Leaving Thessaloniki, we got our ride to the airport for what should have been a short flight to Istanbul. We arranged to have a driver waiting for us there, and expected to be in our new apartment by mid-afternoon.

As often happens in travel however, it was not quite that simple.

Thessaloniki's airport is not huge, so we were able to easily find our flight counter and check in. We got a bit of a surprise though when the ticket agent informed us that in spite of our 90-day allowance on our passport, we would still have to complete the new “A2” form and pay a fee of $50 (for US and Canadian citizens - fee may vary for different countries) to clear passport control in Türkiye. If you arrive without one, you can purchase one at the airport. However, if your flight arrives early in the day or late in the evening, you may have a long wait – and must be prepared to pay in cash.

Fortunately, there is a much easier method. While we waited for our flight, I was able to log into the Electronic Visa Application System (https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/) on my phone.

The process is simple: just enter the requested information from your passport, your arrival date in Türkiye, and pay the fee. All major credit cards are accepted, along with other payment methods. You will quickly receive an email with a link to download the e-Visa. This can be saved to your phone, so it is available even offline.

Our flight was uneventful, and the setback was equipped with a screen so I could watch our progress. The first hint that something was wrong was when I noticed we had veered away from Istanbul on the map, and then seemed to be circling it.

After a half hour or so, we stopped circling. Unfortunately, it was to head west away from Istanbul.

An announcement followed, informing us that it was rain gin too hard in Istanbul for us to land, so we were diverting to Alexandroupolis Airport Democritus on the eastern edge of Greece, less than 200 miles from Thessaloniki.

We were loaded onto buses and herded into a closed-off section of the airport to wait it out so we would have access to bathrooms and could do nothing but wait and see. They assured us we would be going to Istanbul, just couldn't say when.

I got on my phone to see if I could delay our ride, but unfortunately he was already waiting for us. He would not be hanging around, and we could not get a refund because we didn't notify them soon enough.

After an hour or so, the buses returned to take us back to our airplane, and we boarded once again. This time no problems, and we landed in Istanbul about four hours later than expected.

At passport control in Istanbul, I did see people scrambling to fill out paper forms and counting out money for the new visa. I was able to simply heod up my phone showing the e-Visa. The agent just glanced and nodded, never asked to see the one for my wife, as the e-Visa is linked to your passport number. Only those with paper copies were required to show the documentation.

Fortunately, I was able to get an Uber with no problem - our eSIM really helped us stay in touch wherever we were - and after about an hour on the dark and wet highway, we were in front of our new home in the Sultan Ahmed district of Istanbul.

We checked in easily, a little concerned because of the stairs to our apartment, and went out to find dinner as it was after 9pm and we were pretty hungry at that point. We didn't have far to go - less than a block up the street was a charming restaurant with bright umbrellas over the outdoor seating with the unusual name of "Mom's Garden Fish and Kabob House"

Mom's Garden Fish and Kabobs

First kabob in Istanbul

Before we get into our visit, a little perspective and a bit of a disclaimer. Although we spent seven nights there, and walked an average of six miles a day, sometimes closer to nine, you must keep in mind that Istanbul is HUGE. Like a population of 15 million huge. The urban area covers almost 1,000 square miles, and the metro area twice that. And we saw nothing of the rest of Turkey, which has a plethora of interesting areas and historic sites outside of the city. Our explorations were mostly confined to the historic center, or “old town”.

muezzin-75965.mp3

This is the sounds we heard five time a day – as the muezzins call the faithful to prayer. It certainly added to the atmosphere of old town as we walked the cobblestoned streets and saw a wild mix of architecture spanning at least 2000 years and combining Byzantium, Greek, Roman, and Islamic styles.

Our AirBnB was well placed. We were in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, literally around the corner from the Hippodrome, which was used for horse racing and circuses back even before the Constantinople days, about 1800 years or so ago when the city was known as Byzantium. Today it is the SultanAtmet Square and home to the Obelisk of Theodosys, and the public walkway to access many of the tourist attractions.

The Obelisk in the Hippodrome

The Blue Mosque was almost directly behind our room, and the famous Hagia Sophia just a few blocks away. We also had plenty of restaurants to choose from, and convenience stores. One potential issue resolved itself right away. We had learned a bit of Greek on the first part of our trip, and I had even started being able to read a few Greek words, but Turkish looked to be quite difficult. Fortunately, just about everyone we ran into spoke at least some English, and communication was not a problem. Many signs were also captioned in English, as were menus.

