How We Returned Home From Istanbul For $352.60

Once we decided to shake up our itinerary and head home for the holidays, we had to figure out how to actually get there. Luckily we hadn’t yet booked any onward flights from Europe, so we switched our focus from finding tickets from Turkey to Asia to finding tickets from Turkey to the U.S.

We had more miles in the American Airlines AAdvantage program, so we were focusing on awards using the Oneworld Alliance. There was nothing direct back to the US, so we started searching what our layover options in Europe would be. The easiest options routed us through London, but these seemed to have higher fees.

We then saw that one place were you could get a direct flight to the US with not too bad fees was from Dublin, Ireland. We were intrigued about the possibility of seeing a little bit of Ireland, so we arranged our flights to have a three-day layover in Dublin.

This meant that we actually booked two different award flights. The first flight used British Airways Avios to get us from Istanbul to Dublin (with a layover in London). These flights cost us a total of $110 in fees.

Enjoying a flavorful beer in the London airport... exciting after a few months of uninspiring brews!

Enjoying a flavorful beer in the London airport… exciting after a few months of uninspiring brews!

Flying British Airways into Dublin

Flying British Airways into Dublin

The second flight was then to get from Dublin to Dallas, with a layover in Philadelphia. We used AAdvantage miles to book this, but it was actually a combination of a US Airways flight from Ireland and then and American Airlines flight from Philadephia. These flights cost us a total of $242.60 in fees.

Enjoying a Yuengling beer and a cheesesteak in the Philly airport. Brought back good memories of the years we lived in Delaware!

Enjoying a Yuengling beer and a cheesesteak in the Philly airport. Brought back good memories of the years we lived in Delaware!

In the end, the fees to fly directly from Istanbul back to Dallas would have been less, but we thought it was worth it to have a chance to spend a few days in a new country!

Istanbul Part iki (2)

We headed back to Istanbul after our time in Antalya. We were able to get a pretty decent flight on Pegasus Air.

Getting There

Booking our flight was easy, but figuring out how to get to the airport in Antalya was not. It was really a shame because we were pretty sure that we should be able to get there via bus or train from Kalieci. But the more we looked, the more we realized it wasn’t as easy as we might have hoped. It was going to be a long walk to a bus stop that we weren’t sure was there, or a trip all the way back to the the main bus station on the train and then a connection. No matter which way we though about it, it was going to be slightly unsure and take an awful long time. We had told our hostel that we wouldn’t need airport transportation, but in the end, semi-embarrassedly rethought our choice and asked for a ride. It was a little pricier than we would have liked, but it was a straight shot exactly where we needed to go.

Where We Stayed

We found a nice Airbnb apartment in the happening Beyoglu neighborhood of Istanbul. It was quite easy to find because our host (who seemed to run apartments for a living) gave us a helpful PDF of information and maps. The neighborhood we stayed in was slightly dirty and slightly sketchy, but we were very near Istiklal street (think long outdoor mall which was always, and we really mean always, morning, noon, or night, filled with people – tourists and locals alike) which was a huge plus. The apartment itself was quite pleasant though a bit small and dark. It was on an underground level so we didn’t have a great windows. On the bright side, it had an excellent shower!

What We Did

Shop Near Istiklal – We knew that we would be heading home for the holidays, so that meant that we finally had the chance to freely buy souvenirs without worrying about how we were going to carry them around the world with us! We also knew that it might be a great time to find some one of a kind Christmas gifts. We had originally thought we would head back to the Spice Market which we had visited during our first time in Istanbul, but after exploring the markets near Istiklal Street, we found everything we had hoped for at the most convenient prices!

Explore the Huge Media Markt in the Fancy Mall – As we mentioned above, we realized that now would be the time to buy some souvenirs for ourselves. One thing that had caught our eye was a cool double decker tea pot that we had seen used everywhere on the Turquoise Coast. We hadn’t seen if for sale in any of the tourist markets so we started exploring the grocery stores. We found one that seemed both too small and too expensive. Luckily, we remembered that we had seen this giant store called Media Markt in the fancy mall on Istiklal Street. The store took up 3 full levels of this place! We decided to check it out and found the teapot we wanted… on sale! Score!

