It’s impossible to describe Istanbul without resorting to clichés. The term ‘east-meets-west’ is over-used, as is ‘ancient-meets-modern’, but as hackneyed as these expressions may be, they’re no less true. Gracefully straddling the border between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is an eclectic, polyglot cocktail of cultures, fusing together the most vibrant aspects of the languages, cuisines and traditions you find on either side of the Bosphorus. Needless to say, the city also boasts a wealth of history, having served as the capital for both the Roman and Ottoman Empires. However, it has transitioned into the 21st century with both poise and style. Ancient minarets pierce the sky alongside high-rise hotels and office-blocks; the city’s shiny new malls co-exist with Ottoman palaces; traditional hamams sit side-by-side with modern-day coffee shops. Istanbul is a city of contrasts. And, on my recent trip to Turkey, I fell instantly in love with it.
Price-wise, Istanbul certainly isn’t the most expensive destination in the world, but I was travelling on a student’s budget (AKA ‘whatever’s left in my overdraft’), so I had to be careful. However, trawling through guidebooks and useful travel websites, I picked up a few budget travel tips and discovered that Istanbul certainly won’t break the bank so long as you know where to shop for the best deals.
My quest to find cheap but central accommodation led me to the Antique Hostel, in Sultanahmet. Quiet, clean, and cosy, this may not be the best place to stay if you’re hoping for all-night parties, but there is a bar, a roof-top terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, and a complimentary breakfast: for $46 a night in a private double, you can’t go wrong. And it really is the perfect base for exploring Istanbul’s famous landmarks. The hard part now, though, was deciding where to go.
Usually I just wander the streets of a city, hoping – and usually succeeding – to serendipitously stumble across places of interest. But I had limited time in Istanbul before moving on to explore the rest of Turkey, and I wanted to make the most of my stay there. So, joining the ranks of my fellow tourists, I did what any self-respecting Istanbul sight-seer would do: I headed into the heart of Sultanahmet. Here I found the world-famous sites of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
Hagia Sophia, once a church, then a mosque, and now a museum…is possibly the most stunning building I have ever seen. With its plethora of beautiful Byzantine mosaics, colossal dome, opulent architecture, and rich history, it’s little wonder that it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. And the Blue Mosque is no less impressive. So-named for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior, the mosque, flanked by its six elegantly slender minarets, is awash with history, beauty, and architectural grandeur. And as an active mosque, entry is free (as opposed to Hagia Sophia, which charges an $13 entry fee) and the atmosphere is much more spiritual; a place of prayer, peace and serenity.
Topkapi was my next port of call, and with this opulent and intricate complex of courtyards, gardens, and grand halls, it was easy to imagine the palace’s grandeur of days gone by. Exploring its wealth of luxurious rooms, festooned with gilded furniture, marble columns, and satin drapes, I was transported back in time to a world of sultans and harems. Truth be told, I could have stayed there all day, pretending to be a beautiful sultana, swathed in silks and dazzling jewellery. However, my tour of Istanbul’s famed attractions was far from over, and so I left the palace, hopped onto the Bağcılar tram, and headed over to the Grand Bazaar, where I was determined to overcome my innate English aversion to haggling and bag myself a few Turkish souvenirs. Granted, I may have walked away with a few impractical purchases – did I really need that belly-dancing costume? Probably not – but I enjoyed the playful banter with the vendors, and spent a good few hours getting lost amidst the labyrinthine stall-lined streets.
Suddenly ravenous after my shopping-spree, I went in search of food. Wanting a meal that was authentically Turkish and preferably cheap, I opted for the Amedros Restaurant in Alemdar. This is a popular, stylish, and comfortable venue, tucked away on a side-street, where the waiters are friendly and the food is irresistible. I devoured a plate of pacanga pastries filled with spinach and tulum cheese, smothered in a pomegranate sauce, with a colossal mountain of humus as a side. Trust me; you’ve not truly experienced Istanbul until you’ve tried the humus!
Sadly, there were many ‘must-do’ experiences in Istanbul that I just didn’t have the time or the money to do: visiting a traditional Turkish hamam; moseying through the art galleries of the Istanbul Modern; meandering through the aisles of the Egyptian Spice Bazaaar; catching a ferry along the Bosphorus. I discovered, on my brief trip to Istanbul, that a weekend simply isn’t enough time to experience all that this vibrant, multi-faceted city has to offer. But you know what? It just gives me the perfect excuse to go back there someday!