This was my second visit to Istanbul. My first time was a solo trip in 2019 but I was given an exciting opportunity to visit the city once again, this time as part of a group, and I definitely couldn’t refuse! I mean, how can one turn down an opportunity to visit Istanbul again? It’s one of my favourite cities and I was particularly wanted to visit the Basilica Cistern as it was closed on my first visit due to restoration works going on.
I like to travel a lot and discover new places. I can’t remember that I was on the same place two days in a row. Every day I went to a new place. And İstanbul offers you all this. It is so huge that it can make you lose your mind. It’s impossible to see every single part of İstanbul no matter how long your stay is. It is limitless. It is unbelievable and it is definitely not a city but a whole country in itself. And sometimes this big city life can be stressful and exhausting. And that’s the other side of İstanbul. The never ending traffic, extremely crowded streets, full buses or trams where you can never find a place to sit, and so and so forth… Nevertheless, just a glimpse of the Bosphorus makes you forget all this.
If you asked me to describe İstanbul in only three words, I would say it’s exiting, fascinating, overwhelming. It is not that easy to find the right adjectives because there are no words to describe the kind of special beauty this city has. This city offers you a journey full of adventures where every single day you experience something different and every new day is better than the day before. It’s amazing how the city hypnotizes you and you just can’t help getting addicted to it.
Our first evening in Istanbul was a sparkling 3.5-hour dinner cruise on the Bosphorus Strait. As we cruised along, we had spectacular views of Istanbul’s beautifully illuminated palaces, mosques and Bosphorus bridges, and enjoyed a delicious 3-course dinner with select drinks. We really enjoyed the glittering entertainment from belly dancers, whirling dervishes and other artistes, and we also had hotel pickup and drop-off.
On our first full day in Istanbul we visited the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I had already seen them on my first (solo) trip here but they’re both a must-see even though I’ve not seen the Hagia Sophia from the inside. Unfortunately, it was not to be this time either as the long queue that snaked around the area quickly put us off, especially as it started raining hard at that same moment! Ah well, some other time, perhaps!
Once the rain abated, we made our way to the Balat neighbourhood, set along the banks of the Golden Horn, and once home predominantly to the Jewish and Greek populations of Istanbul. These days Balat is known for its colourful houses, cobbled streets and eclectic mix of churches, mosques and synagogues – all scattered among antique auction houses, trendy cafes and vintage clothing stores.
Balat is also home to the famous Phanar Greek Orthodox School. This famous building, built in the 19th century by the famous Ottoman Greek architect Dimadis, was the school to prominent Greek and Bulgarian families of the Ottoman Empire.
Perhaps the most iconic part of Balat is the district’s colourful houses along sloping cobbled streets. These homes are mostly over 50-years-old, and in some cases are up to 200-years-old. These historic wooden homes are amongst the most photographed buildings in the city, and given its popularity many of these streets now feature cafés and restaurants for you to stop off at and admire the setting.
While in Balat, we also went near the İncir Ağacı Cafe with its colourful stairs and the Balat Antique Café, famous for its colourful umbrellas. Both locations have become frequently visited places for photographers and Instagrammers! Balat is certainly a secret gem of Istanbul, a hidden treasure. Tucked away in a quaint area, far away from most tourist attractions, most people aren’t lucky enough to come here for a visit.
It was then time for lunch, following which we had some free time to roam Istanbul’s famous Spice Bazaar. No visit to Istanbul is complete without stopping by the atmospheric Spice Bazaar. While the Grand Bazaar may be the largest and most famous of Istanbul’s covered bazaars, this spice market wins the prize for being the most colourful, fragrant, and often the most fun – as visitors can taste the goods on offer.
I had already been there on my first trip to Istanbul so I didn’t really linger too long in there, except to take the usual obligatory photos! Instead I spent most of my time in the neighbouring narrow lanes shopping for gifts and a new suitcase to replace my worn-out and tired one. After comparing prices and the necessary haggling, I managed to strike a number of good bargains.
The next day we went on a full day trip to Sapanca, away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Believe it or not, this was my first tiny venture into Asia as Sapanca is on the Asian side of Turkey. This was also a great opportunity to leave the crowded city behind us and jump into the natural beauties of Sapanca.
Our first stop was at the Ayri Gezegen Glass Terrace, located in the picturesque Maasukiye area in Kocaeli, and is considered the largest of its kind in Turkey. It has a glass floor of 100 square metres and is located at a height of 185 metres. It was designed in this way to give an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding green hills, This allows visitors to unite with nature and fully experience the beauty of the landscape in the region.