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Watch a Movie – We were walking down Istiklal Street one evening trying to decide what to do. Suddenly our eyes alighted on the movie theater in the mall. It was showing Alayci Kus (Mockingjay)! Avid readers might remember that Della had been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for just this reason. We had assumed we’d attempt to see the movie when we got home, but after a quick check, we saw that they were showing it here in Istanbul in English (with Turkish subtitles). It was an opportunity too fun to miss! We quickly bought tickets realizing that the show was starting about 5 min ago! We were stressed realizing that the tickets had assigned seats, and that the previews had likely already started. Luckily, this wasn’t a problem as there turned out to be an usher to take us to our enormous, comfortable, leather seats. We had never been in a movie theater this comfortable. It was fabulous! We settled down to enjoy the movie… Exactly one hour in, and in the middle of a tense action sequence, the screen suddenly went dark. We were expecting the other patrons to yell or throw things at the screen (we wanted to!) but everyone got up quietly, a patron flicked the lights on, and everyone went out to the Burger King to grab some coffee… After a quick double check with Google Translate, we confirmed our now growing suspicion that we were on intermission. The movie flashed back on (again in the middle of the intense battle sequence) about 10 min later. Overall, we loved the experience and really enjoyed the movie too!

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Visit Chora Church – Chora Church is a bit far from the larger sights of Istanbul, but we ended up being able to catch a bus from right outside our airbnb apartment which took us across the Golden Horn and dropped us quite close to this beautiful church. Its real name was Church of the Holy Savior Outside the Walls since its original location was outside of the city walls. The Church is mainly a tourist destination today because of the large number of well-preserved Byzantine mosaics and frescoes from the 14th century. Rick Steves had a walking tour that guided us through the most important of the works. The outer nave contains mosaics depicting events from the life of Jesus, while the inner nave depicts scenes from the life of Mary. The parecclesion, a small chapel on the side that held tombs, contained the frescoes which depict scenes from the afterlife. We were a little bummed that the main chapel was closed for renovation, but it sounded like we did get to see the majority of the interesting pieces of art.

Do Rick Steves’ Walking Tour of Istanbul’s Walls – The Chora Church is located right next to the remains of the Old City walls dating to the reign of the Emperor Theodosius II in the 5th century AD. Rick Steves also had a walk along these walls, so we decided to check it out. The most interesting part was at the very beginning, when we climbed some steep and slippery stairs to the top of the wall. This gave us impressive views in all directions (although they would have been even more impressive if the day wasn’t overcast). We continued the walk along the walls and finished at a Muslim cemetery located just outside one of the gates. The tour would have had us continue on through an interesting neighborhood, but we were wet and cold so instead just caught a bus back to Beyoglu.

Where We Ate

Since we were on Istikal Street on multiple occasions, we took advantage and ate out on the street a couple of times.

The first restaurant, Otantik Anadolu Yemekleri, specialized in authentic Anatolian food. They had a woman who sat in the front window and made fresh gözleme, a “Turkish pancake” made of thin dough filled with something savory. Our favorite dish was a mixed appetizer tray that had two different types of what they called dumplings and a thick wheat porridge.

On our final day we wanted to find something Turkish but also cheap. We found a small cafe on a side street that met these criteria. The most interesting dish was what Della ordered: a “kumpir'” or baked potato. What made this interesting was he toppings they put on it: a huge variety of items including hot dog, peas, olives, onions and different sauces. Dana had actually gotten one of these when she was in town and we thought it was just a fluke, so we were excited to see that we could find one as well!

Istanbul, Turkey

Our second stop on our two week journey with Della’s family was the city of Istanbul.

Getting There

To get to Istanbul from Athens, we took a flight on Pegasus Airlines, one of Turkey’s low-cost airlines. This meant that we didn’t get a free beverage on the flight, so it was basically just like flying on any other airline back in the USA.

The downside of our cheap flight was that it deposited us at the lesser-known airport in Istanbul (Sabiha Gokcen). Since this airport is less popular for international visitors, it isn’t super easy for tourists to get from it to the tourist neighborhoods. We found a few different pieces of advice online and ended up coming up with a plan that worked quite well and gave us a nice first glimpse of the city. From the airport, we first took a Havatas bus to the Kadikoy ferry terminal (still on the Asian side of Istanbul). From Kadikoy, we were able to immediately hop on a ferry to Eminonu, the port of the Golden Horn on the European side. The ferry ride was quick (15 minutes) and gave us nice views of both sides of the Bosphorous Strait. Once at Eminonu, we hopped on the TI tram line and rode three stops to the Sultanhamet stop. From there, we were able to walk to our accommodation. It turned out being a lot cheaper than a taxi, and felt a lot more adventurous!

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Our first glimpses of old Istanbul by ferry

 

Where We Stayed

We chose to stay in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, near all of the major sites. The upside of this neighborhood was the proximity to the major sights in Istanbul, but the downside was that it was harder to find restaurants and other facilities with non-touristic prices.

