“If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Napoleon Bonaparte
I have finally got around to finishing writing this post after a hectic two weeks of socialising, Christmas shopping, surprises and a birthday, so here goes…….
Afforded some days off by the government in celebration of the UAEs 42nd National Day, the other half, the teenager and I took a little trip to Istanbul to enjoy a five-day city break exploring Turkey’s largest and most populous city. Armed with my trusty Lonely Planet Pocket guide and pull-out map we arrived into the rainy and overcast busy city on Thursday afternoon. The first stop was to the visa counter where visitors are required to buy an entry stamp but amazingly you cannot use Turkish Lira, only Euros or US Dollars, most bizarre (luckily we had been forewarned ) and I am sure that has caught a lot of travellers out here and probably upset a few too!
After a recommendation from a friend who now lives in Istanbul with his lovely Turkish wife, I booked us a hotel in Sultanahmet which is right in the heart of the cultural district and it proved to be a perfect location and base from which to explore many of the city’s ‘must do’s’ on foot.
The boutique hotel was located on a cobbled street, with the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) and Arasta Bazaar just behind and within a plethora of restaurants and bars. Upon arrival, looking a little bedraggled from the rain and our trip squashed on the tram (if you are ever in Istanbul beware the older Turkish woman in floor length coat and patterned headscarf, they take no prisoners) we got our first taste of Turkish tea, a strong chai blend (cay) served in small tulip shaped glasses that is very popular throughout the city, actually a national pastime.
Turkish Hospitality and waiter skills
With the rain lashing down (were we in the UK or Turkey?) we sampled some Turkish cuisine and hospitality in some of the local establishments on the first night and after a Turkish breakfast the next morning, we set off on the first day of sightseeing. One of the reasons we love city breaks is being able to walk around and explore instead of being constantly in the car or a taxi here in AD.
First stop was the Grand Bazaar (scenes from James Bond ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Taken 2’ were filmed on its rooftop) located in the centre of the Old City, a colourful and noisy covered market crammed with carpets, textiles, antiques, jewellery and much more (or as the other half calls it ‘more sh*t we don’t need’). We exited through the Book Bazaar which was like an outdoor Borders, up through the winding streets to the Suleymainye Mosque, the spiritual hub of the Bazaar District where we stopped for a refreshing and much-needed hot Turkish tea and a lamb kebab for the meat eaters. I was unprepared for seeing Syrian refugees living on the streets, with young toddlers sent by their parents to beg for food at the busy restaurants, heartbreaking stuff, it was so cold just walking around let alone living outside, some with very young babies, a very sad state of affairs indeed.
Colourful spices and sweet treats
Next stop was the Spice Bazaar (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) located down the steepest streets, en route to Galata Bridge. The busy Spice Bazaar was an array of colours and smells, baskets of spices sitting alongside trays of brightly coloured Turkish Delight and dried fruits, teas and cheeses.
Exiting the Bazaar we found ourselves at the New Mosque and surrounding square where street food vendors, with their distinctive red and white striped carts, tout their wares. Galata Bridge attracts all the fisherman and more street food vendors as well as being the point of departure for the boat trips across the Bosphorus Strait. Under the bridge are two rows of fish restaurants with the most in your face and aggressive restaurateurs I have every come across, each one vying for your custom, damn right off-putting, so needless to say we gave them a wide berth and instead jumped abroad a large ferry and took a cruise along the Bosphorus Strait.
The one and a half hour trip shadowed the European side, taking in the historic palaces, mosques and palatial waterfront houses and then after reaching the bridge it was back up along the Asian shore of the divided city. Afloat on the water was a great viewpoint to take in the sheer size of the vast city (I had no idea just how massive it was) while consuming a Turkish tea (spot a theme here) to keep warm.
Back on dry land the other half tried a local delicacy, the balik ekmek (a fish sandwich of mackerel, salad and squeezed lemon) straight from the fishing boat and the teenager tucked into simit (sesame encrusted bread ring) filled with Nutella, that girl can spot a jar of the chocolate treat a mile off! Trust me a well fed other half is a necessity for anyone in his vicinity and the teenager has hollow legs!
Happy tourists again we set off back up the steep hills then back down again to Sultanahmet to explore the dimly lit and quite creepy subterranean Basilica Cistern (sunken palace), which is largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul with 336 marble and granite columns, two Medusa heads along with carp and goldfish swimming in the shallow pools. Scenes from another James Bond movie ‘From Russia with Love’ were filmed here.
Basilica Cistern and its two Medusa heads
After a quick hotel pit-stop we jumped onboard the tram across Galata Bridge and met our friends in Beyoglu where we sampled some Eastern Turkish cuisine and took a guided tour up the pedestrianised Istiklal Caddesi to the famous Taksim Square, location of the recent political protests. We finished our night in a trendy outdoor pub garden (patio heaters and blankets provided and needed) in Cihangir, sampling a bit more Turkish red wind and of course another couple of Turkish teas.
