COVID is still calling the travel shots so instead of going to Southeast Asia from Croatia like we’ve been hoping to, Turkey emerged as the next adventure backdrop. It’s worth mentioning that it’s one of the few European countries where US citizens need a semi-real Visa to enter. And by Visa I mean you pay the government money for them to say, “Sweet, we’re cool with you coming to spend more money here!” It’s easy enough to submit online in a few minutes but definitely do it with at least 48 hours lead time or you’ll have to pay an additional expedition fee (found that out the expensive way).
Like most countries right now, they’re also requiring an additional health affidavit for contact tracing. You’ll see/hear it called the HES code, which of course costs money to obtain (ironically it was more expensive to do it in tandem with the e-visa vs. the using Istanbul airport’s portal.) Some places require it for entry so keep a screenshot on your phone handy!
Aaaanyway, once you get there that will all be washed away by the insanely cheap everything. Some of the meals we cooked while on the road in a camper van (more to come on that) cost less than $2 per person and you can get street kebabs for about the same. A kilo of baklava will run you a bit more, but the ensuing diabetic coma is on the house 🤣 🤤 Fun fact, Turkey is one of few agriculturally self-sustaining countries, which surely contributes to the food costs being so low.
Lockdowns have our yearly free Marriott credit card nights growing stale so when we saw that the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul was an eligible hotel, we laughed at how out of place our dirty backpacking asses would be there… and booked it. Be the juxtaposition you want to see in the world, am I right 🤷🏼♀️ To make matters funnier, we got upgraded to a suite upon our 1am arrival!
A late incoming and bed that swallowed me in fluff meant a late outgoing the next day. Good thing we rested up because our feet took us on a six hour tour of the obvious things TripAdvisor somehow continues to think necessary to make lists of.. any local could tell you these things without thinking. I will say that the museum pass actually was worth it since we did a two week tour around the country. For ~$60 for the full country pass, we got into almost everything that had an entrance fee from coast to coast. (Note, there’s a cheaper option for just the Istanbul sites.) Both include a few spots I wouldn’t have gone otherwise but was glad I did. For example, Topeka Castle’s armament exhibit had an array of jaw-droppingly ornate artifacts. The museum of Turkish and Islamic art followed suit with incredibly detailed Arabic calligraphic works.
While perusing the Grand Bazaar, expect to get verbally accosted by people trying to sell you things… they may or may not even berate your style in attempts to get you to purchase upgrades (more likely that I was projecting my own thoughts of our backpackers’ drab). Pro tip for females, buy a scarf for all of a dollar to use as a head covering. You don’t want to feel like an uncultured swine trying to enter the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) or Blue Mosque without one.
The most underrated surprise was descending into the Şerefiye cistern only to see it transform from a Byzantine era water tank into a micro rave. More accurately stated, they installed a 360° projection system and curated a light show depicting the rich history of the region. I didn’t learn anything practical about their aqueduct & water storage systems, but this was much more memorable. And Wikipedia is here for that factual nonsense anyway!
Perhaps the true underdog was, well, all the dogs (and cats) roaming the city freely. Le Google informed us that it is unlawful to capture or kill strays in Turkey, which explained their prevalence, as well as the the kitty condo complexes, food and water bowls scattered throughout the metropolis. Contrary to what you’re thinking, people love these furry nomads. (It’s me, I’m people). And in searching for this link to Kedi, I found a second documentary, Stray, both of which depict the surprising lives of a few Turkish fluff balls… saving these for a day where I need to cry from cuteness.
And like any good writer should, I have saved the best for last! It was a close race between the animals or the food, but my priorities are what they are, especially on Thanksgiving. Turkish food is a mashup of Mediterranean, Balkan and Ottoman cuisines (which itself included a smattering of things from the regions they occupied). Regardless of the roots, it’s chocked full of deliciously spiced boiled/grilled meats, breads, dips and native vegetables. Besides doner, common street treats were corn on the cob, chestnuts, no joke roasting on open fires, and Simit, a ring of bread covered in sesame seeds, everywhere you looked. I frankly can’t recommend any of the latter because when it came to street food, we had a singular focus on the glorious spindles of meat.
On the sweeter (sweetest) end of the spectrum was the famous flaky, nutty honey-drenched pastry. A baklava crawl seemed like a great idea for re-upping on carbs after all the walking. As with most crawls, the consumable of choice usually does you in, and we almsot literally had to crawl back to the hotel after only three stops.
The one real meal we had was courtesy of Babel Cafe. The coziness of the exposed brick lulled me into a false sense of how much I could eat. We got what we thought was a reasonable amount of food – a mezze plate and entree for each. It ended up being enough to cover breakfast the next day, but so good I was happy to eat it cold.
All this in just three days in Istanbul! Buckle up (literally) for our ensuing roadtrip 🥳