It was only 36, but even a few hours and it would be impossible to not fall in love with the scents, sights, colours, and the food of Istanbul, I did. And this despite the Spice Bazaar which I had been looking forward to visiting forever was closed as we had arrived at the start of the 5-day religious festival of Kurban Bayram (Festival of Sacrifice). I admit I did cry when I found out. Still, Istanbul was quieter than it would normally be. Traffic was at a minimum and thus proved to be an enjoyable time to be there. Plus an airport transfer time reduced to 20 minutes from a much-anticipated 1 ½ hours was a bonus.
Where to Stay in Istanbul:
For a central location in the heart of the Old Town, Ibrahim Pasha hotel is perfect and within striking distance of the Blue Mosque. The view from the hotel’s roof terrace is perhaps the best in the city. The hotel is boutique style, mid-price and cheap for the quality of the rooms which though small are delightful. If you can upgrade to deluxe, size may not change much but the views will.
Breakfast is Turkish and more than enough to stoke you up for a day on foot around the city. Any nod to European comes only with scrambled eggs. Breakfast here is a great chance to get stuck in and immerse yourself in this fabulous cuisine. If you are a tea lover, you are going to love Turkish tea. At the hotel, they serve gallons of it hot and steaming at breakfast. From the room, telephone down and it comes almost instantaneously.
The bar on the roof terrace is a must for a great sundowner, with staggering, almost surreal views. I promise. Service throughout the hotel is excellent.
Where to Eat in Istanbul:
Seriously, you would be hard pushed to not eat well in Istanbul, though avoiding anywhere close to the major tourist hubs is advised. That said, we ate well at 10 Besteklar, Osman Sokak, a long-established Turkish restaurant, not a million miles from Sultanahmet Square. Here they serve a mean Lamb in a Burning Pot (Testi Kebap), a speciality of the city. The long-cooked stew arrives at the table on fire, the sealed lid of the pot is broken (traditionally this would be sliced off with a sword) and poured onto waiting plates.
For a treat, and again only five minutes from the hotel – after 8 hours walking the streets, we were happy for somewhere local – is Balikci Sabahattin (Sabahattin the Fisherman). Balikci is a superb restaurant heaving with locals, few tourists and serving excellent fresh fish and seafood. Not yet acclimatised to the heat, an open courtyard, was a treat to eat in for us. It is pricier than the smaller, simpler places but still good value.
The hotel had several other tempting recommendations, and we did a hefty walk to one across the Galata Bridge only to find it closed (the festival again it seems).
What to Eat in Istanbul:
Whatever the locals are eating, and you can never go wrong with that simple premise. For me, with a flexitarian approach to meat, I stuck to the mezze starter plate (hummus, Iman Biyaldi, chickpeas, et al.). All of this I mopped up fervently with hunks of freshly baked pide (bread), usually followed by piece a fresh grilled fish. Suffer I did not.
For the carnivore, try the Testi Kebap above, plus, many other Kebabs. Forget any memories you have of one after a night out on the town in the UK; there is no comparison. Chicken, beef, and goat feature heavily; this is a Muslim country so no pork. Fish naturally is readily available and very reasonably priced.
Sweet tooth, well, of course, there is the ubiquitous Turkish Delight, and you will be hard pushed to avoid it. But give a thought too to Turkish pastries. Give Kadayif a try, similar but so much better that Baklava. Here the filo pastry is shredded and soaked in syrup before taking on the usual varieties of Baklava fillings.
And to Drink:
Turkey is the second largest producer of tea (çay), and it is good strong stuff. Check out the Caydanlık, the double Turkish tea kettle. This method produces a punchy, hot tea and is now a favourite of mine. Turkish coffee too has its style coming again strong and prepared in an ibrik, a small coffee pot that is heated. Caffeine-free fruit teas are as traditional as çay in Turkey, and Apple (Elma çay) is so refreshing in the heat.
Turkey produces good wines and prices are good though not cheap, and if it is a beer you are after then, the local brew is Efes.
What to Do:
Providing you avoid the festivals, unlike me, you can lose yourself in the Bazaars both the Grand and the Spice. Mosques, at least the Blue if you only have time for one. Despite the Mosques attracting many tourists, they are religious places and so respecting customs, gender-specific areas, and covering up as required. The Blue Mosque provide all the necessary free of charge.
A boat trip if you have the time is another way to soak up more of what this fabulous city is all about. Head to the Galata Bridge and good luck as there are hundreds to choose from. We were lucky, by asking a few sellers, one, somehow, stood out from the rest. We had an enjoyable 2 hour trip for just short of a fiver.
Walking is a must though. From the Sultanahmet, we walked and walked, through the Topkapi Palace gardens, beside the river to Galata Bridge. After the boat trip, we crossed the bridge (a sight in itself), climbing up through tiny streets towards the Galata tower. We had lunch, a cold beer followed by a long, slow walk back to the hotel, wandering, shopping and taking in the atmosphere. We were out for close to 8 hours.
That epic trek was such a thrill of the flavour of Istanbul that coming back is planted firmly in my mind. Next time, I will be back, for longer and not at the festival time. Bazaars here I come.