Istanbul – Sept 2012

28 Sep

The map above is from Where I’ve Been – apparently I’ve now visited about 5% of the world. Aiming to get that to 10% over the next two years… anyway, I can now turn Turkey from green (want to visit) to blue (have visited).

Istanbul is a completely affordable place to visit and is the only city in the world which straddles two continents. The weather is still hot even at the end of September (around the 28 degree mark) and the city is fascinating.

I stayed in Deniz Houses – a boutique hotel which only cost me and friend 80 Euros a night. It’s in the Sultanhamet district of Istanbul – sort of known as the budget travellers area, but it’s also the centre of the ‘Old Town’. It was a great hotel, the reception was open  24 hours and they arranged all sorts of trips for us. Complimentary breakfast on the roof terrace each morning, free sweets, tea and coffee and complimentary water and fruit in the rather nice room.

Istanbul is an odd kind of city – steeped in history with around 3,200 mosques and it hasn’t lost any of it’s old world charm. I only went for three days but I managed to fit a LOT in (I’m that kind of traveller – screw beach holidays, I want to really experience a place and learn something. City > beach any day).

On the first evening I simply strolled around the local bazaar, saw a Whirling Dervish dance (traditional Turkish dance – sort of hypnotising, especially after one or two glasses of Raki) and ate at a rather lovely cafe. Be warned: not all restaurants serve alcohol and ALL restaurants will have numerous stray cats and dogs trying to eat your food. Personally I love cats, so when one joined me on the chair next to me it was no issue!

On my first full day, I experienced Turkish breakfast. It’s absolutely terrible. Cake-y bread with butter, eggs, ham, olives and biscuits… they really don’t know how to do breakfast out there. I then went on a tour of the old city. I started off by going to a mosque which was built by old Ottoman Royalty; it used to be that no-one was allowed to be richer than the Sultan – so when a very wealthy lady married a very wealthy man, their wealth vastly exceeded the Sultans. So, they got rid of a lot of their money by building this mosque.

I’m not sure what I think of mosques. Your shoes have to be removed, which I like as it does make the whole experience a lot more… personal? I’m not sure how to put it, but it makes you feel more vulnerable and closer to your surroundings. As someone who strongly believes in equal rights, the fact I had to wrap a plain blue skirt around my lower half (apparently my legs were too shapely an my leggings were too patterned), as well as wrap a shawl around my head AND make sure my arms, chest and bum was covered…  well, the whole thing frustrated me a bit.

Next I visited the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (above) – purchased a HUGE box of Apple tea (adore the stuff) – you can actually get Apple tea in the UK, but it’s not quite the same. They put too much sugar in over here. Anyway, after that I went on a 2 hours boat trip up and down the Bosphorous. The water was beautiful – the Bosphorous is a channel which separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side and it links the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. The views were incredible – the European side is full of important historical landmarks – one of the last palaces to be built by the Ottomans, castles, ornate art galleries; the Asian side however was lined with mansions. Apparently if you’re a rich celebrity, you go and purchased a house in Asian Istanbul, overlooking the Bosphorous – very nice indeed.

The next day I crammed a hell of a lot in – I went to Asia (cost me £1 and took 15 minutes to get there by boat). I didn’t really go to do anything other than say I’ve not been to another continent – but the floating cafe I had a drink in was pretty good! After returning to Europe I went to the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is THE place the haggle. Had men shouting offers at me (sexual and for purchase of their goods) from all over, but I ended up bartering with a man and getting a traditional glass apple tea-cup and saucer down from 15TL to 7TL. Not bad for my first try! The food there is also incredible. Fez Cafe is the famous one, but I went to the one next door and had the best halloumi sandwich ever. I’m a big fan of halloumi, so naturally couldn’t visit Turkey without trying some!

Next stop was actually right next to my hotel – the Blue Mosque and the Haiga Sophia. The blue mosque is incredible – as you can see, quiiiite a big place and inside it’s adorned with so many beautiful lights. The area surrounding the mosque is very VERY touristy, but you can see why. Be warned – at particular times of the day, all mosques have speakers attached to them and very LOUD singing/chanting takes place. For some reason it always happened when my friend and I sat down to eat! Unfortunately I only say the Haiga Sophia from the outside (the queue to get in was mental at nearly all hours of the day) – so if you’re planning a trip, get there very early.

I also went to the modern part of Istanbul. Just off Turin Square is Istanbul’s equivalent to Oxford Street – absolutely packed with big name brands and tourists. I happened across this cafe (which I think is actually a chain in Turkey) and had the BEST ice cream and cakes ever. It’s called Ozsut  just in case you ever want to go!

And that pretty much concludes my trip to Istanbul. I think at the end of each travel post I’m going to list top things to do, top tips and things to skip (luckily there weren’t any on this trip but sometimes the things the guidebooks love ain’t so hot).

Don’t miss

  • A tour up and down the Bosphorous
  • Haggling at The Grand Bazaar
  • The Blue Mosque
  • Raki and apple tea (both traditional Turkish drinks). Try their traditional dessert Baklava too.
  • Eating on a rooftop (this is impossible to miss really and EVERYWHERE is a rooftop cafe or bar in Istanbul! The views of the Bosphorous and the city are amazing)

Don’t bother

  • There are endless corn and roast chestnut vendors dotted around the city. Go to a cafe instead.

Top Tips

  • Ladies and gents – when you visit a mosque make sure your legs are covered (women; cover your chest and arms too). Don’t worry about carrying around a spare headscarf – most mosques will provide you with one if you don’t have one.
  • Use the trams. It costs 1 Jeton (3TL  or £1ish) per journey and they’re spacey and air-conditioned. One goes from the airport to the Old Town AND the modern part of Istanbul, you just have to make one change, so the whole thing costs you 2 Jetons. Way better than a taxi.
  • Women – be careful about wandering around alone. I went with a male friend, thank God, but for the few times we decided to split up and do our own thing, I was harassed constantly. Just a FYI.
  • Stay in the Old Town. Budget hotels and great and the area is very well connected.
  • The Haiga Sophia is closed on a Monday – don’t rock up like we did!
  • Don’t you dare go to a ‘Western’ food chain – there are endless cafes, the best ones as far as I’m concerned are in the Old City, and the food is great. First time ever on holiday I haven’t had a bad meal. Most meals + a soft drink will set you back around 25TL (around £8).

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