I first heard about Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Roman and Ottoman Empires, was in my history class in high school. But until I took the walking tour of Istanbul and the guide narrated the history and how Constantinople became the Crown Jewel of Asia – Istanbul, all I had in my mind was to check out the Blue Mosque and take a customary selfie!
There is something unique about this city that spans two continents: Asia and Europe. It is a melting pot of cultures. Although diverse cultures exist in many cities in the world, in Istanbul you see an amalgamation of Eastern and European traditions. The streets are filled with people in western clothes and in traditional Hijabs. What stands out the most, though, are the locals who are extremely warm and friendly and most of them understand English. After spending 3 days in Istanbul, I was ready to declare the city the party capital of Asia!
There is no better way to start exploring Istanbul than jumping straight into its historic centre – The Galata Bridge – that spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey. I had booked a walking tour with GuruWalk. The meeting point was next to the Karakoy Pier. I reached there exactly on time and kept scanning for the gentleman with a blue flag who would be my guide for the next 2 days. And then the best thing happened. I met Iyshwarya & Ritika – two students from London. They had arrived a day earlier and had organised an IstanbulKart (a contactless smart card for public transport) and had already been on a Bosphorus Cruise. They were doing the same tour I was…Phew …I felt relieved to find a friend, and also find somebody who had already spent 24 hours in the city. While I planned for a solo trip to Istanbul, I wasn’t very confident about how I was going to navigate the cultural and language barriers.
There’s a little something about solo travelling; we constantly worry about loneliness, safety, and boredom. For a lot of us, these worries can be crippling. While booking my flight back from Greece, I realised that if I didn’t go by myself to Istanbul, I wouldn’t get to go at all, and I’d miss this huge opportunity simply out of fear. I weighed all the possible bad things that could happen and decided to face my fear and book the tickets.
The next 48 hours with my new friends in Istanbul were nothing short of extraordinary!!!
The walking tour started with us heading to the public ferry to the Asian side, Kadıköy. The ferry connects the Bosphorus Strait at the point where the strait meets the Sea of Marmara, the waters of the Golden Horn the “Old Istanbul” (ancient Constantinople). This estuarial inlet geographically separates the historic centre of Istanbul from the rest of the city and forms a horn-shaped, sheltered harbour that in the course of history has protected Greek/Roman and Ottoman trade ships for thousands of years. My teacher – Miss Francesa would be delighted to read my newly gained knowledge of ottoman history.
As the ferry started sailing, we went past the Galata Bridge. It has 2 levels connecting Karakoy district with Sultanahmet- the old town district. At the upper level of the bridge, you will find locals fishing from the bridge on the sidewalks. The lower level of the bridge has a line of restaurants and cafes with a stunning view of the Bosphorus strait.
It took almost 25 minutes to get to the other side crossing a short stretch of the Marmara Sea.
We set out to explore the most popular neighbourhood of the Asian side where many locals meet, shop, and hang out. The Asian side is a good example of how nostalgia and modernity can co-exist.
Our guide had a special liking for the Asian side – ‘You will see the real local life here” – he said. Street art has its own raw and gritty appeal, as you will discover while walking around Istanbul. We explored the side streets to check out the graffiti. There were so many pictures to take and I hoped that my battery would last forever!
We went full circle and came right back to the Pier before sunset. The sunset view of the Maramara sea was amazing. The local musicians set up a live band and street performers were entertaining the crowd. Nightlife was just beginning.
After strolling around for a while and discovering the lively market area of Kadıköy, filled with famous eateries, vegetable, fruits, and fish markets, sweet and deli shops and meyhanes, we decided to drown ourselves in some Turkish Cuisine. I ordered a mezze and Turkish tea, locally known as çay, a trademark of Turkish hospitality and an integral part of Turkish culture. The original Turkish tea is a variant of black tea and is consumed straight without milk. Very much like “Sulaimani or Kattan” for my fellow Malayalees. ‘The farther you travel the closer we get’.
