Monday, 19 January 2015

Istanbul Experience

I'm lucky enough to have visited Istanbul a number of times in my life. It is without question one of my favourite cities. My most recent visit was a few years back with my son. On this occasion we actually arrived by bicycle, having just cycled 2,444 miles from Dingle in the west of Ireland on our way to Japan (see the "Long Road, Hard Lessons" book link, and older blog posts about that trip on the list in the right-hand margin). We stayed there for 2 weeks while we waited for our Iran visas and we enjoyed every moment of it.

Istanbul arrived 2 months into a 10,000 mile cycle trip with my 18yr old son

During that visit we stayed centrally, at Nobel Hostel in the Blue Mosque area (Mimar Mehmet Aga Street No 32 Sultanahmet to be exact). I had got to know Istanbul well when I stayed there for a while as a backpacker aged 19-20 in 1978 and I was hoping that the hostels were still mainly in that Blue Mosque area, scattered around Sultanahmet Square. Sam and I were delighted to find that they were. 

View from Nobel Hostel's Rooftop Breakfast Cafe

Having crossed the border into Turkey from Bulgaria, we found the road into Istanbul to be a very treacherous one, with heavy trucks and no real alternative smaller route, so we decided to play it safe and take a train through the last section. Exiting from the central station and seeing tram-lines everywhere, we decided to walk our bikes up to Sultanahmet square and it was there we came across Antique Hostel. This hostel had been recommended by backpackers as one of the best in Istanbul but it was fully booked when we arrived. However the helpful guy on the desk sent us to their sister hostel (Nobel Hostel) around the corner, which despite being smaller is equally friendly. If you have the chance I suggest you stay at Antique Hostel which is bigger with a beautiful lounge and superb rooftop bar etc. Nobel also has a rooftop where they serve great breakfast but it is more basic.  Both were 12 Euros (20 Turkish Lira) at that time for a Dormitory room or 40E for a double room with en-suite and air-con. Prices have risen but it is still cheap.  The staff in both hostels are helpful, friendly. There was a lovely guy we got to know at Nobel named Jimmy who was full of wicked humour. The hostels and hotels in this area mostly have roof terraces with superb views of the busy waterway where literally hundreds of large cargo ships are stacked up waiting to be allowed to load / unload onto Istanbul's many cargo docks. 

Istanbul is huge and spreads for miles, encompassing several very different areas. The official population is around 16 million but it is reputed to be nearer 20 with the tourists and travellers who are drawn to this the ancient crossroads of East and West. 

Sultanahmet is the main tourist centre on the Eminonou side and it is swamped by big tour groups in the high season (Aug - Oct). Coaches clog the roads around the square due to tourists' unwillingness to walk ten minutes to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque etc from their hotel or outer drop-off zone. They can be found smoking 'sheesha' pipes in the tourist cafes and being ripped off in the many tasteful carpet and 'antique' shops nearby. This phenomenon naturally pushes up prices in local shops and restaurants so perhaps go further afield if you are looking for a bargain. 

The old Pudding Shops (shack type street restaurants famous in the hippy era) that once lined the main street along the west side of Sultanahmet square are now proper restaurants and priced accordingly, but the food is still delicious. 

When you're ready to get away from the bustling centre, you'll find ferry boats running frequently from the waterfront, near the Galata Bridge, which is just along from the main railway station. These go to the Asian side (Uskudar) for around 1.7YTL (around a Euro) and tour boats take people on 2hr tours of the Bospherous river (probably the busiest waterway in the world - it borders on manic some days).  The Princes Islands (just 10 minutes away) have a lovely old-world charm and some good fish restaurants. The Asian side is busy but far more relaxed and decidedly cheaper. It is home to the famous Fennerbache football club. The Turks are football (soccer) crazy. Sam and I managed to see a game at a reasonable cost while we were there. 

Fennerbache Stadium

On the opposite side of the Galata bridge is Karakoy (pronounced Karakui - not to be confused with Kadakoy ferry port on the Asian side). Here there are big fish restaurants on the bridge and along the waterfront by the ferry stage. Good but a little touristy for my liking (with the many cruise line passengers who dock nearby). 

 Vintage cars and trams are common. This is in Istiklal Cadesi, Taksim.

