Lisa and I have just come back from five days (Nov 5th to 10th) in the fantastic city of Istanbul in western Turkey. This is a quick post to serve as a reminder for the next time we visit – we enjoyed it so much we already want to go again!
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey a sprawling metropolis home to around 14 million people. Split by the Bosphorus sea it is the only city in the world that spans two continents – Europe and Asia. With this mix of east meets west there is an intriguing magical feeling about this city.
With the Turkish budget airline Pegasus we flew (from Vienna) into the Sabiha Gökçen Airport, located on the Asian side about 50km from the centre of the city. We took the HAVATAS bus to Kadiköy, and then from there a ferry across the Bosphorus to Eminönü on the European side. It was a scenic intro with the city’s sights, such as the Blue Mosque, on the skyline. From Eminönü it was an easy tram ride to the area of Sultanahmet (in the old town) where we stayed in the quaint guesthouse – Naz Wooden House Inn – in a room with a nice sea view.
On our first day we had a walk around the old town, where most of the main sights are located, which took us past several Mosques. All very impressive not least the city’s famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commonly known as the Blue Mosque). Built in the 16th century it is one of only two mosques in the world with six spiky pillars. Massive – inside and out – it is quite spectacle, day and night.
We walked a long way that day, including along the ancient Sea Walls, through the Hippodrome, and visited the Basilica Cistern – an underground water storage chamber. With lit up columns and carp swimming around it it is an impressive sight.
In the evening we strolled around the touristy but nevertheless worth a visit Spice Bazaar, packed as the name would suggest with spices as well as souvenirs.
We also walked across the Galata Bridge (past hundreds of hopeful anglers trailing their lines into the waters below) to the area of Beyoglu. This area has a lively nightlife and we had dinner in one of the excellent meyhanes (buffet style restaurants). The food in Istanbul is great – kebabs (döner, köfte, shish), lahmacun, pide, gözleme, börek, meze (the roasted aubergine is delicious), and of course many varieties of baklava (really got into this!). There was almost too much choice!
Day two started a bit rainy so we took it easy and visited the Aya Sofya, Istanbul’s most famous monument (built in AD 527-65). It was a nice place to walk around and take in the amazing array of mosaic tiles.
My favourite bit was the ‘weeping column’ (a worn copper facing pierced by a hole), which legend has it was blessed by St Gregoy the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger in the hole can lead to alignments being healed if the finger is moist when withdrawn. I wasn’t sure if my finger was moist or not!
In the afternoon we visited the Grand Bazaar, an expansive maze of indoor shops selling a variety of wares – sadly most seemed to be aimed at the tourist trade, which put us off slightly. Nevertheless, it was an interesting place to visit and there was a nice atmosphere, the traders were all friendly and didn’t give us any hassle to buy – although we did buy a few souvenirs. We enjoyed stopping at the café in the centre (Sark Kahvesi) of the bazaar and sipping a çay (sweet Turkish tea served in a small glass) and watching the buzzing trading going on around us.
In the evening we relaxed on one of the many rooftop bars in Sultanahmet with an Efes (the local beer, a pils) overlooking the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque.
We spent our third day cruising the Bosphorus on the many ferries that crisscross the busy straight. This was a real highlight, with the sun out sitting outside on the upper deck of the ferry offered some stunning views around the city.
Whenever the ferry set off it was followed by a gaggle of sea gulls who were obviously used to getting fed by people throwing them bread, which they caught on the wing – we had to join in!
We went from Eminönü to Üsküdar, which lies on the Asian side. It’s much less touristy over there than on the European side, but no one seemed to take much notice of us and it was nice to see a bit of the ‘real’ Istanbul. We walked along the seafront to the Kiz Kulesi tower, something of a landmark of the city having featured in several films. Along the sea walls there are some ‘cafes’ that have put cushions on the steps of the sea walls where you can sit with a çay and admire the views. There were hardly any tourists and we didn’t know this was here, it was a great place relax (we got that holiday feeling here!) away from the hustle and bustle of the city – probably our favourite place in Istanbul.
