Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey – but that’s only a formality. The real capital Ankara lies in the desert central part of Turkey and most travellers prefer the coastal charm of Istanbul.
It’s a huge city – about 15 million residents – some say between 12 and 19 million (19 probably if you count in the numerous stray cats that wander round the streets). It lies on two continents (Europe and Asia) that are separated by a narrow stretch of sea that connects the Black sea and the Mediterranean Marmara sea (the Bosphorus strait).
Because of it’s rich history (as a Roman colony and then the center of Ottoman empire) the cultural monuments are practically on every corner.
Most of the attractions are on the European side of the city so the Asian side is a little less invaded by tourists. The best way to travel across the strait is a short ferry ride.
We stayed at a small hotel in a very narrow and steep street near Taksim square (one of the main squares in Istanbul). Most of the streets are very steep so I’m guessing the locals are in a very good physical condition because of all the uphill hiking.
One of the streets that leads to the Taksim square is Istiklal avenue – most lively street in all Istanbul. Shops, street vendors, bars and restaurants can keep you busy as long as you have some money left to spend. And when the night falls – Istiklal street becomes the center of night life. Every little pub in the tiny side streets of Istiklal has live music. If it was busy on a Monday night, I can only imagine how a Saturday night might look.
The main attractions of Istanbul are the mosques. The highlight is the famous Hagia Sophia which was built as a greek orthodox christian church at first but many years later (due to the “new sultans in town”) transformed to a mosque. Since it’s not serving religious purposes anymore (it’s a museum), you can check the architectural masterpiece in and out. But first you will have to stand in line for a ticket…it may take a while. A reputation like that has it’s price.
All the other mosques (like the Blue mosque) are also worth visiting as they are just as magnificent – but some of them are still used for prayers and therefore limited for visitors. Women will be given a scarf to cover their head before entering.
The Tokapi palace is a huge estate where many sultans lived and used as their fortress. It lies on a small hill by the sea and is surrounded by a beautiful green park. Today it serves as a museum and you can explore the sultans quarters and harems (where all his many wives lived) yourself.
It would be unfair not to at least mention some of the culinary delights of Istanbul. The best breakfast was waiting for us on the Taksim square every morning. A street vendor was selling this round bread-like pastry called simit. Simple and delicious. Turks are known for their special sweets such as Turkish delight (not really my favourite) and baklava (very sweet baked pastry filled with walnuts or something similar – to sweet for me). My favourite dessert was chocolate filled with pistachio seeds which I bought in one of many chocolate stores on Istiklal street.
And there were many kebabs of course – but that doesn’t really need introducing.