Travel Notes – Istanbul Spring 2016

Saturday, May 14th, 2016

So I decided to return to Istanbul to give myself a belated birthday treat a few weeks ago. Whenever I can, I try to go on a solo trip every year in April to recharge and spend some quality time with myself. I don’t always get to do this due to work and family commitments but since I’m currently between jobs I know I’d hate myself if I didn’t go somewhere this year.

Why Istanbul, you may ask. Having been there just last December with the kids, it may seem strange that I chose Istanbul as the destination for my birthday trip. I don’t think I can give an answer that will be fully satisfactory to anyone on this subject. I have visited many cities around the world but none of them has had the same pull and effect the way Istanbul has on me. The city just lures you in with her magic and I always feel like a lovesick puppy when I’m here.

So I packed my bags hoping to get my share of some cool spring weather and a peek of the last tulips the city has to offer and arrived on a lovely crisp afternoon on Thursday, April 21st. I have visited most of the key sites on my first visit so I wasn’t planning on visiting them again this time around. I did, however, sit on one of the wooden benches in Sultanahmet Park one morning and couldn’t resist taking pictures of the magnificent Sultanahmet Camii (famously known as the Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia to bring home as a souvenir.

One thing I noticed was how the city seemed less crowded compared to my first visit just 4 months ago. Security also seemed more visible in the tourist areas but I guess that’s all to be expected considering the incidents that occurred a few months back. And since this is a return trip, I thought I’d save you the minute details of my days and instead will just share key highlights which I hope will come in handy for both first-timers as well as returning visitors like myself. So here goes!

VISAS – Before you go, make sure you get your visas ready and if you are eligible for an evisa, this is the best option to take. Check your eligibility and apply here:

https://www.evisa.gov.tr/

SIM CARDS & MOBILE PHONES – Each unregistered handset that you use with a local sim card has a “usage period” of 120 days. Meaning that if you have visited Istanbul in the past and bought a local sim card to be used with your phone, that same phone will be locked and will not be able to be used if you have passed the 120-day period from when you first used it to activate your local sim. In my case, the 120-day period from my first visit in December had just passed 2 days prior to my arrival back in the city on April 21st. The only way to avoid this is to register your mobile phone with the Turkish government which I was not keen to do. So I had brought an old phone to use with my Turkcell sim (it was then considered a “new phone” by the Turkish authority) and I used it as a hotspot for my main phone which I used back in December. I simply topped up the credit and with 35 TL I was given 2GB data, 500 local voice calls and 1,000 local SMS.

POCKET WIFI – I wasn’t sure about the phone and sim situation before I came so I had booked a pocket wifi from Alldaywifi as a back up. I was happy with their service last December so I decided to use their services again on this trip. It costs USD $5 per day and you can connect up to 10 wifi enabled devices. They will deliver the pocket wifi to any address in Istanbul free of charge (I had them deliver the kit to my hotel) except the airport where an additional USD $10 fee applies. At the end of your trip, simply leave the kit with your hotel reception for collection. While you can have your pocket wifi waiting for you at the airport upon arrival, you can’t do an airport drop-off when you leave Istanbul. more info on their website.

APPS – I relied a lot on Google walking maps to take me from point A to point B when I was there. I also used Buradan Oraya which is a fantastic app for public buses and gives good information on bus numbers, routes, stop names and it even has a route map too.

CURRENCY EXCHANGE – I live in Singapore and it is costly for me to withdraw money at ATMs when I’m overseas as the withdrawal fee is quite substantial and on top of that the exchange rates are really unattractive. It is also hard to find TL in Singapore so if you’re in a similar situation, make sure you bring enough USD and/or Euros to exchange with TL when you arrive in Istanbul. I found that the best rates are around the Grand Bazaar area but if you’re staying in the Sirkeci/Hocapaşa/Eminönü area like me, there’s a small exchange bureau on Hamidiye Caddesi near Yeni Camii and they offer attractive rates. Their details are as follows: Özmenler Döviz ve Altin TİC. A.Ş – Hobyar Mah. Hamidiye Cad. Altın Han No. 3F, Eminönü.

