I hope you read the last bit of the title in Joey’s voice off Friends! Anyway, Istanbul is a pretty brilliant city. So let’s get involved.
Arriving by bike
Sean had done loads of research on how to reach Istanbul by bike from the south, and came to the conclusion we should get a ferry in. As I’m always up for taking my bike on different forms of public transport, I agreed.
We had cycled up from Eskisehir to Bursa for a night (quite a nice town with loads of history FYI) and then cycled from Bursa to Mudanya, which was about 30km. The ferry itself cost 28 lira each – about £6 – and only took a couple of hours. Fairly painless!
It arrives in Eminönü in Istanbul, and as we had booked a hostel in Sultanahmet, where all the big sights are, we only had a 15 minute walk to the hostel. Boom!
We got outrageously lucky with the hostel too. For some reason (ie cost) we’d decided to book into not a 6-, or an 8-, but a bloody 10-bedroom dormitory! I’d started to get ‘the fear’ in the lead up to arriving in Istanbul, fearing snoring and frisky teens. When we arrived however we were given a massive bedroom to ourselves! Potentially because we had the bikes, and they could only be locked up in a separate building. Whatever the reason, it felt like heaven.
We had a wander around Sultanahmet that night and watched the crowds getting ready to break their fast in the park between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
We saw an absolutely ridiculous queue for a restaurant that had also been recommended in a Culture Trip article, called Sultanahmet Köftecisi. After a few drinks we went at around 9pm and there was no queue, which was a bonus as the meatballs were pretty mediocre! Could everyone have been fooled by the same Culture Trip article?!
It was cheap though, which I always enjoy.
Day one – rinsing Sultanahmet
On our first day we followed the aforementioned Culture Trip article to the letter – as it contained everything that had been recommended by our friend Tuba. Except for lunch – as we’d already had the meatballs – so we had some local delicacies a la Burger King. Which was awesome!
The Blue Mosque – aka Sultanahmet Mosque
A lot of books seem to have different ideas on why it’s called the ‘Blue Mosque’ by travellers – including because of the interior tiles or the way the light shines off it in the morning. All said and done, it’s probably the least blue mosque I’ve seen, but it was pretty! As was the gear they supplied me with for entry.
Unfortunately there was a lot of rennovation work going on and we couldn’t see the ceiling, but we did manage to get a sense of the scale of the place.
It was built in 17th century on order of Sultan Ahmed I. It’s pretty impressive as he commissioned the mosque to be built when he was only 18, and apparently he got involved with some of the manual labour himself over the seven and a half years it took to complete it. Pretty bad ass!
The Basicilla Cistern
After perusing the mosque we walked to the Basicilla Cistern, built by the Romans in the 6th century to supply water to the city.
There’s plenty of atmosphere, and kind of feels like an episode of Sherlock waiting to happen, and I’d recommend giving it a peruse if you’re in the area.
To complete the holy trinity of sites in this small area we then went to Hagia Sofia – which was originally a church, turned into a mosque when the Ottomans finalised their conquest, and then designated a museum by none other than my main man Attaturk.
I’d heard about something very important to see here. A cat. And I bloody saw her! She’s called Gli and she has her own body guard who has to control the fans. I managed to get a pretty good snap of her which is an Istanbul highlight for me.
After perusing downstairs, we went up to the upper galleries. There are more mosaics and nice views, but my favourite part was definitely the old man that let out a massive, gigantic fart. He gave no reaction, very stoic – but the Italian tourists next to him were absolutely devastated!! That would have been a very funny photo.
This was a highlight of the first day for me, but none of the photos could give a sense of the scale of the place, and we were both underprepared and underfed for it. I read a pamphlet that stated it’s the biggest and longest-surviving palace in the world – but can you really trust a pamphlet? I’m taking a pinch of salt with that.
It was the administrative headquarters and home of the Ottoman sultans throughout the 15th century. Each sultan added more to the palace, which ended up with four massive garden pavilions, a kitchen that could feed 3,000 people, masses upon masses of buildings and function areas, and a harem.
There was a sign explaining that the harem wasn’t for pleasure, and was actually the sultan’s home for his family. Suitably abashed, we wandered onto the next sign, which said about 100 concubines could live in there. These people!
We spent around three hours in the palace and harem, but you could easily dedicate double that amount of time to go around all the exhibits in the different rooms and areas, fully explore all the pavilions and spend enough time wandering around the harem.
The Grand Bazaar
I remember when my friend Becky came to Dubai and saw the Burj Khalifa for the first time. She looked it up and down, and said ‘it doesn’t look that big’. And it’s the biggest building in the world!
But it’s kind of like what I felt going into the Grand Bazaar. I actually thought it would be bigger! Even though it’s one of the biggest in the world and attracts over a quarter of a million people each day. All I can say is Dubai Mall must have spoiled me for other shopping venues.
Size issues aside, it’s a great place to visit and fritter away a couple of hours. And Sean got a hair cut which looks pretty good!
Ferry cruise down the Bosporus
After leaving the Grand Bazaar, we were starting to get a bit weary, so decided to take a ferry cruise along the Bosporus for a bit of R&R. It’s a bargain at only 15 lira for an hour and a half cruise, and whilst we got one from Eminönü, I’m sure there are others leaving from different ferry stations.
Walking over Galata Bridge and dinner in Karaköy
To cap off the night, we walked over Galata Bridge at sunset, which was pretty spectacular as well as spectacularly freezing, and wandered into Karaköy, a funky neighbourhood that had been recommended.
If you’re in the area and hungry, I can happily say Karaköy Lokantasi is the balls! And was a fine end to a pretty walking-heavy day.
Day two – exploring the European side
I don’t have too many photos for this day as the weather was shit and I’ve got the feeling we never quite stumbled upon the proper streets in each neighbourhood on day two.
We started in Karaköy again, but managed to totally miss all the artsy, coffee-shop and graffiti filled parts until we had wandered down the main road for about 45 minutes. Scenic!
We then wandered around adjoining, quite cool neighbourhoods, including Şişhane which had a lot of antique furniture and vintage clothes shops. It could have been an expensive day if space wasn’t at such a premium on our bikes!
We then walked right into Dolmabahçe Palace, which was the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856, taking over duties from Topkapi Palace. We could have gone inside, but after the day before I personally felt overloaded with history, so suggested having some nosh instead.
Our friend Tuba had recommended The House Cafe in Ortaköy, so we headed over. Again, it didn’t disappoint! And I even treated self to a glass of prosecco like a baller.
We then got a bus to Galata for our final visit of the day; Galata Tower. Again, the shit weather meant shit views which means shit photos – so I’ll just leave you with two more!
Day three – the Asian side
I’ll try and keep more visual than wordy, but suffice to say, the Asian side was a winner for us! We took the ferry across the river and headed straight into Moda, following the historic tram line.
For lunch, we headed into Moda proper and to Basta Street Food Bar. The menu takes traditional Turkish food items like dürüm and adds a modern twists. I mention this restaurant as Sean’s wrap – with hummus. and spicy sausage – was the best thing we’d eaten in ages! Well done Basta Street Food Bar!
After Moda we went to a more traditional area, Üsküdar, found a mosque designed by the famous Turkish architect Sinan, and ended the day by taking the boat to Maiden’s Tower, which was lovely. And I even saw dolphins in the Bosporous!
What a city. It’s a massive, massive beauty! And Tuba for all the recommendations! Xx