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Tokyo for the New Year: Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul (IST)

Austrian Airlines Business Class Chicago to Vienna
Austrian Airlines Business Class Schengen Lounge Vienna
Austrian Airlines Regional Business Class Vienna to Prague
Turkish Airlines Regional Business Class Prague to Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Lounge Istanbul
Turkish Airlines Business Class Istanbul to Tokyo Narita
Park Hyatt Tokyo
Shinjuku Kuyakushomae Capsule Hotel
Ushigoro
Hilton Narita
Narita-san Shinsho-ji
Swiss Business Class Tokyo Narita to Zurich
Park Hyatt Zurich
Oneworld Lounge Zurich Airport
Swiss Business Lounge Zurich Airport
Austrian Airlines Regional Business Class Zurich to Vienna
Austrian Airlines Business Class Vienna to Chicago


The Istanbul airport feels like one of the most crowded airports I’ve been to in recent years because Turkish Airlines seems to be growing like crazy, and I’m not sure that the airport has the capacity to serve all of its current needs. I feel like trying to walk quickly through the terminal is a lost cause because there are so many people milling about, and you see people just sitting or even lying down on the sides of the hallways trying to get some sleep.

But Turkish Airlines has a great lounge at this airport. I’d say it’s probably the nicest business class lounge that I’ve been to, which means that it’s accessible to people with Star Alliance gold status (this also means that it’s quite crowded given that so many people have access).

Turkish Airlines lounge entrance

Turkish Airlines lounge entrance

This lounge is quite large with numerous seating areas, multiple food and drink stations, and amenities like a movie theater, children’s playroom, self-playing piano, and luggage lockers. I’ve never had a problem leaving my luggage unattended in most lounges (in spite of the announcements that leaving your bags unattended is a security risk), but it’s nice to have a place to store your belongings if you have a lengthy layover and want to leave your bags in the lounge and explore the airport.

Pool table and library

Pool table

Airy open sapces

Airy open sapces

Luggage storage

Luggage storage

The food and drink options were extensive, and there were many Turkish foods on offer. For drinks, they had Ayran, a salty yogurt beverage, and for food, they had things like pide (Turkish pizza), grilled meats, a selection of cold mezze, and baklava for dessert. While none of the food was gourmet, I’m hard-pressed to think of a business class lounge with more extensive food offerings, and I would’ve happily eaten more had I not been eating constantly already during my flights.

Non-alcoholic drinks

Non-alcoholic drinks

Alcoholic drinks

Alcoholic drinks

Dessert buffet

Dessert buffet

Food buffet

Food buffet

Salad buffet

Salad buffet

Pide station

Pide station

Nuts buffet

Nuts buffet

While I was there, the least crowded part of the lounge was the atrium, which had large windows and a self-playing piano, but there was also very loud construction going on. I saw that there was some construction work going on near the shower suites and day rooms for passengers with long layovers, but I hope the construction is to expand the lounge itself.

Atrium

Atrium

Self-playing piano

Self-playing piano

Children's playroom

Children’s playroom

I also took a shower during my time at this lounge, and I had to wait about 45 minutes for a shower to open up. I’m not sure if this is normal, or if this was due to the fact that some of the showers were out of commission because of the construction.

Two things that I felt were a little strange about this lounge: 1) the acoustics of the rooms made it so that I could sometimes hear the conversations of people seated far away from me; and 2) there were lots of staff in this lounge, but it felt very much like a college mixer for the staff as most seemed more interested in chatting away with each other than actually providing service to passengers. But overall, this is a great lounge with incredible offerings for business class and Star Alliance Gold passengers.

Review: Istanbul Ataturk Airport International Terminal Primeclass CIP Lounge

After dropping by the HSBC Club Lounge and stuffing myself full of cake, I made my way down two floors to the Primeclass CIP Lounge. This is the same lounge that British Airways uses operating out of Istanbul.

Entrance to the lounge

Entrance to the lounge

It was immediately clear that this lounge offered many more amenities than the HSBC Club Lounge. For one, there are showers, which I always appreciate during a layover, but I also saw headphones for PS3 and individual TV use for loan at the front desk. In addition, there’s a children’s play room immediately to the right upon entering the lounge, which I imagine is very useful for families.

Individual entertainment pods

Individual entertainment pods. You can get headphones from the front desk. Several of these pods were occupied by people sleeping on the floor…

Children's play room

Children’s play room

Nice-looking shower rooms

Nice-looking shower rooms

This lounge is also larger and more spacious than the HSBC club lounge. Although it’s also a one-room format, it’s a much larger room, and it didn’t feel crowded at all when I was there.

