As many articles there are on the internet about Istanbul, and especially when it comes to things to do and see in Istanbul, it is always interesting to know what other newcomers opinions are when going to the city for the first time. Instead of writing a top list of things to do and see, or an article about '36 hours in Istanbul' (which can effortlessly be achieved), I am going to present the top 10 things that I love about Istanbul. This city is certainly an overload of senses.
1. The architecture of the Istanbul buildings impresses me a lot. Both the European and Asian sides of the city are adorned with multi-colored homes scattered on the narrow hills overlooking the Bosphorus river. It comes across that a lot of period architects have done a lot of trial and error' with the shapes and sizes of the homes. Many of the blocks have flat roofs, for sleeping on, and even at street level there are balconies everywhere, for catching the breeze from the Bosphorus. The city certainly has a concentration of inhabitants.
2. The Ayran. It's a cold beverage of thick yogurt blended in with water, and sometimes a bit of salt. Very similar to the South Asian drink, Lassi. Said to be an old favorite of the sultans - it also makes you go to sleep- fast!
3. A wonderful place called 'Büyük Valide Han' (which means the 'Grand Inn of the Mother Sultan'). It's in Eminönü, and neatly buried among textile merchants, a hidden architectural gem of a place that still maintains its original two levels, three courtyards, and a sea of beautiful domes that constitute the roofs.
4. The Byzantine cisterns that lie underneath the city- they are hundreds of them. They were historically known as the Constantinople for more than a thousand years until 1459.
5. The people of the city. The true multicultural aspect of Istanbul is an example of a race that have made the most of getting along with each other. They say that the Turkish people are perhaps the most hospitable in the world because they have a warm/hot blood. I am not sure if I stand by that theory but it's a compliment of these welcoming people. Tarlabasi is an example of this. It was a prosperous neighborhood inhabited by Greeks and Armenians, until the 1950s, and then later it became one of Istanbul’s most notorious ghettos, occupied by Kurds, Romanians, African immigrants, and refugees from Iraq- and now perhaps Syria too.
5. Fresh pomegranate juice. Historically the Turks and the Ottoman used to add pomegranate in their dishes as far as back in 1469. Astane Restaurant next to the Kariye Museum is said to be the oldest restaurant in Istanbul which provides fine Ottoman cuisine with all the recipes having been taken from the Topkapi Palace. Try the 'almond soup', which has grated nutmeg and pomegranate. It's exactly the same dishes that the Sultans used to eat. Turkish food is exceedingly delicious. Though I do not wish to divulge into a general stereotype, I do believe that almost all Indian, Irish, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and Italian mothers are the same. They all want their sons to marry the most beautiful looking girl, have the best job ever, and eat the most delicious food ever. Its even more so with Turkish mothers (and restaurants)...they feed you like there is no tomorrow (old cliche, but it's so damn true).
6. I love cats, and in Istanbul you see them everywhere. The cats are a part of the culture of Istanbul, and Turkey itself. Historically these little furry creatures have been wandering around the city for years gone in times in memorial. The vast majority of the cats have proper vaccination, and are healthy. One of the reasons for the cats to be allowed freely to wander by the government is because it's a clean animal, and so there are no objections. If someone likes a cat then, yes, they can adopt the cat (provided they have it all checked up etc!).
7. The Bosphorus fish. This particular type of fish is available only in selected restaurants around the Galata Bridge, and only in Istanbul, and only between the 3-4 months in autumn and winter (between September to December). I went to the popular Galata Restaurant, which is located right underneath the ugly looking Galata bridge. If the sight of the beautiful food is enough to drift your thoughts away from the highly un-attractiveness of the bridge then that should be a compliment. Its best to come here during the summer months because you are not only gifted with a gorgeous red sunset, but it’s also comfortable to sit outside.
8. The Bosphorus River cruise. The last time I had taken a proper cruise was when I first arrived in Guangzhou (China) in 2003, and so it was a humbling experience to take a cruise again. You can see Istanbul with glimpses of the rooftops, the minarets (I lost count on how many), and the abundance of Turkish flags flying patriotically around the hills- I counted at least 25 on the 2 hour tour! Perhaps the cheapest and best way to explore the Bosphorus is offered by the public ferries that traverse the Bosphorus from Eminönü (ferries dock at the Boğaz İskelesi).
9. The various bookshops and Turkish bars around the Beyoğlu (Pera), provide enough time to explore the not just the touristy side of the city but also the historic part of the city. The most interesting part of this area is that the tourists just wander on the main street and don't happen to venture into the side roads where there are tiny cosy bookshops, cafes, and bars presenting the best of Istanbul's nightlife.
