Exploring Turkey

This is a quick overview of the main cities to see outside of Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Like both of those, it was written in conjunction with Kate Bloomer.

Flights: Internal flights in Turkey are very reasonable. If you book in advance you’re looking at roundtrip for under 100 TL (US $65), but even last minute you’ll be able to get good deals. Bulucak.com is an aggregator for internal Turkish flights, though it doesn’t always work. We’ve flown Anadolu Jet, Pegasus Airways, AtlasJet, Sun Express and Onur Air and they’ve all been legit (and much more comfortable than Easyjet/Ryanair).

Train: The train network in Turkey is slow and far from comprehensive, but that doesn’t tend to matter to people who are considering taking the train. There are apparently some lovely overnight options to Kayseri (near Capadoccia), Konya, or Ankara, though the former two do fill up so be sure to book a day or two in advance. There are also some slower, atmospheric (read: rather dingy) services to Van and Kars in the east.

Bus: most buses are extremely comfortable coach buses with a personal TV and attendants who will bring you tea and nibbles. Metro and Ulusoy often have Wifi as well. Since buses are mostly used by locals, it’s a great way to get a sense of the country outside the tourist enclaves.

Car: Highways are generally very good and international signage makes it easy to navigate. Car rental is quite cheap but gasoline is EXTREMELY expensive – count on paying more for gasoline than the car rental.
  • Cappadocia: This was the first place I visited after Istanbul and the first I’d recommend. The area has plenty to do for the active – from walking through the beautiful Ihlara Valley, visiting underground cities and rock cut churches, and wandering through the fairy chimneys. The Goreme Open Air Museum (15 TL, 8 TL additonal for the Dark Church) contains more than 30 rock-carved churches and chapels with amazing frescoes dating from the 9-11th century. I highly suggest staying in Goreme, and if possible at the Kelebek (www.kelebekhotel.com) , where the owner Ali has a beautiful boutique hotel that’s actually built inside a fairy chimney (as well as a nice buffet breakfast included in the reasonable price). The view from a hot air balloon is supposed to be incredible, but comes at a (probably reasonable) price of around 120 euro. Fly or take the train to Kayseri or Nevsehir, where a hotel bus will pick you up.
  • Ephesus: Flights are available to Izmir, and from there you can take a bus or often hotels will provide a shuttle service to Selcuk (approx. 55 km), the closest town to these stunning Hellenistic ruins. Ephesus is a marvelous sight and well worth visiting – you can walk through in about 2 hours, it costs 20 TL to get in. In Selcuk you can also visit the House of the Virgin Mary (Meryem Ana Evi), 10 km south on the hills. As you might guess, this supposedly the house where the Virgin Mary spend her last days in Ephesus. The Vatican declared this place an official Catholic pilgrimage site. The Museum of Ephesus, which contains objects found in the excavation, is well worth a visit. The most famous of the camel wrestling matches also takes place in Selcuk in January. 
  • Olympos/Lycian trail: stretching along the Mediterranean coast west of Antalya (1 hr flights from Istanbul usually 70 lira or less) is a gorgeous string of ancient Greek and Roman towns, many with magnificent ruins. The ruins at Olympos are located in a national park (that includes a lovely stretch of beach), and it’s very popular to stay in bungalows or treehouses (literally, forts in trees – only recommended in the summer!) when you visit. Myra, about an hour west, features tombs cut into cliff faces, a well-preserved theater, and the church where St Nicholas was bishop (most people don’t realize Santa Claus was Turkish!). We haven’t been to Kekova, an island off the coast where you can swim among the ruins of a sunken city, but it’s supposed to be lovely.
  • On the other side of Antalya are the also-stunning ruins of Aspendos, Perge, and Sitra. They’re great out of season but can get a little overrun in the summer (apparently – we’ve only been in January). It’s easy to visit all three sites in the course of a weekend if you stay in the old city of Antalya and rent a car (which we did for 50 TL a day in January 2012). 
  • Cyprus is completely underrated in our book. Breathtaking Crusader castles, monasteries, Greek and Roman fortified towns, beaches and wild greenery – did we also mention delicious wine and seafood? See more details in the previous entry on Cyprus. Flights from Istanbul are absurdly cheap and frequent. 
  • The Aegean beach towns on Bodrum and Cesme peninsulas range from bucolic heaven to ritz and glitz to package holiday hell. In both places, having a car is probably sensible, as it costs about 50 TL/day whereas a taxi ride pretty much anywhere will likely cost you twice that (Bodrum peninsula is well served by minibuses, but they all connect through Bodrum town, which can be tedious). Only stay in Bodrum town if you are nostalgic for the days of sweaty frat parties or that trashy stag/hen do you might have once attended. Turkbuku, on the other side of the pensinsula, has some fun clubs, including the see and be seen Macikizi (rooms go for 400-800 euro a night here, but amazingly there’s no cover if you’re just coming to party at the bar). Cesme is more Turkish – better deals, more flavor, but ever so slightly more difficult if you aren’t tagging along with someone who knows their way around. The cobble-streeted, landlocked Alacati is definitely the jewel in Cesme’s crown, full of boutiques and excellent restaurants – a bit touristy, but gets points for being mostly undiscovered by foreigners. Plenty of nice beach clubs – or just undeveloped stretches of beach – are a quick cab or drive from Alacati.
  • Pamukkale: accessible from Izmir, this is the site of an ancient spa and hot springs used since the second century BC, and though you’re not llowed to swim in them anymore you’ll still be amazed by the naturally formed white calcium pools. The adjacent Roman city and Amphitheatre of Hieropolis are stunning. Day tours from Izmir are offered for around 45 Lira (as of January 2010) including English-speaking guide, entrance fee to Hierapolis and the travertines (this alone costs 20 Lira if you’re going independently) and buffet lunch.
  • Konya: How many cities are known for dancing but offer no nightlife? The important Muslim mystic, poet, and founder of the whirling dervishes, Rumi, settled here, and his lavishly decorated tomb (the Mevlana Museum/Mausoleum) is one of the more important pilgrimage sights in the Islamic world. Other attractions include the 13th c Iplikçi Mosque, where the final sultans of the Selcuks (the Turkic tribe which invaded Turkey in the 10th century and was eventually succeeded by the Ottomans) came to rest, and Ince Minare Museum, a 13th century madrassah. You can fly directly to Konya airport from Istanbul or take on a three hour bus from Cappadocia.
  • Kars/Ani: The city at the heart of Orhan Pamuk’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel wins no beauty prizes, but gets some points for its castle and a handful of architecturally interesting buildings. 45km east, however, is (to our minds) the most evocative and beautiful place in Turkey: the ruins of the ancient Armenian capital of Ani. Perched on the edge of a gorge at the border of Armenia and Turkey, the ruins (many of which are 1000+ years old) deserve at least a full day of exploring. Bring a picnic of the deservedly famous Kars cheese, honey, and some vegetables that you can pick up at any street market in town – there is very little tourist infrastructure. *Kars, and especially Ani, can be inaccessible due to snow in winter and very hot and dusty in summer, so best to visit in spring/fall*. Hostels in Kars run tours, but we’re happy we rented a car and had the flexibility to travel onwards to Doğubeyazıt, a city at the foot of Mt Ararat (where Noah’s Ark supposedly came to rest after the flood), where the splendid İsakpaşa Palace marks the junction of Turkey, Iran, and Armenia. Four hours further south (and served by its own airport) is the important regional capital of Van. Peppered with Armenian and Georgian churches, historic temples and mosques, the city was hit by a massive earthquake in October 2011 so I’m not sure how feasible it would be to visit in the near term.

