top four first day travel tips

Wednesday was really my first real day in Istanbul. After traveling for 30 hours the two days before, and going to sleep early Tuesday, by Wednesday morning I was ready to explore and get acquainted with my new temporary home. In this post I’ll talk about my day, consider how well my budget will work out, and intersperse some helpful first-day tips throughout.

So, what did I do Wednesday? The first thing I did, is also my # 1 first-day tip. I wandered my neighborhood, orienting my flat in the neighborhood and the neighborhood in the city. I am staying in Fatih, a neighborhood on the European side of Istanbul, in the south, just west of the big tourist center Sultanahmet.

This is a good time to do my #2 first-day tip, if you hadn’t taken care of it at the airport. Get Cash! Often using your bank card and withdrawing cash from the ATM is a less expensive (ie less transaction fees than a currency exchange office) way to acquire foreign currency. The typical ATM charge is a $2-3 foreign ATM fee and a 3% foreign transaction fee. So for example, if you withdraw 100 Euro, you’ll pay $7.50- $3 for not using your own bank’s ATM, and $4.50 for the 3% transaction fee (3% of $150, or whatever the Dollar to Euro conversion rate is at the time). If you do A LOT of traveling, you may consider opening an account with HSBC, a global bank that doesn’t charge foreign ATM fees and reimburses any fees those foreign ATMs may impose. You may also consider opening a credit card without foreign transaction fees. Capital One has some good options, as does Chase Sapphire.

Anyway, after wandering past several Mosques and a park, I decided to enter the next one I saw. From the outside, the domes sit beautifully above sturdy walls, often with ornate windows, fencing, or tiles on the outside as well. Not sure of the proper manners, I timidly approached what looked like the tourist entrance. An older gentleman with a thick mustache encouraged me forward, explaining with gestures and broken english that I was to take my shoes off and leave them on the shelf, cover my hair with a scarf, and could leave a donation if I wished. A sign at the entrance warned visitors not to take pictures during prayer times and not to interrupt prayers for any reason, to just sit quietly in the back until they were finished.

Inside the mosque the floor was covered with thick red carpets and the inner domes were majestically painted with ornate floral patterns and Arabic writing. I snapped some photos and sat in awe, gazing upwards for long minutes trying to take it all in. Suddenly a wailing rang out throughout the city. I had heard the wailing the night before and my landlord explained- five times a day the practicing Muslims are called to prayer. The wailing, echoing throughout the whole city, was that call. Not believing my luck, I tucked myself into a back corner and watched my first Islamic noon prayers. It lasted about 20 minutes, and seemed to be a peaceful meditative moment for the congregation. It ended as soon as it began, and the men seemed to shake themselves awake, collected their shoes, and returned to their regularly scheduled day. I too collected myself and my shoes, dropped a Lira in the donation box, and went about my day.

At this point I was feeling pretty hungry. After a few false starts I realized that Turkish vendors, like small businesses in many foreign countries, don’t carry a lot of change and don’t like to break big bills. Stuck with only 50 Lira notes from the ATM, I eventually found a coffee shop chain that would make change. I always try to eat authentic and local when I travel, but sometimes it can’t be helped. At least it was a Turkish chain. 8.45 TL later and I was sitting down with a savory pastry and a sweet Turkish coffee.

After my snack and my break, I continued on my walk. I was heading in the direction of Sultanahmet, home of the Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sofia, and the Topkapi Sarayi (Topkapi Palace). I didn’t quite make it though, at least not yet, since I happened past an archway with the words “Kapalicarsi, Grand Bazaar, Gate 7” etched into the stone. The Grand Bazaar!! Over 4,000 vendors of new and old, import and export goods all ready to haggle over price. You can find some great stuff here, but you can get ripped off quickly too, so be wary and have fun.

