Pisa: A beautiful mistake

While visiting Florence, I took a day trip to Pisa, which is only a 60-90 minute train ride away. I really wanted to see the leaning tower and thought this would be an easy side trip to make. Below is a brief description of my trip.

What to Do:

Square of Miracles. The iconic attraction for Pisa is, of course, the leaning Tower of Pisa. This tower can be found in this beautiful square, which also houses Pisa’s Baptistery, Cathedral, Camposanto (cemetery), Opera del Duomo Museum (cathedral works), and Sinopie Museum (drawings for frescoes). This square is beautiful and the true highlight of the city. Seeing the Tower in person is really cool. It makes a great photo and is free to walk around. However, visitors can also pay to walk up to the top of the Tower. In order to do this, visitors need to buy a ticket and reserve a time slot. Visitors can do all of this ahead of time online or at the ticket office on site. Visitors can buy a combo ticket that allows access to the Tower, Baptistery, and museums or buy a single ticket for the Tower. Entering the Cathedral is free with any ticket purchase. I chose to purchase the Tower only ticket and did not regret paying the money to walk up. The climb is not too strenuous, and the view from the top is nice. When going up the Tower, visitors are not allowed to carry any bags or selfie sticks. They can bring a phone or camera and that is it. All bags and other items must be stored in the lockers, which are free with the ticket. There is a line to store bags and pick them back up so plan accordingly because visitors must be in line by the Tower 15 minutes before the time of their ticket. I decided not to buy the combo ticket because I had already seen the Florence Baptistery and at the time of my visit the Opera del Duomo Museum was closed for renovations. However, the combo pass is probably worth it for those who have a full day here. I did go see the inside of the Cathedral, which was nice and a good way to cool down are climbing the Tower. Plan to spend about 1-2 hours here for climbing the Tower and visiting the Cathedral.

Shopping:

There is a market in the lot next to the Square of Miracles. These stalls sell the usual tourist trinkets and would be a good place to look for those who need to buy a gift or souvenir of Pisa. There is also a gift shop inside the square that sells books, bags, magnets, shirts, mugs, and miniature models of the Tower. For me, the photos I took of the Tower were enough and better than any of the Tower trinkets, but if I had to buy a gift for someone I might opt to get a postcard or something with the Tower unobstructed by people.

What to Eat:

Since I was only here for a half day trip, I only ate lunch here. There are several restaurants nearby the Square of Miracles where visitors can grab a bite to eat with a view of the Tower. I found a place with an open spot and grabbed a small pizza and beer while waiting for my time slot to climb the Tower. The meal was good and filling but nothing overly memorable. There might be better spots farther from the tourist site so those looking for a more memorable meal could look elsewhere, but those short on time or less inclined to venture out will fine a decent meal in this area.

Where to Stay:

I did not stay overnight here so I cannot recommend any areas. Instead, I took a side trip here from Florence. There is an airport nearby Pisa and train station so this is a place visitors may stop overnight. However, Florence is close enough to stay for the night as well.

Getting Around:

I arrived here and departed by train (coming from and returning to Florence). The train ride is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half depending on time of day and train. The ticket price is very reasonable at around 9 euros each way. Trains run frequently between the two cities so visitors can purchase tickets at the train station to prevent locking themselves into specific times to depart and return. The train station in Pisa is about a 25 minute walk to the Tower of Pisa so visitors do not need to take additional transport once in Pisa. Everything is within walking distance.

Overall:

I really enjoyed my trip to Pisa. Seeing the leaning Tower in person was definitely memorable. And getting here from Florence was very easy. I only spent a half day here, and this was plenty of time to see the Tower. Visitors could spend longer to see more sights but I think a day is sufficient. I came here in October so I was able to purchase my tickets on site and was able to get a time slot to climb the tower. During peak season, however, visitors may want to plan and book ahead. Pisa is a city for travelers who appreciate architecture and the beauty of mistakes.

Florence: Birthplace of the Renaissance

Following my time in Amsterdam, I was ready to go back toward the Mediterranean and warmer weather. I have always wanted to go to Italy so I could not resist taking a trip through that country. I love Italian food, and my friends who have visited Italy always confirm that it is a great place to visit. I was really excited to finally make my way there and decided to start my Italian trip in Florence. Below are the things I did and saw in Florence:

Things to Do:

Florence Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral with its impressive dome is an iconic part of the city. The Duomo can be seen from several points in the city, but visitors will want to see the whole cathedral, including the inside of the dome. Visitors need to buy tickets ahead of time to climb up the Duomo and then make a reservation with a set time to do this. Visitors have to have a ticket first before they can sign up for a time slot, but all of this can be done online. The best option is to buy the combo ticket, which will include entry into the Duomo, cathedral, cathedral museum, bell tower, and baptistery. These are all located off the same square, Piazza del Duomo, and can easily be done in the same day. But visitors do have up to 48 hours from the first use of the ticket to visit all of the buildings. For the Duomo, there are limited slots available, and when I was there I was fortunate to grab one of the last slots before they filled up for a few days so visitors should plan ahead and book early. Visitors need to be in line at the start of their time frame and ready to go. There are a lot of stairs to climb to the top but there are places to stop along the way. Seeing the painted inside of the Duomo up close is impressive and seeing the views of the city from the top of the Duomo is great. This is the one must do in this piazza and a must do for this city! Plan to spend 1.5 hours climbing up and down the Duomo and stopping to take in the views.

