Whenever I think about Istanbul, the only word that comes to mind is magic. This old city captivates me the instant I walked through the streets of Sultanahmet. There’s a charm to the city, the ancient history that is rich in the air, amidst the hustle bustle of the city. Istanbul is one of the densely populated cities in the world, the traffic jams are horrendous but I love this city anyway.
I spent a week in Istanbul and for me it felt perfect to enjoy what Istanbul has at a leisurely pace. Although I think 4-5 days would have been enough too. I took a midnight flight from Kuala Lumpur with Turkish Airlines. The flight took around 12 hours, with no stopovers.
Overall, I really liked my flight with Turkish Airlines, food was good as was entertainment channels.
I went during late October 2013, so it was actually kind of a long time ago but I can still recall the places I liked. It was autumn but on some sunny days I could go without a jacket. We arrived when it started to get light, so we didn’t waste a day. Oh I forgot, I went with my family. Anyway, we got there too early, so we just left our bags at our rented apartment and started walking.
I went to the Blue Mosque on the first day. It was such a sunny day, and seeing the Blue Mosque took my breath away. It had 6 minarets and 5-8 domes in varying sizes. It was majestic.
But as I turned my head and looked opposite the Blue Mosque, I saw the Hagia Sophia which was equally lovely and impressive. The huge fountain in between both historic buildings were surrounded by trees and various flowers in bloom. We walked to Topkapi Palace and found out that the we needed to pay an entrance fee so we just walked around the park.
Then we took a cruise down the Bosphorus strait (I recommend doing this on the first day so you can have a feel of the city) and saw amazing palaces alongside the strait such as the Dolmabahce palace. The windy breeze helped me to stay awake and I watched the seagulls dip into the ocean to catch their prey. Although the best part of this cruise was that I saw dolphins swimming alongside our boat! I called out to my sister to see them and big mistake, soon enough the entire boat rushed to my side to see them too. Hahahaha! It was an amazing day to begin with. We went back afterwards and slept the whole day off as we tried to adjust our bodies to Turkish time.
I won’t write what I did exactly every day as I want to be as concise as possible. So I’ll write according to the points of interests and how to plan your trip around it. I’ll start with a few of the major places of interests which is in the Sultanahmet Square.
The Blue Mosque or also known as Sultan Ahmet Mosque gets its name from the blue tiles in the interior part of the mosque. I passed the Blue Mosque everyday as my apartment was just behind the Blue Mosque. It became a daily routine to walk through the courtyard of the Blue Mosque (or if we wanted to take a longer route, walk by the Hippodrome-more on that later), and sit at the benches between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and enjoy a Simit covered in Nutella.
The Hippodrome is right next to the Blue Mosque. I was expecting a building but after asking the locals, they told me I was standing on the Hippodrome. During the Byzantine empire, they used the place for chariot and horse racing. When the Ottoman empire took over, they didn’t have any interest for it so the place wasn’t really conserved except as a big square which exists today and a couple of obelisks and the Serpent Column. One of the Byzantine emperors, Theodosius brought an obelisk from Egypt from the Egyptian reign of Pharoah Thutmose III. The obelisk of Thutmose III is a sight to look at, especially with the carvings or Egyptian inscriptions on it. The marble pedestal is interesting to look at as well as they show the emperor Theodosius and his court, the chariot racing and the slaves.
Out of all the places, I think Hagia Sophia impressed me the most with its history. Originally built as a cathedral during the Byzantine empire, it was then converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire with the addition of four tall minarets. Images of Jesus Christ and some mosaics were covered over when it was converted into a mosque. In 1934, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum which I feel it’s a very good idea to conserve the architectural beauty of this place and of course to protect the historical significance of this place.
I was very surprised to see the words of Allah and Prophet Muhammad p.b.uh. alongside the picture of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ yet pleased to see that they did not take it down. It made me have such great respect for the Turkish as they value historical pieces.
The dome is amazing, the high ceilings and the stone columns with the intricate carvings inside the building is just nothing short of impressive of how they managed to build all of this without modern technology. They had little alleyways with ornate chandeliers which makes you feel like you stepped back in time.
We saw this cat inside the Hagia Sophia who had become a tourist attraction on its own. I heard one tourist joking that she will name the cat Constantina after Constantinople. I kind of liked it actually. The cat was a definite hit.
Next is the Basilica Cistern. When you get out of Hagia Sophia, go towards the street on your right, and cross it. It’s just a 5-10 mins walk from Hagia Sophia, if you have doubts, say its local name (Yerebatan Sarnici) to a local, and they will point you to the right direction. The entrance is pretty ordinary so watch out in case you miss it. Once I bought my tickets, I made my way down the many steps down below. Annndd, when I finally reached the last time, I was stunned by the sheer size of the ancient cistern. It seemed to cover the whole span of the Sultanahmet Square!
