Go Turkey: The City of Istanbul

When I was a small child, I first heard of Istanbul through a popular Manna De song in Bengali that talks about a chef named Bhajohori Manna, who learned to ply his trade in Istanbul, Japan, and Kabul. From that time, I believed that food in Istanbul must be something extraordinary. So many years later, on my maiden trip to Turkey in October 2022, this was one of the things on the top of my mind.

Also Read: Kusadasi & Pamukkale

Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, it is the largest city. It is possibly the only city in this world, with one half in Europe and the other in Asia, separated by the Bosphorus Straits, which runs across the city.

Our travel team consisted of seven people, me and my brother’s family along with his friend's. The Indigo flight from New Delhi was uneventful and brought us to Istanbul around late morning. From the traveler bus which transported us to our hotel Hilton Garden Inn Green Horn, the large city looked very much like any other cosmopolitan city in the Middle East that I have visited like Dubai or Muscat. Nice roads, many mosques, and abundant street food stalls. One thing I noticed is that even if Turkiye is an Islamic country, very few women here cover their heads. 

Next: Kusadasi & Pamukkale

Hilton Garden is located in an area called Sutluce in European Istanbul. The hotel room gives a nice view of the Bosphorus Straits where you can see many small boats plying. We were famished, as the Indigo flight offered very few good choices of food, and immediately took to the streets, looking for some local food.  A restaurant named Cinaralti Et Ve Ukyuluk caught our attention. It was a completely Turkish local restaurant. As per our discussions with the waiter we ordered some Hummus with bread, followed by Adana Kabab (something I had heard of from India), and Urfa Kabab

The Adana Kabab is named such because it is a specialty of Adana, a city in Southern Turkey. A plate of thick seekh kababs were accompanied by rotis, bulgar (a rice-like dish of cracked wheat grain), and salad. Urfa Kabab is similar to Adana, but with very few spices. We loved both the dishes and ended our meal with some hot Turkish tea

Late afternoon, our travel agent sent a bus for the first sightseeing visit to the city, the Dinner Cruise on the Bosphorus. On our way, we weaved through the crazy traffic of Istanbul, traveling through the Taksim Tunnel and picking up more tourists from Taksim (the city center) and finally reaching the Bosphorus near the Galata Bridge (which separates European and Asian Istanbul). The two-hour cruise was fun, one could stand on the deck and look at the nighttime Istanbul, with many people thronging the shores, as well as minars, mosques, and palaces on the side of the straits. The multi-course dinner was nice, especially the multi-dish mezze and the kababs. Some music and dance followed on the cruise ending with the famed Belly Dance of Istanbul. We were dropped back at our hotel at around midnight. 

The second day started early, just after breakfast we moved to the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in the Sultan Ahmet square area. The area is possibly the most crowded and touristy area in the city with attractions like Sophiya Mosque, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar located close to each other. 

Originally built in the 6th century as a Christian cathedral, the Sophia mosque has had many metamorphoses. The church was there for thousand years, after which it was converted into a mosque by Ottoman Turks which took over Constantinople (the old name for Istanbul).  While the architecture remained, many Christian mosaics and statues were removed. In 1931, when Turkiye became a secular republic, the mosque was turned into a museum, and again in 2018, it was changed into a mosque under the current President Erdogan.

The mosque visit took us close to three hours. The interiors are just outstanding with intricate Christian and Islamic elements, and it is a pity that some parts of the mosque were burnt during the many transitions. The monuments located in the Hippodrome of Constantinople area are rich in histories like the Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column. 

The Blue Mosque, just across from Hagiya Sophia is closed for renovation for a long time, and we could only manage a view from outside. A quick lunch at a restaurant nearby and the theatrics of a Turkish Ice Cream vendor in the streets were the other attractions on that day before we headed to the Grand Bazaar. 

The Grand Bazaar one of the largest in the world has more than 4000 shops. We visited some of the places selling Turkish goodies like Turkish Delight and Baklavas, as well as mementos like Evil Eye key chains, shot glasses, and fridge magnets. The clothes, jewellery, gold, and chandelier shops were some that caught my eye. For an Indian, Turkey is not a very expensive place, especially in the current scenario where the Turkish Lira has dropped from Rs 8 to Rs 4.4 in one calendar year. 

Our dinner that night was light, as we had to retire early. Our flight to Izmir was a late-night one. A small place next to the hotel had some lovely and soft Izgara Kofte (grilled lamb patties) as well as some nice Turkish coffee.  We left Istanbul for the next leg of our trip, but our experiences did not end here.

After, a terrific trip to Kusadasi, Antalya, and Cappadocia, we were back for our final hurrah at Istanbul again. Time was short as we landed at Sabiha Gokchen in the late afternoon, the old airport of Istanbul. Our flight to India was scheduled for the next day, so we wished to see some of the other important places in the city. This time the focus was on nightlife. 

Our first visit was to a neighbourhood called Balat, which was traditionally the area where Jews lived in the city. The houses and stairs there were painted in multiple bright colours, and there were many buzzing street cafes. We even visited a small room where an auction was taking place. However, one should visit this place in daylight.

Our next stop was the famed Galata Towers, a huge watchtower built in the twelfth century. In the evening, the tower was brightly lit, and the place was abuzz with hundreds of people dancing to a live musical performance taking place just next to the tower which was draped with the Turkish flag. It was really great soaking into that ambiance and enjoying the time there. We moved from there to Taksim Square, the modern downtown area, and took a stroll down the buzzing Istiklal Street. Istiklal means independence in Turkish. The street is pedestrian-only, with shops lined up on both sides. We went into a large Baklava store and tasted the Baklava there, and then listened to some performances by local bands on the street corners. The whole atmosphere was totally celebratory, and you can’t but feel happy in those surroundings.

Our disappointment during the Istanbul trip was not being able to visit Topkapi Palace. While we tried on the last day, we had to abandon the same due to huge queues. We had no time left as our flight back was on the same afternoon. Possibly the only regret while visiting this interesting city.

One note of caution about Istanbul. Like many other cities, the Taxi Drivers here are not very reliable and can ask for exorbitant prices. Buy the travel pass which gives you access to trams, buses, and metro to have a seamless visit. Also, while coming into the country, do not convert your dollars into Lira at the airport. Go to an area called Eyup Sultan, where you get very good Forex rates. The difference can be as much as 10%.

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