Everyone raved to me about Istanbul – now I know why. If you haven’t been, my advice is to put it on your list, along with my top 10 things to do in this great city.
As I write this, I am sitting in an outdoor café just outside the famous Blue Mosque here in Istanbul. We’ve been coming here everyday since we’ve been here, as the Turkish coffee is so good.
We’re gearing up for a filming adventure on the Aegean Sea with APT, but believe it or not for the first time in eight years of filming our travel series I’ve decided to indulge and have added a few days onto the beginning of my trip (I know, it’s bizarre that it’s taken me this long to do) and just sitting here watching the world go by is so good for the soul. This city, which spans across both Europe and Asia, is so alive.
Anyway back to my coffee… It’s been passionately made by our new friend Moustafa who barely speaks a word of English. Now, I don’t know much more than “Evet” (yes) in Turkish, but every day he has seen us coming, given us a wave and the ritual of making his coffee begins. First he pokes the hot coals, then slowly brews the coffee… About nine minutes later (exactly, he says) he set up our little trays with our little cups, and of course, perfectly powdered Turkish Delight.
Through a friend who is translating for us, Moustafa shares with me how he has been here making coffee for over 40 years. “Family and friends are the most important thing to us Turks” he says with a smile, “so what better way to spend my life than bringing people together with my special coffee.” Moustafa’s warm-hearted welcome set the tone of our trip.
The cosmopolitan city is overflowing with beauty, iconic buildings and rich history. Our days have been spent on foot, walking and walking until we could walk no more. Our nights are reserved for watching the sun set over the Marmara Sea on one of the many rooftop bars with a cold beer and wonderful meze, the perfect accompaniment to long conversations about the day.
Which brings me to my recommendations of the top 10 things to do in Istanbul:
1. Of course, try the coffee!
2. Visit the old city, also known as Sultanahmet – the oldest part of Istanbul and home to most of the city’s historical sites. We lost ourselves wandering the streets.
3. Visit the Blue Mosque. In the old city, it’s one of Turkey’s most photographed buildings and one of my favourite things to do in Istanbul. Listening to the prayer call and then watching the sunrise behind the mosque with its landmark six minarets is simply magical. It was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet in the 1600’s and stepping inside, there is such a feeling of peace as people from all over the world gather in its beauty. Blue tiles adorn the interior, giving it is commonly used name.
4. Hagia Sophia (also in the old city, opposite the Blue Mosque) is the second most visited museum in Turkey, and truly stunning. It was a Greek church, and later an imperial mosque, which was turned into a museum in 1935 by the republic of Turkey. You can see both the mosaics of the church and the Arabic scripts of the mosque – a celebration of the country’s rich history.
5. The Grand Bazaar. One of the oldest and biggest undercover markets in the world! Think lots of scarves, jewellery, lanterns, men that speak eight languages and piles of Turkish delight. While it’s a little chaotic and touristy (and watch your wallet) we had a lot of fun chatting with the locals. I think my best line was “Hello madam, come into my store so I can sell you something you don’t need!” Sure enough that man did sell me a hat (for Clint) that he certainly didn’t need!
6. Spice Market. As soon as you are near the entrance of this wonderful market, the aroma of the spices spill out onto the street. Located down by the docks in front of the enormous mosque, the grounds are filled with hundreds of pigeons, corn carts and sizzling kebabs! We could barely move inside the market, but the vibe was incredible, and it didn’t stop me stocking up on some of the wonderful spices.
7. Topkapi Palace. An amazing museum and gardens that are simply stunning. Located on the water, the palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years (1465 – 1856). I found the stories of the Sultans (and their Harem) truly fascinating. At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4000 people and includes many fine examples of Ottoman architecture, not to mention large collections of treasures and jewellery.
8. Taksim Square – in the “new” city, is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. Taksim Square is home to the monument of the Republic, commemorating the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 following the Turkish War of Independence. Surrounded by high-end hotels and restaurants, it’s also at the end of Independence Avenue, which is a long pedestrian shopping street filled with high-end shops that we could have wandered through for days!
9. Eat a Turkish Kebab. I can’t begin to tell you how much I loved the kebabs and they are literally on every corner. Absolutely mouth watering.
10. Have a Turkish Bath! The one regret that I have as I didn’t quite get to this, but all of my friends say it is amazing, invigorating and rather character building…. Next time!
Oh, a bonus one for you – make sure you end your day having a drink at one of the many rooftop bars watching the sun go down over the city. Being a peninsula and surrounded by water to the north, east and south, Istanbul is just beautiful.