What to do when you are in Turkey

Turkish tea at a cafe. Image courtesy: Yours truly

Sometime back in June 2013, we had quite a fun and successful trip to Turkey – which we had planned from scratch (Pritika mostly). Everything from airline tickets to the itinerary, hotels, etc. was meticulously planned and we did not use any travel agents.

I had then intended to write a six part blog post on the entire trip – but life got in the way. Since then, I have been asked by a bunch of friends about the trip and finally thought of putting in a one post with tips and things to do. I am going to try and be concise.

Our itinerary was as follows:

  • Mumbai (BOM) to Istanbul (IST) via Turkish Airlines
  • Istanbul – 3 nights – Stayed at Hotel Erboy (I highly recommend this hotel)
  • Istanbul – Kayseri (airport for Goreme – Cappadocia) via Anadolu Airlines
  • Goreme – 3 nights – Stayed at the Divan Cave House (They have an excellent breakfast)
  • Kayseri – Istanbul via Anadolu Airlines
  • Istanbul – 2 nights – Stayed again at Hotel Erboy
  • IST to BOM via Turkish Airlines

Visa to Turkey

If you are an Indian citizen and hold a valid US, UK or Schengen visa, you can get your Turkish Visa online or on arrival. If you do not have either of these, you will need to get a Turkish Visa earlier via the normal route (I am not sure if this has changed since then – please let me know if this has)

Pritika and I both had US Visas and that was the reason for us to go to Turkey in the first place.

We got the Visa online via: https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ which you can download and print for $20 per head (I think). You have to carry this print out with you. I recommend this as the Visa on arrival counter can get quite busy in the morning and you may have to wait for 30 – 40 minutes.

Currency in Turkey

The primary currency is Turkish Lira – but they also accept dollars and Euros.

I carried a few dollars for emergency – but right outside the airport, I went to the ATM and got some lira which we used. I mostly paid by my Amex card (food, hotels, etc) which was accepted mostly everywhere – except at a couple of places in Goreme which took only Visa / Mastercard. So you will need to carry a backup Visa / Mastercard as well if you have an Amex.

Banks, ATM & Conversion charges

Don’t try to pay via USD or EUR because the conversion rate the folks give you are horrible. Also – you will find money changers at every location – avoid those as well as I have seen really poor conversion rates. My bank charges me 3.5% for international transactions which was quite acceptable if I was withdrawing more than INR 11,000 per withdrawal.

Staying Connected

For this trip, I just got a SIM card which works in 40 odd countries from Matrix cellular. Get the prepaid card (500 bucks for the card + top up). They will try to sell you the post paid – avoid that like the plague!

I put in 1,000 bucks in the pre-paid top up – and had over 800 bucks left when we got back. So you may be better off recharging for lesser. Only drawback with the prepaid card is that you don’t have internet – but I made sure all the places we stayed at had free WiFi.

Since then, I have bought a One Sim Card which I would highly recommend.

Internal travel

Istanbul has an awesome public transport system. Unlike the US where you have a fixed rate no matter where you get on or get off, here you need to pay by the distance. You can buy an Istanbul kart and load it from the Airport when you get there which you can use for all public transport in Istanbul (metro / ferry / etc).

The Istanbul cart works like a credit card – so multiple people can use the same card. So you need to buy only one of these.

The metro can get crowded – but people are nice and friendly and it was fun traveling via the Metro.

Travel Light

We took 2 x small suitcases which we carried into the plane (no check-in) as domestic airlines inside Turkey will charge you for check in baggage. This was great and also let us use public transport everywhere as we did not have to fight our luggage.

Staying at Istanbul

Initially, we decided to AirBnb our stay and even booked a room in the Taksim area of Istanbul for something like INR 800 per day – but when the riots broke out exactly there, we figured a hotel would be safer to stay in and the nice folks at Trip Advisor advised that it would be safer to stay in the old / touristy city (Sultanhamet) rather than the new part.

It was a great decision and I was happy choosing Erboy because everything was walking distance and we could come back in the middle of the day and rest at the hotel rather than sit somewhere random.

What to do in Istanbul?

Istanbul is an awesome city and it has a LOT of things to offer. Even after spending 5 days there, we felt we could have stayed for a week more and not seen everything.

Museum tours can get boring (and expensive) quickly if you are not the history buff. We did a couple – but decided to leave out the rest. Instead, I would highly recommend the following experiences while in Istanbul:

  1. The Hagiya Sofiya / The Blue Mosque
    This is probably the most iconic landmark in Istanbul and a ten minute walk from our hotel. It is truly breath taking and a definite visit.
  2. Gulhane Park
    Brilliant park. They have a small cafe there. Nice place to sit, chill out for a bit and have awesome apple Turkish tea :)
  3. Hafiz Mustafa 1864
    This is an awesome, awesome eatery – again within 15 minutes walking from our hotel which we turned up at every evening for coffee and awesome pastries and baklava.
  4. Baklava
    Eat lots of them!
  5. The Bosphorus Cruise and visit to the Prince Islands
    We almost did not do this but were so happy that we did. It was one of the highlights of our Istanbul stay.

    Get the government ferry which takes you to the Prince Islands. Hop off on one of them and get some lunch and hop back on again. It is truly beautiful – the cruise.

