Finally, it was happening, I was going to Istanbul! This city had been on top of my list for a very long time.
We flew to Istanbul on the 21st of October and our flight came in quite late in the evening. But the Sabiha Gökçen airport, which we flew into, is well connected by bus with the city centre and after an hour we were at Taksim Square. And, as the the Sabiha Gökçen airport is in the Asian part of the city, we crossed one of the bridges over the Bosphorus (which is a natural strait and not a river) from Asia back into Europe! Crazy, to just drive from Asia to Europe like that and still be in the same city.
The hostel we had booked was only 10 minutes walk from Taksim Square and walking to the hostel we got our first flavour of the hassle that you have to deal with if you can’t drive in your own car to the front of your accommodation. People following you, asking you, ‘taxi, taxi, you need taxi?’ or ‘Where you going, you need hotel?’. Also we stayed in Beyoğlu, which is a very lively area with a lot of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, etc., but it’s also the area where all the brothels and sex workers seem to be. So we had a nice welcome from a transvestite prostitute burping in our faces. Lovely!
After at first being a bit overwhelmed by the Friday night chaos in this city of around 14.5 million inhabitants, we found the hostel ok. We checked-in, had a quick bite to eat in a nearby döner/kebab shop and went out to explore some of the nightlife. The hostel was located only 1 minute walk from the İstiklâl Avenue, the main pedestrian street with a lot of shops and always full of people no matter what time it is (apparently in the weekends, 3 million people a day visit the avenue). All the side streets of the İstiklâl Avenue are full with bars and we had a few drinks at one of the bars with loud Turkish music and dancing on the street. We didn’t stay late though as we planned on getting up early the next day to make the most of our short stay (originally we were going to be in Istanbul for 4 nights but the airline changed our flight to a day earlier so we had only 3 nights). Unfortunately, our hostel was across a nightclub and our room was exactly on the same floor as the nightclub with loud music to 5am every night and flashing lights that even with the curtains closed, managed to lit up our whole room. So not too much sleep, but it’s the price you pay for being in the middle of all the action.
On Saturday morning we met up with Yavuz, one of my former colleagues from G Adventures, who manages the Operations team in Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. He took the time to go through all the must-see sights and gave us some very useful tips and it was lovely to see him and his family. From the G Adventures office in Istanbul we walked all the way along the İstiklâl Avenue down to the Bosphorus. There we crossed the famous Galata bridge, which is always full with men fishing, and on the other side, we embarked on a 2,5 hour Bosphorus tour/ferry. We took the tour from the TurYol company, which is the more local one and less touristy and much cheaper than the touristy ones. Although I am very frightened on boats, I was distracted enough by the many beautiful palaces and mosques on the shores of the Bosphorus. It was simply amazing and a must-do when in Istanbul!
With Yavuz in the G Adventures office
Galata bridge with its fishermen
One of the palaces we saw on the Bosphorus cruise
Near the embarkation/disembarkation point of the boat tour you can find the Spice Bazaar. This bazaar has been located at the same spot for more than 300 years and originally the revenues obtained from the rented shops inside the bazaar building were used for the maintenance of the nearby New Mosque. I loved walking around there and it’s probably for the best that I couldn’t really buy anything with still quite a few months of travelling to go and no house to go back to. A big difference with the bazaars/souks I’ve been to in Morocco, is that here it’s a bit more spacious which makes it feel less busy and relatively easy to walk around.
Lots of spices at the Spice Bazaar
When we came out of the bazaar, day had turned into night, and we started walking back. On the way back, we found a bar where they showed the Premier League matches and we watched some football. When we asked for the bill, we weren’t only charged for the drinks, but also had to pay for watching the TV! Never seen such thing, but who knows, it might be normal in Istanbul…
In the evening, Harry went to one of the barbers near the hostel and got his growing traveller beard groomed. An experience!
Harry at the barber
Historic areas of Istanbul
The next day we spent in the Old part of Istanbul to see some of the famous sights that are all concentrated near each other. The whole area with all the historic monuments is a UNESCO World Heritage.
We started with the Hagia Sophia. Originally a Greek Orthodox Basilica, later a mosque and now a museum, built in 537 AD. It’s most famous for the massive dome; however, the dome is covered in scaffolding for many years already. The whole building is massive and there are mosaics everywhere, very impressive.
View of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia
After Hagia Sophia we walked towards the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Back in the days it was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire (Constantinople = Istanbul). Now it is more a big square and the main thing we wanted to see here was the Serpent Column that was taken from Delphi in Greece. In Delphi, the week before, we had seen the replica on the spot where the original once stood, but now we could see the original! I will say, it looks much better in its original location in Delphi.
The original Serpent Column taken by the Ottomans from ancient Delphi to Constantinople
From the Hippodrome we walked to the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque). It was prayer time so we weren’t allowed inside until the prayer was over. It’s big inside and lots of beautiful blue tiles, hence it’s called the Blue Mosque. They also provided a lot of information about Islam just outside the mosque and most of it I already knew but I did learn some new things.
Inside the Blue Mosque
From the Blue Mosque we walked to the Topkapı Palace, which is massive and was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. It was built around the 1460s and at its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4000 people! My favourite part of the palace was the Imperial Harem. This section contained more than 400 rooms and was the home to the sultan’s mother, his wives, children, the rest of the family and all their servants. I would have loved to go back in time and hide behind a curtain to watch and see what was going on in here in daily life and what they did all day.
Inside one of the rooms of the Harem
One of the outside walls of the palace
Grand Bazaar and Basilica Cistern
The next morning we went to the Grand Bazaar. I think because it was a Monday, it was very quiet which made it really nice to walk around and explore the bazaar. We didn’t get hassled at all by any of the shopkeepers who all seem to want to have a quiet Monday morning and couldn’t be bothered yet to hassle tourist. A real shame we couldn’t buy anything, so many beautiful things!
Inside the Grand Bazaar
After the Grand Bazaar we visited the Basilica Cistern, near Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace, but the day before we didn’t have time to visit it anymore. The Basilica Cistern is a large subterranean structure, built in 532 AD and the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. It was a bit spooky to go in there and water is still dripping from the ceiling, but worth it! Very impressive and hard to believe this was built all those years ago. I couldn’t really take a good picture, as it was too dark inside so the one below is not my own picture.
The Basilica Cistern (picture credit)
Late in the afternoon we walked back to the hostel to collect our bags and take the bus to the airport again for our 1am flight to Dubai to spend a few days there relaxing and soak up some sun before flying to India. Istanbul had been amazing and I will definitely be back one day to explore more and for some shopping!