“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
-Alphonse de Lamartine
Istanbul is magical. There are no two ways about it. From the mesmerizing blue waters of The Bosphorous to the stunning architecture that captures your gaze from every corner, Istanbul is a feast for the senses. As a child, my interest in Turkey was first piqued in geography class when we learnt about the significance of the Silk Route and its impact on trade and culture in the region. In my naivety, I had also always thought that Istanbul would have distinctly European and Asian sections being a city that straddles the Eurasian border. The city certainly has a distinct flavour to it but it is a flavour that takes from both sides of the world – a blend of numerous cultures and styles which in turn is a reflection of Turkey’s history that included Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman influences among others. Modern day Istanbul is like any other growing metropolis – full of people,change and energy but the well preserved pieces from its chequered history give it a timeless quality.
We landed in Istanbul on a beautiful July morning and straight off the gate felt the hustle and bustle in the airport. Hordes of tourists, guides and locals swarmed the frankly, overwhelmed Istanbul Ataturk Airport but we were happily taking it all in. Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up who seemed quite friendly and interested in guess what, Bollywood! A pleasant drive that steered us through the narrow by-lanes of the city led us to our hotel – Basileus. The place was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and I would say it deserves most of the praise that comes its way. Basileus is a family run establishment and you will be greeted warmly by the hotel staff who are very helpful with their recommendations of places to see and things to do. The location is great too , it is a short hike away from Sultanahmet Square and the metro line making it perfect for tourists. Personally, the best part for me was the breakfast. Prepared in a home style kitchen, the lavish spread of cheese, local delicacies and fresh fruit every morning was a refreshing change from the typical breakfast buffets in big chain hotels. But, if you are looking for a modern hotel, then you might want to look elsewhere. Wi-Fi was a bit flaky and since the hotel is located right on the road, noise can be bothersome sometimes, so the trade-off is quite obvious :).
We made sure we left around 8.30-9 everyday to avoid mid-day crowds and returned back to the hotel after lunch to escape from the sun. We would then set-off again in the evening to enjoy Istanbul under the night sky! Here are some of our recommendations on how to make the best of 3 days in Istanbul
Take a boat ride along the Bosphorous Strait
There is perhaps no better way to get acquainted with Istanbul than to take a boat ride along the waters of the Bosphorous. The easiest way to reach the ferry terminals is to go to Eminolu metro station. Spare a moment there to catch the stunning views of Istanbul as you walk along crowded footpaths filled with tour operators. We wanted a no-frills boat ride where we could just sit back and admire the views and would highly recommend Şehir Hatlari which is a city run ferry service. The tickets are around 10 Lira per person with the option of renting audio guides. Snacks and beverages are also available on the boat for reasonable prices. There are tons of other cruise options, some with entertainment and more elaborate dining options on board but we weren’t too keen on that since more often than not these experiences tend to be inauthentic thanks to the commercialization of tourism. But, if you are keen on a more fancy cruise experience, consult your hotel concierge or staff who could offer you better deals and advice.
Visit the Spice Market
After the pleasant boat ride, we walked across the street to Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar. Being an Indian, I could appreciate the multitude varieties of cinnamon, cardamom and ‘masalas’ but my guess is this market would be more fascinating for people who do not frequently use spices in their food. While traditionally a trading spot for spices in Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar now hosts other shops as well that sell souvenirs, dry fruits, sweets and of course, Turkish Delight. For some weird reason, we ended up eating ice-cream here which was delicious. We would highly recommend spending some time here just walking by the shops and taking the aromas in. It is rare to find places like this any more what with people ordering even toothbrush on-line!
Marvel at the Sophia Hagia
Sophia Hagia is one the most iconic structures in the world. A perfect example of Byzantine architecture, this beautiful dome shaped building was a church for a long time but was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule. It was eventually turned into a museum in 1935 and continues to remain one to date. Sophia Hagia has served as an inspiration for several similar constructions, most notably the Blue mosque which is situated right next to it. Once inside, you will see several instances where Christian and Islamic motifs co-exist on walls and ceilings. As stunning as the Sophia Hague is from the outside, it’s journey across time as captured inside is even more so.
