Visiting Istanbul during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Should we stay or should we go? Is the question on every nomad’s mind since march 2020. It will drive you crazy … I know it was getting to me until we finally made the decision to follow our instincts regarding safety and fly to Turkey for a 3 month stay. Before leaving we contacted our health insurance company to reconfirm our worldwide coverage and they sent us a letter just in case we need it.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a modern nomad is anyone who hasn’t lived in one place more than 3 years in the last decade of their life and has no idea when or where they will ever settle down for good.

Since we sold our home on wheels in July, we have been officially homeless, even though Joe’s son has been a gracious host by giving us a home base for the past five months, we felt that we had to either find our own place in Florida or continue the nomadic life that we love so much. Every plan we previously tried to make, never materialized because of travel bands and border closures. While researching our next move, in August, I started seeing posts on social media from a nomad friend in Turkey. I contacted her to learn more. After finding out that Americans are welcomed and that social distancing and masks are mandatory, I started planning.

In 2015 we downsized from a 3000 sq. ft. house to a 91 sq. ft. camper … in 2020, we traded our truck camper for two carryons. I don’t think we can go any smaller!

And just to be clear, we take this horrible pandemic very seriously and this post is in no way an encouragement for people to travel, it’s just a journal of our own experience. We totally believe in science and we follow the experts recommendations: frequent hand washing, wearing masks in public and social distancing. From the moment we leave our apartment we have a mask on, we don’t remove it unless we take a picture or eat.

As US passport holders we needed a tourist visa to travel to Turkey, it was very easy to obtain on line in just a few minutes at the cost of $50 + $1.50 processing fee. The e-Visa is valid for multiple entries for a maximum stay of 90 days within a 180 day period.

There’s a few flight options but we opted for a direct flight with Turkish Airlines from Miami to Istanbul to limit our time in airports and in-flight. At first I was looking at one way flights however keeping caution and safety a priority we booked a round trip flight which ended up being cheaper, ($1,043 each). Whether we use the return flight or not remains to be seen. We will have to reassess the situation when we get closer to our departure date in December.

Turkish Airlines did a great job with social distancing during boarding and gave each passenger an hygiene kit containing 3 masks, hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes. We got extremely lucky that our 11 hour 20 minute flight was less than half full allowing us to each have three seats. With the help of a couple melatonin tablets we slept pretty much the whole way!

Like we do for every country we visit, we registered in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for Turkey. STEP is a free service to allow U.S. Citizens/national traveling abroad to enroll with the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

Copied from the American Citizen Services U.S. Mission Turkey September 2020 Newsletter:

 U.S. citizens may enter Turkey without having to follow any quarantine procedures or take a COVID-19 test, if they do not show COVID-19 like symptoms.  A PCR test will be administered if a passenger shows symptoms of COVID-19.  COVID-19 control measures for air, land, and sea travel continue. Passengers arriving in Turkey will be required to complete an information form and will be checked for symptoms. Anyone suspected of having COVID-19 will be transported to a hospital for examination. If an individual on a particular aircraft/vehicle/vessel is found to have COVID-19, the information forms completed upon arrival will be used to identify others have been in contact with them; those individuals will then be subject to 14-day isolation/quarantine.   

On September 8 2020, the day we left Miami, the Turkish Interior Ministry issued a notice to the public regarding new COVID restrictions/guidance.  Violators will be issued fines. The new restrictions are as follows:

  • Face masks must be worn in public (e.g., streets, gardens, workplaces, etc.) at all times in all 81 provinces of Turkey.
  • Standing passengers will not be allowed in urban public transportation vehicles where physical distance rules cannot be applied.
  • The playing of live music at restaurants and cafes after midnight is forbidden.

Accommodation

To reduce human contact, we opted for an Airbnb in Istanbul. By booking 28 nights or more you get anywhere from 15 to 40% off the nightly rate and with the significant decrease in demand, it’s also possible to contact the host to see if you can get an additional discount. Our one bedroom apartment is centrally located and walking distance to restaurants, grocery stores and many attractions. We paid $945 (+ service fee) for a month, including Wi-Fi, weekly housekeeping, shared rooftop terrace, Air Conditioning, washer/dryer and an elevator which is rare in these historic buildings. We love older renovated buildings full of charm and we paid a little bit more for the rooftop terrace which in retrospect we haven’t used all that much. Our apartment is kind of midrange, you can find much cheaper or more expensive depending on your budget and requirements. Even though we had a few hurdles when we checked in, we ended up changing apartment within the same building, we are very happy with our choice. We like to spend time at home especially on weekends when it’s busier, so it’s important for us to be comfortable and feel safe.

