One of my favourite places to visit is Turkey, in particular Istanbul. Having visited Istanbul a number of times in all seasons, each experience has been completely different. For me Istanbul has a mystical chaotic charm, it’s free from the general confinements and structure having been influenced by many different cultures. Plus who can forget the masses of people in its regularly hustling streets and markets; 13.9 million to be exact. Some people may be put off but such things but the wonders of this city has something for everyone. Even I, who prefers the more relaxed vibe was surprised to enjoy the buzz that you feel from this place. Istanbul is truly intoxicating and addictive which is why visiting it only once was not an option. I feel Istanbul has a truly rich amalgamation of different cultures due to its unique position, straddling both Europe and Asia. Once being the capital of the Roman Empire followed by the Ottoman Empire Istanbul has truly balance both the cultural aspect of its Muslim and Christian religious influences with its modern Western European culture; both aspects fitting seamlessly together.
The city is split by one of the busiest water-ways in the world; the Bosphorus River. It is delightful experiences to take a boat down or across this river. On a hot summer’s day, the fresh air is liberating and the city skyline of mosques, hills, monuments and buildings is a wonderful sight. In winter, this mammoth river is haunted by the mist that lays upon the river, highlighting the silhouettes of the gulls that call out for the hundreds of fisher men that line the banks.
I have stayed on both sides of the Bosphorus, with each district providing its own unique experience. I have been lucky enough to stay with local friends which made the holiday more authentic. In order to truly experience the culture and authentic style of Istanbul, I would recommend a private tour from a local.
I stayed in the region of the Galata Tower on the European side in the Beyoglu district. With its narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants and its situation in the centre of town, I found it to bea buzzing and energetic area. The Galata Tower is one of the main tourist attraction built in 1348 and can be seen from the Bosphorus when you take a boat trip. In addition to this, no trip to Istanbul is complete with its tour of its majestic and historical mosques.
My #High5 of Istanbul;
Tunel is the second oldest subway in the world, having started in 1875. I was amazed at travelling down this that took me from the Galata tower area down to the river front. It is a very short ride but worth the experience on this idyllic historic subway. Additionally, It does help taking the this train rather than climbing a very steep hill on the way back, which on a scorching hot summer’s day was a saviour.
On the European side there is the buzzing street of Istiklal Avenue. This is Istanbul’s answer to the likes of Oxford Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York. It’s 1.3km street is filled with shops, restaurants, bars and clubs. I loved walking along this street and taking in the atmosphere. It was here that I bought some delicious authentic Turkish delight and also some Turkish tea glasses. If you don’t wish to walk the whole length of the street you can take a ride on the lovely old fashioned tram that goes from one side of the street to the famous Taksim Square.
This is one of the most famous squares at the centre of the European side of Istanbul. It is surround by bars, shops, restaurants and cafes and also the central station of the Istanbul Metro. I loved sitting here during the day just to take in the unique atmosphere and watch the thousands of people that cross this area. With all honesty I felt that it wasn’t the most attractive square that I have visited in a city but it is a place where everyone congregates all day long, spending many hours talking over a cup of delicious fruit tea or Turkish coffee, here you really get a sense of community. Unfortunately, a word of warning would be not to brandish your phone or wallet too much as the authorities warn over the many pickpockets and thieves, which sadly I experienced first-hand.
Of course when visiting Istanbul there is one definite tourist area that you have to visit, it is The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. I was absolutely blown away with this magnificent structure of the Blue Mosque which is the focal point that can be seen see this every from most parts of Istanbul and the river. With its defiant six minarets pointing towards the sky and its marvelled domes and semi domes, you cannot help but be captivated and bewitched. Built in 1616, this structure has survived earthquakes and wars. Most mosques only have four minarets but this unique specimen has six. This unique design was actually caused by misunderstanding by the architect however Sultan Ahmet liked it so much, that he kept them.
Directly across from The Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. This Church was built in 360 and went through many era’s in history. It was destroyed and rebuilt many times and in 1453 when the Turks conquered Istanbul it was converted into a mosque. The church was adorned my mosaics of Jesus Christ and other religious figures. As such figures forbidden in Islamic mosques, these mosaics were hidden during the conversion. This luckily preserved the mosaics underneath and they can now been seen in all their glory. Visiting the Hagia Sophia was one of my main highlights. By simply acknowledging the immense architecture and its ability to survive many turbulent times alongside its juxtapositioning of both Islamic and Christian cultures, the Hagia Sophia truly defined what Istanbul represents to modern day Turkey.
If the city proves too much for you or you just want to experience a relaxing day, then I would definitely head to the Princess Islands. These are a group of 9 islands situated off of the coast of Istanbul which can be reached by boat from the Bonstaci area. I visited Buyukada which is the largest of the islands and was very tranquil and quaint. There are no motorised vehicles permitted on these islands so you can walk or ride a bicycle. I however chose the horse and cart option. It was such an amazing experience to be taken around the island that was clad with pine trees and dotted with large villa’s which, according to my innate tour guide/driver, were owned by famous people in Turkey.
I also visited their famous fish restaurant that is situated by the waterfront. My meal was truly breathtaking and it certainly was the freshest fish I have ever tasted. To be sat next to the ocean eating fresh fish on such a beautiful island was a great highlight to this trip and a much welcomed breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Of course there are many other places to visit, such as, Topkapi Palace and The Grand Bazaar. Although these places had their own unique qualities, the aforementioned places are the placed I most enjoyed. Istanbul is definitely one of my favourite cities. In my eyes it is a very unique city that has stood the test of time and continues with its distinctive buzz, energy and excitement. It is a true delight and one place that I highly recommend that you visit.