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Istanbul Tips, Part V: Get Legal in Turkey

Here’s a quick summary on how to get a residence permit in Istanbul. It’s a follow up to the earlier posts on Planning a Visit to Turkey and Orienting Yourself in Istanbul. Because I assume that after you visit you’ll want to live here as well, naturally.
When I first got to Istanbul, it was common practice for foreigners to show up, decide they wanted to live in Istanbul, and never get a residence permit. They’d live in the country on a 90-day tourist visa, get paid under the table, and take a ‘visa run’ out of the country every three months to renew their tourist visa.
For better or worse, the Turkish government has started to crack down on its illegal immigrants. The good news is that it’s very easy to stay in the country legally. You can either get a long-term Tourist Visa or a residence permit. The only differences I can tell between the two are that 1. you must prove that you have $500/month you intend to stay for the former and only $300/month for the latter, and 2. the Tourist visa is only valid for up to nine months while the residence permit can be for up to three years and renewed indefinitely. The following are instructions for how to get your very own long-term residence permit, or uzun sureli ikamet tezkeresi, based on an email that Amanda Pearson sent me when I was first investigating the process a few years ago. I’ve updated it to reflect some recent friends’ experiences as well.
Unless your work is sponsoring a visa for you, the ‘uzun sureli’ permit is the most hassle-free to get. It assumes you are hanging out here not working or being a student, and have money in the bank to cover living expenses for the period of the permit. You’ll apply for the residence permit after you’ve entered Turkey on a standard 90-day tourist visa.
Here is the website where you can get information and forms and make your appointment to apply for the residence permit: https://e-randevu.iem.gov.tr/yabancilar/dil_sec.aspx. You will need:
  • 1 color printout of the Declaration for Residence Permit form (İkamet Beyanname Form  (completed using typewriter or word-processor).
  • 4 passport photographs. (5 if this is your first application).
  • Original passport and photocopies of pages in passport showing your photograph and last entry stamp IN COLOR they will absolutely not accept it otherwise. You will not have to leave your passport there while the permit is processing (which takes about a week or less, my renewal took 24 hours), but you need to show it when you drop off your paperwork and again when you pick up your permit. 
  • Bank Statement showing savings of $300 per month you intend to stay (so $3600 for one year), or notarised Real Estate Deed. The proof of savings needs to be in the form of a notarised document from your bank – ie a printout, stamped by the bank and mailed to you (if a foreign account). If you have a Turkish bank account, you can pick up a stamped copy in person anytime during business hours, just ask. One friend said she just exchanged $3600 into Turkish lira and showed the receipt of this transaction to the authorities and that worked ok. I think she got lucky and it’s worth getting the official documents rather than risk having to go through the entire process twice, but for what it’s worth…
On the website you can see the link to the “e-randevu”, to set the time when you go in and drop your stuff off with an officer at the yabanci mudurlugu in Aksaray if this is your first application*. It feels really hectic and you can wait a long time, but the most important thing is to get up to the waiting room and get in line for a number. Take the number, which instructs you to see an officer and/or specifies the particular desk that you go to. The process has been different each time I’ve gone. 
The officer will look through your application and then send you downstairs to pay (the table showing prices is in the bottom right corner of the web page – currently for American citizens it costs $25 for the first month and $5 for every additional month you intend to stay, plus 149 TL for the residence permit book if this is your first application). You get a receipt and bring it back up, and then they staple everything together and you are basically good to go. They give you a slip of paper telling you when you can come back and pick it up.
On your form, if you’re getting an uzun sureli permit you’ll have to fill out the reason for your stay. Just write “Serbest” (= free/unemployed).
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
Sometimes the appointments get backed up and you have to wait up to 1-2 months to get in, but as long as you show that you APPLIED for the appointment before your most recent visa ran out, you are ok. This is shown on your official e-randevu slip which you must provide when you get to the station on the day of (when you make the appointment, be in a position to print out the receipt). Also, note that they require you to print out the application form in color (they definitely will not take it in black and white). Make sure that you are in a position to do that when you download it and fill it out.
It can be sort of intimidating to go through the process, but as long as your docs are in order and you don’t have anything urgent to do that day, you should be fine. The peace of mind you get by having the permit makes it totally worth it in my book.
If you need to travel after your tourist visa has expired but before your residence permit appointment, you should technically be allowed to do so. Make sure you bring a printed copy  of your residence permit appointment details showing that you made the appointment before your visa expired. If you don’t have this document you may have to pay a substantial fine and may have trouble getting back into Turkey.
*If you are renewing your residence permit, the procedure is much easier because you can go to the much smaller and more efficient Yabanci Mudurlugu in your district – just choose this when you’re making your appointment online. The Beyoglu office is on Tarlabasi boulevard about halfway down and has a very charming and friendly guy on the second floor who speaks excellent English who will walk you through the process. Unlike the Aksaray office, you have to make your payment in a different building, the tax office in Sishane; even so the entire process took about two hours when dropping off and then less than ten minutes when I came back two days later to pick up the documents. I was also able to make an appointment for the next day when I set it up online. 
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Sometimes March in Turkey is gorgeous. This year, it was a wet, snowy mess. In other words, we had a perfect excuse to fly an hour south and explore the mythical semi-country of Northern Cyprus.

Why Northern Cyprus?This pint-sized island rewards even a 1.5 day trip, though you’d be happier staying much longer. Crusader castles, monasteries, Roman and Greek fortified port towns, wild greenery, excellent wine, hospitable locals. It’s got to be the most gorgeous, safe, and compelling conflict zone you can visit.

More people should know about what’s going on in Cyprus and you can’t help but learn a little by going there. (The Guardian also thinks spending money there is a good idea.) The island is divided between a self-declared republic – recognized as an independent state by Turkey and Turkey alone – in the north and the EU member state of Cyprus in the south. The capital, Nicosia/Lefkosa, lies on the border, and walking over it (you’ll need your passport, but no other docs) provides perspective on the differences governance has on economic development. If you’d like to read up on the place, I recommend the Wikipedia summary and then the excellent work of International Crisis Group.  

Getting there: Flights from Istanbul to Ercan Lefkosa airport in the north are absurdly cheap and frequent. Turkish AirlinesPegasusAtlasJet, and Onur Air fly direct from Istanbul and a few other cities in Turkey. If you’re flying from Europe, you’ll land in EU Cyprus at Larnaca, Paphos, or Nicosia. Easyjet offers very affordable flights from London.

Getting around: Dolmus (shared taxis) go between all the major cities in the north, but you’ll want a car to be able to explore. The island is tiny: the road from Ercan airport to Girne/Kyrenia, the gorgeous coastal town where you’ll probably want to base yourself, takes about half an hour to wind over the spine of mountains that runs through the center of the country (view at right). If you rent a car in the north, you can only drive it through the Turkish Republic, but technically cars rented in the south can be taken all over the island. We couldn’t find anyone to rent one to us in the south for less than three days, but you might have better luck if you book in advance. We ended up sticking with the northern part of the island and paid 100TL (about 40 euro) for a two day rental.

