With Sochi being so quiet, I headed over to Istanbul for a couple of days with my mum. I’ve never been to Istanbul before, but who hasn’t heard the clichés? It’s hard not to fall back on them when describing the city – where East meets West, the glittering Bosphorus, bargaining for treasures in the Grand Bazaar. But, to be honest, it’s all true. Apart from the Grand Bazaar, but more on that later.
January is off-season in Istanbul, but it still has the feel of a bustling Mediterranean city even in winter. As we wondered around the streets off Taksim Square – with market stall owners and restaurant owners trying to coax you inside – it reminded me a lot of Morocco. The ramshackle streets, street food hawkers chanting and yelling, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops packed with Arabian rugs, colourful lighting, exotic spices and hand-painted bowls.
And mosques. Western cities have a Starbucks on every corner; Istanbul has mosques. Even when you walk around the streets of Nisantasi, Istanbul’s luxury shopping area, there’s a mosque just down the road from Chanel. You can hear the call to prayer from every corner of the city. The city’s religious importance is highlighted everywhere, but it’s not just dedicated to Islam. Churches and even a couple of synagogues are tucked away in hidden courtyards, or – in the case of the Hagia Sophia – a key part of Istanbul’s skyline.
You can’t go to Istanbul without commenting on the food. Oh, the food was just as good as expected. After a week of bland pasta and pizza in Sochi, it was a relief to find crispy cheese bourekas, sweet Turkish tea, lamb kebabs, a flatbread that blows up like a balloon when it’s fresh out of the oven (a bit like Indian puri, but not fried) and a local delicacy of barbecued fish sandwiches. Dozens of fisherman line the Galata Bridge with fishing rods, catching mackerel-like fish which are cooked and served up as a sandwich in the restaurants below.
It may be the city where East meets West but I didn’t realise just how Westernised it is. We came across two branches of Marks and Spencer in three days. A Jamie’s Italian has just opened in Beşiktaş. Tom Aikens has also opened a new restaurant nearby and there’s a new Shake Shack, the American burger chain, just opened near Taksim Square. While it’s still a city rooted in culture, ancient architecture and religion, it’s not hard to find dozens of British and American chains are taking over the city.
So here’s a few things I learnt about Istanbul on our four-day trip:
- Don’t bother with the Grand Bazaar. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. 100 years ago, it would have been a real experience. Now, it’s full of market stall traders trying to convince you to buy mass-produced products. Traders yelling, “Hey! Why look so sad? I can be you boyfriend!” and “You come in here. Lovely things! You want rug? I give you best rug in Istanbul!” starts to grate after a while. We were far more likely to buy from market sellers who didn’t say anything to us at all. Take a wander around the shops in Karaköy for a more interesting variety of products.
- Do take a boat trip on the Bosphorus. It’s one of those classic tourist things to do, but it really is a great way to see the city on a sunny day. We took the official city boat tour – Sehir Hatlari – from Eminönü. It was a two-hour trip for 10 TLR each.
- Don’t miss the Hagia Sophia. It’s a 1,500 year old cathedral turned mosque turned museum, housing symbols of Christianity and Islam under its enormous painted dome. Sadly, there was a lot of scaffolding up when we visited, but that didn’t make it any less impressive. I found the lighting inside the most striking – huge bulbous chandeliers that give off a warm orangey glow. Apparently, they recently changed the lightbulbs to luminous modern ones which completely ruined the effect. It was only when Ben Affleck came back to visit after filming Argo there and complained about the lightbulbs, that they switched them back.
- Do check out local events. We found a modern jazz singer called Luisa Sobral was playing at the İş Sanat, Istanbul while flicking through Time Out Istanbul. It turned out she’d been on Jools Holland and had done a duet with Jamie Cullum, so we thought it was worth a shot. The tickets were extremely cheap – three rows from the front for £17 each – and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. She spoke perfect English and the whole show was surprisingly entertaining. A good way to check out what the real people of Istanbul do on a Friday night.
- Don’t assume everywhere serves alcohol. When we went to the jazz concert, there was a bar that only sold tea, coffee, water and ice tea. Being the boozy Brits that we are, we couldn’t believe there was no beer or wine at an evening performance.
Oh, and some places you’ve got to eat…
The Velvet Cafe – this place was voted #1 of all places to eat in Istanbul on Trip Advisor, so we had to check it out. It was a tiny cafe serving tea, coffee and sandwiches inside a cute retro interior. It’s a family run business dedicated to the owner’s grandmother, decorated in her honour with old magazines, record players and photographs. It serves spicy cheese on toast, Turkish tea and lots of cakes, eaten from bright orange, squishy velvet armchairs. Click here for their Facebook Page
The House Cafe – there’s a few dotted around the city, but we tried the one in Nisantasi and off Taksim Square. It’s an up-market brunch/lunch place with an urban edge. It feels likes somewhere you’d find in Notting Hill. They served some great Mediterranean cuisine with Ottolenghi-style salads. Make sure you try the quinoa salad and mini pizzas. But bear in mind, Turkish portions are big! Visit their website here.
Vogue – if you’re looking for a fancy restaurant with a great view, head through an unlikely entrance up to the 35th floor for a really spectacular view of the city. They serve a huge selection of sushi, alongside traditional grilled fish and steaks. I went for the jumbo prawns with chilli noodles. See more on their website here.
And things not to eat…
Kazandibi – it’s milky, sweet, pureed chicken with the texture of jelly. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether it’s worth trying…
We were only around for four days, so this is really only a few highlights. I’m definitely planning to head back in the future, but maybe next time I’d avoid the Grand Bazaar…