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Istanbul was the center of Western Civilization for hundreds of years,
the center of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, and is today a
beautiful waterside city of nearly 15 million energetic people.
Where to Start
Istanbul is a sprawling collection of villages, all of which have
exploded into each other, rather than one coherent city. Unless you
have months on the ground, you will have to pick one or two Istanbuls
and leave the rest for a future trip. Are you interested in slugging
it out with the postcard photographers for conventional tourism images
of the historic district? Stay in Sultanahmet. Interested in
exploring the relationship among the city, the two seas, and the
strait between the seas? Rent a boat and live on it. Interested in
showing the lifestyle of the latest generation of wealthy Turks? Hang
out in nightclubs along the Bosphorus. Interested in how people from
poor villages in the southeast adapt to the cost and secular life of
the big city? Visit the slums and the factories.
Istanbul Bazaar: the Religion of Shopping
A lot of folks would suggest starting a tourist or photographic
project in Istanbul in the mosques. In Istanbul, however, urged on by
some of the highest living costs in the world, the citizens seem to
spend more time thinking about commerce. Why not start in the Bazaar,
the world's oldest shopping mall? It is right in Sultanahmet,
probably walking distance from your hotel.
Unless you feel like paying more than you'd pay in the U.S., try not
to buy anything. If you fall in love with a carpet and don't mind the
fact that you could have bought it cheaper in the U.S., any shop can
roll it up to be checked through on your flight. The merchants will
tell you that a handmade carpet is a duty-free "handicraft".
U.S. customs officials will tell you that a handmade carpet is a
carpet and cheerfully collect duty when you arrive back in the States.
Don't buy a carpet anywhere that a guide has taken you; the shop will
be paying the guide and his company a 40-percent commission. A
reputable shop that does not pay commissions to guides is Sengor Carpet (pronounced
"Shangor"; say that "a friend of Oya's sent you").
Religion other than shopping
At the beginning of the 20th Century, "religion in Istanbul" would
have covered a diverse spectrum of belief systems. Christianity, for
example, was as popular as any other creed, albeit subject to official
discrimination. In building modern Turkey, the government went to
extraordinary lengths to "Turkify" the country. The Greeks,
Armenians, and Jews who were once common on the streets of Istanbul
have been replaced with a flood of immigrants from other parts of
Turkey. For the tourist, the practical effect of this change is that
photographing religion in Istanbul means photographing Islam.
Mosques are among Turkey's greatest architectural achievements and
Western audiences are very curious to see images relating to Islam.
Of all of the cities in Turkey, however, Istanbul is the one where
Islam plays the least important role in daily life. Keeping dogs as
family companions and drinking alcohol, both forbidden in most
interpretations of the Koran, are more common than daily attendance at
the mosque. It is thus somewhat misleading to concentrate your
photographic efforts on covered women and people praying.
The most interesting mosques are in Sultanahmet. A non-obvious and
not-too-easy-to-find one is Rustem Pasa, up some stairs from a busy
nest of market alleys. Rustem Pasa is famous for its ceramic tiles.
[Visiting Christian sites elsewhere in Turkey can be interesting even
though most of the remaining Christians departed in the 1950s. Various
sites in modern Turkey were visited by St. Paul and other early
evangelists. Touring the Jewish sites is not for the faint of heart.
One Istanbul synagogue, Neve Shalom, has been attacked three times:
September 6, 1986 (by Palestinians), March 1, 1992 (Palestinians
again), and November 15, 2003 (by Turkish members of Al-Qaeda). More
than 40 people died and nearly 400 were injured in these attacks.]
Taking pictures for a glossy souvenir book? Wake up at 0600 and visit
sights before anyone else shows up. Later in the day, wait for fat
ugly tourists clad in clashing colors to walk out of the frame. Is
that Istanbul as you experienced it? As anyone else is likely to
experience it? Tourism has been a feature of the city for centuries.
Why not show the sights as they are typically experienced, packed with
Istanbullus are accustomed to all of the indignities of big city life,
including being stared at and photographed by tourists. Try to be
quick in raising the camera to your eye and give the subject a big
smile as you set the camera back down on your chest.
There are no standard airplane or helicopter tours over Istanbul. The
easiest way to get above the older areas of downtown is an elevator
ride up to the top of the Galata Tower. You'll be looking south
towards Sultanahmet, so visit near sunset for the best images. The
tower is open until midnight.
