Why Istanbul should be on your bucket list
I’m still surprised how much I loved Istanbul. It was not on my bucket list, but when the opportunity of a business trip came, I was excited to spend couple of days in this beautiful city. Rich in culture, interesting geographical location and great food, I had enough reasons to be curious. But I have to admit, I was not just excited but as well worried. The situation in Turkey is not the easiest right now and millions of thoughts were running through my head before we left.
It was the day before Thanksgiving in America, the busiest travel day of the year but the biggest New York airport was quiet. The government had issued a global travel alert and people in the airport were very few and the level of security high. We travel almost weekly but this was the first time I felt really uncomfortable. Armed police escorted us to the plane, and I hoped that the false bomb alarms of the same flight few days prior to ours, would actually contribute to making our flight safe.
You might ask, is it safe to travel to Turkey right now? I don’t know but honestly where is safe today? If something will happen, it can happen anywhere, Paris, London or New York. I decided not to put my plans on hold but go. And it was so worth it.
Once we landed and got to the hotel, I forgot all my worries. Istanbul is breathtaking. Colorful mix of old and new cultures, carpets, markets, crazy traffic and numerous mosques. Smell of spices, freshly made coffee and sweet baklava. Istanbul has so much to offer and I was happy that I decided not to cancel this trip but see this amazing city.
3 things that surprised me in Istanbul
Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents. One leg in Europe and other in Asia with Bosphorus strait, the water that divides the two continents, in the middle. You can have dinner in Asia and dessert in Europe, how unique is that?
On the 10 h flight from New York to Istanbul I had plenty of time to watch Turkish Airlines programs about food in Istanbul. They showed how Turkish kebab is made, introduced with all the choices of various local spices, cheeses, seafood, the tradition of large breakfast and how the paper thin layers of baklava are made. Turkish cuisine mostly features simple, inexpensive and locally grown ingredients and every single meal we had was tasty. But what really surprised me was wine. Good things always happen when you have no expectations, and the Turkish wine came as a great and pleasant bonus to the food scene of Istanbul.
I come from country with 2 million inhabitants. Istanbul alone has 13 million people living in 2000 square miles. This makes Istanbul the largest city of Turkey and one of the biggest cities in the world. Crazy traffic and crowds, it’s definitely chaotic but that’s the flavor of Istanbul.
What to do in Istanbul
I felt that 3 days were little too short to see everything in Istanbul. We had to make choices and leave some things for the next time. There are so many options to choose from, numerous mosques, museums, bazaars and food markets, Turkish bath and all the delicious food options.
Here are my “must see” places – don’t leave Istanbul without visiting Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, negotiate a fake designers purse, Rolex watch or sample some Turkish Delights, pay a visit to Hagia Sophia and after that visit Blue Mosque. Then head to a close by Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul. In the same part of the city you can visit Topkapi Palace, the sultan residence with harem and the exhibition of the 4th world’s largest diamond.
Once you have enough of museums and palaces, a perfect place for people watching is Galata Bridge where the locals gather to fish right off the bridge. Finish the day with a visit to Galata Tower and explore the neighborhood of Beyoglu, walk the pedestrian avenue Istiklal Caddis that’s full of bars, restaurants and stores. Beyoglu district is a great place to stay as well; it is a lively neighborhood almost 24h a day.
Plan another day to visit Dolmabahce Palace, cross the Bosphorus by boat, experience the Turkish Bath or Hamam and go to witness the Whirling Dervishes.
Where to eat
Dine with a view on another continent. Lacivert is a nice place for a special occasion, offers great views on Bosphorus and excellent seafood menu. Located in Üsküdar neighborhood.
You have to try one of the best kebab restaurants in Istanbul Zübeyir. Very cozy place and they grill the meat right in front of you. Beautiful food and excellent service. Located in Beyoglu.
Little touristic but the food is good, Antiochia Restaurant offers typical Turkish meet dishes and tasty appetizers. Located in Beyoglu.
If you are in Galata Tower neighborhood a decent place to have a meal is Kiva Han, simple but delicious.
And don’t forget to taste the diversity of Istanbul street food, fresh fish sandwiches close to Galata Bridge, Simit – freshly baked dough with sesame seeds, meat sandwich called Döner, or Lahmacun the local version of pizza.
Where to stay
Most probably you will consider 2 neighborhoods where to stay, Sultanahmet or Beyoglu. Sultanahmet is a very tempting option since all the main attractions like Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar are there. But after dark it unfortunately turns into a dead place. Beyoglu neighborhood is still close proximity to all the places you want to see but with lively nightlife, great options for restaurants and bars. We were staying in one of the most beautiful and historical hotels in Istanbul Pera Palace. Next time I would love to stay in the hottest new hotel Soho House. Both of them are in Beyoglu district.
Have you been to Istanbul? Add your favorite spots in the city in comments below.