Spacious lounge

Spacious lounge

The food options are also much more plentiful, except in the dessert category. It’s clear that both lounges are catered by the same people based on some of the common food options, but this lounge just has more to offer. Although I’m not sure I’d want to eat sushi from an airport lounge in Istanbul…

Soup + breads

Soup + breads

Desserts and cold food selection

Desserts and cold food selection (there’s sushi in the upper right)

Hot food options

Hot food options

I didn’t eat much as I had not exercised restraint on the dessert options at the other lounge, but the food looked decent. They even had pide, which is the Turkish version of pizza.

There was also an ample bar area, but I didn’t see a bartender when I was there, nor did it appear that anyone tried getting a drink from the bar.

Empty bar area

Empty bar area

Overall, I enjoyed this lounge a lot, and it’d be my Priority Pass recommendation for Istanbul Ataturk. The showers alone would be enough for me to recommend it above the HSBC Club Lounge, but the more extensive food options and additional amenities make this a clear choice unless you’re just looking to grab some food to go.

Review: Istanbul Ataturk Airport International Terminal HSBC Club Lounge

There are two Priority Pass-eligible lounges in the International Terminal at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, and the first that I stopped by was the HSBC Club Lounge.

Entrance to the lounge

Entrance to the lounge

It’s a rather basic lounge: one large room with seating, a couple of computers, a bevy of desserts, and basic drink options.

Workstations

Workstations

Side 1 of the lounge

Side 1 of the lounge

Side 2 of the lounge

Side 2 of the lounge

As I was planning on visiting the Primeclass CIP Lounge as well, I didn’t stay long, but I did check out the food options. There were a lot of different cookies, cakes, and packaged sandwiches to grab, as well as a soup. The desserts that I tried were pretty tasty. I also appreciated that the bananas were reasonably ripe (why is this so hard to find in airport lounges?), but they were nearly frozen.

Soup as the hot food option

Soup as the hot food option

So many desserts

So many desserts

Basic drink selection

Basic drink selection

In general, this is a decent lounge, but if you’re accessing through Priority Pass, the Primeclass CIP Lounge is better in almost every respect (more food options, showers, more space). This lounge does offer a wider selection of desserts, and if you’re just stopping by to grab something and don’t have long to linger, the packaged sandwiches are much more portable than the food options at the Primeclass CIP Lounge.

Food Tips for Istanbul

Tip #1: Kaymak. Eat it. It’s wonderful and delicious and similar to clotted cream. I think the best kaymak we had was at Karakoy Ozsut, which is right near the Karakoy tram stop. The owner is super friendly and talked to us about the herd of buffalos that he keeps and good farming practices.

Delicious, delicious kaymak

Delicious, delicious kaymak

Tip #2: Balik ekmek is ubiquitous around Galata bridge. You might be attempted to eat the fish sandwiches from the busy gaudy boats on the Eminomu side of the bridge, but you should really go to the Karakoy side and find the men with the portable grills making balik ekmek. They’re ten times as delicious as the sandwiches from the seemingly more impressive boats.

These guys are so much better than the boats across the bridge

The sandwiches from these guys are so much better than those from the gaudy boats across the bridge

Tip #3: The best baklava that we had was at Karakoy Gulluoglu (okay, it sounds like we spent all of our time in Karakoy, which isn’t true, but there was a lot of good food in this area). The baklava wasn’t cloyingly sweet or heavy, you can get a dollop of kaymak on the side, and they even have options for diabetics or people with gluten sensitivities. It’s also a great place to sit for a while to escape the heat as they have air conditioning, self-serve water, and bathrooms.

Also located very close to the Karakoy tram stop

Also located very close to the Karakoy tram stop

Tip #4: As much as I love the Spice Bazaar, you probably shouldn’t do any serious food shopping there unless you really know your stuff. You can often find the exact same goods just outside the market for a fraction of the price, and many things are not what they seem (e.g. Turkish “saffron”).

Tip #5: Istanbul Eats was a very reliable source of good food recommendations. Many of the places that we ate at were written up on their site. We particularly enjoyed Nar Lokantasi, Karakoy Lokantasi, and Gram (all for lunch).

Do you have any favorite Istanbul food or dining tips that you’d like to share?