HOTELS – I am a creature of comfort and habit and since the area I first stayed in was Sirkeci, I found it hard to stay elsewhere in Istanbul. The Lalahan Hotel which was where we stayed on our first visit really took good care of us and its location was so convenient and close to the Gulhane and Sirkeci tram stops. I initially booked myself there again for this trip but ended up staying at Sirkeci Mansion which is located just behind the Lalahan and owned by the same group. In all my travels, I have never felt so looked after and taken care of. I read the reviews on Tripadvisor for Sirkeci Mansion and one common thing that keeps getting mentioned besides the location is how excellent the staff and service is. I think it’s going to be very hard for anyone who has stayed there to find the same level of service at other establishments! I was down with a cold, sore throat and cough for a few days during my visit and the hotel staff kindly made me various herbal teas, freshly squeezed fruit juices and took me to the eczane (pharmacy) to get some medicine. They ensured I was taken care of until I was healthy enough to wander around again. If you’re on a budget, you can consider Ilkay Hotel which is owned by the same group and located right next to Lalahan Hotel on Hüdavendigar Caddesi in Sirkeci.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT – I used taxis a few times during this visit but mainly used the bus and trams to get around. Make sure you get an Istanbulkart which can be used on almost all public transport including trams, buses, ferries, furnicular, tünel as well as the Nostaljik Tram on Istiklal Caddesi and cable car to go up to Pierre Loti Cafe in Eyup.

MOSQUES – My favourite mosques in Istanbul are Ruştem Paşa Camii, Yeni Camii, Fatih Camii and Suleymaniye Camii. Ruştem Paşa is currently closed for restoration so it’ll be another 2-3 years before we can visit this lovely gem again. I love the quietness and peace of Fatih and Suleymaniye and the tranquility inside is just so lovely even for non-Muslims. Yeni Camii with its gorgeous blue carpets is surprisingly quiet too during the day when it’s not prayer time. Unlike the Blue Mosque which is always crowded, my favourite mosques are quieter and feels more like a proper place of worship rather than a tourist attraction. Suleymaniye Camii in particular sits high on a hill and has a lovely garden with one side overlooking the Golden Horn. It looks magnificent at all hours of the day but even more beautiful at sunset.

NEIGHBOURHOODS – One thing I loved doing on this trip was to roam around some neighbourhoods and take pictures of all the lovely buildings Istanbul has to offer. These are a few of the areas that I explored when I was there recently:

Sirkeci & Hocapaşa – This area is where I feel most at home in Istanbul. I love the fact that the land here is flat and not hilly like Sultanahmet. There are lots of eateries and gift shops in this neighbourhood and I have listed my favourites ones below. The nearest tram stops are Gulhane and Sirkeci (which is also a Marmaray station).

Eminönü – I loooove this area. The square in front of Yeni Cami is perfect for people watching and it is also my reference point to go to various places in the city. When I need to go anywhere, I will usually find out how to get there from Eminönü as there is a tram stop, bus terminal, ferry terminals to Asia as well as a special ferry station for the Bosphorus cruise here. Eminönü also has a lot of variety for eating and shopping including the most famous Spice Bazaar. I love sitting at the meydan during dusk to watch the sky change colours from blue to orange and probably have hundreds of pictures of Yeni Cami at various hours of the day with Eminönü Meydan in the foreground.

Karaköy – This is where I go to to get a glimpse of the artsy side of Istanbul. Sprawling graffitis, cozy cafes and quaint cobblestone alleyways are what catch my eyes when I’m here. Istanbul Modern Museum is a short walk from the Karaköy tram stop and you could also catch the tünel to Beyoğlu if you don’t feel like walking uphill to Istiklal Caddesi.

Galata & Beyoğlu – My favourite street in this area is Galip Dede Caddesi. Its sloping cobblestone street is lined with cute coffee shops, nice cafes, gift shops and various kiosks selling items ranging from guitars to tin coasters decorated with Ottoman patterns. To get here, simply board the Tünel from Karaköy to Beyoğlu and turn right as you come out of the station and make another immediate right as soon as you are out on the square in front of you. The walk down will lead you back to Karaköy tram stop at the end of this street and don’t forget to stop at Galata Tower to enjoy the view from above when you’re here.

