Travel Diary – Istanbul

Istanbul. I visited with a friend in 2013 and it absolutely stole my heart. After I left I knew I would be returning again some day. Everything about it was majestic, from the history, to the spiritual vibes; from the food, to the people. I knew after marrying ShakerFries that I would have to return with him, and so, now was our time. We decided to visit in early September, where the prices would be low, but the weather would still be pleasant. As luck would have it, the Turkish economy also took a dive before our visit, which meant that our exchange rate was also excellent at 8 liras to a pound. We flew with Atlas Global return from Stansted Airport to Ataturk for £150 each (3.5/4 hour flight), and then paid another £700 to stay in Hotel Senatus situated in Sultanahmet for 6 nights. Hotel Senatus is where I stayed in Istanbul the first time around too, and it was perfect in terms of location, as it was in walking distance of all the main attractions, and the room price included breakfast too. 

Despite paying for the 6 nights stay, we only had 5 full days in Istanbul due to the awkward flight times. In my opinion this was more that enough to enjoy the main sites, however if you really wanted to get the full experience at a leisurely pace I recommend staying for around 6/7 full days.

The First Night:

We landed at around 7.30pm at Ataturk airport, and by the time our transfer arrived (free and arranged by the hotel) and we got to the hotel and settled in, it was around 10pm. We were hungry and so decided to visit one of the recommended eateries, just a 10 minute walk from our hotel, Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, near the trams (Divan Yolu Cd.). This restaurant was buzzing in comparison to those in the surrounding area, the menu was simple with just a few things on the menu, and the prices were quite reasonable (or so we thought), at around £4 for a lamb shish kebab. In hindsight, seeing what we got for our money for the rest of our trip, I would say this meal overall was actually pricey/not great value due to the area. We both got a shish kebab, salad, and a plate of fries to share. The meat was tender and juicy, but tasted quite bland. For a quick evening bite though, this meal was just what we needed, as it was light and felt relatively healthy. The bill came to around 100 TL for the two of us to eat here, which was around £12.

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Day 1:

Given that it was Thursday, we decided to get the main attraction done whilst it was quiet before the weekend. We visited Topkapi Palace early in the morning, at around 9am. The tickets were around 65TL each, including a visit to the Palace Harem. You need at least 3 hours to explore the palace and harem at a leisurely place, and I certainly recommend visiting early, as by the time we were done, the palace was heaving and the queues were long. We decided against purchasing the museum pass, as we knew beforehand which of the attractions we would be visiting, and we didn’t feel it was good value for us (especially since the museum pass price has been increased to 125TL).

Topkapi palace was the Imperial residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years, and is definitely worth a visit. It was built between 1466 and 1478 by the sultan Mehmet II on top of a hill in a small peninsula, dominating the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and the Bosphorus strait to the north east, with great views of the Asian side as well. The palace was the political centre of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, until they built Dolmabahce Palace by the waterside. The palace also holds Islamic relics including the staff of Moses, The prophet’s (PBUH) sword and beard hair, and old Kaaba keys, although the authenticity of these items are questionable. The harem is well worth a visit to see how the Ottomans lived, and is worth the small additional cost.

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After visiting the palace, we visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, for Dhuhr. It was built by the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I between 1609 – 1616 facing Hagia Sophia, in order to compete with it. This is the only mosque in Istanbul which has 6 minarets, and it is a beautiful sight. Unfortunately, at the time we were unable to appreciate the Blue Mosque in its full glory, due to the massive amounts of construction and renovation works inside. That being said, even listening to the Azaan in the courtyard outside the Blue Mosque is enough to give you goosebumps!

We had worked up quite an appetite after Dhuhr, and so decided to walk to Shezade Cag Kebap for lunch which was a 20 minute walk away from Sultanahmet. Cag Kebab is a
horizontally rotating Lamb kebab cooked over a wood fire. The marinated lamb slices are stacked with layers of lamb tail fat, which helps to maintain the kebabs juiciness. This is probably up there as one of my favourite meals in Istanbul, as the meat was smokey and flavoursome, so much so that we ordered an extra portion between us! It was also great value at roughly £7 per person including salad, drinks, and tea. I would recommend this joint for lunch.

