With the words Byzantium and Constantinople creating pictures in our minds, we had hoped to make a visit to Istanbul this year as our most exotic trip. I certainly didn’t know very much about Turkish history (actually nothing), but I have a fascination with ancient cities, ruins, and stories from eras gone by, and my favorite way to learn history is to take a field trip.
It takes a lot of time to plan a trip, even if you are only going to the next country over. First you have to figure out which part of town to stay in, and then find a place to stay there that meets basic criteria and fits the budget, then what sights to see, how the public transportation works, how many days are optimal, etc.
This is when we (and I mean me) decided that we might want to check out a guided tour of Istanbul. It would save us the time of planning, and, I thought, since this might be a little bit out of our comfort zone (later we would find out that it really wouldn’t have been), we could just pay someone to take care of all the arrangements. After all, we had been on one tour already to Peru and Machu Picchu with REI and had had a most marvelous time.
I don’t know about you, but we rely quite a bit on Rick Steves – his tv shows (which are on the internet at his website), his radio shows and his guide books – as a basic starting point for Europe (if you want to see more than highlights of any place, though, you must go to other sources). We checked out his Istanbul tour and signed up. The Best of Istanbul Tour in 7 Days is one of his four city tours (London, Paris, and Rome being the other cities).
For the extrovert that I am, the companionship of people on a tour was a big plus. The tour had people from all over the US (California and Seattle to Texas and Tucson, Milwaukee, Boston, Connecticut and even Canada).
However, I think the best thing about going on a tour is having a local tour guide. Our guide, Yaren, is a life-long Istanbulite and quite passionate about her city and country. She helped us feel at home immediately, and showed us not only the major highlights of the city, but took us into alleys and shops that we may have missed. No, we really would have missed on our own. She studied art history and archaeology in college and grad school, so she could really tell us about the sites we were seeing.