Istanbul and environs were built along the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn,
the Sea of Marmara, and the Black Sea. For photos of the city from
the water, start with the ferry system from Eminonu. Almost any
ferry will do, but the system also runs a daily sightseeing round-trip
Art Museums and Galleries
The Istanbul Biennial offers the best chance to get interesting photos
inside galleries. The Biennial is held every odd-numbered year, i.e.,
the same years as the Venice Biennale. The Biennial features
contemporary art from a variety of countries. The art tends to be
unusual and to occupy large spaces so a photographer is not simply
copying paintings. Photography within the exhibits was allowed in
The Istanbul Modern
museum is a good starting point for seeing the best Turkish
Side Trip: Cappadocia
The most bizarre built environment in Turkey is Cappadocia, just a
one-hour flight to the southeast. The volcanic tuff on the
surface facilitated the carving of churches, monasteries, houses, and
hotels into rocks. Erosion results in Bryce Canyon-style hoodoos
sticking up in the middle of towns. In the bad old days when Mongol
and Muslim invaders rode across the plain, the Christians here
defended themselves by building massive underground shelters, up to
eight levels deep and capable of holding thousands of people.
Cappadocia supports a massive hot air balloon industry, with 28
tourists filling each basket and as many as 50 balloons launching on a
typical morning. I rode with Cihangir Balloons, piloted by
Cihangir, a rock solid guy with 4000 airplane hours who turned to
balloons 15 years ago. Highly recommended. Earplugs are essential,
at least for the one ear closest to the burner. Layers are also a
good idea as it starts out cold (pre-sunrise) and ends fairly hot due
to burner. You might find it helpful to read our aerial photography tutorial before
Some practical details... June is the best month in which to visit
Cappadocia. The hills are green, the weather is mild, and the hotels
are vacant. May is crowded with tourists who come to visit the
battlefields of Gallipoli. July and August are hot and crowded.
September and October aren't bad, but the soil is parched. Fly into
Kayseri, from which there is an inexpensive shuttle bus to Goreme.
Nevsehir is slightly closer, but the flights are at very inconvenient
times and you'll have to pay for a taxi that will cost more than the
flight. Stay in Goreme, which the guidebooks claim is busy and
spoiled by tourists, but in reality it is a very sleepy town. During
a week when the travel agents say that all of the good hotels are
booked, you're likely to be eating lunch alone in a restaurant along
the main drag. A rental car is nice to have, but not necessary if you
are staying in Goreme because all of the tours start from there.
I stayed in the Cappadocia Cave Suites hotel, which was very nice, and
ate at the Alaturca restaurant. If you have a car, it is worth
driving 10 minutes to Urgup and eating dinner at Somine, perhaps the
best restaurant in the region.
Make sure to do the tour of the Ihlara Valley, an easy one-hour walk
that terminates in a riverside restaurant. Try to wear shoes with
some kind of tread, e.g., running shoes.
Side trip: Troy
Turks will tell you not to go to the ruins of Troy, which are very
ruined indeed. "There's almost nothing to see," they point out,
suggesting visits to better-preserved Greek and Roman ruins. For
those who've enjoyed The Iliad,
however, merely looking out over the plains of Troy from the walls of
Ilium will will be worth the flight to Turkey. Troy is reached by a
30-minute flight on a regional jet from Istanbul to Canakkale.
No guides are available within the historic site. It is probably best
to hire an independent guide, such as Mustafa Askin, before you
drive all the way to the entrance gate. He hangs out at the last
restaurant on the right. The food at the restaurant isn't bad,
It only takes about one hour to walk around the ruins and read the
signs on the self-guided tour.
Older single guys may be inspired by the museum's reproduction of the
famous photo of Sophia Schliemann wearing Helen's jewels (click on Heinrich
Schliemann's Wikipedia biography to see the photo). I had always
assumed that this depicted Schliemann's daughter. In fact, the
47-year-old divorced German merchant married an 18-year-old Greek
After Troy, you could visit the beach. We stopped at a friend's beach
house across from the Greek island of Lesbos.
