A few months ago when the Taksim protests were all over the news, I joked to a few friends that we should go to Istanbul for a weekend as flights were on the cheap side due to the normal slew of tourists avoiding the city. I should have known my mates would be up to the challenge and last weekend found @alexshebar, @navajoon, and myself winging our way towards Istanbul for a couple days of eating, drinking, and general merriment.
For those who haven’t been, go! Istanbul has a rich culture, delicious street food, chill rooftop bars, and very low prices (compared to London prices given the 3 to 1 FX rate between the Lira and Sterling). You’ll need to rethink your views on doner kebab (the stuff we get here is a poor imitation of real doner) and be open to street food, but it’s worth it.
Flights – 4 hours each way is a killer weekend travel choice
We started our mini-adventure on BA from Heathrow T5 which, after the initial teething problems, is pretty damn good. Security was a breeze with about a dozen stations operating and within 10 minutes we were through. My main gripe is that fast food seems to have been banned with your main quick and easy options being EAT/Pret and Itsu. While I do enjoy Itsu, sometimes you just want some chips to get you settled for a long flight. That being said, BA gives you a full “meal” on the flight so you don’t really need to eat – this came as a surprise as did the free booze (which we took full advantage of naturally).
Our return flight was on Pegasus Airlines which was about the same quality of comfort (ie not much) and Ryanair level prices for anything extra (including water!). So not great, but it paled in comparison to the scene at Stansted where the passenger numbers at midnight on a Sunday were so great there was barely enough room to get off the tram and into line at passport control. There is something wrong when you are at risk of missing the last train (at 1.30am) on a Sunday night because the crowds were too large.
The food…oh so much delicious food!
Turkish food seems to be characterised by grilled meats (more often than not in a form of kebab), lots of mezze (small sharing plates), and an almost absurd amount of bread. Everywhere we went, a massive basket of bread was invariably the first thing to make an appearance and you couldn’t leave even the simplest street food stall without being stuffed on carbs. On the plus side, we were never hungry.
Highlights were fairly varied from the steamed Turkish burgers at Taksim Square (most excellent drunk food), to the tradition Iskender kebab at Kebapçı İskender in Kadikoy, to the only formal-ish meal of grilled meat at Hamdi near the spice markets. We also had an incredible range of sorbets near Iskender Kebab on the Asian side where the flavours tasted cleaner and more natural than the fresh fruit their were made from. I wouldn’t have guessed that we’d find such a place in Istanbul, but above all else it was worth the trip. I fully understand why our guide, Gulfem the Yelp Istanbul CM, never passed it without getting a few scoops.
Drinks – Get a drink and chat for hours
Strangely, we didn’t do a lot drinking bar one excursion to a secret rooftop bar that was known to the locals but a completely mystery to the tourists – just the type of place we wanted. You pass by the blaring music and blatant invitations of the bars and clubs down the street from Taksim Square and slip into an entrance that could easily be mistaken for a rundown block of flats. In fact, most of the building is just that until you get to the top where a two floor rooftop terrace bar is in full swing.
I opted to finally try some raki, a aniseed-flavoured liquor distilled from raisins and served with water in the same vein as ouzo. Our local hosts warned against drinking too much, but the intense flavour quickly grows on you and the benefit of water as a mixer means a much less severe hangover! It’s not my favourite drink, but it did go down easily and I finished most of the half bottle by myself. And yes, I paid for it a little the next day.
Spice & Grand Bazaars
Quite by accident, we found ourselves in the Spice Bazaar which can be identified by, well, the massive amounts of spices in sacks everywhere. Quick tip: get in early before noon if you want time to browse and wander without being muscled along by the crowds – it seems that people don’t get up on the weekends much before then but when they do they are out in force.
You can haggle here but it’s worth going for a lap before you pick a place as often a stall two spots down will have the same product for 20% less – might as well start from a lower price! I can’t tell if they all get the products from the same wholesaler (they do look identical…) but they seem to be more or less the same.
It was good fun and I could have lost myself around the area for a good few more hours in the morning. When we returned in the afternoon it was worse than rush hour on the tube!
The Grand Bazaar was a bit of a let down and felt like a rambling mall rather than a traditional market. While you can pick up a bunch of things as souvenirs on the cheap, it’s probably not worth much time unless you are in the market for knockoff watches and handbags. There is an gold and silver section which looked promising but was far beyond our budget – at least for this trip.
History – All you could want and then a bit more
You can’t go to Istanbul without experiencing some of its rich and varied history. There are mosques everywhere but the two that stand out have to be Sultanahmet (aka the Blue Mosque) and the Ayasofya (aka Hagia Sofia) which is a 6th century church that was then coverted into a mosque in the 15th century when the Ottomans seized control.
The Blue Mosque is beautiful with the interior being covered in an intricate mosaic of predominately Imperial Blue tiles – hence the name. Sultanahmet named for the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Sultan Ahmet, is a working mosque and draws crowds of both worshippers and tourists (although tourists are kicked out during prayer times). It’s worth the time in line to spend a few minutes wandering through but be prepared to take shallow breaths as the smell of stinky feet is pretty potent. Ladies, keep in mind you’ll need to be fully covered up but they will provide shawls at the entrance so you don’t need to bring your own.
Ayasofya is a museum and can be accessed through the day. The juxtaposition of Christian and Islamic symbols is a beautiful sight and actually helps inspire confidence that two of the largest religions in the world can exist respectfully side by side. It remains the 4th largest free standing dome and has survived numerous earthquakes – something the engineers currently shoring up the structure believe to be nothing short of a divine miracle.
If you have some extra time, duck across the street to the largest underground cistern. The sheer size will take your breath away and Dan Brown fans will recall this being the setting for the final scene of Inferno.
For all of these, it’s worth paying for the half day tour (we used Neon tours). It’s slightly more expensive than the entry fees for the different sites but you get transportation to the area and back plus you can skip the lines. That alone is worth the extra cost especially as the wait for the Ayasofya can be 1-2 hours on busy days.
Other things to know
Almost every place has wifi so just ask for the password (you may need to hand over your phone unless you are familiar with Turkish spelling). We managed to stay connected for most of the day without running up high 3G bills which was a welcome change.
Turkish Lira is about 3:1 to the Pound Sterling and it’s easy to get carried away – keep in mind that vendors will know the impact this has on you and charge you higher prices accordingly.
Taxis may try to rip you off so make sure you have the meter on as soon as you start off. For longer journeys, look out for the Dolmus taxi vans which are shared taxis between key areas. We made it from the Asian side to Taksim Square on the European side for about 7TL/person. That’s 2 squids and an absolutely steal. Traffic can be horrible so if you just need to go across the river, the ferries may be a better option. The ferries, trams, and buses all use a card system similar to the Oyster so it’s worth grabbing one if you think you’ll be moving around the city. Istanbul is a hilly place so be prepared to walk up and down some steep hills if you take the foot route!