One week in Istanbul

Istanbul – the only city in the world on two continents, a place where Christians meet Muslims, Asia meets Europe, the Black Sea meets the Marmara Sea, and where young people still play stones or chess drinking Turkish tea. Istanbul is a bit like myself, a mix of everything.

The traffic is heavy. But, if in Bangkok, the drivers make the rules, here the pedestrians are the queens and kings of the streets. They cross the street wherever they feel like it, whenever they feel like it, in their own time, at their own pace. Rarely, someone will honk and when they do, a true Turkish man will shake his head, mumble something more or less related and continue his journey across the street same as before, undisturbed.

But the real joy of travelling in Istanbul is taking a public ferry. They connect the Asian side with the European side of the city, are very comfy and always on time.

You want a Bosphorus Cruise? Pay 25TL and hop on a public ferry. It will take 1 ½ hour each way and you’ll see plenty: beautiful luxurious mansions, the Galata tower, Dolmabahce palace, Ortakoy mosque, Bosphorus bridge, Beylerbeyi palace. If you want, you can even stop at Anadolu Kavagi, a former fishing village up at the northern tip of Bosphorus, that still keeps its old charm. Here, the atmosphere is very laid back and the main attraction is what is left of an old castle. It’s not much really, but, the scenery is amazing. You can rest, eat an ice cream or treat yourself with a vegetarian cigkofte, a very traditional Turkish dish made with bulgur, red peppers, fresh mint, parsley and lots of spices.


As to accommodations, there are plenty. I stayed at Q Hotel Istanbul, located in Sultanahmet, in the old part of the city. It was very clean, comfortable and the breakfast was delicious.

I loved going to bed in the sound of violin playing on the streets and waking up at 5.30 in the morning by the call to prayer. If Salzburg, in old times, because of Mozart was named The City of Music, in present times, the old city of Istanbul seemed to be quite musical at any time of the day.

It was close to a wide variety of restaurants where I’d be welcomed by an army of ‘go-getters’ who would make sure even if I was not hungry, I’d stop at least to look at the menu. In Istanbul, I found that most restaurants had at least 10 waiters even if it only had 5 tables. Royal treatment at its best.

My favorite place to eat though was on the Asian side, in Kadikoy. It’s called the Ciya Restaurant and it serves traditional Anatolian cuisine. No, let me try that again. It serves the very best traditional Anatolian cuisine. After sampling more than ten types of different delicious vegetarian appetizers, followed by Ayran, the Turkish traditional drink, a mixture of yogurt with salt, I was convinced that I could easily become a vegetarian. But their famous dish, stuffed pork intestines stopped me right on time.

Their Iahmacun pizza, a spicy Turkish kind of pizza that always comes with yogurt, was also to die for.


Of course, you cannot miss a fishy kind of meal on the banks of Bosphorus. Here, for 20TL, quite a bargain, it is always time for freshly caught grilled fish. Yummi!


Above all, Istanbul is famous for the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque takes its name after the blue green Iznik tiles adorning the interior walls.

Like with all the other mosques in Istabul, the entry is free and, not to worry, if you are not prepared, you are given everything you need to cover your legs, head and shoulders. During the prayers, which take place 5 times per day, as a sign of respect, both Muslims and Christians keep silent.

No matter if you go during the day, I advise you to try to see it at night also. It’s a sight to behold.


But my favorite mosque was a tiny, very old one, known as Rustem pasa camii mosque. It is located in the Spice Market and dates from 1560. Although the entrance is not grand, inside you can see amazing Iznik tiles, blue, yellow, red, white and green. Most likely, you will be all alone, enjoying the peace of such a marvelous place.
Suleymaniye mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul. Finished in 1558, it is considered Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece. However, after Blue Mosque and Rustem Pasa Camii, I did not find it that special. But that’s just me.