What to see: The Crusader castle of St Hilarion ices the tallest mountain in the country. A contested site from the days of Richard the Lionheart’s invasion (1191) to the Turkish army’s (1974), it’s now a museum. It takes about 15 minutes to get there from the airport and at least a few hours to do it justice. Bring hiking shoes.

Other than the novelty of walking in and out of the EU, the capital Nicosia/Lefkosa doesn’t offer much to the tourist, unless you like gambling. The few historical sites are missable if you don’t have much time.

Bellapais monastery (pictured at the top and below) is mostly in ruins, but pilgrims sometimes hold impromptu services.

Still primarily known by its Greek name, Kyrenia,  the Venetian port of Girne makes a convenient base for exploration. There’s not much to see aside from the impressive fortifications, but the seafood restaurants, bars, and accommodation offerings are hard to beat. We stayed in a random hostel for 5 euro/night in March 2012. 

Farmagusta: we didn’t get a chance to visit, but apparently it offers much the same fare as Girne/Kyrenia. 

Nature: the entire northern coast seems to be one gorgeous sandy beach. Find a westward-facing spit of land and tell me it’s not one of the better sunsets you’ve seen.

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Istanbul Tips, part IV: So You Moved here.

This is fourth in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrival, Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term (this one), and Getting a residence permit

Here’s a list of some organizations that helped me find a job, apartment, and friends in September 09. I’m not terribly active in any of them any more, so the information might be a bit dated, but hopefully at least somewhat helpful.

– For finding & furnishing an apartment: Craigslist and its Turkish-language sister Sahibinden.com, easiest navigated using http://google.com/translate are the easiest, though of course you could use an agent (called an emlak – I have no experience with them). The Facebook groups Buy, Sell, Swap in Istanbul Turkey and Expat’s Saver @Istanbul have an eclectic mix of home goods, often at rock-bottom prices. You can also sometimes find things through Couchsurfing, PAWI, and the forums (see below).

– AlumniTurk.com is a networking site for those that have graduated from universities in the US. It wasn’t around when I first got here, but I’ve been to some events subsequently as they’ve had very interesting high-profile speakers (Minister of Finance, the American Ambassador, Minister of EU affairs etc). Mostly Turkish, and sometimes the speakers present in Turkish, but if you don’t speak the language it’s still worth it if you’d like to connect with the professional Turkish crowd. Mostly a bit older (30s predominantly). If the job board ends up going active I would imagine would have very good listings. 

– Mymerhaba.com has an online forum including job listings. It’s the grandaddy of the online expat networks and has a lot of great information on all sorts of things, from doctors to schools. There are also events listings for things going on in Istanbul, though there doesn’t seem to be any apparent curation, so I’ve found it of little use. Mymerhaba people don’t seem to organize events themselves (at least to my knowledge). Free, all ages

– Zero has reasonably comprehensive listings of concerts, exhibitions, and other happenings. A pocket-sized book is published every month and can be picked up for free at most of the ‘hip’ spots in Beyoglu. Along the same lines, lecool used to have excellent recommendations for the hot concerts/films/exhibitions, but it’s lately been very sparse – maybe a staffing/funding issue. The magazines Time Out and The Guide are hit or miss, but may be useful at the start just for the fact that they are so comprehensive.

– Professional American Women of Istanbul (PAWI) – if you’re an American/Canadian/Mexican woman. Free, but you submit an application to join. They organize seminars (‘how to figure out your taxes from abroad’ etc) and social gatherings (sushi night, walk in Belgrade Forest, etc) and have a pretty active Google Group which is a great forum to answer questions (where to find a cleaner, a good OBGYN, etc). I don’t usually consider myself a women’s group kind of woman, but this has probably been the best resource during my time in Istanbul and I’ve met some wonderful people. Monthly meetings, including an annual meet-and-greet with the US Consul-General at his/her house, plus a few social events. Age group is mostly 23-45ish.

– International Women of Istanbul (IWI) and International Professional Women of Istanbul (IPWIN) – same lines as the above but more international and fee-paying. IWI is very Junior League/Rotary Club-esque – from my limited impression it seems to be mostly trailing spouses (ie, those who came over for their husbands’ jobs and don’t work) and runs lots of charity events. Dues are around 100 TL a year and they organize events, day trips etc, age group is mostly 30s-50s. IPWIN (just a separate mailing list within IWI) has had some great events recently, offering networking nights with most of the top diplomatic brass, useful briefings (how to work legally in Turkey, how to incorporate a company, etc).

– The Sublime Portal (sublimeportal.com) is another online forum along the lines of mymerhaba with a much more active user base. Some friends that have gotten involved say it is quite cliquey and the one time I met anyone from the group in person – impromptu stop at one of their weekly ‘Thirsty Thursday’ gatherings – seemed to confirm that impression. Regardless the forum has a lot of insight into the expat experience here, organizes some events, and has an active job board as well. Free, all ages but the ones that show up at gatherings seem to be mostly 30s-40s long-term expat types

– Internations – a sort of facebook for expats, it’s along the lines of the forums but much more user-friendly. Despite the fact it is nominally for expats, it’s more than half Turks, including a fair few men who think it is a dating service and not a social network. However, they organize events at some really great bars/clubs and attract a decent crowd of professionals, generally 25-40 years old. Cover is usually 15 TL for events (which includes a free drink), or you can join for 3 or 4 euro a month to get free entry. I’ve generally found Internations events a bit too meat markety, and so avoid them, but some of my best friends met each other at Internations.

Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) – . A dues-paying organization that  sponsors lectures (free, generally with a cocktail hour after), day trips guided by scholars (60-200 TL, with discounts for members), and academic-focused weekend to week-long trips abroad (650-4000TL), as well as scholarships for students. Their day trips are fascinating but the lectures can be hit or miss. The crowd is generally older professionals (my friend invited me by saying ‘we need more members under 40’; average age is probably 55), with a smattering of grad-school types, generally really interesting people who have been in Turkey for decades and so have wonderful perspective. Membership 70 TL for the year and you most definitely don’t need to be American – in fact I think it is more than half are British or Turkish. 

– Pub Quiz – is really popular among the 20s-30s English teacher/yuppie set. You can find the group on Facebook – quizzes are Thursday nights at 10, almost always at a bar called Funky Teras just off Istiklal in Taksim. The quizzes are usually clever, but I have also been to some terrible ones.  You can show up even if you don’t have a team – you’ll be added to one, so it’s a good way to meet people. Buy-in is 5TL and if you win you take the pot home. There’s another pub quiz at 8pm on Thursday nights organized by Internations people, but I’ve never been. 

– Square Peg Theater Troupe – ‘Istanbul’s premier ex-pat theater troupe’ puts on original comedy shows and is always looking for more talent. Performers are predominantly from the English teacher crowd, and the shows can be hilarious though decidedly not family-friendly. 

