Exploring Istanbul

As you get more familiar with my blog posts, you’ll come to discover that when it comes to travel, we’ve had quite a few interesting travel jinxes, if I may call it so. This time is was the dreaded Coup in Istanbul.

Settled on travelling to London (August 2016), we (hubby and I) were searching for a place to pair with it. After much deliberation and tossing about of ideas, we agreed on majestic Istanbul, Turkey. All hyped up, we booked our trip to this gem of a place. A week or so later, much to our dismay, the Coup happened and the country was declared a state of emergency. Completely frazzled by the news, we spent the next week or two contemplating on whether to proceed with travels to Istanbul or completely change our travel plans. We eventually decided to stick with Istanbul and boy oh boy I’m glad we did!

Our stay in Istanbul was five days, spent at the most astounding boutique hotel in the Sultan Ahmet area, Hotel Amira. I have nothing ill to say about our experience at the hotel. The rooms were luxurious, the hotel staff friendly, ever willing to assist with our every whim and the roof top views from the hotel were breath-taking. Just a stone throw away from most of the attractions as well as the tramway, which runs through the city, the location of the hotel was great. Even though I was charmed by having the door opened for me every time I entered or left the hotel, my favourite experience was definitely the complimentary afternoon tea at the hotel. Served in the tea room between 5 and 7 pm, or taken up to the roof top to enjoy, this was the perfect antidote to a long, hot day of touring, before heading out again to explore the city by night.

We arrived in Turkey during the early part of the morning. The hotel was kind enough to offer us a room before check in to freshen up and recuperate after a long flight. Once ready to head out, we grabbed a map from the front desk. They also assisted with pointing out the key attractions to visit and, the best part, good places to eat at.

Istanbul is rich in Islamic history which I couldn’t wait to explore. What better way to start our trip than meandering through the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. Although I am not usually a fan of strolling through museums, I was fascinated by the history that dressed these walls. From the staff of Moosa (A.S), to the clothing of grand women in Islam, and the ginormous swords of the Prophet Muhammed (S.A.W) and some of his companions, I was completely mesmerised. The Palace also boasts great views of the Bosphorus, which we got a glimpse of for the first time. Hot tip, if you are planning to visit the top Istanbul museums in a short period of time, consider investing in a museum pass. It costs 80 Turkish Lira (TL), and allows entrance into most museums. Just entrance into Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia covers the cost.

The rest of our time in Istanbul was spent wandering the streets, munching on simit, roasted chestnuts and corn, sipping on Turkish tea and indulging in Turkish delight from roof top terraces with breath-taking views. We visited the blue mosque, enjoyed a sunset from the Galata Bridge and ate a sumptuous meal at one of the restaurants under the bridge, whose owner hassles you until you give in. We were intrigued by the interior of the Hagia Sophia, which very evidently showcases the remains of both a church and a mosque. The Galata Tower offered panoramic views of the Istanbul landscape and we even managed to sneak in a Whirling Dervish show. The show is hosted at the Hodjapasha cultural centre and although I was curious to see this phenomenon as I was reading a book about Rumi’s life at the time, the performance lasted longer than I fancied.

Before visiting Istanbul, all the research I performed highlighted Hagia Sophia and the iconic Blue Mosque as must see points of interests. While I thoroughly enjoyed these sights, the pinnacle attractions for me were the Basilica Cistern and Ortakoy Mosque. The one word that comes to mind describing the Basilica Cistern is grandeur. The Cistern was constructed using a generous number of columns to create a perfect symmetry. A welcome escape from the blistering summer days, it is almost as if you are transported back in time to a hidden wonder, with loads of atmosphere in the heart of a city.

The view of the Istanbul skyline as well as panoramic views of the city all boasts hundreds of mosques with similar architecture. The most memorable mosque for me was the Ortakoy Camii. Located just before the Bosphorus Bridge, the mosque has the most picturesque setting and demonstrates the juxtaposition of traditional and modern. Absorb the serenity of the Camii and be sure to enjoy the surrounding neighbourhood as well. This is where we stumbled across the most amazing baked potato.