We decided that we could be reasonably comfortable there, even with
only two full-time servants. We also visited a small island,
Bozcaada, also known by its Greek name of Tenedos. The island,
whose ancient Greek population was displaced during the 20th century,
is popular with Turkish yuppies, artists, and writers. It was
relaxing at the tail end of the season, but not interesting for
someone without friends on the island and/or Turkish language fluency.
Skip the Dolmabahce Palace
In the 19th Century, the Sultans decided to build themselves a
European-style house: the Dolmabahce Palace. The location along the
Bosphorus cannot be faulted, but the interior is in hideously bad
taste. Some of the materials are luxurious, but mostly the place is
an illustration of how many terrible oil painters there were back in
the good old days. Even the most curmudgeonly traditionalist will be
sold on Abstract Expressionism after a visit to the Dolmabahce Palace.
Versailles it ain't. In case you want to see what you're missing by
skipping this staple of the bus tours, here are some photos:
The bedroom where Ataturk
(1881-1938) died and the Sultan's toilet. (The guides say that
Ataturk died from liver cancer; the guidebook says it was from
cirrhosis of the liver, a consequence of a lifetime of heavy
Many of the bookshops along the main pedestrian street in Beyoglu have
substantial selections of English-language books.
There are a lot of rich people in Istanbul and they love to shop. To
get the authentic Turkish shopping experience, don't go to the Bazaar;
go to the mall. Kanyon is the most interesting architecturally. The
prices probably won't tempt you to buy too much: $7 for an ice cream
cone; $250 for running shoes; $1,000 for a pair of high heel shoes;
$10,000 for a dress. The identical product can usually be obtained in
the U.S. for about half of what it costs here. Due to decades of
attacks by Kurds, cars are carefully screened for bombs before being
allowed into the parking garages.
One good hotel that we inspected, not found in any guidebook, is Hotel
Sultan Hill. The building is a converted Ottoman-era house, which
means that most of the rooms have windows on two sides and therefore
much better light than a typical hotel room. The rooms were small but
very clean and there is a beautiful roof terrace. The price was 70
Euro for a double, 50 Euro for a single, including breakfast. www.hotelsultanhill.com.
For a hotel right at the airport where you can relax before or after a
long flight, the Polat
Renaissance Hotel is a great choice due to its huge seaside
outdoor pool, large pool, and well-equipped gym (complete with Turkish
bath; see below).
All of the Turks with whom we spoke reacted with horror when we
expressed interest in going to a Turkish Bath (hamam): "You'll come
out dirtier than when you went in"; "They are for poor travelers to
the city"; "A 200 lb. hairy Turkish guy will scrub you raw"; "Anyone
with money who wants a Turkish bath has one built in his house." None
had been to a public hamam at any time during their lives (ranging
from 40 to 80 years old).
A friend's uncle told us about a "hotel hamam" that would be clean
and, more importantly, staffed with lithe Russian beauties. "It is
out near the airport in the Polat Renaissance
Hotel. They also have a nice gym."
We fought our way through heavy traffic to Beyti, the kebab
restaurant favored by heads of state (obligatory letter from Bill
Clinton on wall) and visiting business executives. After Mallory ate
delicately, Oya reasonably, and I gluttonously, Oya's driver delivered
us to the hotel. Oya did not wish to break her lifelong trackrecord
of hamam-free bathing and wished us well.
Mallory went into the women's section with a trim middle-aged Turkish
woman in a neat uniform with what turned out to be a bikini
underneath. I went into the men's section with a thin white towel
around my waist and was soon met by a short hairy 200 lb. Turkish guy,
naked from the waist up wearing a similar towel. He would be doing
the scrubbing, which necessitates forceful pulling of arms and holding
of heads while dousing the customer with water.
The details of the bath itself are best forgotten. For a better idea
of what it was like, rent the Borat movie and watch the scene where
Borat and his producer fight in their hotel.
Oya told us that to get the maximum benefit from the hamam one must
stay for an hour or two afterwards to let the moist heat open up the
pores in the skin. Mallory was hot and I was fat so we decided to
move on to the exercise portion of our visit to the Polat Renaissance.
The gym is as nice as any gym in the United States, with banks of
clean new machines, an indoor pool, three hot tubs, and an outdoor
pool with a patio overlooking the Sea of Marmara.
