Berlin: Germany’s capital where the past is gone but not forgotten

After our short overnight stop in Cologne, my friend and I were ready to begin our German adventure in the capital of Berlin. While my friend had to been to Berlin before, this was my first time, and I was excited to be in this edgy city with its fashion and political history. Below are the things that I did while I was there.

 

What to Do:

Walking tour. Berlin offers a variety of walking tours, and there are several large companies running tours. There is definitely some overlap between the tours and the companies, and the prices are comparable so choosing one over the other may not make too big of a difference. In the end, though, I chose to go with the Discover Berlin tour through Original Berlin Walks because of its high rated reviews and its comprehensive itinerary. I chose to do this four hour tour on my first morning in Berlin to get an introduction the city and its history. My tour guide was very knowledgeable. He was a history student studying in Berlin, which I think is typical for many of the guides. And he was able to provide my group with helpful tips and suggestions for the rest of our time in the city. Through this tour I was able to see many of the major landmarks of the city and to get a better idea of the city’s layout. While four hours may sound like a long time for walking, the tour is not overly strenuous. The tour goes at an even pace, and there is a lot of stops to look at sites and hear stories. There is also a break in the middle of the tour to grab a drink and snack and to use the restroom. While on this tour I was able to see the Jewish Quarter, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (also known as the Holocaust Memorial), Reichstag building, Brandenburg Gate, Museum Island, part of the Berlin Wall, and much more. The price for this tour was reasonable, and I felt like I got to see a little bit of everything and was able to better plan what I wanted to go back and see on my own.

Museum Island. This island is located near central Berlin on Spree river. It is named for the five museums that it houses. Visitors can buy a single pass into any of the museums or combination tickets that will allow entry into more than one museum. There are several combinations offered so visitors will have to choose the one that best suits their needs. For visitors planning to visit more than one museum, a combination ticket will definitely save money. I opted to visit two of the museums while I was here. I went to the Pergamon Museum, which is famous for housing the Pergamon Altar. However, this museum is undergoing renovations and has been partially closed since 2014 with renovations not expected to be completed until 2023. The Pergamon Altar is currently not open to visitors, and I was unable to view it. I was still able to see the Ishtar Gate, the Roman Market Gate of Miletus, and many other antiquities and art from the Middle East making a trip to this museum worthwhile despite the partial closure. I also went to the Neues Museum, which is located next door to the Pergamon, and is famous for housing the bust of Nefertiti. This museum contains a lot of Egyptian and prehistoric artifacts. And the building itself is a piece of history having survived and been rebuilt after WWII. Visitors can still see areas that were damaged during the war. When I visited these museums, it was not tourist season so the lines were not too bad but there are large queuing areas for visitors that can be a couple of hours. Plan to spend 2 hours at each museum and longer if there is a large wait time.

East Side Gallery. While pieces of the Berlin Wall remain preserved in several locations throughout the city, this gallery is the part of the Wall that has been painted in murals to celebrate the fall of the Wall and the end of the iron curtain. This is the part of the Wall that travelers have likely seen in pictures. This outdoor gallery features cool artwork on a significant piece of history. Visitors can stroll down the long gallery and take pictures. Plan to spend about 30-60 minutes walking around.

Holocaust Memorial. Visitors to Germany will not be able to and should not ignore the country’s dark past. When visiting Berlin, the one WWII memorial visitors should go to is this one. For those taking a walking tour of the city, this stop will likely be included. For those not taking a tour, go visit this separately. This memorial is dedicated to all of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust not just the ones from Berlin. For those passing by who are not familiar with this work, it may just look like a bunch of different size blocks in the middle of a city square. The meaning of these blocks are open to interpretation, but visitors should remain respectful. I visited this memorial as part of a guided tour. And according to our tour guide, he has seen people standing on the blocks and running around through them. Luckily, this did not happen during my visit. Although this memorial can mean different things to different people, visitors should respect the solemnity that some people will associate with this place and act accordingly. Plan to spend 30 minutes here.

Reichstag Building. This German parliament building has a huge glass dome that visitors can walk up as part of an audio guided tour. Visitors must register in advance to do this and must have an ID for a quick security check. Unfortunately, I did not take the tour. I waited until my last day and did not register in time. My friend had done this tour on a previous visit and really enjoyed it. This tour was also recommended by several locals. The dome is supposed to provide an impressive view of the city. And there is also a rooftop restaurant. I would definitely recommend for visitors to plan ahead and register to do this.

