ISTANBUL is intense! Straight off the bat, I’m not claiming to know all about this incredible city as I was only there for a very short time, but I thought it would be a damn shame not to write a blog about my whirl wind experience!
Where to begin! Well…on first impressions, I was blown away by the huge amount of traffic pulsing through this manic place! It’s ridiculous! The drivers are all insane and seem to have no concept of speed or road rules, so if you enjoy living on the edge and seemingly risking your life at every turn and ignored stop sign, this is the city for you! Trust me, I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to madcap, kamikaze driving styles ( I’ve been to India and Thailand ) but here I decided it might be a good idea to forgo my ‘don’t care about car safety rules’ happy-go-lucky attitude and buckle up! Which proved to be not an easy task whilst being hurled around the back of the car.
If nothing else, it keeps you alert. But forget about trying to leisurely take in the scenery as you hurtle past ancient relics, as your driver will probably be trying to Google Translate an entire conversation with you with one hand on the steering wheel (obviously combined with a lit cigarette) and the other shoving his phone in your face showing you the Turkish/English conversation and at the same time checking himself out in the review mirror (as this is its obvious purpose)! However, all this will be done with a huge, beaming smile on his dial and that’s what makes travelling fun.
So…HOSGELDINIZ (pronounced…hosh-gal-daniz) and WELCOME TO TURKEY! ?
ISTANBUL is HUGE and divided into two areas (as it stretches over both Europe and Asia). The West/European side and the East/Old City side with the mighty Bosphorus Straight in between. With architecture and influences from the Byzantine and Roman eras, mixed in with Arabic and French, it is a city after my own heart and I felt VERY at home immediately! FYI: The west side is the location of all the major tourist highlights : the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia.
As MB and I were only here for a quick layover, we asked both Turkish and English friends their opinion for the best area to stay for us as we enjoy eating, drinking, people watching and wandering the streets. The West/European side came up time and time again, in particular a certain neighbourhood and this was the winner by popular demand! So off we went in search of this very cool hood in Downtown Istanbul!
The district of which I am referring is BEYOGLU and it incorporates the surrounding areas of Galata, Karaköy, Taksim and Tünel. If you’re a sucker for funky restaurants, bars, cafés and beautiful streets, head here without a second thought! We found an apartment through Airbnb in Galata with a little balcony AND a view of the Old City, very quickly online the night before (we like to fly by the seat of our pants when booking accommodation) for a great price! Boom…it can be done !
Locating this little gem of an apartment in Galata, however, meant having to go through even worse traffic jams as it is full of steep, narrow, cobblestone streets with no room for cars or vans to move, so our driver had to ‘park’ somewhere in the vicinity of our place and very kindly helped us drag our bags uphill to reach our destination through a cacophony of screaming delivery men, beeping horns and the muezzins’ call to prayer all whilst nimble little tea (chai/çay) waiters calmly wove their way amongst the havoc! I secretly adored being amidst all this local Turkish chaos!
Since it was late afternoon already, MB and I decided to seize the moment and quickly explore our neighbourhood. The big attraction here is the famous GALATA TOWER. This prominent structure, built in 1348 but restored several times due to storms, a flood and a fire, was well known as once being the tallest building in Istanbul. At one time it was used as fire spotting tower during the Ottoman empire (when it was, ironically, partially destroyed by fire) and then later, a prison! The conical roof, which has also been restored many times, is now a major drawcard for tourists who line up patiently for hours to climb the internal stairway to the top for a magnificent 360 degree view of Istanbul. We didn’t go up, but during our two nights here and being the annual Istanbul Festival, light shows at the tower played every night for 20 mins every half hour
We strolled along the huge pedestrian boulevard Istiklal Caddesi (also a major tramway) lined with boutiques, restaurants and cafés, towards popular TAKSIM SQUARE. We could have been in Nice or Paris and it was throbbing with people all in a rush to get to or go somewhere! Taksim Square is a major hub for tourists, many eager to get selfies in front its Republic Monument. Unfortunately there were too many hawkers trying to sell their wares for us to really enjoy it, so we found our way home via KARAKOY, the major expat and young locals suburb of west Istanbul. Yet again great cafés, bars, music stores and street art was the ‘go’ here and reminded me of Melbourne, Australia! I discovered a cute jewellery shop operating out of the back of a van and bought some lovely, unique pieces. This is my favourite way of shopping and exploring a city!
Dinnertime found us at a popular little faux French bistro called Chez Moi in Galata. It was warm, busy (both locals and tourists), friendly, had great atmosphere and fine food! The perfect place for people watching on a chilly first night in Istanbul, whilst sipping local wine on its street side terrace!
Knowing we couldn’t possibly hold our heads high and leave Istanbul without visiting the major sights, we managed to squash a weeks worth of sightseeing all into one exhausting day! Blessed with fantastic weather, we walked to the district of Sultanahmet, home to the BLUE MOSQUE and HAGIA SOPHIA via the Galata Bridge which was teaming with local fishermen. These fishermen’s catch is then sold to local restaurants located under the bridge and to the boats selling the famous fish sandwiches Balik Ekmek a local street food. The smell is quite intoxicating… sea water, fried fish and live bait… sounds awful but it’s actually quite enticing!
