14/07/2019

TRAVEL | ISTANBUL WEEKEND

So my dream finally became real and I booked a last minute trip to Istanbul ! It was just for a few days, pretty much unplanned, all I wanted to do was to see the diamond at the Topkapi palace...

How to travel to Istanbul? 


Kayak.com is my best friend when it comes to booking plane tickets. My return trip booked less than a week in advance only cost me £150 and I flew with Turkish Airlines - I was so excited to fly with them as they are one of the fanciest airlines in the world. I could've paid less if I had chosen to land in a different airport but I figured Atatürk was the easiest airport to commute to and from. All the flights were roughly £140-150 anyway. 
The flight was 3h30 long from Heathrow T2. In Turkish Airlines economy, the seats are very comfortable, more than usual for "short" flights and yay to in-flight films and entertainment thanks to the screen in the head rest. I watched "A Simple Favor" and "Breaking In" and poof we were landing ! We had food served and refreshments. My poor self was not expecting this kind of service for a "short" economy flight. The only thing is that, Turkish Airlines or not, if you are tall like me, in economy, there's no leg room. Meh. 
From the U.S. you can fly with Qatar Airways with a stop in Doha. I flew with Qatar Airways to go to Shanghai once and it was by far the best experience I had with an airline, even in economy. 

Where to stay in Istanbul ?

We had a room in the Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul and I had no idea it was a five star hotel, one of the most coveted in Istanbul. It had many restaurants and cafés; a rooftop with a stunning view on the Bosphorus (I can only imagine, it was closed in winter); a spa with a pool, jacuzzi, hamam and sauna; a gym; a rooftop pool (again, closed in winter). The Café Swiss restaurant is the third best dinner place in Istanbul according to Foursquare. We had dinner here once, wasn't very impressed but there is indeed a magnificent view on the Bosphorus
To be honest, I didn't pay for the room but I'm sure it was pretty expensive so I'd recommend having a look on the usual Booking.com and friends to find a nice place in Istanbul. I'm thinking that when I come back, I want to stay in a nice villa or hotel on the Bosphorus shores, maybe on the Asian side...





What to do in Istanbul ? 


As I mentioned before, this was a very last minute and unplanned trip. Also, I was still suffering from a bad cold when I landed very early in the morning in Istanbul. When I arrived at the hotel I collapsed only to wake up at 4pm. My first day was pretty much gone. But here is what to do:

  • Check out the Bosphorus
I immediately fell in love - like real love - with this majestic river. The view is unbelievable. For 20TL (3,50€/£3) - but apparently you can find cheaper deals - we hopped on a cruise on the Bosphorus from Beşiktaş. It was 1h30 long and we cruised by the European shore, under the Bosphorus bridge and then headed to the Asian shore. We decided to hop off in Göksu because it was super cute, like Venice canals, for an hour and then hopped on the boat back to Beşiktaş. You will see various mosques, various palaces, medieval castles, impressive villas, mediterranean promenades along the river with cafés and ice-cream parlours. It looked like the Promenade in Nice, or the one in Santa Monica in California. The houses on the hills reminded me on Italy. Life is sweet on the Bosphorus !









  • The Old City
The Old City of Istanbul concentrates the highlights of the town. In the same neighborhood you'll find the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, the Bazar, Topkapi palace and the spice market
You can visit the Blue Mosque for free when it's not prayer time. Women will need to pick up headscarves for free to enter the building. Everyone is given a plastic bag to put their shoes into before entering the mosque. You'll learn a little about islam if like me you don't know anything - or close to anything - about it, which is always good. The architecture inside is worth the peak. Please be respectful as some visitors actually come to worship in the building. 
It only takes 15-30 minutes to complete the visit. 
Aya Sophia is on the opposite side of the Blue Mosque. It is open for visit everyday but on Mondays which is exactly the day I picked to go... My sister visited it but wasn't very impressed. Please note that as of now - January 2019 - there are restoration works being done in both Aya Sophia so there are scaffoldings in the buildings. Apparently, just like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the scaffoldings have been there for ages since they were there when my grand-parents visited twenty years ago...
A short walk down the street from Aya Sophia is Topkapi palace which I was very excited to visit ! Click here to find out why. Turns out, as we were queuing to buy tickets, I noticed the access to the Imperial Treasury was closed. We asked why and the guy said "restoration, might open tomorrow or next year". Ok mate. I was very sad but that gave me another good excuse to come back. As my sis and I are not museum girls we decided not to visit Topkapi and headed to the Bazar instead.
The Bazar is a maze. For real. Be careful if you do not want to get lost and wander for hours - if not days - in this market. It is made of a gigantic building with more than a dozen of entrance gates - they all have a police officer and metal detectors. In the building you'll find hundreds, thousand of stalls selling counterfeit luxury goods (bags, shoes, clothes, tech...), food, utensils, carpets, Turkish delights... I am not going to lie, I was very disappointed by the Bazar that I imagined more as a picturesque colorful oriental market but was just another tourist trap. Then we hunted down the Egyptian spice market, which looked a bit more like what I expected but still very much like a tourist trap. The good thing though is that the two buildings are impressive. I would advise looking up while visiting the two places.
Please note that if you're not ok with playing along with the vendors who will call you and try to invite you in their shop at EVERY SINGLE STEP you make, then don't go in the bazar. It's a cultural thing, you don't have to be an ass and be like "he's harassing me", he's not.
If you happen to visit the Old City during a warm and sunny day and need to take a break from the heat, I'd recommend to visit the Basilica Cistern. It's underground, the temperature is low, it's relaxing and quick to visit. The cistern used to be the Palace's water reservoir. I liked the gloomy horror film vibe. Just imagine being sent back in the days down there with just a candle or a lantern. I'd die. The visit only cost 20TL (3,50€/£3).