The Blue Mosque, from the rooftop of our building

So back to our accommodations. The location was great – but one thing we should have looked into more closely was the number of stairs to access our room. Luckily, staff was available to carry our luggage up when we arrived and bring it back down when we left, but winding staircases are not popular amongst us post-retirement age folks. Also, a big reason we are using AirBnB’s on this trip, besides the fact that they are tending to be half price or less of the cost of hotels, is that we have a kitchen and a washing machine available as well. This saves us some money as we can have breakfast or lunch at home, bring back leftovers, and travel with a minimal amount of clothing.

Other than an upholstered stool, the only place to sit in our room.

Unfortunately, in this unit we shared a kitchen with six other rooms. It was very small and hot, and there was not really a place to sit and eat. Worse, to get to it we had to navigate one of those twisting stairways of death to reach it. Finally, the washing machine, being shared by seven rooms, was filthy inside and did not work well, leaving our clothes soaking wet when it was done. No dryer, which isn’t that uncommon in Europe, but also no place to hang the clothes to dry. We were forced to take two loads to a nearby laundry, which was fast and efficient, but charged a ridiculous amount for the service.

The Twisting Stairway of Death

The best part of our location, as I said, is that we were able to walk to many great sites, and I’ll get to a few in a minute, but first I need to point out some things to be careful of when walking around old town Istanbul. You must be very careful as a pedestrian. I did not see a single traffic light in old town, and in fact there were no stop signs either. There were some one way and do not enter signs, but these were routinely ignored. Especially by motorcycles and other two-wheeled vehicles. It is important to stay alert at all times, because bikes and cycles can appear out of nowhere, moving in either direction on either side of the street.

And don’t think you are safe on the sidewalks either. Motorcycles will pop up onto them if the streets are full, and cut across pedestrian walkways when convenient. Not to mention cars and buses will sometimes consider the sidewalk an excellent place to park. Add to this throngs of tourists of all nationalities speaking a host of languages – Istanbul hosted 50 million tourists in 2022 – and a stroll to the museum can be quite an adventure.

That leads me to my first tip for visiting Istanbul – avoid the high tourist season, which runs from June to August – which makes no sense to me, as those are also the hottest months of the year. You’ll find the weather much nicer and prices a little lower in fall and spring.

Even so, expect crowds. We found that since Istanbul is a popular cruise ship stop, it also is a good idea to plan on getting to the big attractions either early in the morning or later in the day. By 10am bus after bus is disgorging cruisers, and things get busy quickly.

We arrived late on a Thursday, so our first full day was a Friday – another mistake on our part, as Friday is a Holy Day and tourists cannot enter the mosques until after 2:30. By that time, the lines put any Disney attraction to shame.

As close as we could get to the Hagia Sophia the first day

Our solution to this problem was to instead go visit the Basilica Cistern. You may have seen this ancient underground water system in the movie “Inferno” based on the Dan Brown book, or the Bond flick “From Russia With Love”. Amazing place, and we were helped by poor signage. It is right across the street from the Hagia Sophia, but it takes a while for tourist to discover, as it is not marked particularly well.

Inside the Basilica Cistern

Also on the Hippodrome is the Hagia Sophia History Museum, which provides a wonderful historic summary of the various phases of the structure, presented in an audiovisual format as you move from room to room and era to era. It was a little pricey at 51 euro each, but hey – how often are you in Istanbul?

On that subject, it is possible to buy an Istanbul E-Pass to get you into a bunch of museums for a set price, 149 euro per person for five days for instance, but much of what we wanted to see was free.

For example, we had a great time walking around the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the spice market) and didn’t pay any fees at all. Well, we did end up buying some Turkish Delight and fresh pistachios at the Grand Bazaar, and a variety pack of spices -hey, we’re only human! The background you hear is from our stroll down one of the busier sections of the Grand Bazaar, which seems to go on forever. Both markets are indoors, under beautiful domed ceilings and arches, so they are great rainy-day spots.