Piazza del Duomo. As stated above, this square contains the Florence Cathedral, Cathedral Museum, bell tower, and baptistery. Since the piazza surrounds the cathedral, it offers great views of the marble panels. There are several benches around the cathedral for visitors to take a break and rest their feet from climbing and walking. There are also lots of places to eat in this area so visitors can grab a glass of wine and bite to eat while looking at the cathedral. The Cathedral Museum has a coffee shop with seats outside that makes a nice place to get an espresso in the morning. The bell tower, which is located next to the cathedral, can be climbed. Unlike the Duomo, visitors do not make reservations to do this, and instead must wait in line. This also has a lot of steps so visitors may not want to do this on the same day as the Duomo. The views from here are not as great as from the Duomo so if visitors only have time or the energy to do one, do the Duomo. The museum, which is also located next to the cathedral, has some great pieces, including Donatello’s Magdalene so it is definitely worth a stop. The baptistery is also worth a peek inside to see the golden dome. Again, it is located next to the cathedral. Visitors should plan to spend about an hour to climb up and down the bell tower (taking short breaks), an hour or 1.5 hours seeing the highlights of the museum, and about 15-30 minutes looking around the inside of the baptistery.

Uffizi Gallery. This museum features classic Italian renaissance art, including works by masters like da Vinci and Botticelli. This gallery is well laid out and easy to walk through but visitors may want to take a guided tour in order to get more in depth knowledge about the key works here. I saw several groups during my time there in different languages, but these were not done through the museum. Visitors would need to book a guide outside of the museum. Visitors could also choose to do an audio tour or to buy a guide book, both of which are offered through the museum. I chose to just walk through at my own pace without any type of guide and had a lovely time. This galley does have limited space so the number of visitors allowed in at any time is capped. Visitors should plan to buy tickets ahead of time using the official museum website. The tickets are slightly more expensive but allow visitors to pick an open time slot and skip the ticket line. Visitors must pick up their online tickets from the window (located next to the museum) 10 minutes before their time slot. Then they will go directly to the line to enter the museum. Visitors may still have to wait, but the wait will definitely be shorter than the regular ticket line. In my opinion, it is worth it to pay a little extra to have a time slot and be able to skip the line. This gallery is an absolute must visit for art lovers. Seeing the beautiful masterpieces in person is amazing. I especially loved seeing The Birth of Venus. Visitors should plan to spend about 2-4 hours here.

Accademia Gallery. This is another renaissance gallery but much smaller and with more statues than the Uffizi. Since the space is smaller, a tour guide is not really needed but an audio guide, which is free with admission, is useful given the size of the space. Visitors will want to come here to see the famous statue, Michelangelo’s David. This work really is a showstopper and worth a visit to this museum. His other statues that are housed here are equally stunning. Again, visitors should plan ahead and buy tickets online so that they can reserve a time and skip the ticket line. The extra fee is worth a guaranteed time to see this work and to spend less time in line. Plan to spend an hour here.

Ponte Vecchio. This recognizable bridge may be a tourist trap, but it is still a fun place to visit. The bridge is lined on both sides with jewelry shops so visitors in the market for jewelry should definitely head here. The jewelry here is on the pricey side, but it is legitimate. Even those not in the market will enjoy doing some window shopping. Crossing this bridge feels like walking down a street. It is an easy stroll, and visitors can end their walk by grabbing a glass of wine somewhere near the bridge where they can view it. Plan to spend 30 minutes here browsing the shops.

Piazzale Michelangelo. Visitors will need to make a small ‘hike’ to get to this square, but the views will be worth it. This square has some of the best views of the Florence Cathedral and Duomo. Most people will come here at sunset, which is a great time to get pictures, so be prepared to fight the crowds. Get here a little early to get a good spot or just be patient if the good spots are taken. Everyone will definitely get a good picture or two. There is not much up here in terms of food and shops (at least not at sunset) so come for the view but plan to eat somewhere else. Plan to spend about 30 minutes here taking in the views.

Shopping:

This is a great place to buy a leather jacket. Visitors can find plenty of styles and colors. The cheapest ones will be found in the stalls on the streets of San Lorenzo market. However, these are likely to not be made of Italian leather or made in Italy. The mid-range priced ones will be found in the shops around this market area. These are likely made in Italy but may not be made of Italian leather. The workmanship on these jackets though will look nice. The most expensive ones will be found in the Italian boutique shops. These will likely be made in Italy and with Italian leather so very authentic. I chose to go with the mid-range option. The jacket I got was very nice and well made. It was well fitted and a great cognac brown color in a nice Italian cut. The mid-range jackets cost around 200-250 euros, which is cheaper than what a similar jacket would cost in the U.S. At these prices, I was tempted to buy two. Visitors will not regret buying a classic jacket that will last a long time and will not go out style.

This is also a great place to buy street art in Italy. Visitors will find prints being sold in all the popular piazzas and, of course, can buy copies of famous works in souvenir shops. I ended up buying  a large copy of The Birth of Venus that was being sold in the Piazza del Duomo. The price after negotiation was good, and it will make a great wall piece back home.

