Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, Byzantium and Stamboul, is the largest city and principal seaport of Turkey. This vibrant metropolis has always intrigued me, in part due to its history but mainly due to its unique location at the crossroads of where Europe meets Asia on the iconic Bosphorus Strait.
In recent years and with my travel industry “Fez” on, I have become increasingly aware of the size and quality of Turkish Airlines who are regularly voted the Best Airline in Europe and often top the rankings in various Worldwide Airline Award ceremonies too. Whats more, the country has in recent times, created an impressive NEW Istanbul airport, the largest in the world and a major international hub with six runways and four terminals. Turkey is a country ready for business and indeed ready for tourism!
One such tourist who also happens to be a very good friend of mine, is Lorna Willis Edwards and she recently got in touch offering to send in a guest blog following her recent visit to the city. Here is what she had to say about her 72 hours in Istanbul:
Istanbul Weekend – September 2020
Author: Lorna Willis Edwards
What to see…
An extraordinary mix of sights, sounds, smells and experiences are around every corner!
On our first evening we took a sunset yacht cruise on the Bosphorus which really helped us get our bearings, see both the Asian and European sides and view some of the beautiful Ottoman palaces and mansions which line the shores, and then catch the glorious pink sunset with the mosques, bridges, and palaces silhouetted against the sky.
In Sultanahmet we found it easy to fit quite a few of the main sights in one day. The Topkapi Palace and Harem gives a fascinating idea of how the Sultans lived during the Ottoman Empire, the buildings are beautiful! The Hagia Sofia, World Heritage Site recently (and controversially) converted back into a mosque after operating as a museum since the 1930’s, now has less to view but no entrance fee. The Basilica Cistern, part of an impressive ancient water filtration system underneath the city and Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets with amazing architecture and impressive interiors.
On our second full day we took the funicular up to Taksim Square and took a leisurely walk down the Istakil Caddesi (the main street) taking in the mixture of local and international shops, bars, funky side streets, the historical red trams and the Galata Tower. A fabulous walk which takes you downhill to vibrant Karaköy with its trendy cafes. From there you can cross Galata Bridge and take a lunch or dinner in one of the many fish restaurants!
On our final day we had a stroll through the back streets and made our way to the historic and colourful Spice Bazaar and markets and then to the Grand Bazaar which is just mind-bogglingly huge but be prepared to haggle… lots! If you’re a fan of Turkish Delight or Baklava, then this is the place and the shops and stalls look amazing and have some perfect sweet and sticky gifts for friends and family back home.
Where to stay…
The two main areas close to the sights are Sultanahmet and across the river in Beyoğlu. We stayed in the old city, Sultanahmet. Home to the Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar & Spice Market. We chose to stay at the Hagia Sofia Mansions, converted historical mansions, between the Hagia Sofia and Topkapi Palace, which was just beautiful! A duplex room, with fabulous Ottoman decor and the call to prayer as a morning wakeup call! The hotel is also home to a beautiful underground spa/hammam and the Sarnic restaurant, both of which are built within a 1,500 year old cistern. Service throughout our stay was wonderfully friendly. Highly recommended!
Across the river in Beyoğlu close to Taksim Sq, Galata Tower, Istakil Street puts you in the heart of the sights and lots of bars, restaurants and shopping.
There are also some lovely areas further down the river in Besiktas and Ortaköy with a laid-back riverside café vibe and the fancy hotels which I’d love to visit next time along with the beautiful areas on the Asian side of the city.
Food & Drink…
Kebap’s of every kind, everywhere (or Kebabs to us)! Perfectly acceptable as a lunch or dinner and not just limited to a shameful 2am after a skin full. The husband was in heaven! And if you enjoy a little entertainment with your dinner, try a traditional Testi Kebap, slow cooked in a clay pot and hammered open over naked flames in front of you.
We also loved the Gozleme – flatbreads filled with spinach and cheese or beef, skilfully made in their 100’s on a giant hot plate.
Fresh fish is abundant due to the Bosphorus and there are a wealth of fish restaurants on the Galata Bridge. Very touristy but worth a visit, even just to sit and marvel at the skill of the many ferries docking nearby and to watch the fisherman above you cast their lines and catch a bluefish or sardine!
We visited the Grand Bazaar’s branch of Nusr-Et, owned by the famous ‘Salt Bae’ (Google him if you’ve never heard). Expensive, but a great steak… and their bathrooms had the most bizarre electronic rotating toilet seat covers taking Covid precautions to a new level!
Istanbul also has some fabulous rooftop terraces. A perfect place to watch the sun go down whilst enjoying a cocktail or dinner. Loti Café and Roof Lounge hit the spot for us!
And who can decline a Turkish coffee for an instant boost (not to be drunk to the bottom) or Turkish Tea or for less than 50p a glass!
The traffic is crazy in Istanbul, as we discovered on the way in a taxi from the airport. However, their tram system is amazing and so quick and cheap to travel around! Purchase an Istanbul Kart for 6TL (60p) at the many machines and every journey you make is 3.50TL (35p)! The Istanbul Kart can also be used on the Metro, funicular and ferries!
Saying that, it’s so easy and close to walk around much of the city if you don’t mind a few hills!
Turkey during Covid-19…
At the time of travelling and writing this, Turkey is on the travel corridor list and seems to have it sorted and it’s keeping their rate fairly low. Masks are compulsory everywhere other than when you are seated to eat and drink, even outside in the street or in a park. It honestly wasn’t a problem for us, even in 30-degree heat! Temperature checks in place at most attractions, bars and restaurants and given plenty of sanitiser and hand wipes everywhere. We felt very safe and they are pretty strict.
The city was quiet but by no means dead, but we didn’t face queues for any of the attractions. The only downside is that a lot of the attractions are taking this quieter period to refurb or renovate. The Hagia Sofia, Blu Mosque and Basilica Cistern all had ongoing work and the Galata Tower was completely closed… it didn’t take our enjoyment away, but it does mean that you can’t get that perfect photo as there’s a bit of scaffolding in the way of your perfect shot!
A little about me…
I’ve worked in the travel industry since 1996 in various guises, which of course gave me a career highlight of meeting and getting to know Rupert, your host of this fabulous website!
I see travel as an escape and to experience a different world. A chance to see how other cultures live. To view both the world’s most famous sights and hidden gems. Getting to the heart of a destination or off the beaten track. And of course, some sunnier climates and fabulous cuisine along the way!
Big thanks to Lorna Willis Edwards for this blog. She has a wonderful Instagram page showcasing not least her excellent skills in photography. Please give it a follow.
Lorna is keen to encourage readers of this article who are considering a trip to contact their local travel agent for availability and prices.
Turkey Tourist Office
Another great source of information is the Turkey Tourist Office and I follow with a selection of links to their website and social media accounts so if you are heading east…. or would that be west….then you have the information at your fingertips.