Istanbul is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a while, not for any particular reason other than it looked amazing (and also Ottolenghi’s ‘Mediterranean’ did nothing to put me off!). Luckily in January Turkish Airlines had a sale on and we managed to get bargainous flights direct to Istanbul for some springtime sunshine! We had decided to spend 3 full days there, though once we started planning we realised there was so much to do you could spend a week there easily!
We rented ourselves a lovely 1 bed apartment near the Galata Tower, which proved to be in a perfect location to walk everywhere! So with that our first stop was the Galata Tower! We stopped off for a quick pastry and coffee near the tower before heading up. Thankfully there is a lift up to almost the top, you need to walk the last 2 floors, but the view once you get there is great, a full 360 of Istanbul, with views up the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and towards the Sea of Marmara. I would recommend going early, coming out just after 10am there was quite a queue forming!
We then walked down towards the Golden Horn Ferry, over the Galata Bridge passed fishermen patiently waiting for their catch over the edge. The ‘Old’ side is definitely busier and more lively! Spotting the Spice Bazaar just over the bridge we paid a visit to what we though might be mayhem, but was actually quite pleasant. We wandered round all the stalls looking at the wonderful array of spices, teas and dried fruit. Outside there are stalls selling meats and cheese. It was busy but with such a good atmosphere.
We tore ourselves away from there and then headed to the waterside and boarded a ferry for a trip up the Golden Horn. On board the ferry, a man comes round serving Simit (a sort of thin bagel) and tea or coffee; naturally I had to indulge! The boat up to Eyup makes a few stops en route and is a pleasant journey.
Once at Eyup a visit to the Eyup Mosque is a must (note – not on a Friday or Sunday its very busy) followed by a cable car trip up to the Pierre Loti Cafe / Viewpoint which gives a great view up and down the Golden Hour. If time allows, walk back down through the cemetery which is quite fascinating.
We finished up our first day with a boat trip up the Bosphorous (after grabbing some chargrilled corn on the cob from a nearby street vendor). Sailing out of Emiminou you sail close to the shoreline on the European Side, close to some of the massive ottoman style houses, Dolmabahçe Palace and the 5* Hotels, passing by Orkatoy Mosque and under the Bosphorous Bridge up towards the Black Sea. After passing under another bridge the boat makes a turn back and sails close to the Asian side shoreline, which has a similar view. You sail past the Maidens Tower with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in background.
Walking back to the apartment after a fab dinner of Meze and Kebab, we stopped off at Karakoy Gulluoglu (the original Baklava shop) for some Baklava to takeaway, but the place was so busy with people enjoying tea and fresh Baklava while catching up with friends, something I would happily get used to!
Next morning we rose early to brave the queues at the Topkapi Palace and Harem, though I did get us a bit lost and we ended up taking the long way to the Palace through Gulhane Park. This ended up being a nice detour as April is the Annual Istanbul Tulip Festival and the park was covered in beautiful displays.
The queues for the Topkapi Palace are horrendous; we queued for over 1 hour. (Top tip: either book a private guide or buy an Istanbul Museum Pass at an quieter museum to jump the queue!). The Topkapi Palace was once the residence of the Ottoman Sultans and its opulence can still be seen in parts. Once inside the grounds it is all quite serene, there are plenty of artefacts on display and parts to explore, there are also great views out over the various seas. The Harem which was once the private residence of the Sultans is also worth a visit and whilst is entered via the Palace it does require a separate ticket.
We spent just over half a day at the Topkapi Palace, so we were glad when our final stop of the day was at the Basilica Cistern, a short hop from the Palace gates. The Basilica Cistern is one of many large underground cisterns which lie beneath Istanbul. It is quite spectacular (if not a little spooky), especially the part with the two Medusa heads!
We wandered back to our apartment just taking in the atmosphere and stopping off first for some Turkish Delight from the oldest shop in Istanbul and then for a Fish Roll which was BBQ’d at the waterside. There were stalls on both sides of the Galata Bridge selling this delicious snack. So we ate this by the water while the sunset over the old town.
To end the day off we took a walk up Istiklal Avenue one of the most famous streets in Istanbul and were the old tram runs. It was dark by the time we got here, but the place was buzzing with people out walking and others enjoying food and drinks in cafes and bars in the side streets off. We rounded the evening off by sampling some Pide from our local cafe. Pide is basically a Turkish Pizza and it’s delicious! Hot and buttery straight out of the oven, you can’t beat that!
On our final day, we eventually visited the two things that Istanbul is probably best known for; the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Before visiting the Blue Mosque it’s best to check the website for Prayer Times and to visit outwith these times. We arrived around 10am and it was busy but not crowded. You need to be covered, however they do provide headscarves and robes which you can borrow to cover yourself. The Mosque is pretty impressive from the outside, but once inside its amazing; it has been tiled with 20,000 beautifully decorated handmade tiles with amazing chandeliers!
The Hagia Sophia across the square is equally as impressive but with longer queues; this is where the museum pass showed it’s value! The Hagia Sophia has had an number of incarnations in its time, first as an Orthodox Church and latterly as a Mosque before becoming a museum in 1935 and an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The Hagia Sophia is another beautiful building in the inside, with a large high dome and drawings depicting its various uses. We just used our map in the guide book to walk around at our leisure.
Our last stop was at the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of of undercover streets with hundreds of stalls selling rugs, leather good, ceramics and spices. We wondered round here for hours getting lost in the maze of streets. We stopped for a refreshing Lemonade at Fez Cafe in the middle of the Bazaar and sat and people watched for ages! We eventually found our way out and met up with a friend for another feast of Meze, Kebab and Stew.
Istanbul is a great city, with so much to see and do. Three days was really not long enough! It is definitely on my list of places to go back to!
We Travelled: With Turkish Airlines direct from Edinburgh
We Stayed: A one-bedroom apartment near the Galata Tower via Airbnb
We Ate and Drank:
Keyf-i Mekan Cafe – Just outside Gate 16 of the Grand Bazaar, a great little cafe serving traditional Turkish food made with fresh local ingredients (also no 1 on Tripadvisor!)
Fes Cafe – A little cafe in the Grand Bazaar near the Antiques Market. We didn’t eat here but had some delicious homemade lemonade while soaking up the atmosphere and people watching!
Namli – A cafe with a lovely deli, not far from Karakoy Boat Stop. You pick what you want from the buffet and they cook it for you
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftescisi – the place to go for Kofte! Quite near the Blue Mosque
Edebiyat Kiraathanesi – Does fabulous desserts and tasty Milk Pudding (a delicacy of Turkey)
Haci Bekir – the oldest Turkish Delight shop in Istanbul, near the Spice Bazaar
Brew Works Coffee – A lovely cafe serving nice cakes, ice-cream and most importantly coffee, across the road from Haci Bekir not far from the Spice Bazaar
Tag Cafe – situated just off the Istiklal Avenue, this cafe has good music, cold beer and tasty food!
Karakoy Gulluoglu – the best place for Baklava in Istanbul, just along from the Namli deli.