By Logan Goldie-Scot
Despite the summer months being the best time to visit, in December I finally decided to scratch the itch and hopped on the 3 ½ hr flight from London for a long weekend to Istanbul, which from the original Greek roughly translates as “To the City”.
We were staying in the Hotel Amira in the Sultanahmet district of the City, which is where most of the tourists tend to flock. Although this sounds unappetising for a seasoned traveller, I would strongly recommend it since few things beat waking up a 5 minute stroll from some of history’s, and my personal, must sees. The hotel is a fantastic halfway house between a friendly bed and breakfast and a five star hotel. The rooms are well decorated, there is a great terrace with a view on the roof and breakfast is delicious. To top it off, the staff are friendly and will help you with any questions etc, and even book some sights for you if you don’t feel like queuing.
I arrived late on the Thursday night and having left my bags, went for a stroll to try and get my bearings. An obligatory Turkish kebab and then I returned to the hotel to meet Coline and we enjoyed the complimentary, and very drinkable, couple of glasses of red wine before calling it a night.
We woke up bright and early the next day determined to see everything that the city had to offer. To simplify things, I would probably divide the city into three areas. There is the European southern tip that includes Sultanahmet, then you cross the Golden Horn for the European northern stretch, and then finally you can cross the Bosphorous into Asia. For today, we were committed to the first of these and where better to start than the square that divides the Haghia Sophia Mosque (Aya Sophia) and the Blue Mosque. It’s hard to do justice to these monuments in writing but their silhouettes across the skyline, the imposing domes and minarets force you to stop and try and take them in all their entirety… and that’s before you go inside.
To start with the Haghia Sophia, a quick queue and then you’re in, with the interior even more impressive than external. The current structure was a sixth century church, which then became a mosque for a few centuries before being converted to a museum in 1934. The convergence of the two cultures makes for an intriguing design, with Christian mosaics standing mere feet away from stunning banners with the names of the Rashidun (the first four Caliphs in Islamic history) in Arabic calligraphy.
Our next stop was the Blue Mosque which derives its name for the thousands of blue patterned tiles which decorate its inner walls. Unlike the museum, this remains an operational mosque which both adds and detracts from the aura surrounding it. On the plus side, it’s almost satisfying to see locals praying silently alone or in groups scattered across the open expanse. However, necessities such adequate lighting which hang down from the ceiling also make it challenging to really engage with what this must have been like. If I had to choose, the Haghia Sophia would win – but fortunately, there is no need to choose considering the proximity of the two. P.S. For the women reading this, make sure you dress appropriately. i.e. long sleeved clothes and you will be given a headscarf when you arrive.
Following this, we went to the Basilica Cistern, which has an eerie feel to it which would have been overwhelming were it not for the cackle of Turkish schoolchildren who also happened to be visiting at the same time. To dwell on this would be to carp so I will move on.
A nice 15 minutes stroll then took us to the Topkapi Palace which was the base of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. This is a huge complex and to really appreciate it, I would recommend really delving into the history of the Ottoman Empire since without this it is hard to grasp what really took place here. I would also definitely pay the small additional fee to see the harem since this is where the most vivid and intact mosaics can be found.
After a long day of walking we made our way back to the hotel to dry off and rest before heading out to Balik Pazari (fish market) in Beyoglu. Our trip there leads to a word of warning for all travellers around Istanbul… finding your desired destination in a taxi (even when arranged by the hotel which is typically recommended) is a bit of a mission, made more challenging by the fact that very few speak English. Balik Pazari is just off Istiklal Caddesi and each of the places on view appeared to offer similar dishes at similar rates so it just depends where tickles your fancy on the day. The restaurants share the street with the fish sellers and so you can be sure that the produce is fresh etc. Following this, we had a night cap on the roof terrace of a restaurant a few doors down and then headed back to our hotel.
