Imagine being on a stand-by flight for your next holiday? We have numerous adjectives to describe the feeling and that’s precisely what happened. No air tickets confirmed, unpacked bags but of course we got ourselves a visa (we believe in the rather be safe than sorry motto). Stand by or not, Mumbai Airport was going to witness some cranky yet persuasive girls geared up to make it on that flight.
So there we were outside the Istanbul Airport and inside a taxi praying to God we would be taken to our City Center Hotel by the shortest and correct route without being fleeced as most tourists are in Istanbul. After a 30 minute taxi journey and already 60 euros short (yes! I was on a travel budget) we arrived at our City Center Hotel, a 100 metres shy of Taksim Square.
After a short rest in our mouse house of a room, we decided to brave the chilly weather of Istanbul by stepping out bundled up in 3 layers of clothing and battle the city’s high-speed winds.
In case you have just a few days in Istanbul but want to take all the action in, below is a guide to the fun and fabulous adventure you must consider:
- East meets west: Take a walk along the streets.
Istanbul, Turkey’s iconic city is located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe creating the perfect amalgamation of the eastern world’s richness and culture coupled with the extravagance of the western world. Istanbul has a number of cute pebbled streets dotted with shops and the occasional famous mosques. The main streets are inter-connected and if you follow the map correctly you can cover quite a few monuments. For a local feel, walk the Sultanahmet district and you’ll be greeted by happy shop vendors displaying their gorgeous artefacts.
- History is important – visit your monuments!
You can’t throw a stone two feet without it landing on something historically beautiful in Istanbul. If you want to rest your weary legs from all that walking, you can always catch the Hop On N Off bus starting from Taksim Square. This is a simple, economical and quick mode to get around in order to visit Istanbuls monuments (the traffic is simply disturbing even for an Indian).
To name a few, The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are two of the most striking features that will leave you spending hours marvelling at its beauty. The Hagia Sofia started off as the largest Cathedral in the world (of its time) but later converted to a Mosque when the Ottomons invaded the Christian-run Byzantium. The Blue Mosque on the other hand is lined with almost 20,000 hand-made blue-coloured tiles (which explains the name), more than 200 stained glass windows and several chandeliers for candles. The coloured windows and the candles sets off an ethereal and almost haunting vibe.
Topaki Palace and Dolmabahce (Dolma – bah -che ) Palace are equally noteworthy. While Topaki Palace is massive and the official home of the Sultan, the Dolmabahche Palace is the largest in Turkey and strikingly beautiful adorned with gold and crystals embedded in the ceilings taking the form of a gold leaf.
- Wind in your hair and strolls in the market:
The Bosphorous is the straight that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. The best way to soak in its beauty is via a cruise that takes no longer than 90 minutes. While the cruise is super touristy and usually crowded and windy, it gives you a complete view of many of the city’s museums, gardens and monuments.
While the Bosphorous promises a certain charm, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is what got us excited. Here you will be blinded by little shops selling souvenirs, handicrafts, ceramics, and elaborate belly dancing outfits, jewellery, lamps, shawls fake designer wear and a lot more. As tempting as this sounds, it’s not easy acquiring your treasure as it’s more of a cat and mouse chase. If you bargain well you are rewarded with something bright and shiny (literally) for having survived this cold hard game.
- Listen to the call of prayer:
Soothing to some is the call of prayer that can be heard between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Find a rooftop restaurant close to these beauties and allow yourself to take in the voices that can be heard from the mosque. This is truly a magical experience that enables you to witness the harmonious existence of two cultures.
- Take your clothes off at the Çemberlitaş Hamam, Çemberlitaş:
On the very last day of your trip, we suggest you head to the Çemberlitaş Hamam, Çemberlitaş, and traditional hamam. A traditional Hamam experience here involves shedding your clothes and your inhibitions under a huge dome whilst taking in the various therapies that resemble the history of Ottoman bathing. It’s quite unique and not like a typical spa day you might have previously experienced.