There is only so much çay you can drink though so later we took a ferry to Besiktas on the European side – quite an affluent area of the city with a grand palace and some other important looking buildings. We walked up to the Ortaköy, near the mighty Bosphorus bridge, which has a charming square with lots of cafes and restaurants on the sea front. It seemed to be the place to come for a jacket potato as there were numerous stalls selling these with lots of different toppings to choose from. We opted for a coffee and a baklava in one of the cafes before taking in a nice sunset over the distant city.
In the evening we went back to Beyoglu where we went up the cylindrical Galata Tower that dominates the skyline at the end of the Galata Bridge. It was built to stand sentry over the approach to ‘new’ Istanbul. We went up in the dark, which meant we had some good views at the top of the lit up city sights – the view never gets boring in Istanbul.
After another great meyhane meal we went back to Sultanahmet and stopped off for a tea in the Arasta Bazaar next to the Blue Mosque. It is quite touristy here, but a nice place to relax and watch a traditional Whirling Dervish dance (every evening at 19:30 & 21:30). We visited on several evenings and really enjoyed the band and the dancers performance.
Time flies when you’re having fun and our last day in Istanbul soon came around. Having seen most of the city’s sights we felt able to take it a bit easier and after a lazy breakfast we took the ferry to Kadiköy where we wandered around the bustling produce market. The stalls were crammed with glistening fish, fresh fruit and veg, as well as many other wares – a fest for the eyes and nose!
We also enjoyed a nice döner from a busy shop that seemed popular with the locals before catching the ferry over to Karaköy to have another speciality a fish sandwich. I’m not sure what the fish was but it was really nice and fresh, served with a spicy salad for only a few lira – awesome!
We then walked through Beyoglu along the main precinct (Istiklal Cad), past the grand British Consulate, to Taksim Square – considered the heart of modern Istanbul, although besides a few monuments there isn’t much of interest to see.
After catching the funicular down to Kabatas we took the ferry back to Üsküdar and went back to the sea wall ‘café’ from where we had enjoyed the view the previous day. As we faced West from here it allowed us to enjoy a glorious sunset over the Bosphorus with the old town mosques on the back ground – stunning!
When the sun went down we took the recently opened Marmaray train that links the European (Sirkeci) and Asian (Üsküdar) sides of the city travelling under the Bosphorus sea. At 55m deep it is one of the deepest railway tunnels of its type, and as it was recently opened the journey was free. Unfortunately the station we intended to get off at wasn’t yet open so we ended up quite far where we wanted to be and had to take a taxi back, but nevertheless it was an worthwhile experience!
Transport in general in Istanbul is really good, everything ran to time – we didn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for a bus, tram, or ferry – and it’s very cheap to use. Something some British cities could learn from.
On our last evening, despite being a little apprehensive, we felt we should heed numerous people’s advice and try out the ‘must do’ experience in Istanbul – a Turkish bath. After checking out the reviews online of several baths we decided on the Suleymaniye Hamam, which has been in operation since 1550 and was reputedly visited regularly by the Sultan himself. These baths mainly cater to tourists and allow mixed bathing so it was probably a tame experience, but that is exactly we wanted.
The ‘bathing’ started off in the steamy main room for 30 mins or so, lying on a large hot marble slab to let our bodies sweat and release toxins. Then we went into a private room where we were both scrubbed and massage (would not have wanted it harder!) by a moustached Turkish guy – a surprisingly enjoyable experience! Afterwards, wrapped in towels, we relaxed with an Apple Tea (like hot apple juice) to dry off. Our skin felt really clean and super soft after this, a recommended experience.
Sadly the next day we had to leave Istanbul, but before we did we had one last breakfast (already missing the cheese and potato bake!) on the hotel terrace.
This time we flew out of the Ataturk airport, which is closer to the city and easily reached by tram and light rail from the old town.
We had a fantastic time in Istanbul, it was even better than we expected – interesting culture, nice cityscape, friendly people (no hassle or agro), and great food. Now that we have had a tiny taste of Turkey we want to see more, and there is much more to see Cappadocia for example looks well worth a visit.
We highly recommend a trip to Istanbul, our tip if you go is to relax and watch the sun setting from Üsküdar!
There are load more photos here.