Asia / Turkey

Why The Istanbul Experience Is Worth Missing Your Flight

This is the story of how I missed my flight in Istanbul because I wanted to take advantage of my time and explore the city. Let me explain why wandering through the streets of Kadıköy and sleeping in the Hagia Sophia Mosque were worth missing the flight:

The Backstory

First, let me explain how I ended up back in Istanbul in the first place. I had just returned from an incredible month-long adventure in Egypt. I had intended to return to Germany (where I live) after viewing the pyramids and seeing the diversity of Alexandria. My flight was (fortunately) canceled, and I found myself without a return ticket in one of Africa’s largest countries. My initial thinking was to extend my stay because I enjoyed the people and culture of Egypt. I eventually decided against it because I was out of energy (and money) and booked a trip to my hometown of Sivas, Turkey, with an 11-hour layover in Istanbul.

Boarding my flight with my stamps on the passport

Arriving in Istanbul

I was relieved to be back in my own country after a four-hour journey from Hurghada to Istanbul. I arrived at about 6 a.m., having only gotten 3 hours of sleep. The second leg of my trip was scheduled for around 7.30 p.m., so instead of sitting at the airport for 11 hours, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and tour Istanbul. Because this was an unplanned trip, I didn’t have my Turkish ID or sim card with me, but I assumed these were minor inconveniences (they weren’t). Despite the police officer’s advice to always carry my ID, I was able to get through border control with my German passport. I left my bag at the airport deposit and boarded a bus to Kadıköy, a well-known area on Istanbul’s Asian side.

Freezing in April

I bought a one-way bus ticket to Kadıköy and then noticed two things. First and foremost, I was back in my native country. Everyone was speaking Turkish, and I understood everything they said. One month in Egypt attempting to get by with English and some basic Arabic traumatized me. The second thing I noticed was that the climate was very different from where I had come from. I arrived in Istanbul in early April after leaving Egypt. For the past month, I had been wandering around in only a plain shirt and had not even considered the possibility of poor weather.

Let me tell you, this was a huge mistake. At 7 a.m. in Istanbul, it can get extremely cold. After about 20 minutes on the bus, I noticed that everyone was gazing at me because I was the only one without a proper jacket. I had a light jacket in my backpack, but as I already stated, the idea of bad weather did not even occur to me. Just as I thought that it could not get any worse, it started raining. So there I was, freezing in this bus but yet admiring the rainy scenery of this metropolis.

Fortunately, by the time I arrived in Kadıköy, the rain had stopped and I was finally at the Bosphorus. It wasn’t my first trip to Istanbul, but each time I return, the city has a different spirit. The peace and quiet of a morning in Kadıköy was exactly what I needed at the time. Remembering the tumult and bustle of Cairo made me appreciate my current situation much more (even though I was still freezing). When I saw an old man selling simit (a Turkish pastry), I couldn’t help but smile. For a little moment, I was at peace, but this also reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in a while. So I headed out into Kadıköy’s streets to eat a good breakfast. It was still early in the morning, so I didn’t have many options, but I came across this charming menemen restaurant.

Finally Turkish Breakfast

I entered the restaurant, which appeared to be quite empty, but after calling “Selamun Aleyküm” I received an immediate response. A father and son (I assume) were working and getting things up and running. That day, I appeared to be their first customer. I was looking over the menu and knew I had to order the menemen with cheese. The boy was very polite to me, and I was fortunate since the tea had just been brewed. While I was scanning around, I spotted tiny notes all over the place. It turned out that I was sitting in one of Kadıköy’s most famous breakfast spots, and these notes were kind remarks from customers. The food was fantastic, and it truly felt like you were eating at home. So, if you ever have the opportunity to visit this gorgeous area, I strongly advise you to have some Menemen at:

Meşhur Menemenci Cemal Polat:

Translation: “Our whole life is menemen”

Getting a Haircut

This breakfast gave me some energy back, which I really needed because it was still very cold outside. I was roaming through the streets of Kadıköy, and most of the stores were still closed. Then I found an open barbershop and decided it was finally time to get a haircut because I hadn’t had one in nearly a month.

