Istanbul - Having just returned from a work trip to Istanbul courtesy of Turkish Airlines, the sights, sounds, and smells of Turkey’s largest city remains fresh.
While I only really had one day to explore the sites of Istanbul, I saw, smelt, and tasted enough to know that I need to go back and properly explore. These were the eight things I tried, loved, and would suggest to any visitor:
Eat at Ali’s
Ali’s in Istanbul has a 4.5 star rating on TripAdvisor and rightly so. From the Turkish mezze starters to our fresh fruit dessert, the food was spectacular. I sat at a table with ten men - our group from South Africa, the group from Nigeria, and our Turkish Airlines representative, Husain. It was the first time I was willing - and needed to - fight for my food. Besides having to compete with a group of grown men for sustenance, the pure palatableness meant we all wanted the most and more. From the warm, out-the-oven bread to the brinjals, the beef kebabs to the chicken, it was tastiness overload.
The only downside is that a with its mouth-watering dishes and scenic abundance (see the next point), you can expect to pay a bit more than at your usual diner (apparently, for our four-course meal with the water, wine, and bread, you can expect to pay R1 000 per person). So, my suggestion is that you keep Ali’s for a special night when you can splurge and enjoy Istanbul’s finest food.
Stand in Europe and look at Asia (or the other way around)
This was something special. After my delicious meals (yes, plural) at Ali’s, we went outside and looked across the Bosphorus strait which not only divides European Turkey and Asian Turkey but also serves as a natural boundary between the continents. While there are obvious issues with man-made borders across the world, it remains incredible to be able to say that you’ve stood on one continent while looking at another.
Koftes at Sultanahmet Koftecisi
Just thinking of this has my mouth watering. Look, Turkish food is something else but the meatballs and overall taste bud explosion at this historical diner is on another level. The experience is too. Outside, there’s a Burger-King-just-opened-in-Cape-Town queue to get in and grab some grub. Fortunately, we had made a booking so there was no wait to get in. Once inside, you can be somewhat overwhelmed by the organised chaos - every seat is filled, chefs are barking orders, waiters are carrying stacks of plates and weaving through the crowd - but as soon as you’ve found a place to park off, the delicious dining begins almost instantly. I wasn’t really a fan of the salad starter but in all fairness, no amount of lettuce and carrot can compete with the main of koftes, rice, peppers, and Ayran cold yoghurt. Wow. Just wow. Sultanahmet Koftecisi is a lot more affordable than Ali’s so even the budget traveller can try it out, but if you can, you should put aside some liras for both.
A ferry ride on the Bosphorus
As mentioned earlier, the Bosphorus strait is an important geographical marker for both Turkey and Europe and Asia. It’s almost pretty damn beautiful and provides a break from Istanbul’s bumper-to-bumper traffic. You’ll get to travel along the route the Ottomans used to visit nearby areas in the city. You’ll see Europe and Asia. You’ll hear the calls to prayer from Istanbul’s ancient mosques. And you’ll see just how spectacular Istanbul truly is, where ancient architecture meets modernity, perfectly.
Capture a cat
Well, don’t actually capture one but certainly see how many felines you can find and take some pictures of the Internet’s favourite furry. Cats are all over Istanbul and are part of both the city landscape and the traveller’s experience. While I didn’t touch any of them because they are all strays, these kedis (cats) are well looked after by locals and tourists alike. So, keep an eye out and be sure to tag their very own Instagram account - @catsofistanbul - in your photos.
Visit a palace
There are many palaces to pick from when choosing a place to visit in Istanbul. Our group visited the Beylerbeyi Sarayi palace. While it’s certainly not the biggest one in Istanbul and is in fact described as a “small summer palace”, one would still have needed to plan a trip to the toilet if you were on the wrong side of the palazzo. The two-storey Beylerbeyi Sarayi overlooks the Bosporus and has a - in palace terms - a modest garden where visitors can sit, eat, and play with the resident cats, birds, and tortoises. Inside though, is another world.
While you can’t take any videos or photos, the visual feast that is Beylerbeyi Sarayi palace will stick with you forever. It’s lavish and spectacular. Everything is an original, creating a space for you to truly step back in time and see what summer life was like for the sultan and empress. It’s a must for any lover of history, architecture, and certainly, interior design.
Take a trip to one of the mosques
While driving long Istanbul’s roads or ferrying across the Bosporus, you’ll spot many of Istanbul’s 300 majestic mosques. They’re everywhere and serve as great landmarks for someone who uses Table Mountain for sense of direction. I got to visit the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet) which is an obvious must-see in Turkey.
For all visitors, know that you need to dress appropriately which means no shorts, short skirts, revealing tops, caps, hoodies, or hats. While I was covered and had a scarf with me, I didn’t feel that my attire was suitable enough so I chose to stay outside. While it was obviously a missed opportunity, the architecture outside was enough to keep me in awe while the rest of my group explored inside.
Going shopping in the Grand Bazaar
If you’re into the tourist shopping vibe, the Grand Bazaar is the place to be - it’s Cape Town’s St. George’s Mall and Greenmarket Square on steroids. While the locals say it’s too expensive, if you want a one-stop-shop for all things Istanbul, then this is the place to be.
From Turkish Delights to Bursa scarves, gold jewellry to prayer mats, you can find it all in the Grand Bazaar. My suggested requirements for visiting the Grand Bazaar is a good few hours to really explore the treasures, a sufficient amount of spending money, comfortable walking shoes, and a couple of Turkish words to get a good haggle in.