– Couchsurfing.org is a great resource if you know how to use it: be open to overwhelming friendliness and be understanding of people that are just plain overwhelming. The ‘Istanbul’ group is very active and organizes drinks, day trips, etc, etc, and is a good place to air questions (‘good jogging route in Beyoglu?’). There are also apartment listings in the ‘IST – Flat/Flatmate…’ subgroup. The website is predictably dominated by hipster backpacker types (which is not a bad thing). Unfortunately, meetups tend to be dominated by Turks Who Want to Get In Foreign Girls’ Pants, who are tedious. Free, weekly meetups for drinks plus a ton of other impromptu activities like day trips and parties, age group 18-40ish (mostly 20-somethings)

– Foreign Press Club – if you can make an argument that you are a member of the foreign press, or actively trying to become one, you can email the head of club and ask to join the mailing list. Actually being a foreign correspondent doesn’t seem to be a stringent requirement, considering I’m a member. In addition to being the best way (short of personal recs) to find a fixer, translator, driver, relevant AV cable, etc in Istanbul, there are monthly drinks nights and occasional talks/conferences arranged just for the group.

Istanbul Modern and the Pera Museum have good weekly newsletters of their goings-on, including film screenings and exhibition openings. You can subscribe on their websites.

– there are about a billion blogs kept by expats which can be interesting/informative. http://istanbulcalling.blogspot.com/ and http://istanbuleats.com/ are some of my favorites. Yabangee is also great. My all-time favorite is Carpetblog, though she’s traveling so constantly it’s barely Istanbul-focused.

If you try any of these out and form vastly different impressions from me, I’m curious to hear how they are these days.

This article from The Guide: Istanbul (in which my brother and I are both profiled) has some additional tips. Also, my friend Kaan runs a Q&A forum called Atdaa that aims to be a comprehensive place to get answers about Turkey, both for visitors and those who live here.
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Istanbul Tips, Part III: Nom nom nom

Over my three years in Istanbul, I’ve answered a bunch of questions from people who wanted to visit or move here. Some I got so often that I decided to just write a set of Google Docs to answer them. Now that I’m leaving, they’re not going to keep evolving, so I might as well publish them here, in a series of ‘Istanbul Tips’. This was written in conjunction with the amazing Kate Bloomer. 

Istanbul Watering Holes: A Treatise

Lonely Planet recently put out a decent summary that you can find here. I agree with almost everything they say, except the reliability and price of taxis (much lower and higher, respectively) and the likelihood male travelers encountering a ‘friendly local who will take them to a mafia-run dive bar’ – I have never heard of this happening. If you’re a dedicated foodie, Culinary Backstreets (formerly Istanbul Eats) has the best advice by far. Anyway. Topics covered:

The Music
Upscale but Low-key
Late Night
Hidden Gems
Rough Around the Edges
***Our favorites are marked by asterisks (creatively)***


  • The Golden Mile – If you want to go big in Istanbul, this is what you should see and where you should be seen. The Golden Mile is string of exclusive (and vastly overpriced) clubs along the Bosphorus. Located just under the first bridge, in Kurucesme, it’s really only accessible by taxi at the hours you would want to go (certainly not before midnight). Unfortunately traffic on the shore road is ghastly in the evenings as everyone is trying to get to and from this area, but once you’re there, you’re in the glitz and glamour among the Istanbul elite, with epic views of the waterfront. Most clubs are also restaurants. In order to avoid traffic and entry fees, it’s worth having dinner beforehand, then you can stay on and watch it fill up with labels. Arrive by boat for added effect. Reina is the most famous, otherwise it’s hard to keep track of what’s hot these days. Sortie and Blackk were big in summer 2011.
  • NuTeras (Pera) – A great club / restaurant that’s much closer to the center of the city, NuTeras is a rooftop gem which also has great views over the Golden Horn in Beyoglu. Drinks are still quite pricey, but the venue is great with an awesome glass dance floor that goes down about 11 storeys to the entryway below.
  • 360 (Istiklal / Galatasaray) – 360 is a well known restaurant that becomes a nightclub after the 10:00 sitting on weekends. The food is not terribly overpriced if you’re looking for a nice meal and again affords great views. It’s a bit of a tourist trap, as it’s been written up in most of the travel guides, but, well, the view really is nice. Service can be slow, so make sure to accost your waiter.
  • Ulus 29 (Ulus) – Located in Ulus, which also requires a taxi, this restaurant is one of the best in the city. The views are unbeatable, as it is set back from the Bosphorus on a high point so there’s great visibility. You’re treated like a star here, but you’ll be paying for it. On weekends this venue becomes a nightclub a la Reina after dinner.
  • Lucca (Bebek)- I’ve never been sure why the who’s who decided that the viewless, always crowded Lucca is the place to be. Maybe it’s the amazing mojitos.
  • Angelique (Ortakoy) – Angelique is known as “little Reina”. Located in Ortakoy, a quaint neighborhood along the Bosphorus, before the first bridge. Similar crowd, but this year touted to be a bit young. The music is loud, but on the outdoor patio you can escape to look out across the Bosphorus and the picturesque Ortakoy Mosque. It makes a great alternative to the Golden Mile as you don’t have to contend with quite as much traffic, but don’t expect a quick journey here either.
  • Suada (Kurucesme) – Located beyond the Golden Mile, this man-made island between Europe and Asia harbors a multitude of treasures, including a floating pool (80-100TL/day entry). Several of the big-name Istanbul restaurants have their sister restaurants here, including 360 and Fish. You get to take a boat ride there – so what if it’s only 30 seconds long. At night the pool is lit up and there’s usually a line up of well-known Turkish DJs on weekends.
The Music
  • Babylon (Asmalimescit) – Probably Istanbul’s best known music venue, not far from Pera. Performances from world-famous artists as well as some local stars. Its Istanbul location closes in the summer as the crowds migrate to Cesme on the Aegean coast.
  • Ghetto (Galatasaray) – Nipping at Babylon’s heels is the cathedral-ceilinged Ghetto, located just off Istiklal by the British Consulate. The performers aren’t quite as well known as the ones who end up at Babylon but there are a few headliners every season. Local act Baba Zula***, an excellent Turkish psychadelic electronica group, performs here often (bellydancer included).
  • NuBlu (Asmalimescit) – Opened by Turkish jazz composer Ilhan Ersahin, who started Nublu in New York, his location on native soil is a great spot for jazz, and is located adjacent to Babylon.  Catering to a younger crowd it is a bit snazzy for a jazz club, and upstairs they often have a techno DJ.
  • Nardis (Galata) – Nardis is another local jazz spot, with nightly performances starring good local jazz musicians and the occasional international headliner. The venue is small but atmospheric and it’s a great place for some chill music and a glass of wine.
  • Atolye (Galata) *** – Next door to Nardis, this bar doesn’t seem to have a set schedule for its live music, but generally Thursday-Saturday will find an excellent local jazz group tuning up around 10pm. No cover, cheap but good quality food and drink, and a great location make this a favorite.
Upscale but Low-key Bars
  • Leb-i Derya (Istiklal/Asmalimescit) – This small restaurant/bar is a favorite among expats and locals. The food is excellent, as are the views. There are two venues, one in the Richmond Hotel (not nearly as atmospheric, though the ovular bar is quite cool) and the second on a side street off of Istiklal called Kumbaraci Yks, which is much nicer. You would hardly know it was there if you didn’t see the small green sign outside the door, and you walk into a rather grungy looking hallway, however, once you arrive on the top floor, you’ll be thrilled by the views.
  • 5 Kat*** (Cihangir) – This was once Istanbul’s local gay hangout and it remains one of the most fabulous places in town. The decor is wonderful – red walls, purple chairs and fantastic chandeliers inside, and an outdoor terrace with less exciting decor but stupendous views above (only open seasonally). I’d call it more campy than upscale, but it remains one of my favorite places in town, and the prices are more reasonable that some other similar venues.
  • White Mill*** (Cihangir) – One of few green places in Istanbul, this Cihangir garden is incredibly picturesque and a wonderful escape from the business of the city. The outdoor restaurant is set amongst trees and feels like someone’s well-landscaped back-yard. Also a great spot for brunch.
  • Litera (Galatasaray) – This rooftop restaurant is located above the Goethe Institute (the German Cultural Society) just past the Galatasary High school off Istiklal st. It has good space and is a nice spot for a more quiet drink, again with wonderful views out over the Golden Horn and the Asian side. Easily accessible but not well known, it’s quite ideal if you’re looking for something chic but quiet.
  • Mikla (Pera) – Located at the Marmara Pera hotel, Mikla has hands down the best view in Istanbul (even better from the rooftop pool!) It is also considered to be one of the best restaurants in the city. I would highly recommend checking this place out, if only for a soda water and the view, since you’ll be paying top dollar for the venue. The hotel is one of the high points (literally and figuratively) in the Beyoglu area and can be recognized for the rather unfortunate jumbotron which crowns the skyscraper.
  • The Pera Palace (Pera) – Next door to the Marmara Pera is the Pera Palace Hotel, an Ottoman building which has been lovingly restored, reviving its splendor if losing some of its charm. The Orient Bar has a lovely, old world atmosphere and feels like the perfect place for a scotch on the rocks.
Late Night