So I walked in and was greeted by the barber himself, a very sweet old man. We had some communication problems at first because I was still getting used to speaking Turkish again. Because of my accent, he even asked whether I was from Turkmenistan. He understood my situation when I told him I was originally from Germany. Then we spoke about everything from politics to current events, just like every other day in a barbershop. He shared his thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis, claiming that it was all a scheme by certain countries to reduce the world’s population. We’ll never know, I suppose. The haircut turned out great, though:

I wish the guy in the back gave me his jacket

Ferry to Europe

So I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I even had a new haircut. The only issue left was that I didn’t have a jacket. I realized that most businesses in the city open around 10 a.m., so I still had some time before I go shopping. I decided I’d had enough of Kadıköy and wanted to take the ferry to Eminönü, a district on Istanbul’s European side. So I went to the bay to buy my ferry ticket, but it wasn’t as simple as that.

There were little machines where you could acquire your tickets, but you could only get them if you had an Istanbulkart. Because of the pandemic, there were no one-way tickets available, therefore you had to connect your Istanbulkart with your unique HES Code. Without getting too technical, this effectively meant that I needed access to internet, in order to get to the other side. I was fortunate to meet some kind individuals who assisted me. Despite the fact that it took me around 30 minutes, I was relieved to finally board the ship. Did I mention I’d only had about 3 hours of sleep? I basically slept the entire ferry voyage, so there’s nothing else to say about that. However, the true story begins in Europe…

Jackets in Turkish Bazaars?

I had finally arrived in Europe, and my first stop was Eminönü, a district famous for its fish sandwiches. I rushed to the nearest bazaar in search of a jacket. Ironically, the first bazaar I came upon was the Misir Pazari (or, in English, the Egyptian Bazaar). So I rapidly walked through the area seeking for a clothing store, but I was unsuccessful this time. When I asked several of the vendors inside where I could find jackets, they pointed me to a little alley near the bazaar.

So there I was, finally, in a street full with clothing dealers, already fantasizing about the feel of a warm coat or jacket. After looking through the products for sale and even trying some on, I was quickly disappointed. The jackets were of terrible quality and all had Louis Vuitton or Gucci emblems on them. In despair, I checked my watch and saw that it was nearly 10 a.m., so I sat down in a little restaurant, drank some soup, and awaited the opening of my savior: LC Waikiki. When the shop opened, I was able to locate the perfect jacket in a matter of seconds.

From walking in the bazaars to drinking lentil soup

The Magnificent Hagia Sophia

Feeling like Fatih Sultan Mehmed, when he conquered Constantinople, I was finally ready to be a proper tourist. So I did the first thing that sprang to mind: I went to the Hagia Sophia, which had lately been (re)converted into a mosque. I exited the bazaar quarter and was already between Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Blue Mosque.  Suddenly, no one spoke Turkish, and I saw tourists from all over the world. Then I walked into the mosque, and the magic began. The emotion and intensity of that structure are difficult to express, but stick with me as I attempt.

You have the impression that you have traveled back in time and are now in a large palace. There is art and history everywhere you look. On the other hand, when you glance down, you see a gorgeous carpet with cats all around the place. Even though there were a lot of people, it was still extremely quiet and relaxing. Speaking of relaxing, after about 20 minutes of gazing around, I became exhausted and sat in a corner, just watching everything around me. Sleeping on the ferry voyage was apparently insufficient. My eyes closed, and when I opened them again, people were gathering for the Friday Prayer…

Time for Friday Prayer

My original idea was to visit Hagia Sophia quickly, then tour some more before praying at another mosque. Sleeping for an hour in that crowded environment was not in the plan, but I was glad I did. At around 12 a.m., I woke to see some individuals coming in, and the women were slowly exiting the main hall (they pray on the other side). I decided that praying here was the only correct thing to do, and let me tell you, it was perhaps the best decision I did that day. The mosque immediately filled up, but I was able to secure a good spot. I was completely taken away when the muezzin began the adhan. The echo of this massive structure adds a lot of richness to the already great voice. Here’s a short clip of the adhan at the Hagia Sophia Mosque:

Next Station: Galata Tower

Because there were so many people, it took half an hour to get out of the facilities after the Friday prayer. I was able to escape and saw a man selling corn and chestnuts (which are very popular in Istanbul) and decided to try the latter. Unfortunately, the chestnut wasn’t really warm. You win some, you lose some, I suppose. Then I walked to the tram station because I wanted to get to Beyoğlu, which is home to the iconic Galata Tower. I stepped on the train, which was a breeze because I already had my Istanbulkart. The train ride itself was a lovely adventure with spectacular views. Moments like these are ideal for observing people on their daily commute.

