Istanbul is one of the most iconic cities anywhere in the world – arguably unmatched in its historic, strategic and cultural importance. Famous as the crossover point between Europe and Asia, this is a place where ideas, riches, religions and cultures have mingled for millenia.
Turkey had somehow eluded us on our travels to date – but as we had begun to venture further east, it was inevitable that our paths would cross sooner rather than later. We finally got our opportunity whilst planning a trip to Uzbekistan (more on that to come!), with Turkish Airlines putting on an excellent route to Tashkent via Istanbul. It would have been far too easy to just treat this as “yet another connection”, and plough straight on to our final destination, but the opportunity was too good to pass up – a 2 night stop over in Istanbul was the order of the day, and we certainly had no regrets.
Night one – bringing the weather with us
After a very nice flight from Manchester (seriously – we’ll be taking every opportunity to fly Turkish Airlines from now on!), we landed in the brand new Istanbul Airport just as the sun was setting. Opened barely a couple of months before we arrived, the airport is a sparkling colossus, clearly built to impress anyone who passes through, whether they are staying in Turkey or simply connecting to another flight.
The only downside to Istanbul Airport (at time of writing) is its location. With a lack of mass transit system to take travellers into the city of Istanbul, it currently ranks alongside the likes of Warsaw Modlin, Frankfurt-Hahn and (everyone’s favourite) Düsseldorf Weeze in the list of “airports which are a complete annoyance to get to”. Hopefully this will be rectified in the future, but for now travellers have to make to with a long (up to 60 minutes) and expensive taxi – or an even longer bus. This is hilariously bad when you consider the size and importance of Istanbul Airport.
With time being the most precious commodity in our fleeting visit to Istanbul – more specifically, we had a dinner reservation with a couple of friends at 8pm somewhere in the city center – we lazily accepted our hotel’s offer of a private transfer. Our wallets may have been much lighter, but the limo-style vehicle left us feeling like rock stars, so maybe (?!) you could argue that it was money well spent.
Sadly, the luxury of the Mercedes people carrier was lulling us into a false sense of comfort, as a rain storm was angrily brewing just outside our tinted windows. By the time we screeched to a halt outside our hotel (the very pleasant, and well priced) we knew we’d definitely brought the infamous British weather with us – and then some. It was like stepping into a power shower. Even so, with a good 90 minutes before we needed to meet our friends for dinner, we naively thought that the downpour wasn’t exactly the end of the world (after all, we’d be spending most of the evening fattening ourselves up on kebap with a roof over our heads!).
However, we would quickly discover that even 90 minutes doesn’t give you much leeway in a city the size of Istanbul – especially when it transpired that the restaurant we were heading to was well over an hour’s walk away on the other size of the Bosphorus! Normally, that would be fine – a good excuse to see some of the city by foot whilst working up a healthy appetite. In this horrendous rain, though? Not a chance we were walking it. No worries, we thought! There’ll be plenty of taxis…
How wrong we were! After trying and failing miserably to order a taxi via the usual routes of Uber and local apps (one car eventually accepted our fare, only to cancel after we’d waited outside in the rain for 10 minutes. 1 star rating incoming – that’ll teach them…), we were left with no choice but to try and find a busy road and hail a cab. A comically ridiculous 45 minutes ensued, where we ambled around the dark streets in the pouring rain, hopelessly waving at each and every taxi we saw, but no to avail – every single one was full, and we must have passed well over a hundred. Needless to say, we were wet through.
By this point our friends were already waiting for us in the restaurant, and we were getting desperate. Eventually, just as all hope seemed lost, we stumbled across a hotel with a manned reception – a miracle! We squelched through the door, begged them to order us a taxi, and within a few minutes were finally on our way.
Needless to say, dinner was well worth the wait! As well as a lovely evening of catching up over some excellent food, we were introduced to the wonders of Raki – an anise-flavoured spirit which is a favourite in Turkey – and the ‘interesting’ delicacy of Turnip juice. We’ll let you guess which one we preferred! Between the food, drink and chat, the dinner was the perfect introduction to Turkey, and it didn’t take long to be persuaded that we need to come back and explore more of what the country has to offer. One for 2020, we think!
Day 2 – How much can you fit into a day?
Day 2 was our only full day in Istanbul, and with an early flight to catch the next morning, it was pretty much our only chance to explore the city in daylight. Alarms were set, phones were charged and we made sure we were ready to head off bright and early.
Whilst our accommodation choice – the great value Green Life ApartHotel had left us with a real trek to get to last night’s dinner, it certainly came into its own in its proximity to the traditional ‘main sights’ of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – iconic symbols of the city – were barely 15 minutes away by foot, and we were keen to get there early to avoid the infamous crowds.