What to Eat:

Although paninis are often not the first thing to come to mind when thinking about Italian food, Florence has some great panini shops. These sandwiches are a must eat here. One place that I really liked is Panini Toscani. This place is rated number one on TripAdvisor for a reason. The service is great. As mentioned in numerous reviews, visitors go in, and the owner will have give them a small selection of meats and cheeses to try first. Then they choose their favorites along with bread and toppings to create their own sandwich. These paninis were simple but really delicious and priced reasonably. The shop is located in Piazza del Duomo next to the cathedral. This shop has limited seating so I suggest taking a panini to go and finding a seat on a bench to eat while looking at the cathedral. This place is popular so be prepared for a bit of a wait. The other place I really liked is Il Bufalo Trippone. This place has a more extensive list of paninis with unique combinations of meats and condiments. All of the sandwiches looked tasty. I had one with truffle that was really good. My only regret was not discovering this place sooner so that I could try more sandwiches. Again, the price is very reasonable. I am not a huge sandwich person but the paninis in Florence are great and a good cheap eat.

Where to Stay:

Staying near the Duomo or off of any of the major piazzas will provide beautiful views but will also likely cost more. I chose to stay in an Airbnb that was about a 20 minute bus ride from the city center. It was a nice residential area and a 5 minute walk to a bus stop. It was cheaper than staying closer to the center and was still convenient to the major sites but was not as convenient to shops and cafes. I did all of my eating closer to the city center. However, the cheaper cost for me offset any inconvenience of not being next to shops and cafes.

Getting Around:

I arrived to Florence by plane from Amsterdam. Vueling airlines was having a great deal on ticket prices. There is an airport shuttle bus located near the terminal just follow the signs after exiting the airport. It is not clear how often it leaves, but I just went to the bench and waited with others. Tickets cost around 6 or 7 euros and cash is paid directly to the driver. The bus goes to the central train station where travelers can catch other buses to the rest of the city. When I arrived, it was late at night so the city buses were no longer running. Instead, I went to the taxi line and took a taxi to my Airbnb. Once in Florence, it is easy to get by on foot or by bus. The bus system runs regularly and is easy to figure out since it is linked to Google maps. Tickets must be bought before boarding the bus and validated on the bus. They are sold at any of the tobacco shops located throughout the city. Once I found a shop, I bought a group of tickets to last through my trip. When I departed Florence, I left by train to Bologna. I decide to go by train because it was the fastest option, and tickets were not expensive. I took a bus to the train station. My train was early evening but my check out was in the morning so I arrived to the station early and paid to have my baggage stored there for a few hours while I explored the city. I came back to the train station closer to the departure time to pick up my luggage and then waited in the main area until my train popped up on the screen with the platform number. I had booked my ticket online ahead of time and printed it out at the company ticket machine. Train tickets must be printed and validated before boarding. Be careful when booking tickets to choose the right train station because there are several stations considered to be in Florence, but the Santa Maria Novella station is the central one.

Overall:

I really fell in love with Florence. I was a little worried that it was over hyped and my expectations would be too great, but thankfully this was not the case. This city really does meet and exceed all expectations. I visited this city alone and had a great time wandering around and discovering everything at my own pace. I stayed here for four days, which is sufficient time to see the highlights, but travelers may want to stay longer after falling in love with this place. I came here in October so it was not peak tourist season and waits were not as bad as they likely are in the summer. The weather was nice. Perfect weather to wear my new leather jacket. I would definitely recommend coming here in fall to avoid crowds. This city is for travelers who love renaissance art and history.

Additional Tip:

Florence is not really a city for spontaneous travelers (at least not for travelers who want to visit the tourist sites). The buildings here are full of character but old so they are not made to hold the large crowds that flock here today. The number of people that can fit inside are limited so getting tickets ahead of time is important. I was lucky to still be able to book tickets for sites when I first arrived, but during peak season these tickets are likely to sell out days or weeks ahead of time. Travelers should really start booking things before they arrive.

Because I enjoy reading books set in the places I visit, I read E. M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View, which is set in Florence for the first part and in England for the second part. This classic novel is on a lot of best novel lists so it is definitely worth a read for those who love classics. For those interested in reading novels for travel, however, this novel is more of a critique on English society in the early 20th century than a look at Florentine society. Still, the description of Florence will be recognizable when walking around the city.

Cappadocia: Hot air balloon bliss

While visiting Turkey, I also took a short trip with a couple of friends to Cappadocia. I had first heard of this town and seen pictures of its beautiful scenery when researching the best places to take a hot air balloon ride, which has been one of my bucket list items. And I could not wait to see the natural wonders of this semi-arid region in person. Following are some of the things to do and see in this town:

What to Do:

Hot air ballooning. Goreme is rated as one of the top places in the world to take a hot air balloon ride because the views are amazing, and the wind pattern is steady. This was my first time taking a balloon ride, and I loved it! The balloon operators in Cappadocia have been doing tours here for a while, and there are a number of companies to choose from. Visitors will not go wrong choosing any of them. The easiest way to book is probably through the hotel, which will have a company they work with. The companies all have experienced pilots, and a similar price structure. The main difference in prices is based on how many people are in the basket, with the lower price having more people. We opted for the mid-range price, which had about 16 people in the basket, and found this to be a good number. We were not overly crowded, and everyone was able to get great shots. The basket was divided into four sections so we had five people in our section since we were a party of three. The price of these balloon rides are definitely worth the splurge and are some of the cheapest prices I have seen. I have looked into balloon rides in other countries, but the deals here were unbeatable. And the lower prices are not a reflection of the quality of the balloons, which were in great condition, or the experience of the pilots, who were professional and skilled. The only thing to worry about are the wind speeds because they will not fly if the winds are above a certain speed. We signed up to go on a ride our first morning in town, but our flight was canceled due to winds. The operators immediately offered to roll our flight over to the next morning or to give us a refund. Luckily, we were able to try again the next day and had a successful flight. This was a once in a lifetime experience that I am so glad I did not miss. Balloon rides last about 60 minutes in the air, but the whole experience with pick up, set up, and drop off will be longer. Operators start picking up people from their hotels around 5:00 AM. Everyone is taken in vans to a hotel near the take off site where they will sign in, get a free coffee and breakfast pastry (neither of which is anything special, although the coffee is definitely welcome that early). Then everyone waits until their group is called to be loaded in another van and dropped off by their balloon. Travelers will get a chance to see the balloons in the final stages of set up and being blown up. They will then enjoy a ride over the valleys of Goreme, taking amazing pictures and viewing the sunrise. After the balloon lands, visitors will enjoy a glass of sparkling wine and receive a certificate. Then they will be loaded into another van to be dropped off at their hotel. Drop offs start about an hour after sunrise.

ATV tour. This is a fun way to see some of the sights in Goreme, including the fairy chimneys and rose valley. Operators will provide everyone with a helmet and face mask (as dust will get everywhere). They will also provide a short tutorial on how to operate the vehicles. Visitors can ride their own or share a vehicle with one other person. The price for the tour is per vehicle so sharing is a cost effective option, and people can switch off driving. The tours are 1-4 hours depending on the package. And each tour has a group leader who ensures that people stay on the path and do not go too fast. For those travelers looking for a thrill ride, a tour is probably not the best option. Instead, try renting an ATV separately. The tours, however, are a great way to see some of the natural highlights of the area, and they stop at the major sites to allow people to get off and take pictures. We chose to do the two hour tour, which in my opinion was plenty of time on the ATV, and we chose to go on the tour right before sunset so that we were able to see the sun set over rose valley. When we went, a storm was coming so we did have some wind and rain but that just added to the fun experience.

Color tours. This area offers travelers three main tours to see the region, the red tour, green tour, and blue tour, since travelers are unlikely to have their own vehicles. The red tour includes some of the highlights of Goreme, the Goreme open air museum, and a pottery demonstration. The green tour includes a tour of Derinkuyu (an underground village), a light hike through Ilhara valley, stops for several panorama views (including Pigeon Valley and Damsa Dam), and a tour of Selime Monastery. The blue tour includes a similar itinerary to the green tour but in a different section of the region so different city, different valley, and different monastery. We chose to do the green tour, which is one of the more popular ones, because we wanted to see the underground city and we had seen several of the sights from the red tour on our ATV tour. I would definitely recommend the green one. We were picked up from our hotel and taken to a larger air conditioned bus where we met our tour guide and the rest of the tour group. Our tour guide was great. He was a local who was very knowledgeable about the region and who spoke English well. During the tour we had lunch at a restaurant set next to a stream in Ilhara valley that was picturesque and served good food. The last stop of the tour was the obligatory stop at a jewelry store, which seems to be part of every overseas tour, but there was no pressure to buy anything. The larger bus dropped everyone back off at their hotels at the end of the tour. This tour was a full day, and it was worth the money given how much ground we covered. These tours start late enough in the day that travelers will be able to do one after a balloon ride if they are super ambitious but that will make for a very long day. We ended up taking our tour on the day our ride was cancelled. We still had to get up for the ride and hang out for about an hour before they officially canceled, but we were able to catch a short nap before doing the tour.

Wine tasting. This area is supposed to have some of the best wines for Turkey. Although Turkey is not known for wine, the wines from here are supposed to be decent. Unfortunately, we were so exhausted from waking up early both days of our visit for the balloon ride that we did not have the energy to go to one of the wineries for a wine tasting so I cannot recommend one over the other. However, if I were to come back to this region, I would definitely go to one because I do love wine. For travelers who have the time and energy, I think this would be a worthwhile activity.

Shopping:

The shops here sell much of the same stuff as can be found in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. They have a lot of the typical Turkish ceramics and pottery. However, they have a smaller selection because there are less vendors. This may be a plus for those wanting to shop in a place less intimidating than the bazaars in Istanbul, but may not be as appealing for those looking for the best deals. One thing that I would recommend buying here is the ceramic hot air balloons. These beautiful pieces can be found in almost all the shops in this area and are a great reminder of the hot air balloon trip, for those who take one. They come in different sizes and colors and make a pretty decorative piece for the home. Another item that I would recommend is some of the painted pottery. There are a few artists in the area that do some beautiful artwork on ceramics, including scenes of the area and Turkish script.

What to Eat:

Cappadocia has the typical Turkish dishes that can be found throughout the country, but this region is known for testi kebabs. This dish is slow cooked in a sealed clay pot that is broken open with a knife at the table. Testi kebabs can be found in other parts of the country, but it is traditional in the Anatolian region and a must try here. Restaurants in this area cook it with lamb, beef, chicken, or just vegetables and serve it with bread. It is very tasty. Several restaurants in the area serve this dish so get a recommendation from the hotel, which is what we did, to find one with a good reputation within walking distance of the hotel.

