Turkey Travels: Exploring Istanbul Part 1

Visiting Istanbul with its centuries of history, really brought home to me how young a country South Africa is. Just walking the city streets revealed both small remnants of ancient ruins preserved proudly on the city sidewalks, as well as large grand structures like ancient Roman aquaducts. We travelled to 4 cities of Turkey in a short 11 days but Istanbul is where I would return over and over again.

The magic of this city is that it straddles two continents. It is split into the Asian side and the European side by the Bosphorous strait. The Galata bridge is the main bridge that connects the 2 parts of the city and is constantly busy with tourist traffic, commuters and locals fishing over the edge of the bridge.

For most of our trip we stayed in Old Town, which is on the European side of the city. The skyline is magical with the silhouette of hundreds of minarets from mosques as far as the eye can see. There are so many mosques that you will hear the athaan simultaneously from all different directions. It is beautiful. As many mosques as there are, they are all magnificent structures. Built with a similar architectural style of multiple domes and minarets they are all grand and towering. There is no shortage of beautiful spaces within walking distance in which to pray your salaah.

On our first evening there we took a walk in the undulating streets near our hotel. I was surprised to find that shops were trading till late at night. Most of the shops around our first hotel, The Grand Washington, (a 4-star hotel but which I found lacking, except for breakfast which was quite good), were casual stores where you could pick up cheap clothes, food and essentials. They trade in cash and hardly anyone offers receipts. The second hotel we stayed at, The Hilton Double Tree Old Town, was better located although just a few blocks from the previous hotel. The Hilton was literally down the road from the Grand Bazaar and close to trams and the metro.

I loved walking around the city at night. There is such a buzz. Sunset is late in summer, about 8:40pm. So you lose track of time and find yourself having supper at 9pm. Which is fine because the rest of the city is too. The Turks don’t seem to value sleep. Shops are open till the wee hours and trams are still running and full of commuters at midnight. It felt safe to be walking even that late at night. We were drawn in by a gentleman on the sidewalk to try a hidden rooftop restaurant. He was a sort of ‘crier’ for this restaurant which you would have no clue existed as it was inside an old building on the rooftop.

Emek Saray Restaurant wasn’t fancy. A humble spot with a rooftop garden where we had our first delicious Turkish meal. I tried Ayrin, a traditional yoghurt drink which is very similar to the salty lassi. I enjoyed it in spite of a bit of lactose intolerance. We shared a grill platter so we could taste a bit of everything, a mince pide and a delicious sautéed mushroom starter. The turkish bread on the side was the best I ever had. Light, crisp and flaky it would give any Indian Naan a run for its money.

The next night I tried Manti, the Turkish version of ravioli. The pasta was filled with mincemeat and enrobed in a yoghurt and tomato sauce which was simply delicious. Food, in general, is quite well priced. You don’t have to budget to eat well.

Contrary to popular Indian opinion, Turkish food is not bland. I know of people who took their own chilli powder and hot sauce on their trips. It’s really not necessary. The food may not be fiery hot, but it has flavour and personality.

We did the Old City Tour which includes visiting the Hippodrome, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. At the Hippodrome which used to be an arena for chariot racing we saw the ruins and learned about the various nations that had ruled Istanbul. The Greeks, Romans and Venetians took turns ruling before the Ottomans settled in for good.

We walked to the Hagia Sophia, which was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 and converted again to a mosque by Erdogan in 2021. The Turkish people have mixed feelings about this and many are not in favour of this decision. However, it was filled with tourists still. People had to remove their shoes and women were required to cover their heads and arms. Scarves were available to tourists who came unprepared. At waqt (prayer) times, it is closed to tourists and open for prayer.

Besides the fact that it is extraordinarily beautiful, the history of this mosque is so exciting. Christian images of when it was a church co-exist with Islamic art and verses. The image of the Virgin Mary in the front annex facing congregants has respectfully been obscured by fabric swathes without removing or defacing the historic image. I found this respect and co-existence permeated throughout. You could be in a shop or restaurant where the music was blaring and people were dancing. But when the athaan sounded, the music was switched off no matter where we were and switched on again once the muazzin had finished.

Outside the complex of the Hagia Sophia you will find vendors selling souvenirs, water and lots of edibles. Make sure you try the hot roasted chestnuts, and the Turkish ice cream. The ice cream vendors put on an amusing display of trying to prevent you from actually getting your hands on your ice cream. But it’s so worth the effort. Turkish ice-cream is delicious and can rival any Italian gelato. The lemon flavour is my favourite. It’s rich and creamy like a lemon meringue flavour, not the lemon sorbet that we get in South Africa.

Red and white wagons are all over the city selling the most delicious simit. It’s like a bagel, but a bit lighter, covered with sesame or poppy seeds. It’s part of the staple food of the country and can be bought plain or filled with cream cheese or Nutella. I also spotted traditional vendors carrying stacks of simit on their head. A mix of old world and modern is to be found everywhere. You have not been to Istanbul unless you have walked down the street munching simit clad in a simple slip of paper. It is a right of passage.

On the way to the Grand Bazaar we stopped at a lokkum shop. Lokkum means Turkish Delight. This was a bit of a tourist trap. We were given an explanation of the various types of Turkish Delight, offered samples of tea and gently coaxed to buy expensive Iranian Saffron and local medicinal Camphor Crystals, playfully referred to as Crystal Meth. There are so many shops offering the same thing and at cheaper prices, so don’t be pressured into making your purchases on the tours. Just walking down the streets in Old Town you can indulge your sweet tooth with the many samples thrust at you from every other vendor before you decide to buy.

The Blue Mosque was under renovation so we walked past it but did not go inside. The men’s section is still open but the ladies’ section is completely closed.

We explored the Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. The interleading courtyards lead to various chambers that contain treasures on show, from weapons to precious manuscripts. It is here that the artefacts of Prophet Muhammed (SAW) is housed. The queue to get in to this chamber snaked to almost around the building but it was possible to get in and out within the free time we had on the tour. The hall of swords too was impressive and the displays fascinating. There was one sword bigger than a large man. One wonders at the size of the man who was able to lift it.

The Grand Bazaar is the world’s largest covered market. It is a sprawling labyrinth housing crafstmen, artisans and vendors. You need days to get through all it offers. Prices vary and not everything is cheap. Haggling is expected so don’t be shy. There are many access points and at night only certain gates are open. Like the gate for Nus’ret Restaurant which is housed inside the Grand Bazaar. We simply could not come to Turkey without trying the famous Instagram sensation SaltBae’s offering, so we ventured out late at night just before Eid to find the place. We had quite a time trying to find our way through dark alleys and streets, and what should have been a 5-minute walk turned into a tense search in the dark for almost an hour. But that’s a story for my next post…

I thought I would cover Istanbul in one post but there is simply too much see. I’ll tell you more in next week’s instalment of Exploring Istanbul.

Related: Planning your trip to Turkey


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