Destination Guide: Istanbul

Good afternoon readers! Today we’re welcoming Victoria back who is sharing her recent holiday to Istanbul. As soon as I heard she had visited Istanbul I asked Victoria to write about it for Florence Finds as I have long wanted to visit – it’s the location where Europe meets the Middle East and is said to create a unique blend of cultures. After reading Victoria’s review I think you’ll be hard pressed not add it to your must-visit list, and as I said earlier in the month, January is a perfect time to sit down, do some research and plan something, which is what I’ll be focusing on this week.

Take it away Victoria!

We decided to visit Istanbul as part of a grand family trip around Istanbul, Athens and Santorini. The recommendation was to spend at least five nights in Turkey’s largest city to allow enough time to explore all it has to offer, unfortunately with the schedule we were working to, we only had time for four nights, but we did pack quite a lot in.

To start with I’ll give you some quick facts, and a bit of background so you can get an idea of the scale and layout of the city and its colourful history, then take you through my personal recommendations on sleeping, eating, drinking, sightseeing and shopping.

The City
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, and under its previous names of Byzantium and Constantinople, served as a capital of three ancient empires (the Roman, the Byzantine and the Latin Empires) and also a relatively recent Empire, in comparison (The Ottoman). However in October 1923 when the Republic of Turkey was established Ankara was proclaimed the state capital, leaving Istanbul to rake in a number of other superlatives in its descriptions including the third largest metropolitan area in Europe (after London and Moscow), the cultural, economic and financial centre of Turkey and, its most famous accolade, the only metropolis in the world to span two continents – Europe and Asia.

Sleeping
We stayed at the Klas hotel in the Old Town. I spent some time researching a few different options and came to this decision because of its proximity to the main areas, the price and the good reviews on Trip Advisor.

It’s situated about a ten minute walk from the Grand Bazaar and so we felt it was ideally located for sightseeing. The hotel itself was clean, tidy and reasonably modern. It wasn’t high-design by any means, but the roof terrace with tables, sunbeds, cushioned lounging area (complete with fake grass for that Big Brother Garden feel), cute little pool and a bar was perfect for a little bit of chill out time after pounding the streets of the city. The staff were friendly and helpful, the breakfast was fine, providing the usual Continental and American buffet items (just stay away from the orange “juice” – it’s actually concentrate, incorrectly labelled!) and there was free WiFi on each floor, which is always nice for your daily Florence Finds fix!

For the price we paid, the location, standards and service were great. I’d definitely recommend this hotel to friends and family.

Eating
On the first night we were tired and didn’t want to roam too far, so we wandered up the main road to the Grand Bazaar area and found Faros restaurant. It was on a side street with tables and banquettes in the open air. I was having a bit of a love affair with all-white décor at the time (you can imagine how much I loved Santorini, can’t you?) so it caught my eye with the white leather seats, white tables, chairs, candle holders and menus. It was also packed…. with a lot of non-tourists (including a local wedding party sitting a bit further up) – SCORE!

The cocktail menu was international (happy me!) but the food was most definitely local and we sampled a lovely few plates of assorted mezzes, and a few local main dishes, including one cooked in a pot over naked flames which the waiters bring to your table on a trolley, wrap in a cloth and hammer at it with a knife until it cracks and spills all over your plate. You can imagine that a few rounds of that with a flourish, a bit too far from the table (i.e. in the middle of the busy street) attracted a few tourists, but it all added to the atmosphere and the buzz.

We loved the buzz of that little street so much that we ate there on two more occasions at Mozaik and another restaurant I can’t remember the name of (and the characters in the picture of the sign are “un-Google-able” without a Turkish keyboard). Mozaik was another great experience though – again the waiter was fabulous, funny, helpful and great for some local banter. We accidentally bumped in to him a day later in a local nightspot, but I’ll come on to that shortly.

Other restaurants on this street include Sir Evi and Rumeli Café, both of which offer similar menus, service and prices.

Over in the new town (the above were all based in the Old Town) we spent a long leisurely lunch in the Flower Passage working our way through almost the entire list of fresh daily mezzes and some local wine. There’s a lot of history here and the surroundings are very impressive and although it’s quite a touristy area, still had an impressive number of locals stopping by for some food, drink and banter.

Of all that we visited I would say that Faros and Mozaik are the ones that stick in my mind the most.

Drinking
On the first night, after our dinner, we ventured in to the maze of streets around the Grand Bazaar and found a little area full of locals drinking tea and sucking on shisha pipes. Seeing as it seemed to be the thing to do, we thought we’d  settle in. The guide books will tell you that no local will touch the coffee, nor the flavoured shisha tobacco, so we weren’t surprised to be greeted with blank faces when we ordered two Turkish coffees, two mint teas and a sickly sweet “cappuccino” flavoured shisha pipe. Eventually I convinced them that I actually liked the Turkish coffee (lots of advanced sign language involved here – you’ve all seen the Joey and trifle “mmmmmm” sketch in Friends, right?)

