Istanbul, the unexpected surprise

I love travelling, so much so that lately some of my friends no longer start by asking me how I’m doing but rather where am I?! At the start of 2015, I really had no idea just how much travelling I would get up to but suffice to say I traveled to more countries last year than I have at any given time in my entire life so far. While I would not consider myself a travel expert, I must admit I’ve caught the travelling bug, a situation which has not been helped by my very generous friends who gifted me with the largest Lonely Planet book I’ve ever seen titled “A journey through every country in the world”. Having received this, I almost feel obliged to make this book become a personal reality and not just colorful pages sitting and accumulating dust on my book shelf.

Anyway moving on, 2015 would not be complete and especially not on this blog if I didn’t post a bit about some of my adventures and so what better way to do this than by starting with a city that took me completely by surprise – Istanbul! Prior to visiting Istanbul, my knowledge of Turkey was limited to it being a predominantly Muslim country, with Istanbul supposedly a beautiful and famous city for its history, Ottoman architecture and its geographic significance of lying at the border between the east and west, Europe and Asia. Well, nothing prepared me for the delight that I found in Istanbul. I mean it’s no wonder even their most common candy is called “Turkish Delight”, for this city truly is a delight to the senses in many way, particularly the eyes (ha!). My first surprise came in the form of Turkish Airlines, now one of the largest airlines in the world with a growing fleet and flying to over 250 destinations globally, with very decent airfares. I like to think of myself as an easy to please traveler so Turkish airlines more than exceeded my expectations, starting with the great in-flight entertainment which I did not expect to find on a 4 hour flight, yummy food, non-plastic cutlery and assortment of desserts, combined with their polite cabin crew. And how I could forget, ample leg room – a must for travelers with long limbs like mine.

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From the museums and mosques, to the food, hamams or Turkish baths, grand bazaar and the warm friendliness of Turkish people, this city will leave you wanting more. It certainly left me wanting more including the desire to visit and explore further.  Istanbul is a truly interesting city divided by the Bosphorus strait into 2 cities, comprising the European and Asian side. This division alone creates a uniqueness unlike any seen in Europe and adds to the cultural diversity of this cosmopolitan city. Additionally, Istanbul has lived through numerous conquests and empires all of which have left its mark on the city and stamped its rich cultural and religious heritage. Evidence of this can be seen in the impressive Hagia Sophia meaning Holy Wisdom (pictured above), once formerly a roman catholic church, later converted to a mosque and lastly to a museum. I have been to a lot of museums and places of worships of different variety in my limited years of travelling to the point of their intended grandiose losing its appeal on me. However, Istanbul reawakened that appeal with its stunning Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. I was quite surprised at how much I loved visiting the Hagia Sophia and would have gladly revisited it again to take in all of it’s beauty and mystery.

But what particularly struck me about Istanbul was the seemingly subtle liberality yet peaceful nature of everyday life in Istanbul with its diversity of people from all walks of life and religions. Frankly speaking, Istanbul broadened my understanding and put to shame some of the preconceived biases I had held in general of other religions. In the few days I toured this city, there seemed to be a synchronous balance within and across various religions dwelling alongside each other unlike any I’ve encountered before in a city known for its religious heritage. Perhaps this is due to its rich and ancient history, having lived through many conquests, religious conflicts and empires. In any case, Istanbul was my unexpected surprise.

We had only three nights to explore this city so needless to say that a lot of activities were crammed into one day. I will therefore now attempt to give you my view of the traveler’s guide to 3 nights in Istanbul if you’ve ever considered a long weekend away here or find yourself transiting through en-route to another country. A stopover is definitely worth the extra time spent in getting to your destination.

Day one:

For a truly spectacular start to exploring this city, start your day early to maximize time and avoid touring crowds by heading to the Hagia Sophia located in the Sultanahmet area and nearby to the Sultanahmet mosque a.ka. Blue mosque and Topkapi palace. When finished, you can choose between visiting the Blue Mosque right opposite the Hagia Sophia or walking a short distance to the Topkapi palace to get a sense of what life was like in a palace in Turkey a few hundred years ago. The palace grounds are massive and can take up to half a day to really take it all in so you can choose to focus on a few notable areas such as the Harem – the living quarters of the Sultan and his concubines – or marvel at the preserved jewelry in the Treasury. The Blue Mosque, called blue due to it’s adorning blue tiles in the interior and formerly blue covered carpets is still an active prayer mosque today but can be visited by tourists at certain hours.

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For your dining experience, you can check out the Palatium cafe, a very quaint, cosy cafe serving mouth-watering Turkish and international dishes in the Cankurtaran area, very near to Sultanahmet square and the Blue Mosque.

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Day two:

For a more chilled out day, start by visiting the stunning and mystical underground Basilica cistern built in 527 A.D. and while there, be sure to check out the heads of Medusa and the mystery of the different positions of the head. Be sure to leave enough time during the day to visit Istanbul’s largest bazaar  with over 6000 shops selling the most colorful assortment of goods and spices your eyes can behold. For a relaxed evening, spend time treating yourself to a traditional hamam experience by soaking up the warmth of a turkish bath and soap massage especially if you happen to be visiting during the cold winter days (for an authentic hamam experience: check out Sulemaniye hamam).  Note however that this hamam is mixed and the masseurs are all male therefore some may find this uncomfortable. You can still experience this hamam without the soap massage included for a reduced fee.

Day three:

A visit to Istanbul would not be complete without checking out the Oxford street of Istanbul known as İstiklâl Caddesi or Istiklal Avenue. This famous street is visited by millions daily and houses various top international as well as local brands, coffee shops, art galleries, pubs to mention a few. You can take the tram that runs through this street all the way up to the famous Taksim square or alternatively, make your way up while taking in all this street has to offer. While Istanbul is synonymous with mosques, this street holds a pleasant surprise with several beautiful historic churches including St. Anthony of Padua Church. Also check out Cicek Pasaji (Flower passage) where you can dine in or have a drink while listening to live performances. To finish off the night, head back to Galata tower located near this famous street to take in the stunning views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.

And there you have it! Of course, there are other notable sights and things to do in Istanbul so this list is by no means exhaustive but is a good starting point to seeing this uniquely special European city that will leave you wanting more.

 

If you would like further information on where to stay, costs of travelling in Istanbul or any other questions or if you’ve simply enjoyed reading, feel free to leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to answer.

 

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