10. Kumkapı (KOOM-kah-puh, "Sand Gate") is an old Ottoman Greek and Armenian fishermen's district near the Sea of Marmara shore due south of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. The Kumkapı district is centered on a small plaza where six streets meet. It's surrounded by seafood restaurants, and restaurants line many of the streets radiating from the plaza. Restaurants are open all year, but in the warmer months (usually April through October) tables are set outside, and every night is a lively, sometimes boisterous (not to forget the pickpockets), and joyous dining scene with customers who are made to smile, scurrying waiters (i.e. not lazy) and itinerant paddlers and entertainers.
On thing you notice about Istanbul is that people are not hopelessly lazy or chatty or sluggish (suicide is out of question here!), as is the case in some Mediterranean countries. Perhaps the gift for this is because Istanbul is not a young city, and so with tradition you would expect that strong ethos of culture to portray itself too. Just a word of advice is that I wouldn't exactly go to Kumkapi wearing my best Armani shorts, or Gucci sunglasses- I hope you get my meaning. Many happy travels.
You can reach it by suburban train (banliyö treni) from Sirkeci station or Cankurtaran station (get out at the Kumkapı station), or by taxi (TL15 or less).
AND, last of all but not least below are three restaurants which I highly recommend offering some of the best Turkish cuisine around in the city. I know that in a city such as Istanbul where food is everything it would be a hard choice to dip your nose into something...but these three are recommended. Hamdi comes across as too touristy, but then again it may just be the thing for you if you have been wondering around the Grand and Spice bazaars and are looking for somewhere to eat except street food. Be spoilt for choice I say.
Finally, here is the link for the article on FLY.COM: www.fly.com
Astane Resturant near Kariye Muesum
Hamdi Restaurant near the Grand Bazaar
New Galata Restaurant (underneath the Gatala Bridge)
I have a serious confession to make- as many of the world's glamorous 5-star beds I have had the pleasure of laying myself on- I am actually always wary of sleeping in a hotel. Why? Because I have always pondered on who actually was there before I. Though I do try not to divulge too much on those thoughts, and it's perhaps the last thing on anyone's mind when they just want to have a rest after a 12 hour flight (as was in my case after arriving in Istanbul).
The 12-hour night time flight from Guangzhou to Istanbul gave me enough time to ponder on a million thoughts of what to expect upon landing in the country, to which I was a complete virgin. Unfortunately, it was raining on the morning I arrived in Istanbul, but with the positive courage I decided to face the challenge that the gods had thrown upon me. It was slightly colder than back in Guangzhou too. Thankfully after the 12 hour flight with Turkish Airlines, and the ease with which I managed to pass through Turkish customs (Visa for British passport holders is available upon arrival, costs 15 Euros and is valid for 90 days), I was greeted outside the arrivals hall by a pre-arranged limo by The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul.
My first impressions of the country on the way to the hotel surpassed by exceptions of the country's image in my mind (somehow it always happens). The roads were modern, I could see a skyline full of concrete and glass towers, plenty of Western shopping malls, and a clean infrastructure. All of this was blended in with thousands of Minarets of mosques in the horizon- a reminder that I was in a Muslim country.
Having arrived at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul within half an hour from the Ataturk airport, I was welcomed with a glass of warm Turkish tea, and some delicious Turkish delight. After which I was escorted to my VIP suite where again, a long-stemmed red rose, and a bottle of fine Turkish rose wine (Kavaklıdere, Egeo Rose 2010), awaited my arrival- this was all to ensure that my Turkish journey had truly began in style.
The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, complete with its 244 guest rooms including 22 suites, 57 Club Level rooms, and The Ritz-Carlton Suite, stands towering on the European side of the city, overlooking the border between the old and new city, and providing eye watering views of the Bosphorus River, and the Dolmabahçe Palace.
All the rooms are lavishly decorated to the best of their ability, with a good portion of them providing the creature comforts that most of us can only dream of, such as plasma TVs that are disguised as mirrors, oversized marble bathroom decorated with Iznik tiles, and heavily comfortable duvets stuffed with 300-thread cotton lines, & dove feathers. I must say that though the days of the high spending Turkish sultans are long gone, they would no doubt feel right at home at a place such as The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul. You can just imagine an Ottoman Sultan walking into the lobby in a grander fashion with his entourage and checking-in. Everything at the hotel, including the with its enormous bedrooms complete with vaulted ceilings, the Club Lounge, and the Blue Restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus, is made to make one feel just like a Sultan.