Where to Stay:

Cappadocia is a large area, but I recommend staying in Goreme in a cave hotel, which is what we did. These hotels are an interesting experience. They are built into the caves, much like the homes in that area, which makes the whole stay seem a little more authentic. Plus, it is unlikely that many travelers have stayed in a cave before. This town is really a tourist town now. Many of the locals have left so there really is not much of a choice but stay in a hotel. Luckily, the prices on these are very affordable. We split a room with three people, and it was a steal. However, even solo travelers or parties of two will find the prices to be reasonable. Goreme is a safe area and is also an area with restaurants, shops, and natural sights all within walking distance.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Cappadocia from Istanbul by plane. Travelers can also get here from Istanbul by bus. We chose to fly, however, because of our limited time and because the tickets through Pegasus and Turkish airlines were very reasonable. We waited to book two days before our trip so while they still had tickets available, the cheapest ones were sold out. For those who plan better, they should be able to get a really good price on plane tickets. We flew into Kayseri airport, which is about an hour away from Goreme. We had our hotel arrange for an airport pick up. Many of the hotels in the area use the same shuttle service so that a person will be waiting at the airport exit with a sign with multiple party names on it. That person will walk travelers over to a waiting area to wait for their van. Names will be called when the van has arrived. Beware that these vans do not have working air conditioning, and it will get hot on the hour long ride but there is not much that can be done. My best advice is bring a cold bottle of water. Once in Goreme, most necessary things should be within walking distance. The hotel will also likely offer guests a ride into town, if needed. And all booked tours should include a pick up and drop off at the hotel. When we departed Goreme, we took another plane back to Istanbul. Again, we arranged for a ride to the airport through our hotel that used that same shuttle service. The Kayseri airport is small so very easy to navigate once inside.

Overall:

Cappadocia was not only the highlight of my trip to Turkey, it was one of the highlights of my travels through the Mediterranean region. The natural beauty here really is breathtaking. We went in September, and it was still hot, which is not surprising considering how arid it is here. We were only able to stay two nights here, but I would recommend staying longer. Travelers should definitely stay a minimum of two nights, though, to increase the odds that they can take a balloon ride. They should also book the ride for their first morning there just in case it gets canceled and they need to book again for the next day. After our first attempt, there were several people lamenting the fact that they had only booked one night in the region and were going to have to miss out on the balloon ride completely. This is something travelers will not want to miss! Because the balloon rides are so early in the morning travelers will likely be tired the day of the ride and may not be up to seeing a lot that day so having an extra day is crucial to see some more of the sights from the ground. We had to get up super early three days in a row (the morning of our flight there and then the next two mornings for the balloon ride) so we were exhausted and did not get a chance to do much exploring and hiking on our own, which is a shame because the hiking and exploring of the chimney rocks (including the houses and churches hidden in them) is supposed to be amazing. I would definitely come back to this area again to do some more exploring on my own. This place is for travelers who enjoy hiking and the outdoors and for those who have always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride.

Pamukkale: Nature’s original spa in Turkey

During my visit to Turkey, I took an overnight trip with a few friends to Pamukkale. We could not resist visiting these beautiful travertine terraces that look like ice in the middle of this Mediterranean country. We had all seen pictures of this “cotton castle” before we went, and the reality did not disappoint us. Below are some tips from my short visit to this town:

What to Do:

Thermal pools. The main thing to do here is go to the travertines. Visitors can either walk to the top or get a ride from their hotel to drop them off at the entrance, which is what we opted to do because of the heat. After the entrance, there are some ruins that visitors can walk through. At this point, we had already seen our share of Greek ruins so we did not spend a lot of time looking around here. Instead, we walked straight for the travertines making a stop at Cleopatra’s pool along the way. Once at the travertines, visitors can spend their time laying around in some of the warm pools, taking in the scenery, and taking some amazing pictures. We stayed around to see sunset when we were able to get some more breathtaking shots, which I highly recommend doing. Visitors can exit the area by walking back to the entrance for a pick up (if they arranged for one) or by walking down through the travertines, which is a neat experience and what we chose to do. Visitors should remember to bring a swimsuit and towel as they will not be able to buy or rent these on site. Visitors should also bring a bag to carry their shoes in as they are not allowed to wear shoes in the travertines. Plan to spend 2-3 hours here.

Cleopatra’s Pool. This hot spring is built on top of toppled ruins. It is located inside the same site with the travertines but is not part of the ticket for the travertines. Visitors will have to pay a separate fee to enter here. The fee for these pools will get visitors two hours of time in the pools and unlimited time in the area around the pools. We did opt to come here, and I thought the extra fee was worth it. These pools are unique because of the ruins that have been left inside of them. Although they are warm, they are still a nice way to cool off out of the heat and they are deeper than the travertines. Inside this site there are lockers that can be rented to store bags and towels during time here and a restaurant. Plan to spend 2 hours here.

Pamukkale Natural Park. This park is located at the bottom of the travertines and has a nice view of the “cotton castle.” It also has some nice gardens that are good for a picnic, and some small streams of the thermal water running down from the hill. These streams surround a larger lake that has ducks and fish. This park is nice place to relax and take in some sights. Plan to spend an hour here.

