There’s such a deep sense of history to Istanbul, you’d be forgiven for being completely overwhelmed on arrival. Especially when hitting the more touristy area of Sultanahmet, a suburb that tantalisingly takes you back thousands of years to an era when underground cisterns captured the city water, harems were in use at Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar’s tiny alleyways made way for rug dealers and jewellery aficionados, and of course, the two greatest monuments in Istanbul’s vast archive of ancient treasures – Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Camii (or, the Blue Mosque) – stare each other down in one of the greatest architectural stand offs of all time.
There’s so much to see in this small area of town, you could almost forget that Istanbul is, in fact, one of the largest cities in the world. Separated by the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the only city in the world that sprawls across two continents – Asia and Europe. And it sprawls alright, as far as the eye can see, with houses slowly spreading over the mountains like a rash that doesn’t look like going away anytime soon. It never ends; you can travel an hour down the Bosphorus and still see no end in sight – an overwhelming view for any traveller wanting to explore a city, but one that shouldn’t deter you.
It had been a while between Turkish delights for me. The last time I landed in the place was twelve years ago, visiting family with my Turkish father and just happy to be off school for an entire term. Ten weeks we had in Turkey; ten glorious weeks of playing in an entirely new country with customs and cultures so vastly different from my own upbringing in Australia that my innocent teenage eyes were completely opened to a new outlook on life.
I was transformed in Turkey, as I’ve heard many people have been before me, it’s like a wise old Grandfather showing you the way to a more fulfilled, open, welcoming way of life that revolves around family and traditions and, on a general level, just being a really nice person.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of going to Turkey, you may agree with me that the Turks are the kindest, most welcoming people of any country in Europe. They love human interaction, talking to you on the tram, going out of their way to show you directions, giving up their seat on the bus. This is just their nature, they don’t want anything in return, save for a badly pronounced teşekkür ederim (translation: thank you) and a brief chat about life ‘where you’re from’.
Twelve years on and I have returned to this megalopolis. Once again with my father, along with my husband, sister, and brother-in-law. And a lot has changed in terms of population, infrastructure and tourism, but most of the gems of this gargantuan city have remained, too.
There are, however, many more places to explore in the city of Istanbul that require you to venture outside the tourist bubble of Sultanahmet. I would recommend hopping on a ferry to Büyükada, the largest island (its name literally translates to Big Island) of the nine island ‘Princes’ Islands’ about an hour or so down the Bosphorus. It’s worth the journey if you’re after a more relaxed day in Istanbul, like any big city, it’s a hectic combustion of people and cars and traffic and animals and boats and trains and trams and…well, you get the idea, so a day on the islands is a welcome refuge from the 13,255,685 people who call Istanbul home.
On arrival to Büyükada, you’ll be greeted by a world that seems to have stopped evolving some time ago. In the best way imaginable. There are no cars allowed on the island, so horse drawn carts ferry the affluent Istanbulites around the small streets and into their sprawling holiday houses. There are bikes, walking tracks, beautiful seafood restaurants, beaches and plenty of shops to part with your lira. My personal favourite are the floral headdresses for sale that mark your island visit upon return to the mainland. A must for any woman, I think.
Closer to shore, the small waterside ‘burb of Bebek, on the European side of Istanbul, is one of the wealthiest suburbs in the city. It is here that you will find your up-market restaurants, packed with upper class diners all wanting their fine dining experience by that water. It’s small, to say the least, but the area is pretty enough to warrant a visit and is a must for foodies visiting this city. Small, quaint coffee shops like Happily Ever After perch next to some of the chicest eateries in town, the most notable being Lucca – the Ivy of Istanbul, which seats celebrities who want to be seen, and parks more designer cars out front than ever imaginable.
But for a true taste of modern Turkish culture, you can’t look past a night out for dinner and drinks in the Galata area between Tunnel and Taksim Square. Hidden in the back alleys of this trendy part of town are hundreds of tiny little restaurants, each serving mezze style Turkish food and so packed with young locals, you’ll be lucky to find a seat. You have to be quick around here, the second you see an opening you need to pounce, as just sitting amongst this hectic menagerie is sure to get you excited.
The food is, of course, delightful anywhere you eat. The drinks are even better. But it’s the entertainment that sets this area apart from any other in Turkey. In Europe even. Expect to be visited by musicians strumming up-tempo tunes that have an almost hypnotic ability to make you dance. And dance many people do. On tables. They tap and sing and high kick their way along the table, not because they’re drunk, merely because, like most Turks, they’re simply high on life. And once you visit Istanbul, I’m pretty sure you will be too.
Tell me Happies…
Have you ever been to Istanbul?
Do you want to go?
Where was your favourite area?