This year, after spending most of my summer and fall in New York, in November, I found myself short of maintaining my (lowest tier) Delta status. While the Silver Medallion level is only good for getting upgraded to First Class on lesser traveled routes, getting to board Sky Priority or Zone 1 is essential for the carry-on only traveler. With goals of achieving the minimum annual Silver Medallion spend, and going somewhere new with a week timeline, I purchased a flight to Istanbul for the week before Christmas.
In hindsight, only trying to do Istanbul would have made for a much more relaxing trip (e.g. no 20 hour travel day) but having seen pictures of Cappadocia’s mountainous terrain filled with hot air balloons on travel sites all year, I decided to start my trip there. December’s weather tends towards rainy so this was a risky choice for doing the balloons and, unfortunately, this December was no different and I was unable to do the balloons both mornings I was there.
The region of Cappadocia has a number of touristic towns. I stayed in one of the larger ones, Goreme, since I didn’t rent a car and wanted to be able to walk to go out to eat. In Goreme, cave hotels take advantage of the unique terrain by offering rooms carved into the mountains. I stayed at the Ottoman Cave Suites and was surprised by how well heated and large my room was.
My first day I elected to do the “Green Tour” of Cappadocia. We started off in the Pigeon Valley. As a New Yorker, I don’t believe in feeding pigeons even if my tour guide said they are holy animals (e.g. doves) but the view was gorgeous to take in.
We then headed to the Derinkuyu Underground City, one of about 20 underground cities in the region open to visitors. The city consisted of eight levels and offered a place for early Christians to hide and avoid being killed by pagans. There was a wide variety of structures in the city including a ventilation system that allowed for up to six months of air, a winery and school for missionaries.
The tour ended with a walk through the Ihlara Valley, which featured more ancient churches and homes carved into the rocks.
Overall, the tour was very educational to me about the links between Christianity and what is now Turkey. The only downside was the tour started at 10 am and we didn’t break for lunch until 3 pm and eating is important to me.
The following morning I headed to Istanbul. I had originally planned another day in Cappadocia but with the hot air balloons cancelled another day due to weather, I felt like Istanbul, with plenty of indoor sites, would be more enjoyable.
After arriving, I ordered an Uber and was harassed by a man who claimed that Uber was illegal. While President Erdogan has condemned Uber it is still very much operating in Istanbul and I ignored the man. Yellow cabs are available but they have an (earned) reputation for scamming locals and foreigners alike so if you use one in Istanbul make sure the meter is running.
After dropping off my bags at the hotel, I made a beeline to the Topkapi Palace since it wasn’t on my tour of the Old Town (Sultanhament) that I had scheduled for the following day. I went through the Harem, the social heart of the former palace, carefully but the combination of being tired and hungry from an early morning meant that I skimmed over the other parts of the palace. It is really easy to want to fit it all in on short trips but sometimes it is just not fun or practical way to understand a city. LESSON LEARNED.
I slunk over to a kebab place I had bookmarked on Google Maps and was happy to find it actually filled with Turkish people. Sultanhament is the most touristy part of Istanbul so I didn’t want to have the dining equivalent of eating in Times Square. My kebab was affordable, delicious and fast, everything I needed in that moment.
The following morning I enjoyed sleeping in a little more. As I was the only person on the tour and mosques have noon service on Fridays, the guide Emre had asked if I would like to start at 10:30 am instead of 9. The tour went through the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque (I opted for this instead of the Blue Mosque due to ongoing renovations) and Spice Bazaar.
I could not recommend the tour company Real Istanbul Tours enough. Besides being very informative, I can’t imagine much money is made on taking one person on the tour and Emre added on stuff that wasn’t part of the tour and bought me mince (ground beef and currant) and potato borek when I mentioned being hungry at our tea/coffee break.
That evening I made a reservation at Mikla since I was curious to see modern Turkish cuisine and, having not spent the money I thought I would on the balloons in Cappadocia, thought this would be a good splurge meal. Mikla is on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and is on the rooftop of a hotel so has beautiful views.
I have long believed that the 50 Best list is a scam and this meal confirmed it. The octopus, listed as a standout dish, was underseasoned and rubbery and was paired with pickled cabbage that didn’t go with the flavors on the octopus at all. My need for a dairy-free dessert resulted in a really bizarre mix of mouth puckeringly sour pear and very sweet quince. Saving this meal from being a total loss was the sea bass entree, which was incredibly well cooked and came with delicious leeks and Turkish vegetables.
For my third day in Istanbul, I was ready to investigate outside of the Old Town and see the Asian continent side of Istanbul across the Bosphorus, Kadikoy. There is value to seeing the tourist sites of a city but more creative food scenes and the people who actually live in a city are not located in these areas.