Meze arrived and it had all the favourites including souvlaki (grilled meat on skewers), halloumi cheese (either grilled or fried), pastrami, sarma (grape leaves stuffed with lamb, rice, and herbs), tarama (mashes potatoes with olive oil and fish roe dip), and artichoke salad.
The tour guide gave us recommendations on the best restaurants and a long list of dishes to try for the rest of our trip and a word of caution “Order only one round of “Raki” (“rah-kuh”), a strong, anise-flavoured spirit made of twice-distilled grapes, which is a popular local drink.
We hang out until late and took the last ferry back to the hotel. This city made us feel very safe.
Day 2 was reserved for the biggest attractions in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is probably one of the most highly anticipated places for tourists. I have always wanted to see the interior of the beautiful architectural wonder. At its time of completion in AD 537, the Hagia Sophia was the largest structure in the world. It was originally a Greek Cathedral. Once the city was seized by the Ottomans, it was turned into a mosque. In 1934, the mosque was converted into a museum by the government and in 2020, the Hagia Sophia became a functioning mosque again.
The Blue Mosque is another architectural wonder in Istanbul that is located not too far from Hagia Sophia. Istanbul is a very walkable city. Like most old cities, most of the attractions are all concentrated around the Old Town area and you can easily walk from one place to another.
Suleymaniye Mosque – I prefer this to the Blue Mosque. The walk to Suleymaniye Mosque is a little long and uphill, but for the unmatched view and its stunning interior, I guarantee, you are going to find it worthwhile.
And here we go to the most exciting part of the trip – to the Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is the oldest Shopping Mall with a history of 500 Yrs. It has 50 plus streets and over 4000 shops inside. There were shops selling all kinds of stuff including handmade silk, Turkish copperware, ceramics, lamps and of course Persian carpets. With over 20 entrances, I was very careful while navigating through it to not lose my way, and it took me almost half a day before I could get to the Spice Market.
Both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are within walking distance from Sultanahmet Square.
Bursting with colours, fragrances and tastes, the Spice Bazaar is home to aromatic assortment of spices, teas, nuts, dried fruits, lokum – a Turkish delight. It’s smaller than the Grand Bazaar but definitely has a more local flavour. I got a couple of varieties of dates and Jasmine tea and some saffron. There were so many varieties of flavoured tea. They let you taste everything before you buy. I tasted Pomegranate tea and Jasmine tea.
Shopping continued one market after the other. There is Mahmutpasha Bazaar right outside Spice Bazar. I bought some Turkey Towels and Bedspreads. Turkey is renowned for its superior fabric production from its exceptional cotton fields. 100% Turkish Cotton, therefore, is a symbol of quality in the linen business. If you are in Istanbul, you must visit Mahmut Bazaar. This place made me into a shopaholic. And then I realised I would need a new suitcase to pack all these.
By then night came calling.
The next day we started our tour in Karaköy facing the old town and exploring the multicultural neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul. The historical buildings and trendy cafes were mesmerising.
We had planned to meet at Çerkezköy Delicatessen Restaurant and I was excited for a traditional Turkish Breakfast to start the day. It includes fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, different kinds of cheese, and a clotted cream known as kaymak, along with tea, omelette and a wide range of dips. We had a little bit of everything.
But then there was also Karakoi Gulluoglu next door. We were told that they have the best Baklavas on earth, How could I miss that !! And after eating there, I can confidently say that they were, indeed, the best in the world!
For people who don’t know about Baklavas, it’s a layered crispy pastry on the outside and filled with pistachio and chopped nuts, and sweetened with syrup or honey. They say, if it’s fresh it will make a crunchy sound when you bite in. Now this one was truly an explosion of flavours in my mouth.
We had a long day ahead and miles to cover …so calories didn’t bother me ..for once.
There were lines of cafes but for now, my tummy was full and so was my heart.
Next on the list was Banks street (Bankalar Caddesi), Karakoy to check out the Camondo stairs.
Istanbul is known as the city of hills. The streets are narrow and there are stairs connecting different parts of the old town. The terrain is pretty rocky. The Camondo stairs turned out to be somewhat steep. To prevent anybody from falling all the way down to the bottom of the steps, a special design was exercised. Note the hexagonal shape. It allows one to stop and help if anyone slips and falls.