Transportation

Istabul has an amazing public transport system. Thanks to our friend Connie who showed us the ropes. It’s important for us to take time as soon as we arrive to understand how to get around on the cheaper fare . First you have to buy a card called Istanbul Kart for 6 Lira (77 cents) and you can replenish it at anytime through automated machines available everywhere. Once you have the card you can access the buses, subways, trams and ferries. The fee varies between 3 to 4.5 Lira (60 cents). We’ve used all of them except the subway because it feels a bit to enclosed and we try to stay outside as much as possible or at least near a draft from an opened window. The ferries are our absolute favorite. Istanbul is surrounded by water and there is more then 20 ferry stations or piers around the city on the Asian and European sides and even more on weekends. You can go as far as the Black Sea for a few dollars. Taxis are also a good option but in the very touristy areas taxi drivers are known to be scammers, we’ve learned to ask for meters only and if they refuse we don’t get in.

Eating out

As full-time travelers, we eat a lot of our meals at home because it doesn’t matter how good the local cuisine is, sometimes you just feel like having a bowl of cereal or an egg sandwich. Istanbul has surprised us in so many ways but the food has to be on top of the list! Everything we’ve tried has been delicious. It’s been a while since we tasted strawberries and tomatoes this good! To be able to enjoy all this incredible food while trying to maintain our weight in check and reduce our outings, we’ve been having a fruit breakfast at home, go out for a late lunch early dinner and have a snack at home in the evening so no real cooking in the apartment. Eating out is so cheap and the options are endless. Pretty much all restaurants have outdoor seating and the weather has been perfect making it very easy to enjoy our meals alfresco.

Sightseeing

Along with the ferry rides, we really enjoy walking through the city to discover different neighborhoods, restaurants and visit the local attractions. Istanbul doesn’t have a shortage of things to see, even if we stayed here a year I don’t think we could see it all. As I said before, we lay low on weekends to avoid the crowds which has been growing since we got here at the beginning of September. We have seen more locals walking the streets on weekends and more tourists visiting the major attractions. From what I’ve read, pre-COVID, you had to wait in line for a long time before being able to enter places like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace etc… now as long as we get there before 9:30am there is no line and very few people. Other popular attractions like the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are hurting for customers since they rely mostly on tourists.

Any regrets?

Absolutely not. We feel just as secure, if not more, as we did in the US and with everything going on with the political debacle, we are very happy to be here. We love everything about Istanbul especially the people who have been very friendly, generous and hospitable which is so rare in a metropolis this big. Istanbul received no less then 5.5 million of foreign tourists in the first five months on 2019. However in the last week or so, we have seen a decrease in the amount of people wearing a mask. Many people wear it around their necks or bellow their nose. When we arrived we witnessed the police telling people on the street to put their mask on but this is no longer the case. We also noticed an increase of people on the streets.

As of today, Turkey has 323K confirmed cases , 284K recovered and 8384 deaths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently praised Turkey’s effort to curb the coronavirus, stressing that it tripled the daily number of tests since August. Including testing of asymptomatic individuals.

In just four days we will be leaving Istanbul to explore a little bit of central Turkey and then spend the remainder of out time on the southern coast, in smaller towns where we hope the chances of being infected will decrease.

A few facts about Istanbul and Turkey:

Istanbul is the most populated city in Europe with 15.52 million inhabitants. It is the only city in the world straddling two continents, Europe and Asia. Formerly known as Constantinople, it was the capital city of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the brief Crusader state known as the Latin Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Can you imagine the history that lies within this incredible city? Check out the Netflix Serie Rise of Empires: Ottoman, it was a good introduction for us before coming here.

Turkey Population: 83 million, source world bank (2019).

90% of the population is muslim and they are very proud of the fact that Turkey is constitutionally a secular nation thanks to Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Let’s hope it will remain …

Capital of Turkey: Ankara

Currency: Turkish Lira (1 USD = 7.77 TRY)

If you want to follow us more closely check out our stories on Instagram @joeandjosee and Facebook at Joe and Josée’s Journey

Stay tuned for more Turkey adventure …

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