Spending time in Istanbul should be on everyone’s travel itineraries as they map out travels around the world. I stopped in earlier this year with good mate Justin while in Turkey to attend the Anzac Day Memorial Service at Gallipoli and wish I’d had more time to devote to Istanbul.
Before our arrival I was in essence ignorant about the city and country bar my knowledge of the war that the Australians fought at Gallipoli. With so much of the world to see and with a strong focus on Europe I’d set my eyes on a section to explore and never veered any further than that, travellers tunnel vision I guess you could say. This trip then made for both excitement and fear all at the same time as I was stepping outside of the comfort zone I’d created for myself.
Initial impressions after having navigated paying for a visa on entry (at the time the 90 Day entry visa costs 15 euros) and catching a bus into Taksim Square was good. The smell of hole in the wall doner kebab shops wafted across the square as I strolling down Istiklal Cadessi to my hostel. It was easy to see the varying landscape of the western world vs the old world that makes up this thriving metropolis.
The lovely folks at HostelBookers helped set us up with a stay at #Bunk Hostel which is perfectly located to enjoy everything about Istanbul, including the nightlife. The rooms don’t leave you much space but there is ample under bed locker storage and lets face it you’re not there to hang out in your room all day are you. Everything else was top notch and would recommend you check it out if your planning on spending time in istanbul.
So enough with the pleasantries what is there to see you ask. Just meters from the hostel is a fish market that leads off to many a restaurant and club should you wish to partake in a little late night eating and dancing. The area is packed with people and while everything I ate there was good it was no doubt sold at tourist prices.
If all of thats a little to fast paced for you then the old Town in the Sultanahmet district is the perfect hide out and its only a 10-15 minute tram ride away. It’s here that you get a feel for what the city was like in the days when it was known as Constantinople (the place to find yourself if you love a bit of history). The first place you are likely to visit in the old Town will be Hagia Sophia. Previously an Orthodox Basilica, then a Mosque and now a museum its a spectacular building and well worth the 20 Lira entry fee. I’m still amazed at the buildings that were built so long ago, these days they just don’t make them like this anymore.
A short walk across the road you’ll find the Basilica Cistern. If its hot outside then for just 10 Lira you can set foot inside the ancient water tank an seek relief. A further stroll into the area and you’ll find the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque to many. Still used as a mosque to this day you need to be conscious of entry times and cover up any skin so as not to offend.
If you step away from the center of the Old Town a bit your next stop should be the Unesco World Heritage listed Topkapi Palace. Here you get a glimpse into how the Ottoman Sultans lived and admire some of the many holy relics (Moses Staff for one) and Ottoman treasures that the palace holds. Some of the daggers and other weapons here were definitely more for show than use given the jewels that were encrusted on them. Entry will set you back 25 Lira.
With exploring comes the need to eat and there are two things you can’t leave Istanbul without having tried, excluding a kebab of course. The first is Balik Ekmek (Think Fish Sandwich) which can be had for around 5 Lira. The best place to find them is under the Galata Bridge where you can take a few minutes to eat and watch the sunset over the Bosphorus.
The second must eat item is Baklava. Now I’d never heard of it before being invited to tour the famous 5th generation family Karakoy Gulluoglu factory. By the time I’d left the tour I was an addict. Created from layers and layers of thin pastry (see through thin) among other ingredients the work ethic and respect of the staff and “Masters of Baklava” was amazing. Everything happens behind closed doors to keep everything clean and free from contamination.
And if I can impart one word of advice given to me while there it’s that you must eat your baklava upside down.
As with all travels you can never see and do everything in one city and there is no right or wrong way to do it. All I can say is that if your planning on spending time in Istanbul seek out the old world charm that it has to offer. While I stayed close to the party area of town walking the streets of the old town and getting to know places like the baklava factory are what made me fall for this place.