Istanbul: A cultural delight

My husband and I always end up booking holidays at the last minute and our trip during Easter 2015 was no different. We wanted to travel somewhere outside the UK to a destination that did not require a lengthy visa process (to travel to most European countries from the UK, Indian nationals require a Schengen visa which must be obtained prior to travel). Our research brought us to Turkey which offered immediate e-Visas to tourists for as little as $20. And before we knew it, we were off for a 4 day trip to Istanbul…

Based on TripAdvisor recommendations, we booked ourselves into Marmara Guesthouse, a small yet delightful B&B based in the historic Sultanahmet area of this megacity. The Aytekin family who run the guesthouse were friendly — taking time to chat with guests and recommending places to visit. We had a charming room and looked forward to the delectable homemade Turkish breakfast served every morning on the rooftop terrace overlooking the Marmara Sea.

With just 4 days in the city, there was so much to do in Sultanahmet itself. We were lucky that historic sites such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace were within walking distance of the B&B.

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to, is a sight to behold. Both tourists and worshippers flock to the mosque everyday and you can hear the prayers echo outside its majestic walls. The Hagia Sophia is another exquisite building in the area. Once a church, paintings of Christ and Seraphim mosaics adorn its high ceilings. It was later converted into a mosque, and today is a museum that attracts thousands of visitors. We spent more than half a day visiting the courtyards and buildings of Topkapi Palace. In spite of the throng of tourists and students on a field trip, we were transported to the Ottoman Empire and were immersed in the stories of the sultans who lived and ruled during that era.

Hagia Sophia

A trip to Istanbul is incomplete without visiting the famous Taksim Square. The quickest way to get here is via the Istanbul Metro. From the Square, a tram ride or a walk down to Galata Tower via İstiklâl Caddesi is highly recommended. We chose to walk down this fascinating route which had several boutiques, stores selling books and musical instruments, cafes and restaurants serving scrumptious food, nightclubs, etc. It was interesting to see the modern seeping into the fabric of this ancient city.

Taksim Square

After visiting the Tower and crossing the Galata Bridge, we stopped for lunch at Eminönü. There were several tiny stalls selling freshly prepared fish. A must have is balik ekmek (fish in a bun with salad) typically had with fresh fruit juice on the western side of the bridge.

The city’s famous bazaars cannot be missed. The Spice Bazaar in Eminönü offers a range of items from spices and herbs to dry fruits and sweets. We also spent a wonderful evening around the magnificent Grand Bazaar looking at crafts and other items and bargaining at shops selling jewellery and beautifully sewn shawls.

When it comes to food especially for kebab lovers, Istanbul is heaven. The pistachio and birecik kebabs at Hamdi Restaurant in Eminönü were one of the best we had eaten. Recommended to us by our hosts, the restaurant had a wonderful ambience and delicious food with a fantastic view of the Bosphorus. It was a great way to spend our last night in the city.

Dinner at Hamdi Restaurant

It’s nearly a year since we visited Istanbul. Thinking of the long walks on cobblestone roads, munching kestane (roasted chestnuts) while taking in the rich history of this old city, stopping to have ice-cream and baklava (a crazy combination!) at a Mado cafe or drinking some strong Turkish coffee, and not forgetting the wonderful hospitality, Istanbul is a cultural delight surely not to be missed.

What we saw and experienced was only a small bit of this beautiful country and there is so much more to see. That’s the best part; it gives us all the more reason to visit Turkey again.

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