Opening the curtains the next morning, the torrential rain continued unabated and after taking the tram from the main square opposite Haghia Sophia we sought refuge in the Grand Bazaar. Personally, I try hard to avoid places such as this since the concentration of hawkers and the maze-like design simply makes it harder to flee. While enjoying the lively buzz of the souq, the focus had now shifted to fake designer handbags and sportswear rather than the spices, perfumes and gold found in other markets dotted across the Middle East, which somewhat undermined the experience.
The perfect antidote to this was found nearby in a Turkish hamam. Istanbul has countless bathhouses but the vast majority are single sex whereas the Suleymaniye Hamami also accepts couples and despite being fairly pricey (at EUR35 each), the 16th century interior and the accompanying massage, topped off with a fresh orange juice was fantastic.
En route to cross the Bosphorous to Asia we felt compelled to stop at one of the many houseboats serving fresh fish in a sandwich for a few lira. This is one of the best occasions to really feel part of the city, as you bustle through the crowds to pick up your fish before being able to enjoy the meal smugly while watching what can only be described as organised chaos. Having filled up, we caught a ferry across the Bosphorous to Uskudar, in Asia, but after a 20 minute stroll and various cups of warming sweet tea in a no frills, but tasty and authentic Turkish restaurant called Kanaat Lokantasi we felt a bit too much like drowned rats and so made our way back to the hotel to dry off and wait for the rain to subside.
Thankfully it dried off and we crossed our fingers and hopped on the tram to Galata. The tram is not only a cheap way of traversing the city, but also very convenient and simple to use – the inverse experience of getting a taxi. After getting off at Karakoy stop we strolled 10 minutes or so through winding paved alleys up towards the Galata Tower, a 12th century Genoese built medieval tower. You can climb the tower which supposedly offers phenomenal views over the city but unfortunately it had closed by the time we arrived (and during the day, the queues seem painfully long and slow).
Having admired the tower from below, I was eager to satisfy my desire for shisha and so we continued exploring the very Mediterranean-like alleys and streets and finally ended up in Tophane where there were numerous dedicated shisha places with gaudy decorations and blaring Turkish pop. Here I learnt that pomegranate juice is a phenomenal accompaniment to a shisha and it offsets the somewhat sluggish feeling that tends to draw a smoking session to an end. We were however, pretty peckish by this point so headed back to the Galata area and picked a table outside Kiva Han, a lovely Anatolian restaurant on Galata Square. The selection of different mezze – including stuffed baby onions and tangy vine leaves – with memorable yet wholly unpronounceable names made for a perfect end to the evening. The whole district had a really buzzing feel, which is kind of expected since it was a Saturday night, but it’s definitely worth heading there with no plan in mind and trying out any of the restaurants there.
We were woken on our final day with sunshine streaming into the room so thought that it would be a perfect idea to walk along the old land walls which protected the city and which traverse from south to north of the city. Though the land walls came highly recommended in the guidebook, this was probably our only big fail on the trip since the walls are not contiguous and you could only walk on top of them intermittently. This left us walking for a couple of hours around a particularly ghostly fort/prison complete with torture chambers and in the shadow of the walls’ ruins set in one of the more neglected parts of the city, with boys playing football in the street and ladies lugging their shopping baskets to rickety wooden houses. It was good to get a glimpse of this side of Istanbul, but smashed beer bottles and shuttered up homes did not entice us to stay.
Heading back to the rather more welcoming Galata district for lunch and we ended up right next door to Kiva Han, at Guney Restaurant which was delicious and we tried Turkish pizza and Turkish ravioli alongside various vegetable and meat accompaniments. A nice walk back to the hotel trying to take in as much of the city’s wintery atmosphere – while munching on freshly roasted chestnuts – and then it was time to head our separate ways and I boarded the flight home, glad that I’d seen Istanbul’s tourist highlights, and looking forward to returning as an “experienced traveller” to scratch this fascinating city’s surface further.