While tentatively searching for fares in deciding whether or not to attend the World Travel Market in London last month, I came across this offer–$700 on Turkish Airlines would let me fly into London and out of Brussels on the dates I wanted. The catch? Spending a total of an extra seven hours on the plane since I had to stop in Istanbul both ways. BUT for the same price, I could choose to spend the night in Istanbul.

I was in Istanbul with John last March celebrating our twenty (!)-year anniversary. The city’s exotic charm, sensuous smells and tastes, and rich culture were the perfect setting for our weeklong kid-free romantic getaway. Boarding our Turkish Airlines flight home, we felt like we only scratched the surface and vowed to return one day. Two things in particular I wanted to see: the arms room at Topkapi and whirling dervishes.

I didn’t dream that I’d be back later that year. Alone.


True to form, I bought the tickets, then spent the next few weeks second-guessing my decision. I rarely travel alone and some well-meaning friends and relatives (OK, and maybe some CNN reporters) planted a danger bug in my ear that was hard to shake off. Was I being an irresponsible mother? As I debated changing my flight, John persuaded me to go—this is why I have never regretted marrying this man.

Here’s how I spent my 21 hours in Istanbul.

4:25 Land at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul

After a great flight gorging on Asian romantic comedies (my guilty pleasure on long flights–when I can find them) and the surprisingly decent Turkish Airlines food, I bought my visitor permit ($25), sailed through customs as only a 40-ish woman with a Belgian passport can, and hopped in a cab.

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6:00 Arrive at Premist Hotel

Twenty dollars and 20 minutes later, I arrived at Premist Hotels, a small hotel on a narrow cobblestoned street just down the hill from Sultanhamet’s famous sites, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi.

As I checked in at the tiny dimly-lit reception area, a number of guests were settled in drinking tea and eating pastries. I struggled not to take a photo of the short-haired elderly British woman that seemed to have transported out of a Merchant and Ivory movie. She held court in a dwarfing black hooded chair sipping tea and telling a long tale of her day’s dreadful road trip that was stalled by a donkey on the road.

Energized by the tea, I rushed to my room for a quick shower before heading out into the night.

7:00 Head out on the town

A quick climb to the top of the hill from the hotel put me right where I wanted to be for my pre-dinner stroll. I stared open-mouthed at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia lit up against the chilly evening sky.


I wasn’t in a souvenir-shopping mood (for once) but lots of shops were still open at that hour selling the ubiquitous rugs, spices, scents, and fabrics.

As I rounded the corner from the market stalls into a small square, I heard musicians playing some traditional-sounding tunes before a small crowd. That’s when I saw him. In a twirling wisp of white fabric gently spinning as though above the air itself, was a magnificent Dervish.

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9:00-ish Dinner

Just around the corner from the Premist and recommended by the concierge, Cafe Rumist specializes in pide, a flatbread pizza topped with meat, onion, or vegetables, as well as Turkish mezze and grilled meat. For less than $20, I ate enough to embarrass myself (the picture below is my appetizer).

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Early the next day…

I woke up early, had a quick breakfast (included in the $73 room price, btw) and headed out for a morning walk.

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By 8:30, I was standing on line in front of the Topkapı Sarayı ticket window, which opens at 9:00. And here’s where things would have gotten very Griswold if I hadn’t been there before and had a good game plan. The place is huge. The first time, John and I strolled around for hours visiting both the palace and the harem and still didn’t see everything (thus the repeat visit). This time, I skipped the harem, took a brisk walk around the palace, and lingered in the arms room and the treasury. I was there for an hour before heading back to the hotel to grab my luggage and a taxi.


Leave for the airport for my 1:40 flight to London

Looking out the window, before settling in to another Asian romcom fest, I vowed once again to return to this wonderful city. I would love to share it with the kids.

And look what I just found–$900 fares to Europe this summer! But here’s the catch…