This is part ten of my travel series to South Africa. For the series so far, please see below:
Traveling to South Africa – South African Airways and Federal Air
Singita Ebony – The Lodge
Singita Ebony – Day to Night
Singita Sweni – The Lodge
Singita Sweni – Day to Night
Cape Town – The Peninsula Tour and The Boat House
Cape Town – City and Winelands Tour
Cape Town – V&A Waterfront, Test Kitchen, Fork and Table Mountain
24 Hours in Istanbul
On the way home to San Francisco from Cape Town, we ended up having about a 24 hour layover in Istanbul. Somehow after we booked our trip, we got it into our heads that our layover was only a few hours, and thus of course didn’t book a hotel in the city. By the time we were in Africa however, I realized that we had an overnight and quickly booked us a room and jotted down a few recommended sights in Istanbul. Our overnight ended up being the ideal plan – it was great to break up the long travel time back, and plus we got to dip our toes into a new country!
So on the morning of our flight from Cape Town, we headed to the airport and got ready to board our plane.
By the way – if you are checking any baggage, I’d highly recommend that you have it plastic wrapped. Everybody from the concierge to the airline staff were recommending this step.
And then we boarded our plane! It was the first time on Turkish Air for both me and Mr. Feather.
Thought this was a nice touch – flowers near the entrance on the plane while we were boarding.
Our seats. Turkish flies a two class plane from Cape Town to Istanbul. This was their business/first equivalent.
The seats were lie flat and they offered turn down service.
Decent sized personal on board entertainment screen.
We were quite happy with the Turkish Air seats – they were your basic business lie flat and while not brand new, they were definitely newer/in better shape than those on SAA.
The service was also quite good – more on the efficient Lufthansa “How can we solve this problem side”, versus the Cathay/Singapore “How can we make your day better” attitude. I like both equally so was happy.
Where Turkish really excelled however was the food. They had some great service flairs, like clearly outlining in a folder the food options for the different segments of the flight.
What I also really liked was the check off system for breakfast – so instead of an attendant coming around and asking for your breakfast order, you simply filled out this card before going to sleep.
The Cape Town to Istanbul flight has about an hour stop in Johannesburg (you don’t deplane). During that flight, we were served small sandwiches, a sweet nutty tart, and drinks.
Then, after we took off from Johannesburg, the dinner service began.
Nuts and small bites served before appetizers.
There was also a mixed appetizer cart that rolled around, and you chose a selection to go on a plate. I’m a huge tapas fan so this was one of my favorite parts of the meal!
Here are our selections – I made Mr. Feather get another serving of the egg roll type things because I love egg rolls. These tasted similar enough!
Then, a light soup was served.
Main course – we both had the chili shrimp with rice.
Dessert was served via another rolling cart (hooray!).
I chose the fresh fruit and baklava, with some custard ice cream on the side.
After our meal, a movie or two and some hours of sleep, we landed in Istanbul! We hopped into our car and headed to our hotel, The Neorion.
I booked the Neorion last minute while in Africa…it was the #1 hotel on Tripadvisor for Istanbul at the time, and the Four Seasons was a multiple like five times more. While I can be a bit of a brat with hotels, for a quick layover the Neorion was perfect for what we needed.
They were very gracious and let us check in quite early. Our room was clean and spacious. The service was also very good. When they saw that I was quickly going through the two small complimentary bottles of water in the room, someone was quickly dispatched with multiple 1L bottles to the room, all complimentary.
Complimentary Turkish delight in all of the rooms and in the lobby.
We found this letter on our bed along with a farewell gift of Turkish delight when we got back from our sight seeing- thought was a very nice and hospitable touch.
In the mornings, there was a very good complimentary buffet, and in the afternoons there was afternoon tea. In the evenings, there was a complimentary glass of wine on the rooftop where you could enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately we never made it to the tea or the evening drinks, but we did get a quick peek at the rooftop view in the morning when we checked in.
Overall, I would highly recommend the Neorion. It was a great hotel with service from employees who felt like they genuinely cared. The price was very good (like I said, orders of magnitude less than a “true” five star hotel) and there were lots of lovely little extras. A few cons were that the bath amenities were less than luxurious and the towels and especially the bedding were very thin. In fact, I had to ask for more blankets to be sent to the room. On our next trip, I might try out a Park Hyatt or Four Seasons, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Neorion as a very good three/four star option!
Now…onto our day. We had a quick breakfast down at the buffet, and then headed out to walk around. Neorion was located in Sultanahmet, or the Old City, where many of the tourist attractions were. The neighborhoods right next to the Neorion, while obviously catering to tourists, were very charming to us.
We walked to the Hagia Sophia, but unfortunately didn’t go in. We were quite tired and on a “lazy person’s” tour of Istanbul where we (well really me), ate lots and rested frequently on benches. Actually we weren’t supposed to even get this close to the Hagia but I wanted to at least take a photo, because I always got the Hagia Sophia as a cultural achievement when playing Civilization IV. Anybody else still play Civ? Anyone?
The one sight that I knew I definitely wanted to see and that we prioritized, was The Blue Mosque. I was really excited when we saw it even from a distance, the architecture is just amazing.
