parts of the country from there. In Istanbul, our greatest guide was A. Bourdain’s episode of “No Reservations”, but we had a will to try out authentic food along the way to the other parts of the country.
Well, the fact we had a place to stay was a big help. Internal flights are quite frequent and prices don’t fluctuate too much. At the time, the main options were given by the “Turkish Airlines” and “Sun Express”. In case you do not know, the “Sun Express” is usually the cheapest option but the company is a joint venture between the “Turkish Airlines” and “Lufthansa”.
That allowed us to take multi-city flights, connecting back to our base camp. Once at the destination we would rent a car and drive around.
Our friend was based near the Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen Airport, which was our departure and arrival airport for all domestic flights. We arrived and departed Istanbul from Ataturk Airport with the “Lufthansa”, which is also a convenient airport and closer to the city centre, with plenty of public transport connections. Mind you, the “Turkish Airlines” now has direct flights to a number of European cities.
Nevertheless, keep in mind that Istanbul is a huge city with 15 million people. A trip between the two airports can take a little over 1 hour without traffic on a car/taxi, but it can take well over 3 hours on a busy day…
On our first week we explored Istanbul. You can imagine that it’s not easy to cover all of the city, but the highlights of any trip will have to be Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace the Bazar, Galata Tower, the Blue Mosque, etc. As less run-down touristic attractions, I must point out the Kadikoy neighbourhood, where you can feel European in Asia, and Çukurcuma, the antique shops’ neighbourhood.
On the second week we did two domestic trips.
On the first trip we flew to Izmir renting a car on arrival and driving to Kusadasi where we were based for 3 nights. We visited Pamukkale and the Roman city of Hierapolis built around it, Ephesus.
Then we flew to Antalya and rented a second car, driving to the “Arikanda Hotel” in Adrasan, by the shore. We just stayed one night and drove back to Antalya where we arrived late night and took the morning flight back to Istanbul. Our highlights were a short trek along the Göynük canyon which is part of the Lycian way, a visit to Demre (the Lycian town of Myra), and a boat trip to the Kekova underwater city.
On the second trip we flew to Kayseri, right in the middle of Anatolia and nearby Cappadocia, staying one night at a cave hotel in Nevsehir (Göreme valley) and then one more night in Kayseri for our early morning flight back to Istanbul. We visited the cities of Nevsehir and Uçhisar, the chapels in the Ihlara valley, and the Kaymakli underground city. We were not too overwhelmed by the festive cave dinner with traditional dances, but didn’t have the chance to do a hot air balloon trip, which should also be interesting.
In total, we stayed 11 days in Istanbul, 5 days between Izmir and Antalya, and 2 days in Anatolia.
From the 11 days in Istanbul, you need to discount a few days for our laid back style, dinners with friends, shopping sprees, and a full day living as an expat going around the city trying to complete your visa application.
Would we do it again?
Yes, Turkey is a very relaxed country where people are generally helpful. The food is amazing! We tried out roadside food joints with awesome dishes at great prices where people hardly spoke any English. We had yummy kebabs and tasty pide, but most were surprised by the hospitality! Sometimes all the staff would line up to greet us and make us feel welcome.
The laid back approach allowed us to experience everything from the fantastic bread you can buy near the ferry stop, the warm but refreshing chai (tea) served aboard the ferries, the mussels with rice sold on the streets, the rich orange juice pressed in front of you, … I could just go on and on!
Some ideas to linger on…
We came in 2014 and have shortly visited Istanbul once more in 2017. If you read a little bit on the current history of the country, you’ll find that our initial visit was right after the protests around Taksim square that made international news in 2013. At that time, the shift to a Muslim country was on the rise, led by president Erdogan.
Nevertheless, you will surely see a clash of cultures between European and Asian, between Muslim and Catholic, and between some women wearing the hijab or niqaab and the relaxed youth of Kadikoy. We did see the occasional anti-riot brigade nearby Taksim square, on huge jeep-tanks, with water cannons and such, but on prevention, never in action. On our second visit, we didn’t feel any of it, but it was a mere one-day stopover.
We only noticed the tension with the Kurd while chatting up a Kurdish waiter that opened up on the subject. But we felt the Turkish pride in its greatness on the 19th of May, with huge flags all around Istanbul.
Domestic flights’ prices don’t vary too much, as do rent-a-car options. If you can, book in advance, if not, do it on the fly, the difference shouldn’t be considerable.
Visas are easy to obtain online, and several country nationals can enter without a Visa, so check the e-visa website for up to date information. The countries list whose people are eligible for e-visa you can find here. Nevertheless, the passport control lines at arrival were quite lengthy on both times we visited.
The food scene changes quite often, so from 2014 to 2017 we already found that some of our favourites had closed. We read through the blog istanbuleats and tried out some of their alternatives to the places that Bourdain visited on his episode. “Ciya Sofrasi” in Kadikoy was one of the best experiences we had during the whole trip!