I found my home away from home in Istanbul. Having travelled to Turkey numerous times before, but always to coastal towns, I was intrigued to find out what this history filled city had to offer. Safe to say I was not disappointed.
I decided to journey to Istanbul with my good friend Monika, and we arranged to stay with her friend Olcay. Olcay had an apartment on the ‘Asian’ side of Istanbul, and we arrived on the ‘European’ side, so on the journey to his place I caught my first glimpses of the city. As I have always experienced when visiting Turkey, we were greeted with nothing less than amazing hospitality from Olcay and his family. They prepared a lovely meal for us all to enjoy together, and over numerous cups of Çay (tea) Olcay patiently explained all the different things we could experience during our stay.
I took advantage of staying with a local to find out more about the Turkish culture and experience more than just the tourist attractions. I’m not sure what the name of the area we stayed in was called, but Olcay’s apartment was at the top of a hill, and on my first evening I ventured out onto the balcony to scope out our surroundings. I was greeted by thousands of twinkling lights as I stared down onto the city. The adhan (call to prayer) rang out from a hundred different mosques, falling in and out of harmony with each other, and a wave of peace ran through me as I sipped my tea and enjoyed the warm breeze.
During the night I was awoken to the sound of drums. I’m not going to lie, my first thought was that they were drums of war. Panic stricken, I lay there thinking of an escape route and how I’m going to get myself along with Monika to the airport. It was one of those surreal experiences where you tell yourself you are being stupid, but your imagination runs wild. Eventually the drums faded into the distance, and I managed to fall back into a deep sleep. In the morning I questioned Olcay on the drums and he explained that during Ramadan, men beating drums walk through the streets to alert people that the time for fasting is approaching. I loved the mix of culture here. As we walked through the streets I noticed Turkish women dressed in shorts and strappy tops walking alongside women fully covered in the Burka. It has always been my view that Turkey had the right mix when it came to being a Muslim country, as I’d always seen a tolerance towards less religious people, one that I hadn’t experienced in other countries. I liked this about the country, as I felt that people were welcomed as they were and not judged, however I do accept that this may be my own personal experience and may not accurately reflect that within the depths of Turkish culture. Staying with Olcay really gave me a chance to explore more about the history of Turkey and how their culture has changed throughout time. We spent many evenings discussing the diversity of the Turkish people and it only increased my liking for the country.
A quick word of advice – the transport in Istanbul is great! You can buy a card (IstanbulKart) which can be topped up and used on bus, tram, train, metro and boat.I think I topped up around TL 30-40 for the whole six days of our trip and we used public transport constantly, so for me it was definitely worth it. There is always the option to walk, but if you want to see anything outside of the main area with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, it’s worth getting the card as you’ll spend ages walking trying to find places, Istanbul is not a small city!
Our first stop was to take a boat across the Bosphorus and explore Hagia Sophia, a grand museum which was once a byzantine church and mosque. Gorgeous biblical mosaics fill the walls alongside intricate Arabic calligraphy. Even though it was full of tourists, there was a calm quiet as everyone stood admiring the beautiful architecture and designs. From there we walked along to Sultan Ahmed mosque, through lush gardens filled with flowers and fountains. The scene couldn’t have been more picturesque, with the river flowing in the background and the minarets of the mosque towering in the sky, people taking refuge from the sun by relaxing under the trees and enjoying fresh cold orange juice.
Inside the mosque I decided to pray in the ladies section, and sat marveling at the wide pillars and high domes, which allowed light to reflect around the inside of the vast space. The walls were adorned with detailed mosaics and the lights hung low to create a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere. Religious or not, I would definitely recommend a visit to this mosque, the beauty of the architecture and structure does not disappoint.
My third favourite place in Istanbul was the spice market. Now I know that the Grand Bazaar is considered to be the go to place for shopping, but I actually found the spice market more authentic and easier to tackle. Shops filled with spices, nuts, jewellery, ornaments and fabric lined the walls. Even though it’s not even half as big as the Grand Bazaar, if one roots around as much as I do it can definitely fill up the best part of a day! I found the Grand Bazaar too big, and fairly pricey in comparison. Having bought many keepsakes and souvenirs in other parts of Turkey, I could spot the rip offs from a mile away. However, I had to accept that Istanbul is a major tourist city, so it’s inevitable that sellers increase the cost of their merchandise. That’s where haggling comes in though, and the Turks are brilliant for it. Before you even venture in with your request, they know what you are going to say but expertly feign shock at your offer, then the bartering ensues until the last man (or woman in my case) is left standing.
As it was Monika’s birthday during our time there, we decided to celebrate by relaxing all day on the beach. However, we didn’t go to one of the beaches along the coastline, instead we took the ferry around the Princess Islands, a set of nine islands just off the coast of Istanbul. Famous for their horse drawn carriages and lack of cars, it is a lovely way to spend the day, hopping on the ferry to journey from island to island. We stopped at Buyukada island and found a public beach. It was a pebble beach, and we had a gorgeous view of Istanbul from across the sea. In the evening, once we had soaked in enough sun, we headed to Kadikoy, a bustling, lively area of Istanbul filled with restaurants, hookah bars and shops. There we met with old friends of mine, and caught up over delicious kofta kebab, followed by mint tea and fruity hookah. The shops were full of alternative and vintage clothing, and whilst not that cheap, they definitely had some amazing finds.
We also visited Topkapi Palace, a magnificent 15th century palace which was once home to sultans, and now houses hundreds of Ottoman treasures. The views from the Palace were incomparable, and the glistening jewels held in the museum really gave a feeling of royalty to the place. I then decided to go to the Basilica Cistern, a huge Roman water source held underground. I left Monika and Olcay to relax in the shade nearby and headed in. Walking along through some 336 marble columns and listening to the trickling water was so inspiring. The history and how they built the system such a long time ago was fascinating. I then posed for pictures dressed as a Turkish princess holding a fan, not too sure why but the guy convinced me as I stood in line. I now have a lovely picture of this in my room which I won’t divulge to the internet as it’s embarrassing enough when friends and family see it :).
Olcay then took us to Taksim, an area famous for its shops and restaurants. We enjoyed a lovely meal and then decided to venture to a more traditional night club, one that didn’t have any other tourists. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was perfect. Not too big, filled with locals and playing only Turkish music, we spent the night attempting to belly dance and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. It was a shame that I didn’t have much time to spend in Taksim, as it was so lively, street performers entertained tourists til late in the night and the abundance of bars and restaurants meant the streets were never empty.
On our last day we decided to go for a bike ride in Maltepe park. Recently developed (when I went) the park was immaculately clean, running along the coast. It was filled with families enjoying BBQ’s in the evening, flower beds lining the paths, plenty of trees to find shade and rocks along the sea to lie on. We cycled all day, befriended a random guy along the way, and enjoyed the warm summer breeze. Without a shadow of a doubt, Istanbul has been my favourite city to date, I loved the hospitality of the people, the mix of cultures and the beauty of the architecture. I couldn’t have imagined how comfortable I would have felt there in only six days of exploring, so I know I will have to return and delve in deeper to find out more about this amazing city.