Shopping:

Berlin definitely offers a lot of shopping and a lot of cool fashion. During my limited time here, I did not specifically seek out shopping areas, but I did pop into cute boutiques that I saw while walking around to see the other sights. Serious shoppers can definitely find everything from cool streetwear to high end fashion. One store I would recommend stopping in is Falke. This brand is for people who like unique tights, and its flagship store is located in Berlin. For those travelers, who are not looking for fashion, Berlin is also the place to buy some cool kitsch, including fun graphic prints, tees, and other items that will remind visitors of Berlin’s cool vibe.

What to Eat:

Berlin has a lot of fare that is similar to other Central European countries, including schnitzel and wurst, but it does have a couple of dishes that are really prominent for Berlin. One is the currywurst, which is fast food dish of pork sausage covered in curry ketchup and served with fries. We did not opt to try this one as both of us really dislike ketchup, but travelers who love ketchup will want to try this dish. The other one is doner kebab, which is another fast food dish of seasoned meat stuffed into a sandwich with vegetables and spices. As this dish is originally from Turkey, and I had just left Turkey before coming to Germany, I had my fill already and chose not to eat this dish here either. For travelers who have not been to Turkey recently, this dish is a good bet. Instead, my friend and I really took advantage of all of the international cuisine Berlin had to offer. Normally, when traveling I always recommend sticking to local food to better immerse in the culture. But we had been eating a lot of Mediterranean and Central European food for the past few months so we were craving something different. In particular, we were really craving some Asian food because we had both moved from Korea three months earlier before beginning our travels through Europe. We ended up eating at a couple of good Vietnamese places, Miss Saigon and Co Co Banh Mi Deli, and a good Ramen shop, Cocolo Ramen X-berg, that were located in the area we were staying. We did not feel as bad trying these non local cuisines since we knew would be eating more German food the rest of our time in the country.

Where to Stay:

We stayed in an Airbnb near the U Kottbusser Tor subway station. We really were not sure where to say so we looked at places based on price and convenience to a public transport stop. This area turned out to be a good one. It is located near two subway lines and nearby a lot of foreign food restaurants. As I mentioned above, by the time we arrived in Berlin, we were really missing Asian food. So this area really worked out well for us but may not be the place for those wanting to be near local cuisine.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Berlin by train from Cologne. We originally planned to take a bus but missed our ride and so had to go with a train instead as there were no more buses for that day. The train takes about 4.5 hours whereas the bus takes about 8-10 hours. So in the end we paid more but got there faster. The train station is located in a central location and next to a subway stop so it was easy to hop on the subway and get to where we were staying, which was also located about a 5 minute walk from a subway stop. Berlin public transport is easy to navigated because it is linked to Google maps. Tickets can be purchased at the subway stations, and most machines take credit cards. Berlin is also a very walk-able city. When we left Berlin, we took a bus to Munich, and we took public transport to the bus station. There are two main bus stations in the city (one in the airport and one closer to the center of the city) so make sure to go to the right one. As stated in a previous post, the taxis in Germany are expensive so try to avoid them, if possible. Also, there is no Uber so public transportation is really the best way to get around.

Overall:

This city has so much history, and a lot of it is the darker history of WWII and Stasi. But this city offers much more than its dark history and has actively built over much of it in order to not forget it but to move past it. Today this city is a leading cultural and political center in the area and is home to many international residents. When we visited in September, the weather was starting to turn cooler, and it was overcast and drizzly much of the time. It was not overly crowded though at the tourist sites, which was nice. We stayed here for three days and this was enough time to be able to see the highlights. Visitors wanting a more thorough exploration of Berlin should plan to stay longer. Travelers looking to spend time in a modern cultural center will enjoy Berlin.

Additional Tip:

After visiting Berlin, I wanted to learn more about the city’s past during the time the Wall was up. A lot of books and movies exist about Germany during WWII but not as many exist about Germany’s time as a divided country. One popular book about this period is Anna Funder’s Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. This book recounts stories the author gathered and heard from former Stasi men and victims of Stasi policing. The book provides an interesting look at the effects of the Wall on the lives of several East Germans, but it is not written in the style of a social researcher or journalist. Unfortunately, the author does not have a lot of information to pull from and her research was slightly inept. Her writing style was a little difficult to overlook (it was more appropriate for a novel than a nonfiction account), but this book has received acclaim and it did make me interested in learning more.

Cologne: The city not the fragrance

Following my trip in Turkey, my next stop was in Germany to meet back up with a friend and to be there around Oktoberfest. I was really excited to visit this country because several of my friends had indicated that this was one of their favorite European countries. When I arrived in Germany, I went to Cologne first. I might not have picked Cologne to visit if it were not for my friend, but this quaint city in Germany turned out to have some beautiful Gothic architecture. Below is a short review of some of things I saw during my brief visit.