  • Kiki’s (Cihangir) – Kiki’s is a small club that tends to get moving around one o’clock. It has a nice patio and dance floor, but the DJ can sometimes be a bit lackluster and it tends to get very crowded. Still, if you are looking for something that keeps going til late hours, this is a good bet.
  • Mini Music Hall (Cihangir) – MMH is one of those places that gets moving at 3 and chucks people out around 7 when the sun comes up. The music is always pumping, the air filled with cigarette smoke, and the walls covered with the most bizarre collection of backlit photographs and mirrors. As one of the few venues that stays open so late, it is always crowded and they charge a 20TL cover (but only 10TL until 1AM, and free before midnight). Make sure to get a doner sandwich on your way to bed in the morning. Located below 5 Kat in Cihangir.
  • Machine – Machine is a seizure inducing combination of strobe lights and pumping techno beats. Open till 5AM, and dance-til-you-drop or get out before you have a chance to absorb what’s going on.
Hidden Gems

  • Balkon (Asmalimescit) – Another rooftop spot in Beyoglu that is popular with the young local crowd. Arguably the best caipirinhas in the city. The rooftop is a little shabby but has a lot of charm with colored lights and usually a decent selection of well-known tunes over which it can be difficult to have a decent conversation. Can get over-crowded and has no space to dance, but a popular spot to start off the evening.
  • Buyuk Londra*** (Pera) – The Buyuk Londra hotel is pure kitsch, and an absolute favorite. The bar on the first floor has a wonderful collection of wrought-iron stoves, pastel chandeliers, and bird cages, and it’s a cosy spot for a winter evening. But in the summer, make your way up to the rooftop for sunset: magnificent views made all the better because the price of drinks won’t send you over the edge.
  • Journey (Cihangir) – A streetside Cihangir bar with a 70’s ski-lodge atmosphere, and the best free cerez (nuts) in town. A little on the pricey side but recognized for delicious fare and the opportunity to watch the Cihangir locals sipping cocktails.
  • ***Kafe17 (Cihangir) – Located just around the corner from Kiki’s, this camp extravaganza has been recently discovered by us… and practically noone else. If you’ve got enough people to create your own party, chances are you can play your own music and have the place more or less to yourself. The owner, Jasmine Highheel, is exactly the kind of person you would expect to oversee a glitter/leopard print/disco balled party den. This place is moving in on the space previously reserved for the Buyuk Londra in our hearts. *Update: at last glance the place had been discovered by Erasmus students, thus ruining its appeal completely. 
Rough around the edges

  • Line Bar – Live cover bands perform here all the time, some better than others. Cheap drinks, but avoid the vinegary wine. Great for getting your dance on, and open late. Located off of Istiklal near Taksim Sq.
  • Thales – A small rock bar off the top of Istiklal (near Taksim Sq) with unbeatable prices on drinks. Rather grungy, but nice rooftop, usually inhabited by smokers.
  • Novo – Located in Asmali Mescit, a winding warren of bars and restaurants in Tunel, at the bottom of Istiklal. Despite being the size of an affordable studio apartment in New York, the place consistently draws a good crowd – sort of a pain in winter, when it’s too cold to be comfortable when you’re squeezed outside.

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Istanbul Tips, part II: Istanbul Pocket Guide

This is second in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visitOrienting yourself on arrival (this one)Restaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit I wrote this in conjunction with the wonderful Kate Bloomer

This probably isn’t fun to digest in one sitting. I suggest printing this out and reading it on the plane ride over or keeping it as a reference to read when you’re stuck in traffic (because this is Istanbul, and you will be at some point). A concise version (no pictures) can be downloaded as a PDF here. Topics covered: 

Airport Arrival

Mosaics in Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia)


  • Geography
  • Currency
  • Phone
  • Internet
  • What to wear
  • Language
Places to Go
  • Sights
  • Socializing
Getting Around
Turkish language basics
Exploring the rest of Turkey

Airport Arrival

  • Americans and Europeans will have to buy a visa on arrival – it’s just a sticker that you buy directly before you go through passport control. You’ll need $20 or 15 euro or 10 British pounds IN CASH handy to pay for the visa. Visitors from other countries will probably have to arrange a visa in advance.
  • There are a number of ATMs and exchange counters with near-market rates by baggage claim and after you exit customs, so no need to exchange money in advance. The currency is the Turkish Lira (TL).
  • Getting into the city will depend where you are staying (probably Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu/Taksim) and at which airport you arrive (Atatürk or Sabiha Gökçen).
    • Atatürk to Taksim
      • Fastest: a taxi will take 30-40 minutes barring traffic and should cost around 40 TL. ***Cabs are extremely unreliable, and love to take tourists on 100 TL+ joyrides around Istanbul instead of to their destinations. Make sure you know exactly where you’re going (a map printout would be useful) and discuss about how much it will cost beforehand.***
      • Easiest: Catch a Havaş/Havataş bus – these clean and comfortable coach buses are usually directly in front of you when you exit the terminal. It will take you to Taksim, the second and last stop, in about 40 minutes for 10 TL or 5€ or $8. From Taksim it’s easy to get anywhere in Beyoğlu.
      • Cheapest: You can take the metro to Zeytinburnu, catch the tram to Kabataş, and then the funicular to Taksim, for a grand total of 6 lira (you’ll have to buy a different 2 TL token for each stage of the journey). Unless you’re extremely tight on cash, paying an extra 4 lira for the Havataş bus is much more convenient.
    • Atatürk to Sultanahmet:
      • A cab shouldn’t cost more than 30 TL, though keep in mind the advice about cabs above.
      • Take the metro (2 TL) to Zeytinburnu and then the tram (2 TL) to whichever stop is closest to your hotel (probably Sultanahmet). You’ll have to buy a different token for each type of transport, so don’t bother getting two at the beginning. 
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Taksim:
      • Fastest & Easiest: Again the Havaş/Havataş bus, but it takes a little longer (about an hour) and costs 12TL/6€/$10. They run 25 minutes after the arrival of every plane.
      • Cheapest: E10 bus to Kadiköy and then a ferry to Kabatas for 4TL. This will not work if you are arriving at strange hours, but is pretty reliable outside of that.
      • A taxi will cost at least 70 TL, and possibly much more if you’re stuck in traffic. It’s no faster than the bus so I really wouldn’t recommend taking one.
    • Sabiha Gökçen to Sultanahmet:
      • Hotel shuttle is probably easiest – if it’s exorbitant take the Havaş to Taksim and cab it from there.

