It’s been a little over 3 months since Elzaan and I hopped on a Turkish Airlines plane headed for a week in Istanbul. At the time, we had no idea how much this trip would change not only how we see the world, but how we see travel. Now, after sifting through hours of footage together with thousands of photos we’re even more excited to share our experience with you. There has never been a truer case of ‘better late than never’, so go grab a snack, because you might be here a while and also…youre gonna get hungry.
If you want a quick taste of what a week in Istanbul is like, then we suggest watching our video below. If it seems a little crazy and chaotic, that’s good, it means we totally captured the feeling!
Istanbul is like no other city we’ve ever visited. The clash of East meets West is more than an overused cliche, its something that can only be experienced in a 3000-year-old city set over 2 continents. It is a land where burkas meet bikinis, where McDonald’s stands side by side with Mosques and where sheesha is as commonplace as Starbucks. Falling in love with this city is easy, it’s a historic and cultural experience second to none.
I had a brief love affair with Istanbul about 5 years ago on a small trip with friends but Elzaan and I fell totally head over heels in love with it on this trip. There’s something really magical going on here, something almost impossible to put into words (trust me I’m trying). We’re not sure if it’s the friendliness of the people, the food or the culture, but we’re pretty sure it’s a combination of all three, so I’m gonna do my best to give you a little taste of each.
With over 15 million citizens, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, yep, that’s roughly London and New York combined. You think New York has a buzz? Double it for Istanbul. This feels like the city that truly never sleeps. Whether you’re exploring the ancient mosques in Sultanahmet or hitting the nightlife in Galata, the energy is on maximum any time of day. We never got to bed before 1am, it’s impossible, you feel like you’re ‘turning in early for the night”. At 2am Istiklal Caddesi (the main shopping street in Galata) is a sea of people just going for a walk, eating street food and watching the myriad of street musician setting up for the night! Take a look up any side street and EVERY bar and restaurant is heaving with patrons, deep in passionate conversations (or arguments, we could never tell) as they stir, stir, stir their tea. This is at 10am, this is at 4am, it’s non-stop and incredible to witness.
“Isn’t that amazing” was perhaps the most overused phrase between Elzaan and I on this trip and perhaps the best way to give you an understanding of the people and the culture. So rather than tell you the Top 10 Things to do in Istanbul, or 7 mistakes not to make in Istanbul, I’m going to give you 3 examples of what made the city so incredible for us.
- The Adhan rings out from the minaret 5 times a day. It is the most beautiful sound flowing over the Bosphorus, down alleyways and into markets. It engulfs you from all sides. Some people stop what they’re doing and head off to prayer, some, take another sip from their beer and roll the dice into a fresh game of backgammon. Neither worries about the other! Isn’t that amazing?
- At first glance, Istanbul has got a serious street cat problem. They’re everywhere. But then you notice the little food bowls lying around, and the tiny multi-level cat houses constructed from odds and ends on the street corner. Then you notice people randomly stopping to feed or pet the cats, or cats jumping on to a strangers lap at a bar for cuddles…and then getting cuddles. You see, it turns out that rather than see the cats (and a couple of dogs too) as pests, they see them as pets. Everyone pulls together to look after the animals in this incredible shared pet system. There are even city-sponsored vets that you call to come and look after animals that are hurt or sick. Isn’t that amazing?
- The third example was turning up an alleyway to the sounds of local music. We stumbled on a Sheesha cafe that was in full swing. Sat down, ordered a beer a watermelon sheesha (as you do) and soaked it all in. The first thing that stood out, was the band playing their traditional instruments on tiny stools up against the wall. I was expecting old men in cardigans, I got twenty-something ‘dudes’ in jeans, jamming HARD! To make it better, everyone was singing along – well except us, of course, we didn’t know (or understand) the words – from granny to her 12-year-old grandson, everyone was just so festive. So, what’s so amazing about that? People love music…obvious…right? Music yes, culture no. Today’s kids don’t want to learn the songs of their parents, or their parent’s parents let alone the antiquated instruments. The mass embrace of culture from young to old was amazing to me because when we lose our culture, we lose our identity. – Yoh! That got deep!
Our favorite thing about any trip and always a massive part of our decision making is the food. It is believed that there are only three major cuisines in the world, Chinese French, and Turkish. This makes a lot of sense when you realize that the Ottoman empire ruled half of the Mediterranean and everything from Baghdad to Budapest for over 600 years. I mean… they controlled the spice trade and with all those spices you’re gonna get yourself some “a spiiicy meat-a-balls-uh” – which they totally have by the way… they’re called Koftas and they’re delicious!
I was embarrassingly lame on my first trip to Istanbul and didn’t really eat as local as I should have. At some point, I ate at Shake Shack… What the? Anyway! This trip, Elzaan and I went all in! So all in that I had to buy new pants halfway through the trip (that’s a true story).
The food in Istanbul is outstanding! Every meal feels like a feast with lots of little plates and dips and pita bread and reaching across the table and dipping and eating and sharing and dipping and eating. There was a lot of dipping. No meal, however, was as big a feast as a Turkish breakfast. We tried two places, Van Kahvaleti Evi and Kale and although Van Kahvaleti had a better atmosphere and Kale the better view both breakfasts were incredible! Turkish breakfast is a table (the whole table) piled with little plates of awesome. Cheese, olives, fresh tomatoes, pancakes stuffed with cheese, eggs fried with spinach, eggs scrambled with tomato and all served with…yeeep…dips! Don’t get me started on the dips! So many dips! Honey, clotted cream, chocolate spread, harissa, spiced yogurt, tahini. It was one of those “Isn’t this amazing” situations. Turkish breakfast is a 3-hour affair, this is not a grab and go situation, it is an experience unto itself served with lashings of hot tea! – Don’t leave without dipping a cheese stuffed pancake into honey, tahini and clotted cream. Trust me!
Truth be told, every meal was amazing and incredibly affordable (I hate the word cheap) even by South African standards. The food in Turkey is so fresh and seasonal that it needs very little to make it shine. A simple meal of mixed kebabs served with pita and dips (I did say there was a lot of dipping) brings an endless amount of flavors. There are far too many meals to mention here but I will leave you with 3 tips:
- Visit a ‘point-and-choose’ spot. It’s a cafeteria-style restaurant with dozens of different local specialties. This is where the locals go and the best way to experience a bunch of different flavors. We visited one on our first day and it sealed the deal for us on Turkish cuisine!
- Eat a Dürüm (Döner Kebap in a wrap) from a street vendor. Tell him to make it the way he likes it and always say yes to the fries! It might be a cliche but its a cliche for a reason. Ours was so good that halfway down the road we turned around to get another one! If you can, have it with an Efes beer! Ahhh…good ol’ Efes Pilsen!!
- Eat the baklava. All of it!! Just not all at once! Don’t make the mistake we made and try eating every variety in one sitting, there are too many varieties and you will need a new pair of pants. Make some time each day for a piece or two and of course, don’t forget your Turkish coffee, you’re gonna need it!
For those of you who never paid attention in History class (like yours truly) let me give you a double quick catch up as to what makes Istanbul such a significant historic city. Although inhabited as early as 3000BC, it was the Greek colonists who originally set up shop and named the city Byzantium in the 7th Century. Byzantium became part of the Roman Empire in the early 100’s BC where it eventually became Constantinople (after Constantine the Great – imagine his following if had Instagram?) 400 years later! What’s the big deal? Well, it was the largest and richest urban center in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea which is why the Ottoman Turks conquered and renamed Istanbul in 1453 making it the third and last capital of the Ottoman Empire. Boom! Like I said, double quick!
So what’s the relevance? Well, simply put, the layers upon layers of history reveal themselves all over the city. From 2500-year-old columns to modern day suspension bridges it is an architectural ‘all you can eat seafood buffet’ for the eyes! We visited pretty much every monument you should see and had endless “Isn’t this amazing’ moments. Detailing the museums and monuments is something better left to google, so I’ll keep it short with the 3 touristy things we enjoyed the most.
- With over 4000 stores the Grand Bazaar is the original shopping mall! We visited multiple times and still never saw the whole thing. If you’re looking for something, anything, this is where you will find it (even if it’s down a passage and behind a closed door somewhere). Get ready to bargain…hard! It’s all part of the experience, so accept the cup of tea you’re offered, put a smile on your face and find that sweet, sweet deal!
- Take a public ferry for a Bosphorus cruise. That’s right, the public ferries operated by Şehir Hatları will give you some of the most insane views of the city on a 2-hour return trip for just a couple of Lira. Sit upstairs on the deck, grab a cup of tea and watch the landscape change while you feed the seagulls!
- If you have the time, try to catch all the big monuments. Brave the queues and get to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern. If however, time is not on your side, I suggest visiting Dolmabahçe Palace. This tour for us was a great encapsulation of East meats West during the final reigning years of the Ottoman Empire! Make sure you don’t miss the Harem : )
We were lucky enough to be guests of Turkish Airlines on our trip to Istanbul where we had the privilege of flying business class on the 11 hour trip from Cape Town. With, Turkish Airlines placing in the top 10 business class offerings for 2018 (Skytrax World Airline Awards) it’s fair to say that we were pretty excited. The truth is, we don’t get to fly business class much (cause money) so every opportunity brings with it a delightful dilemma! Do you drop that seat flat, pop your noise canceling headphones on and curl up with your blanky to experience what actually sleeping 10 000 feet in the sky feels like? Or….do you stay up all night watching movies, popping champagne and eating seafood (on an actual plate) while your chair gently massages you in any of it’s 10 000 seating combinations. It’s a real ‘rock and hard place’ scenario…except the rock is champagne and the hard place is actually a soft comfy one. In the end, with 11 hours on board, we did a little of both. We had enough time to experience the onboard chef and his dining cart of treats over a candlelit dinner (for reals) as well as enough real sleep to ensure we could hit the ground running the next day!
There is so much I feel I haven’t covered about this amazing place, but I do hope I’ve given you a little taste of a city that has you constantly saying “Isn’t this amazing”. I can safely say that Istanbul is hands down our favorite city in the world and has inspired us to search out destinations that truly show you how different the world is! We can’t wait to go back and explore the rest of Turkey.
If you’re flying anywhere with Turkish Airlines, I highly recommend you make use of the free stopover in Istanbul detailed on the website. To be honest, I don’t think a stopover is enough and think you need at least 4 days to really take it all in, but I do think a day is all you need to fall in love with it. A big plus about visiting Turkey as a South African is the free Visa obtained by simply applying for an e-visa via the Turkish Airlines website.
Okay. Travel safe and stay fancy.