I cringed as I glanced out the hostel window and saw nothing but clouds for miles. It figured that the morning I booked a cruise on the Bosphorus was also the only cloudy morning since I arrived in Istanbul four days earlier. And it figured that all of my long pants were still at the express laundry place around the corner, leaving me with only capri pants to brave the damp, chilly air.
Add in the fact that the tour bus was nearly thirty minutes late to pick me up (costing me thirty minutes of valuable sleep time) and the Bosphorus Cruise and Spice Bazaar tour was not off to a rousing start.
When the tour bus finally arrived, I jumped on to find it nearly full. After picking up one last couple, the small bus headed across the Bosphorus to a meeting point where we learned we would split up into different buses for our respective tours. My eventual group was a mix of Americans, Danish, Kiwis and Dutch, ranging in age from teenagers with their parents to senior citizens. Our guide was a well-spoken Turkish guy who recently finished his MBA at the University of Chicago (and oddly enough he immediately identified me as being from Chicago – have I really developed an accent??).
A not-so-guided tour of the Spice Bazaar
As we drove through the winding streets of Istanbul to our first stop, the Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar), our guide pointed out sites left and right, shared some of the history of the city and threw in a few less than laughable jokes as well. When we arrived at the Bazaar, he led us to a side entrance and as we waited for it to open at 9:30 a.m., he explained that he would be taking us to a family spice shop that had been in business for nearly 300 years. They would have Turkish Delight and tea for us to sample and, of course, we would be welcome to purchase something if we wanted to.
This immediately turned me off as I felt like the sole purpose of us even going to the Bazaar was to try to sell us stuff from this family shop so the guide or the local tour company (or both) could get a nice little commission. I naively had hoped we would get some sort of tour of the Bazaar with information on where stalls were located, how to approach haggling, how to know when we are getting ripped off, etc. I felt silly that I never expected to just be herded into a small shop and given multiple sales pitches.
To be fair, our guide did tell us we could abandon the group and explore on our own so long as we returned to the bus no later than 10:10 a.m. The problem with that is that, with a group of tourists, many of whom may have just arrived in the city and may not have a good sense of direction or time, people may not feel comfortable leaving the group and the guide. They booked a tour for a reason – to be guided.
I gulped my tea and tried some of the Turkish Delight and then confirmed with the guide how to get back to the bus before heading out. By that time, I only had about twenty minutes to explore – just enough to haggle over a scarf, bringing the price down from 25 lira to 20.
Can I get a do-over on the cruise?
After the Bazaar, it was time to cruise the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. This was what I was really looking forward to when I booked the tour. As we boarded the boat, the skies were still overcast and the wind was picking up. I tried to sit outside as long as possible to take the best pictures, but I was freezing and it was impossible to hear our guide’s commentary over the buzz of the engine and the whipping wind. Unfortunately, the noise situation didn’t improve when I headed below deck due to a constant murmur of people talking.
So as much as I would love to describe all of the sites we passed, I really can’t because I didn’t hear a single thing about what we saw. But I did pop outside to take pictures whenever we seemed to be passing something interesting. And for the last fifteen minutes of the cruise, the sun decided to make an appearance so I at least got a few sunny shots.
About an hour after we left port, we pulled back in and then boarded buses to take us back to our hotels. Of course, by that time the sun was shining brightly and I was kind of wishing we could get a do-over.
Thank you to Viator for hosting me on this tour, which was run locally by Neon Tours. All opinions expressed are solely mine. While I wasn’t crazy about this particular tour, I have traveled with Viator in the past with much more success.