The stairs are between the “Tunel” metro stop and the Galata Tower.
The tunnel metro runs uphill from near the confluence of the Golden Horn with the Bosphorus and is about 573 metres (1,880 feet long or short ). The Tünel is the second-oldest in the world, almost 150 years old. We took a joyride on this slow train to the top of the hill and to Beyoğlu. It covers about half a kilometre but climbing those steep steps would have been a Himalayan task. So I did not complain :-).
A medieval stone tower that is nine storeys tall and you can see all the major tourist attractions from here. Built as a watchtower, it is now an exhibition space and museum. There is a restaurant at the top level of Galata Tower, while a bit pricey but the place offers delicious Turkish cuisine and exclusive coffee. After enjoying the scintillating views from the narrow, circular viewing platform, relaxed for a bit.
My friends named it the Oxford Street of Istanbul. Istiklal Street, which means “Independence Avenue”, is lined with 19th-century palaces, mansions and embassies which are now home to high street brands. This is a shopper’s paradise for high-street brands. Istanbul offers luxury products at relatively cheaper prices. This may be because of its unique geographic location on the world-famous Silk Road connecting Europe with Asia. My budget allowed me to check out only ZARA and MANGO and some Turkish Brands. And was happy with my shopping haul.
A public hammam (bath) is a major part of Turkish culture. It is as much a place about cleansing as it is about relaxing. The Galatasaray Hammam (Turkish Bath) we visited was built in 1481!! Operating for centuries, it is a great place to experience the 500 years of traditional bathing culture of the Ottoman Empire. A traditional Turkish Hamam (bath) package includes 45 minutes of washing; traditional body scrubbing with a handwoven wash cloth known as a kese; a foam wash; and a massage.
Female and male sections are separated in traditional hammams. Yet the bathing rituals are similar.
Once you are ready, the attendant provides a peshtemal, a cotton towel to wrap yourself and a regular towel to use after bathing and then they will take you into the warm section. It is a huge hexagonal marble platform, more like a stage in the centre of the room. You can relax on the platform looking at the dome above. More like an indoor sunbath, so rays of light filtered into this area through the tiny holes from a high central dome. Marble gets heated quickly as the sun gets brighter during the day and there is some kind of illuminating steam sensation. Now that you are fully drenched in sweat, next comes the scrubbing, which is done by the attendant. Sit back and relax, and let him or her scrub every inch of your body with the kese – an invigorating body scrub with a special exfoliating glove that removes any dead skin.
Don’t worry: In most traditional hammams, the washing spaces are separated by marble panels to create a sense of privacy. Once scrubbed, you will be asked to take your place on the warm marble slab called the gobektasi in the hot section, where your masseur is ready with a lacy, foam-filled cloth for a Turkish massage. Soon, I was submerged in a mountain of bubbles, which reminded me of the “Lux” advertisement. She had to wake me up from my fantasy to take a shower.
Following this rejuvenating experience, and before you leave, they will serve visitors with a cup of Turkish tea. The idea here is to spend a few minutes allowing your body to come back to its regular temperature. It’s also a time to tip your attendants, which is normal in the Hamman.
Overall a great experience and it’s much more than just a regular spa or sauna.
Istanbul has thousands of mosques, hundreds of active churches and even twenty-odd active synagogues. It boasts a strong affiliation with Islam along with an understanding and tolerance of the western European culture. And that’s what makes it popular among tourists.
Our last supper in Istanbul and had a memorable time. When you’re travelling, every moment is cherishable. There is tremendous openness to everything, including human connections. There’s an understanding that the moments and experiences that make them are ever-fleeting.
The freedom and confidence you experience while travelling becomes addictive. And after a while, it spills onto every aspect of life. Once you are home, the eagerness for new experiences and the ability to laugh at misadventure becomes second nature. Istanbul gave me memories of a lifetime and also gave me friends who became family for those 3 days. The vibrant colours, the local warmth, the traditional food taste is forever etched in my memory and this only makes me look forward to my next adventure!