Sadly the outdoor pool isn't heated and we were advised that it was
shockingly cold. A girl in the weight room explained why the place
was so empty at 6 pm: "People don't come here until after work. If
they leave their office at 6 the traffic is so bad that they might not
get here until 8. People therefore usually stay downtown until 7 and
make it here by 8:15 or 8:30." What does it cost to be a member of
such a nice gym? $300 per month (Turkish bath plus exercise for a day
tourist was $120). What about salaries at her company, a clothing
manufacturer downtown? The seamstresses get paid about $550 per
Food is excellent throughout Turkey and you are unlikely to be
disappointed. Menus tend to be more limited than in the U.S.,
however, with restaurants concentrating on serving whatever has
recently come into season.
Turks love Turkish food and have a tough time imagining why anyone
would want to eat anything else. You'll find the ubiquitous pasta and
pizza on menus in tourist areas, but otherwise a dearth of
Bakeries sell quick and inexpensive snacks such as spinach or meat
baked into bread. Good luck figuring out how to ask for what you
The best news for gourmets is that McDonald's is well-established
throughout Turkey. The second best news is that Turkey is amply
supplied with Haribo Tropifruit gummi candies.
Eyewitness Turkey is useful for
planning photographic expeditions because it includes a small snapshot
of each site. Perhaps it is a consequence of the size and complexity
of Turkey, but the Amazon reader reviews on both the Rough Guide and
Lonely Planet are mixed.
You will definitely need one or the other if you are going to travel independently.
Air travel is still a comparative luxury in Turkey and consequently
the airport environment is very civilized. Ample security and
check-in personnel ensure that there is never a long line. A Turk
would be shocked to see customers shuffling their feet in a one-hour
check-in or security line at an American airport.
If you decide to venture beyond Istanbul, internal flights are cheap,
plentiful, and can be booked online. Turkish Airways and Atlas Jet are two of the big
The metro runs from Ataturk airport to the center of town for about
$1. A taxi could cost $25-50 and take 1-2 hours, depending on
Istanbul was not designed to hold 13 or 15 million people.
Consequently, the transportation system is strained. A small portion
of the downtown area is served by a metro and a tram system. The
villages up and down the Bosphorus are reasonably well served by a
ferry system. Elsewhere folks walk, are driven by their private
chaffeurs, take taxis, or jump in shared taxis.
Before cursing your taxi driver for the fare, remember that Turks pay
the world's highest prices for gasoline, about $8.50 per gallon at a
time when Americans were paying $2.50.
American citizens need a visa to visit Turkey, but you can get it upon
arrival at the airport for about $20.
The time in Istanbul is GMT+2, i.e., two hours ahead of London and
seven hours ahead of New York. Thus if it is 9:00 am in New York, it
is already 4:00 pm in Istanbul.
Electricity in Istanbul is 220V at 50 Hz with a double-pinned round
plug similar to what the French and Germans use. Most laptop computer
and digital camera power supplies can function on this power and at
most you'll need a mechanical adaptor. Business hotel rooms often are
equipped with an American-style plug near the desk. If not, the hotel
will lend you an adapter.
The country code for Turkey is 90. Tri- or Quad-band GSM mobile
phones will work everywhere in the country, with coverage and service
quality vastly better than in the U.S. Expect your mobile carrier to
stick you with $1-2 per minute charges upon your return. If you're
going to be in the country for any length of time, get hold of a
prepaid phone or SIM card.
Internet cafes are common, but typing on a Turkish keyboard is
difficult because the English "i" key is in a different place as are
many other important characters.
Money is the lira, but merchants often accept the euro and dollar as
well. You can get lira with an American ATM card from just about any
bank machine. Expect prices for most things to be between 1.2 and 2X
the price that you would pay in a large American city.
Think it would be tough to learn Sanskrit? English has a lot more in
common with Sanskrit than with Turkish, since both English and
Sanskrit are Indo-European
languages. If you grew up speaking Hungarian or Finnish, Turkish
will come a bit easier than for an English speaker, but it is still a
Fortunately for the tourist, English is taught to all Turkish
youngsters. Unfortunately, the teaching is done in Turkish government
schools by Turkish government employees. Turkish kids learn English
the way that American kids learn math and science. Even the most
basic English conversation is usually beyond a graduate of Turkish
How can the tourist industry in Turkey present an English-speaking
facade? There are a lot of Turks who've worked for several years in
an English-speaking country and then returned to Turkey to raise a
family. These are the folks to whom you can talk.