I remember Istanbul being one of those cities I really wanted to visit. Partly because I’ve heard so much about what an eclectic mix of cultures it is, partly because its’ location on two continents fascinated me and partly because I actually had friends in Turkey, and I was excited by the opportunity to visit them.
So, obviously, I was really looking forward to going to Istanbul in October, 2016. I was already getting the hang of making plans for itineraries and places to visit, so I felt ready. It was also a cheaper trip than the previous ones to Barcelona or Lisbon. I spent about $300 on the whole thing with round-trip plane tickets, accommodation, meals and museum entrances for 3 nights and 4 days. A bargain, really.
We stayed at a hotel that was listed as being very near Taksim square, a fact which is still competing for the top overstatement of the decade. Although the actual distance might not have been that big, the road to the square, buzzing life and subway station respectively was an everyday adventure, going through uphill streets, some construction areas and lots of traffic. However, we got over the hassle of it and started enjoying the city.
On our first day, besides inevitably visiting Taksim Square, and after a quick brunch of incredibly tasty cheese toast in the Karaköy hip neighbourhood, we went to Galata Tower, located on the European side, the somewhat more modern part of Istanbul. This is where we climbed a too long (for my taste) flight of stairs and got to see a beautiful 360-degree view of the city. The area around the tower is also very nice, with steep cobblestone streets, and brimming with colourful souvenir stores and quaint cafés.
Later on, we went to the ferry station and boarded one that presumably would take us on a tour of the Bosphorus. I’m still pretty sure that was not the case, as we only got to the Asian side of Istanbul where we were promptly ushered off the ferry and onto another one that took us straight back. Regardless, it was a pleasant and relaxing ride, after all the walking we’d done. My partner even took the opportunity to have a short nap, although he’ll probably never admit to it.
Although I carefully planned this trip with a thorough itinerary, it turned out it took us a lot less to visit different attractions and we ended up doing and seeing a lot more that day. After the ferry ride, we went on the other side of the river, the more traditional one, where we stepped into the world of mosques and palaces. We took a stroll in the park in front of the Topkapi palace and then continued with Ayasofya and Sultanahmet, two enormous, beautifully designed structures. What I most liked about them though, was the fact the we reached them in time for the afternoon prayer. Therefore, we got to hear what sounded like two prayers, one in answer of the other, blasting through the square between the two mosques. Speaking of mosques, if you plan on visiting one, make sure you are not wearing shorts or mini-skirts and, if you are a lady, have a scarf with you at all times, in case you are required to cover your head.
After enjoying this, we finally decided we’ve had enough for the day, and took the tram back to the river, where we stopped at a big, embellished boat, where fish in bread was made and served. There was a huge line and a lot of people around eating the sandwich, so it appeared to be a good idea. Wrong! Although the fish was indeed tasty, there was way too much bread, too much onion and too many bones. I gave up on eating it about halfway through the sandwich, getting tired of picking out the bones. However, it did fill me up, so, when my partner, also unsatisfied with his sandwich suggested we go on the other side of the river, where a fish market awaited just on the bank, I didn’t want to eat anything else.
Now, this fish market is an interesting place. Around it, there were several street food vendors, cooking fish and making wraps. I was wondering how safe it would be to try one of those fish wraps that smelled really good and my partner, who had visited Istanbul before and had already tried the street fish wraps assured me he kept on “being alive” after eating them. Huh, you don’t say…
However, while we were having this conversation, we saw commotion around us. All the street vendors were quickly packing, taking the tiny tables with them and running away. The police were coming. All fun and games until my partner realized the police had just left him without dinner. Or well, second dinner (or whatever the hobbits call it). Luckily, on a side street, at the back of the fish market, there was one vendor that kept his ground. He had a slightly larger work table, plenty of regular and pita bread or tortilla and not a care in the world for the police. He worked in a clean and steady way, carefully and easily de-boning the fish, adding spices and vegetables and making an amazing fish wrap with no bones, which I also tried the following day. I’ve never had a juicier wrap. Not to mention one that felt this healthy, with it’s grilled vegetables and lemon juice and the never-absent pomegranate sauce, that you can find in many turkish dishes and which I bought and brought back home to successfully use as a salad dressing.
The next day we went to the Dolmabahçe Palace. It sits on the bank of the Bosphorus and it is a large and impressive structure. Built to resemble Occidental architecture, as a way for the sultan to show off his knowledge of the world’s latest fashion, it is a mix of French architecture, British chandeliers and Turkish hammams, and, in a weird and fascinating way, it all works well together. There are guided tours only, which is nice, as you find out more about the history of the place. The courtyard was lovely and the whole visit was enjoyable and relaxing. It’s probably one of the places we spent the most time in. Once we finished visiting the entire palace, as well as the Harem, the building that held the women’s quarters, we rested on a bench, in the backyard, and watched the royal chickens (yes, they have those there) minding their royal chicken business in the beautiful and serene setting of the palace. I strongly recommend visiting this place, but do it during weekdays, as it can become crowded over the weekend.