I Dropped My Heart at the Spice Bazaar

Although very few locals seem to ever shop at the Spice Bazaar, I thought that going to the bazaar was one of the most fun things that we did in Istanbul, largely because the salespeople can be extraordinarily entertaining.

To be clear, you’re almost assuredly not going to get a deal on buying anything at this bazaar. In fact, for a lot of the things they sell in the building, I saw the exact same things at half the price if you only ventured right outside of the bazaar (and not into the Grand Bazaar either, just out into the side streets). So know that you’re paying for the experience and not just the goods. (Hint: Turkish “saffron” isn’t actual saffron; it’s safflower, which is why it’s so cheap)

As we walked through the bazaar, we were offered free samples of Turkish delight and I was bombarded with misguided “konnichiwas” (I am Asian, after all, and all Asians look the same). Numerous salespeople came up saying things ranging from the innocent, “Come inside just for a little bit; you don’t need to buy anything”; to the playful, “Try our Turkish Delight; no sugar”; to the blunt, “How can I separate you from your money today?”; to the wonderfully cheesy, “You dropped something… my heart”.

Eventually, one salesperson was smart enough to offer a sample of something that was a bit different and not as sweet. We all thought it was delicious, so this salesperson, Ibrahim, offered my friend his arm and we went into the stall. From that point forward, the show was on. Ibrahim plied us with sample after sample, flirted unabashedly with my female friends (and even a little with me), joked around, and generally entertained us for over half an hour in the stall.

My friends with the salesman, Ibrahim

My friends with the salesman, Ibrahim

We were so taken by Ibrahim that one of my friends got this drawn on her hand with eyeliner

We were so taken by Ibrahim that one of my friends got this drawn on her hand with eyeliner

Part of what I found remarkable about the experience was that the salesman later said that he had only learned English from working at the bazaar. He was incredibly personable and quite funny, which is hard enough to do in your native language, let alone a language that you pick up from working on a job, and he wasn’t using any of the cheesy recycled lines that were shouted out by the other salespeople. I wonder whether he would thrive in a corporate sales environment, as he definitely has the tourist one down to a T.

We did end up buying some things from Ibrahim when all was said and done, and they were probably about twice the price as we could have gotten elsewhere. But the end total wasn’t all that much (less than $20 USD), and we were thoroughly entertained for half an hour and will keep this memory for a long time, so I definitely think it was an efficient use of money.

We actually liked him so much that my friends and I made Ibrahim a card, and we returned to the Spice Bazaar the next day to give it to him. On this return visit, he made us tea, we sat down in his stall, and we talked about what it’s like to work in the bazaar, his thoughts on the recent protests, fasting during Ramadan, and his love of photography. Overall, it was a rewarding experience and I’ll definitely seek him out whenever I return to Istanbul.

If you’re curious and want to meet Ibrahim yourself, he’s located at stall number 46 in the baza. In fact, if you’re planning on going to the Spice Bazaar when you’re in Istanbul, I highly recommend that you seek him out and talk to him and at the very least ask him to show you his photo collection.

My First Time at a Hamam: Review of Nur Hamami

Going to a hamam (aka a Turkish bath) can incite a lot of apprehension in a lot of travelers: it’s not clear exactly what’s going to happen to you, there’s often a language barrier, you’re generally going to be naked, and the stories range from very positive to very negative about the experience. Or at least this is how I felt when my friends and I decided that we had to check out a hamam while in Istanbul.

Our Airbnb host suggested the Galatasaray Hammam, as did a Turkish friend of one of my traveling partners. But looking up the place on Trip Advisor did not inspire confidence, and I can’t really remember ever seeing such negative reviews of an activity. So while Turkish people recommended this hamam, nearly all of the tourists thought that they were essentially abused. Did not sound promising.

While walking around our apartment, however, we passed by a place called Nur Hamami several times. It’s a non-descript hamam off of a side street of Istikal, and about the only thing on the internet we could find about it was an old blog post. But the blog post and the few comments seemed positive, and it was super close to where we were staying, so we figured, why not try it out.

Nur Hamami is quite small, and there didn’t appear to be separate facilities for men and women, which was surprising, as most everything I had read said that hamams were sex-segregated because you’re often naked in them. Or maybe they just thought that we wouldn’t care about using the same facilities since we came as a group.

When we stopped by, we happened to interrupt the dinner of the two men working there, but they didn’t seem to mind and were incredibly friendly to us. They spoke enough English to make it clear what we had to do, and they gave us pestemals (a stretch of fabric to wrap around your body) and led us to small changing rooms to put them on. After donning the pestemals, we were led into the bath area, which was not particularly large and was rather plain. This definitely seemed to be a working man’s hamam and not some ornate bath built centuries ago.