And not to forget the Ottoman style Laveda Spa, which features an indoor pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, and the hotel's very own Turkish Hamam. Though, I am not sure what the Ottomans would have made of this artificial example laid out in its finest possible surroundings in a luxury hotel. Nevertheless, the Turkish Hamam is in a 5-star hotel so understandably it's not quite what one would expect from a real experience. Just as well as I was a virgin to Istanbul, I also happened to nervously lose my virginity of experiencing a Turkish Bath. Before I had my Turkish bath ritual at The Ritz-Carlton Istanbul, my impressions of a Turkish Bath were somewhat limited to being derived from movies and TV documentaries.
I was expecting myself to be slapped and kind of beaten up by a huge masculine and hairy Turkish man with a Ottoman style mustache. Thankfully, to fade away my demons, in contrast I was greeted with a gentle smile by a native Turkish lady. During my Turkish bath, I actually felt like a baby sitting on the middle of a large marble stoned bed, and being washed, and scrubbed (gently), and then having warm water poured over me. Throughout the bath she inscribed deep spirals in the muscles of my back, then pouring the soap over by squeezing the contents of the wet towel. It wasn't as painful an experience as I had imagined (well, not at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul anyways. My experience of a real Turkish bat will be written about later on in my blog!). Yet I felt like I was being christened. The experience makes you fall into a deep sleep. Dare I say I felt like I was re-born. Lounging in Istanbul's bath houses, whether they are in hotels or not, is certainly a relaxing way to spend your time, but be prepared for an unusual charm offensive.
Other parts of the hotel seemingly waiting to the explored by people from far away lands include its beautiful new restaurant, Bleu. Overlooking the Bosporus river the restaurant provides one to relax in an open air environment, tucking into delicious Turkish cuisine with the wind breezing past- ideal for the summer months. Live Western and Turkish music prevails. The best part of the hotel has to be the presentation of Turkish hospitality and the rich Ottoman style cuisine which presents a variety of smells and tastes consisting of flavors taken from as far back as 1539 in some of the dishes.
I arrived in Istanbul on the 7th of December straight from Panyu in Guangzhou (China). Thanks to Turkish Airlines there is a non-stop connection between Guangzhou and Istanbul four times a week. The contrasts of the two places could not have been more differing. The city of Istanbul is certainly a fusion of senses. I suppose Istanbul is similar to the Shanghai or the Dubai of Turkey, because it's not the capital city, yet it's a very culturally and historically vibrant place to visit. There is so much to do and see. If you are a photographer you could be here for days, weeks, or even months and still find some different inspiration everyday. Being a stranger in the city, I decided to explore like I always do when I go to a new place- wander around without a map and a camera in my hand. I have always found that the best way to familiarize yourself in a new city is by getting lost (and drawing a map in my mind).
Some of the things that I immediately noticed upon a few hours after landing in Istanbul were the beautiful crimson skies in the evening, the cats wandering around everywhere (Istanbul is the city of cats), the very hospitable Turkish people, the smell of roasted chestnuts, beautiful mosques towering the skyline with their minarets (there are over 3,000 at the latest count), hazelnuts, fresh pomegranate juice, fish kebab meat by the Galata, and the call for prayer five times a day (it is an Islamic country). Not to forget the rich variety of Turkish food, and it's not just about kebabs and Turkish Delights you know? There is plenty of flavor from nice crunchy Turkish salads, richly thick yogurts, and plenty of exotic fruit drinks.
The old city is full of life-crowds...it's busy, and yet that's the most beautiful thing about Istanbul. It's busy but people are friendly, and there is no hustle & bustle, and everything and everyone seems to be in harmony. During my 4 days I even managed to experience a Turkish Bath (actually it was such a good experience that I had two Turkish baths). I will write about this Turkish bath experience in a later blog article.
While I was there it rained for half a day and then was beautiful for the remaining few days. The unique climate, which consists of a mixture of weather conditions in the Mediterranean, Marmara Sea, and Black Sea regions provides a perfect setting for Istanbul, and Turkey, to enjoy year long fertile land. This of course, gives way to delicious homegrown Turkish fruits and vegetables which happen to naturally colourful.
So here are the photos of my trip. Later on I will write about my experiences of eating at some traditional Turkish restaurants, experiencing a Turkish Bath, and my list of top things I love about Istanbul....enjoy!
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