Istanbul is like no other city I’ve visited before. It’s vibrant, multicultural, entertaining, and utterly crazy. Istanbul often uses the tag line ‘East meets West’, which really sums it up perfectly. However, as the city is so vast, and we hardly scratched the surface in 2 days, I am hardly in a justified position to summarise the city.
Upon receiving our map of the city we were slightly overwhelmed. We had no idea where to start. We decided to spend the first day exploring our side of the river, including Taksim Square and the Galata Tower. As our hostel was placed upon Istiklal Street (Istanbul’s equivalent of the Champs-Élysées, Oxford street, or Beijing Lu) we were quickly able to find our bearings. We had also not considered the vast and steep hills that Istanbul positions itself on, which made for a bit of a work out.
Despite our desire to stay on our side of the Golden Horn until tomorrow we couldn’t resist venturing across the bridge from the lure of the magnificent mosques and the oodles of people heading that way. We eventually found ourselves walking around the busy spice market with all the sights, smells, and sounds you’d expect from any Silk Road market place. I must admit that I love this kind of atmosphere and its probably the only time that I am not bothered by slow moving people or inconsiderate stopping. In fact, Fletch has been the latest in a long line of people who have commented on my overly fast walking pace, I need to slow myself down. Within the spice market we stopped for some Turkish tea. It was to become a common excuse to sit and people watch throughout our stay in Istanbul, and will probably continue throughout Turkey.
Without wanting to spoil the sights we intended to see tomorrow we headed back towards the other side of the Horn and got a great view of the famous Bosphorus, where it is obvious why Istanbul has been an influential city for centuries across so many empires.
We ascended the mountain of a hill back towards Taksim square after looking around Besiktas’ football stadium. At the square we were able to see the remnants of the recent protests and were able to sneak a cheeky photo of the armed guards and water cannoned police vans. However, these only serve as a deterrent now.
We explored the Isiklal by night where we saw and heard lots of fantastic buskers from all over the world. They really were impressive. It was a great atmosphere around the street, but we ventured down a few side streets to get our cut price dinner from a Kebab man, budget remaining very tight.
Feeling adventurous we headed by metro to a random stop beyond the centre of the city, hoping to see some ‘real life’ beyond the ludicrous in the centre. However, we ended up meeting more armed guards with triggers on their guns and observing a highway with another cup of Turkish Tea.
The next morning we woke up excited. We were going to be seeing the major tourist and historic destinations of the city. After being provided breakfast by our hostel owner we headed up a hill and down another to reach the river once more and head across towards the Topkapi, the Hippodrome, and the Aya Sofya mosque.
It’s fair to say that the mosques in Istanbul are marvellous. Reading up on them made us realise that the different periods of history in Istanbul tried to outdo each other by building bigger and better mosques.
Perhaps the most spectacular part of the day came when we visited the Blue Mosque, with its staggering 6 sky scrapping minarets. It was said that the size of the mosque and its influential positioning made some people believe it might have rivalled that of Mecca. That might be taking it a bit too far.
We arrived at the mosque just in time for the prayer call. This sounds fantastic on the streets but hearing it within the walls of the mosque is really something quite special, and spine tingling. In their streams people came to the mosque to worship as we admired the ritual. Hearing the prayer call in one of the worlds biggest mosques during Ramadan is something amazing.
After a quick look at the Ottoman remains in this part of the city we headed towards to Grand Bazaar to see the worlds biggest marketplace. I was genuinely excited about this prospect, particularly as I left a flip flop in someone’s car/truck/van. Yet, as it was the first day of Eid, the Grand Bazaar was shut, and we weren’t able to take in that special part of the city. Still, we we able to take a little nap on a bench instead. Classy pair.
Our next stop was another massive mosque of Suleymaniye Camii, we were able to enter the mosque at the point as the next prayer was not due until 5pm. The interior was quite spectacular, and incredibly beautiful. We were politely asked to leave before the next prayer call.
Instead of heading the normal route out of the mosque we took another exit. This lead us onto a series of streets that seem unexplored by tourists. I was here that we saw some people living in poverty and another side to Istanbul that is not too far from the riches of the main part of the city. Yet, about 1km later we were back on the river and into the madness once more.
At this point, after the prayers, there were people everywhere. We had a bit of a struggle getting to the over side of the river through the crowds but eventually made it. We were then able to climb our hill back the the Taksim. At which point we realised how much we had walked, quite unnecessarily given the ample public transport system here. Still, saving the pennies.
With our bags in storage we headed down a back street where we saw the vibrant night life beginning, with music and the odd clink of beer glasses. We decided on a more substantial meal this time, without spending over a couple of pounds. I also really craved a yoghurt. Perhaps we hadn’t had enough calcium.
It was beginning to get late so we grabbed our bags and jumped on a nearby tram in the the direction if the bus station. Our stay in Istanbul had been brief, but eye-opening and ultimately unforgettable.