It turns out March in Istanbul is the perfect time to visit. Actually, scratch that, I would say anytime is the perfect time to go. No wonder it’s been named the best destination to visit in 2014. Living in Athens, it was an easy trip for me and my friend across the Aegean for three days of exploring in the vast (trust me, it’s huge) sprawling Turkish City.
Ok, i’ll throw my hands up and say it was kind of a surprise to realise just how huge the city is. It’s spread across both sides of the Bosphorus. Since we had such a short time, we fancied seeing the obvious ones, this was a taster really, but here’s our highlights:
Probably the best known site in the whole of Istanbul is Hagia Sofia, and even if it is number one on the tourist trail it is so worth it. Once a basilica, then a mosque, now a museum it is an incredible building thanks to its sheer size. It is beautiful architecturally and by design and is captivating too with its Islamic and Christian art sitting side-by-side and long, long history.
Although I took an audio tour, I wasn’t too impressed with it and would encourage anyone visiting to read up a bit about its long history before visiting and spend some time soaking it all up. Afterwards we made the short walk to the Grand Bazaar, stopping for a couple of nutella pretzels on the way. When you arrive at the bazaar, prepare to get lost! It’s hectic and chaotic and get ready to bargain over scarves, home wares, sandals, and all manner of knick knacks. It’s all part of the fun.
After all that touristing, we were starting to get a bit peckish so we stopped by the Eminonu fish sandwich boats. If you’re into local eating, these (and the rice-stuffed mussels served by street vendors) are well worth it. Boats sit at the edge of the water swaying and are staffed by strong-stomached men who don’t mind cooking on rocking boats. The fish sandwiches are the only thing on the menu and they are utterly delish, freshly cooked, with a bit of a salad, inside some fresh bread. Bam, perfect walking food.
Topkapi Palace, I think was my favourite part of this trip for two reasons; its cool gem collections and insane weapons rooms! I’m sorry I can’t share any pics because you’re not allowed to take any snaps, but if you’re a Game of Thrones fan like me, you’ll appreciate the crazy huge swords and the incredible jewels that were made and gifted to the Sultan and are now on display. The Palace also has plenty of other cool things to see, like the room dedicated entirely to clocks and the views from the palace walls. It’s a fascinating glimpse into history. There is also a separate section, (read, separate ticket) for the harem in the grounds of the Palace. I lost my ticket and so ended up paying twice, because I didn’t want to miss it, but I would not recommend it. It’s something of a let-down after the rest of the grounds.
Later that day we went to our second bazaar of the trip, the Spice Bazaar. I think I preferred this a little more, mostly because we had many, many samples and managed to lunch there for free. I picked up a cool little pepper mill, some apple tea, lots of yummy baklava and some utterly delicious Turkish Delight (also known as loukoumi) covered in chocolate, flavoured with fruit and nuts, these are the real deal and so good.
We had a couple of false starts in trying to the visit the Blue Mosque. We were mostly in the Sultanhamet area, but we kept on trying to visit when prayers were being said. The Blue Mosque is actually just a short walk from Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, so you could in theory visit everything in one day. Built in 1609 by Sultan Ahmed I, it has an amazing roof made of domes and six minarets and the atmosphere inside is pretty incredible.
Afterwards we ventured into James Bond territory at the Basilica Cistern. This was a suggestion I got on Twitter, and how glad I am that I went. It’s a huge cavern that used to work as a water filtration system. Today, it’s eerily lit with orange spotlights and is so atmospheric, there are Medusa heads and all sorts of creepiness in there. But there is a calmness too that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s also a very short tour, 15 minutes is about enough, so you might as well do it.
We had a fantastic time in Istanbul, but lessons learned, three days is simply not enough to even see a tiny portion of Istanbul, but if three days is all you have… do it!
We stayed in the Chillout Cengo Hostel near Taksim Square. It was really cheap, that’s why we went for it, but its cleanliness was a pleasant surprise. A great location and only 8 euro per night is hard to beat. We flew Turkish Airlines from Athens to Istanbul. Check your visa information before you go. As an Irish citizen, I had to buy one when I arrived.