We eventually located the famous Blue Mosque (SultanAhmed Mosque) after getting side tracked at the spice Bazaar and local cheese shops, but unfortunately the main room was being partly restored at this time and it was also a Friday morning, so it was not open to visitors. Constructed in 1609 it is famous for its hand painted blue tile interior and is still, today, a working mosque. It was however, an enormous, magnificent and imposing building and just being near it and able to see history after many years of want, was well worth the trip. I was happy just to get a photo or two as my own souvenir. Up the street was the ( just as beautiful if not more) Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya.) Resplendent in all her pink glory and constructed in 537, it was originally a church but later converted to a mosque in 1453. It is now a museum and famous for its huge dome and is ‘considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture’. The gardens surrounding her are beautiful and tranquil in themselves and even though we did not end up inside this time, we did however enjoy a concert in the gardens by Turkish band dressed as Ottoman soldiers!
A delicious lunch of kebab, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, Turkish delight and chai in one of the local eateries outside the Grand Bazaar, all devoured whilst the haunting singing of the muezzins’ call to prayer rang out loud and clear across the rooftops, was our next important stop. The experience sent shivers down my spine.
Now… the formidable GRAND BAZAAR… what can I say! I’ve been looking forward to this the most (sad but true) as anyone who knows me understands my obsession with souks, bazaars, markets etc! BUT, I was a bit disappointed to be perfectly honest. Magnificent as the architecture was and also not being overly crowded this day, I found that it lacked the soul and exoticness that I was craving. There were far too many ‘copy shops’ for my liking, but saying this, if you were after a Gucci bag or a pair of faux Valentino jeans, you’ve come to the right bazaar! It’s all here…shop after shop after shop all vying for your precious Turkish Lira! To be fair, the copies looked good though and the choice was amazing but it was not for me at this time.
We had a map of the stalls but we ended up forgoing this just to walk around and get lost in the maze. I was searching for hand made Turkish/Roman style leather sandals but alas I didn’t find any here in this huge, ancient shopping mall! FYI: I found some in a little out of the way boutique around the corner from our Airbnb, so a major crisis was avoided!
Glass lanterns, jewellery, leather, copper, antiques, carpets…whatever you want is available! The sellers were not pushy in these shops or trying to coax you in (which I find annoying) so that was a huge plus. I had been in a little Turkish town for two weeks earlier and had already bought many treasures so there was no need for any more purchases (unless I found something special!) The Grand Bazaar is though by its namesake, certainly very grand and I recommend you pay her a visit!
Next on the tick-a-box list, was a tourist boat ride along the Bosphorus! At 15TL pp (approximately $4.50AUS) for a one and half hour comfortable cruise along this beautiful waterway complete with a roaming waiter selling chai and snacks, it’s a MUST! A major straight which runs between the European/West and Asian/East side of Turkey, it is used for international navigation, is tied to major historical events and connects with the Black Sea! Phew!
The trip was calm and a great way to see Istanbul from another viewpoint. Majestic mosques, imposing mansions, ancient relics and lush green gardens all float by with an air of detachment as the enormity and grandness of this famously diverse city overwhelms the senses.
Heading ‘home’ in the early hours of the afternoon, left us with time to just sit, relax and sip a potent cup of Turkish coffee and indulge in a dripping slice of sticky baklava, in one of the many cafés lining the streets of the Old City. Chai and kebab shops, juice bars, Turkish delight and baklava shops and also Simit (circular bread rolls topped with poppy or sesame seeds, much like a bagel) stalls are EVERYWHERE! No excuse to become a weary traveller here in Istanbul with the variety of rest places and street foods available to you at all times of the day and night. It’s wonderful!
Up and down the steep winding streets we walked. Past lighting street and wedding street, around the corner from plumbing street, hardware street and ‘anything to do with fishing’ street! FYI: Istanbul seems to be divided into little areas all stocking the same wares so it’s an easy fix if you need a lightbulb or a fishing rod for your wedding day! Our B@B was in the Lighting area!
Deciding on a bustling local restaurant for dinner, complete with a live Turkish band, we squashed ourselves onto a little table outside to indulge in an array of delicious ‘meze’.The waiters bring around an enormous tray with the selection of cold dishes to choose from and then you can order any hot dishes from the menu.
EVERYONE and I mean everyone, was drinking the local poison RAKI with their meals. Raki is an intense, clear alcohol made from aniseed ( similar to Ouzo or Pastis) is served with water and is deadly! It is very potent and not to my taste and MB only drinks it as an aperitif, so we ordered a bottle of the (amazing) local wine instead. The meal was lovely as was the service and the band and we had a fun conversation with a local couple sitting at the next table. We ended the night with a drink in the lovely GÜNEY bar next to Galata Tower whilst watching the light show. A truly memorable day!
Before heading to the airport, we stopped in at a very pretty café down the hill from our apartment. Decked out in turquoise (my favourite colour) and exotic tiles, complete with a matching vespa parked out front, we devoured a traditional Turkish breakfast of Tepsi Boregi, a spinach and feta filo roll curled into a wheel shape (like the greek Spanakopita and super delicious), drank espresso and watched the locals and the many cats of Istanbul awaken to another glorious day.
Even though our stay was limited, our days were full and we adored every second of our short time here in this magical place. I didn’t get to witness a Whirling Dervish or get scrubbed down in an ancient Hamam but one always has to leave things to do next time around…wouldn’t you agree?
…”If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul”… Alphonse de Lamartine