“People were right when they say there is no other place on earth as beautiful looking as Istanbul.” – ChateaubriandI decide to begin this blog with one of the world’s great cities – Istanbul. During my recent and my first visit to Turkey, we decided to make Istanbul as our base. The city impressed and charmed us right from the first look. Located in the center of the Old World, Istanbul is famous for its historical monuments and magnificent scenic beauties. The only city in the world spread over two continents, it lies at a point where Asia and Europe are separated by the Bosphorus strait. With a history of over 2,500 years, and ever since its establishment on this strategic junction of lands and seas, the city has been a crucial trade center.
Istanbul is such a vast, vibrant and multi-layered city that it would take years to truly know it. But we tried to cover as much as possible in 3 days which I think can give you a glimpse of what it can offer and will surely make you fall in love with it. Once at the heart of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and with Asia and Europe straddling either side of its glittering Bosphorus Strait, it’s also replete with paradoxes: East and West, old and new. If you enjoy the old city charm then you should stay around the East side of the city. But if you are a hustler and enjoy your late night partying then West side of the town anywhere on the strip between the historic Taksim Square to Beyoğlu. There are a lots of cheap hostels and hotels which will cost you anything between Rs 800-Rs 2500. We suggest World House Hostel at Beyoğlu which has well equipped doms and great breakfast as well as helpful staff.
Well, you would not go to London without checking out the London Underground, you would not go to New York without going on the famous Subway system. The same goes for Istanbul. The city has many transport systems which are affordable and easily accessible. The Metro System is easily accessed and has multiple lines serving the city.
What to see:
Day 1 –
We started the walk from Taksim Square till the Galata Bridge which will give you the experience of the European side of the city. The whole street is filled with all kinds of stores. Right from big Fashion brands to local turkish brands, various food options, cafes, utility shops etc. Right through the heart of this street runs the classic tram which will tell you how the new city has been build around the foundation of the old. You can see every kind of fashion and a lot of local street performances on this 8 km stretch.Catch the metro/tram to Sultanahmet and walk your way to the Blue Mosque. The iconic, 400-year-old Blue Mosque boasts six minarets (while most mosques usually have only four) and soaring ceilings lined with thousands of blue İznik tiles. Hundreds of Muslims still use the mosque for daily prayer and worship. Visitors of all faiths who are modestly dressed can enter the Blue Mosque; special slippers and head and shoulder coverings are distributed at the entrance.
Walk your way down to The Spice Market in Eminönü, where you can snack on delicious dried fruits and goatskin-ripened cheeses while visiting various spice shops displaying colourful Spices from around the world. Stop by at a local coffee shop for some sheesha and turkish coffee and chai. Later haggle your way through the frenetic Grand Bazaar which is the infamous Byzantine maze of 4,000 shops. Walk around the seaside in the evening to enjoy one of the best sunsets towards the European side. We finished the evening with barhop organised by our Hostel. I still feel nothing is better than staying in these hostels. It gives you a chance to meet people from all over the world and hang out with them. We also end up watching a belly dance performance at one of these pubs which was close to nothing I have seen.
Day 2 –
The second day is dedicated to the Istanbul’s historic sites Aya Sofia, Topokapi Palace and Basilica Cistern. Aya Sofia, built in 537 as the greatest Church in Christendom then converted to a mosque in the 14th Century, it was the most impressive building in the world and remained the crowning achievement of the Byzantine Empire for over a millennium. Designed to represent the heavens, visitors marvel at the huge 56m (183ft) high dome and Byzantine mosaics and huge Ottoman circular shields containing calligraphy of Koranic verses while at some places you can see Mother Mary, Jesus Christ and other Christian symbols on the walls. The whole Aya Sofia Experience will take close to 2 hours to be explored properly.
From there we walked down to the opulent Topkapi Palace which was the residence of Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years, and today houses holy Muslim relics. The layout of the palace features a series of interconnected courtyards where the sultans had their gardens and private living area. The Palace shows the extravagant lifestyle of the rulers and one can also view the View the glittering jewels of the original treasury (including the Topkapi dagger, and the gold-plated throne of Murat III), the armoury, silk ceremonial robes, Chinese ceramics and the collection of manuscripts, all convey the opulence of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith. The view from the Topokapi Palace is just breathtaking.
All the historical sites are walking distance from each other and can be covered quite easily. The entrance fees to all the historical places range from 15-30 Turkish Lira( 1 Turkish Lira is close to 30 INR). Turkey is the most forward looking of all Muslim/Islamic countries and this can be seen in their daily lifestyle as well as fashion sense. We had a dorum (turkish street food which is more like a shawarma) and a beer sitting outside one of the best historical places in the world like Blue Mosque without being disturbed or stared. I can’t imagine doing such kind of thing near any mosque in India. Till the time you are respecting the religion and religious places and not creating nuisance, it is fine. Post lunch we made our way to Basilica Cistern. Basilica Cistern proved that Istanbul is not only fascinating above ground, but also underground. This exquisite piece of Byzantine engineering is a spectacular underground cistern, once bringing drinking water with aqueducts from current Bulgaria to Istanbul. One can tread the walkways and watch the fish swim between the 336 columns that support the ceiling. One can find Medusa heads, placed at the base of one of the columns.
Day 3 –
We made our way back to Istanbul at the end of our trip. We kept this day reserve to soak in the city and just explore the city. And explore we did. While we saw riot Police getting ready at the Istiklal Street ( Street running from Taksim Square to Galata Tower) we found our way to one of the best coffee place in the world. Named the Kronotrop, the place is considered among the Top 25 best and innovative coffee shops in the world. A quaint little place in Galatasaray, it serves all espresso based coffee. The store offers single origin or blended espressos, roasted in house by Kronotrop from green coffees sourced in partnership with various importers. I called for filter coffee from the Sumatra Wahana Estate, one of the nicest Sumatran coffees I’ve had in years while my friend tasted the cold coffee prepared the Japanese way where the coffee is brewed overnight and collected in a beaker. I think Kronotrop is a must have experience for any coffee lover.
After the awesome coffee experience the football fan in my woke up and we enquired around about which football stadium we can visit. After lots of actions and translations we finally got to know about Galatasary’s home arena- Turk Telecom Stadium. Sadly since it was the international break we couldn’t attend a game but atleast got a view of the massive cauldron of a stadium which surely has a intense atmosphere during matches as seen on TV.
We also visited Kilos beach on the Black Sea. The beach looks more like a private beach with limited amenities around but is a very rough beach. The beach is subjected to deadly riptides and undertow. We finished the evening at the hostel lobby chatting with fellow hostel mates discussing their travel itineraries and experiences. We did skip the cruise across the Bosphorous or the Golden Horn because we realized that we walked across the town so much that whatever places we could have visited through the cruise we did it on foot. But I am sure the cruise would have been worth every penny and I would come back to Istanbul just for that. So if you planning to go, don’t miss it.
Istanbul is a city of contrasts and breathtaking views. The city has a lively nightlife and the city has a cultural daylife which can keep you engaged and mesmerized. The people are nice and welcoming while the food is delicious. It is truly one of the great cities of the world and a must visit for the experience it provides. The city has a buzz and feel about itself which can’t be explained. It just soaks you in and soaked we were. I look forward to visiting Istanbul again
As Alphonse de Lamartine said- ” If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
This trip was originally published on Chasing The Experience.