  •  Geography of Istanbul:
    Galata Tower
    • The Bosphorus runs roughly south-north between the Sea of Marmara (bottom) and the Black Sea (at the top). The Golden Horn, aka the Haliç, is a river/strait that intersects it at a right angle on the ‘European’ side and so divides the western half of Istanbul into Old Istanbul (also known as the Golden Horn, confusingly) in the south and modern Istanbul (Beyoğlu) above.  The main artery of modern Istanbul is a street called Istiklal Caddesi, which runs from Taksim Square southwest to the Galata Tower, near the southern tip of Beyoğlu. The Galata bridge takes you from the southern tip of Beyoğlu, across the Goldern Horn (body of water) to the Golden Horn (peninsula). From Taksim, a funicular will take you down to the edge of the Bosphorus at Kabataş, and the Taksim/Kabataş axis marks the top of Beyoglu. Further north, two bridges cross the Bosphorus to connect the European and Asian side, the Boğaz bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge – more commonly, less creatively, known as the First and Second Bosphorus bridge.
  • Currency
    • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.3 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
    • ATMs and money-exchange places are easy to find throughout the city – look for the sign saying ‘Doviz’ for the latter. Almost all of them have very fair rates – just look for something with less than 5 cents spread between the listed buy and sell price.
  • Phone
    • The country code is +90. Cell phone numbers start with (0)5 (drop the zero if calling from an international phone) and land lines in Istanbul start with (0)212 (European side) or (0)216 (Asian side)
    • It is difficult to pick up a Turkish SIM for a short stay – it takes about 24 hours to register, and then will stop working within a week (sometimes more, sometimes less) unless you go through an extensive registration process with your passport. SIM cards are also needlessly expensive (50 TL or more). If you have a phone with international roaming capabilities, it should work and is probably the easiest option.
  • Internet
    • There is free wireless in most cafes (though you may have to ask for the password).
  • What to wear:
    • You can dress exactly as you would in the US or Europe. You are a tourist, so you will be heckled no matter what you wear. 
    • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes, so if you plan to do a lot of sightseeing you might want to bring something easy to slip on and off. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings or skirts below the knee are almost always ok). Most mosques provide scarves and super attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.
    • Istanbul is HILLY and has lots of cobblestone streets. Wear comfortable shoes!
    • The weather is pretty unpredictable – check before you travel to see if you’ll need rain gear, sweaters, or sunglasses.
  • Language
    • People in the major tourist areas generally speak English, but the majority of Istanbullus do not. This isn’t such a problem because Turks are incredibly friendly and will find you an English speaker if you need any help. See ‘Turkish Language Basics’ for a few key phrases.

 Places to go: In roughly descending order of our completely subjective preferences.

Sultanahmet, seen from Beyoglu: Aya Sofya to the left and the Blue Mosque to the right