- Eat börek, baklava and everything else you can get your grubby hands on:
So much delicious food! Let’s see if we got this correct, starting with breakfast. A Turkish breakfast comprises of various homemade jams, tomato and cucumber salad, about 3 types of olives, pancakes, eggs, meats and borek. What’s Borek? Borek is a traditional Turkish pastry made from flaky dough and can be made either sweet or savoury. It is also impossible to stop at one. Next, find yourself some Lahmacun or Turkish pizza delicately topped with miced meat, veggies and herbs. This isn’t your average Dominoes; it tastes like freshness on a plate! Allow this to be accompanied by some hummus, maybe Kebaps and of course, Efes; Turkish beer to wash it all down. Did we mention Turkish ice cream? Only the best ice cream ever! Also known as Dondurma meaning “freezing”, this treat has a special ingredient known as ‘salep’ used as a thickening agent which in turn also makes it resistant to completely freezing. Definitely one of its kind and pretty strange as it sticks all over your face (beware messy ice cream eaters) and hands. Nonetheless, we loved it!
The Turks have certainly got their sweet game on! Baklava is the sweet pastry made from phyllo and filled with nuts bound together with syrup and honey. It doesn’t end here, remember Turkish delights? The brightly colored Turkish sweets can be found almost anywhere from the streets to fancy shops all selling various kinds of treats to those willing to forget about diabetes and fitting in to their clothes.
- Eat a doner and smoke some hookah:
Somewhere between Istakala and Taksim Square we found this charming little restaurant bursting at the seams with hungry people. A traditional doner includes lamb that is cooked on a vertical rotisserie with wood coal fire for that Smokey taste. It is wrapped in lavash and accompanied by side dishes consisting of rice, yogurt, tomato salad and fries. Juicy, delicious and extremely filling, a Doner Kebap can be found at almost every street corner in Istanbul.
While in Istanbul it is mandatory to visit a hookah café. The kind server at lunch recommended we visit Tophane for a quintessential Istanbul experience. The street here is dotted with colourful lamp displaying lounge-style Shisha cafes each prettier than the next with persistent staff trying to coax you in. Now’s when you feel like a princess. Upon entering the café, we were taken to our outdoor cabana with friendly staff placing fresh fruit and dry fruits on the table. Caution: Once you touch these, they’re officially yours and on your bill! It’s best to ask for shisha suggestions and once you’re all settled in, it’s time to enjoy the fruity scent and flavour of your new friend whilst sipping on some tea.
- Talk your way through the streets of the city:
The oldest and most tourist-friendly part of Istanbul is Sultanahmet, the quieter part of the city but rich is history. However, most tourists’s frequent Istakala Street & Taksim Square which are flanked by shops and restaurants on either side having a blend of locals and tourist sipping their Chai on the patio. Find your spot at any one of the numerous cafes and within minutes you’ll be exchanging travel stories with the café attendant or fellow tourists. Tip: Here’s where you’ll get the best restaurant suggestions and city secrets.
- Feel like a princess – head to the Princes’ Islands
Catch a ferry and head to the Prince’s Island, a cluster of 9 islands which lie off the Asian shore of Istanbul. These islands were originally a place of exile during the Byzantine era but today have become a popular attraction for those looking for some peace and quiet. Why visit? Simply for the old world charm, pine forests and serenity this place has to offer. All motorized vehicles are banned on the islands and the only way to get around is by walking, cycling or catching a horse drawn carriage.
- Go cray cray at the clubs:
Istanbul famed to be a city that never sleeps has several bars and clubs located all over the city. We headed to the most famous of them all, “Reina” for a glitzy time. This is not for the budget traveler nor is it a regular jeans and unwashed T shirt sort of venue. Reina encompasses two floors that include a restaurant and if you look around you’ll be mingling with the city’s finest along with tourists that managed to make their way here for a cocktail. Another great option is Ajelique, a restaurant that doubles as a nightclub. Located on the seaside with three floors dedicated to different music styles, Anjelique allows you to take in the beauty of the Bosphorous with a drink in hand and your friends for company.
Location – Istanbul, Turkey
Famous for/as: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Doner Kebaps.
Route: All major airlines fly to Istanbul
Best Season: May – August