Tantalising my taste buds with local cuisine is by far the best part about travelling for me. I can write an entire post about Turkish food but I’ve restricted myself to only mentioning the absolute must haves. If I had only a day in Turkey this is what I would eat:

  • Turkish delight- Eat as much Turkish delight as you can, test every flavour. The pomegranate and pistachio were firm favourites of mine.
  • Turkish tea paired with Baklava- I grew very accustomed to the Turkish tea, enjoyed best with Baklava. The slight bitterness of the tea is complemented perfectly with the richness of the Baklava. For the best baklava in town head to Karakoy Gulluoglo.
  • Ice cream (Dondurma) – I think I indulged in ice cream almost twice a day. The best ice cream can be purchased from the street vendors selling the ice cream from steel containers. Be sure to enjoy the pre-show to receiving your ice cream.
  • Pide- basically this is the Turkish version of pizza baked in a brick or stone oven. In my view, pide trumps pizza
  • Sahlap- A delicious, creamy, warm drink that is usually served throughout Turkey in the winter. As we visited during summer, it was a rare commodity that we only got to try at the airport before catching our flight out.
  • Tres leche- This was recommended by a local friend of my husbands and it is one of the tastiest desserts I had. It is a cake drenched in 3 different types of milk.
  • Baked Potato- While not traditionally a Turkish dish, the way the baked potato was prepared, lands it on the best things to eat list. The potato is baked in a coal oven which renders the jacket of the potato hard, while the inside is melt in your mouth soft. The steaming potato is then topped with a variety of your chosen toppings. DELICIOUS!

It’s no wonder why I left Istanbul a few kilos heavier!

Old City Istanbul has an undoubtable charm, but a visit to the city would not be complete without a tram ride to the infamous Taksim Square and the ever bustling – Istiklal street. The street runs from Taksim Square almost all the way to the landmark Galata Tower. Although the street is lined with food joints, nightlife and vast shopping opportunities, the fact that it is the beating heart of the city, makes it rather challenging to traverse. The stand out for me was the Old Istanbul Kart that can be ridden up and down the street. While some may be consumed by modernistic Istiklal, I preferred losing myself in the alleys of the Grand Bazaar and its surrounding areas instead. The bazaar is a shopping metropolis, a shopper’s paradise. It is a maze of replica designer clothing, handbags and shoes. The crockery, handmade carpets, and lamps are exquisite too. I had to indulge in buying a lamp for my home, lugging it all the way on the remainder of our journey to London and back to South Africa. The lamp made it home in one piece and sits on my bedside pedestal, a daily reminder of beautiful Istanbul. The best shopping tip I can offer is to spend some time shopping in the streets on the outskirts of the Bazaar (Mahmat Pasha Area). While your purchases may not be branded, the treasures that you stumble across are truer to Turkish design and culture (and cheaper too).

Istanbul is a tale of two cities. It is one of the few cities in the world that is shared by two continents. Separated by the Bosphorus, Istanbul is situated in both Europe and Asia. Instead of taking the famous tourist cruise on the Bosphorus, we opted to keep it local and cruise on the waters in two ways- a ferry to Uskuder and a small ferry to Princes’ Islands. We boarded the ferry at Eminonu and sailed on the Bosphorus, with the most spectacular views of the Istanbul skyline. We disembarked at Uskuder pier and spent a few hours exploring the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, the fountain of Sultan Ahmed III and taking a leisurely stroll on the shoreline to get a glimpse of the Maidens Tower. We jumped on a local bus to Kadikoy and caught the ferry back to the Besiktas pier.

Our second expedition on this grand body of water was to Princes’ Islands. Princes’ Islands are a cluster of 9 Islands in the Sea of Marmara. There are many means of transportation to the Island- ferry, sea bus or small ferry. We opted for the small ferry (cost 7 TL for a one way trip) from Kabatas, which stops at two of the Islands, Heybeliada and Buyukada (the largest Island). The ferry runs at regular intervals commencing at 9:30. We got off at Buyukada and toured the charming Island on a horse- drawn carriage as all motorised vehicles are forbidden on the Island. After an afternoon swim and a late lunch we boarded the ferry back to Istanbul.

We ended our Istanbul vacation boldly, by indulging at the Cemberlitas Hamami (Turkish bath). I would describe this as the most interesting bath I’ve ever had! The treatment consists of a deep, full body exfoliation and is ended with a rejuvenating massage. Being a bit on the shy side, I tried to modestly cover up all the time and cringed every time I caught a glimpse of another barely clothed lady. But the Turkish experience would be incomplete without a Hamami, so I suggest visiting at a quiet time or booking a private treatment.

Istanbul sums up as a place to be visited over and over and over again!!!!!

Cheatsheet

View photos from our trip here: Istanbul 08.2016

5 thoughts on “Exploring Istanbul

    1. Shamima, to avoid the queue, we purchased ours outside the Topkapi museum from the self service machines. You could stand in line and purchase it from the counter. I think it’s also available for purchase at the Hagia Sophia.

      Liked by 1 person

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