Another of my trips this year took me to Istanbul. I had been before, as a child, and I was very much looking forward to visiting again. The city is one of the happening places now, and for a good reason. It is set on two continents, Europe and Asia, and combines both sometimes contradicting worlds in itself. It is rich in history and cultures, all Turks, Arabs, Armenians, Greeks… left their imprints on the city. Therefore there is lots to see and do. We went for five days as a couple, but you could easily spend 8 or 9 days there. Also, it could be fun to come as a family with kids.
From the international airport we took the tram (change once) directly to the old town, where our hostel was located. A convenient, cheap, if a wee bit hot trip (due to the many people on the tram at some point). We had booked a double room at Istiklal hostel right in the historic centre, but were positively surprised when the hostel owner took us around the corner from the actual hostel building to a small studio flat. It had a big bed, a good-sized bathroom, a small kitchenette, and a lovely big terrace. Breakfast (not huge, but sufficient; including fruit and veg, bread, and some very sweet jam) was served every morning at the main hostel, a mere 2 minute walk away. We usually took it on their rooftop terrace, complete with views of the world-famous Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and the Bosporus canal. Upon arrival, we asked the very nice and helpful owner for a lunch recommendation, and went for a small, local restaurant (a so called “lokanta”) just around the corner, that is only open for lunch and serves a variety of veggie dishes (meat also available) each day. We ended up going there for lunch almost every day. Great food, almost every veg dish was vegan, and great value. Also, there were cute cats walking around, begging to be stroked.
After a quick nap after our late lunch, we set out to explore the surroundings refreshed and filled with curiosity. My other half had never been to an Islamic country before, so the call of the muezzin and visiting mosques was something completely new to him. Although I have to say, that the muezzin is something one needs to get used to – especially if you get woken by their call for prayer from your nap. First of for sightseeing, since we stayed right across the street, was the Ad Meydani square, right in front of the Blue Mosque. We wandered around, admiring the old buildings lining the square, trying to decipher the hieroglyphs of the Dikilitas (a 3,500 year old Egyptian obelisk), and trying to imagine the horse races that took place here thousands of years ago (a hippodrome was built here in the 2nd century).
We then made our way to the Blue Mosque, the Sultanahmet Camii. The important Friday 5 p.m. prayer was over and not many tourists around, so we took the chance to visit the mosque from the inside. Their courtyard is already impressive and they have interesting explanatory boards all around, giving an insight into the history of the mosque and Islam in general. We took our time to read those, then I grabbed a scarf they provide for women at the entrance of the mosque, took off my shoes, and went inside the actual mosque.What a sight! No picture can do justice the moment you first enter and marvel at the grandness of this building. The tile work is just breathtaking. We just sat on the carpet for a while, taking it all in, and also doing a bit of people watching. After we left, it was already dark outside and the buildings were lit up beautifully. From the Blue Mosque you have a great view towards Aya Sofya, which used to be both a church and a mosque. We walked along the little park in between the two monuments, and grabbed some food, corn on the cob and hot chestnuts, from street vendors.
Next day was my birthday. Yeahy! We started of with a rooftop breakfast, then dedicated the whole morning to exploring Aya Sofya. There was a long queue for tickets, but my other half somehow managed to buy some dodgy tickets from a salesman outside, with which we surprisingly could enter. Aya Sofya was originally build as a basilica when Istanbul was under Christian reign. It was later re-build as a mosque during the Ottoman Empire. Today, it is a museum combining elements of both Christianity and Islam in one place. I wished it could always be this peaceful between religions. There are boards explaining the history and specific art work, we also found the film they show in a chamber near the entrance very informative. If you want to, you can hire a local guide on the spot to show you around. We probably spend 3 hours wandering around, downstairs and upstairs. It is one of those places that can suck you in, once you manage to ignore the hordes of tourists visiting this monument.
After lunch at our new favourite restaurant, we headed for the Gran Bazaar. I had been promised another present that I could chose, so what better place to look than there?! The building itself is beautiful already. Arches with intrinsic tile work, little shops selling everything from ceramics, fake football jerseys to lamps and jewellery. I decided for some silver Ottoman-style earrings. Some of the 2012’s version of James Bond’s “Casino Royale” was filmed in and around the Gran Bazaar, so that was another draw for me to see it. Generally, I recommend you compare prices a lot, often the same things are offered over and over again, and tend to be a bit cheaper in the stalls outside of or deeper into the Grand Bazaar. There is also a small old book bazar outside, which I found very cute. For dinner we headed to trendy Beyoglu, the Galata/Taksim area, to the party mile that Istiklal Road becomes at night. I had looked up vegan/vegetarian restaurants, with Parsifal being my primary choice. Unfortunately they were fully booked, so we headed across the street to Zencefil. A really nice interior with exposed brick and high ceilings. Unfortunately that is the only positive thing I can say about this place. The food was below average, bland, boring, not properly warmed up, and heavily overpriced. We left disappointed, but wouldn’t have out evening spoilt. After wandering the side streets of Istiklal Road for a while to take in the Saturday night craziness, we decided to have some drinks at a little bar that was packed with locals drinking raki (an anis-flavoured spirit) and enjoying (and dancing to) a Turkish live band. Turned out to be a great choice, lively atmosphere with lots of dancing that eventually spilled onto the street. Great finish to a really enjoyable day.