On our friends’ advice, we’d pre-booked a fast track entry for Hagia Sophia for the first available slot at 9am. Judging by the monumental queues which had already built up when we arrived, this was a very sensible decision and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it – particularly if you are short on time.
Hagia Sophia is worthy of an entire post in itself – a monument of breathtaking size and incredible history, having been originally built as a Christian cathedral before being turned into a mosque in the 15th century by the aptly named Mehmed the Conqueror. Today, it exists as a museum, with evidence of both Christianity and Islam everywhere you look – from the walls to the ceilings and beyond. It’s a breathtaking place, and somewhere that’s definitely worth having a guide – even if only for a short space of time – so that you are able to appreciate the stories behind the beauty.
Just across Sultanahmet Park is the Blue Mosque. With its towering minarets and famously grand interior, it’s another firm favourite on the tourist trail – although, unlike Hagia Sophia, is still very much an active place of worship. Having opted to use the coveted ‘early morning’ slot on Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque was almost overrun with tourists by the time we’d strolled through its gates. We knew that during our visit (September 2019), much of the inside was blocked off for renovation, so we decided not to bother with the seemingly endless queue and instead admired from the courtyard. Besides, breakfast was calling us – and we were both in need of a good cup of Turkish coffee.
Once we’d had our fill of caffeine, bread and honey, it was time to hit the trail again. Matt had endured over two hours of the film ‘Inferno’ on the plane across, with the dramatic finale set in the mystical Basilica Cistern – a cavernous underground structure with hundreds of columns and eerie lighting, barely a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia. It’s another Istanbul classic, and we decided on this occasion to join the queue and take a look. 15 minutes later (don’t bother paying extra to the people who try to sell you ‘queue jump’!) and we were in. Truth be told, once you’ve taken in the (admittedly awesome) views from the entrance there’s not much to particularly see other than a few specially carved columns – but the atmosphere and size is unique, and strolling along the boardwalks is well worth the small entrance fee. Be warned – it gets busy.
Next on the whistlestop tour was the Grand Bazaar – one of the largest covered markets anywhere in the world, and a favourite of tourists and locals alike. We’d deliberately headed there with very little in our pockets, having learnt from experience that the temptation of trying to bag a bargain could easily lead us down a rabbit hole of spending hours exploring shops in search of the perfect item at the perfect price! We kept our Grand Bazaar trip to a more modest wander, observing the chaos at a distance – although if you do want to practice your haggling skills in Istanbul, there are plenty of useful guides out there which will give you the lay of the land.
With time marching on, we waved goodbye to the Bazaar and turned our thoughts towards the Bosphorus. It seemed a shame, even on such a short stop, to visit Istanbul and not see it from the water – but we were reluctant to pay ridiculous prices to be crammed onto a boat with hundreds of other tourists. We were sure there would be a better way – and so it proved. Much like choosing a Venice water taxi over a gondola ride, our friends pointed us in the direction of the passenger ferries which dart all over Istanbul and offer a great way to hit the waves rather than your wallet – a single journey should cost less than £1. There’s a helpful guide to the ferry routes here. Aside from the brilliant views, our personal highlights were the army of seagulls which followed every boat and were clearly well trained in catching bits of biscuit mid-air, and the tea sellers who would navigate the decks with trays full of tea glasses and somehow not spill a single drop no matter how choppy the water became. Seriously impressive.
Our round-trip on the Bosphorus came to an end, and we met back up with our friends for a final evening of exploring, eating and drinking. A full mezze dinner (the food in Istanbul takes some beating!) was sandwiched between Borek and Baclava stops, and after washing it all down with a few glasses of Raki we began to wonder why on earth we were even considering leaving this amazing city. It felt like we’d only just arrived.
The non-culinary highlight of the evening was bagging ourselves one of the final trips of the day up the Galata Tower – another favourite for Istanbul postcard designers – and hearing the evening’s call to prayer roll out over the city. It was a magical way to sign off our time in Istanbul – although we stopped short of raiding the gift shop for a 5ft model of the tower. This was by no means the only tower-themed souvenir on offer, as Lucy spotted a tourist proudly strolling out of the door and into the night carrying – inexplicably – a giant model of the Eiffel Tower. Whoever you are, sir, we salute your dedication to thinking outside of the box.
We finished our evening off with final midnight stroll back across the Bosphorus – where hundreds of fishermen were still lined up on the bridge, drinking tea and filling the night with chatter, laughs and waves of smoke from the grills. The rain which had washed out our first evening was long forgotten, and Istanbul had firmly landed itself in the ‘must go back’ tier of cities.
An early morning sunrise from the hotel terrace was the icing on the cake for our brief time in Turkey, and before we knew it we were heading back to the airport – once again, in an overly-fancy limo-van (!) – and turning our thoughts to the next destination. Uzbekistan, here we come…