Istanbul is GMT +03.00 hours. They use the Turkish lira and 5 lira = approx £1
Istanbul is a city of extraordinary contrasts, both socially and culturally. It is figuratively, and also quite literally, the gateway between Europe and Asia – being the only city in the world to stand on two continents! The Bosphorous river divides Istanbul in two and is the geographical border between Asia and Europe. I had booked a hostel on the European side, within walking distance of Taksim square, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia, which were the only few landmarks I had previous knowledge of.
My flight was to Sabiha Gocken airport in the south, which is further from the city centre than the main Ataturk airport but serves the cheaper airlines (I flew Pegasus for £50 one way). I arrived and went through customs without hassle, and then quickly found the 15 lira (£3) ‘Havabus’ shuttle which goes direct to Taksim Square and is considerably easier than using the metro, which requires a number of changes including a ferry.
After arriving and heading down to the hostel I was asked by two guys if I have a lighter. They quickly struck up a conversation, saying they were from Ankara and in town for a furniture conference. As we walked and talked they asked if I would like to join them for a drink. I thought it would be nice to meet some locals so I went along with it, but when they mentioned going to a club with very expensive drinks I apologised, saying I can’t afford it, and left.
The hostel I had booked, Neverland, was exactly as I expected from the website reviews and pictures – very hippy and alternative. I checked in and dropped off my bags, but there weren’t many people around so I headed out for a drink on my own. Surprise surprise, within a few minutes a local guy started talking to me and said he was also in town for a furniture conference! I was obviously suspicious, but I was looking for somewhere cheap to eat and he said he knew a place, so I went along. We each got a 5 lira (£1) chicken kebab, which are very common and available at many street stalls. Then we went to a busy pub for a 12 lira (£2.40) beer and he taught me some Turkish: Teskuler, which means ‘Thank You’ (pronounced a bit like ‘tea sugar’), and Sherifa (cheers).
After our beer he wanted to take me to a club where he promised would be ‘hot women’. I wasn’t exactly keen but thought it would be funny to see what seedy den he dragged me too. As expected he took me to what looked like a brothel, with bored women hanging around and drinks prices that made London look cheap. Despite his insistance that I stay, I quickly said my goodbyes and got out of there. It was already after midnight so I decided to call it a day and headed home.
Back at the hostel I googled ‘Istanbul furniture conference’ and was not surprised to find that this is a common scam in Istanbul where they get you in a bar, sell you a few drinks and then hit you with a huge bill, which they force you to pay by taking you to the ATM and drawing out all your cash. The joke would have been on them though since I only had about £20 in my current account! Still, would have probably got a good kicking no doubt…
In the morning I awoke in time for the free breakfast which was quite nice and consisted of the usual bread, cheese and salad with cereal and yogurt. As I always do I filled up on enough to see me through lunch, then headed out for the half hour walk to the old town. After crossing the Bosphorous river I wandered through the market stalls until finding my way to the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque, which are very close together. After being interviewed by some school students who clearly had a class assignment for learning English, I stopped at a nearby cafe for a coffee before heading into the mosques. On the way I was accosted once again by a friendly old man who offered to show me around, but clearly just wanted me to go into his gift store. He did however show me a lovely restaurant with an amazing view, before I told him I was broke and so he left me. I stopped for a beer at another restaurant with a roof terrace and nice view and then headed to the thing I most wanted to see, the Basilica Cistern which was featured in scenes from the Dan Brown movie ‘Inferno’. Unfortunately it wasn’t as impressive as I hoped – it only covered one level and took less than 30 minutes to look around. All in all probably not worth the 20 lira ticket, but I’m still glad I went.
By this point I had been walking for about 5 hours so I headed back to the hostel to rest and charge my phone. I grabbed two beers from a shop (6.50 lira each) on the way and headed to the downstairs lounge area of the hostel to chill. Some people were sitting around drinking so I got chatting to them. They were mostly Turkish and struggled a bit with English but we managed to understand each other. I discovered most of them lived there permanently in the hostel, some of them were staff and the others worked elsewhere. I developed a particularly good rapport with an Iranian guy named Reza because we were both guitarists and into very similar music. We chatted for awhile about metal and dubstep and then walked up to the shop to get some more beer and ingredients for a meal he was going to cook for everyone. He made some incredible Iranian vegetarian dish which might be one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, although I was quite drunk at the time. We continued to chat and drink throughout the night until about 1am when I went to bed. I ending up spending a bit more than I should have that night, because I was buying a lot of beers from the shop and sharing with everyone – but I did get a free meal and made some amazing friends, which is far more valuable than a bit of money.
The next day after breakfast I went to draw some cash at an ATM, but realised I hadn’t transferred money into my current account (never leave lots of cash in your current account!) and had to walk back to the hostel for get wifi to do the transfer and then back to the ATM again, which was miles away because the nearby one wasn’t working. Eventually I paid my bill and checked out, although left my luggage at the hostel while I headed out on the 5 lira ferry to explore the Asian side of Istanbul.
Turns out the Asian side has a lot of really good bars and shopping streets, and this is where the good nightlife is but since I had to leave at 5pm I wouldn’t have time to see it. After grabbing a 5 lira chicken doner sandwich I walked around exploring the shops, wandered down the beach front and had a beer at two of the very western-themed rock music bars that seemed to be everywhere.
Eventually around 4:30 I grabbed the ferry back to the hostel and watched an awesome Turkish bohemian busker band on board. Back at the hostel I said a quick goodbye to Reza, we swapped contacts to keep in touch and then I ran to catch the 6pm bus to the airport.