The second time we ventured in here for our “authentic” Istanbul nightlife we actually bumped in to our waiter from Mozaik as he’d just finished his shift. He informed us that it was where all the waiters and business owners meet up to discuss the day’s trade and catch up over a lassi and a shisha. I couldn’t tell you how to actually find this place, but wander the little streets behind the Grand Bazaar and somehow you’ll find it. We did… twice!

We also tried out the cocktail menu at the top of the Hilton Double Tree on the roof terrace as the final call to prayer went out. It was very quiet, and quite windy so had very little buzz or atmosphere, but, as with everywhere we went, the staff were so attentive we felt we should stay for a second – it would have been rude not to! At sunset, in a slightly warmer season I would think that this would be a great place to have a few sundowners.

My absolute favourite place to stop for drinks, however, would have to be a little square we found whilst following a walking tour from the Lonely Planet guide. It was full of arty types, students and old men playing backgammon on low level tables and stools in the shade of twisted trees, decrepit buildings, antique shops, vintage book stores and handmade jewellery stores. They served a lovely list of coffees (not just of the Turkish variety) and the famous “elastic” Turkish ice cream. Follow the walk directions through the Flower Passage, through to the “Fish Passage” and walk across the road and down a quiet back street with a big Embassy building (I think it was the British) on the right. It’s through a little archway on the left… you won’t be disappointed.

Sightseeing
There is so much to see and do in the city centre that you forget how much is situated outside in the suburbs, along the Bosphorus and along the coast line of the Black Sea. From what I managed to see in my limited time I would recommend the following:
The Blue Mosque and opposite, the Hagia Sofia. Both are breathtaking in appearance and their history and would be a shame to miss them.

A walk around the New Town. We did this by following a walk from the Lonely Planet guide. It started in Taksim Square through a modern shopping area, where we enjoyed an impromptu feast of mezzes (see above), then on to some small backstreet areas (also mentioned above), ending up down at the Galata Tower.

I would definitely recommend that you spend some time on the Bosphorus taking in the views of the city on both the European and Asian sides. The Bosphorus Bridge, which allows you to cross from Europe in to Asia on foot, was pretty awesome. Sailing up and down on the river with a rather good audio guide and my little book made me realise quite how important this city was, and still is, in history.

One thing the guidebooks really gloss over is the Basilica Cisterns. They really were a hidden treasure and I’m so glad we found them. They were the water vaults for the buildings above the ground, for storing water in case of siege (or so I read) and generally to service the city. The columns that hold up the ceilings are all mismatched as they were plundered from various temples from across the Empire and so each one tells a story… except the Medusa one – you don’t hang around to hear her story!

Shopping
I didn’t do much shopping whilst in the city and to be honest that’s strange for me. I think I was pacing myself, but I did do a little bit though – I couldn’t resist the Turkish delight! If shopping is on the agenda, I’d visit the old town for the “genuine fakes” that Turkish market stalls are famous for, and the usual tourist bits and bobs. But for international brands, I’d head to the main Promenade in the New Town. I didn’t see much by way of a bargain though, in relation to the big names.

The Grand Bazaar is obviously a famous sightseeing location but also a must-see for shoppers. However, if I’m honest it was a little bit disappointing. I was expecting something like Khan el Khalili in Cairo, which was really like stepping back in time, or on to the set of Aladdin! In reality the Grand Bazaar was a little bit like a slightly old fashioned shopping mall. If you know what you’re looking for though, and you’re ready with a list and your haggling skills, then get involved. My friend was there a month before me and got some amazing leather goods at some great prices.

We also visited the Spice Bazaar, which was a bit more along the lines of what I was expecting, but still a teensy but still a bit of a let-down. My travelling companions got a little tutorial in purchasing saffron, and I spent some time sampling the most amazing Turkish delight I’ve ever tasted: pomegranate with pistachio. Amazeballs! I intended to bring some samples home but it didn’t last the day, let alone the two weeks.

Would I go back?
All in all I really, really liked Istanbul. I don’t think it makes it in to my list of ‘Top Five Fave Cities’, but to be fair I think we only briefly scratched the surface. So it’s not a question of would I go back but that I most definitely have to go back.

Two things will stay with me forever though.

Number one – the views of the city. One of the most memorable views was from the bridge across from the Old to the New Town. Looking ahead to the Old Town, with all the fishermen lined up in front of you and the trams rushing by, you can see what looks like a line of seven massive mosques along the skyline (maybe those from the seven hills on which Istanbul is fabled to have been built?). You don’t feel like the New Town is particularly “new” until you look at the old and realise that when “new” means 500-600 years old, “Old” means positively ancient!

Number two, and for me the embodiment of the city, were the sounds and smells and just walking around soaking up the “feel”. Sitting on a roof top bar wrapped in a blanket, with the wind off the river stirring our hair, amidst the sweet smell and smoke of the shisa pipes, sipping a cosmopolitan as the final call to prayer went out, it was very atmospheric indeed.

History and modernity all mashed up – that is what Istanbul is to me.

Restaurants
Faros
MozaiK
Rumeli
Sir Evi
Flower Passage

Hotels
Klas Hotel

Read Victorias other posts for Florence Finds here and find her at her blog Sugar Plum Slipper

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