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  • Writer's pictureAlison Merrill

Turkey - Exploring Istanbul and Cappadocia

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

Istanbul - 5 days

"Sometimes you go to a city and you think, this reminds me of this, and this reminds me of that, but the truth is Istanbul just reminds you of Istanbul because its' got such a unique place in this world and history."

Christopher Mitchell, from on the Amateur Traveler Podcast.

The view of the Hagia Sophia from our hostel's rooftop bar. Photo Credit: Alison

The Only City to Sit Across Two Continents - Landscape, Scenery, and History

After spending 7 days in Turkey with 5 of them being in Istanbul, there is no other place like it. When one looks out over the city, they will see a unique combination of hills with small houses, tall buildings, and giant mosques. Both new and old architecture are intertwined and the sparkling, clean, and blue water surrounds the outskirts. 5 times throughout the day, one hears the Muslim “call to prayer” echoing over the city. Fashion ranges from a pair of jean shorts and a t-shirt to women in full head to toe hijab. The city is vibrant, beautiful, intoxicating, historic, and most of all, the people are warm, welcoming, and kind.

The city is divided into two - the eastern and western side. It is the only city to straddle two continents with the eastern side in Asia and the western side in Europe. The sides are divided by the Bosporus River. To get from one side to the other, one takes a 20-minute ferry or goes below ground and takes the metro to the other side. Istanbul has a fascinating history and is often considered the capital of the world. Istanbul has been conquered many times and has been known as Byzantine, Constantinople, and the heart of the Ottoman and new Roman Empire.

View from the west overlooking another part of the western side. Photo credit: Alison

Istanbul's Population, Religion, and Culture

Istanbul is home to 18 million citizens (15 million documented and roughly 3 million undocumented, mostly undocumented refugees from Syria) and is growing by half a million each year. The population identifies as 98% Muslim. In comparison to other Islamic countries, religion is the only aspect of culture these countries share. Turkey has its own culture, history, language, and way of life that is different when compared to other Islamic and middle eastern countries.

Fun fact - street cats are very popular in Istanbul to the point that there is a famous documentary about them. Source: Kevin Beach. Photo Credit: Sam Kahane

The East vs West:

The western side, also called the “European Side” or “Old City” has many famous sights such as the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bizarre. The eastern side, also called the “Asian Side” or “New City” is more “hip” and home to newer businesses and establishments. Our first 3 days in Istanbul we stayed at Cheers Hostel (on the west) and on our final day we stayed at a local apartment (on the east) on the top floor of an Airbnb that was a shared space with other Turkish people.

Some of the sites we saw were:


Hagia Sophia – Built in AD 537 and first a Cathedral later turned into a Mosque during the Ottoman Empire. It is the panicle of Byzantine architecture and was the largest building in the world for over 1,000 years

Blue Mosque – Constructed during 1609 and 1616, and still an active mosque famous for its architecture and blue colors on the inside

Grand Bazaar – One of the largest and oldest trading centers in the world and built in 1455

Spice Bazaar - Trading center dedicated specifically to spices, teas, food and dessert

Taksim Square - A main area with lots of restaurants, food, and shopping

Galata Tower - Medieval tower built to watch over the city

3-hour walking tour – This covered a lot of the cities history as well as Turkish culture

Spices at the Spice Bazaar! Photo credit: Alison


Ciya Restaurant - Featured on a Netflix episode of Chef’s Table. One can go and get an amazing vegetarian salad bar for $5.00!

Caddebostan Dalyan Park - Looked like a European version of Dolores Park in San Francisco with locals casually drinking beer, slack lining, and doing acro yoga.

Kadikoy - Neighborhood we stayed on the eastern side.