I decided to take a walk through, but not buy much yet. After all it was only my first day! I did say, if I found an interesting blanket, I would buy that. My room was a bit cold last night, I could use the blanket on the trip, and I’d have a beautiful and useful souvenir for later. After a bit of wandering I did find a beautiful blanket stall. The vendor was very friendly and helpful and we spent a lot of time discussing the origins of the blankets and their patterns. He ordered tea and laid out dozens on the floor in front of us. I could tell these blankets were very nice, high quality, and I am sure way out of my budget! Not wanting to ruin the experience or cut the great lesson short I held my tongue. Finally I had to ask, the blanket I chose seemed like a large pashmina. Thin, woven cashmere of indigo and autumn colors. The asking price: 280 TL. Almost $150? NO WAY! After a good haggling session and some more talk I ended up walking away with the blanket, a leather poof cover, and dinner plans…for 100 TL. Still a high price, but at least within the day’s budget.

By the time I left the Bazaar it was already 3:30 in the afternoon. Tired of walking, and still interested in checking out Sultanahmet, I jumped on the nearest metro stop. Five minutes and 2 TL later and I had finally arrived. I wandered the area, snapping pictures. I picked up some postcards and an English guide book for 5 TL (haggled down from 26 TL. They jack up their prices an absurd amount!).

The palace, which I was extremely interested in seeing, closed in an hour so I decided to come back the next day and go in when I had more time to explore. The Hagia Sofia had an entrance fee, and my personal principles make me disinclined to pay an entrance fee for a church. So instead I walked across the street to enter the Blue Mosque (for free). It too was extremely ornate and beautiful with patterns within patterns covering the entire interior.

Since the sky was getting dusky by the time I left the Mosque, I decided to head home. My orientation walk had turned into a successful first day of touring, and I still had those dinner plans to fulfill! On the walk home I stopped at a small market I made note of at the beginning of my walk. This is my #3 first-day tip: Find the local grocery store or market near your house. Pick up jugs of water, fruit, and healthy snacks to leave in your room. Other stuff you can make note of on your orientation walk include the laundromat, an internet cafe, hospital, police station, and post office.

At home I had time for a little rest before dinner, so I took time to check over my budget. Remember I have $66.86/120.6 TL per day.

November 16 expenses:

  • 1 TL Mosque Donation
  • 8.45 TL Snack
  • 100 TL Blanket and poof
  • 2 TL Metro ride
  • 5 TL Postcards and guide book
  • 3 TL Water and sesame sticks

Before dinner, I had spent 119.45 TL. Just under budget with only a little more than 1 TL to spend on dinner! Uh oh!

Luckily my new friend was also a gentleman, and paid for me that evening. He met me at the metro stop near my flat, and we took a taxi to Taxim Square, the big modern shopping area. We went to an Otanic restaurant where we ordered Gozleme- a big flat Turkish pancake stuffed with spiced mashed potatoes. After dinner we continued our walk, and stopped at a coffee shop. The menu had the basics: tea, coffee, seltzer water; but it also had an item called Sahlep. Since it was the only thing I didn’t recognize, this is what I ordered. It was a creamy milky vanilla drink with cinnamon on top. It was decadently rich and delicious. My friend couldn’t quite explain exactly what it was, but I wasn’t much concerned. It was tasty and warm!

After coffee we stopped in a few bars to listen to local ethnic music. Some typical instruments in Turkey are the Saz and the cümbüş (both stringed instruments); a variety of flutes made from bone, metal, and wood; and hand drums like the Darbuka.  As fascinating as my evening had been, by midnight the day had caught up with me. Pleading exhaustion, I excused myself from my new friend and took a taxi home. Which brings me to my #4 first day tip. Keep a printout with your address and cross streets in your bag, so you can show it to cabbies. That way in case you get terribly lost and can’t explain yourself, you can at least show them the paper and be taken safely back to home base. Ten lira later and I was tucked into my room, exhausted but content, and ready to snuggle underneath my new blanket.

So to review: Here are my top four first day tips:

  1. Go on a walk and orient yourself
  2. Get cash
  3. Find a grocery store and stock up on water and snacks
  4. Carry a card with your address and cross streets

şerefe! (My newest vocabulary word, meaning “Cheers!” in Turkish)



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