Alternative Istanbul

By | Category: Travel destinations
bridge over the Bosphorus

the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul – linking east and west

Istanbul is one of those cities that has always been on my wish list of places to visit. I imagined it to be exotic. It wasn’t at all what I expected. It is a large buzzing metropolis, with traffic bumper to bumper, and hoards of people. The main attractions, the Imperial city with the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar are only a small part of what Istanbul has to offer.

The city is built on several hills with Taksim Square with the statue of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the focal point. Here musicians come to find an audience, and vendors sell home-grown fruit, spit-roasted corn-on-the cob, and hot chestnuts. From here Istikial, a wide pedestrianised thoroughfare with shops and the occasional majestic Embassy building, leads down to the water’s edge.

Taksim Square

Taksim Square – a focal point in the city

Shops selling well-known brand names sit side-by-side with Turkish products. Along here, in one of the shops a young man was twirling the traditional ice-cream made from goat’s milk. Off the main thoroughfare, little alleyways have restaurants with tables outside, weather permitting. The street buzzes day and night. In the evening, loud music can be heard from the open windows of nightclubs.

A plaque on the wall indicates the Galata Dervish House on the site of the first Mawlawi house to be built in the city. Descriptions in the museum are in English, with explanations about the Sufi religion. Nearby the Galata Tower, sixty-seven metres high, provides 360º panoramic views of the city. When I was there the queues, which seem to be an inevitable problem with all the city’s attractions, were very long so I continued down to the water’s edge. The Golden Horn, the inlet between the main land and the Bosphorus, is so named because it glints gold when the sun shines on the water, one of the magical things to see especially at sunset.

By the water’s edge Sultan’s kayaks, elaborately decorated boats sell fried fish in rolls. Far better are the small fish restaurants under the Galata Bridge which links the main land with the Imperial city. Next to the kayaks is the station for boat excursions of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The commentary is in Turkish, but English audio guides can be hired. On the boat vendors mingle among us selling food and drink.

kayaks of the sultan

the sultan’s kayaks

Bordering the river on the Asian side we were able to admire the lovely homes of Istanbul’s wealthier residents as well as seeing some of the city’s luxury hotels and the Sultan’s summer palace which is now a museum, and can be visited. The Bosphorus is the dividing line between the European and the Asian side. To me, however, the city is more reminiscent of places I have visited in North Africa or the Middle East. Surprising for a big city, few people spoke or understood English; although a real benefit was that I was able to barter on the price of items I bought not just in small shops but also in the more mainstream ones. A bonus too is that on more expensive items the tax is redeemable at the airport.

By the water’s edge in a comparatively new building, Istanbul Modern exhibits Turkey’s modern and contemporary art collection including photography, design, architecture, new media and cinema. Within the complex is an international restaurant with a covered outside area facing onto the Golden Horn. Behind the museum is a row of Nargile (flavoured water based pipes) cafes, obviously the place to try this Middle Eastern way of smoking.

Having a Turkish hamam is a must. Apparently in Ottoman times these were public bath houses, always next to a mosque. The newly opened Kilic Ali Pasa hamam is on the site of one dating back to 1580. The interior has been totally transformed to be light and airy although the traditional methods have been maintained. Men and women come at different times. I was led into a large marble stone room where I relaxed on a heated central slab. I was then washed and scrubbed, exfoliated in today’s terms, by my own personal therapist. I left feeling revitalised, and with my skin glowing.

Istikial Street

Istikial Street, Istanbul’s main shopping street.

Roof top bars are the trendy places to visit. There are several around Istikial, but I was directed to the Duble Meze Bar on the top of an Art Deco hotel. The upper two floors are configured so that, when the weather is fine, they are open to the elements and command a fairytale view of the city’s skyline. Although the name suggests it is a bar, it is in fact a trendy restaurant serving such small portions that it is necessary to order quite a few to have a proper meal. It’s the sort of place that’s fun to go in a group to share dishes. The ban on smoking isn’t the same as in the UK. I was surprised to be surrounded by smokers. Apparently as, on the day, I visited the ceiling of the restaurant was open, smoking was allowed.

Sadly, my two day visit didn’t give me enough time to explore the Asian side which, I am told, should be investigated for its excellent shopping and restaurants. Ferries make the short crossing easily accessible.

Istanbul’s hotel star ratings differ from those in the UK so its worth checking the hotel you choose lives up to your expectations before you book. As Istanbul is a large city, depending on the length of your stay, it’s also advisable to investigate as to where it is located in relation to the places you want to visit. If you are a non-smoker, it is also advisable to request a non-smoking room. Public transport is excellent with trams, buses and a metro. However they don’t take money so you need to buy a ticket in advance. They have a card similar to our Oyster card, which is the cheapest way to travel. A bonus is that if you can find someone who speaks English, and you don’t have a card, you can give them the fare, and travel on their card.

traditional Turkish ice-cream - a great way to end my stay!

traditional Turkish ice-cream – a great way to end my stay!

For more information about Istanbul, click here.

For more information about Turkey, click here.

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