Making the bridge between two worlds, this city is a fascinating mix of cultures.
Here’s how I got to know the most famous sights in Istanbul.
Being in the crossroad of religions and so different civilizations, Istanbul holds its status as one of the most intriguing cities to visit in the world. It is simultaneously the largest metropolis in Europe and it mixes like no other city traditional and modern traits.
Not surprisingly, the city once considered the center of modern world today features in the bucket list of many travelers and indeed I realized there are many unusual experiences to have in Istanbul.
More than that, is a place with a vast cultural history but also with an impressive modern drive. How many places on Earth can make you feel like that?
THE EUROPEAN VS THE ASIAN FEELING IN ISTANBUL
This was one of the major drivers for wanting to go to Istanbul so much: the chance to experience a melting pot of cultures. During my day trip to Mostar, in Bosnia&Herzegovina, I’ve also had the same experience but in a much smaller scale.
Istanbul is the only major city in the world standing across two different continents and the best of it was I didn’t even have to leave the European side to have the both of both worlds!
The eastern influence is very noticeable. With a predominantly Muslim population, Istanbul has 3,000 mosques. Getting in such close touch with the Islamic culture was a direct clash from everything I’ve have been used to. Visiting mosques in Istanbul was most definitely one of the most enriching experiences I’ve ever have. .
While the Blue Mosque is the most popular and deserves a visit just for the intrincate work of the blue tiles (Iknik) inside, Sulemaniye Mosque was my absolute favorite. Impressive in size, minimalist in design this one was where I found some well-deserved peace over the intensity of Istanbul.
Then, the shopping done oriental style: Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are very well-deservedly in the top of attractions in the city. While the first one usually is impossibly busy, I was lucky enough to explore it on a Monday afternoon with fewer crowds. I wanted to buy a pashmina for my mom without knowing any techniques to haggle, I just trusted my instincts. I was able to pushed the conversation to something I knew it could be my advantage: Portuguese soccer players which are absolute idols there. Result: bought a silk pashmina for 45TL. Not bad for a first time!
One on the other hand, Istanbul shares a strong western cosmopolitan buzz with the rest of Europe. I wandered around the hip neighborhood of Sislim, near Osmanbey, and that place is an High Street Kensington with hills. The design-savvy shops and boutiques prove Istanbul can be chic. Further south, Istiklal Caddesi the main pedestrian artery of the city with its shops, restaurants and cafes could belong to any major western european capital. Out of a total population of 17 million people, it is believed that more than 2 million walk by this avenue every single day. In the side streets one can find the trendiest bars and clubs. No wonder it’s considered the beating heart of Istanbul!
All of a sudden, you can hear the call to prayer from a muzim in the loudspeakers all around city remembering you it’s prayer time. This dramatic contrast is what makes Istanbul so interesting.
STRIKING FEATURES OF THE CITY
Besides the impressive minarets dominating the urban landscape, Istanbul is visually striking for many other reasons. The Bosphorus strait is not only a geographic oddity, but also deeply part of the everyday life of the city. While many people use the countless ferries to cross the river daily to work in the other side, the image of fishermen of Galata Bridge still continues to be the first one I associate with the city. I still don’t understand how can they stand there all day long even with pouring rain. They even park their car on the bridge! Anyway, guess I have to thank them for creating probably Istanbul’s most iconic snapshot.
However, not all worth to see is above ground. If you are in the mood for something completely different, Basilica Cistern is a good place to escape the crowds around Hagia Sophia and dive into the sub-world. Built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justine I, it’s the largest of the ancient water cisterns of the former city of Constantinopla. I was expecting a dull place, but it turned out to be actually interesting and a LOT bigger than I anticipated. The two mysterious Medusa heads which make the base of two of the columns add up to the enigmatic atmosphere. Paid entrance but still worth it IMO.
Even though seagulls certainly make their presence be noted, another of the biggest trademarks of Istanbul are… cats! Besides being fed by people randomly on the streets, they wander around the weirdest places – I saw two inside Hagia Sophia Museum.
On the other hand, dogs are much less in number, they were always sleeping and the majority was identified with a chip on their ear. The fact the ones without the chip were much more energetic and lively made me think about some conspiracy theories…
Going to a hamam – an authentic turkish bath – was one of the things we flagged as must do in Istanbul. And after some research and asking around, we ended up deciding with Çemberlitaş Hamamı. I was given a small towel and a scrub glove and told to change in one of the many small cabinets. With only a tiny little piece of fabric away from social awkwardness, I entered the main room in the men spa. There are completely separate men and women areas in all hamami in Istanbul, which is something to consider if you travel as a couple.
I started by laying down in the hot marble stone, staring at the 500-year old dome, the only source of lighting in the room. After a few minutes, I was already in a deep philosophical state of mind when a attendant arrived and started performing a full body scrub. Even though was solid in power, as I felt like a little fish being scaled off and could actually see bits of skin in my red arms, it was disappointedly short in duration. I’m pretty sure those weren’t the 15 minutes I paid for.
