Pros:Ancient city filled with wonder
Cons:Annoying wandering merchants who WILL put their hands into your wallet
The Bottom Line: Beautiful city, wonderful experiences, but take your common sense along - there are bad people everywhere, especially the wandering street vendors.
If you have already read two of my earlier reviews, you know that I had the opportunity to visit Greece and Turkey over Christmas. If you haven't read them, then you're just now learning of the lucky opportunity that came into my life. But that's neither here nor there, I have something more important to tell you -- beware!
Yes, Istanbul is a lovely, historical, huge city. It straddles two cultures like no other city in the world and stretches back into a history so deep you can only hope to scratch the surface when you begin studying it.
Yes, visit the Hagia Sophia (once a cathedral, then a mosque, now a museum -- if you take pictures inside, be careful, it's awfully dark, flash pictures don't develop in the main sections), Topkapi Palace (see the bones of John the Baptist and the riches of the Sultans), see the underground cisterns (where they filmed "From Russia with Love" and "Topkapi") and enjoy some of the wonderful food. And yes, do shop at the Great Bazaar. Have fun, haggle a little just try not to get lost.
But here's where the caveat comes in -- keep your eyes open, your ears alert and your wallet covered at all times.
We were part of a college sponsored tour, so there was a large group, meaning we had a tour bus. Our guide warned us about the sellers (mostly selling crap -- "genuine imposter brands" etc...they'll even tell you that's what it is. I even saw a "Kenneth Cool" leather jacket), and we saw for ourselves as they swarmed like vultures around our bus, just waiting for us.
Once off the bus, attempt to avert your eyes, if they don't make eye contact, they might stay away. If you fail in this, be pushy. Say no repeatedly and then walk away. However, this often does not work. We had a group of them hassle us all the way across one of the squares (It was our fault, a couple of us bought stuff -- the only stuff you might buy from them, tour books, since they usually sell them dirt cheap). My roommate hit upon a wonderful way to get rid of them.
When one comes up to you and says, "You buy, you want postcards? $1.00!" You reply, "I will give you this stick for them." Then show them the small twig you've been carrying for this purpose.
The vendor will look at the stick quizzically for a moment, as if wondering, Is it a magic stick, or is he stupid? Or am I stupid? Typically they will figure out you are messing with them, and then they will leave you alone. Our day went much better when we discovered this.
But on a serious note, if you do break down and buy what they are selling, be careful. They will try to confuse you, and tell you you're not grabbing the right amount of money, or switch currency amounts to make you pause -- then, if possible, they will actually (I'm not lying!) reach into your wallet and pull out the money for you, to help you, I suppose. Some did this to me, and I think they got away with some Traveler's Checks.
That's my story. It didn't dampen my enjoyment of Istanbul, I still loved all the history, all the sights, all the food, all my friends...but it did give me pause and reinforced everything I've ever been told about travel. When guidebooks and tour guides say to be careful about thieves and cheats, they are not kidding. Watch your wallet carefully, please. It will make your trip go by that much smoother.
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