Aya Sophia or Hagia Sophia is another architectural masterpiece. Built during Constantine the Great between 306-337, it covers an area of 7000 m2. It is considered the greatest work of Byzantine architecture and it was the symbol of Constantinopole. The name comes from the two Greek words: hagia meaning divine and sophia meaning wisdom.
When Constantinopole was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, this Christian church was turned into a mosque. Over the years, different sultans added four minarets, and in time it became a symbol of the Islamic cult.


Topkapi Palace is another must see in Istanbul. Build in the 14th century, from 1450 to 1850, it was the residence of the Ottoman rulers. You can visit the clocks’ chambers, with unique clocks made by famous watchmakers who would dedicate their entire life on building only one clock, their legacy, their masterpiece.
The treasury section is equally impressive with all kinds of gold plated objects encrusted with precious stones and 48 kg candlesticks decorated with several thousands diamonds.
The harem’s quarters is a maze of 400 halls and apartments where more than 200 courtesans of the sultan used to live. In Arabic, harem means forbidden. The concubines were highly educated women from all corners of the world. They were doomed to a life behind the walls of the palace, away from the outside world, some not even granted the honor of seeing the sultan once. They lived a life of seclusion, in tiny apartments, hoping for a better day, when the ruler of the harem, the sultan’s mother, will decide it was finally their turn in entertaining the sultan. Only the four chief wives were living in luxurious grand suites surrounded by servants.
To see the place properly you’ll probably need an entire day here.


No trip in Istanbul is complete without visiting the bazaars.
I have decided on three of them: the famous Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market and Sali Pazar.
Grand Bazaar was build in 15th century and it has more than 20 entrances, covers 65 streets with more than 4000 shops. It is very pricey and it is not the best place if you are looking for a bargain. But, its paintings on the walls and the grandeur of the building are impressive.


The Spice bazaar or the Egyption bazaar has everything you might associate Turkey food with: spices, exotic fruits, all sorts of natural teas, with my favorite being the apple tea, turkish delights, sponges, sweets, and whatever else your heart might desire.

In one of the shops, I was told that the cheap Pashmina’s scarves “made in Turkey” that we see everywhere around the world are actually not made in Turkey and, what was even more surprising, are not even made out of pashmina. The genuine Pashmina is forbidden and it comes from the back of the baby goats, as opposed to Cashmere which comes from the old goats.
The shop owner was also kind enough to explain me the meaning behind their traditional rings with two stones inside: one red which you will wear if married, one green if you are single.


Sali Pazar, the other traditional market, is found on the Asian side. Getting there is an adventure in itself, that involves hopping on a crowded shuttle bus where most likely you will be the only crazy tourist. Enjoying your time there though is a feat! To me, the whole place looked like an endless bazaar where
you could lose your way and never make it back.
The only positive I guess is that the prices here are by far the cheapest I found in Istanbul. For almost nothing, you can renew your whole wardrobe. As a sidenote, the market takes place every Tuesday and Friday.


Moving on to luxuries, I love spas and, I was eager to enjoy the famous Turkish hamami.

So eager that for 50 minutes in a hamami in Istanbul I paid 150 Euros. That’s right. 150 Euros cost me a trip to Aya Sofya, the most luxurious and clean hamami in Istanbul, dating from 1500.

You can read more on how to make the most of this amazing experience  in my latest book, A Fool in Istanbul – The adventures of a self-denying workaholic.


Another activity that I’d highly recommend in Istanbul is booking a ticket to the Hodja Pasha Dance Show at HodjaPasha Dance Theatre. The price is around 100 dollars and it’s worth every penny. The show has instrumental live Turkish music, traditional Anatolian dances, dances of Balkan region, Gypsy dances, and Belly Dancing. It was a memorable evening and the vibe and the energy in the room were contagious.

I loved everything about Istanbul, the small restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus, listening to Turkish music in a cat cafe, the typical street sellers always trying to offer you a “much better” price than anyone else, the mosques, the markets, the vibe of the place. Even the lascivious looks of Turkish men made me smile.

Because really, what is not to love about Istanbul?


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