French Street (Cezayir Sokaği) – I looooove this street. Located behind the Galatasaray High School (Galatasaray Lisesi), it is a small alley with stone steps all the way and lined with really pretty cafes on each side. I came here around 11 before the lunch crowd swarmed in and had the whole street to myself, it was amazing! To get here, take the T1 tram heading to Kabataş, get off at Karaköy, change to the Tünel heading to Beyoğlu from across the tram stop, take the Nostaljik Tramvay and hop off at Galatasaray on Istiklal Caddesi. Walk towards to the back of Galatasaray Lisesi where the French Street is located.

Bebek – A lovely neighbourhood for walking and taking pictures by the water. Lots of cafes again and little boutiques selling really pretty clothes and bespoke shoes and bags. To get here, take the T1 tram to Kabataş and transfer to bus 25E from the terminal and get off at Bebek.

Fener & Balat – Known as the Greek and Jewish neighbourhoods of Istanbul, these areas have a feeling of old and nostalgic vibes to them. Slopey alleyways filled with colourful houses with peeling yet bright coloured paint are just a lovely sight and especially nice for picture taking. I visited a small neighbourhood simit bakery in Fener and saw how the locals make simit which they then supply to the little red cart vendors in the area. To get here, simply head to Yavuz Selim Camii and take a minute to sit down on one of the benches within the mosque’s gardens facing the water with the neighbourhood down below. After that, you can simply walk around the area around the mosque which is Fener and Balat.

Kadiköy (Asia) – Kadiköy is a lovely vibrant area with lots of cafes, eateries, shops, delis and stalls selling fresh fruits, fish, cheese, olives and lots of other goodies. Baylan Patisserie is located here in Kadiköy as well as a lovely old sweet shop, Cafer Erol, and Ciya Sofrasi, a restaurant serving authentic Turkish food. To get here, the easiest way would be to take the Şehir Hatları ferry from Eminönü which departs every 20 minutes.

Uskudar (Asia) – I took the ferry to Uskudar and walked along the water and would ocassionally sit on the bench scattered along the way. I finally went to Sakirin Mosque and could see how different this mosque is compared to all the other mosques in Istanbul. Another beautiful mosque that I wanted to visit, Cinili Camii, was unfortunately closed for restoration over the next 2-3 years. Like Kadiköy, you can take the Şehir Hatları ferry to get here from Eminönü.

Kuzguncuk (Asia) – I wanted to visit Kuzguncuk after seeing many beautiful pictures of it on Pinterest. It’s a residential area in Uskudar with lots of small bakeries, coffee shops and beautiful colourful houses which reminds me of Burano in Venice. To get here, take the Sehir Hatlari ferry from Eminönü to Uskudar then take bus 15, 15B or the dolmus minivans and alight at Kuzguncuk which is about 10 minutes away and is the 4th stop, if I’m not mistaken. Alternatively, you can walk there if the weather is nice which is what I did. With the pier behind you, turn left on the main road and walk along the water for about 20-30 minutes until you reach Icadiye Caddesi on your right. Turn into that street and have fun roaming around!

EATERIES

Here are some of my favourite places to eat in Istanbul:

Lezzet-i Sark – Hasırcılar Cad. No 38, Eminönü
Located behind the Spice Bazaar and on the same street as the popular Mehmet Efendi Coffee kiosk, this place serves delicious kebabs, ezme, beyran (spicy lamb shank soup), kofte and yummy ayran. They are also known for their kunefes but my personal favourites here are the chicken shish, beyran corbasi (spicy lamb shank soup) and ezme dip (served free with bread as a starter). The beyran is not on the menu so be sure to ask for it if you want something hot, spicy and soupy. Average price for a kebab with bulgur rice and salad is around 14 TL.

Mavi Haliç Pidecisi – Kutucular Cad. No. 28, Eminönü
The best pide in Istanbul in my humble opinion. Mehmet Abi who owns and runs this little eatery himself has been making pides for more than 2 decades and I just think his pides are super delicious. Located behind the Spice Bazaar on a small street selling cooking utensils, this eatery is a humble and no-frills place but the pide is really delicious!

