Istanbul is a place that has been on our wish list for many years – the blend of East meets West and the cacophony of smells, colours and sights allured us. Fuelled by our love of Jordan, we urged for an opportunity to engage once more in Arabic culture – ideally without the expense of a long haul flight. So Istanbul it was….the romance of the onion domes across the horizon, the lure of the bustle of the Grand Bazaar and the promise of moonlight bouncing off minarets had us encapsulated as we set off eagerly for our 8th Wedding Anniversary, full of intrigue and a dream of the Eastern promise.Now, when I say Istanbul did not live up to our expectations I do not want you for a minute to worry about this or draw any conclusion – we merely had a very fixed image in our mind, one that did not live up to reality…call it the ‘guidebook view of a destination’. We imagined old meeting new directly side by side… chopsticks vs kebabs, Asian temples vs mosques, glamour vs rustic……All these do exist – but they are separated by the beautiful Bospherous, so they exist side by side but not in the way guidebooks lead you to believe.What this does create, however, is an amazing city of two halves which co-exist but their undoubted influence never quite permeates each other to the extent expected, leaving you as a tourist free to decide where to roam and what influence to explore. Whilst this can be a slight disappointment upon arrival, it has no longevity – because what you begin to realise is that this city of two halves is perfectly preserving its duality, culture and its heritage…so much so that during our 4 day visit we fell so much in love with the European side that we did not even venture to the Asian side to explore as a tourist! We could not tear ourselves away from the magical mosaics of the Blue Mosque, the warm welcome of the stall holders and the eye watering views from the rooftops of Sultanahmet. It is probably one of few the holidays that we have truly enjoyed immersing ourselves in the ‘typical tourist scene’
Our most favourite memories stem from the Blue Mosque – from the preserved and quaint rooftops of Sultanahmet. We observed it dawn and dusk, over breakfast and evening drinks. Eiffel Tower aside, it is one of the few building that could reduce me to tears. It’s so simple and elegant in its structure, but so imposing. Its mass is only truly observed from its interior or a distance. It calls you to scan the skyline for it, no matter where you are in the city. It cries out for observation, for reverence, for appreciation. I’d highly recommend dedicating several occasions during your visit to see it during daylight and nighttime. If you do this you will be rewarded with the views of dazzling onion domes reflecting both sun and moonlight and of the calls to prayer at dawn and dusk – it won’t fail to make your hairs stand on end.
Some of the best vantage points we found for the Blue Mosque are as follows:
1. Standing directly in front of the Blue Mosque (so your back is directly toward Hagia Sophia), walk left in the Blue Mosque gardens until you reach a small stone wall – from here you will have an ariel view of Arasta Bazaar to your left and a stunning view of the blue mosque to your right. I’d recommend you arrive here shortly before dusk with an appetite and watch the light fade over the domes, turning your attention to the ariel view of the local rooftops and restaurant below when your stomach starts to call. If you really want to plan ahead, do as we did and point, wave and engage over the rooftops to the market stalls below…this could be your most unique photo opportunity, or the most original way of making a dinner reservation! What’s more, this view costs nothing.
2. We researched our accommodation well and chose to stay at Best Point Hotel in Sultanhamet, which had a tiny roof terrace looking out over the Bospherous, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Its panoramic views might not be open to non residents but there are several other bars and restaurants on Akbiyik Cd and Mimar Mehmet Ağa Caddesi that offer similar views and, off season, you might be lucky enough to have the view all to yourself. For example, we visited Sofa Cafe, which is rustic and requires altitude sickness pills to walk the floors through the hostel to reach the top – but bear with it, order a drink of two (to the waiters’ dismay as they hike back downstairs), and you will be rewarded with not the best service nor drinks ever, but certainly some of the best views of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, at prices that do not burst the bank.
Other views to capture in Istanbul include;
3. Take a river cruise from the European side of the Bosporus. It takes about 2 hours in total and you’ll be rewarded with views of local mansions, holiday homes, floating bars and restaurants, navy vessels returning to port and stunning countryscapes, in the hillsides of which nestle abandoned fortresses.
4. The views from the city trams…if nothing else, the smugness of avoiding the back to back traffic jams on the roads are a reward in itself. Joking aside, in this lies a very serious learning point – avoid road travel at all cost in European Istanbul and instead elect for the tram or your very own two feet. Traffic jams are common place – it’s not unusual for it to take 2-3 hours to get to the airport by car – a journey that takes less than an hour on the very cost efficient,clean and reliable trams. What’s more – when you delve into Sultanhamet, cars are next to useless as they cannot explore the hidden alleyways and bazaars of old Istanbul and you’ll miss out on so much exploration.
A very reliable (family) source has also informed me that taxi travel in Istanbul is to be avoided – especially from the port for arriving cruise ships. If you elect for a taxi (as they did), expect to travel at many, many miles an hour with a taxi driver who has a confident disregard for the road and it’ll cost far more than you initially bargained for. Instead, grab your zutons (tickets aka plastic tokens) from the sellers by tramstops and hop on and off as you please (you insert your zuton into exit gates on the platform as you disembark).