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Whirlwind Weekends: ISTANBUL

April 12, 2012

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Istanbul is generous to us whirlwind travellers; it lays out all it has to offer within a short and accessible distance, so that you can fill up your itinerary without needing to rush from place to place to fit everything in.

As the only city in the world to be spread over two continents (Istanbul is divided in two by the Bosphorous strait – a river which marks the boundary between Europe and Asia), it offers a truly diverse and cultural experience.

A quick trip to Turkey’s largest city can be filled with everything from sightseeing and shopping to culture hunting and clubbing without leaving you weary, but it is equally as accommodating if all you want to do is sit on a rooftop drinking Turkish coffee and taking in the view.

My friend and I decided to head to Istanbul for the first weekend in August and as a result were greeted by blazing sunshine when we arrived. We’d booked into a reasonably cheap hotel where we opted for a twin room that included breakfast. The room was decent and we didn’t feel we had compromised on comfort for the price.

Our first stop, the moment we’d dropped off our bags, was one of the many rooftop cafes that looked out over the city and across the Bosphorous to the Asian quarter of Istanbul. The view was truly breathtaking as we were immediately greeted with the sight of the striking Blue Mosque to our left and it’s competition, the Aya Sofya, poking out of the trees to our right. But before we joined the throngs of sightseers, we wanted to sample some Turkish cuisine; an array of tapas (complete with complimentary flat bread) and refreshing herbal tea set us up for the day perfectly.

During our two days in Istanbul, we really made the most of the sight seeing opportunities available without going into overkill; we were selective about what we saw and we weren’t disappointed.  For those that love to marvel at architectural magnificence, head to the aptly named Blue Mosque, which proudly boasts more minarets than any other mosque in Istanbul. For those who are interested in religious history take in the Aiya Sofya and learn about the turbulent past that saw it transform from a church into a mosque, before finally opening up to the public as a museum. Personally I think both buildings need to be seen, not least because they are famously in competition with each other (the Blue Mosque was built in 1603 – 1617 to rival the Aiya Sofya and as a result boosted the economy of the surrounding area).

The Basilica Cisterns also deserve a place on the hit list. Deep underground, the impressive arches and columns are surrounded by fresh water and ghostly fish that can be seen swimming amongst coins that have been tossed in for luck.

Back above ground there are plenty of green parks as well as old buildings and landmarks that make a simple walk a treasure trail for both the cultural enthusiast and the curious tourist.

That said, some of the best sight seeing can be done without you even realizing it. A lazy stroll down the cobbled streets led us to a small, independent art gallery almost completely hidden away, we were tempted in through the narrow, ramshackle alleyways by a hand sprayed message on the wall stating  ‘Art Gallery, don’t be scared…you will like!’  Inside we were greeted with a treasure trove of original artworks depicting mysterious portraits, cheerful flowers and colorful landscapes. Naturally we loved this precious little find and came away with some beautiful prints of the pictures we liked and at a very good price.

       

This leads me nicely onto the exhilarating and enchanting experience of shopping in Istanbul. If you love a good bargain and enjoy the thrill of haggling with the shopkeepers then head to the Grand Bazaar. Here you can barter to your hearts content over all sorts of souvenirs, jewelry and clothes. The bazaar can get very crowded but it all adds to the atmosphere and you can always retreat to a nearby café afterwards to review your purchases and take in the surrounding hustle and bustle.

My trips always seem to fall on a national or religious holiday by pure coincidence and this trip was no exception. It just so happened that it was Ramadan while we were in Turkey and as a result we were delighted to find a festive atmosphere each night with food stalls, night markets and fireworks. The other perk of visiting at this time was the sense of cultural immersion you got as you saw families sitting at tables with a feast of sumptuous dishes all untouched, as they waited for the sun to go down so that the feasting could begin. Of course, you do not have to join in with the daytime fasting, but it is best to be aware of those who are observing Ramadan and be discreet when eating and drinking in public areas.

During our stay we didn’t venture into the Asian part of Istanbul and I will have to return to do just that. The Asian quarter is meant to be one of the best places for some serious, high end clubbing and offers a different and less family orientated experience of the city for those that want it. A quick trip could easily be incorporated into a whirlwind weekend either for an evening, a daytrip or if preferred, take a cruise on the Bosphorous for some leisurely, hassle free sight seeing of both continents.

However that’s not to say that there is any shortage of night life on the European side – we spent our two evenings (Friday and Saturday) sampling an abundance of cafes and bars serving an array of food as well as teas, coffees and shisha pipes, all were enjoyed whilst listening and dancing to a live band and watching the traditional Twirling Dervishes in action. We also had many entertaining conversations with staff and fellow Turkish people, who overall were very friendly and welcoming.

So I’d rate Istanbul as a highly recommended and thoroughly enjoyable trip for a whirlwind weekend, which offered us so much despite our short stay.

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From → 2011 Travels

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