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4 Lessons in Istanbul

October 7, 2012

1. Tour Guides are Clutch

For our first full day in Istanbul, the six of us hired a private tour guide, and it was a great decision. Sibel (pronounced like Isabel without the “I”) took us to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, the underground cisterns and the Grand Bazaar.

The group with Sibel, far right, outside the Blue Mosque.

In Turkey, tour guides are licensed by the state and really know their stuff, which is especially helpful given the country’s long and complicated history.  Sibel was excellent at giving us the background of the sites we visited and interesting information without totally overwhelming us.  Another huge plus of touring with a guide is that we were able to skip the long lines at several sites – a huge pro.

Also, we finished the tour at the Grand Bazaar, where having a savvy and stylish guide totally paid off.  She knew which of the hundreds of merchants had quality goods and which were most likely peddling knock-offs and trash.  It was also pretty clear that she brought groups in there often and was well-liked by the merchants.  Each one we bought from gave us discounts for being with her, rather than bumping up the prices for the stupid tourists.

As a side note, the Bazaar wasn’t at all what I was expecting.  I had envisioned an outdoor souk like the one in the horrible Sex and the City movie – this was indoors and comprised of dozens upon dozens of tiny shops selling jewelry, pashmina and novelties.

2. Turkish Hospitality is the Real Deal

We Americans often like to refer to Southern hospitality as the gold standard.  Sorry South Carolina, but Istanbul’s got you beat by a mile!  I’ve been touched by how welcoming most of the people have been (and willing to speak English with us because Turkish is SO hard to pronounce, but that’s another story).  When we have been out shopping, many of the merchants have been quick to offer us water or traditional Turkish apple tea.  This tea is delicious.  Picture a tea that tastes more like apple cider than anything.

At dinner the last two nights, the servers have brought us something gratis at the end of the meal to thank us for dining there.  Last night was particularly over the top.  After picking up on the fact that we were less than thrilled with our entrees, the waiter brought out ouzo for the men (I was offended by the sexism of this gesture for about a nanosecond before I realized I was just glad that I didn’t have to drink a triple shot of ouzo).  Then came a delicious spread of fruit and baklava for the table, followed by a round of amaretto shots.  Apparently amaretto is a big thing here and I’m totally ok with that.  After what started as a lackluster dinner, we all left happy.  Some of us left drunk.

3. Bring Socks

First let me say that the mosques we visited were breathtakingly beautiful.  The cavernous spaces reminded me of some of the great churches and cathedrals I’ve visited, like St. Peter’s and Notre Dame, but somehow even more grand if that’s possible.  One of the things I loved about the interior of these spaces were that in Islam the interior of mosques aren’t supposed to have any depictions of people or animals, so the walls were adorned with intricate tiles patterned with geometric shapes and floral patterns.

Hagia Sofia was particularly spectacular as it was originally an Orthodox church, then a mosque and now a museum, so the restored interior is a fascinating mish-mosh of Muslim and Christian symbols.

Then let me say that you should bring socks if you ever have the good fortune to visit a mosque that is also a tourist attraction.  It is traditional to take your shoes off when entering a mosque, and while those entering to pray typically wash their hands and feet at the spigots outside, the tourists most definitely do not.  We were accompanied by hundreds of barefoot strangers, and you could smell it.  Being barefoot on this communal carpet gave me the heebie jeebies and I wished desperately that I’d brought socks.  I hope I don’t have athlete’s foot now.

4. Make Reservations

The last couple of nights, we have gone out for drinks and dinner and known where we wanted to go, but shown up rather than making reservations.  That’s a mistake.  It seems that in Istanbul, many of the popular spots fill up quickly and others save their best tables for those who reserve them.  For instance, last night we went to pre-dinner drinks at Seven Hills Restaurant, and rather than getting to sit on their rooftop patio with 360 degree views of the city, we got stuck on the lower level with views like this.  I know, my life is pretty tough here.


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