After a little afternoon nap at the hotel, we decided to visit the infamous Nusr et ‘Salt Bae’ restaurant. Their main ‘flagship’ restaurant is situated around 40 minute cab ride away. It is at this store where Nusret is usually present, and we were told that this place is more ‘Instagramable’, but that the food served at their newly opened Grand Bazaar (Sandal Bedesteni) branch was better, so we decided on this branch instead. We took a taxi here (as it is still a 20 minutes walk from hotel Senatus). Many people had told me this restaurant was overrated and that the food served here was not great, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. I had no expectations and I was totally blown away by my experience here, from the high quality of meat used, to the flavours and food preparation at your table. We ordered the beef carpaccio starter, which didn’t appeal to ShakerFries initially, but turned out being awesome. It included raw beef with rocket, cherry tomatoes, parmesan, and olive oil, finished off with salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. For mains, we ordered the Nusr-et special, which included fillet mignon steak fillet, cooked with melted butter and sea salt. This was served with fresh bread which was used to soak up the buttery meat juices. The meat itself was beautifully tender and flavoursome. We don’t usually order 3 courses, but after seeing their ice cream baklava sandwich we couldn’t resist. Again, this wasn’t too sweet, and had the thickest, creamiest Turkish ice cream in the centre. The entire bill came to 436TL (£55). I was shocked because we pay this plus more all the time in London, for food that doesn’t even touch the quality and class Nusr-et had to offer. I would highly recommend visiting here!

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Day 2:

The next morning we visited Hagia Sophia (40TL each). Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 years but, following the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the Hagia Sophia was converted into mosque. Afterwards, it was used as a mosque for 482 years. Under the order of Atatürk and the decision of the Council of Ministers, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1935.

This is probably the next best attraction to visit after Topkapi palace, and takes around 1-2 hours to complete. It was a Friday and Istanbul was notably busier than the previous day, so I recommend again arriving early. We arrived at 10am and had to queue for 20 minutes. It’s truly beautiful to see how this building still incorporates Christian and Islamic architecture and it is definitely worth the time and money. The only downside for us was this attraction was also under renovation, so we couldn’t fully appreciate the museum, but it was still very educational. Look out for Glia, the cat that lives in Hagia Sophia!

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Before Jummah we grabbed a simit from the street vendor for 3TL. this is a Turkish Bagel topped with sesame seeds and filled with Nutella, it was a yummy snack! We were incredibly hungry as Jummah took around over an hour in total to attend, so we decided to grab McDonalds just a few minutes walk away. Big mistake. It’s cheaper than the UK and obviously halal, but the chicken tasted like rubber and I honestly felt so sick after eating my McSpicy burger. The chips were hard and stale too. Even the cats weren’t too pleased with what we tried to feed them! Just don’t do it..

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After lunch, we visited Basilica Cistern (20TL), which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns (water stores) that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern, located 150 metres (490 ft) southwest of the Hagia Sophia, was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It’s worth a quick visit, but is nothing amazing in terms of things to see. we were in and out within 20 minutes.

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In the afternoon, ShakerFries and I decided to go watch the whirling dervish Sufi ceremony (Sema ceremony).This takes place every day at Hodjapasha Dance Theatre (20 minute walk from the hotel) at 7pm for an hour, and costs around just over 100TL each. I recognise this activity isn’t for everyone, and this shouldn’t be considered as a show. It’s an actual spiritual event, and an opportunity to get an insight into Sufism and for those without an interest you may end up being bored for an hour!. The ceremony starts by giving a background into Sufism and for me, was amazing to watch. (If you’ve read Elif Shafaak’s ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ you would appreciate this!)

For dinner we popped to Guvenc Konyali, just around the corner (recommended by Haloodie Foodie), which is obviously very popular as it was heaving. There wasn’t much left/available from the menu by the time we arrived so we ordered the mince meat pide (which was HUGE), and the leg of lamb which was incredibly tender. Both were nice (points for pide presentation), and prices were reasonable, but I wasn’t overly blown away by the flavours.

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For dessert we headed to Hafiz Mustafa. We orginally visited the branch around the corner from Guvenc Konyali, but once we saw how busy it was, we headed to the one near our hotel instead (Divan Yolu Cd.) to order their famous Kunefe. It was really enjoyable and had the best stringy cheese! It also wasn’t too sweet which was good. The menu is super extensive, and there is a Hafiz Mustafa on every corner so I really recommend trying something from here. My one regret was not trying the chocolate kunefe before I left Istanbul!

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Day 3:

The next morning we passed through Horse square to view the Obelisk of Theodosius and Egyptian Obelisk before heading to Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Mosque. This masjid has 4 pieces of the black stone inside it: one above the doorway entrance one above the mimbar, and two on the pulpit. It is one of the smallest, most homely masjids we visited whilst in Istanbul, with a stunning interior. It felt incredibly peaceful just being there and is definitely more tucked away than the other mosques and attractions, but worth a visit all the same.

We then walked a further 20 minutes to the Grand Bazaar. This was quite a walk uphill in the heat and quite tiring, so we stopped for some fresh watermelon juice from just outside the bazaar! We didn’t buy much from the bazaar bar a couple of t-shirts, but this is a great place to buy all your gifts and souvenirs if you need to. It’s also a great place to practice your haggling and negotiation skills!