Shopping:

This is really not a place for shopping. While there are a few shops in the town selling souvenirs, there are not a lot. And the souvenirs here are not ones I would recommend buying because they can be found in a wider variety and better quality in Istanbul. There really is not an item that is unique to just this area. Instead, spend time enjoying the outdoors and taking pictures as a souvenir.

What to Eat:

This is a small town so there are limited restaurants in this area. While there are ‘restaurants’ up at the thermal pools, they are not great. The food is more expensive and is cooked in the microwave. During our visit, we got beverages at the restaurant by the entrance, and one of my friends ordered a wrap that she said tasted okay. The rest of us ordered food later at the restaurant in Cleopatra’s Pools. The food I got was still cold in the middle despite being put in a deep fryer and just was not very tasty. I advise visitors to have a big meal before going to the travertines and/or waiting to eat at a restaurant in town at the bottom of the travertines after leaving. I would also advise bringing water and snacks in a bag.

The restaurants in the town are located near each other and the hotels and are located inside the hotels. They all serve popular Turkish dishes. The food we ate here was fine but not overly memorable. During our short trip here we dinner at one restaurant outside of our hotel that served pide, which was low cost and good. The rest of our meals we took inside our hotel. We ate breakfast at the Turkish breakfast buffet in our hotel, which came complimentary with our room. We also had lunch here on the day of our departure that was good but nothing unique. There are not a lot of options for food and we only tried one of the restaurants in town so there is not one restaurant I would recommend over others. Any restaurant travelers choose will likely be decent price and serve solid Turkish food.

Where to Stay:

This town is mainly a tourist town so travelers will want to stay in a hotel here. There are several hotels in the area that are within walking distance of the pools. These hotels are nice and still on the cheaper side. My group was at an advantage because there were four of us who were able to split a room for the night making this a very affordable option. But travelers in smaller parties should still be able to find a good deal.

Getting Around:

We arrived to the area by plane from Istanbul. We chose to go by plane rather than bus because of the limited time we had in Turkey. The flight was much faster and the cost through Pegasus airlines was not bad, especially because we were only carrying on an overnight bag. Traveling by plane within Turkey is very affordable. And we could have gotten even better prices if we had booked earlier. Unfortunately, we did not book our tickets until a couple of weeks before our flight when the cheapest seats were already sold out. The closest airport to Pamukkale is Denizli, which is about an hour away by car. We arranged for a pick up ahead of time through our hotel who sent a taxi. Visitors can also get a taxi on their own outside the airport or take a bus, which will be cheaper for travelers traveling alone or in smaller parties. Because we were able to split the cost four ways taking a taxi was only slightly more expensive and was worth the extra cost for us because we did not have to wait for the next bus. Arranging a taxi ahead of time, if this is the preferred option, is better because the price will be already negotiated and a ride will be guaranteed. Once in Pamukkale, there is no public transportation. Instead, for those staying within walking distance of the travertines, everything necessary should be in walking distance. If visitors need to go somewhere outside of the town, they can arrange for a taxi through their hotel or Airbnb. When we departed Pamukkale, again we took a plane and arranged for a taxi to take us to the airport through our hotel.

Overall:

This overnight trip provided me with some amazing sights that I will not soon forget. Standing in this cotton castle was so much fun. And the pictures we took were truly Instagram worthy. We only spent about a day and half here, and I think that is sufficient time because there really is not much to do outside of the travertines. There are other thermal pools in nearby towns that hotels can arrange tours of, but these are not the famous and picture worthy pools that are in Pamukkale. And I would only go to these if travelers are not short on time and want to stay in this area longer. We visited this area in September, and it was still very warm but not overly crowded. I can imagine that at peak time it would be much more difficult to get into Cleopatra’s Pool and the thermal pools with everyone trying to pack into a limited space. And I imagine that during peak summer it is extremely warm to be outside all day. I would definitely recommend going in September. This city is for travelers who love natural wonders and photo worthy spots.

Istanbul (not Constantinople)

After my initial entry into Turkey through Izmir, I spent the rest of my time based in Istanbul with some overnight trips to other areas. After seeing countless pictures and hearing stories from other travelers, I was really excited to visit this vibrant city and soak up the culture. And I was lucky enough to have a friend that was working in the city to show me around. This was the same friend who showed me around Greece, and so I was able to travel with both of my fellow Greece travelers to Istanbul. We all stayed at our friend’s house and were later joined by two more of our friends. Below is a brief description of things to do, buy, and eat in Istanbul based on my experiences:

What to Do:

Hagia Sophia. This museum was once of the world’s largest and earliest cathedrals and later served as a mosque. It is a great example of Byzantine architecture that is visually stunning and is one of the city’s recognizable and well known buildings. For those visitors who do not have a lot of time in the city, this is the one absolute must see. This building contains lots of history so visitors may want to get a guide. There are plenty of guides nearby the entrance who will come up and offer their services, which is how we found our guide. The cost for our guide was fair, and worked well in our favor as a group of five because the group remained small but the price was still split five ways. The added bonus for our guide was being able to skip the long ticket line and go straight through security and into the building. Our guide also did an excellent job of showing us around and sharing the history and secrets of the building. Although visitors can tour this place on their own, I highly recommend getting a guide. This place is called a museum, but it is more of a preserved cathedral/mosque and does not offer a lot of educational reading inside the building. Whether visitors choose to get a guide or not, they will not be disappointed by their visit here. This museum was definitely a highlight of my time in the city, and I could really feel the history in this building. Plan to spend about an hour here.