Admire the beauty of Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka Blue Mosque
Adorned with stunning glass lights and colourful tiles, the Blue Mosque was one of my favourite places in Istanbul. The fact that this mosque is still popularly used as a place of worship makes it even more special. Strict dress code is followed for entry into the mosque and cover-ups are offered at the entrance, just in case. While the interiors of the Blue Mosque are spectacular, it’s courtyard and towering minarets are also stunning examples of architecture. We spent more than 3 hours just walking, taking pictures and absorbing the beauty of this place and had it not been for our tight schedule, we would have happily spent more time.
Visit the Basilica Cistern
If you have read Dan Brown’s book Inferno (like my husband Sid), this place should feature highly on your list. Even for someone like me who did not have prior information about this place, the Basilica Cistern was an unusual yet thrilling experience. Located just a few mins away from the Hagia Sophia, this place is a hidden gem literally. One of the oldest and largest underground water storage structures in Istanbul, the cistern supplied water to Istanbul for several centuries. It is quite dark inside and the feeling of being underground can feel spooky but I didn’t get time to dwell on this fact thanks to Sid who narrated the entire story of Inferno to me whilst touring the cisterns. Of special mention are the two Medusa column bases which are interesting to look at and have variation of stories attached to them.
Shop (or not) at the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous shopping streets in Istanbul, if not the most. Think of Chandni Chowk or Sarojini Nagar, only more chaotic and thronging with tourists. In fact, Grand Bazaar was the world’s most visited tourist attraction with a staggering 91+million visitors in 2013. We visited the place twice in three days because there is so much to see and do in and around this area that one visit won’t suffice. The most charming thing about this place though is the ambience and atmosphere inside the covered market. The market is more than 5 centuries old and it feels like the walls have stories to tell! Inside you will find shops that sell everything from jewellery, handbags, footwear to home decorations. Bargaining is common and stuff does tend to get repetitive after a point but Grand Bazaar is not just a place to shop. It is an experience in and of itself.
Travel tip: Grand Bazaar houses several money exchange centres and offers the best rates in Istanbul.
The Topkapi Palace is a majestic Ottoman style palace that houses numerous attractions and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the city of Istanbul. In its heyday, it is believed to have housed thousands of people and was a mini city in itself. Apart from the stunning architecture, some of the other things to marvel at inside Topkapi Palace include the beautiful gardens, the kitchens, the room holding a stunning watch collection and the Harem. My favourite part though were the courtyards. We did not know they would provide beautiful glimpses of Istanbul and were pleasantly surprised to have discovered them amidst all the other rooms.
Slightly off the beaten path but ever so stunning, Dolmabahce Palace was easily my favourite tourist find in Istanbul. The grandeur of the palace is second to none and its location – sitting prettily on the coast of the Bosphorous river just adds to its beauty. When we visited the palace, we spent a good hour just touring the gardens and marvelling at how the blue water caressed the walls of the palace. The highlight is of course the Chandeliers that adorn several rooms of the palace, most notably the Ceremonial Hall and the Blue Hall. There are free guided tours of the palace in English so do check out the website to time your visit.
Vegetarian eating options
The truth is if you are a vegetarian, you will find Istanbul frustrating. Turkish cuisine revels in kebabs and koftes and is hence heavily meat centric. You will however find mezze platters and eggplant based dishes frequently in restaurants but more often than not, these are sub standard and frankly, boring. We long made peace with the fact that travelling the world as vegetarians would not be easy as I documented in detail here, which is why we research extensively on veggie joints before going to any place. Here are some of our recommendations for fellow herbivores
Have a heavy breakfast. Turkish breakfast if full of fresh cheese, breads and dry fruits. Most hotels also serve the usual continental breakfast options so leave for the day with a full tummy just in case you do not find a good vegetarian option whilst sight seeing.
We personally enjoyed the food at Parsifal and Falafel House – the food was delicious and value for money.
Avoid eating near tourist attractions such as the Sultanahmet Square or Grand Bazaar because the food is overpriced here for the quality served. Instead, walk a bit further away from the hustle and bustle to find a quieter place. Lot of restaurants serve breads with their dips and hummus. A word of advice though – these breads are huge. So order keeping that in mind.
If you have a sweet tooth – indulge in baklavas and Turkish delights which are easily available at most street corners. We were fortunate to find an outlet of Karakoy Gulluoglu near our hotel and we ate their delicious baklavas every single day. They are utterly delicious.
I think it is wise to end this post on the sugar high that is the photo above! But, I will say that Istanbul was all that I expected it to be and so much more. I still remember the sight of the blue Bosphorous taking my breath away like it was yesterday. Aren’t memories like this why we all love travelling?