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Spice Market

Saturday we got up early, and went directly to the Hagia Sophia after breakfast, arriving at 9am just in time to queue up behind about 1,500 other early risers. Which might sound bad, but by the time the line started moving at 9:30, there were at least another 1,500 behind us.

It moved along quickly though, and the mosque is quite large and holds an amazing number of people, so we could still feel the awe and enjoy the splendor of this incredible structure. The crowd was generally quiet and reverent as well, so it was a surprisingly peaceful setting.

The Hagia Sophia

A couple of pointers for visiting the Sophia, and indeed any mosque or holy area. Proper dress is required. Men must wear pants, no shorts and no bare shoulders. Women must wear pants or dresses below the knee, no bare shoulders, and must cover their hair to enter. Shawls are provided for free if you did not bring something to wear.

Another consideration – you must take off your shoes and store them on a shelf system before entering. So it is a good idea to wear shoes that slip on and off easily.

We tried to do the Blue Mosque on the same day, but by the time we emerged from the Hagia Sophia the lines were too big to consider. Here we had success by waiting until later in the day, when most people had gone off in search of dinner or to return to their cruise ship.

Outside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

We visited the Topkapi Palace and Harem, several other museums, and really just enjoyed walking around soaking up the cultures. It seemed like the styles of the area changed every time you rounded a new corner, there was always something new and different to see.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace Grounds

One of the Sultan's rooms

As far as prices in restaurants, we found it generally to be pretty reasonable for a tourist area. A couple can have lunch for $20-30, and dinner for two with drinks between $40-50. We had been warned of price-gouging for bottled water, but most places were charging only 10-20 Turkish Lira for them – about 35-70 cents.

Speaking of money, it is helpful to have some Turkish Lira, but the exchange rate of about 1 TL to 0.035 cents makes it a bit unwieldy. Most places were happy to take credit cards, although some frowned on American Express, and restaurants and cabs also welcomed euros.

We did sign up for one tour group – a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus that included shows featuring a Whirling Dervish, a few other ethnic dancers, a knife throwing act, and a belly dancer. Of sorts. I don’t think traditional belly dancers encouraged admirers to stuff bills in various crevices. It was a little hokey to tell the truth, but for $50 each including meal, alcoholic beverages, and transportation to and from the dock, it was still a pleasant diversion, and the views of the city at night were quite beautiful.

A Dervish, whirling.

An interesting thing about the cruise that highlights what a cosmopolitan city Istanbul remains to this day. At our table visitors from the US, Switzerland, Peru, and Poland were represented. The emcee did a little musical tribute as an opening, playing a little music from each country present and encouraging the representatives to dance, that included at least two dozen different parts of the globe.

Lastly, we wanted to take advantage of an interesting fact about Istanbul: the city actually straddles two continents. The Bosphorus Strait marks the boundary between Europe and Asia, so naturally the nerd in me had to take the ferry across the river to have lunch in Asia!

We walked to the Eminonu Port, where there is a ferry that runs about every 15 minutes, depositing us at Kadikoy on the Asian side of Istanbul. I was surprised to find that there actually were some noticeable differences. Not just the style of architecture, but the local trams were a different design, and there were desserts and meal choices that hadn’t been displayed on the European side. We did indeed find the Karakoy market area and a fine lunch before saying goodbye to Asia and returning to Europe.

Welcome to Asia!

The ferry cost just 10TL each way (about 36 cents), and you don’t need to buy tickets. You can just tap a credit card at the turnstiles.

So to sum up, would we ever want to live in Istanbul? I can say without reservation that the answer is a hard no. We really enjoyed seeing it as tourists, but for us 15 million people is just too big of a city. I would say however that we always felt safe walking about, even after dark – except of course for kamikaze motorcyclists – and the locals we met and interacted with were all very friendly.

What would we do differently? Well, for one thing, make sure there are fewer stairs to our room! Starting our trip on a Saturday might have been better, but you also have to keep in mind that many museums and attractions are closed on Tuesdays. And on reflection, I think we should have planned for one or two fewer days in Istanbul, and maybe one or two more days in Vienna – but that’s a story for another blog.

Next up, I’ll tell you about the next stop on our European tour – the majestic city of Vienna, Austria. 

Follow the adventures of Jim and Rita in real time as they try out the roving retirement lifestyle on the podcast "Travels With Jim and Rita".