You find that every Turkish person who has connections in Istanbul from living there, growing up there or having family there, has a sentimental attachment with the city. On visiting you find yourself bound in a love affair that you never realised you were committing to on arrival. It has an atmosphere and energy that no other turkish city has.
Izmir has a lazy laid back city feel, and the capital of Ankara the personality of an overworked dull businessman from Canary Wharf: grey, boring and just talks business. Istanbul has an entirely different persona. The hub of turkish culture, it is the birthplace of turkish architecture, art, music and history. It tells a story about a past empire that no other place shares. It is the haven for the socialite, the student and the family man. It has the best schools in the country, the best nightlife and the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan Turkey. For the people who has never been to Turkey this city is the perfect location for seeing the modernity of the country, far from the conception of turkey as a highly eastern muslim culture. It displays how the eastern world meets west in a compatible union between modernised society and traditional religious values.
(For more on Turkish Culture read next weeks blog post to give you a further understanding)
I have family who live in Istanbul so went to visit them for a week. During my stay I wanted to make sure I went to all the must- do tourist destinations. As I was travelling alone I did not indulge in restaurants and nightlife, it will be something I will definitely be doing on my next trip next summer (stay tuned!). Instead, I made sure to visit the biggest tourist attractions in the area.
I spent most of my week with my grandmother and aunt, watching and helping them cook and eating with them in the evening. They spend a huge amount of their day in the kitchen preparing their whole day around the evening meal when family get together and eat. I love this part of the culture, and made sure I got to enjoy their company every evening. However, I did at times find myself claustrophobic with many people in the home. My family can be very overbearing which is very difficult for an independent free butterfly like myself. These trips gave me peace from this, and allowed me appreciate traditional turkish culture at it’s finest.
On my one day out on the city I made sure I ticked all the major attractions off on my list. If you are looking for a day itinerary for istanbul I recommend doing the following. Sultanahmet district: Pazar, Aya sofya mosque, the sultanahmet mosque, yerebatan (underwater roman channels), and the istanbul turbeler muzesi (istanbul tomb museum). All very close to each other. For the evening I recommend the Beyoglu district for nightlife and dining.
Wake up early and take a tram to Sultanahmet. This is a relatively easy trip as the tram has directions in english as well as all the major attractions listed underneath. Tram can be taken via Taksim which is the main transport hub for istanbul to all other districts. If in need tell them you need the ‘Tramvay’ to Sultanahmet someone can probably help you. On taking the tram you go up the hill. Good pitstops are the Archeology Museum. In fact sometimes getting off that stop and walking up can be enjoyable as you have the distant view of the Aya Sofya Mosque and pass some of the most famous turkish Kofte (turkish meatball) restaurants in Istanbul. Istanbul koftesi is famous so it is a must. It is a straight road up to the main Bazaar in Istanbul too, so you cant miss it.
I walked up this route had lunch then walked to the Aya Sofya Mosque, I went really early as the queues are massive at Aya Sofya, so getting into all attractions before 11am is a must. Thankfully, the queue was shorter for turkish citizens, and price for entrance cheaper! I got a card for £10 that gave me entrance to all the top locations.
The Aya Sofya was spectactular. It doesn’t host the same grandeur as St. Paul’s Cathedral in Rome, but it still has an unexplainable charm in its strange combination of christian and muslim architecture. Signage of Arabic is ornately held against Christian tapestry and mosaics. Flickers of gold are found on artwork and hanging drapes, reminiscent of its catholic history, but more recently a display of the wealth and achievement of ottoman- turkish take over. I found myself dreaming to own one of the beautiful hanging gold chandaliers and spinning beneath the dome of the Mosque, admiring its artistic grandeur.
For more on Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) History see my article ‘Bitesize: Hagia Sophia‘.
I then walked the path across to the Sultanahmet Camisi (Sultan Ahmet Mosque/ Blue Mosque) only a stonethrow away and overlooking the Aya Sofya, I thought that I had to take a peek. Unfortunately, I badly timed my visit and ended up there during ezan (Prayer time) so could not enter the internal building. All I could do was look at the outdoor grounds, which more than sufficed as it was quite a large space in the courtyard.
After my visit to the mosque I made my way to the Yerebatan Sarnici (Basilica Cistern) which was 3 minutes walk from the mosque. This was the water channels for water collection during the Byzantine Empire, and previous to that hosted a Cistern for the Romans. This place hosted to many films and video games and has one architectual roman ruin, the column of medusa.
One last stop for me was the Tomb Museum which was located on the walk down from the Mosques. It has a small discreet sign and looks on entry like a small mosque in that you remove your footware. You then enter a room of coffins drapped in cloth, with muslim mosaics decorating the surfaces of the room. In the tombs are a family of Turkish royalty and walking in is a sign of respect.. as well as really creepy.
After all the tourist attractions I love to get outside and take a walk in main bazaar. Nothing like a bit of shopping to sooth your soul.
On walking through the large main entrance you walk into the gold market, and the antique and turkish bits and bobs you might want to buy (tables, pillows, nargile: shisha, jewellery boxes, fake brands…) It can be irritating a people hound you, and never accept the first offer on a price. It is diffcult because it is a maze, if you like something, find a good price and leave, its unlikely you will find it again. Be prepared to pay 60% of any given price. (Feel free to message me for assistance on knowing prices and turkish terms to help) if they offer you tea they are being nice, but they also expect to secure business at the end.
On exit of this main large pazar you should find the food and drink market, which has a fine array of turkish sweet goods and spices. I loved trying the different nuts, tasting the lokum (turkish delight) and the different teas they have on offer. Great for any foodie new to Turkey. It is madness so only alittle time int here can make you feel overwhelmed.
If you walk in the other direction from the market it gets even busier, full of beauty and cosmetic shops and bridal parlours, everyone will be asking you whether you would like a wedding dress. Turkish weddings are very bling, and it will be shocking how elaborate the dresswear is. I recommend not wearing anything short or revealing as a woman as you will be pestered if you are not dressed modestly. I found myself so hungry after walking this area that I had to tuck into a good oldfashioned turkish kebab. Unlike england these things are divine! so well seasoned, the meat is of a good standard and if your feeling abit more adventurous tuck into a kokorec
Kokorec: is a dish of the Balkans and Anatolia consisting mainly of lamb or goat intestines, often wrapping seasoned offal, including sweetbreads, hearts, lungs or kidneys. The intestines of suckling lambs are preferred
Kokoretsi is usually roasted on a horizontal skewer over a charcoal, gas, or electrical burner, and resembles a kebab when given to you.
A quite different preparation mixes the chopped innards with chopped tomatoes and green peppers, and then cooks them on a large griddle with hot red pepper and oregano added. The cook constantly mixes and chops the mixture using two spatulas. When done, the dish is kept warm aside on the griddle until someone orders a serving.
DAY TRIP IN ISTANBUL SUMMARY:
- Hagia Sophia Mosque 10am
- Blue Mosque 11.30am
- Tomb Museum 12.30 – 30 minutes is enough
- Basilica Cistern 13.00 – 30 minutes is more than enough
- Istanbul Kofta Lunch with Turkish tea
- Grand Bazaar (And food and drink market)
Other things that you MUST do:
- The Palaces in Istanbul
- The Princes’ Islands
- Boat Trip of the Bosphorus
- Nargile (Shisha) in Tophane
- Nightlife in Beyoglu
Nightlife and Nargile can be done in the same day as the day itinerary if your really pushed for time!