Beydagi Kurufasulyeci – Suleymaniye Mah. Professor Dr. Sıddık Sami Onar Cad. 31/33
This eatery is located just across the magnificent Suleymaniye Cami and has been around since 1950. I had my first taste of kuru fasülye (white beans cooked with tomato sauce, similar to the English baked beans) and pilav (butter rice) here and I wasn’t disappointed. Their menu is meat-free so it’s a good dining option for vegetarians too.

Güvenc Konyalı – Ankara Cad., Hocapaşa Hamam Sokak No 4
Goodness gracious me, I have never tasted lamb shank as tender, juicy and moist as the one I had here. The dish is not cheap by humble eatery standards (23 TL) but the taste was definitely worth it! They also serve sütlac (rice pudding), kunefe and walnut baklava.

Kral Kokoreç – Büyük Postane Cad. No 26/1, Eminönü
Kokoreç is spit-grilled lamb intestines, chopped and seasoned with dried thyme and chili flakes and stuffed into a piece of Turkish bread. If you live in the West, chances are you might not be brave enough to try this tasty offering but go ahead and be adventurous! It is really yummy, especially if you have it with a glass of cold frothy ayran. Yum!!

Baylan Patisserie – Muvakkithane Cad. No.9/A, Kadıköy
I came here merely for the ice cream sundae, known as “coup grillet” which was recommended to me by a friend. Comes in a dessert glass, it is vanilla ice cream served with caramel sauce and croquant. They have a variety of cakes and sweets but I was so content with the sundae, I didn’t even bother looking at the other stuff! This establishment has been around since 1961 and still retains its old-style charm.

Velvet Cafe Galata – Büyük Hendek Cad., Kule Çıkmazı Sokak No. 7/A, Galata
One of the hotel staff told me about this cafe and said I have to try the helva there. Vintage and colourful, it looks like a small living room of someone’s house. The interior is cozy and welcoming and the staff are really friendly. I ordered the helva and lemonade and fell in love instantly with this place. The taste was delicious and what’s cute is that they have a small cabinet filled with lovely tea and coffee cups. If you order tea or coffee, you will be asked to choose which cup you’d like your beverage to be served in. I now call this cafe my favourite cafe in all of Istanbul.

Şinas Galata – Galip Dede Cad., Yoruk Çikmazi, Galata
Located in a cul de sac just off Galip Dede Caddesi, I found this cafe by accident while roaming around the Galata area one afternoon. Its cute turquoise wooden stools and tables were what first drew me in. They serve Turkish vegetarian and vegan light meals and I had a delicious Turkish pancake filled with sour cherry jam and a glass of Turkish tea here. Şinas Galata is a pretty outdoor cafe and I will definitely visit it again on my next trip, insha Allah.

SHOPPING

Most of my shopping on this trip consists of edible goods, ceramic bowls, Turkish tea glasses, simple jewellery and pure olive soap. Here is where I got them:

Namlı Pastırmacı – Hasırcılar Cad. 14, Eminönü
A lovely Turkish deli just behind the Spice Bazaar, this place is most famous for its cured meats (pastirma), cheeses and appetisers. Almost everything is sold by the kilo and vacuum packed for you to bring home. I came here specifically to buy these items:

– Tahin (sesame paste – 35 TL per kg)
– Findik ezmesi (hazelnut paste – 63.50 TL per kg)
– Nar eksisi (pomegranate syrup – 39.50 TL per kg)
– Pekmez (grape molasses – 29.80 TL per kg)
– Salça (tomato paste – 16.80 TL per kg)
– Biber salçasi (hot pepper paste – 16.80 TL per kg).

The quality of these items are really good and even though the price is slightly higher than average, I think you really get your money’s worth. Since coming back home, I have made some delicious goodies including chocolate hazelnut spread using the hazelnut paste I bought here and it tastes so much better than the store-bought ones. One item that they sell here that seems a bit out of place compared to their edible items is pure bay leaf soap. It’s quite pricey at 15 TL per bar but I think the quality is really good and I still have some from my previous trip and use it for my face.