When I arrived at Karaköy, I immediately went up the Camondo Stairs, which are famous in their own right. So there I was, standing in front of the Galata Tower, with dozens of other couples taking photos or requesting others to take photos of them. According to Roman mythology, the person you climb the Galata Tower with is the person you marry. I couldn’t put this legend to the test because I went alone, so I continued my trip…

The beauties of Beyoğlu

Taksim: Search for Internet

It was already 4 p.m., so I went down Istiklal Street in search of a cafe with wifi. Because I didn’t plan this excursion, I didn’t have any mobile data. In addition, I had to return to the airport, which was on the Asian side and quite far away. On my way, I couldn’t help but stop for some hot corn to complete the last part of my journey. I eventually discovered a mall with free wifi and found my bus back to the airport. The only issue was that the bus leaves Taksim at 5 p.m. and takes around 2 hours. If I recall well, my flight was at 7.30 PM, so there was a good risk I’d miss it. Anyway, this was my only choice, so I took it.

Eating some hot corn on Istiklal Street

Back to the Airport

I arrived at Taksim Square and took the bus to Sabiha Gökcen Airport for about 20 liras (2€). It was 5 p.m., and the bus hadn’t even started yet. Everything had to go according to plan now if I was going to make my flight. Even if I arrived at the airport on time, I still had to reclaim my bag from the baggage claim. There was also the possibility of taking too long at security or traveling through the wrong gate. Perhaps I got lucky and the flight was delayed. With these thoughts racing through my mind, I soon fell asleep.

We had already arrived at the airport when I woke up, and the first thing I did was check the time. Then I realized there was a factor I had completely missed. The horrible Istanbul traffic. The bus ride had taken well over two hours, and there was only a half-hour until departure. Did I just miss a flight for the first time in my life?

Last Hope

I jumped off the bus and raced towards the departure gate, but I still needed to grab my backpack. I rushed to the deposit and grabbed my belongings. Then I hurried to the departure screens to find out where my gate was. On the large screen, I found my trip to Sivas, and let’s just say there was bad news. It stated that boarding had ended and that no further passengers would be permitted on the plane. That basically means I missed my flight.

There I was, defeated and without a plan, in one of Turkey’s busiest airports. I had become so absorbed in the city that I had forgotten to arrange my way back. Disappointed at first, I reflected on all the moments and experiences I had that day, which made me feel relieved.

So, what am I supposed to do now? I considered returning to Germany, but there were no flights available that day, so I would have had to spend another night. So I did the only reasonable thing I could think of at the time: I bought the next ticket to Kayseri, the nearest big city to my initial destination. I waited for nearly three hours, and this time I managed to not miss the flight.

Waiting at the airport for my new flight

Lessons learned

I certainly did not expect such an adventure in such a short period of time. Nevertheless, nearly freezing to death without sleep or internet made me realize a few things. Let me share some lessons I learned on this rather different trip.

The first point to mention is that if you’re lucky and let yourself go with the flow, a spontaneous trip can turn out rather wonderfully. You simply must ensure that you have a plan for returning on time. The second thing is something I already knew, traveling alone in a crowded environment can be a satisfying experience. You meet new individuals and have interactions that you wouldn’t have on a group trip. The final piece of advice is that not everything on social media is real. If you saw my stories from my trip to Istanbul, you’d believe I was having the time of my life. While that may be true, as you have just read, there were various obstacles involved.

So to summarize everything I have said, just don’t miss your flight. Or maybe occasionally miss your flight. Also, always bring a jacket with you 🙂

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