  • Sights
  • Basilica Cistern
    • The blockbuster sights are almost all in the old city: Sultanahmet is the name of the area (and tram stop) where you will find the Aya Sofya (20 TL / $13), Blue Mosque (free of charge)Archaeological museum (10 TL / $6-7)  (located within the gardens of Topkapı Palace (30 TL for entrance, 15 TL for Harem entrance), and the Basilica Cistern (10 TL). Everything’s quite well marked in the area, and regardless everyone speaks English so you should have no trouble.  Aya Sofya is unmissable – be sure to make it up to the second floor for the mosaics! Depending on how much you care about the dent in your wallet, Topkapi palace and its Harem are impressive and tremendously important historically, though the lines can be tedious. The Archaeological Museum has quite simply the best classical sculptures I’ve ever seen – blows anything you can find in New York, London, Athens, or Cairo out of the water. The Basilica Cistern is quite a magical place and a nice respite from the hustle of the city streets.
    • The bazaars: The Grand Bazaar (within walking distance of Sultanahmet, or just two stops up the line at Beyazit station) and Spice Bazaar (located near the Yeni Cami or New Mosque at Eminonu tram stop) are just plain fun. If you’ve only got time for one, the Spice Bazaar has just about everything you’ve seen in the grand bazaar and a better vibe. Always haggle for the price – offer half what they ask for and meet somewhere in the middle (never pay more than ¾ of what they first asked).
    • You could spend a week (a lifetime?) in the alleyways off of Istiklal Caddesi. I especially like the ones towards the bottom around Galatasaray and Tunel. Go more than two avenues to the northwest (right, if you are walking from Taksim) of Istiklal and you will be in a fast gentrifying but still pretty gritty slum called Tarlabaşi – an interesting place to visit during the day. The alleys on the left (southeast) of Istiklal have interesting junk shops and galleries, those immediately to the right are more full of cafes. 
    • I lived in Cihangir, a lovely neighborhood renowned for its streetside cafes and bars. It is a picturesque residential area that gentrified about ten years ago and is full of journalists, diplomats, and Turkish soap opera stars. If you wander the back streets you’ll come across antique and second hand clothing stores. It’s a great place to spend an evening. Journey Cafe on Akarsu Yks. and White Mill on Susam Sk. are favorite haunts.
    • Istanbul has a fast-developing fine arts scene. Istanbul Modern (12 TL), at the Tophane tram stop, is worth a visit, especially if you can have a glass of wine at the cafe without a cruise ship blocking your view. The Pera Museum (10 TL) is towards the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi and tends to have excellent exhibitions and a good permanent collection of 16th-20th century art as well. Istiklal Caddesi also has a number of new top-notch galleries, with SALT Beyoglu and Arter (both on the southern half of the street) being particular favorites. Tophane is emerging as a gallery hub – start at GalleriNON and roam from there. 
    • Prince’s Islands: Büyükada, or Big Island, is the most popular, but you can get off at any of the four. A ferry from Kabataş to Büyükada takes 1.5 hours, which is very pleasant if the weather is good (and still only costs 3.5 TL on the municipal ferry! There are also a number of private ferry companies that do the same route for 4-7TL). There are no cars on the islands aside from emergency vehicles and there are lovely parks, so it’s a great escape for a nice day (as long as you don’t mind the omnipresent smell of horse). You can ride around in a horse-drawn phaeton or rent bikes or go hiking or just eat some fresh seafood.
    • Ortaköy: a nice district a little ways up the Bosphorus, right under the first bridge. There’s a beautiful little mosque, lots of cafes, and a place to hop on a Bosphorus cruise (if you haven’t caught one from Kabataş or Eminonu). It’s probably one of the most photographed locations in Istanbul. You can catch a bus from the shore road (take any that say ‘Ortaköy’ on the side) or take an hour-long walk north along the Bosphorus from Beyoğlu. Along the way from the city center, you can visit Dolmabahce Palace, just north of the Kabataş ferry stop- it is an opulent European-style place whose decoration more or less bankrupted the Ottoman Empire. If you have an International Student Identity card admission is 1TL, without it is 20 TL. You’re required to go through with a (usually excellent) guided tour, included in the price, so budget at least an hour and a half. Lines can be long during peak tourist season and on weekends, and it’s closed Monday and Thursday.
    • Rumeli Hisari: This uber impressive fortress in the Sariyer area was built in 1452 to prevent aid from coming down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea during the seige of Constantinople. Amazingly, it was completed in a record time of 4 months and 16 days. My favorite brunch spot in Istanbul, Kale,  is located here, under the towers, with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus, and the swanky crowd who tends to frequent the area on lazy Sundays (http://www.kalecafe.com); Also nearby is the Sakip Sabanci Museum (10 TL) which maintains a wonderful permanent collection housed in a stately home on the Bosphorus, as well as an interesting mix of temporary exhibitions. The restaurant on the museum grounds, MuzedeChanga, is a great date spot but probably too out of the way for short-term visitors.
    • Kadikoy: If you’re looking for an excuse to “go to Asia,” this is a pleasant way to do it. There are ferries every 15 minutes from Kabatas and Karakoy (right below the Galata bridge, cost 1.65 TL). When you reach the other side, walk towards the tall flag and Ataturk monument, then continue straight across the main road and you’ll find your way to the fish market and Bahariye Caddesi, full of shops and cafes. Nearby the fish market is a lovely (although a bit pungent) and the popular local restaurant, Ciya (http://www.ciya.com.tr/), is a perfect place for a leisurely lunch, and is very reasonably priced.
  • Socializing – this so depends on what you’re interested in and willing to spend – but here’s our take on the most well-known options. For more details, see the next blog post.
    • Sultanahmet is full of tourist traps and places with little character.
    • Taksim has two main areas for evening fun: Nevizade (about halfway down Istiklal) and Asmalimescit.
    • Nevizade is a narrow and bustling side street that runs parallel to Istiklal. For an authentic meyhane dinner (much like Greek meze or Spanish tapas), this is the easiest place to go. It can be noisy and crowded, but it is atmospheric and often they play live music.
    • Asmalimescit is right at the bottom of Istiklal (just up the hill from Galata, adjacent to Tunel and Pera). Slightly more trendy (and definitely more expensive) than Nevizade but much less hassle.
    • The Golden Mile is a string of very ritzy clubs along the Bosphorus just north of the first bridge. They’re beautiful and full of pretty people. The music is variable and the drinks exorbitant; face control is not that strict (don’t wear sneakers, but also don’t expect to have to wait in line very long). Expect to pay a 50 TL cover, even if you’re a pretty girl. Reina, Supper Club, and Angelique are the best known. Not worth it for my money but if you want to see how the Turkish riche party then by all means..

Getting around
Istanbul’s public transit is reliable, cheap, and comprehensive. Taxi drivers are often clueless and the most likely people outside the Grand Bazaar to try and scam you. Try to only take taxis if you know how to get where you’re going or are traveling with someone who does, or if your hotel arranges it for you. If you have GPS on your phone, insist that the driver follows it (he will probably try and tell you that because of traffic you must go another way. You will be in traffic no matter what. Follow the GPS).
You will need a token for the tram, metro, or ferry, but there are vending machines just by the entrance, so no need to provision in advance. If you haven’t gotten a token before getting on the bus, you can give anyone that looks like a resident 2 TL and they will pay for your journey with their Istanbulkart. If you’re going to be taking a lot of public transit, it’s worth buying an Akbil, recently rebranded as Istanbulkart (the names are interchangeable), the Metrocard/CharlieCard/Oystercard of Istanbul (6TL), as the fares are slightly lower.  There are kiosks selling Akbils/Istanbulkart at Taksim and Kabatas.
Useful public transit links:

  • Hands down the best way to get in/out of the old city from Beyoglu (other than walking if the weather’s good) is to take the tram. To the Golden Horn from Taksim/Beyoglu, go down to the Bosphorus (basically take any road down a hill in an easterly direction) and you will run into the tram. Head south (right) for the old city. Sultanahmet is the stop for Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Gulhane for Topkapi Palace and the Archeological Museum and Cemberlitas for the Grand Bazaar and the wonderful Cemberlitas hamam. The northernmost stop is Kabataş, which is connected via funicular to Taksim and is also a key ferry terminal.
  • To go up the European Coast, go down to the Bosphorus and catch any bus that says ‘Ortaköy’ (charming district underneath the first bridge, Boğaz bridge), Bebek, Rumeli Hisarı, Istinye, Yeniköy. Lots of people say these districts are very pleasant – with the exception of Ortaköy I don’t think they’ve got much going on. Ortaköy has a beautiful, tiny mosque and lots of nice seaside cafes with shisha  and quaint, somewhat touristy shops.
  • To the Asian side/Prince’s Islands, go down to the Bosporus and walk north (left) until you hit Kabataş. There are a number of ferry terminals – go to someone official looking and say your destination (Uskuder or Kadiköy for the Asian side, Buyukada for the Prince’s Islands) and they will point you in the direction of the right one.

Language Basics
Turkish Pronunciation

C  = J so Cihangir = jee-hahn-gear and Cami (mosque) = jah-mee
İ = ee so İstanbul = Ee-stahn-bool
Ş = sh so beş (five) = besh
Ğ = not pronounced, so Beyoğlu = Beyohloo
ı = uh so Topkapı Sariyer (Topkapı Palace) is Tohp-kah-puh Sah-ree-yehr

Key phrases

Yes/no = evet/hayir
Teşek kurler = thank you
… nerede? = Where is ….?
Ne kadar? = how much?
1/2/3/4/5/10 = bir/iki/uç/dört/beş/on

Places to go outside the city: 

Turkey is a large, gorgeous, and SAFE country that is well worth exploring. Buses are usually the cheapest way to get around but flights can be cheaper (!) and are certainly a better bargain time-wise. More on this can be found in the doc linked at the top of this entry and will be written up soon…
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Istanbul Tips, part I: Planning a visit to Istanbul

This is the first in a five part series of ‘Istanbul Tips’: Planning a visit, Orienting yourself on arrivalRestaurant & Entertainment Highlights, Settling in for the longer term, and Getting a residence permit

I could write a book on why you should come and see Istanbul, but enough people already have. If you already know you’d like to visit, this should answer some questions you may have and provide some guidance on how to get here. If you decide to come, you can find the link to an even more detailed document at the end of this one. Topics covered:

Where to Stay
Getting Around
Getting Here
Domestic Travel in Turkey


  • Istanbul is not as cheap as many people anticipate, but it’s still a degree of magnitude less expensive than most of Europe – with the unfortunate exception of alcohol prices, which are on par with London/New York/Paris. Ho[s]tels at all price ranges ($15 and up) can be found through all the regular channels, and there’s a rich selection of places on AirBnb. The main attractions can cost up to 10€ each, though considering their historical significance this hardly seems unreasonable.Public transport, Turkish food, scarves and ceramics are very very cheap. A cheap meal will set you back 3-5€; there are lots of pleasant restaurants where lunch/dinner will cost 15-20€, and the high-end stuff will cost 50-100€ per person.
  • Roughly, $1 = 1.7 TL and 1€ = 2.5 TL and £1 = 2.8 TL
  • There are ATMs and money-exchange places all over the place, including the arrivals hall of the airport, so no need to exchange money in advance.
  • Domestic flights within Turkey are very reasonable, usually under $100 each way and often much less. The bus network is also very comprehensive and cheap. In my opinion, you can comfortably cover Istanbul’s top sights in four days, so if you’re planning to be here a week or more, I’d definitely recommend getting outside of Istanbul. There are plenty of great trips that can even be done within a day, if you get the flight timing right, or more pleasantly over two.

Where to Stay

  • I used to live in Cihangir, near Taksim Square, in what is one of the best locations for both visiting and living in Istanbul.

  • If you’re in town for a very short time, you might want to stay in Sultanahmet, where the bulk of the blockbuster tourist sights (Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, etc) are located. Everything from hostels to boutiques to five stars is an option.

  • However Sultanahmet gets old quickly and I’d recommend staying anywhere in Beyoglu, which is modern Istanbul’s historic downtown area. Taksim, Galata, Cihangir, Pera, and Cukurcuma are all good areas within Beyoglu, and again there are ho[s]tels in most all comfort and price ranges.

  • If you’re looking for luxury Ciragan Palace (Kempinski) and the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus just north of Beyoglu are the places to be. However, beware that the traffic between your hotel and almost all the sights will be pretty terrible, especially in the summer.


  • The amount of English spoken corresponds with how many foreigners tend to be in the area. In the tourist centers, you’ll be fine with zero Turkish. In Beyoglu, most people speak at least a bit of English. However, in most of Istanbul – and in Turkey as a whole – English is not widely understood. With about 5 minutes of effort, you can learn a few key phrases that will make navigation easy (all included in the document linked at the bottom of this one).


  • You shouldn’t have to change the way you dress. Shorts/short skirts will not be frowned upon except in the most conservative of areas (ones you probably won’t be going to anyway) and when visiting mosques.

  • To go into mosques, you must take off your shoes. Women need to cover their head, shoulders, and legs (leggings and skirts below the knee are usually ok). Men are expected to wear trousers, not shorts, though it’s not quite as strictly enforced. Most mosques provide scarfs and attractive floor-length lab coats in case you come unprepared.

  • Istanbul is not an overly dressy place and there are very, very few places that will turn you away based on what you’re wearing.

  • Istanbul makes San Francisco look like the Bolivian Salt flats. The hills are killer and there are lots of cobblestone streets. Comfortable shoes are a must.

Getting around

  • Public transport: Istanbul’s network of metro, tram, bus, minibus, shared taxi, and funiküler can seem confusing, but it is pretty comprehensive and very cheap.

  • Taxis are cheap IF you get an honest cabbie. Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule. This is another incentive to stay in Beyoglu or Sultanahmet, where almost all of the sites will be within walking distance or easy public transport.

Getting here:

  • Kayak.com is reliable, but skyscanner.com tends to have more options and allows you to search on flexible dates. It’s worth checking both.
  • Istanbul has two airports,
  • Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Almost all discount flights go to/from Sabiha. No US carriers fly to Sabiha, but you could go there if you connect through Europe. Both have advantages and disadvantages:

    • Why Ataturk is better: closer to the city center (~40 minutes to Taksim vs 60-80 or more from Sabiha Gokcen)
    • Why Sabiha Gokcen is better: lines at passport control are usually shorter, airport as a whole is easier and quicker to navigate

  • From the US
  • Delta, United, and Turkish Airlines fly direct to Atatürk from
    New York, Chicago, DC, and SF, and dozens of airlines will give you connecting flights through Europe.
  • It may be much cheaper to buy a round trip to somewhere in Europe and then fly discount from there (see below).

  • From Europe:
  • England: Easyjet flies from Luton/Gatwick and is generally the cheapest. Turkish Airlines also sometimes has absurdly cheap fares, especially for students, and you get miles, aren’t charged for your baggage, and almost always arrive at Atatürk. British Air is the only other conventional airline to fly directly to Istanbul from London. Pegasus has a good Gatwick-Sabiha Gokcen line with competitive but not rock-bottom prices. Excellent Turkish carrier Atlasjet started a London Stansted-Istanbul Ataturk line in April 2012.
  • Sun Express is a reliable carrier from Germania (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Condor flies from Germania, Sweden, London, and Barcelona. Pegasus is expanding quickly and has a great network of flights from Europe and also onwards to the middle east (Tel Aviv, Beirut).

  • Elsewhere:
  • Istanbul is a great hub for flights to/from the
    Middle East, Central, South and East Asia, and Africa. I hear the flights to/from India in particular are very very cheap.

Other Transport options

  • Seat61 is the best source of information on train journeys. I’ve taken the Bucharest-Istanbul and Sofia-Istanbul train with no hitches. Unfortunately the Thessaloniki-Istanbul line seems to be suspended until the Greek government has money again.
  • There are regular ferries from many places in Greece to the Turkish coast (Izmir, Canakkale) during the summer.
  • Dozens of overnight buses run from Sofia and they are generally quicker than the train.

Domestic Travel:

    There are many fabulous places to visit in Turkey, so if you’re coming all the way to Istanbul you might want to do some extra exploring.
  • Transport
  • Buses are cheap, comfortable, and comprehensive. They are usually the quickest ground transport between cities – you can get anywhere in Turkey in about 24 hours.
  • Trains are very slow (except the Istanbul-Ankara line) but can be scenic.
  • Domestic flights are absurdly cheap. Atlas Jet, Anadolu Jet, Onur Air, Turkish, Pegasus, and Sun Express will take you all over Turkey for $15-60 each way if booked in advance.
  • Where to go: oh, so many wonderful places to see. Check out Lonely Planet and see what appeals. The crowd-pleasers are generally Capadoccia and Ephesus, both of which I heartily recommend – though try to pick a season when Ephesus won’t be overrun with crowds. ** There are more elaborate descriptions in the document linked below, but a quick overview:** I’ve really enjoyed visiting the Mediterranean and Aegean coast (Olympos, Bergama, Afrodisias, and Pamukkale were highlights; Antalya was great out of season). Safranbolu, Amasra and Edirne were nice enough, but definitely second/third tier sights. The Syriac cities in the southeast (Mardin, Gazantiep, and Sanliurfa) sound fascinating. Ani on the Armenian border was my favorite site by far but there’s not much tourist infrastructure yet, so make sure you know at least some Turkish/have a phrasebook before you attempt this. 

  • Once you’ve decided you’re going to come for sure, you can find a lot more tips

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