January 28, 2015

Istanbul: Chaotic, scenic, dirty and generous

Istanbul is extraordinary - a vast city of great contradictions - the scenery is beautiful, people are gentle, while the streets can be filthy and chaotic.

Situated by the Bosphorus, with all its minarets, Istanbul must have one of the world's most beautiful skylines. A magical meeting place of East and West. 
The city is huge, with almost 15 million people, nevertheless it is great for walking and you can reach most sights by foot. The tourist parts of the city are divided by a stretch of water called the Golden Horn.

Chaos, contrasts and lack of street signs
Istanbul's contradictions gave me a notion of chaos. There is a mix of old and new, poor and rich, dirty and tidy, which differ from one streetcorner to the next. Where one building could be a run down shack, and its neighbour could be newly renovated, hyper modern. 

Moreover, we always seemed to be looking for street signs. The lack of them, gave us a hard time finding our way around. We kept feeling lost.

Delivery by hand
In the old city, it seems like all goods are carried by hand. Men and boys everywhere carry goods on their backs or heads or drag it behind them in wagons. They carry heavy burdons, they are set on target and their pace is fast; so get out of their way!

Moreover, people are constantly running back and forth between the cafés and shops carrying trays loaded with glasses of hot apple tea. 

Men and boys everywhere carry goods on their backs or heads or drag it behind them in wagons.
Food delivery for the fishermen at the Galata bridge
Fishy smell
Especially when crossing the the Golden Horn over the Galata bridge, the smell of fish, mixed with urin was so strong that I had to cover my nose. In addition, I found the smell of fish, cooked on open fires, appearing in the most unusual places.

Fish, straight from the Bosphorus, is being fried everywhere.
Generous people
I found the locals to be generous and hospitable, always greeting you with a smile, and quick to help out when you’re about to stumble into one of the many obstacles of the streets of Istanbul. As in other cities, where you might feel invisible in the crowds – it is not the case in Istanbul. People notice you.

  To get a feel for the culture:
  •  Have a cup of Turkish sweet dark coffee at one of the coffee houses 
  • Get treated to glass of apple tea while the carpet sales men tells you the stories of his carpets at the grand bazaar
  • Smoke a water pipe at one of the coffee houses. 
  • Visit one of the old Turkish baths (hamams) and get your body scrubbed like a little baby. 
  • Have baklava in one of the pastry cafés
Sweet apple tea and baklawa.

Historic sights in the old city - Sultanahmet
The old city of Sultanahmet, is like a time capsule of Byzantine and Ottoman history. Like in Rome, you feel the layers of history unfold in the streets.  

Aya Sofya is vast and magnificent – this is the most important monument in Istanbul. It was consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque in 1453 and finally declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935.
Check out the Viking graffiti from the 800 century, scribbled into the marble railings at the upper southern balcony. 

The blue mosque - Istanbul's most photogenic building.

Topkapi palace - was the home to the sultans of the Ottoman empire. The palace is subject to endless and colorful stories and gives you a glimpse into the every-day life among the filthy rich in a very different culture. Make sure you visit the harem, where the concubines lived with the eunuchs who looked after them. Enjoy the view from the café in the palace garden. 

Basilica Cistern - Byzantine cistern, built in 532. While it was in use it was filled up with up to 80,000 cubic metres of water. The cistern was cleaned and renovated, and opened to the public in 1987, and is now one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Most of the water is gone, which allows you to walk on wooden platforms in the vast dimly lit area, among its 336 columns. 

The Grand Bazaar – the heart of the city is a vast covered area from 1455 with an endless amount of shops. If you buy - always bargain! 

The Süleymaniye Mosque - one of the grandest and most beautiful mosques in Istanbul. Check out the view over the city towards the Bosphorus from the back garden of the mosque. 

Aya Sofya museum

The blue mosque
Entrance to the Topkapi palace - home to the sultans of the Ottoman empire.

The Topkapi palace is richly decorated.

Basilica Cistern provided water for the city. The vast space and 336 columns were formerly covered with water.