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From the Grand Bazaar, we walked to Suleimanye Mosque to pray Dhuhr, which was built in the 16th century by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificient, also known as the Legislator. It stands on a hilltop (3rd hill) dominating the Golden Horn and contributing to the skyline of Istanbul. The mosque is the largest mosque of Istanbul, and although it is less ornate with respect to the other mosques of the time, its simple decorations gives another atmosphere to this masterpiece.

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For lunch, we walked around 15 minutes to Loti Cafe & Rooftop Terrace, where ShakerFries and I could watch the Liverpool game (I’m a good wife like that). We ordered a mixed grill for two and fries, and struggled to finish as the portion size was huge! Food was decent though, and if you want a good view of the blue mosque and Bosphorus, they have a rooftop restaurant and shisha lounge too. If you are into your shisha, I would say this is one of the best places to come around the Sultanahmet area.

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Before heading home, ShakerFries and I grabbed some Turkish ice cream (dondurma) from the stall next to Loti. The ice cream in Turkey is thick, sticky and creamy, and the ice cream men put on quite a show when dishing up your ice cream in a cone! You can find these ice cream vendors on almost every street corner.

We were so full on this day due to our late lunch that we couldn’t manage any dinner and got an early night instead, as we knew the next day would be quite busy.

Day 4:

We had yet to cross the Galata bridge to see what the other side of Istanbul had to offer, and so saved this for our penultimate day. we had an early start but walked at a leisurely pace to Eminonu, where we sat and watched the fishermen for a while! We then walked across the Galata Bridge in search of the famous grilled fish sandwich. I made the mistake of visiting a restaurant under the bridge on the Karakoy side in search of this, where I essentially paid 18TL for a piece of fish in stale bread with some wilted lettuce (much to the amusement of ShakerFries). A quick google search told me I had made quite a blunder, and that I needed to make my way to Karaköy waterfront just past the fish bazaar and Akın Balık restaurant (parallel to Fermeniciler Cad.), where I found a series of street vendors, grilling their onions and fish to perfection, then delicately picking out all the bones from the fish. The fish was then layered with the grilled onions, tomatoes and fresh lettuce. And of course, the cherry – that was, pomegranate – on top was nar sauce, a tart molasses made from the red fruit. As I sunk my teeth in, the sum total produced a wonderful explosion of flavour. I highly recommend trying this! As grilled fish isn’t to ShakerFries’s taste, we stopped for a lamb donor to quench his appetite en route to the Galata Tower, which he seemed to enjoy massively. We then headed to an incredibly small, local masjid for dhuhr, before heading to view the Galata Tower. Neither of us had a strong desire to pay to go up the tower, and the queues were ridiculously long, so we just had a quick look and walked on. I wish I spent a bit more time around the tower, as there are many cobbled streets, street art, and stalls here to explore.

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Trams are available from Karakoy to Istiklal Street, but for some reason we decided to walk the whole way! Istiklal Street is quite possibly the heart and soul of Istanbul. Buzzing with tourists and locals, Istanbul’s equivalent to Oxford Street, is filled with restaurants, shops, and pstreet entertainment. The tourist tram available here takes you from one end of Istiklal Avenue to Taksim Square, but we walked the whole way, stopping at Mado for some baked rice pudding dessert (Fırın Sütlaç) and tea, as well as Sent Antuan Bazilikasi on the way. After all that walking, we wanted to relax once we got to Taksim square, so perched ourselves on the grass for a while!

Once we started to feel peckish again, we headed to Lulu lounge, around a 12 minute walk from Taksim Square. Lulu lounge has a fantastic menu, has some great views across Istanbul, and also serves the best shisha. It gets very busy after sunset, so if you are visiting in the evening, I recommend booking beforehand! Given that I had consumed my body weight in food over the last few days, I decided to order a lighter local dish, Manti, which is essentially a cross between Turkish pasta and dumplings in a tomato/yoghurt-based sauce. It was tasty and not too stodgy! ShakerFries got some fillet steak with fries which was tender and flavoursome, he seemed happy! I also had some homemade lemonade with my meal which was refreshing. Lulu lounge can get a bit pricey, especially when you have shisha, but it is well worth it.

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With all the walking we had done, we were shattered after our dinner, so took a taxi home back across the river which costed roughly £3.50. ShakerFries then headed to the Turkish Barber on the same road as our hotel for a full haircut/shave/facial which costed only £15!

Day 5:

On our final day in Istanbul, we had no concrete plans. I did however, want to return to Lulu Lounge for breakfast at 11am, as I had seen that they served a Turkish speciality, menemen (tomato scrambled eggs), on the menu, along with sucuk and fried eggs.

