Istanbul has been on my bucket list for a while now. I’ve never been to Asia before, and a trip to Istanbul, which a half-European, half-Asian city, seemed like a good way to dip my toe into the Asian scene without being completely immersed and overwhelmed. Luckily, I’ve been racking up the KLM miles for work, and a few months ago I finally earned enough points for a freebie flight to Turkey. I convinced Amie (meet Amie here, here, and here) to join me, and a few days later our tickets were booked and were planning our fifth European adventure together.
I won’t lie – looking at Turkey’s geographic location on a map beforehand was a bit unnerving. ‘Hey, I want to go to a country that borders Syria and Iraq . . . ‘ said no ever. Family and friends in the States voiced a loud and conservative view on how ‘safe ‘Istanbul actually was, compared to many of my European friends who had actually paid the amazing Istanbul a visit in the past few years. So I was excited, a bit nervous, and completely mystified as to how the trip would actually unfold. Having now survived four days in Istanbul, wow, do I have some stories for you.
The first word that comes to mind when I try to describe Istanbul is ‘sensory’. It’s truly a city of diverse tastes, sounds, sights, textures, and scents. You could easily become consumed in the ‘muchness’ of it all – it’s both overwhelming and delightful. Istanbul is swarming with people, you’re constantly getting heckled at on the streets, everything is for sale at a bartered price, and there’s always something more to be had, sampled, or explored. But before I get into the markets or the mosques, let me first tell you about our accommodation We were staying at Barok Hotel, which I chose based on the excellent, central location in Fatih. The interior looked totally cheesy and they had free breakfast and wifi, so we went for it.
Yes, the room was every bit as tacky as it looked on the website, red plush bed runners and all. Our bathroom even had a Turkish wash basin, with a small bowl for bathing (more on those when I tell you about our Turkish bathhouse adventure . . . .) I arrived at the hotel at 1am (after being horribly scammed by a cab driver) and then spent a good 45 minutes talking to the concierge about where to go and want to do the next day. By 2am I was exhausted and fell into bed. It felt like only moments later that Amie was knocking on my door. It was 11am and her 9.30am flight had landed in Istanbul right on time. First item on our list was food. We were starving and had been recommended a lunch visit to Pandeli. However, we found Pandeli impossible to locate and ended up eating street pretzels instead . . . .
. . . . before giving up completely and swooping into the next restaurant we stumbled upon. We chose a basic looking cafe along the water, which was located less than 10 steps from our pretzel cart friends. However, although we motioned to the terrace, we were pushed into an elevator by a Turkish man who didn’t speak a word of English. We exchanged worried glances, but decided to roll with it. The doors closed and we rode upwards towards our fate. Turns out we had unknowingly landed ourselves at Hamdi Restaurant, which is well known for their stunning rooftop views of Istanbul. Blown away by our luck, we settled into our seats and went on to order half of the menu. Humus, meatballs, roasted eggplant, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, turkish pizza, and tomato salad. I couldn’t help but to pop up every ten minutes or so to soak in the view from the balcony. Our dishes arrived one by one, fresh from the kitchen, and after a long leisurely lunch, we were ready to take on the bustling Istanbul below. We started our adventure at the Spice Bazar, which was just downstairs from the restaurant.The market was packed, and for the first time it was very obvious we had left home far, far behind. As we wound into the spice market, the minarets began to burst with their call for prayer, and suddenly we were totally immersed in Turkey. Despite the blaring calls, Turkish shopkeepers still beckoned us to their stalls. Truth be told, they beckoned Amie. As a beautiful blond bombshell, she attracted a LOT of attention in a very brunette nation. I’m pretty sure she was called Barbie, my beauty, Shakira, darling, sweet sister, and Angel at least fifty times. I felt like the ugly older step-sister in comparison, but at the same time had a blast teasing my beautiful Angel friend ;)Despite the heckling, we still managed to taste, smell, and explore a variety of stalls, packed with dried fruits, spices, teas, and sweets.We stocked up on gifts for friends and a few cheeky selfish presents, and then decided to explore in the sunshine a bit.I should tell you now that I have many cat photos in store. Istanbul is swarming with stray felines, which is both wonderful and sad. Most people in the city take care of the cats – for example I saw many restaurant owners putting special scraps of left over food outside for the cats to eat. For the most part they’re quite friendly, and will welcome a little scratch or a kind hello. So although they don’t have homes, they are treated well and tend to enjoy the city at large as their home, which isn’t so bad as long as you’re fed regularly and treated kindly, right??Can we all take a moment to appreciate my fanny pack here? The mosque is also pretty cool ;)We swirled through gardens, tried on purple dresses, and made friends with bears. We then made our way around the castle, and got our first glimpse of the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was constructed in 537 as a Greek Orthodox basilica. Later, it was converted into an imperial mosque, and today it stands as a museum.In between our history lessons, we guzzled fresh pomegranate juice, which is sold at juice carts on almost every corner in Istanbul. It’s tart and addictive, and a treat we sampled at least twice daily!Our last historical view of the day was of the Blue Mosque, which we gazed upon for the first time just as the sun set. It was an architectural sight to behold, and we swore to make our way inside later in the trip. However, at that moment we were both exhausted and still stuffed from lunch, so we went back to the hotel to watch a movie.
v v Some cool shops around the corner from our hotel.
I’m pretty sure I was sound asleep by 9pm. All in all an awesome first day in Istanbul with one of my favorite friends :)