Our local hosts and fab tour guides
Another day and even more food and tea were on the horizon. Popping into a local bakery we purchased some Baklava and then boarded the tram for a second day of sightseeing, starting with another excursion across the Galata Bridge to explore Beyoglu. Map in hand, we explored the extraordinarily steep narrow streets (oxygen tank optional) that led up to the Galata Tower. The cylindrical tower built in 1348 dominates the city skyline and its high upper narrow balcony gives amazing 360 degrees of the city and it’s very popular with tourists, we even had to queue to get in.
Galata Tower, street cafe view
A spot of lunch under the shadow of the tower in an outdoor street cafe (felt very Parisian) we set off back up the Istiklal Caddesi, where the usual international retail culprits are located (Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street which apparently attracts 3 million visitors a day) and the teenager was smiling after she got her MAC fix. We rode the funicular back down to Tunel (somewhat under duress by my fellow tourists if I’m honest) to catch the ferry across the Bosphorus to meet up again with our Turkish tour guides, who live on the Asian side of the city.
Wandering through the narrow streets of Kadikoy which were full of markets stalls displaying fabulous fresh produce, we ended up in a delightful Turkish bakery for cake and you guessed it, even more Turkish tea. We strolled along the water’s edge at sunset taking in the amazing views back across the city before the other half disappeared to watch a local football derby, Fenerbahce versus Besiktas with a Turkish work colleague who was visiting his parents for the weekend.
Kadikoy was awash with noisy football fans in a sea of blue and yellow and the stadium was packed to its full 50,000 capacity, the Turkish certainly love their football (home fans only allowed at a local derby to avoid any confrontation between fans). The teenager and I enjoyed a Turkish Chinese meal with our hosts which was an unusual fusion but delicious, followed by even more sweet treats in a quaint antique cafe.
The last full day was tourist central, taking in the last parts of the city and its amazing history. We started at the Blue Mosque, followed by the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) and the Topkapi Palace and ended the day in the beautiful waterside square in Ortakoy.
The Blue Mosque is an imposing and photogenic building dominating one side of Sultanahmet Park. It is the only Ottomon mosque built with six minarets and it gets it name Blue Mosque (unofficial) because of the thousands of blue tiles that decorate its walls and the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I and his family.
Hagia Sophia has been acknowledged as one of the worlds most historic buildings. Sitting opposite the Blue Mosque the building is steeped in religious history. It was consecrated as a greek orthodox church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and then declared a museum in 1934. It’s home to a large collection of Byzantine mosaics and its famous dome is currently under some renovation. I do question the restoration of the Iznik tiled panel of the Holy Kaaba in Mecca (see photo above) with the random patterned tile placed in the middle.
The grounds of Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace sits high above the city with fantastic views across the Bosphorus and skylines of both the European and Asian sides. Once home to a series of bad and mad sultans of the Ottoman Era and their opulent lifestyle, the palace and its grounds are examples of the extravagant architecture. Rooms are full of jewels and weaponry from the bygone empire and we explored the landscaped gardens, pavilions, harem and eunuch rooms all of which were once part of the lavish empire and the indulgent lives of those who lived there.
The efficient Istanbul tram network
Another trip on the tram took us back across Galata Bridge to the last available stop at Kabatas where we departed to walk to Ortakoy. We passed the enormous and impressive architectural sites that are the Dolmabahce and Ciragan (now the Kempinski Hotel) palaces, both from the Ottoman Era. We finished up in the waterside prime real estate area of Ortakoy, formerly a small fishing village in Byzantine times and now a series of quaint cobbled lanes full of cafes, bars and restaurants and as it was Sunday a colourful handicraft market. After a Turkish tea in the trendy House Cafe, we settled in a waterfront bar for our last dinner and drinks, overlooking the water and the luminated Bosphorus Bridge.
Bosphorus Bridge and the shoreline of Ortakoy
Istanbul is a fantastic city where history sits alongside modern in it seems, perfect harmony. I really enjoyed exploring all its different facets, learning about its history and the legacies left by the sultans of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It’s not surprising that both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor rate Istanbul in their top ten beautiful cities to visit. The architecture is simply amazing, the city and its inhabitants colourful and friendly (in the majority) and everywhere is easily accessible.
We ate and drank our way around the city but hopefully walking for miles everyday counteracted the calorie intake. I would thoroughly recommend a visit and remember to go over to the non-touristy Asian side to enjoy a snippet of the real Istanbul and what it has to offer.
My Top 5 Favourite Things About Istanbul
- Turkish Tea
- Bosphorus Cruise
- Galata Tower
- Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
- Grand and Spice Bazaar (for its colourful wares and atmosphere)
Trusty Istanbul Lonely Planet guide book and map