We booked a nice three-bedroom apartment through Airbnb. It gave us plenty of space to spread out, and even had a small glimpse of the Blue Mosque from one of its balconies.

Our very comfortable AirBnB

Our very comfortable AirBnB

What We Did

Hagia Sophia – This very impressive structure, built in 537 AD, has served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a mosque and now a museum. It is especially renowned for its massive dome, which was quite a feat for the time it was built. Walking into the nave and looking up at the dome was awe-inspiring. It was fascinating to look around and find the different examples of both Christian and Muslim decorations throughout the interior.

 

Blue Mosque – Across a park from the Hagia Sophia sits the “Blue” Mosque. Its name is actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it is known as the Blue Mosque because of the prominent use of blue in the decorative tile work within the interior. Its construction was completed in 1616, so it is not nearly as old as the Hagia Sophia but still quite impressive. It is still an active mosque, so we had to delay our visit to the interior while we waited for the afternoon prayers to be finished. We also had to remove our shoes and the ladies had to cover their heads.

Basilica Cistern – We (Della and Eric) were excited to visit this underground chamber because it featured prominently in the Dan Brown novel Inferno and in the Clive Cussler book Crescent Dawn which we had just read. This large chamber was built under the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century BC and was used for water storage for the city. The roof of the cistern is held up by a forest of columns, which seem to have been taken from different sources based on the fact that they are different sizes. Two of the columns have the head of Medusa as a base.

The Hippodrome – This large area next to the Blue Mosque was once the Hippodrome, a large stadium used for chariot races during the Byzantine era. Only the shape of the track remains today. There are two large obelisks in the middle of the Hippodrome. One is from Egypt and is in great condition. Another was built in place but looks in much poorer condition because its bronze plating was stolen.

Topkapi Palace – The other big sight in the Sultanhamet area is the Topkapi Palace, which was the home of the Ottoman sultan from 1465 to 1856. The palace has four different courtyards and many exquisitely decorated rooms. We toured through all of the areas open to the public, including the harem which required an extra ticket. We were particularly excited here because it finally happened!! – Someone recognized Eric’s Rice baseball hat. We met a current Rice student (Jones College) who was studying abroad. How fun!

 

The New City – After spending so much of our time in Sultanhamet, we decided to head to a different part of town to check out the modern face of Istanbul. We started at Taksim Square, the site of the recent political demonstrations, and headed down Istiklal Caddesi, a major pedestrian thoroughfare. The number of people going up and down this street was very high. There were many shops and restaurants along the way that were bustling with activity. We also enjoyed seeing the nostalgic tram go back and forth, but didn’t ride it ourselves. We finished our walk at the Tünel, a funicular that is one of the oldest underground rail lines in Europe.

The Grand Bazaar – We walked through the hundreds of shops in this large complex and did a little shopping. Our Rick Steves guide helped us find some hidden corners of the market, including a courtyard where we were able to observe silver craftsmen at work.

Süleymaniye Mosque – We also visited this massive mosque, which was built in 1558. Its architecture is reminiscent of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The interior decoration is more reserved than that of the Blue Mosque, favoring pastel colors instead of the blue tiles. We found this mosque to be very peaceful inside and spent some time just sitting and relaxing.

The Spice Market – We shopped this market known for its food products. While the inside of the market was impressive, we were even more impressed by the amount of items being offered on the small streets just outside the market building. It was a very popular place, so the small streets were choked with people. At one intersection it was even a little scary – people were literally crammed together. Luckily we made it out safely.

Istanbul Modern Art Museum – Peggy and Dana took advantage of this museum’s extended hours on Thursdays and visited in the evening. They reported that the art was quite interesting. Definitely a different feel to this art than what we had been seeing in the other museums!

Where We Ate

The area around our apartment didn’t have many inspired choices; most of the restaurants seemed slightly overpriced. We did find one nice place the first night that offered a free appetizer, and gave us a good introduction to Turkish food. We also had an interesting meal near the Hagia Sophia where we ordered by pointing to different trays of food set up in the front. Near Taksim Square, we ate at a place called Taksim Sütiş which had good entrees, but the most impressive part was the wide range of puddings available for dessert. We did also get one of the classic fish sandwiches from one of the restaurants near the Galata Bridge, but we only thought it was ok.

Final Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Istanbul, and found the architectural sites very interesting. The dreary weather and slightly higher than expected prices put a little bit of a damper on things, but overall it was still a fascinating city!