Nil Baharat – Asmaaltı Büyükbaş Sokak No. 1, Eminönü
This is where I buy my spice and herbs when I visit Istanbul. Located outside the Spice Bazaar very near to Ruştem Paşa Cami and along the same row as Hamdi Restaurant. This time I got from them these items:

– Lavender (40 TL per kg)
– Sundried tomatoes (20 TL per kg)
– Sumac (20 TL per kg)

They also have dried mint, linden tea and all the spice & herbs you can think of. Do note that they don’t have the equipment to vacuum pack your items here.

Gökhan Kuruyemiş – Kalçin Sok. No. 8, Eminönü
I come here for pomegranate Turkish delight, dried fruits and nuts. I find their pomegranate Turkish delights to be really good and slightly cheaper compared to the other stalls inside the Spice Bazaar. I have bought dried mint and various nuts from them too on my previous visit but this time around I got these goodies from them:

– Sundried tomatoes (20 TL per kg)
– Pomegranate Turkish delight (44 TL per kg)

I bought these for my family which they vacuum packed nicely for me.

Gencay Baharat – Sabuncu Han Cad., Sabuncu Han No. 22, Eminönü
This tiny shop is hard to find but I had to come to this place mainly for their pure olive soaps. Even though they have some boxed soaps which have a nicer scent, I always choose the ones piled up in a wooden tub with no artificial fragrance or colouring which means these soaps don’t look or smell attractive at all, unlike the lovely looking ones you see inside the Spice Bazaar. But I like them because I found them to be really good for my skin and especially my face. After trying out a few bars from my purchase last December, I came back here to get 20 bars this time around (each bar weighs about 200 gr and costs 3 TL) and brought home 4 kg of this soap!

Carsamba Pazari/Wednesday Market – Fatih
Located just behind Fatih Mosque, this market only pops up once a week on Wednesdays. You can find olives, fresh fruit, cheeses and lots of other items from flowers, food to clothes here. But I only bought one specific thing here to bring back home and that was homemade rosehip jam which is sold by only one vendor at this market, a lady with big metal cauldrons containing her various homemade jams. You will find her on the main street of the market and her stall is right smack in the middle on the left side if you start your walk from where Fatih Mosque is.

Tuncer Gift Shop – Taya Hatun Sokak No. C3, Sirkeci
My hotel was located right next to this lovely gift shop and I popped in a few times to look at their items to find that they are beautiful as well as reasonably priced. After comparing their prices with other vendors around the area as well as the Spice Bazaar and found that their prices are actually quite good, I decided to do all my bowl and glass shopping here and made good use of the nice convenience of having my hotel just next door from them. I bought lovely ceramic bowls, a set of Turkish tea glasses & saucers along with some beautifully decorated ceramic coasters here which they bubble wrapped for me. They also have a jewellery shop across the street with a beautiful collection which I think are really reasonably priced too.

Tiamo Silver – Taya Hatun Sokak No. 8, Sirkeci
This shop mainly sells pretty jewellery but they also have some scarves, bags and small leather items. I came here to buy a pair of leather baby shoes for my little niece. They have an array of colours and I chose a lovely pink one with leather laces, the size about 3/4 of an adult’s palm and paid 35 TL for it.

So that’s my trip summary and as you can see, there are many many places that I have yet to visit. I spent 2 whole weeks in Istanbul and if anyone is interested to see, here’s the link to my Flickr gallery:

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I took my own sweet time in exploring all the places I went to. I chatted and dined with strangers I met along the way, exchanged phone numbers with my fellow guests and the staff at the Sirkeci Mansion, made new friends with both locals and travellers from various corners of the earth and also met up with some old friends I got to know on my first visit last winter. Some friends teased and asked when I plan to go back to Istanbul and to their surprise they heard me say, “If it was up to me, I’d jump on a plane tomorrow and happily head back there immediately!”. And knowing how crazy I sometimes am, they actually believed me. But then again, you never know, right? After all, this is Istanbul that we’re talking about ;-)

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