The center of the room was a large, hot marble stone. We were motioned to lie down on the marble slab at first, but then we were sent to hang out in the sauna. We received water to keep us hydrated, and after a bit of time in the sauna, I felt that I had sweat enough and went back into the main room and lay down on the marble stone. Soon after, a man came in to give me my scrub, wash, and massage.

I was a little apprehensive about the treatments since I had heard that all parts could be a little bit painful and traumatizing. Stories like being scrubbed so hard that it hurt, being doused in boiling hot water or ice cold water, being bruised and beaten up from massages, or essentially being sexually molested by smelly and unsightly men (or women). But I have to say that the whole experience was quite enjoyable.

The man, who had also changed into a pestemal like my friends and me, put on a scrubby glove and gave me a head-to-toe scrubbing, avoiding my face and genitals. I was on my back first (with the pestemal unwrapped but still covering my private parts), then on my front, and then sitting up. At the end of scrubbing, while still sitting up, I was doused with a giant bucket of water. I didn’t notice that much dead skin coming off, but one of my friends said it was remarkable how much dead skin came off of her body.

After the scrubbing came the washing with massage. The man had a bag that he blew into that somehow produced massive amounts of bubbles that he sprayed on me. After covering me with bubbles, he did a quick massage of my body parts, along with a little bit of moving my arms around and applying pressure to crack various areas of my body. Again, I was first on my back, then on my front, and then sat up for the end. While sitting up, I also got a good hair scrubbing, and then got doused with another giant bucket of water. I was then told to head back into the sauna for a bit.

I think part of the reason why we were sent to the sauna multiple times was to in effect create a sex-segregated experience. So my two female friends mostly hung out in the sauna while I got my scrub and wash and massage, while I was sent back into the sauna afterward while the next person received their treatment (note: this meant that a male was scrubbing and washing females; something to keep in mind if you’re female).

I sweat some more in the sauna, but then went back into the main room and used a side basin to rinse off the sweat. I headed back out into the non-bath area where the other man helped me put on a new pestemal (as my old one was soaked in water) and wrapped me in towels. I hung out watching Turkish television for a while before I went back into my room to change into my clothes. Since there was only one man doing the scrubbing and washing and I got to go first, I had a fair amount of time after changing to just sit in the reception area, drink Turkish tea, and watch Turkish TV. My friends and I ended up spending quite a while watching a Turkish game show with the two men working at the hamam, which was an awesome experience in and of itself.

Overall, I am incredibly glad that we found Nur Hamami. Although it wasn’t fancy, it was enjoyable and relaxing, and we definitely avoided any sort of tourist trap Turkish bath. An added bonus of it not being too fancy was that the whole experience was quite affordable, costing 35 Turkish lira (not including tip) per person for the hamam, scrub, and massage, which was considerably less than other hamams that we had looked at. The experience for one person probably took around an hour: 20 minutes to sweat and relax in the beginning; 15 minutes of scrubbing, washing, and massaging; 10 minutes of sweating; and then 15 minutes of chilling with Turkish tea.

Should You Be Worried about Political Protests in Turkey as a Tourist?

Prior to visiting Turkey, I was nervous about the civil unrest that I had read about. Stories about police storming Taksim Square, several people dying, and tear gas in the streets stoked my fears.

But having just spent 4 days in Istanbul, I don’t think there’s much for tourists to be afraid of, particularly if you plan on spending most of your time near the tourist attractions (i.e. in Sultanahmet) as there was little-to-no police presence in the old city. In fact, if your hotel is in Sultanahmet, I doubt you’ll even notice that there are political protests going on.

We ended up staying near Taksim Square, so we saw a lot of police milling about within walking distance of our apartment every single day we were there. We also encountered demonstrations along Istikal, and on one night, we inhaled a little tear gas while walking along Istikal late at night. But I don’t think it’s particularly common or there’s a particular need for tourists to be hanging around Taksim Square or walking along Istikal late at night, so I doubt you’d be tear gassed as we were.

Anyway, most tourist itineraries will naturally keep you away from protests and police; otherwise, it only takes a little bit of awareness to make sure that you avoid potentially dangerous situations. And even then, probably the worst that’ll happen to you is that you’ll get a little bit of tear gas. Not a huge deal, and it was a fascinating time to see the city and talk to locals about their thoughts on the protests.