Incredible Istanbul

The trip was off to a very good start when we were upgraded to Business Class! We enjoyed a two-course meal on the plane with some champagne, before arriving in one of the busiest airports I’ve ever seen. The queue of tourists to get into Istanbul was huge! It’s no wonder; Istanbul is a city rich in history and culture, a transcontinental city with a bustling population of 14million! It has previously been known as Byzantium when the Greeks settled in the area around 667 BC, then became a Christian city called Constantinople nearly 1000 years later.

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BLank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space blank space  Our small hotel was in the Old City and we didn’t have to go far at all to find a restaurant. Our first taste of Turkish food included a stew, a shish kebap, yoghurt dip and some local beer, all very tasty.

The next morning we walked through a small Bazaar (market) and around Istanbul’s most prominent landmark, the Blue Mosque. Unfortunately our plan to visit the Blue Mosque was thwarted as it is closed on Fridays to the public. Conveniently located nearby are two other popular tourist sites; the Haghia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace, so we had a quick walk past those.

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

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At midday we were picked up to be taken on a famous Istanbul ferry; the harbour is absolutely full of ships and boats of all sizes! We enjoyed a huge buffet lunch of Chicken Shish Kepab, Adana Kebap, meatballs and seasonal salads while we sailed out of the Golden Horn and up the Bosphorus strait.

Istanbul harbour

The Golden Horn is a historic inlet that divides the city of Istanbul into two; it’s a natural harbour that has sheltered Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ships over the centuries. The Bosphorus is the world’s narrowest strait, connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. It is lined with palaces and popular seaside resorts.

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We saw the Rumeli fortress, the biggest fortification of Istanbul.

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We stopped on the Asian side in a ‘bustling tourist town’ for an ice cream, then headed back to Istanbul. Breakfast in Europe, afternoon tea in Asia!

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Upon our return to the city, we decided to walk back to our hotel, to avoid the terrible traffic. However, the roads were not very pedestrian friendly either! On the way we had a drink in one of the restaurants under the Galata Bridge. This bridge is the 5th one built in that spot, a symbolic link between traditional Istanbul and a more modern, international area. It’s famous for all the fisherman lining the top, and we could see their fishing lines draped over the side while we enjoyed our drinks underneath.

Galata Bridge

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On Saturday we walked to the Grand Bazaar and spent an hour or so getting lost in the labyrinth of nearly identical looking shops. It is the oldest and largest covered market in the world. They sold beautiful lamps, ceramics, scarfs, Turkish delight and lots of jewellery. We successfully limited ourselves to just a few trinkets and then rewarded ourselves with some Turkish delight, which tasted incredible. Much better and very different from the packaged stuff we get back home!

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We then carried on walking down towards the Spice Bazaar, and had a quick break with a Turkish coffee. I loved it, but the others weren’t so keen. Turkish coffee is a method of preparation; the roasted and finely ground coffee beans are boiled in a pot with your preferred quantity of sugar, then served in a pretty cup where the grounds settle on the bottom. It can be quite strong, and grainy at the bottom, but I loved it!

Istanbul Spice BazaarTurkish coffee

After an exhausting trip through the spice bazaar, trying olives and local cheese, more Turkish delight and teas, we had an absolutely delicious lunch. I tried the local drink Ayran, a thin yoghurt drink that is super refreshing in the hot weather. The food is simple but delicious – apparently Turkish is cuisine is one of the most traditional cuisines in the world, along with French and Chinese.

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After lunch we walked across the bridge into the ‘new’ Istanbul. We walked past the Galata tower, a medieval stone tower that dominates the skyline. Originally built as a Tower of Christ, it’s nine stories high, and now has a restaurant, night club and observation deck at the top. We didn’t go up as the line was very long so we just admired it from below instead.

2015-09-27 18.24.37We carried on up the hill to the famous long pedestrian-only shopping street, packed full of tourists and locals, and a few protests and parades and riot police. We later had dinner in the same area, and used the funicular to get down the hill instead of walking! The public transport is quite easy to use, but very busy throughout the entire day.

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In the evening we visited the Haghia Sophia, also called the Church of Divine Wisdom. It is a masterpiece of opulence and has been sought-after by both Islam and Christianity. It was originally built as a Christian church and played an important role in the Byzantine empire, then was converted into a Mosque in the Ottoman Empire. Now it has retired as a museum. There are many areas in the building where patient people are painstakingly uncovering the incredible mosaics that were plastered over during the Mosque conversion.

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On Sunday we visited the Basilica Cistern, a subterranean cistern built in 532 to store water – water that was delivered through aqueducts from over 20km away! It was called the Basilica Cistern because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica. It contains 336 columns, some of which were salvaged from ruined temples. Its grandeur really takes your breath away; having walked around at street level completely oblivious to its existence for several days! It was nice and cool underground compared to the warm spring day. I wasn’t the only person to be ignorant of its existence – it was abandoned and completely forgotten about until 1545 when a scholar was told by local residents that they could catch fish through holes in their basement floors! There are still many fish swimming around in the shallow waters.

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Later in the afternoon we ventured inside the Topkapi Palace. It was the main residence of the Sultan and his court. The palace is basically its own city within a city and the inhabitants would rarely have had to leave. It was the seat of the supreme council, the Divan and the training school, as well as containing dormitories, gardens, libraries, schools and mosques.

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We devoured a delicious meal at one of the restaurants that overlooks the harbour, while admiring an impressive view. My new favourite food ever is definitely Begendili Kebab, tender lamb served on aubergine puree. The aubergine is blended with a creamy cheese, and tastes slightly smoky from being cooked over fire. Absolutely delicious! I had more Turkish coffee served with Turkish delight. Foodie heaven!

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P1000144In the evening we managed a quick visit to the Blue Mosque, avoiding the long day-time queues. The Blue Mosque is impressive from the outside with its beautiful dome and slender minarets, and equally as awe-inspiring from the inside – although a bit smelly from all bare feet.

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Top Tips:

Haghia Sophia is closed on Mondays
The Blue Mosque is closed on Fridays. Go half an hour before closing time to avoid queues
The Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.
Eat. Eat as much local food as you can, particularly the Turkish delight
Be sure to go on a harbour cruise