I planned my six-week trip to Southeast Asia in a very specific manner this summer: I wanted to route through Istanbul on Turkish Airways.
This is because Turkish Airways offers free city tours to those with long layovers. I still hadn’t been to Turkey, and I was thrilled with the idea of having a free tour during my stopover, so I specifically organized my flights to include this.
If there’s one thing I learned about travel (and life), though, is that things rarely go as planned.
When preparing for bed Friday evening, just four days before our trip, images of military and gunfire invaded my social media. There had been an attempted military coup in Turkey. This means that the military basically tried to take control of Turkey.
Long story short, it didn’t work. In response, the President is now using this as an excuse to get rid of (literally, take out) a large portion of the military. It’s also an excuse for him to create more dictator-like laws and fire many educated people, like school teachers and close down many charities –anything that doesn’t seem to agree with his political ideals.
But this isn’t meant to be a political post, it’s meant to be a travel post, so we were clearly concerned that this would make our coming journey unsafe, especially as the military temporarily took control of the airport.
As of Tuesday morning, things seemed to have calmed down, although the US media still portrayed the situation as alarming, I chose to listen to European media which said things were much more tranquil, and decided to carry on with our trip.
We took off at about midnight on Tuesday, nervous but excited. We actually loved our five-hour Turkish Airways flight. We had a whole row to ourselves, the food and service was great and although we didn’t really manage to sleep and we entertained ourselves with movies on the personal screens.
We landed at about 5am and headed out into the airport, which actually seemed incredibly quiet. We napped for a couple hours in the arrivals hall before the tour began. Although we were pretty exhausted after night one with no sleep, we were running on adrenaline for the tour, which involved 42 tourists from countries all over the world on a bus.
Let me start by saying I am definitely not a bus tour person. But when special circumstances (eg, a totally free tour) call for buses, I’ll do it. So, we boarded the bus with all the other tourists.
We headed into the city center and started off with a traditional Turkish (and free) breakfast, with a boiled egg, various cheeses and bread with honey and jam. There wasn’t any coffee but there was tea.
After breakfast we walked through the city center, which I found to be beautiful. Our first stop was the famous Blue Mosque.
Despite my long dress, I was still deemed inappropriate and had to cover my arms with my sweatshirt, hair with my scarf and they gave me a sarong to put over my legs as a skirt.
After putting all that clothing on, I then had to take off my shoes. It made me laugh a little to think I had just put on a million layers and then had to take my shoes off, but this how things are done in this culture, so I had to oblige, of course.
Sufficiently covered and sweating of course, I headed into the Blue Mosque. If the inside was as spectacular as the outside, with towering domes and pointy minarets, I knew it would be worth it.
The millions of tiles that cover the ceilings and walls of this mosque are pretty incredible, though I did prefer the outside view (I always like the outsides of things better).
Many people were praying and there were also many tourists just looking around.
After the mosque, we visited the Hagia Sofia Mosque (just from the outside).
After a few photos, we headed over to the Topkapi Palace, where we were given 50 free minutes to enjoy some lovely gardens, gorgeous panoramic views and some of the Sultan’s Chambers.
Although there were plenty of different rooms with museum exhibits, we only had time to do a few, and selectively decided on the weapons room, filled with swords and old-fashioned guns decorated with opal and pearl, and the Islamic room, housing the scepter Moses allegedly parted the Red Sea with and a man who’s been reading the Korean 24/7 since the 17th century (well, not actually him the whole time, but turns are taken).
This was especially insightful, as I am trying to understand what drives people to partake in the Islamic religion. With everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, empathy and understanding are key
After this, we headed over to lunch with a view.
The food included traditional Ottoman specialties like Shawarma, which was decent. I mean, I can’t complain as this completely free. And I like free things.
After lunch, we got back on the tour bus to head to the airport. It’s worth noting I saw no signs of an attempted military coup, except for possibly some new flags hung around the city.
I felt very safe and very comfortable walking around and at the airport, and I can’t wait to return and spend more time in the city, exploring it at my own pace and in my own way.
If you have a flight with Turkish, I encourage you to build in a long layover and take this free tour, you’ll love it, as it’s a great introduction to a city with quite a bit of history.
After a very long customs line, we were able to grab an ice cream (traditional Turkish), and prepare for another night of (not) sleeping on a plane. Destination: Kuala Lumpur.