Blue Mosque. This mosque is located across from Hagia Sophia, and like Hagia Sophia it is another recognizable and well known building in the city. It still functions as a mosque today so visitors are not allowed in during prayer times. However, non-Muslims are allowed entry into the mosque when it is not being used for religious purposes. Check the prayer times before going to avoid long waits. Although going inside is not a must, it is worth a peek for those who have time since it is unlikely that they will be allowed entry into many other mosques unless they are Muslim. The mosque will check visitors for proper clothing (which includes having shoulders, chest, and legs covered for everyone and hair covered for women) before entry and will provide clothing for free to those who are not properly dressed. They provide shirts and long skirts for men and women that are put on over their clothing. Shoe must be taken off and put in bags before entry. Once inside visitors can look around the main prayer area. They can return any borrowed clothing when they exit. Plan to spend about 20 minutes inside.

Topkapi Palace. This large museum is made up of multiple sections. The main ticket will allow visitors entry into the large halls, pavilions, and kitchens. Visitors will have to buy additional tickets for entry to the church and into the harem. On our visit, we opted to pay extra for the harem and were not disappointed. As can be expected, this section has some beautifully decorated rooms inside that were neat to see. We did not pay extra for the church so I cannot comment on that. The palace as a whole, though, has some interesting decor. The kitchens display china and other kitchen artifacts. And some of the pavilions serve as sort of mini museums. For example, one displays portraits of the past sultans, and one displays holy relics. Visitors should note that in order to enter the room with holy relics they need to be properly dressed (shoulders, chest, and knees covered). The palace also has several pretty courtyards with gardens that are nice to stroll through. There are several gift shops within the palace as well. All-in-all this is a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

Galata Tower. This tower is supposed to be one of the oldest towers and is supposed to offer some amazing views of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. Coming here at sunset is supposed to be especially beautiful. Unfortunately, when we visited the Galata district, we got here after the tower closed so we were unable to climb to the top. Instead, we had to content ourselves with looking at the tower from the outside and stopping at the cute shops and cafes located in the area, which are definitely worth a visit. If I return to Istanbul, I would definitely try to go up the tower.

Basilica Cistern. This underground cistern is the largest one in Istanbul and is located close to Hagia Sophia. These ruins are supposed to be well preserved and contain some interesting architectural details, including the two Medusa pillars. The cistern was recommend to me by past visitors. Unfortunately, we did not have time to see this site either. It is another site, I would add to my list for my next visit.

Hamam. While I did visit a hamam during my trip to Turkey, I did not visit one in Istanbul because of time constraints. However, this is something I would definitely recommend doing in this city. There are lots of hamams at all price ranges so visitors who are staying longer should try a couple of different ones. Visitors should note, however, that hamams are not like Turkish baths in other countries (think Budapest). They do not have thermal pools to soak in. Instead, the only “bath” part is a small fountain that is located in a heated room and that has a scoop to pour water over people. Visitors either pour water on themselves or have an attendant do it as part of spa package. Hamams offer many of the regular spa services, such as massages and facials, as an add-on to the whole experience. Hamams are separated by men and women, and some may only serve one of the sexes at certain times or on certain days so visitors need to plan accordingly. Since I did not visit one in Istanbul, I cannot recommend one over another. Choosing the right hammam will likely depend on how much visitors are willing to spend and what they are looking for (e.g., history, authenticity, luxury, or something else).

Whirling dervish show. This performance dance is based on a form of physical meditation that is still practiced by some religious orders. Although it is a performance viewed by visitors, it still maintains a meditative and religious element. There are several shows offered in the city that are supposed to be popular and this is supposed to be the best place to see a show outside of Konya. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend a show during our stay but this is something else I would do on a return visit. Visitors should look at times and book tickets in advance as they do sell out. Since I did not attend one I cannot recommend one over the other but choosing one might depend on availability and timing.

Shopping:

When travelers think of shopping in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar most likely comes to mind. This giant covered market is definitely worth a visit just for the sights alone. Bargain hunters will likely enjoy shopping here and may be able to find some treasures (or at least some good souvenirs) hidden within all the tchotchkes. However, travelers not used to haggling may find this place to be overwhelming. Luckily, for those travelers, there are smaller and more manageable bazaars spread throughout the city along with lots of independent shops with set prices. Other great areas to shop besides the Grand Bazaar include the Spice Bazaar and the Galata district.