The day trip included lunch under the shadow of trees near a waterfall. The restaurant was practically in the middle of nature, with tables arranged here and there, so that you have privacy, with the atmosphere being completed by the specific sounds of the forest: rustling leaves, murmur of a creek, bird song… I enjoyed every minute of it! The food was good and so was the service. All in all, a very pleasant experience. Recommended!
After lunch we spent some leisure time for some activities such as riding an ATV or quad bike through the forest and ziplining at the Sobeli Zipline, located at a height of 18 metres above a lake, and extending over a length of 300 metres, making it an ideal destination for all nature lovers and lovers of adventures full of excitement, excitement and adrenaline; Besides the fun that this entertainment center provides, visitors and tourists can also enjoy the surrounding landscape.
Our final stop was at Sapanca Lake. It is located on a tectonic hole, and it attracts people with its scenic beauty. Due to its natural and pristine beauty, Sapanca Lake is one of Turkey’s most well-known lakes. It is surrounded by mountains in the south and small hills in the north. Water is taken from the lake for domestic and industrial needs. This is also where I bought a freshly-squeezed pomegranate drink and paid a whopping three euros for it! I was tired and it was only later that I realised I had been cheated and charged way too much money for such a simple drink!
Ob course, while in Istanbul, I couldn’t not visit the Galata Tower. Considered among the oldest towers in the world and one of the symbols of Istanbul, it provided excellent surveillance from inside the walls of the city and had crucial military importance. It was also later used as a fire detection tower during the Ottoman Empire before it was converted into a prison during the rule of Sultan Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’. Built in 500AD, Galata Tower is one the dominating landmarks of Istanbul and a must-see when in Istanbul.
I was also eager to visit the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath the city that provided a water filtration system for the buildings nearby. It was recently reopened to visitors with the completion of the restoration process that started in 2017. It is one of the most popular historical destinations in Istanbul and within walking distance of the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque and Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque. It was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 542 and known as the Basilica Cistern because there used to be a basilica at the same location.
The Basilica Cistern impresses visitors with its 336 columns, each 9 metres tall, and two Medusa heads. The columns are mostly cylindrical and made out of a single block. The two Medusa heads, two great examples of Roman era architecture, garners a lot of attention. Both work as the bases for two of the 336 columns located on the northwest side of the cistern. They are thought to have been brought to be used as supports for the columns at the time of construction of the cistern.
After that, I walked a short distance to the Cistern of Theodosius (Şerefiye Cistern). Situated in the historical peninsula of Istanbul as one of the earliest examples of the water structures of the city with a history of 1600 years, it is believed to be built during the rule of Theodosius II (408-450) based on its architectural characteristics.
It is beautifully preserved and restored and when the lights show starts, you simply enter a special mood and you will remain with unique memories. It’s a little pricey but does present a very intense 15-20 minute light show. If that’s what you want to see – you’ll be pleased.
Known internationally as the city of kebabs and lahmacun, the reality of Istanbul is like a parallel universe filled with a variety of cheap eats; seafood, vegetables, meat, and grains – all at an affordable prices. From fine-dine and trendy joints with an awesome foodie vibe that will leave your taste buds satisfied, all the way down to classic Turkish dishes prepared by experienced local chefs who have earned their reputation over time – there is a great restaurant for everyone in Istanbul.
However, there are some dishes that you have got to try in Istanbul, such as simit, kofte, baklava and borek, among others. Incredibly varied, historically interesting, and very delicious, the best Istanbul food pulls influences from all over the world and melds it into a food scene that is truly unique.
On my last night in Istanbul, I decided to eat at Shamse, an Iranian restaurant on Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Street. The ambience is very colourful and there was live music when I was there. The food was divine and the staff very kind and friendly. Highly recommended! And it’s not only the fact that Iranian food is so incredibly tasty, but it is presented and served artistically. So if you’re looking for an exotic and healthy cuisine, try Iranian food!
Every visitor to Istanbul must also visit Istiklal Street at least once! It’s one of the most popular streets in the city for locals and tourists and is often so crowded that you get carried along in the mass of people! Istiklal Street is a pedestrian mall but there is an old tram that runs down the middle so watch out for that!
I could write endless pages about this fascinating city with its positive and negative sides but I don’t know if anything would be enough to reveal its real strength. All I know is that this city catches you with its peculiar charm, from which you can hardly escape. If you have never been to Istanbul you maybe would not know what I am talking about but as soon as you go there you will understand. Istanbul is – in one word- magical!
Anyway, after four full days in Istanbul it was time to fly to Cappadocia, a unique historical region in landlocked central Anatolia. It is most distinguished for the extraordinary spectacular rock formations and eroded volcanic rock tuff landscape that was formed millions of years ago, the collective work of lava spluttering volcanoes eroded over time by wind and water.