Getting there: Air Canada – business class on points. This post is part of a big 2-week trip in the fall of 2013. We planned for it many months in advance, so when we had the option to do business class around the world, we went for it! We started out with a 12-hour layover in Istanbul on our way to the Maldives for 8 days, then on to Singapore for another 4 days, and then home again.
Fun: We did a few hours of searching online about layovers in Istanbul – we had 12 hours so we knew we had plenty of time to leave the airport. We also asked a few friends who had stayed in Istanbul and they gave us a lot of key places to hit in a short amount of time (Thanks, Gord! Thanks, Hayden!).
So we landed in Turkey after a nice direct flight on AC. Even though I slept about 6 hours, I was still a bag of toys on arrival. We had to get a visa for $60 US (or 45 Euro) and the line was about 20 minutes long. Next was passport control and by the time we got through the visa line up, the line up had grown huge for passport control. We spotted a special line up for Star Alliance Gold/ Turkish Airlines business passengers and pleaded our case since our flight out of Istanbul was on Turkish business class. (Also note that if you’re traveling on Turkish Airlines and have a >8 hour layover in Istanbul, you can request and receive a free hotel room, or if you arrive early enough in the day, you can also join their free city tours- our flight arrived too late for this). Off to the luggage drop we went to store our carry on for the day (about $10/bag).
Once out of the airport, we followed signs to the Metro. d2 had done his homework, so we knew exactly which Metro card to buy, and we put around 20 Turkish Liras on it (we got Liras in TO before we left). This area was confusing and it reminded me of our transit system in Toronto: some of the machines were broken and no one was around to help! The airport is at the end of the Metro line, so it’s easy enough to figure out which direction to go in to the city, and you’re on this line for about 6 stops. Then you need to transfer to a tramway- this is well marked and easy enough, and on to another line towards the Old City for about another 13 stops or so – we went to the Sultanahmet stop.
Once at the Sultanahmet area, we went first to the Blue Mosque, a huge mosque that was built in the beginning of the 1600s (ladies, note that you need to cover your head and shoulders to enter- if you don’t have a scarf, they will loan you one). There is a special visitor entrance at the back of the mosque, and it’s not open during prayer hours, so after noting that it was going to close right away for prayer, we decided to go across the street to the Basilica Cistern first. There was a bit of a line up, but nothing huge, and the entry fee was 10 Liras each. Down in to the Cistern we went, which was underground and was built in the 500s. This was pretty amazing considering the size of the Cistern and how well built it is. There is basically a wooden walking path inside and a few feet of water in the Cistern (with fish), lots of wonderful stone columns, a self-guided audio tour if you want, and a very unique ambiance. We spent about 20 or 30 minutes here, and then headed back to the Mosque. This time we got right in to the Mosque when the prayer ended, and after covering my head and putting our shoes in plastic bags provided, in we went to observe a huge open space with a few different areas: the men’s prayer section at the front, the visitors’ section in the middle, and a small women’s prayer section in the back. It was very busy, the ceiling patterns were lovely, and the architecture was also stunning. We came back out the front door of the mosque in to a main square.
This area of the city was really jammed full of people, and as per usual when I’m traveling, I had a death grip on my handbag the entire time! There were some people offering tours, but they weren’t overly aggressive once you stated no. There were also some wonderful smells here with street vendors selling corn and roast chestnuts, a crepe-like food with Nutella spread on it, and my favourite site was seeing the large vendor carts full of fresh pomegranates for sale. I would’ve bought one except for the fear of being covered in red juice pretty much from head to toe for the rest of our layover.
We got back on to the tramway to ride it across the bridge to Europe and to the end of the line, to take a funicular line up a hill to Taksim Square (yes, this is where the riots were earlier this year – I was hyper sensitive about going here because I’m paranoid), and then to find our way to a little restaurant called Durumzade which we had seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. From the square, the little restaurant was about a 15 minute walk. It was down a very main shopping pedestrian street which could’ve been anywhere in Europe – it was very old, cobblestone, and lined with all kinds of trendy shops in old buildings 2-3 storeys tall. We popped in and out of a few, and turned down a wonderful little street full of all kinds of food shops and vendors on our way to Durumzade. Once we found our destination (which we read was tricky to find, but we found some great instructions online), we were not disappointed. We shared what is basically a grilled chicken wrap – you choose the meat you want, and they grill it fresh, with the drippings falling on a wrap (more like Naan bread than anything else) that is freshly homemade, and then they garnish it – it was about the equivalent of $5 for a double wrap. We sat outside soaking in the atmosphere, which included someone driving by in his suped up tiny car blasting club beats (which confirms this trend is universal – I have witnessed this in many parts of the world now). After fueling up, we went for a long walk in and out of some shops back to the tram station to start our journey back to the airport. We still had about 5 hours until our flight but we were fading pretty fast. So off we went to the airport, with me being hyper alert of our belongings again since the tram gets VERY packed with people.
Back at the airport, we had to go through security just to get in to the airport, which I’ve never seen before, then to grab our bag, and to head back in through security in to the terminal. Since we were traveling business again, we were able to go through a short line up, and off to the Turkish Airlines lounge.
OK, the lounge deserves its own paragraph. This wasn’t a usual lounge – it was like a 5-star resort (see the youtube video here)– first of all, it was huge, there were suites which included beds that customers could arrange for if their layover was long enough, the usual showers, there was a theatre area with popcorn, billiards room, and many different spots to just sit and eat. AND THE FOOD. So we showered up, which was a welcome change after traveling for nearly a full day, and settled in to have some food and surf. Basically all kinds of delicious food, and did the lounge ever get packed at around 11 pm. It was actually pretty insane, with no spots left to sit around that point.
We boarded our flight around 12 am out of Istanbul and the boarding process was basically a free for all. We had seats in business, and it wasn’t full so that was a bonus. We got a Porsche-designed amenity kit (i.e. basically as close to owning a Porsche as I’ll ever get since I realized after high school that my fantasy paycheque was nowhere close to my reality paycheque and that my beloved black, convertible 911 just wasn’t going to happen!), skipped the meal, and settled in for a nap after putting the entertainment system on the plane nose camera for take off. I didn’t sleep much on this flight, and woke up right as we passed over Dubai (see the pic below) which was very recognizable. It was also pretty surreal traveling over a lot of the Middle East at all.