This picture is actually of another restaurant in Istanbul. However, look up Ciya, and you can see their food for yourself. Photo Credit: Sam Kahane

Cappadocia - 3 Days

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before” – Dalai Lama

View from the hot air balloon over Cappadocia. Photo Credit: Alison

Cappadocia is a giant national park, famous for its caves, rock formations, and hot air balloons. There are 2 hot air balloon colleges in Cappadocia and our balloon pilot trained for 3 years. If you want to go to Cappadocia, it is not a quick day trip from Istanbul. You can either do a flight for one hour (paying around $120.00 USD) or an overnight bus for 12 hours ($10.00 USD). We opted for the flight that took us to Kayseri, the closest airport and then took an hour and half shuttle to Goreme, the town center.

Balloons, Belly Dancing, hiking, and ATVs

Our first day, we woke up at 3:55am to go on a hot air balloon. Considering our flight got in late the night before and we only had 4 hours of sleep, this was an aggressive decision. However, the balloons do not go up every day. In fact, the weather needs to be perfect - no wind, rain, or chance of precipitation. Our hostel said that the balloons would be going up the morning we arrived and our group did not want to risk missing out. It was a good thing we went that day because the balloons did not go up for the remainder of our time.

When the balloons take flight, there’s over 100 - each with approximately 20 people. Our pilot took a scenic route flying high and low showing all of Cappadocia as well as a picturesque view of other balloons crowding the sky.

The next day we did an ATV ride through Cappadocia and by chance, our guide was a professional ATV rider. At one point, we got to a huge hill and I refused to go down. He hopped off his ATV and onto the front of mine and proceeded to speed at full blast down the hill and then popped onto two wheels as I screamed in back. After that, nothing seemed as scary and our group moved fast through the valley bypassing all the other tour groups.

Me on the back of our guide's ATV as he demo'd some tricks. Photo Credit: Jeff Brydon

Did we feel safe?

Any country ranked, “Level 3 - Reconsider Travel” by the US makes you wonder... should I go? We did a lot of research before making our decision and found that certain parts of Turkey are "mostly safe". For more information, I recommend this article by The Broke Backpacker which highlights the reasons we decided to go. And quick travel tip -before you travel to any country, read the US Travel Advisories.

The idea of traveling to Istanbul is not a new one. In fact, in 2014 Istanbul was the sixth most popular tourist destination. Because of political unrest, travel bans, terrorism, and natural disasters, the city saw a huge decline in tourism the past couple years. In 2019, there’s been a huge increase due to new updates around certain regions of Turkey that are safe vs. those that are not.

I personally found that the media and internet overplayed the level of petty crime and scams in Turkey. In my experience, the city loves tourists as its good for their economy and the people are very hospitable. Additionally, prices are cheap making it very affordable.

Turkey Do’s and Don’ts:


Where to stay?

Do: Stay on both the eastern and western side. I’d stay in a hostel on the western side first (I recommend Cheers Hostel where we had a great experience!). That way, you can see all the touristy things, learn about the history, and meet other travelers. I recommend an Airbnb on the eastern side to crash in a more local neighbor for the next couple days.

Don’t: Stay just anywhere with Airbnb. We heard stories that they might be illegal? We think it was maybe a myth but still.. do your research and make sure your place is legit.

Tarek (manager at Cheers Hostel), Jeff, myself, Sam, Kevin and Sinan (organizes the pub crawl) in front of Cheers Hostel

What to eat?

Do: Eat as much Turkish food as you can! By far some of the best cuisine I’ve ever had. hummus, saksuka, kebab, Turkish breakfast, and more. Try to order a lot of small plates and share with people so you can try as much as you can! We recommend eating at Ciya.

Don’t: Drink the water! While it’s ok to drink, “1 to 2 times” (according to our local sources) any more than that is not recommended. We decided not to take a chance and drank bottled water. You can get bottles of water on the street for 20 cents.

Where to shop?

Do: go to the Spice Bizarre smell all the spices. You’ll even get free samples of spices, teas, and Turkish delights. If you’re looking for good prices on leather, jewelry or a Turkish carpet, you’ll get the best deals at the grand bizarre and it's fun to walk around.