    I remember getting that auto GPS guide which was a total waste (audio was bad and not in sync). Avoid that. We went all the way to Büyükada – which is the last island and had lunch there and walked about. It was excellent! The ferry takes an hour to get there and an hour back with a couple of hours loitering about – so it was a good half a day excursion.

    PLEASE DO NOT TAKE ANY PRIVATE FERRIES / CRUISES.They are expensive and I have found loads of reports of people getting swindled and even mugged. The government one is excellent, cheap and has a food place inside the boat in which you can buy tea, coffee and snacks.

  6. The Grand Bazaar
    This one is a must do.
    Don’t plan to buy a lot of things there though because you cannot get a good bargain with these guys anyways (they are professionals) and you’ll feel you overpaid no matter what discount you received :) (high chance of buyers regret). But it is a must-see. Prepare to get lost quite a bit as it is quite huge.
  7. The Museum of Archaeology
    This was again decent – lots of walking around but they have an awesome garden restaurant where we sat for a bit and had excellent Turkish tea.
  8. The Arasta Market
    This was a nice, quiet market to walk around in. If you are looking to buy towels, soaps and the like, good place to check out.
  9. Rooftop Restaurants
    Our hotel had a rooftop restaurant for drinks which we went to one evening and it was breath taking. The Istanbul skyline is just amazing. Try and do this one of the evenings while the sun is setting.
  10. Topkapi Palace
    This is again a very huge tourist attraction. It was interesting and pretty – but in hindsight, we could have given it a miss as we are not really history buffs.  But if you have a choice between a museum and a this place, you could do this instead.

Entrance Fees

These things add up quite fast and is something that we did not anticipate in our budget and planning. Paying 25 EUR per head per attraction is not uncommon. So keep this in mind if you are planning this trip on a budget.

Getting to Cappadocia

Cappadocia is actually a big region and there are smaller towns where you need to stay at – depending on what you want to do. We wanted to basically do the balloon ride – and hence decided to stay at a place called Goreme – which is about an hour’s drive from the Kayseri airport.

Note that Istanbul has 2 airports – the main international one (Ataturk) and a second airport (Sabiha Gokcen) which are quite far apart. To catch the plane for Kayseri – you have to go to the Sabiha airport (the second one) which is about an hour / 90 minutes drive from Sultanhamet.

There is a Havatas shuttle which offers an affordable service to and fro from the airport – which your hotel can arrange for you.

We stayed at the Divan Cave house in Goreme – which was good but not brilliant. Our first and second choices were all booked at Goreme.

Things to do at Goreme

  1. Get the Balloon Ride
    This is the primary reason you are here, aren’t you?

    I would highly recommend getting it from a reputed company – we went via Butterfly Balloons and were super happy with them. They will pick you up from your hotel at around 4:30ish AM, get you some light breakfast, take you on the ride and drop you back off.They are extremely professional and our captain seemed to know what he was doing. The entire ride lasts 1 hour – 1 hour 20 min and is worth every penny (We paid something around 300 – 350 EUR for 2 people).

    On landing, they have wine and cake and give you a certificate of flight after which they drop you back at your hotel by 9ish.

    Remember to take your camera and have the panoramic setting on your phone.

  2. Derinkuyu Underground City
    I would highly recommend doing this. We took a local bus toDerinkuyu and back. Your hotel should be able to explain to you how to do this.

    However, if you and tire easily, are asthmatic or have 0ther heart / stress related illness, you can give this a miss as it is quite strenuous.

    There is a LOT of climbing and the passages can be very narrow and claustrophobic.

    We did not initially hire a guide to save some money (they are decently expensive) – which I think was a bad decision as you can get lost quite easily. However, one of the guards inside came up to us and offered to show us around for half the price. Another wandering couple joined us and his price dropped even lower. I am not sure if you will be able to find guards willing to take you around now (check out TA) but that saved our trip.

    He was not as thorough as a guide probably would be, but we did not feel we missed out on anything. A guide will be able to give you a better narrative which is extremely important for a place like this.Truly amazing and wonderful.

  3. The Goreme Open air museum
    This again is a fun place but visit only if you have time.  You can easily give this a miss as it involves a decent bit of walking and is on the outskirts of the main town center. It took about 30 mins of walking to get there which was a bad idea while coming back in the hot sun (I don’t think there is any public transport in Goreme). You can rent out a scooter or a car if you are adventurous.

Scams in Turkey

Being one of the top 5  tourist destinations, Turkey has it’s share of scams and tourist traps. Please be aware of them and avoid them. Whenever in doubt, pay a little more and go to a more reputed business rather than a cheaper, shady one. Trip Advisor is your friend.

This is a good resource – though I hadn’t seen this at the time: http://www.virtualtourist.com/travel/Middle_East/Turkey/Tourist_Traps-Turkey-TG-C-1.html

We had watched this episode of Scam City: Istanbul which was quite helpful: http://watch-series-tv.to/episode/scam_city_s1_e7.html

Istanbul Trip Advisor Page

The Istanbul TA pages and forums were super helpful. Considering there were riots happening then – the locals in the TA community was super helpful in alleviating our fears. So if you have any specific questions, please check them out here:

If you have any questions or comments, shoot them and I’ll try my best to answer them.

Picture time!