Istanbul is a vibrant city and mix of cultures begging to be tasted and explored. We spent a brilliant 72 hours in this remarkable city and have written our suggestions on how to get the most out of your short visit.
Notes on Istanbul
When we booked our holiday in Istanbul, I admit I was a little anxious. While I knew Turkey was a secular, modern country I had no experience with the culture or people and so we went in blind. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; that’s part of the fun of travelling.
We really didn’t have to worry though, as we found Istanbul to be very, very safe and never had any problems. Our hotel, restaurant staff and everyone we came into contact with were always friendly and usually went out of our way to help us or give us assistance where needed. I even walked down to the local markets on my own on the last night, to pick up my new favourite drink – Salep, and was safe. So don’t let fear hold you back from visiting Turkey, there is so much to discover and experience that you will kick yourself if you miss the opportunity.
After a delicious breakfast, explore the old part of Istanbul and visit the historical cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, the Hagia Sophia. Not unlike the Mezquita in Córdoba, the Hagia Sophia has been through many changes in religion and ownership. The Hagia Sophia today is a secular museum but spent most of its existence as a Byzantine cathedral since its construction in 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was then used as a mosque during the rule of the Ottoman Turks. It’s a remarkable monument to Byzantine architecture (the domes are world renowned) and the mix of Eastern Orthodox and Islamic symbols live together in harmony.
Entrance is 30TL, or if you buy a Museum Pass, it is part of the bundle (3 day pass – 85TL). There are audio guides for rent, or you can opt to fork out and go with a `tour guide´ (which you will find in spades at the entrance or next to the ticket booths). We opted for the audio guide, so I can´t comment on the tour guide´s legitimacy, knowledge or professionalism here.
Hint: don’t miss the painting of Jesus next to the south gallery as you walk into the mosque, one of the most famous examples of Christian iconographic art in the world.
After visiting the Hagia Sophia, make your way to the Bazaar. Take in the atmosphere and fill your senses with vendors yelling, aromatic and colourful spices and assorted leather trinkets. Warning, as you can expect, these places are not for everyone and the vendors can be quite persistent and pushy. Walk around and pick any of the Turkish restaurants for a delicious lunch.
The bazaar is a great place to visit solely for the food and the atmosphere alone, but you can also find decent quality leather products, silver and gold jewellery, and beautiful Turkish lanterns. For us, we were just happy to walk around and take in the sights. If you do start to look like you are interested in an item, be prepared to haggle your way to a cheaper price or walk away before you get caught!
Now by this stage, and after all the walking you’ve done, you might be quite tired. Relax over some tea and sweets at a Turkish teahouse or head back to the hotel for a siesta. Once rejuvenated, enjoy a cultural dinner at Mesale Cafe & Restaurant. Immerse yourself in the sounds, smells and sights of Istanbul right here. There is free entertainment, including the Whirling Dervishes. There are hookahs all around, boardgames a plenty (what do you do on a night out if you don’t drink alcohol? Play boardgames! Now that’s what I call a great night out!), and even the odd friendly stray cat to keep you company.
The atmosphere is buzzing and the food is decent. Being still reasonably full from lunch, we opted for hummus, pita bread, Turkish tea and baklava. The baklava would have to be some of the best I’d tasted! This place is a wonderful and very Turkish way to end a day of sightseeing and walking.
Read Part 2 where we visit the spectacular Blue Mosque, experience the luxury of Topkapi Palace and soak up the eclectic vibe of Taksim Square!