Don’t: Buy anything at full price at the Grand Bizarre. You are expected to negotiate! Also, some of the places are not authentic, so make sure you know before you buy if that carpet is really “made in Turkey” or those diamond earrings are real.

What to talk about:

Do: Ask the locals about their language, history, and culture.

Don’t: Do not talk or text anything negative about the Turkish government – it is illegal.

How to get into the country:

Do: Bring $30 in US cash or Euros and pay before getting into the customs line. There will be a stand and they have ATMS.

Don't: Skip paying for the visa, get in the customs line, wait 30 minutes, and then have to go back and try paying for the visa using Turkish money (they only take US cash or Euros).


What to splurge on?

Do: An ATV tour and drive your own. They are super stable and it’s so fun!

Don’t: Do the "red tour". It covers what you would see in an ATV tour or hiking on your own.

We went on a hike our first day in Goreme. This shows some of the rock houses formed 6 million years ago.

Do: A hot air balloon ride

Don’t: Do a hot air balloon ride if you do not like heights or do not want to pay as it is expensive. You can watch the view from many places in town and still get an awesome view.

Do: Hike around on your own. There are many cave houses, rock formations, and underground cities to see. While some sights are further away and require driving (would recommend the Green Tour which we did not do), you can walk or cover a lot of it on a 2-hour ATV tour.

Don’t: Pay to go into the open-air museum, you can see caves yourself elsewhere.

Our Highs, Lows, Best Food, and Lessons Learned:



3 Highlights

1. Wild underground going out scene on a Wednesday... included shots that were on fire, breaking it down with Alison and Kevin, and 4 story high clubs.

2. Istanbul history tour... facts: Istanbul was first called Byzantine, then Constantinople, then Istanbul. It was also declared the new HQ of the Roman Empire.

3. 35 cent ferry from Europe to Asian side. Here we serendipitously stumbled into the best meal of our lives

Lowlight: Hagia Sofia (famous mosque)...I was bored

Best bite of food: Bread with fresh hummus and anchovies


3 Highlights:

1. Hiking past 2,500 year old rock homes

2. Balloon sunrise

3. Workout from roof of hostel over looking the beautiful town

Lowlight: No sleep before balloons

Best bite: Best falafel EVER from Anatolian Kitchen

Lesson Learned in Turkey: Istanbul is ahead of NYC in many ways



3 Highlights

1. Walking tour of Istanbul

2. Bar crawl through our hostel

3. A night out on the eastern side of the city chilling at the park and getting cheap pizza

Lowlight: Taking a one and a half hour train / bus to the airport with all of our bags when it was hot

Best Bite of Food: EVERY TIME I HAD HUMMUS... which was every day.


3 Highlights:

1. ATV-ing through Cappadocia

2. Traditional Turkish Dance show where Sam and Kevin started the limbo, Jeff had to court a lady through dance, I performed belly dancing, and Kevin through knives from his mouth in front of 200 people... the show encouraged audience participation and we were all about it! 3. Hot air balloon ride

Lowlight: Getting forced into the open air museum

Best bite of food: Falafel from Anatolian Kitchen

Lesson learned from Turkey: It's important to do research before going to a place however, do not let fear be the only guide. Be cautious and safe by researching and talking to various sources before going to a country with a higher travel warning. I almost did not go to Istanbul and Cappadocia because of the travel warnings in Turkey and am very happy I spent time learning those warnings applied to certain areas as well as how to travel safe.

ATVing in Cappadocia. Photo Credit: Sam

We were so lucky to be joined by our friends Kevin Beach and Jeff Brydon for the past 2-weeks as we explored Turkey and now France. As we say goodbye to Kevin and Jeff (we will miss you guys!), Sam and I are preparing for our 10 day hike around Mount Blanc. We will be offline and not using our phones during this time. Looking forward to connecting when we return!



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