Exploring the city on two continents
27.05.2012 - 31.05.2012 22 °C
I've spent a very full 4 days exploring Istanbul. What an amazing, diverse city!
My first day here I got in around 6pm, didn't really sleep on the plane much and was kind of out of it. My hostel has a rooftop terrace bar so I had a beer with some Aussies and then went to bed. Unfortunately I only slept a few hours...stupid jet lag!
On Monday I explored some of the sights in the area of my hostel, Sultanahmet. It's a very old part of Istanbul, with cobblestone streets and old bazaars (one bazaar is in the old stables that the Romans used!) My first stop was Topkapi Palace, a huge, ornate palace used by Ottoman Sultans. I didn't have the greatest luck though; within minutes of arriving I was caught in a torrential downpour that lasted for at least an hour. I bought an overpriced umbrella but decided to head out, it was just too wet at the Palace.
My next stop was the Basilica Cistern, an underground hall built by the Roman's in the 6th century. It was very eerie and cool, and a nice escape from the rain! When I came back above ground it had stopped raining, so I headed to the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's most famous mosque. It's absolutely gorgeous inside and out, with beautiful, intricately tiled ceilings. It was so peaceful.
After all that sight seeing (and a yummy sesame roll for snack) I headed back to the hostel and crashed for a few hours. I spent the evening on the roof with a bunch of people listening to music and drinking Turkish beer.
Tuesday my plan was to quickly head to the Aya Sofia, the one major sight I couldn't see Monday because it's closed Mondays, but when I got to the square I found it swarming with police and black Mercedes. A nice old Turkish man told me that the President of China was visiting, but they thought he was coming the day after so nothing was ready for him! He then took me to his shop (no one ever gives information here without offering to take you to their shop!) He made me try on a bunch of scarves before I was able to get away. After that I headed with two Aussie girls, Nicola and Josie, to the bazaars! We walked to the Grand bazaar, which is massive. We spent around 3 hours there looking at everything there is to buy (I have to come back to this city just for the shopping) and bargaining with some of the shop keepers. Turkish bargaining is actually very nice; it's customary for the shop keeper to offer you a seat and a cup of tea before you start. I didn't go overboard but bought a few good things. Somehow in all the chaos and people in the bazaar I managed to meet someone who is from Ghana! He was so happy to hear that I'm going back and gave me his card. SMALL world!
After lunch we jumped on the tram and headed to the spice bazaar. It's by the Bosphorus and smaller than the grand bazaar but had just as many people in it. Most of the shops sold spices, nuts, dried fruit, many kinds of tea, and tons of Turkish delight. We all bought too much but I'm sure it'll come in handy on the long flights I have ahead of me!
Wednesday I went with Josie, Nicola, Yan from Australia and Justine from France to the Prince's Islands which are on the Bosphorus (the straight between Europe and Asia that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean.) It was a nice two hour ferry ride with stops on the Asian side of the city and a few other islands. The island was really cool - there are no cars allowed so everyone walks, bikes, or takes a horse-drawn carriage. We opted for the carriage and took it to the bottom of the big hill on the island. After a somewhat strenuous 20 minute climb (I haven't really done much physical activity since getting here so it felt strenuous!) we reached the top, with amazing views of the Bosphorus and Istanbul in the distance, and an orthodox monastery that was 1000 years old (which is pretty recent for Istanbul!) After a picnic lunch at the top of the island, we made our way down and had some ice cream before heading back to Istanbul. Since I was technically in Asia, as of Friday I'll have been on 4 continents in one week!!
Wednesday evening we had quite an adventure. After several underwhelming dinners near our hostel we decided to try a Lonely Planet recommended place for some good Turkish food. We had to take the tram and then jump on the underground funicular train to a cute, bohemian part of the Beyoğlu area of Istanbul. It was such a cool little area, full of really good shops, very posh bars, and young, fashionable Istanbullus. We definitely felt out of place in our backpacker clothes!
We set out to find the restaurant, using the map in the Lonely Planet, and very quickly got very lost. No one knew the street name we were looking for, and only major streets even have names, so we wandered around the alleyways for 45 minutes asking directions and getting different answers every time. We didn't mind though, it was a great way to see the neighbourhood! But then 2 of us went into a shop to ask for directions for the seventh time and somehow we lost Yan! She had wandered a bit further down the road to take pictures and somehow in the crowds she had lost us. We spent 30 minutes trying to find her - we went back up the road to the main square, checked the funicular station, even went further down the road to see if we could find her but no luck. The streets here are so narrow and confusing that it's so easy to get lost. Finally, when we'd given up hope of ever finding our restaurant or Yan, we stumbled upon the restaurant!
It was a tiny, clean Lokanta, where they have a bunch of different dishes prepared and you choose five of them. The chef/owner didn't speak much English so we just guessed and pointed to what looked good, and it ended up being the best meal I've had here, and the best meal I've had in a long time! I had spicy rice cooked with tomatoes, a cold couscous salad with lots of dill, this lovely creamy spinach with what I think was feta topped with yogurt sauce, chickpeas cooked with tomatoes and spices, and a cold black eyed pea salad with dill. All of it was served with lovely bread. It was AMAZING! If you are ever in Istanbul you have to go to this restaurant!
We left the restaurant very full and content and went into a massive shop selling Turkish delight in more flavours than we thought possible. We all got some dessert and fresh squeezed orange juice and then walked the long way to the tram station, past the Galata tower and over the Galata bridge. It was a lovely night, and the best part was that when we got back to the hostel, Yan had also made it back safely!
Today I finally made it to the Aya Sofia, and it was definitely worth the effort. It was built in the 6th century by the Romans and used as an Orthodox Church, and during the Ottoman era it was converted to a mosque. It's absolutely massive, and some of the beautiful Roman paintings on the archways and ceilings are still preserved. It was so beautiful!
I'm spending the rest of the day doing a bit more shopping and just hanging around my hostel at a cafe. Even though I've been here for four days I feel like I've barely scratched the surface of what Istanbul has to offer. This is the kind of city I'll have to come back to for even longer (and of course to buy more things!)
I'm excited to get my feet back on African soil tomorrow and start the next part of my adventure!
Full album of Istanbul pictures: