Puzzled by the title? Me too (does it work!?) – but let me explain; it’s my hackneyed way of announcing that I went abroad to the Turkish cultural behemoth over the festive period.
I flew out with my boyfriend Lacey on my 27th birthday – which was fittingly on the 27th December. We were planning to spend New Year’s Eve with his friends, but wanted to get a few days extra out of the extended break.
We headed to ‘Euroflash’ bar 360, at the top of a random building just off a busy shopping street. Having arrived in the city slightly later than planned and finding the lift tricky to kick into gear, we bumped into a kindly stranger who asked us where we were from, was delighted when we said London and promptly led us to a restaurant on the second floor, filled with locals who were confused by our presence; this was not 360 – no matter what the gent was saying. A young waiter pointed us in the right direction and we finally made it to the rooftop bar.
The food itself was fine – but expensive by Istanbul standards at 60 Turkish Lira for my sea bass main (around £14 – by comparison I had the same cooked to a higher standard for 25 TL the following evening). But we got to take a first night photo on the roof, next to a tower made of Carlsberg glass bottles.
On the subject of food, pretty much everything we ate was a bargain and tasted amazing (apart from one place that advertised Greek salad with feta and served it with smoked white cheese – an unsatisfactory swap). You could easily have a main for less than £6 at a proper restaurant and even feed two for less than £10, as we did at a kebab shop (which we referred to as ‘hipster kebab’ due to its trendy branding). It’d truly be a waste not to take advantage of the fresh fish, cooked by experts for next to nothing – there’s even fishermen who set up their kit on Galata Bridge every day.
It’s really hard to write a post about Istanbul without posting gazillions of photos of the cats and dogs that call its streets and derelict buildings home. In an effort to exercise restraint, I’ll advise animal fans to check out my Instagram for more furry snaps.
The reason there’s so many pets in the street is because the local council know their residents love animals, but don’t want them in their home. Therefore, they provide food and some shelters for the animals on the street and leave them to it – with dogs sporting plastic tags in their ears. That means the level of friendliness in the cats varies (some are incredibly friendly, others – including some adorable kittens – are more wary), but the dogs are very cheerful and not at all threatening.
We stayed at a little guest house, the Noble House Galata, a couple of minutes walk from Galata Tower, which had two steps made of tile – perilous in the onslaught of very deep, powdery snow. It seems that it’s common for Turkish hotel rooms to have showers in them – ours was in a corner of the room, with a toilet in a cupboard-like construction in another.
The photo above is from our second room in the guest house – our first didn’t have a working light in the ‘toilet cupboard’ and the shower was almost too small. Coupled with sheets dirtied by the unswept floor, we were desperate to move – luckily we were after two nights. By the end of our stay, I was almost sad to leave. Still, if you ever want to test a young relationship, try staying in the same guest house; using the loo in such close proximity to each other will show whether you’re in it for the long haul.
Being big on value, I trotted out into the shopping street on New Year’s Eve, I managed to grab some beauty bargains from a couple of shops – spending less than £6 on the haul above (eye pencils, face masks, nail polish, body lotion and razors – I may give the snail mask a go and write a post about it at a later date). The eye pencils, at about £1 each, aren’t the smoothest on my eyes, but the colours are lovely and stayed put during the NYE murder mystery party our friend Abi wrote and organised later that night.
But eating and shopping aside – and yes we went to the amazing Grand Bazaar, but found better prices for the same products on the hill by Galata Tower – where did we go?
We visited three mosques (and do take a headscarf or buy one from 5 TL if you’re female – I lived in not-too-tight jeans for my week there), including the Blue Mosque favoured by tourists, but I preferred the Suleiman Mosque, which was built during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent and where his tomb can be seen (and even entered). Less familiar to the crowds, you gain a sense of peace and have space to take in your surroundings. It’s also conveniently close to the Bosphorus and the Grand Bazaar.
There’s a wealth of things to do in Istanbul, and we picked up a five day museum pass for 85 TL (about £20) to use for the Topkapi Palace and Harem, the Archeological Museum, the Hagia Sofia and the Galata Mawlavi House Museum. The palace Harem, which required an extra ticket for non-pass holders, had much of its area under conservation, so wasn’t as grand as you’d expect – although the palace is in a spectacular condition and hugely popular with tourists keen to see Islamic relics and calligraphy.
The archeological museum is brilliant for explaining the rich history of Istanbul – including its Byzantine and Roman periods. It’s currently undergoing a makeover, but I’d absolutely recommend visiting its three floors of history.
The Hagia Sofia, a Byzantine church that became a mosque during the Ottoman reign before becoming a museum in the 20th century, is an absolutely stunning spectacle – with its mix of Islamic calligraphy and titles, and featuring partially uncovered golden mosaics from 1,000 years ago. It’s very busy, but massive – so you can actually move around unbothered!
On our last day in Istanbul, I went to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı (turkish bath), in my favourite area of the city, Tophane (it’s brilliant for boutiques, food and drinks). For 150 TL, I was stripped of all but my bikini bottoms, made to lie on a hot stone for 20 minutes, before being scrubbed, having masses of soap suds doused over me and getting a hardcore, brief back massage and a rinse – all sat by a sink surrounded by other ladies in the same situation. In other words, it’s not for people who are uncomfortable being touched by strangers (or seen in a very vulnerable position by them)! I wasn’t sure if I enjoyed the experience at first, but the massage was a godsend after walking up and down the numerous snow-laden hills of Istanbul for six days straight. (My ultimate tip – take walking boots with you.)
Travel around the city is made cheap and easy by purchasing an Instanbul Card (like an Oyster) for 7 TL. Unlike Oyster cards, one can be used by more than one passenger. All journeys – on metro, tram, bus and boat, costs 2.15 TL – which means you can take a boat to Asia for 50 pence.
After a week, I’m desperate to go back to the city already. There’s still so much to explore and some amazing food waiting to be tasted. And we’ve got a bit of credit on our Istanbul Card waiting to be spent…