The Grand Bazaar
Large selection of scarves at the Grand Bazaar
View from the back garden of the The Süleymaniye Mosque
 The Süleymaniye Mosque

The Beyoğlu area
The major pedestrian boulevard, İstiklal Caddesi, is like any other western shopping street.

Instead, I recommend wandering the streets to the east of İstiklal Caddesi, which has a bohemian feel, and a mix of residential areas and nice cafés and boutiques (see map).  
A walk in Beyoğlu
View of the Bosphorus from the garden behind the Ciangir Mosque in Beyoğlu.
Bohemian streets of Beyoğlu.

If you like scarves or schals, you will find great varieties of good quality in all kinds of colors and materials. 

If you decide to shop in the Grand Bazaar, you should bargain! Otherwise go to one of the shops in the Beyoğlu area. I visited Ipek in İstiklal Caddesi 120, where I found my wool scarve.

Fine leather bags – I bought a bag of very soft leather.
Kare Deri & Parşömen, specializes in handmade leather bags, adress: Çukurcuma Caddesi No. 19.

Additionally, I liked the great variation of bed spreads, covers, blankets and carpets, as well as the traditional hamam towells that you can find in Istanbul. 
My Istanbul finds: Wool scarve and soft leather bag.

Istanbul Modern museum
An interesting art museum showcasing Turkey’s modern and contemporary art from its beginnings to our day. I really enjoyed the temporary exhibition.

The Galata  area
This is also a very nice area, with lots of people watching, small shops and cafées. Follow the cobbled streets lined with small shops, from the southern end of İstiklal Caddesi downwards to the Galata tower, have a drink at the piazza, admire the tower, than continue down Bereketzade Madresesi Sk.

Street life in the Galata area

The Galata tower
The narrow streets of Galata has lots of small shops.

The Galata bridge
This is the bridge to cross, when you want to walk over the Golden Horn from Beyoğlu to the old town. You can walk on wide pavements on either side of the bridge. Each side is crowded with men fishing. 

We nick named it "the bridge of fish entrails", due to the overwhelming fishy smell.

You can walk on the wide pavement on either side of the Galata bridge. Men fish from the bridge around the clock.
Beneath the Galata bridge, there are restaurants and cafes.

Hotel - Has Han Galata. 
We chose to stay in a small boutique hotel in Galata, which we really enjoyed. In January, you can get hotel rooms at good prices. We treated ourselves to a suite. Nicely decorated. Huge bathroom with a large round bath tub in the middle of the room. Very friendly service. 

Had we travelled in the summer time, we might have chosen a hotel with a roof terrace. The Has Han Galata has no outside area and no view, apart from that, it is a good choice.

We stayed at the Has Han hotel in Galata. Our room had the freshest bathroom, featuring a huge, round bath tub.
Bars and restaurants with a view
Roof bars and restaurants are a big thing in Istanbul - given the cities beautiful location. We tried these two:

In Beyoğlu: We visited the 360  Istanbul; a bar and a restaurant with both indoors and and outdoors seating. We only tried the drinks. Situated in the main street of Beyoğlu: İstiklal Caddesi. www.360istanbul.com.  

In the old city: Restaurant with a view: Cihannuma. The hummus was really good, I can’t say much for the rest of the food, but the view was amazing. The restaurant is in a hotel. Take the elevator to the top floor. Yerebatan cadessi 18.
Viewing the Golden Horn and the modern city from the Cihannuma restaurant in the old city over the Golden Horn
Sorry, I have no great restaurant recommendations
I'm normally very fond of food and especially when traveling. Although I tried to do my research to find good places to eat, we did not succeed. Nevertheless, we enjoyed homemade yogurt and hummus whenever we had the chance. 

Our best dining experience was at Journey in Beyoğlu
Journey. Mediteranian café. Akarsu yokusu 21a.

Cafe Journey in Beyoğlu.

Homemade youghurt, meatballs and meze-dishes at Journey
To read
Before going to Istanbul I enjoyed two books by Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel Prize in Literature winning Turkish author: The Museum of Innocence and Istanbul. You can actually visit The Museum of Innocence in Beyoğlu.

Cats are everywhere in Istanbul.

Taksim square.