I recently watched a Chef’s Table episode on the chef/owner Musa Dağdeviren of Ciya Sofrasi and Ciya Kebab. After seeing Turkish chefs train in the traditions of other European countries, he wanted to study the regional traditions of Turkish cusines and create a restaurant that would celebrate Turkey’s multi-ethnic culinary traditions and opened Ciya Sofrasi to that end. At the restaurant, there’s a self-serve mezze (small plate) bar and another area filled with pots of the regional dishes. The ordering style here was very friendly to a solo diner as one can get small bites or plates of a variety of dishes.
After eating it was nice to walk around the area to see the market, which filled with produce, butchers where I was able to get pastrami to bring home, and fresh fish. Kadikoy is also filled with coffee shops in the sense I’m used to from New York. Earlier in the trip, I tried Turkish coffee, which is marked by having the grounds left in, but I can’t get behind chewing my coffee. I was there during the day but it’s supposed to be a hip area for drinking in the evening.
The following day was my final day in Istanbul and I wanted to explore Istanbul’s modern art scene and get in some relaxation at a hammam, a traditional Turkish bath. Modern art museums can really vary in terms of level of content but I loved that both Istanbul Modern and Pera Museum had five floors each dedicated to different types and eras of modern art. Both museums are located in the hip Galata area, which has lots of shopping and rooftop bars and dining that take advantage of the Bosphorus water views.
For the relaxation portion of the day, I booked an appointment at Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı for the traditional washing and scrubbing service, which takes about 1.5 hours. Massages are also offered at many hammams but I heard mixed reviews on quality and I’m picky about massages. Kılıç was on the fancier end of hammams but when I’m getting mostly naked in a room with a bunch of other women I want it to be as sanitary as possible. I highly recommend booking a hammam experience since it’s both a unique experience and amazing for getting rid of dead skin. At Kılıç, men and women are served at different times of the day but at some other hammams there’s different entrances and areas for men and women.
Since the prior day I had eaten lots and lots of meat, I wanted my final meal to take advantage of all the seafood and fish Istanbul has to offer at Karakoy Lokantasi. The restaurant is generally a place you need a reservation for but I had a feeling that if I came early at 6 pm that I would be fine. Luckily, I was correct but almost everyone that came in after me without a reservation was told extremely long wait times. Everything I ate except the smoked octopus (think octopus jerky) was solid to delicious. The mezze list here is super long so while it’s a fine place to eat alone, I really wished I could try more of the dishes.
Having eaten as much as possible in Istanbul, it was time to head to my airport hotel (yay 5 am international flight). I’m really glad that I trusted my instincts about Turkey in spite of some naysayers about safety there and I really hope to go back one day.
Breakfast: Breakfast (with protein) isn’t as big of a thing in much of Europe but it’s really easy to get delicious eggs or full on Turkish breakfast spreads (olives, honey, cheese, eggs, cream, etc) in Istanbul. I am now obsessed with menemen, eggs scrambled with tomatoes and peppers and other add-ons. My hotel in Cappadocia also provided a full spread and you could have an omelet made to order. Obviously all things accompanied by lots of bread!
Transportation: If you’re spending multiple days in Istanbul, get an Istanbul Kart, a contactless pass which can be used on the metro, bus, tram and some ferries. Traffic sucks in Istanbul so even if Uber/cabs are cheap, driving is often not the best option. Public transportation is clean and runs often and if you’re confused about buying a card or that you have to press a button to get off the bus, someone will probably help you as they did for me.
Modesty (Women): Turkey is a secular state so unless you’re in a mosque you can wear whatever you want. Similar to most countries, a large city like Istanbul is more liberal in practice. Many of the fully covered women you see in Istanbul are tourists from other Muslim countries.
Safety: I never felt unsafe though I was never out past midnight. I passed a few of your typical tourist site scammers but between living in New York and spending time in Thailand last year I’m used to ignoring these sorts of people. However, I did pass on seeing the walls of Constantinople since my guide said it wasn’t a good idea alone. The United States is a really violent country for the western world so it’s not possible to go to any European country that is more statistically dangerous. At hotels and major sites, there is airport type security including bag scanners and metal detectors, much of this coming post ISIS attacks in the country.
Dessert: If you like sweets, Turkey has it in spades from Turkish delight to all kinds of pastries including of course baklava. My family was extremely happy that I brought home baklava from Karakoy Gulluoglu in Istanbul and candied figs from Cappadocia.
Animals: Turkey has stray cats and dogs everywhere and, post trip, I saw that Istanbul is considered the cat capital (catipal?) of the Middle East. The animals are very calm as they are used to being around people all the time. Animals will come to you if you feed them but don’t be surprised if they leave as soon as you stop.
Credit Cards: I did not pay for a single night of hotel for this trip between my Chase Sapphire Preferred/Reserve points (best if you spend on dining and travel) and SPG Amex points and free night award at the Ritz Carlton. If you don’t have to use cash to pay for things, don’t.