"Puffing on an apple-flavored hookah, sipping delicious tea, and dipping the most gorgeous bread in the world into hummus, all to the soundtrack of Istanbul—now that's a vacation," says Columbia graduate student Liz Mendenhall, who traveled to Istanbul in August 2005. "More Americans should check it out. All of the Turks I met think Americans are scared to travel to a Muslim country after September 11. That has got to change."
Istanbul is one of the most dynamic cities in the Mediterranean. It's a sensory overload, a collision of Eastern and Western civilizations. The streets teem with people, restaurateurs call out to passerbys in a staggering number of languages, and the smell of spices fills the air.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of activity in the city. Visitors can choose from major historical sights such as Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, as well as Topkapi Palace. Tickets for the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are pricey, with admission now costing about $10 to $30, depending on how much you want to see. However, the Blue Mosque only asks for a voluntary donation. You can also see plenty for free just by walking the city on your own. For example, you could easily spend an entire day exploring the fascinating and sometimes overwhelming Grand Bazaar, where shopkeepers tout their wares as if their lives depended on it.
Turkish food is an interesting blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Think melt-in-your-mouth lamb, fresh eggplant, olive oil, piping hot breads, and yogurt—all at economic prices. Kebabs are seldom more than $2. Turks even have their own version of pizza, (or pide), without tomato sauce. Turkish beers and wines are good, but alcohol prices can be inflated in tourist areas.
Most tourists stay in or around Sultanahmet, the historical center of Istanbul. Lodgings vary from inexpensive hostels to world-class resorts. The Four Seasons, for example, converted an old prison into a four-star hotel and now charges at least $340 a night. Expect to pay $20 to $50 per person per night for simpler accommodations in this area. Further out in the city, rates can be as low as $15 to $30 per night.
Getting to Istanbul is simple enough, with frequent flights from New York and other major cities. Costs vary between $650 and $1,100, depending on the season. Summer is the top tourist season, so expect to pay the most from June through August. Once you arrive at the airport, taxis queue to take tourists to the city center for about $20. A more economical option is to take the newly expanded Light Rail into the center for a fraction of the cost.
For more information, start with Istanbul's official tourism website.
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