While there are lots of items for sale, some are more unique to Turkey and make better gifts or souvenirs. One item I would definitely buy (and did buy) is Turkish towels. These lightweight towels come in all different colors but still have a distinct style that stands out as Turkish. They make for great beach towels or regular towels for the bathroom back home. They are also very absorbent. My only regret was not buying more. Turkey also has tiles with unique Turkish prints. These tiles can be found everywhere and would make good accent pieces for any home and could be used as decorative wall art, coasters, or warm plates depending on their size and finish. Likewise, Turkish ceramics, including bowls, plates, vases, and other knickknacks, can also be found everywhere. These are beautifully painted ceramics that look similar to what can be found in Greece (their close neighbor) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (and likely any other city or country that has a strong Ottoman Empire influence). These do have a distinct style so they would be worth adding to a collection but only if they will actually be used or displayed. The colors are very tempting, but I ended up not buying any mainly for luggage allowance and because I realized I would not use them as much. Some things I would recommend buying are spices and teas from the spice bazaar. These are lightweight and will not take up a lot of room in luggage. There are a lot to choose from so look around and choose the ones whose smell is most appealing. Another item I did end up buying while there was some great street art. This is something I try to find in every city, but I really liked the calligraphy prints and sketches I saw in Istanbul.

What to Eat:

Turkey has several prominent dishes that can be found in restaurants throughout Istanbul. One of the dishes is Kebap, which is a grilled meat usually served with pide bread and maybe grilled vegetables. These come in many variations (I liked the spicy kind) and are reminiscent of a deconstructed sandwich that can be put back together. A second popular dish is Manti, which is their version of a stuffed pasta. These dumplings are filled with meat and tossed in a yogurt sauce. This is a tasty dish but one I had to eat in smaller quantities because the sauce for me was on the tangy side. Turkish breakfast is also a must try dish, especially for travelers who enjoy a good brunch. This meal is a large spread and is meant to be split with someone. While it does come in different varieties, it will likely include eggs, bread, jams, cheese, vegetables, and some type of meat. Pide, which is their version of a pizza, is another widespread dish. This is a flat bread that comes with various toppings, but unlike Western pizza does not have a sauce and may not have cheese unless that is ordered as a topping. While lamb is not a dish per se, it is something that should be eaten in Turkey. Find a restaurant that specializes in lamb and eat it kind of like a kebab. Finally, a drink that should be ordered in Turkey is raki. This is an alcoholic drink often served with water and ice. This drink is strong so the general practice is to dilute it with water (choosing how strong or weak to make it based on the ratio), which turns this clear liquid into a milky looking color that tastes good and can be sipped on.

Where to Stay:

I stayed with a friend who was living in the Kadakoy area, which is across the Bosphorus from most of the tourist sites. This area was nice area with a lot of young locals and with lots of restaurants. It was a safe area in walking distance of the metro, buses, and ferry. I would recommend staying here to get a different view of the city, but I would also recommend staying on the other side of the Bosphorus closer to the tourist sites.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Istanbul from Izmir by bus, which takes 8-9 hours. Once in Izmir, the public transportation is easy to use. Metro cards can be purchased and reloaded at metro and ferry stations. They can be used for the metro, bus, and ferry. And the metro and bus are linked to google maps. I found the bus to be a little more confusing, which is typical, but that was partly due to the bus stop closest to the place I was staying. It happened to be a large stop with many different buses and multiple places for buses to stop next to each other and in front of each other that were difficult to navigate. For the most part, however, the metro and ferry is all I needed to use. The metro is like a typical metro so not hard to figure out that map. And the ferry basically just goes back and forth across the Bosphorus so there are not multiple stops. Just get on and ride across the river. When coming back across the river at night after the ferries stopped, we took the minibuses. Again, these are harder to navigate because they are not linked up to Google maps so visitors have to know where to go to get them and what stop to tell the driver. Luckily, I had a local with me anytime we used these that took care of all of that. But this would be good to know for visitors who are not with locals. Try to find out this information from the hotel or Airbnb. When I departed Istanbul, I took a plane. There are airport buses that go between the airport and different parts of the city. Again, ask the hotel or Airbnb the best route and use the airport buses to get to the airport. Remember there are two major airports in Istanbul so be sure to get on the right bus.

Overall:

Istanbul is a very interesting city with a rich historical past and rich culture. It is also known to be a more liberal city in a more conservative country. During my recent visit here, however, many of the expats and locals that I interacted with noted that the city is actually becoming more conservative. Future visitors should be aware of this changing dynamic. Travelers should also be aware of the more conservative parts of the city and dress appropriately when entering any religious sites. I visited here in September. The weather was still warm, and the crowds were not too bad (although many people living there noted that tourism has dropped significantly in the past year so crowds may be less of an issue overall). During my trip to Turkey, I tried to pack in as much as possible so I only ended up staying in Istanbul a few days and some of that time was spent trying to catch up on sleep from constant travel. As can be seen in my recommendations above, there were several things I was not able to do because of these time constraints. Consequently, I would recommend spending a minimum of four days here. This city is for travelers who are interested in seeing and learning about a different culture (assuming they are Western and/or non-Muslim travelers).

 

Additional Tip:

Sometimes when choosing a book to read about the places I visit, I look for books by prominent authors from that country. For Turkey, I decide to read Honor by Elif Shafak, who is considered one of Turkey’s more prominent female writers. This novel follows the story of two sisters and takes place in Turkey and London with a lot of the scenes occurring in London. Despite the location, the voices (this story is told through several different narrators) and themes of love, honor, and immigration really tell a lot about the Turkish culture, albeit a more conservative and older culture that is not as prevalent in today’s Istanbul. The novel is well written and a quick read that keeps readers engaged. It offered me a glimpse of an older Turkish culture and served as a peek of what a more conservative culture looks like.