Next stop: the bubble bath. Impossible not to feel like a newborn again when someone carefully washes all your body but your genital area creating a giant mass of foam. Awkward but felt good. The most intense part came right after. We had been walking all day long non-stop, so I could use a massage. Specially on my calfs. But not exactly THAT kind of massage! There were times I had to control myself not to say WTF DUDE STOP IT! This didn’t last long either, but this time I was glad. After a final hair wash I was done.
I enjoyed hamam experience a lot. Any place where you can getaway from Istanbul craziness is a good place to be, but this experience was much more than that. Getting washed, massaged after a full day of exploring the city and leaving off completely squeaky clean lifted up my spirit. And all of that for 90TL, which I think is a very fair price. That’s the good part. Still, it felt a bit too touristy. Although I chose one literally in the heart of the tourist area in the busiest time of the day, I felt my massage was rushed for him to attend other people. Sometimes it felt more like a car wash than actually a spa. I would definitely go again for a hamam, but this time would try the most local experience as possible.
FOOD AND DRINK IN ISTANBUL
Eating in Istanbul is generally cheap and hard to go wrong. Even though I am in the process of eating less and less meat, I’m still crazy for kebabs, so I couldn’t be happier with the kebab vendors popping every other door. That and the pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed in front of your eyes. That’s all the food I need for the rest of my life, thank you.
But Istanbul is not only about kebabs. The fish sandwiches watered with lemon juice sold by a boat near Galata Bridge were surprisingly delicious (and with less bones would have been perfect). Or the Nutella-filled simit. And of course the traditional turkish breakfast!
My friend living there took me to Privato and it simply turned out to be the best foodie experience in the whole trip. Turkish tea, plates of different cheeses, fruits, hummus, breads and other non-identified stuff didn’t stop coming. A true feast! At one point they had to bring auxiliary tables to fit all the plates around us. Excellent value-for-money, as I could go the rest of the day without eating anything else. Didn’t happen.
As this wasn’t enough, there are also turkish pastries. And yes, you’ll need to have baklava, yes there are some more daring desserts like tavukgogsü – it’s good, just need to get pass the fact it’s made with chicken fat – but I focused my attention on turkish delights (lokum).
Before coming to Turkey I didn’t even know I liked turkish delights. All I ever had before was some rose flavor ones that tasted exactly like the perfume from an old lady. Now I’m praising them for the second time because THEY ARE DAMN GOOD and can be found virtually everywhere in the city. There are even dedicated specialty shops like Koska, where you have a taste of some before buying a box. Personal favorite: pomegranate and pistachio.
TRAVEL NUMBERS @ ISTANBUL, TURKEY
- DURATION OF THE STAY: 4 DAYS
- TOTAL DISTANCE COVERED ON FOOT: 54,2 km
- ACCOMMODATION: 180TL/3 nights
- 3-Day Metro ticket: 1oTL
- Meals: 196TL
- Pomegranate Juice x 4: 16TL
- Hamam: 35TL
- Hagia Sophia Entrance: 30TL
- Basilica Cistern Entrance: 10TL
- Bazaar Stuff: 89TL
- TOTAL COST (€): 566TL/pax
TL: Turkish Lira
Istanbul is not a clinical clean city nor an example of modern urban planning like many other european capitals – my 24 hours in Vienna jump straight to my mind – and that’s OK. In fact, that’s precisely its essence and strong point.
Istanbul is crazy, is lively and it’s definitely an unique place to do unusual things. Somehow it found the perfect balance between two worlds so different but so complementary, embracing perfectly both the modern and the ancient. If an alien creature came to our planet and asked me for the best place to represent the humankind, I would definitely suggest Istanbul.
This shows the amount of rich history and the different cultures that are encapsulated in this city. With a impressively rich past, somehow Istanbul seemed a projection of what any metropolis will be like in the future. And although it’s not a city I don’t myself living in, the visit was well worth to slightly open me the door to another world: I peeked into Asia and got back even more curious to explore it.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO ISTANBUL?
ISTANBUL TRAVEL INFORMATION
- How to get there
With one of the busiest airports in Europe, you can reach Istanbul conveniently by plane. I always recommend Skyscanner to compare the prices upfront and choose the cheapest fare.
- Where to stay
Booking.com is my favorite resource to find accommodation on my travels. User-friendly, reliable and you can even cancel your reservation in case you’ve changed your mind! I’ve pre-selected the hotels with best reviews in Istanbul for you.
- Best time to go
The best time to go to Istanbul coincides with shoulder season in Europe – between April-June and September-October. If possible, avoid the Ramadan months (dates vary).
WHAT DID YOU LIKE THE MOST?