The line going into the Mosque wasn’t too bad, and entrance was free. I would recommend if you’re going to any religious sites in Istanbul to come prepared with your own headscarf and to wear something covering your shoulders and coming down near your knees. By the way, leggings don’t count – too tight!
I was wearing shorts and didn’t have a scarf, so had to borrow a complimentary head scarf and don a robe as well. They both smelled… musty. Next time I’m bringing my own head scarf, wearing something knee length and I would recommend that any female visitors do the same.
It was worth it though. The inside of The Blue Mosque was so beautiful. We sat on the ground and just stared up at the ceiling.
After our visit to the Blue Mosque, we took a short walk and soon were at our lunch destination – Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi.
This is a very famous spot for meatballs, where we saw tourists and locals alike eating. You could watch the chefs preparing delicious kebabs and meatballs right from the window outside.
There’s another restaurant just a little bit away with the exact same name (don’t know if it was deliberate), so make sure you’re at the right one if you go. The “copy cat” restaurant reminded me a bit what you see in China.
Our orders. We shared a mixed salad, and I had the meatballs while Mr. Feather had the lamb kebab.
Mr. Feather loves lamb so insisted on ordering lamb while I had the meatballs. I think he didn’t think it would be an issue because I don’t each much beef and can never finish it. These meatballs however, were an entirely different story. I could have easily eaten the whole plate, and then some… they were that good! Unfortunately I didn’t get to finish my plate because Mr. Feather, who was beginning to become alarmed by the rate I was devouring these at, quickly grabbed a few and ate them! I brought up this food thievery for the rest of our day.
After lunch, we walked around and just explored the local neighborhoods. All around Istanbul, there were cats roaming the street. Reminded me a bit of Italy.
Passing by an exhibition from South Korea in the city center – apparently this was set up to introduce local residents to Korean culture.
After some walking around a bit and a mere two hours after lunch, we decided to have some afternoon tea and headed back to our hotel’s general vicinity. Located a mere five minute walk from the Neorion was one of the more famous dessert shops in Istanbul – Hafiz Mustafa.
Hafiz Mustafa is open 24 hours a day, and once you see the displays from the window, you can’t help but go inside. Take a look at the amazing treats below.
There’s seating on both floors, inside and out, and we opted to head to the second floor and to take a table next to the open window so we could people watch outside.
The GIANT menu they brought over – each page had a huge photo of a dessert or drink and a description. It took us probably 10-15 minutes just to go through this menu and figure out what we wanted. There are so many options that look delicious that unless you know what you want from the get go, you really have to start a “short list” and then eliminate and choose from there.
Here were the choices we ended up with – a pistachio pudding…
…and a doughy dessert soaked with syrup (ekmek kadayıfı).
We tipped like we normally do in the US and the waiter brought over some complimentary tea. I’m not sure if this would be for everybody or if it was because of the tip! Either way it was appreciated.
After a little rest at Hafiz Mustafa, we headed over to check out The Grand Bazaar, which we then found out was closed (it was a Sunday). Instead, we detoured about 5 minutes and went to the Spice Market instead.
It was very cool getting to see all of the very busy bazaars and spice sellers at work. I was tempted to purchase some but there were so many options that it quickly became overwhelming.
Actually, I also was thinking about purchasing some caviar, there were lots of sellers of caviar from Iran, Russia, and more.
After the Spice Market and a brief siesta at our hotel, we ventured back out for a final meal.
Yes, it probably seems like we ate a lot on our day and yes, that is true. There were so many places and dishes that I wanted to try out and it was very sad only having basically a day and night in Istanbul, so we tried to stuff as much food down our gullets as possible. It was totally worth it though we did feel a little bit like stuffed sausages on the plane ride back to San Francisco!
So for our last meal in Istanbul, we decided to stay quite local and went to a tourist favorite called Aloran for an early dinner. For those of you who do stay at the Four Seasons Sultahnahmet, this is right next door.
Complimentary bread that was still hot from the oven.
There was only one dish that I really, really had to have – the manti. Manti are basically Turkish dumplings, like Russian pelmini or Chinese lamb versions. I try dumplings (and noodle soups) wherever I go!
Aloran’s lamb dumplings were amazing, especially with chili peppers and yogurt sauce on top.
Mr. Feather ordered the pizza. We had been told that Turkish pizza was excellent. This was very good, though perhaps not as unique or different than the pizza we get at home.
After we finished our small meal at Aloran, we rolled ourselves and our big stomachs back home. We were both dead tired but decided to take one last look at the city from Neorion’s rooftop.
We had so much fun in our brief 24 hours in Istanbul, and now we know we can’t wait to come back and visit wonderful Turkey.
The next morning, we hopped on our United flight (transferring through Frankfurt) back to San Francisco. After two weeks, it was time to head home…
…and that wraps up my trip report for South Africa, 2013. It was one of our favorite trips that we have ever taken and we truly felt incredibly fortunate to experience everything we did. We still talk about our favorite meals in Cape Town, the wonderful hospitality and wildlife at Singita, and the beautiful architecture of Istanbul. See you again soon, South Africa and Istanbul…and thank you for reading along!