IMG_8204.JPGWe firstly walked 20 minutes from our hotel to Eminonu, where we caught a taxi easily to Lulu lounge. After breakfast, we wanted to buy some authentic Turkish Delight to take back home, which wasn’t extortionate, but tasted good. After a little research, we discovered that Altam Sekerleme, located in Eminonu, is a highly recommended, 200 year old family business, which produces the lokkum (Turkish delight) upstairs fresh everyday. We even got to taste samples before buying. The shopkeeper was incredibly friendly and spoke good English. Whatever you do, do NOT buy your Turkish delight from the Grand bazaar or the high-end shops, as it’s a rip off and you often get Turkish delight made from cheap sugars instead of honey, which means they are usually sickly sweet and unauthentic!

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I must admit that both ShakerFries and I were quite ‘under the weather’ on our last day. We walked back to the hotel after picking up what we needed, and rested for an hour. I then got up and headed back out to get some last photos of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia whilst the sun was still up! ShakerFries and I then took a short walk through the small local bazaar near us (Arasta Bazaar) where we picked up some last minute gifts. We then settled in the large cafe within the Bazaar, where we sipped a Turkish tea and watched the short whirling dervish show. I was allowed to take pictures here (unlike the previous ceremony), which made me quite happy as I had wanted to photograph this ceremony for some time!

ShakerFries was not feeling well at all, so he retired to bed whilst I headed down to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Surprisingly, the reviews for our hotel restaurant (Albura Bistro) were very good! I ordered a beef shish kebab meal and it tasted amazing. It was served with chips, bread, rice, and salad for all under £10.

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Unfortunately, because we felt so burnt out and ill, we were unable to make the most of our last evening! That being said, we pretty much did all the main things we wanted to do. I think I’ve covered everything, but if you have any other questions then please don’t hesitate to ask!

Here are a few extra tips for your trip:

Tips!

  • If you don’t like walking, this holiday isn’t for you. We didn’t invest in the public transport as it always looked so busy and cramped, so we walked everywhere! We were walking literally 6-8 miles every day, usually uphill, so be prepared and take a good pair of walking shoes with you.
  • Haggle! Be weary of being ripped off. Haggling at the bazaar’s etc. are perfectly acceptable, and I would go down to 50% or more of what the original asking price is as a general rule.
  • Overall, I would try and avoid eating in Sultanahmet near the attractions as the food quality is poor and the prices are high. It’s worth travelling out a bit and going for a walk to eat at places a bit further out.
  • Plan your days. Planning in advance really helped me to form a route so that I could see AND eat what I wanted to.
  • Get out early. If you are staying in Sultanahmet, I would get to the attractions early to avoid queues for the museums. I would then get an early night in all honestly. Things quieten down at night in the Sultanahmet area, and as the days are long and tiresome it works well to relax at the end of the day. If you are looking for nightlife/night time atmosphere, you need to cross over to the Taksim square side of the river/besiktas.
  • Pack appropriately. I totally misjudged how warm it would be and didn’t get on too well with all my ‘Autumn wear’ in the 28 degree heat!

Places we didn’t get to visit…

  •  Dolmabahce Palace, previously a Sultan’s Palace now a museum with collections of art, calligraphy, and carpets
  • Dolmabahce Mosque
  • Bosphorus Cruise – Again, we were supposed to do a 2 hour river cruise on our last day but were not feeling well enough. I did this the first time we visited Istanbul at sunset and it was well worth it.
  • Fileto restaurant
  • Virginia Angus, Burgers and Steak restaurant
  • Lokamata – Serving Turkish doughnuts with chocolate
  • Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrasi (traditional Turkish meat house which was highly recommended, we just were not able to make it here on our final night
  • Ferry day trip to princes islands – start early. Morning in Heybeliada, afternoon in Buyukada
  • Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, opposite the Blue Mosque
  • Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami – The stunning 1580s hamam by Mimar Sinan, architect to Suleiman the Magnificent, has been raised from dereliction. Men and women, instead of having different areas, have different visiting times, which has helped to preserve the integrity of the building. After your cleansing and revitalising session, you emerge renewed into the beautiful public space, to drink sherbet, or apple tea.
  • Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque & Nusretiye Mosque – Both small masjids located near each other
  • Yeralti Mosque (aka Underground Mosque) – Here Two Sahabis are buried Abu Sufyan and Amiri Wahabi R.A
  • Arap Mosque – The interior is different to the normal Turkish style mosques
  • Yildiz Hamidiye Mosque – This masjid has recently been renovated and it is beautiful
  • Ortakoy Mosque – This small masjid overlooks the Bosphorous River, and there are little restaurants and cafes in the same area so you can sit back eat and enjoy the river.

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