Adventures in Istanbul

Mr Osbiston and I decided to spend our second wedding anniversary in the Turkish city of Istanbul. Istanbul is a very special city, having existed in some format or another since 660BC and spanning across two continents. It was the jewel of both the Byzantium and Ottoman empires and with a vast sprawling area of over 5,000 square kilometres and a population of almost 14 million, it is one of the biggest cities in the world.

After catching a late night flight from Stansted to Istanbul’s outlying airport, Sabiha Gocken, we were picked up by a pre-arranged transfer to our hotel, Ipek Palas and arrived in the Sirkeci area at about 7am. You can however easily catch the HAVATAS bus from the airport to Taksim Square right in the centre of the Old Town for only 10 TL.

As we could only check into the hotel at 1pm, we decided to go for a wander around the Old Town. Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several cisterns below the city, built in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantium Emperor, Justinius. The multi-coloumned cistern still has water (and fish!) in it and has a really atmospheric feel, which is added to by the red lighting and haunting music.

1

Inside the Basilica Cistern

One of the major attractions of the Cistern is the heads of Medusa placed at the bottom of two of the columns at the back of the cistern. One is set upside down and the other is set sideways. No one is entirely sure why they were set like this but it appears to be intentional.

18

Medusa upside down

There are lots of legends around Medusa, one being that she possessed the power to turn people to stone by looking at them. This is a very popular mythology in Turkey and many things are decorated with talismans to ward off the evil eye, including this column inside the Cistern.

2

Beware the evil eye

After that we took a stroll up to the spectacular Blue Mosque and The Hagia Sofia. We didn’t go inside, with the exhaustion having gotten the best of us, but even from the outside both were pretty amazing.

3

The Blue Mosque

We are both big fans of a city bus tour so we decided to jump on a bus and get our bearings. City tours leave from Taksim Square and make multiple stops at all the major sites. I’ve taken similar tours all over the world and found them a great way to see a city quickly but unfortunately this was not the case for Istanbul. The traffic is notoriously bad, which means the tour is very stop start, the commentary (which is very dry) isn’t synched up very well with the route and if you’re planning on any other guided tours you will get all the same (if not better) information from your guides.

By this time it was close to twelve and we were both starving so we popped into one of the cute local restaurants near our hotel for lamb shish kebabs. This was my first introduction to Turkish food in Turkey and I have to say I was not disappointed by any food I ate throughout the entire trip. Everything we ate was well-cooked, flavourful and spicy without burning. Overall the food is also really healthy, which is an added bonus. Of course you will have to resist feeding the legion of stray cats who will shamelessly pop up at your table.

My what a big chilli you have!

My, what a big chilli you have!

After lunch we could finally get into our hotel so we decided an afternoon nap was in order. This was a bit of a challenge since our hotel was directly next to a construction site that gave off an enormous amount of noise about 18 hours a day. It wasn’t the hotel’s fault but it made sleeping throughout the trip very difficult. It might have been more bearable if our hotel had been really plush but Ipek Palas has definitely seen better days and everything was falling apart.

We did manage to get some respite though and that set us in good stead for a bit more of wander around the Old Town and eventually dinner at a rooftop restaurant called Class Kardelen Restaurant Pub, which offered a great view of the hustle and bustle on the street below and served a cheap and very tasty mezze.

Mixed mezze... so goood!

Mixed mezze… so goood!

By this time we were knackered so we called it a night and went to bed early.

I had preplanned a tour to the Prince’s Islands through She Tours so we were picked up at 8.30 on our second day and shepherded to Kabataş to catch the boat across the Sea of Marmara, which is the smallest sea in the world.

A great view of Istanbul from the boat to The Islands

A great view of Istanbul from the boat to The Islands

There are nine islands in the group, only four of which are populated. During the summer wealthy Istanbullus head to their holiday homes on the Islands to enjoy the sun swelling the population from a couple thousand to up to 100,000. We visited Büyükada, the largest island. Our boat trip was about 90 minutes but we definitely weren’t bored. The Turkish will take any opportunity to try and sell you something and an elderly crewman soon gave us a sales pitch for both walking sticks and some kind of orange/lemon juicer that even I was tempted to buy despite the pitch being in Turkish.

No cars are allowed on any of the islands, so we headed off on a horse and cart tour, giving us the opportunity to see some of the beautiful houses and flora on the island before having lunch overlooking the sea at The Milano restaurant. Unfortunately during the tour we discovered that I am allergic to horses. It’s not massively surprising since I am allergic to everything but it was a pretty unpleasant realisation.

Paul looks way too comfortable

Paul looks way too comfortable

We spent the afternoon chilling out drinking Turkish coffee, enjoying the people watching and keeping an eye on the ice-cream wranglers. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t seen it but Turkish ice-cream is kind of solid and the guys who sell it put on a whole show of softening it for you to eat.