Walk up from this side of the Galata bridge past the very noticeable Galata Tower on the steep hill. This narrow road becomes Istiklal Cadesi (Street) in the Taksim area and is one of the busiest and best shopping streets in Istanbul. You will find individual tourists wandering along this street but thankfully not tour groups. Istiklal street is wide with great bookshops, cafes, fashion shops etc. and is mostly aimed at wealthier Turks. There is a tramway up the centre (it can be dangerous) of the wide pavement with the antique trams once used throughout Istanbul. The wide shopping street begins just above the Galata tower and can be reached by a funicular railway from Karakoy (Galata Bridge). Taksim became our favourite part of Istanbul. It is quite calm, not expensive and has a huge number of cafes, bars and restaurants as well as backstreet markets and excellent music venues, bookshops etc. At the top end is where a lot of the recent political protests and blockades took place. There is a really nice hostel on this street (on the narrow steeper end of the main street to Taksim - Istiklal, near to the musical instrument shops alongside the Galata Tower). It's called World House Hostel. Dormitory beds start at only 12E including breakfast in their relaxed street level cafe. Double rooms range from 30-60 Euros. Check the prices on Personally I would prefer to stay in this part of the city away from to tour groups and gift shops. 

Fish features strongly on Istanbul restaurant menus

There are many good places to eat but I particularly recommend the following from when I was last there: 

Sultanahmet Area: 

Doy Doy. This is a traditional Turkish restaurant with a superb roof terrace overlooking the back of the Blue Mosque (best view). It is cheap for this area and the food is good. You will hear plenty of American and English accents on the terrace since it is listed in the Lonely Planet guide. Main course (e.g. Kebab with salad) around 12 YTL (6E). It is near to Hotel Sarnic. 

7 Stars Hills / Restaurant
More expensive end of the market. Well known for good food and probably the highest roof terrace in the area so superb views. 30YTL average main course or basic set menu. Next to Four Seasons Hotel. 

4 Seasons Hotel 
Beautiful Hotel with rooftop bar and courtyard restaurant. Reputedly the most expensive hotel in Istanbul. It is a fairly recently converted prison with a lovely courtyard garden restaurant and is very central but in a quiet street. Very expensive. 

Taksim / Istiklal Cadesi Area: 

A friendly and quite trendy cafe / restaurant serving mainly Italian style pasta dishes with Turkish influence. Food is excellent and service good. Prices are reasonable for quality. About 20YTL (10 E) for a main dish. It is at the junction of Istiklal Cadesi and a street that leads downhill towards Tophane (modern) tram stop which you can get to direct from Sultanahmet Square very cheaply. They have lovely old B&W photos of Istanbul from the 1940's / 50s on walls and place mats which they will give you copies of if you ask. 

Beyoglu (South Taksim) just above the Galata Tower. There are numerous street cafes between buildings in the backstreets. Refil is one of most famous as a hangout of Turkish intelectuals but there are many others to check out. Main courses around 15YTL but recommend a Mezze selection of starters which can be enough with a plate of Borec cheese and meat parcels. 

Cetin Gurme 
A chain I believe and very popular with Turks. This is one of the many traditional Turkish restaurants that display a large selection of delicious dishes in their window and cook in an open kitchen. It is cheap and but be warned that it all looks so delicious that you will find it difficult not to over order and spend more than you intended. This one has a baked potato stand in front (Kunpir) with huge potatoes and a selection of fillings which are generously heaped over the potato. It is a great way for budget travellers to fill up at 8YTL including a fizzy drink. A fairly nourishing if not exactly gourmet experience. 

Istanbul is one of the world's most vibrant busy cities, where it would be difficult to get bored. People go out a lot. This can be opportune since many overland travellers get stuck here waiting for visas to places east, such as Iran. Be warned though, I have met very presentable foreign travellers here who claim to have been robbed and in need money to get home, from where they will return your money. It is a scam. Don't be put off. You will meet great people staying at the many delightful hotels and hostels. I have made many lasting friendships here and few people leave without wanting to return. Turkish people are very helpful and often quite self-deprecating. Local traders are far less pushy about encouraging you to buy than they used to be. They are clever though and in Istanbul notoriously good at making money out of tourists, but in my opinion they do it in a nice way. The Turks are quite nationalistic. Turkish flags fly everywhere, you will notice (it is such a beautiful flag) but this is usually discouraged (apparently) by the government. Especially when they are going through a period of seeing their future in the EU (although many Turks are getting tired of waiting for acceptance). Don't worry about wandering off into backstreets or poorer districts. As in all cities it is wise to walk purposefully and not to display your wealth, but it is fundamentally as safe as most European cities and a lot more exciting.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

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