What to Do:

Cologne Cathedral. This large Gothic cathedral is located in the center of town and hard to miss. It is part of the city’s iconic landscape. Take some beautiful pictures of the outside and a tour of the inside. Entry into the main part of the church is free. Visitors can take guided tours for a fee. They can also pay to visit the treasury and to climb the tower (both separate fees). At this point in my trip, I had already seen quite a few churches so I did not opt to take a tour or pay to go the treasury or tower. Instead, I chose to walk around the interior on my own admiring the architecture, the altars, and the shrines. It is definitely worth a peek inside. Plan to spend about 30-45 minutes if just strolling through.

Museum Ludwig. This modern art museum includes works from artists such as Picasso, Warhol, and Lichtenstein. This museum is a good size and well laid out so it is easy to see everything in one trip. There is also a lovely cafe located right outside that has nice views of the area. When I visited I was short on time, and it was a little chilly so I opted not to eat here. I cannot recommend, but it looked like a cute spot to at least grab a drink and a short rest after walking through the museum. The museum itself is a great activity for art lovers. Plan to spend 90-120 mins here looking around.

Hohenzollern Bridge. This bridge is another piece of the city’s iconic landscape. Visitors can walk across the bridge, which allows for some great pictures of the historic city center and of the Rhine river. The bridge is also a place for visiting couples to fix a ‘love lock’ as a sign of their commitment. The bridge is not very long and will only take about 10 minutes to cross, going slowly to take in the view and stopping to take a few pictures.

Chocolate Museum. This museum is located on the harbor and offers a history of chocolate as well selling chocolate. I did not go here because I am not a huge fan of chocolate, but my friend, who loves chocolate, did go here and really enjoyed it. According to him, this museum is worth a visit for chocolate lovers.

Shopping:

Many of the souvenirs here are religious in nature and related to the Cologne Cathedral, which is the heart of this city. They offer many items branded with the cathedral image or with the three crowns representing the Three Kings. These are branded on everything from postcards to key chains to shirts and bags. For those looking for something less religious, the art museums also offer a variety of prints on sale depicting the art displayed in these museums. I ended up buying a souvenir that was kind of a combination of both. I found some great Warhol prints of the Cologne Cathedral in one of the museum gift shops that I had to purchase. An alternate gift or souvenir idea is Kolsch beer, which is brewed in this city. However, I am not sure how well the beer will travel. This purchase would probably best for short trips and when it can be drank sooner.

What to Eat:

Cologne local cuisine offers many dishes that are popular throughout Central Europe, including a lot of meat and potato, sauerkraut, or apple dishes. I was only here a short time so I only had a couple of meals in the city. They were good but nothing overly memorable. I cannot recommend one dish or restaurant over the others. I can recommend finding a nice beer garden and ordering a Kolsch beer or two while enjoying the outdoor views.

Where to Stay:

For visitors who only have one night in the city, stay at a hotel in the historic city center. All of the major sights will be in walking distance and there are a lot of restaurants and shops in the area as well as nice views of the river. The hotels can range in price but there are a few mid priced rooms that offer no real amenities but whose location cannot be beat. For visitors staying longer, try to get an Airbnb in one of the adjacent neighborhoods for a cheaper rate.

Getting Around:

I arrived to Cologne by plane from Istanbul. The public transport system, which includes light rail, buses, and trams, is connected to the airport. I was able to take the rail to the city center. Tickets can be purchased at the rail and tram stations but have small bills on hand as some of them accept cash only. Once in the historic center, most places are within walking distance of each other. Try to avoid taking taxis as they are expensive here (for example, getting from the airport to downtown will cost around 40 euros for a 25 minute ride), and there is no Uber. The public transportation is reliable and is linked to Google maps. However, double check the routes. Some of the routes have more than one name/train that goes there, and it can be confusing. We missed our ride out of Cologne because we did not realize that the light rail we were looking for had multiple names other than the one given on Google maps. When we departed Cologne for Berlin, we took a train. We originally had booked a bus for cheaper, but as I mentioned we missed that bus. The only options left to leave that day were flights and trains, which were fairly close in price but more expensive than buses.

Overall:

I did not know what to expect for Cologne, but I found the city to be charming. We only spent one night there, which I think is plenty for travelers who do not have a lot of time in Germany. The historic city center can be viewed in a day. For travelers with more time, staying an extra day will allow them to visit more than one museum. When I visited in September, it was already starting to turn cooler, especially compared to the warmth in Turkey but it was not overly crowded this time of year. Travelers who appreciate Gothic architecture and cathedrals will enjoy Cologne.

 

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.