Istanbul blew me away from the moment I set eyes on it. The structure of the city is just like many Chinese cities that I have been to, with never-ending apartment buildings in the suburbs and an older area in the city centre. I spend fifteen nights here all up and saw a lot less than most tourists would see in four days as I relaxed and spent a lot of time with friends. Most of these nights were spent an hour out in a suburban area, with five nights spent in Taksim. The suburban area was all large apartment buildings, massive shopping centres and crowded traffic. It was similar to the type of placed I lived in China and I felt right at home. This was made even more exciting by the snow that started on the second day and didn’t really stop for more than 24 hours the whole time I was there.
My days in the city centre involved the famous sights and silent streets, where tourists had become too scared to venture since a bomb attack while I was in the country area of Turkey. I stayed at Seyyah Hostel, a great little hostel in Taksim. Snowy days meant that even the locals barely set foot outside and the first time I saw the Hagia Sophia there was about ten people between it and the Sultan Ahmet mosque. This is one of the most visited places in the world so it was a beautiful and rare sight to see. I visited the area three times and it was pretty quiet each time.
Attractions: Sultan Ahmet Mosque and Hagia Sophia
Getting there: Catch the tram to Sultanahmet station and walk south east from there
Cost: Sultan Ahmet was free; Hagia Sophia was 30TL
The Sultan Ahmet mosque was an incredible sight. The colours of the tiles were unreal and it really made me feel small. An attempt at entering another mosque nearby meant that I put my headscarf on, tried to find the entrance and was approached by a group of students asking if I could do an interview with them. I took my headscarf off and started being filmed and asked questions regarding my music preference and where I am from. This finished and I put my scarf back on to be approached by another group of students, with the same assignment. I couldn’t say no to students, especially at a time where there was hardly any European students for them to interview. Off came my scarf again and I completed another interview on my taste in music. I don’t even have a favourite band so had no idea how to answer the questions. I gave up on seeing the mosque and decided to wander the streets for other attractions.
My friend and I went for a wander along the streets on a later day and found the finance museum. This was really interesting and we were both intrigued by how much extra work bank workers had to complete for simple tasks. Collecting money involved large deposit boxes onboard donkey led carts and money transfers involved a lot of paperwork. Unfortunately, the displays were described in Turkish. We also entered a sultans home with an art gallery leading to it.
Attraction: Türkiye İş Bankası Müzesi
Getting there: Catch the tram to Sirkeci and walk west to Hamidiye Cd, walk 200m and the building is on the left.
The Grand Bazaar was one of the main things I wanted to see in Istanbul, and I was lucky enough to go there twice. Leading up to the bazaar was the more local bazaar, which was a little cheaper than the Grand Bazaar. After walking through several streets we finally got to the Grand Bazaar and walked through every street, or so we thought. My later trip showed me a whole other area, the bazaar is huge. I loved speaking to the shop owners in my broken Turkish as they seemed quite shocked temporarily and then remembered they were trying to sell things and continued their sales pitch in Turkish. It was a funny ego booster with many men telling us how beautiful we were, and one man trying to buy me from my friend for twenty camels, two Ferrari’s and as many hand bags as she would like.
Attraction: Grand Bazaar
Getting there: Get off at the Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı tram station and walk north, or walk south east from the Galata bridge
The Hagia Sophia was more amazing than I ever imagined. I had been told by a few people that it was not as amazing as the Blue mosque, however I found that it was no comparison. The mosque is a mosque and Hagia Sophia is a museum in a building that was used as a pagan building, then Christian, then Islam. The renovations for each use can be seen from the different building materials used on the outside during each change. I loved how the cultures combined and the previous parts of the church were not destroyed. The art work was beautiful and lavish, although partially destroyed in many areas especially the mosaics. I regretted getting here at 4pm, the latest tourists are allowed in to the building, at least in winter. This only allowed me one hour to look around, which I felt wasn’t really enough for my style of admiring buildings. I love architecture and art so I could have spent a few hours in this building.
Two Christian churches on the Istiklal Cd in Taksim show how the Islamic people left the Christian buildings. These buildings are perfectly in tact and are beautiful to see inside. The Russian consulate is also along this street and is an impressive building, although it is tightly guarded. Everything on the street is rather expensive, although there are a few great eateries where you can choose from a variety of dishes from a cafeteria style system.
The streets of Istanbul have this crazy atmosphere. Everyone happily goes about what they are doing but they are all happy to talk. When I practiced my Turkish they wanted to talk to me even more. The only thing is that the men are a little bit too confident and I did get approached a few times by men while I was alone. They weren’t threatening but it was a little more than friendly that I didn’t feel so comfortable with. The art in the streets is amazing, and my favourite times of the day became after 10pm and before 10am, when all of the shop doors were closed revealing some awesome graffiti art. Some suburbs had huge amounts of art and I spent much of my time stopping to appreciate it. The streets surrounding Galata tower were particularly special. When I took too many photo’s I took a break in the Salt Galata library, my new favourite place to chill in Istanbul.
The Galata Tower itself gave a good view of the city from all angles. I went up on a very snowy day and saw all of the buildings covered in a layer of snow. I kept returning to the area and so saw the tower on a more sunny day as well. It has a pretty unusual history, considering it’s location which is now one of the main tourist areas. It was built as a prison and functioned as one at two points in it’s life. Over time it had various wooden structures built on to it, however each time they were destroyed by fire leaving the brick that still stands today. The top was also a watch tower for fires at one point and a view point to practice astrology at another time.
Another day a friend I met in Cappadocia was visiting Istanbul and had the idea to go for a bike ride on Büyükada island, an island about seventy minutes out of Istanbul by ferry. I only had one day that I could go and it was set to rain and snow. We had waterproof jackets so we decided to go anyway. The ferry ride was nice, giving a good view of much of the harbour. We arrived at the island, which clearly had a lot of infrastructure for tourists, however had no tourists present. There was bicycles lining the streets and about fifty horses in carts making there way around. All of the restaurants were open, but the only busy one was Starbucks. It was a little sad to see, however it meant bargaining was super easy. We approached a man to hire a bike and he offered bikes for 20TL each. This would normally be cheap, but I was hungry so told him that we would come back after eating. When we went to leave he told us 10TL per bike. We went and found food and came back to hire our bargain bikes.
Attraction: Büyükuda Island
Getting there: Take a ferry from the Kabataş port
Cost: 6 TL each way
My friend had heard of an old casino turned Prinkipo Greek Orthodox Orphanage that he wanted to see so we rode up the hill ending up at this massive timber building. It had long been abandoned and was fenced off and padlocked shut. The building looked like out of a horror film and the location overlooking the ocean just made it all the more spooky. The story is that there was no gambling or drinking allowed on the mainland of Istanbul so the Casino was built in 1898 to function as luxury accommodation and a casino, however after it was not approved it was donated to the Greek Orthodox Church to be used as an Orphanage. It was then neglected in 1964. Amazingly it is the second largest timber building in the world. Such a title in most parts of the world would see such a structure overrun with tourists, however this has somehow stayed under the radar.
I never realised how much there is to do in Istanbul, and feel like I have only just scratched the surface of this incredible city. It touched my heart how I never thought a big city could do and I fell in love with the art, history and people.