Almost from the moment we arrived in Istanbul, I already wanted more time. More time to explore the many, diverse areas of this huge city, to visit the seemingly endless list of recommended attractions, to discover the many competing, clashing, contradicting elements that make Istanbul a city like no other.
Here, mosques sit beside churches (or even share space with former churches, like Hagia Sophia), religious modesty clashes with the latest high street fashions and East literally meets West, with the Bosphorous River connecting the European and Asian sides of the city. Try as we might, its almost impossible to draw similarities between Istanbul and other cities. Yes, it has a touch of Parisian style and effortless elegance but so too does it have the organised chaos of many Asian capitals like Tokyo or KL. The Middle Eastern influence is evident, while its Byzantine history has left a tangible mark. I think its many diversities and similarities is what makes Istanbul so unique – and so amazing.
Just some of the highlights from our time in Istanbul include:
Eating everything in Karaköy
Karaköy is definitely an up-and-coming area filled with amazing restaurants, cafe and bars as well as cool shops filled with trendy clothes and stylish interior items.
Our highlight has to be the Karaköy Lokantası, a casually stylish local restaurant, perfect for sampling a range of delicious Turkish delights. We feasted on moreish hummus topped with fried pastrami, freshly grilled calamari and the most succulent lamb chops I’ve ever eaten.
Exploring the many cobblestoned streets of Beyoğlu
Just a short (uphill) walk from Karaköy, the streets of Beyoğlu are filled with life, from cute cafes and shops to locals catching up on with friends over a Turkish coffee and game of backgammon. There’s so much to see in the streets leading from Karaköy up towards the famous Istiklal Avenue it’s easy to spend a whole day (or more) diving into alleyways to see what you might find. Best of all, Galata Tower is the perfect spot for sunset when your feet are sore and wallet lighter. The tower offers 360 degree views around the whole city and gives you just a small sense of how extraordinarily expansive and diverse Istanbul is.
Shopping on Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal Avenue is another great spot to spend a few hours in Istanbul (and not just for the shopping). Here, local and international brands sit alongside traditional kebap restaurants and cafes with the iconic red tram breaking up the wide pedestrian avenue, which becomes absolutely packed as the day goes on. It was easy to get to Istiklal Ave from Karaköy on the Tünel underground funicular, an experience in its own right as the second oldest metro in the world which has been running since 1865.
Feeling spiritual in Sultanahmet
Sultanahmet is Istanbul’s ‘centre’ for tourists, where the main icons, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia sit side by side. We visited at sunrise for unobstructed views of both, as well as the nearby Golden Horn bay and Galata Bridge before returning at a more reasonable hour to explore inside.
The Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet is an amazing experience, especially if you haven’t visited a tonne of mosques before. Decorated with more than 20,000 tiles and scattered with sweeping candelabras, it’s definitely a must see. Hagia Sophia was once a church, turned mosque after the Ottomans conquered the city. Now a museum (with a hefty 40tl entry fee), it’s an interesting patchwork of both religions as well as an echo of just some of Istanbul’s long and mixed history.
Sultanahmet is also where you’ll find the Basillica Cistern, a less-visited but no less interesting landmark from the city’s Byzantine era. The underground area is decorated with Grecian pillars repurposed from temples more than 1500 years ago to provide storage for the city’s water supplies. Now, the dimly lit space is at once both eerie and surprisingly calm, and a great way to escape the heat of the day.
Gülhane Parkı, opposite the Cistern’s exit, is the perfect spot for a bit of a break and some people watching in Istanbul. With very sore feet, we happily enjoyed an hour or so here, taking in the absolute mix of people that call Istanbul home.
Enjoying a taste of Asia
Istanbul has more than 18 million inhabitants. While we were in the city, we were lucky enough to spend some time with two of them – friends met briefly in Sydney and thankfully more than happy to show us around their hometown. The public ferry across from the European side of Istanbul was a great way to see both sides of the Bosphorus river, before meeting Barkin and Müjgan in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the city. There, we explored the shop-lined streets around the main port area and feasted on plates full of Turkish foods that Barkin recommended before diving further into the neighbourhood of Moda, a trendy area filled with see and be seen bars and restaurants.
The Asian side of Istanbul is said to be where more locals live – escaping small apartments and high rents in favour of more open spaces and a slower pace. The areas we visited definitely weren’t the quiet, suburban areas we’re used to outside of the city in Sydney, but they definitely offered a different glimpse into the people and culture of Istanbul beyond the main areas on the tourist map.
It was great to get off the tourist trail and see another side of this amazing city. We were also eager to learn more about Turkey from people who had experienced the recent turmoil first hand and understand the impact on everyday life.
Turkey had always been on our bucket list, for as long as I could remember. But it seemed like such a big country – you would need more than a two week annual vacation to take on this intercontinental destination. But with all of the troubles Turkey has recently faced, we questioned our choice of travel plans (and so did our parents). In the end though, we didn’t want to leave out one of the most highly anticipated countries, and we’re so glad we didn’t.
Barkin told us that Istanbul, and Turkey more generally is a place where things can happen, or change, very quickly, so equally it is a place where normality can return very quickly too. This definitely seemed to be the case while we were in Istanbul, where the only echoes of the recent coup attempt were the (possibly excessive) Turkish flags which decorated so many buildings, bridges and even buses – a tribute to the Turks’ love of their country.
We certainly can’t say that Istanbul is 100% safe, as Barkin says, who’s to say Turkey won’t change again tomorrow? But we’re so glad that we didn’t change our travel plans and were able to experience this amazing city.