Istanbul is a diverse mix of eastern-European and the Middle East. It was recently named the number one city to travel to for 2014 by TripAdvisor. It really has everything – history, architecture, religion, friendly locals. As soon as you leave the airport you notice the mixture of ancient and modern.
Some parts of Istanbul are so neglected and then the city-centre is so modern. You can eat the best meal of your life at a five star restaurant or buy a kebab off the street for $3. Women are dressed head-to-toe in burqas, walking right next to them are women in jeans and t-shirts.
I was in Istanbul in July which is the city’s hottest month. It’s similar to Australia’s summer, clear skies, hot days and warm nights. I had been warned before travelling that they want women to cover up – not ideal in summer – however unless you are visiting a mosque I found this advice didn’t really apply.
On arriving in Turkey you need to pay an entry fee at the airport. This needs to be paid in cash in $US, you can’t pay with eftpos/credit cards. After that the currency everywhere is Turkish Lira – $1 Lira is around 50c Aussie.
The Blue Mosque is one of the most amazing places I have ever been to. It is so peaceful and is truly majestic. The size of it, the colours, the tiles, the lights make you feel like you’re in a little bubble of serenity. Everything about it is so inspiring.
It is actually called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but got its name the Blue Mosque because of all the gorgeous blue tiles – there are tens of thousands of them! You have to take your shoes off to go inside and women need to cover arms/shoulders/neck.
If you don’t have a scarf with you they will give you one – which are of course blue! It is free to visit here. It was built between 1609-1616. It isn’t just a tourist site – it is an active mosque so when visiting here you will notice a closed off area where people pray.
These prayer sessions obviously need to be respected – for example don’t take photos with flashes on. I was told you have to queue to get in – but despite being there in July the busiest tourist month, we managed to get let straight inside.
The Grand Bazaar was my childhood dream come true! I felt like I was in Aladdin walking through the market place where he meets Jasmine. You can easily get lost in this maze of shops selling everything from traditional items (slippers, scarves, bowls and spices) to modern things such as the Mac make up store I went to. Every second shop is a carpet shop!
I bought the most beautiful bowls from one of the shops. Definitely barter them down. I went to a few different places and ended up picking one that sold the nicest products but was also reasonably priced. No two paintings are the same and they are all hand made and hand painted in Turkey.
I also bought a few scarves and cushions. In hindsight I wish I had bought more but was running out of room in my suitcase. Everything is bright, beautiful, colourful, noisy and smells amazing! Like hot summer and spices mixed together.
There are over 3000 shops and something ridiculous like 250,000 people visit here everyday. It didn’t feel too busy though.
A Turkish bath is another tourist staple – basically a sauna where you get scrubbed, cleaned and massaged in a series of rooms that are cold, warm and hot. Couples can get a Turkish bath together.
Other sites: the spice market and Topkapi Place.
Eating and Drinking
Everywhere you go you will be invited in for tea. Everyone is so welcoming. And they love Australians. If you eat at a café or restaurant they will offer you tea and want to sit and chat with you about Australia and your holiday.
A must for a drink or dinner is Reina which is along the water in the area known as Besiktas. It has beautiful views of the water, boats, bridges and the historic buildings.
It is also a nightclub with DJs. The service is great and the food and drinks are amazing. The prices are on par with Aussie prices and it’s so worth it. We started off with cocktails and then ordered champagne. Every time we ordered a bottle the staff would cheer and wave sparklers around us.
We ordered tapas and shared everything. We got there about 6pm while it was still sunny and then watched the sunset. By about 9pm it was packed and there was a line.
Another great restaurant is in walking distance from Taksim Square called 360 –which has 360 degree views of the city. The skyline is beautiful and lined with mosques. Another perfect place to watch the sunset. The food is a mix of traditional Turkish and European.
Any kebab shop or food cart is worth trying. The carts sell warm nuts, roasted corn and fresh juices. All of the food is delicious and fresh.
Most places have shisha which is about $5 – cherry flavour is the best. Even simple meals like hommus and flat bread are amazing. We went to one little café late one night and the staff played traditional Turkish music and danced around us.
I stayed at Cheers Hostel which is in the Midtown area. It is in walking distance to majority of the tourist sites, the best cafes and bars. My friend and I had a top floor room with two bedrooms and bathroom to ourselves and paid about $100 a night altogether. The man that runs it is so helpful and welcoming. I would definitely recommend staying here.
We walked everywhere except from the airport I would recommend taking a taxi. We also took a taxi to Reina which was about 30 minutes drive.