For those of you who have been following my adventures on social media, you will have seen some snaps from my recent summer holiday in sunny Turkey – specifically Istanbul and Kaş. So here’s my first write-up on our short stay in Istanbul where we had two full days to explore this bustling city.
We stayed in Karaköy on the north side of Istanbul’s Galata Bridge, just down the road from Galata Tower. There are plenty of shops along the street that lead up to the tower where we bought some souvenirs at reasonable prices – bracelets and keychains are about 5TRY which are great options if you’re looking for souvenirs in bulk to distribute to friends and family! And there’s also some quirky coffee shops to stop for a drink on the way.
I spent the morning of my first day on a photoshoot with Istanbul-based photographer, Renata Akbas, which was kind of like a mini day of exploring where we shot around Galata Tower and the famous, bustling Istiklal Avenue that runs all the way to Taksim Square – thankfully we started shooting in the early hours of the morning from 7.30am and managed to avoid the huge crowds! Here’s some shots from our photoshoot – you can view more on my Instagram feed @the_cheeksterx :
What we saw:
Some of the country’s most impressive mosques are in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire after it was conquered in 1453. A few of the famous ones include: Sultanahmet (The Blue Mosque), Süleymaniye (The Magnificent), Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Rüstem Pasha, Hagia Sophia, and Ortaköy Mosque. To avoid queues and to capture some decent non-photobombed photos, it is definitely advisable to arrive early – I mean, that guy in my first photo was definitely attempting to steal my thunder … We returned the next day in the morning around 8.30am which was a much better time to take photos with the beautiful architecture. Due to other priorities and time restrictions on our visit this trip, we didn’t actually enter any of the museums or mosques, but if you plan on visiting these attractions and don’t want to waste time queueing, it might be worth purchasing an Istanbul Tourist Pass (Adults €95-€145).
2. Boat Tours
If you are pressed for time but don’t want to miss a genuine Bosphorus experience, then the Short Circle Bosphorus tour is an ideal option. We went with Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s official ferry company – we bought tickets on the day from their sales office located on the left docks of Eminönü when coming off the Galata Bridge. The Short Circle Bosphorus tour is available every day in summer (April 1st until October 31st) and takes you from Eminönü to Istinye and back. The ferry leaves the Eminönü docks at 14:30, and the whole journey takes approximately two hours, costing a mere 12TRY for adults.
For those with more time to spare, they also offer the Full Bosphorus Cruise and the Full Bosphorus Cruise by Night – the availability of these tours do change according to the season so it’s best to check their website for more information.
We had a little saunter round the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarşi), one of the largest covered markets in the world that was constructed in 1461. Once a vibrant hub of international and local trade, this labyrinth of glittering delights is definitely worth a visit to get a taste of the ultimate oriental shopping experience. The place is like a maze, with plenty of vibrant offerings, from exquisite textiles, pottery, spices, jewellery, lanterns and souvenirs – I was only window-shopping that day, but if you were to make a purchase, I’ve heard that bartering is an absolute must.
A short walk from the Grand Bazaar, the 17th-century Eminönü Egyptian Spice Bazaar, is also worth checking out. Open seven days a week, this bustling gastronomic paradise that has been opened since 1664, is the best place to pick up dried fruits and nuts, spices, olives, Turkish delight, oils and essences, and local souvenirs.
4. Istiklal Avenue & Taksim Square
The busiest street in Istanbul, comparable to Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street, Istiklal Street boasts a myriad of shops, cafes and restaurants, live music, bars, cinemas and much more. Take some time to wander the side streets and arcades as well and admire the architecture around you.
On this street, you will also spot those bright ruby-red vintage trams that are renowned for carrying shoppers and tourists up and down the bustling avenue as they’ve done for decades.
It took us approximately half an hour to walk the length of Istiklal Avenue, where at the end of it we arrived at Taksim Square which is a common meeting point for locals, filled with restaurants, shops, and hotels. At the center of Taksim square, is the monument of the Republic, crafted by the famous Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica which commemorates the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, following the Turkish War of Independence.
The view of Istanbul is definitely the best from above, so find somewhere with a rooftop e.g. a bar, or someone’s roof terrace …
6. Cats & Dogs
Stray cats and dogs are everywhere in Istanbul – apparently some 130,000 dogs roam the city and at least 125,000 wild cats prowl its streets! Most of them look tame and well taken care of by the locals, so if you’re an animal lover you’ll probably spend some time stalking them around the city …
What we ate:
There are plenty of street vendors dotted around Istanbul, many of them selling the iconic simit (a crisp, ring-shaped, savory roll covered with sesame), corn on the cob (roasted/boiled) and roasted chestnuts, with prices as little as 3TRY – way cheaper than buying from shops. To keep hydrated, you can buy bottles of water on the streets for only 1TRY, or there are also plenty of stalls selling freshly squeezed juices – pomegranate juice is widely available and a medium cup roughly costs 12TRY.
For those with a sweet-tooth like myself, there are numerous shops that offer a good selection of baklawa treats and turkish delights. The first shop that we tried and really liked was Köşkeroğlu where their baklava are made in the traditional way and are not mass produced like some places.
Osmanlizadeler 1879 was another favourite where you can sit in the cafe or takeaway, and Ismail Hakkı Zade which has multiple branches around Istanbul. We sat in at the branch down the street from Taksim Square and tried some of their huge slices of cakes, mini eclairs and the luscious Turkish dessert, Künefe, made with cheese and shredded kadaifi soaked in sweet syrup.
Looking for something quick and simple in the area, we popped into Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi for lunch, a no-frills place near the Sultanahmet tram stop in the Old City. More of a coincidental visit, this well-known eatery has been serving ızgara köfte (grilled meatballs) and bean salad to ultra-loyal locals since 1920 – it sure appeared to be a popular venue and apparently there are often queues. Our köfte was served with green pickled chillies served on the side, and don’t forget to ask the waiter for some spicy red chilli sauce to accompany it.
We were recommended a visit to Ali Ocakbaşı which did not disappoint. We tried walking in the first night, but as its not a huge venue, they were already fully booked so we booked in for dinner the next day. The entrance is quite inconspicuous, especially if you’re looking for it in the night time, and when you arrive at the building, you have to take an old-fashioned lift up to the restaurant. Once seated, they bring a tray of mezze assortments that you pick and choose to start with before your mains arrive. I really enjoyed the lamb kebab that I ordered. There is also a rooftop bar above it where most guests tend to head up to in between their meals to have a drink or a smoke. I never realized until that day that they also have a branch in London, which I might be tempted to visit sometime when I’m craving Turkish food.
Other miscellaneous tips …
Booking a taxi at the airport is quite straightforward, like most airports there is a row of taxi stand companies where you can easily book transport to your hotel, and maybe even bargain the price – our taxi was roughly €45 from Istanbul Atatürk Airport to our accommodation in Karaköy.
If you are active on social media like myself, or just need a convenient means to communicate whilst in Turkey, remember to bring your passport with you to purchase a local SIM card. I purchased mine from Türk Telekom for 100TRY which gave me 4GB internet usage – I wasn’t too bothered about minutes or texts but you could always ask for other options.
I’ll be posting a round-up on my stay in Kaş soon, so remember to hit subscribe to stay up-to-date with my latest posts.
The Cheekster, signing out x