The Basilica Cistern is easily my favourite place to visit in Istanbul. There is a mysterious and haunting quality to this place as you walk past the columns and everything was symmetrical.
There had to be more than 100 columns inside here and they had dates inscribed on them. From what I could remember, the columns were taken from various ruins and it was interesting to see how each column differed in each era (Corinthian and Dorian style). This cistern was built during the Byzantine empire and could hold up to 10 000 tons of water. Although, now only a small amount of water is left skimming the base of the columns as the place is preserved as a historical monument.
At the corner of the cistern, there is Medusa’s head at the base of a column. No, not the actual head! Why Medusa’s head is there is still a mystery and why it was laid upside down.
Next is Topkapi Palace. I recommend you start early in the day for this one as the Palace is huge! The palace itself, the gardens and the treasury vault, it takes hours to just appreciate everything. At most half of your day is already gone in here.
The Ottoman rulers lived in this palace for centuries before abandoning it in favour for other palaces by the Bosphorus Strait. It’s a huge compound with various consultation rooms, halls for a big audience, circumcision room, library, and even a special (huge) section specially for the harems of the Ottoman rulers.
They have many important relics from the Ottoman empire, including some items that belonged to Prophet Muhammad. There was a throne made entirely out of gold. Pencil cases, chairs, plates with precious stones such as emeralds, sapphires and diamonds encrusted in the edges. The Ottoman kings and queens, even the babies lived in such luxury, it’s astounding to see the amount of detailing that has been invested in each object. Sorry, no pictures, we weren’t allowed to use our cameras in the treasury.
The interiors of the palace is awesome, I couldn’t stop admiring the dome ceilings and the mosaic tiles that covered every inch of it. I think most of the time I spent inside the historic buildings were spent gazing upwards.
The domed ceilings of each building I entered, be it the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, it’s awe inspiring at the amount of detail the architecture that has been put into each of the buildings.
Next to Topkapi Palace is Gulhane Park. It’s just like any other park but I loved walking through here, seeing the autumn leaves and watching the workers plant flowers in the flower beds. It’s very peaceful to walk here and the trees are so tall, they must have been around for hundreds of years to reach that height.
There are 2 bridges that are worth visiting. First, is the Bosphorus Bridge, this bridge connects two continents Asia and Europe. I have crossed 2 continents in the same day using this bridge. Such a cool experience!
The other bridge is Galata Bridge which covers the Golden Horn. It’s quite a huge bridge, the tram has a special track on it and there’s a special lane for pedestrians and also a few lanes for motorists and cars. The lower level of the bridge is where the restaurants are (be careful, the waiters will try really hard to get you in). There are so many locals fishing from this bridge, hopeful for a good catch. From one side, you can see the Galata tower clearly, and the other, the Suleymaniye Mosque. Not just one mosque though.
Sunset is truly a magical time to see Istanbul on this bridge, as the skies start to mix in a beautiful medley of colours, pink, orange and yellow as the sun starts to set in the horizon.
The Suleymaniye Mosque at sunset is magnificent, like its namesake, Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s close to Galata bridge so you can easily visit the mosque during the day before sunset or after.
As for nightlife, head to Taksim Square or more specifically, Istiklal Avenue. There were hordes of people there at night, restaurants, malls, and little cafes. Istiklal Avenue is so long that I didn’t bother walking to the end as they were so many people. But this is definitely the place to be at night. It’s one of the new areas of Istanbul where young people hang out, definitely.
As for shopping, head to the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the largest bazaars in the world. There are thousands of shops here, selling everything from silk scarves, tourist knick knacks, toys, turkish delights, nuts and even fresh fish. Turkey is famous for silk so why not splurge a little on scarves for family or friends?
It’s much better to buy here rather than outside as there are many choices to choose from. Although be careful, you can get lost inside here, as there were so many people walking(and they will push you too!) through a tiny street. My sister and I got disconnected from the rest of the family. Be careful with buying with what you only want and bargaining too, as the Turkish people can get really persistent. I got some really good variety of Turkish delights here, silk scarves and nuts for a good price, even thinking about it now, I want to taste a Turkish delight!
Coming out from the Grand Bazaar, I had the most amazing Iskender kebab in my entire life. I still dream about this dish from time to time. Strips of freshly grilled beef covered with tomato sauce, oh God, it’s to die for. I don’t remember what this shop is called but I think it was called Hat Doner.
There is also a Spice Bazaar. It’s smaller than the Grand Bazaar but they sell about the same things as the Grand Bazaar, although you can see bags of spices imaginable every few shops you walk past.
