When Turkish Airlines gives you a Mumbai-Istanbul-London return fare at 28,000 INR (just 400 USD), it only makes sense to make Istanbul part of your travel plan.It also helps that Istanbul is a cultural melting pot, it straddles two different cultures and continents, has some delicious coffee and offers plenty of avenues to shop.
Note : Turkish Airlines offers a free day tour of Istanbul for transfer passengers. You can check the details here http://www.turkishairlines.com/en-int/corporate/announcements/announcement/free-tours-of-istanbul-for-turkish-airlines-transfer-passengers
Why visit Istanbul?
Istanbul a.k.a Constantinople – Isn’t the name magical enough to go visit?
The magic goes beyond just the name. When you are in Istanbul, you are in 2 continents at once. Istanbul is the only city that is in both Asia and Europe. The Bosphorous Strait runs through the city leaving a part of it on both Asia and Europe.
If you aren’t sold already, then maybe visiting a mosque with murals of Jesus and Mother Mary might appeal to your curiosity. Yes, I said mosque not church.
Having been the capital of 3 empires (Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman) Istanbul has always been a center of culture, economy and history.It is that perfect balance of Ancient and Modern, Christianity and Islam which makes it Utopian of sorts.
How to get here?
Turkish Airline does a brilliant job of connecting Istanbul with the rest of the world. The flights are economical and the service is quite good too.
I was doing my annual UK trip to visit my parents and decided to do a 3 day stop over at Istanbul on the way back from London. From the airport, most hotels offer shuttle services. Else, you could book a cab at the airport to the city.
Where to stay in Istanbul?
Istanbul has a quiet, residential Asian Side and a bustling European side. The European side is further divided into two by the Golden Horn (a small inlet of water that). The triangular peninsula south of the Golden Horn is the Old Town, Sultanahmet with most of the historical attractions. North of the Golden Horn is the New District famous for its restaurants, shops and hotels.
For a first time visitor, or if you are on a short trip, stay in the Old Town. All the key sights are at walking distance and will save you time and money. You can always take the Metro to New District if you wish to visit the restaurants and pubs.
I booked my stay from Hotels.com and stayed at Historia Hotel in Sultanahmet. I wouldn’t say this was the best hotel but the location and the courteous staff compensated for the minimalist rooms.
What to do in Istanbul?
Istanbul is full of sights and rich in culture, food and architecture. Here’s my list of Top 15 (not in any order) things to see and do while you are there :
1. Take a cruise down the Bosphorous and experience Asia and Europe on either side of you. Many might say this is overrated but it is the best way to cover most of the sights (from a distance of course). The cruise gives you a glimpse of Galata Tower, Dolmabache Palace, Rumeli Castle, Kucuksu Palace and many other castles and monuments on the way.
2. Visit the Blue Mosque – While most mosques have 2 or 4 minarets, the Blue Mosque has 6. Do go inside and admire the blue tile work on its interiors.
3. Visit Hagia Sophia and catch a glimpse of Mother Mary in the Cathedral turned Mosque turned Museum.
4. Spot the Medusa in Basilica Cistern. The Basilica Cistern is the largest ancient underground water cisterns found across Istanbul.
5. Feel like Rapunzel at the Galata Tower – Get a Panaroma view of Istanbul from the tower’s balcony.
6. Watch a Whirling Dervish show. While this is in fact a form of meditation, the music and trance makes this religious ceremony quite fascinating to watch.
7. Shop for leather at Arasta Bazaar.
8. Shop at Grand Bazaar for genuinely fake Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton and Football Jerseys. My husband was ecstatic with the Liverpool Jerseys I got him. You can also pick up Turkish Blue Eye or ‘Nazar’ souvenirs. Apart from being pretty, they are believed to protect against the evil eye.
9. Shop at Spice Bazaar for dry fruits, coffee and pickles.
10. Enjoy a Turkish Hamam.
11. Savour the local cuisine – Gozleme, Kumpir, Doner Kebap.
Gozleme is Turkish flatbread with a variety of fillings. You can find vegetarian options with potatoes, feta and spinach. Kumpir is essentially jacket potato. Crisp on the outside and fluffy inside, Kumpir can also be served with toppings like butter, cheese, ham.
12. Spend your afternoon over Turkish Coffee served with some Turkish Delight.
Turkish coffee is unfiltered coffee served without milk. The coffee beans are roasted, ground and simmered in a pot and served in a cup. Allow the grounds to settle before you take your sip of coffee bliss.
Note – If you or your friend is a coffee connoisseur, then don’t forget to pick up a traditional coffee pot and cups.
13. Dig in to some Baklava and Kadayif.
Layers of Filo dough separated by butter and chopped nuts, baked and then soaked in a syrup of honey and rosewater – Baklava is a slice of heaven. Kadayif is a less flaky, crispier and equally tasty version of Baklava.
14. Sit back and spend your evening at a Nargile café. Being from India, Nargile or Hookah is not something new to me but what good is travel if you don’t soak up the local traditions?
15. Plan a trip to Prince’s islands, an archipelago in the Marmara Sea. These islands are car free and incredibly peaceful. Spend your day swimming, hiking, biking or feeling royal in horse-drawn carriages.
You can also choose to go inside Topkapi Palace, Rumeli Castle and Dolmebache Palace. But unless you are a history buff, it might just end up being a lot of history to process in 2-3 days. Not to mention, they also have tickets priced on the higher side. Choose wisely.