Istanbul — always worth a visit
It’s my third time now but maybe even a fourth visit to Istanbul will still be one to remember. Even if I have been to Aya Sophia or Hagia Sophia before, each visit becomes more memorable. I still join tours even if I have been to the place twice in the past and I leave ever happier and more fulfilled.
That is also true for another must see, the Blue Mosque, close to the Egyptian bazaar or Spice market. It’s my favourite destination for anything Turkish — Turkish delight, Turkish coffee and all kinds of nuts and spices. Not to mention cheese, sausages, and the ultimate dessert of different kinds of Arabic sweets called ‘Baklava’.
On my third time in this Asian/ European city, I cannot help but still be in awe when I see the Bosphorus - the body of water with raging currents from the Black Sea in the north towards the sea of Marmara in the south. The vistas are amazing and you cannot help but take one photo after another each time of the day, to somehow capture the moment and then some. Each chance is not enough and as the days go by, you may find a full moon or a beautiful sunrise greeting you.
The food is amazing. We were lucky to be billeted in a hotel by the Bosphorus and what starts with a buffet spread at breakfast, one already must forget the calorie-counting and just eat all the natural bounty served at the hotel. Even the local bread called Simit is baked fresh every morning onsite and the butters and labne or cheese spreads compare to none.
Over at our conference in another hotel, each meal was also prepared with vegetables in season — quinoa and local fare like lamb, beef, and fresh or smoked salmon served with the juiciest of lemons and other accompaniments. Each dish, though you may say is “hotel food”, tastes as fresh and natural as the next bistro on Istiklal street or any place serving local fare called Lokantasi. It is the Turkish Turoturo (“point-point”) where you point to your choices like braised chicken, baked fish, or the various koftas and shawarma served hot and fresh. Try the chili paste, too. With an abundance of spices available in Istanbul, their versions of sambal and chili mixes are interesting and worth trying.
But more than the top quality hotel fare, we also went local at the spice market and had our fill of chicken shawarma, baklava, and apple tea. Snacks at the market range from the famous Turkish ice cream from Mado to Turkish delights from Haza Babar. These are two famous brands of Turkish specialties which were also part of our conference sampling booths.
There is a hop-on hop-off or “HoHo” bus Tour for the first timer so you can check which sights you would like to come back to and spend more time at. Or walk to the bridge towards the Spice market and watch as locals drop their fishing lines hoping for a good catch. There are many tree-lined streets too, near Dolmabace (say Dolma-bache) and lots of cafes and bistros to stop in for the weary traveller. Dolmabace means “filled up garden” because the former sultans asked each boat passing the important Bosphorus Strait to donate a rock to “fill” the garden by the water —thus it became known as “Dolma Bace”.
For the ladies, remember to take along a scarf or shawl so you can enter religious places. And for both men and women, your legs need to be covered, so no shorts please, even if it’s warm in the summer months. There also is no photo-taking of devotees or religious people in prayer —of course as basic respect for these tourist places which are primarily religious places of worship. The guides will tell you where it is proper and safe to take photographs in mosques (never inside) and palaces.
What to do remember when you visit Istanbul:
1. The traffic has become worse. Especially during rush hours, a trip from the airport could take one hour or more. A trip to the market could be circuitous as your driver tries to find a better way for you or for him.
2. Negotiate with cab drivers. Sometimes they forget to turn the metre on. If they do, suggest your route or prepare to pay for an “unintended” city tour. From Besiktas (where our hotel was located) to the Spice Market, can cost Turkish Lira 30 or 80 depending on your driver’s needs.
3. Don’t look for pork in your meals. There is good lamb, beef, and chicken. The country has 99% Moslem population who do not eat bacon —except beef bacon.
4. Try the Turkish coffee. It can be served in the best hotels as well as market passage ways. The difference is the grit of the coffee (ground and left to boil three times with sugar)—it’s finer in hotels, and rough and gritty in the market.
5. Try Baklava sweets with tea. Choose your Baklava (prices range from Turkish Lira 40-80) depending on your choice of nuts, like pistachio and almonds. Choose a variety and take it with hot tea which is served in “sexy” glass cups.
6. Bring some food home. You can have them vacuum-pack your purchase of Baklava, Turkish delight, and even sausages!
Buy only Turkish souvenirs, not knock-offs which now are aplenty even in the Grand Bazaar. A friend said, “all I found were Chinese goods” and to which I replied: “You are not there to buy knock offs, but to imbibe the Turkish culture which has been preserved for centuries.” Even if you are not a shopper, go to the market and eat and drink local — watch what the locals do, like fishing on the bridge between the old and new towns. There is so much to do and see.
You can be a history student too and absorb the information at every monument, temple, or mosque. Make sure to enjoy the food and drink; even Turkish wine did not disappoint. Most of all, try the coffee. Why is it called Turkish coffee anyway?
- Photography Cover Photo by Anna on Unsplash