Cats here are everywhere! There are so many stray cats here in Istanbul and they are really well cared for by the locals. Being a cat lover, I could not help myself from petting each cat and taking a picture of each cat I saw at the tourist areas. Their furs were thick and they were well fed. A local told me that they really love cats in Istanbul and would feed them. No kidding there, I saw a cat lounging on top of an expensive carpet in a shop, and the owner didn’t even bat an eye.
I also took one of the tourist ‘hop on hop off’ buses that stops at many points of interests in Istanbul. You can buy the tickets in front of Hagia Sophia. You won’t miss the bus, it’s a double decker red bus. It has two routes, the red and blue routes. It was quite expensive but we managed to cover some places that’s far from the tram service. Plus they had headsets that explained the history of each place we passed by so that was interesting too. Try to sit on the upper deck.
We went to Miniaturk, which is a small park with miniatures of every significant building in Turkey. It was alright though, nothing really interesting.
One thing that I like to highlight is that be careful of tourist scams. It didn’t happen to me luckily but my boyfriend was a victim. He was invited to a carpet shop by the owner for tea, although my boyfriend said that he was not interested for either, the owner insisted. After a while, he started dropping hints that maybe he could buy for the family and after my boyfriend rejected him saying he really would not have use for them, the owner turned very rude and chased him out of the shop. So, be careful of the tactics the shop owners employ, they can be very convincing and persistent. Be clear that you are not interested. And for female travelers, please be aware of your surroundings. Turkish men are quite flirtatious and some of them are creepy. I’m quite oblivious to my surroundings actually but there was this one time, my sister and I realized that these two men were smiling at us at a distance. We thought it was harmless until it got us feeling a bit wary when we noticed that they made their way to us closer and closer until we hinted to our parents that we should leave. We left with them almost a few feet away from the taxi door. Our parents didn’t realize a thing! So girls, be aware! Although, I will say that some guys are nice like the nice young shop owner we met in Sultanahmet but it’s always better to be on your guard.
Other points of interests but I didn’t go: Galata tower, Princes’ Island, Dolmabahce Palace (although I saw them from the river cruise) and to see a whirling dervish show.
Transportation : The tram is incredibly well connected. I love riding the tram here! Get an Istanbul Kart (Istanbul Card) as it gives you easy and quick access to the tram system, I think it works on ferries as well, but throughout my stay I mostly used the tram to get around central Istanbul as it’s quicker and faster. Buses and taxis tend to get stuck in traffic jams. You can buy these cards from newstands, and reload them at tram stations. Bear in mind that these cards can pay up to 5 passengers (A fact that my sister and I didn’t know and hence spent 5 mins arguing with the person in the newstand who tried to explain that we only needed one).
Food: I love Turkish food! As a person who loves bread and do not eat a lot of rice, I love the variety they offer here. Here are some of the things that I tried:
- Simit – Turkish pretzel. Have it with Nutella, or plain. So good.
- Doner kebab – Thinly slice pieces of meat wrapped in a flat bread. One of the classics.
- Shish kebab – Grilled pieces of meat on a stick/ metal rod.
- Iskender kebab – Slices of grilled meat with tomato sauce over rice and pita bread. MUST TRY!
- Lokum or Turkish delight – Sweet, gelatinous and nutty (if you get the nuts version). Good dessert!
- Baklava – Really sweet, not to be taken all the time.
- Pomegranate juice -Try freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from the stalls. It’s delicious!
- Cay – So cheap and really nice. They serve it in tulip shaped glasses. They had many interesting flavours, I think my favourite was apple.
- Turkish coffee – Really aromatic and strong. Coffee lovers, you should try it.
- Keskul – It’s an almond based milk pudding. It is really good. My favourite dessert.
The things I didn’t try but wanted to try next time:
- Ayran -I’m told that the Turkish are obsessed with this yogurt drink
- Lahmacun or Pide- their version of pizza
- Their pastries and assortment of bread
- Kofte – meatballs
- Pilav -buttery kind of rice
I would definitely go there again to see Troy. The ruins of the Greek empire in Turkey! I’m a sucker for Greek ruins and history. Oh, another option is to go on a hot balloon ride in Cappadocia and see the lakes in Pamukale. Most people do 1 week trips with all of this places crammed at the expense of feeling rushed and wanting to see everything all at once. I like to savour the places I go to, absorb the culture and the city. There are tours everywhere in Istanbul if you get tired of it (which I doubt) to go to these places. Day trips too I think.
When I came back from Istanbul, all I could rave about was its beauty and magic to my friends and family, inspiring them to go there. I had never felt happier in a city. I guess I like cities with history in them but particularly what I like most about Istanbul is that the mesh of cultures from the East and West. And of course, the rich history that permeates the air despite the urban civilization that surrounds it.
Farewell, Istanbul. An ancient magical city that will forever be special to my heart.