Whenever Nicola and I have been to eastern Europe, we always comment how much we enjoy the Ottoman architecture, coffee, food and arts. So it was probably time we headed to Ottoman HQ, also known as Istanbul.
We had booked a few nights at the Galata Istanbul Hotel MGallery, just on the edge of Beyoğlu. A converted bank, the hotel opened about a year ago and promised a great breakfast buffet, views over the old town, and a comfortable bed, all for a fairly reasonable price. The area of Beyoğlu also came highly-recommended, as the home of good restaurants, bars and life away from the tourist traps. I’d certainly recommend both the hotel and the area if you’re looking for a little place for your first trip to Istanbul.
On our first day in Istanbul we decided to cover the top tips from the guidebooks, which are largely based in the Sultanahmet area of the city, home to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia. As the Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, we made sure we were all appropriately covered, both in long trousers, and with Nicola’s head covered. We queued for a few minutes, then took off our shoes at the entrance and went in.
My first thought was that the carpet was far squishier than I was expecting. A very deep pile. And my second thought was that we wished they’d do less renovation work. The famous dome, and the main architectural highlight of the mosque, was entirely covered with scaffolding, which was a real shame. What we could see of the tiles and paintings were impressive, but we decided we should come back when it’s finished for a proper look.
Hagia Sophia, just across the square from the Blue Mosque, used to be an Orthodox Church. In 1453 it became a mosque, then was converted to a museum more recently. I don’t want to criticise religion here, but I’m not convinced they did the best conversion job from church to mosque. The conversion seems to be limited to a few massive canvases with Arabic inscriptions where there were once Christian paintings. Many of the mosaics of Mary and Jesus are still on the wall. It felt a bit like when Bunnings Warehouse changed back to Homebase and they didn’t have the budget or the energy to remove all traces of the previous branding.
With the two main religious sites seen, and after a quick look at the Topkapi Palace gardens, we headed in the direction of the Grand Bazaar. One of Nicola’s projects in our little flat has been painting the hallway. A large wall had been earmarked for a ‘Turkish carpet’, so we went in search of one.
We were fully expecting the whole Turkish carpet selling experience, and I’m pleased to report that’s exactly what we got. A very hospitable chap sat us down in his shop, bonded with us, asked where we’re from, offered us tea, and started digging out carpet after carpet and unfurling them on the floor. After about an hour we had narrowed our selection down to about ten carpets, none of which were likely to even be the right size. We showed him a photo of the wall where it was going to go, and with very little information or scale, he assured us that it would be exactly the right size. He then revealed that the carpet Nicola preferred was going to be about £150. He assured us that he could barely go any lower, as he’d make a huge loss. We bartered, and before long we were at £100. By this point he was fully explaining how he’d never be able to face his family again for giving us such a bargain. Ten minutes later, it was £80: “do not ever tell anyone in England I have given such great discount”.
Despite our incredible discount, it was still far more than we wanted to spend on a carpet we didn’t particularly like, and which certainly wouldn’t fit on the wall. Then came the final push to sell, telling Nicola that she had wasted his time. To be fair to the bloke, she had. But then about two minutes later, at the next shop, for a near-identical carpet, the bidding started at £40.
After an afternoon of wasted negotiations, disappointed carpet salesmen and pile after pile of carpets, we eventually settled on a tapestry instead of a carpet, and bought a lovely hand-stitched embroidery of some pomegranates for the wall. With that sorted we left the frenzied Grand Bazaar and went off in search of some food.
When you think of Turkish food, you perhaps think of kebabs. But Istanbul’s kebabs are nothing like the ones served in drab UK laybys at 3am. The area around the grand bazaar was full of brilliant little places to eat, a rabbit warren of alleyways. Cigarette smoke and kebab smoke combine and made swirling patterns above coffee shop doorways. We stopped at a little kebab place called Dönerci Şahin Usta, barely a window in the wall, but meant to be the best in the city. Here we bought two kebabs in fresh pittas. They were nothing like I’ve had after stumbling out of a nightclub. They were delicious, smoky and flavoursome, and we had them with a drink of ayran, a savoury yoghurty drink which Nicola did not like one bit.
As we walked around the alleyways surrounding the Grand Bazaar, we’d turn a corner, and the setting sun would silhouette the minarets at the end of the street, casting long shadows along the cobbles. Just before the sun disappeared, the call to prayer echoed out across the rooftops, and the whole thing felt very Turkish indeed. It was great.
The other food we had in Istanbul was equally as good as our kebabs. At every restaurants we visited, they were offering fresh fish, spiced meats and beautifully chargrilled vegetables.
The best by far was Meze by Lemon Tree, in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood, where Nicola and I stood on a little balcony by the display fridge to choose our plates. We chose a mix of hot and cold mezze including lamb, marinated beef, pide breads, monkfish in red wine, and sea bass with apricots and almonds. The waiter kept bringing over new plates of food, we kept eating them, and the whole thing was very reasonable indeed.
After another dinner at Antiochus (good but, nowhere was as good as Lemon Tree) we headed to 360Istanbul, a bar on the top of an İstiklal office block, for some drinks. I’m not sure whether there was a special event happening, or if it was just a standard evening, but after climbing the stairs we were faced with a silk dancer suspended from the ceiling, and a fairly aggressive saxophonist, trumpeting in diners’ faces. We headed out onto the terrace, and watched in glee as people inside were cornered at their table and blared with the saxophone.
When in Istanbul, everyone recommends taking a trip along the Bosphorus Strait, so we boarded a boat from Eminönü Pier (only costing a few Lira, don’t be fooled by the touristy ones which charge 25€ and over) and took a trip along the Golden Horn inlet towards the Bosphorus. A lot is written about this stretch of water being the divide between Europe and Asia. If you ask me (which nobody did), you could barely tell the difference between the two shores from the boat, with the architecture, land and views looking fairly similar to one another. I suspect it may have been more pronounced back in the day.
The boat went as far as the towering Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, then headed back towards Eminönü Pier. There certainly seems to be a lot of investment into Istanbul at the moment, with large scale building projects everywhere you look, including the vast Galata Port, opening Istanbul up to cruise ships from 2020. One of the most significant projecta is a giant mosque, Çamlıca Masjid, on the highest hill of the city, built at the request of President Erdoğan’s party, by construction firms owned by President Erdoğan’s school friends, which I’m sure is all fine.
Back on dry land, we headed to the spice market, where Nicola bought no spice, but instead bought some flower teas and Turkish Delight. We spent some time trying to work out whether they call it just ‘Delight’.
For our last evening in Istanbul, we headed to the rooftop bar of our hotel, which looked out across the Golden Horn. We watched the boats coming and going as the sun went down behind the mosques on the horizon, pointing out all of the places we’d walked around the city over the last few days. I also took about a million photos of the sunset, which in hindsight all looked identical.
Of the various cities I’ve visited over the last few years, Istanbul is probably one of my favourites. There’s so much going on, the food is great, the people are friendly, and it’s an absolute feast for the senses. I’d definitely recommend it.
We stayed at: The Galata Istanbul Hotel MGallery (thegalataistanbul.com)
We ate at: Meze by Lemon Tree (mezze.com.tr)
We ate the best kebab ever at: Dönerci Şahin Usta (lonelyplanet.com/turkey)
We got the boat from: Eminönü Pier – look for ‘Şehir Hatları’ (sehirhatlari.istanbul)