We started our Sunday by a leisurely stroll through Gülhane Park. There was a flower festival going on in various parks around the city, and this was one of them, so the landscaping was very beautiful. Through the park we made our way towards the ferry terminal to catch a boat to a part of town on the Asian continent. We stopped along the way for some gun action (shooting at balloons with an airgun) and some freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. You can find those juice sellers at almost every corner and it is a great (and cheap) way of getting some of your 5-a-day, and an energy kick in-between sightseeing or shopping. We then took one of the public ferries from near Galata Bridge across the Bosporus to Kadiköy. The ferry ride is absolutely recommendable, very cheap (around 2 Euros per person, takes about 20 min) and you get fantastic views of the old town, bridges, mosques, Galata Tower, new constructions and the old little lighthouse called Maiden’s Tower where some of James Bond’s “The World is Not Enough” was filmed (If you haven’t noticed, I love Bond movies).
In Kadiköy we strolled along the quaint street market, had a look at hip little boutiques and did some clothes shopping. Many of the name brands have their clothes produced in Turkey, and the export surplus is sold in the shops around town. You can make some good bargains, so make sure to leave some space in your suitcase when you pack. We had a late lunch/early dinner at one of the many fish restaurants in Kadiköy. I just went for a mixed meze, including a very delicious smoked aubergine dish, which finally converted me into eating more of this vegetable (wasn’t a huge fan of the consistency before).
We continued our stroll, mingling with the Fernerbaçe fans, the local football team, and I got a haircut at one of the barber shops, because why not?! We took the ferry back to the European side, this time in the twilight, watching the city lights awake. A truly wonderful sight. We ended our day by strolling through our quarter, looking at spice shops and having some lokum (Turkish delight), which is usually vegan and comes in so many fantastic flavours (my favourite is pomegranate with pistachio nuts).
The Monday morning greeted us with heavy rain. So we thought it would be a good idea to visit Topkapi Palace, the palace of the sultans. When we arrived at around 10:30 a.m. they told us that the waiting time to get inside is around 1.5 hours – standing outside in the rain. So even though we would have loved to visit, we decided against it as we would have not enjoyed touring the palace. After a quick change into dry shoes and lunch at our usual lunch spot, we headed back to the Galata and Taksim area (also known as Karaköy) to check it and its funky shops out during the day. We spend all afternoon shopping, with tea and coffee breaks at the many cafes in-between. Packed with bags, and stuffed with falafels from a place somewhere along the Istiklal Street (might have been one of the Çik Köfte shops), we headed back to our hostel and had a good nights sleep.
Our last day was filled with more highlights. In the morning we went to the underground cisterns (commonly known as “Basilica Cistern”), which are of outstanding beauty and were used to store fresh water and fresh food. Also, some scenes of James Bond’s “From Russia with Love” were filmed there. I took my time taking some nice photographs (bring a tripod), then we headed towards the spice bazaar and its surrounding area. We had lunch at one of the little restaurants near a little mosque, near the beautiful main post office. We sent some postcards back home from there, but unfortunately they never arrived.
At the spice bazaar (also called Egyptian Bazaar), we marvelled at the beautiful colours, sniffed into different teas, and tried many spice mixes. Again, compare prices and head to the shops outside for a more economic buy. We ended up getting most of our souvenirs here, because what’s better to bring back for the family than some awesome spices and tasty teas?! For ourselves we got different kinds of paprika and chilies, a salad spice with sumac that goes so well with tomatoes and cucumber, pomegranate tea, and another fruit tea called Sultan’s Dream or something corny like that. And of course we got more lokum, because you can never have enough sweets. After a tea break we strolled along the nearby waterfront, watching fishermen, and enjoying some freshly baked simit, a Turkish sesame bagel. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at a really nice shop to look for some more clothes (I have to say in my defense that I bought way less than my other half!).
We ended our day and our wonderful trip with a visit to a shisha bar that could not have been any more beautiful (near the grand Bazaar, off Yeniçeriler Street, between Çemberlitas and Beyazit tram stops). It is set in what seems to be part of an old mosque, with high arched ceilings, many carpets and a welcoming atmosphere. There are many different flavours for your tobacco, and you can chat the night away smoking and drinking apple or strong black tea. A perfect ending to a perfect trip, before heading home the next day.
Overall, Istanbul lives up to the hype and is SO worth a visit. There are many more things to do and see, but we decided on enjoying everything as much as possible instead of running from one sight to another. We will make sure to be back soon.
Historic sites: +++ (so many things to see from so many different eras and influences; a history buff’s paradise, but also fascinating if you don’t know a whole lot about history)
Food: ++* (hearty, fresh, fantastic mixed mezes, and Turkish delights are delightfully vegan)
Best time to go: spring and autumn, as summers can be really hot; late spring and early autumn should be great for checking out some of the city’s beaches on the little islands nearby
Transport: fly into the two Istanbul airports, Atatürk being the main airport, also closest to the centre; for getting into town and around town take the trams, busses and ferries for excellent value
Money: pay in Turkish liras; not an expensive location, but prices are not super cheap. Lunches at the local restaurants were about 3-4 Euro per person (incl. bread, water and sometimes a desert), hostel room (double/studio with ensuite in the historic centre) was 30 Euros per person per night. Good bargain shopping for name brand clothes (e.g. original SuperDry Japan hoody for 15 Euros instead of 80 Euros retail in Germany).