Visiting the Old City will definitely take you a good whole day if not two. Which means you'll have several opportunities to hear the magnificent calls of prayer.

  • Eat and drink
So I am not a museum girl but I am definitely a restaurant girl. All I wanted was to eat Turkish pastries and drink Turkish tea, which I did, which you should do when you go to Istanbul. I ordered baklavas at the hotel, it was very rich and sugary, I struggled to finish but it was so good. It's Istanbul, you can find  decent delights pretty much everywhere. The go-to place for Turkish pastries and specialties is Hafiz Mustafa, there are several branches all around town. We went to the one in the hip neighborhood of Taksim one night and it looked like I made it to sugar heaven. I didn't had time to buy lokums but my sister brought some back for me. I love lokums, don't @ me.

I was offered tea in a restaurant after dinner in the Old City. It was so delicious I asked the waiter what it was and he told me it was traditional apple tea, elma tea. I absolutely loved it. It comes in the cutest tulip shaped glasses which burns a little your finger tips but it's ok.



If you eat meat, you'll love Istanbul. My sister did. She had so many kebabs - kebap - she was sick of it after two weeks, but kept ordering them because apparently it was that good. Kebab is lamb meat, not the ridiculous sandwiches you eat drunk after club nights in western Europe. If you're up for a show, order a Testi Kebap. It's cooked in a clay pot and the waiter will show you his special technique to break open the pot for you to enjoy your food. Definitely worth it ! For veg*ans like me, you can order vegetable casseroles which are exactly the same dish but without meat, it's super spicy but so tasty ! I also tried the Turkish pizza, the pide pizza, with the tastiest olives I ever had ! What is it with mediterranean cuisine and its tasty vegetables ? My tastebuds are always so happy when I have mediterranean food ! 

How to commute in Istanbul ?


Just like in New York, yellow cabs ! Cabs are quite cheap in Istanbul... if the drivers don't rip you off ! Make sure the driver doesn't give you a fixed rate, it's a scam. They have to turn on their meter in their car before the start of the journey. Be careful of the route they take. The second time I went to the Old City my driver drove in circles and hiked the price 10TL up!
From the airport, I would advise not to book a taxi via the agencies in the terminal, they rip you off. Go outside the airport and take a yellow cab.
Istanbul has a good system of buses, trams and metro that is 2,60TL a ticket. 
As much as I like discovering a city walking around, Istanbul is not one city you can do that. It is very steep, it's a full body workout. 


Writing this I feel like I am not giving Istanbul any justice but it's my first love at first sight crush since Berlin in 2014. The sights are unbelievable, I love the mix of cultures; the rich historical past; the mediterranean vibe with people always outside chatting, eating and drinking; the geographical madness of straddling two continents... Everything I've done during this trip is finding excuses to come back "Oh we couldn't see the Imperial Treasure, I'll have to come back", "oops Aya Sophia is closed, I'll have to come back", "wow the Asian side looks gorgeous, I'll have to come back to explore more"... I feel like Istanbul would be a good idea for a romantic break or girls trip as Turks are freaking handsome ! 
It's a shame that I held back from visiting for years as I feared for my safety in this country. But just like Paris, Istanbul is safe. There is a strong police presence, they are happy to help if you're lost.
Turks are very friendly which can be a bit unsettling at first when you come from "don't talk to me" cities like Paris or London. They also are very stylish, women and men, and looooove taking staged pictures for the gram. There's no shame. I love them !