An ice-cream wrangler at work

An ice-cream wrangler at work

The boat ride home definitely gave us an appetite so we headed out to for dinner, once again near our hotel. All the restaurants are in competition with each other which means that each one has one or two greeters who pop out into the street and try to convince passersby to pick their particular eatery. All the menus are very similar so often you end up just picking the one with the most charming greeter and trust me, they are very charming but not in an uncomfortably pushy way, which to me was one of the great quirky positives of the city.

On this particular night we picked a restaurant (whose name I never got) that had a little garden with a fountain, which housed two cute turtles, much to the excitement of every child in the place. I really do wish I got the name though because it served the best humus I have ever had.

On our third day we decided it was time for some shopping, Istanbul style and headed to the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) , which specialises in Turkish delight, tea and spices.

Welcome to the Spice Market

Welcome to the Spice Market

The shop owners in the Bazaar are just as enthusiastic for your custom as the restaurant greeters, which makes shopping there a real blast. They are also definitely up for and expectant of a haggle and I’d like to think I gave as good as I got. In the end we bought apple tea (probably my favourite flavour experience of Istanbul), lemon and ginger spice tea, Turkish delight and a delicious Ottoman spice mix all from different stores. I particularly enjoyed chatting to a tea shop owner about interesting things to mix traditional South African rooibos with to make a good blend.

I wish you could smell this picture

I wish you could smell this picture

From there we headed to the famous Grand Bazaar, which sells every kind of craft you could imagine, from jewelery to leather, silks, scarves, carpets, cushions, lights, ceramics, the sky is the limit. All of it beautiful. In the end I only bought a scarf after much haggling but the quality is outstanding. I just wish I had had a few extra Lira (and luggage space) to buy the big ceramic serving plate I had my eye on.

Adventuring into the Grand Bazaar

Adventuring into the Grand Bazaar

In the afternoon we had another guided tour, this time in a boat down the mighty Bosphorus River. This expansive deep-blue river divides the European side of Istanbul from the Asian side and is flanked by some of Istanbul’s most impressive sights, including several former Ottoman royal residences, breathtaking mosques and homes of the rich and famous.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace

One of the most impressive sights is the massive Bosphorus Bridge, which spans across the two continents as the main crossing point. There is no land connection between Europe and Asia in Istanbul so the bridge is nothing short of an architectural marvel.

Cruising down the river with the Bosphorus Bridge behind me

Cruising down the river with the Bosphorus Bridge behind me

After our cruise we took a bus ride up to Pierre Loti Hill. Pierre Lot was a French naval officer and novelist who was a great supporter of the Turkish War of Independence. The Turkish were so taken with his novels and his love of their culture that they named a hill after him. The top of the hill is one of the best vantage points to get a real idea of just how absolutely massive and spectacular Istanbul really is… and then catch a cable car back to the foot of the hill.

Looking down the Bosphorus from the top of the hill.

Looking down the Bosphorus from the top of the hill.

Obligatory self portrait

Obligatory self portrait

Our final dinner took place in the cute Salute Pub and Restaurant, where the head greeter had been trying to lure us in from day one. We definitely weren’t disappointed by the food and we were rewarded for our eventual custom with free tea, coffee, watermelon and grapes.

Paul loves Turkish coffee

Paul loves Turkish coffee

After such a lovely trip, I am afraid to say that I was the cause of it ending on a somewhat sour note. I booked our transfer to Sabiha Gocken airport and we happily arrived two and a half hours before the flight… and then I realised that our flight was actually out of the more central, Ataturk Airport. I am a very organised traveler so it is probably easy to imagine my absolute horror at the discovery. At one point we foolishly believed we could make it across the city in time to catch our actual flight but we had forgotten the terrible Istanbul traffic and it was not to be. We did eventually make it home on a later flight thanks to the generosity of the lovely British Airways staff who agreed to change our no change, no cancellation for a hefty fee… but nowhere near the fee for new tickets. And the village was saved. But please, if you learn anything from my folly… always, always check your flight confirmations. Always.

12 Comments

  1. MIB

    A belated Happy Anniversary to you! 🙂

  2. I’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul, seeing this post makes me want to go even more.

    1. Abbi

      It’s a very, very cool city and very welcoming. You should definitely go!

  3. So cool! Great chronicle of your trip and lovely pictures. Would love to visit Turkey someday!

    1. Abbi

      Thanks! We had so much fun. Would definitely visit again!

      1. Yeah, I can imagine it being a pretty special trip 🙂

  4. Fascinating! Never been there. Used to travel a lot but haven’t in ages now. Sounds like you had a nice holiday (minus the little problem at the end there!). 🙂

    1. Abbi

      It’s such a cool place and we had a blast but from now on I will be quadruple checking my flight confirmations!

  5. Your holiday sounds really lovely!!! I imagine Turkish food to be rather vegetarian friendly but I’ve only eaten that in Singapore. I do however salivate at the smells of kebabs and grilled meats.

    How much did you eventually end up spending for the replacement ticket? OMG!

    1. Abbi

      It’s very veggie friendly. Lots and lots of aubergine and lots of hummus. Every menu had tons of options.

      In the end we paid 220, which for us was a lot not to have budgeted for and that was only because they were kind. Technically they could have changed us 1400!!

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