After Dolmabahçe, we took the tram again to the other side of the river, planning to visit the Grand Bazar. I’ve already mentioned the tram a couple of times before, so I feel I should give it the full credit it deserves. I’ll begin by saying it is probably one of my favourite trams. Although crowded at all times, at least you don’t have to wait for it forever. To get to the station, you have to validate your ticket first, just like you’d do for the subway. No ticket – no access to the tramway station. There are ticket vending machines at the entrance of each station, where you can either buy tokens or top-up your card. The trip is smooth, as the tram line doesn’t mingle with the rest of the traffic. All in all, the no.1 tram in Istanbul is the no.1 tram for me. I know, puns, I’ve got them.
Anyway, the tram quickly took us to the other side of the city where we went straight into the bustling crowd of the Grand Bazar. All vendors try to sell you something. And by try, I mean almost harass you into buying something. They like to negotiate and they will not appreciate it if you don’t. If you only happen to glance over at their shop, they will immediately follow you to the end of the aisle, and try to get you back and talk you into trying out their shoes, leather jackets, dresses and so on. We spend a couple of hours in the bazaar, being taken from one stall to another by different gentlemen, who tried to convince my partner to buy a leather jacket. If they didn’t have what he wanted, they sure had a friend/brother/cousin, on the other side of the bazaar, who did. All the products were “original”, “best you will ever find” and all the vendors were “the first to make/sell” said product – again, “original”. All in all, they were nice and hospitable and offered me apple tea every time my partner was trying on a new leather jacket. It was a fun adventure and we got out of the bazaar two hours later, laughing and with no money spent.
I was keen on visiting the Basilica Cistern, which I knew was in the area of Sultanahmet, where we were the day before, but yet, I hadn’t found it. So, this time, I decided it was time to bring out the big guns. Therefore, I used my phone and Google maps, which I really don’t enjoy using while travelling, to make sure we reached our destination. The thing is, I’m more of a papermap-person. I understand we live in an age of technology, but there’s just something about holding an actual map in your actual hands that just does it for me. You know, seeing the whole picture without having to scroll or zoom in and out.
As it turned out, the Cistern wasn’t really out of sight, I just wasn’t paying enough attention the other day, being wrapped up in the calls to prayer and all. So, we found it and went down into this enormous hall, full of columns and some water too. The cistern was made to store water and it was built with construction material from ruins of ancient structures, which lead to some of its columns having huge Medusa heads at their base – which, obviously, makes for the main tourist attraction of the place. However, I enjoyed the whole place, with it’s eerie red-ish lighting, its impressive columns and its labyrinthic vastness.
Because by the end of the second day we’d already seen most of the main attractions of the city, on the third day, we decided to walk from Taksim Square to Galata Tower, on the route of the old tram. The street is more of a shopping street, full of modern clothing stores, mixed with Turkish delight shops, cafés and fast food restaurants. We stopped to eat a loaded potato, which was really tasty and really loaded. We caught the vintage tram only for a couple of photos, making a mental note of riding it the next time we are in Istanbul.
In the afternoon, we switched again to the other side of the river to meet one of the friends I mentioned in the beginning, a girl who lives on the Asian side of the city, but who took the ferry to meet us at Sultanahmet. We went to the restaurant of a nearby hotel , from which you could see a beautiful view of the city, and where I had an apple tea, except, as opposed to the ones I had in the bazar, this one I paid for. Apple tea is really nice. It’s actually instant tea with a nice apple-ish flavor. Of course, the “real” tea, is black tea and the Turkish people drink lots of it.
We also took a stroll in the Spice Bazar, which I loved for its richness of colour and flavor and for the fact that no one was pestering you to buy their pepper or cumin. Another place I really like in Istanbul is the Galata Bridge. This bridge connects what I call the “modern” side of Istanbul, that holds Galata Tower, Taksim Square and Dolmabahçe Palace to the more “traditional” side that holds the Topkapi Palace, the mosques and the Grand Bazar. What’s special about it is that it basically has two floors you can walk. The one touching the water, which is full of cafés and pastry shops and the one above, where the tram crosses the river and where fishermen are catching whatever it is they make fish wraps with. Just like the main tourist attractions, the bridge is also a crowded place and offers a beautiful view of the city on both sides.
On the fourth and final day of our trip, with not many attractions left to visit and each of us with a pair of heavily tired feet, we decided to enjoy a coffee at a quaint hidden café near Galata Tower. I couldn’t leave Istanbul without trying the famous Turkish coffee, which came in a delightful tiny china cup that was half full with coffee grounds and half with what I could actually drink. Of course, this made it very strong, more like a shot of coffee that can actually take you throughout the day, rather than a full on tall-grande-cappuccino-chai-latte-machiato-you-know-what-I-mean.
And with this shot of coffee I conclude my story of Istanbul (part I). I shall tell you all about part II in a while. In the meantime, we still have to cover stories of Greece, Belgium, Italy etc. etc. To be continued…