It was my first time to a predominately Muslim country. First time in a mosque. First time in a hammam. First time eating Turkish delight. First time getting a shoe shine. Saying all this makes it seem I’ve lead a sheltered life and after this trip, I feel like I really have.
And it was my first time in a country where I couldn’t understand a single word. Languages in most of the countries we’ve been to recently either had a Latin or Anglo base making certain works easy to make out given my bilingualism (soon to be tri-linguicism hopefully!) but definitely not in Istanbul. We couldn’t even pronounce the Turkish word for “thank you” so yes, we were “those” tourists wandering around wide-eyed, confused and clueless, potentially easy targets but luckily we were (and felt) safe.
So feeling a bit of culture shock and going off recommendations from various friends and David’s parents, we dove headfirst to enjoy the sights, the atmosphere, the bustle and the incredible food of this lively city.
We literally spent about 8 hours each day walking around. We stayed in Galata district taking the tram or walking to the old city during the day and enjoying the lively Istiklal Avenue by night. We hit up all the major spots: Aya Sofya, little Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Chora Museum, Topkapi Palace, Bosphurus Cruise, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, the old city walls.
In the interest of keeping the post short and sweet, I’ll generalize some opinions, experiences and thoughts on Istanbul. I’m sure it would lose its novelty if you lived there, but I loved hearing the off sync calls to prayer from all the multiple mosques ring out in the streets every few hours. Some of the mosques, being former Christian churches, had beautiful and intriguing mixes of both Christian and Muslim art, paintings, mosaics and relics. The city is abundant with history. I thought Paris had history but it’s nothing compared to Istanbul. Buildings, art and artifacts still existing after over 2000 years makes our time on this earth seem so insignificant. I’d never seen or been close to anything that old!
The views of the busy Bosphorus from Galata tower were wonderful We enjoyed the visit to the Blue Mosque the most, despite the crowds. We enjoyed hookah below Galata bridge watching the sun set, the boats crisscross the waterways and the mosques light up for the evening.
We did the 2 hour Bosphorus Cruise (instead of the full day one) and that was very sufficient seeing as we got pretty bored of seeing the same thing after the first hour. And the tourists from neighbouring countries throwing bread to feed the seagulls off the side of the boat was not amusing (it’s clearly ‘a thing’ since it was happening on all the other boats we passed).
The mosaics in Chora Museum were incredible. I wish I knew more about Byzantine art to full appreciate the history and significance. We typically don’t do the audio tour guides but with so much history and information we thought they would be worth it. In the end, they weren’t exactly worth it, but we still managed to learn a few things… all of which I’ve already forgotten unfortunately.
There were however some disappointments. We encountered a few sites that were temporarily closed to visitors like the Art Museum and Saint Justin Church and significant parts of the Chora Museum and Topkapi palace (annoyed over having to still pay full price).
Walking through the bazaars and being harassed to look in the shops really deterred us from buying or engaging in any commerce there. You couldn’t even glance at something for more than 2 seconds without being called out. Plus, David and I are the absolute worst at haggling. It was still fun to walk through the biggest tourist trap ever. It was certainly a sight to see especially with so many counterfeit items, really good knockoffs but still for super high prices.
We discovered a new liking for Turkish tea and spices (some of which we brought back to Paris with us). And we clearly overdosed on baklava and Turkish delight. I personally had a major sugar hangover after the weekend. We did enjoy some amazing meals and stayed in a fantastic apartment hotel which I’ll list at the bottom of the post.
And now for my hammam experience, which I left for the last day. I really wanted to go with David but many of them are separated (obviously) or had different hours for men and women. The one that was ‘co-ed’ had only male attendants and creepy reviews on Trip Advisor of some women being touched inappropriately. Being scrubbed down by a man… no thanks. It was already awkward enough being completely nude alone in the hammam with a woman attendant. And after experiencing being scrubbed down by a woman, I’m really glad I didn’t go to the co-ed hammam.
I had read enough reviews online to know what to expect. I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly a relaxing, serene experience like you’d get in a North American spa. It was literally a scrub down. The atmosphere was nice and considering I had the place all to myself for the most part, made it just a tad more comfortable than I expected. I dove right in and bared it all. To start, I got bowls of water dumped over my head as I sat in a marble alcove. Then I laid down on the marble slab for about half hour looking up at the beautiful domed ceiling with circle and star shaped skylights. Disappointingly, it wasn’t hot like a sauna or steam room.
Half way through I was told “Lady, turn around”. And when that time was up, I was told “Lady, come here. Lady, sit down”. It was bizarre.
I was scrubbed everywhere and I mean everywhere (except the most sensitive body part) with a goat hair scrub called a kese. I’ve never seen so much dead skin schlep off. After that was my favourite part of the experience: she lathered up what looked like a pillow case, filled it with air and then squeezed it like an icing bag all over me creating a cascade of soapy bubbles. It’s hard to describe the sensation, but that’s when I giddily smiled and immediately felt even more awkward when she smiled back. Then I was soaped up again, given a quick 5 minute ‘massage’, my hair was (mediocrely) washed and then completely rinsed off with bowls of water. In the end, it really was just someone else (in my case, a chubby lady in a bikini top who breathed really loudly) giving me a strange sit-down shower. Made me feel like a newborn baby actually… partly because of the experience of being washed as if I was incapable of doing it myself and partly because my skin was super soft and supple soon after.
It was one of those things you do as a tourist and for which I know I overpaid, but an experience nonetheless and not something I’d run to do again. I could see how it would be more fun and enjoyable with a partner or even some girlfriends or family (ones you’re very, very comfortable with). In the end, I was wrapped up in towel, given a magical, mint infused facecloth to put over my face and told I could stay and relax as long I wanted. If it wasn’t for David who was waiting for me, I could have easily stayed there on the couches, listening to the music, breathing in the refreshing, invigorating mint facecloth for hours, especially on that rainy, miserable day. We had intended for David to go to try out another hammam but after my experience we decided it wasn’t worth it so we stuffed our face with the last bit of tea and baklava before heading to the airport to return home.
Louis Apartments: Amazing service, incredible value for money. The beds were super comfortable and rooms super quiet. Little touches like complementary coffee and chocolate, and a warm welcome over Turkish delight and drinks will definitely bring us back here next time we’re in Istanbul. The manager was very helpful, professional, welcoming and accommodating.
Meze by Lemon: A pricey modern twist on traditional meze but every single dish we tried (and there were lots) was incredible. Every person in that restaurant was speaking English so it wasn’t exactly a local place, but the food and service was worth it.
Khorasani: This place was recommended by David’s parents and it was on the typical tourist strip in the Old City. But we were pleasantly surprised by the service and quality of food. WE had a mixed grill of meat, again way too much food, but every morsel was delicious. The service was great, efficient and our server actually gave us our mains early so we “could enjoy them and not fill up on the starters”. We clearly ordered too much food at the start. But he clearly didn’t know that we could (and would) pack it all down. And with desert to boot.
Nevizade: Tucked away in the back alleys off Istiklal Avenue, it was evident this area was overrun by locals. We sat down to a traditional meze style dinner and were not disappointed. The freshly grilled meats and vegetables were amazing. Service was efficient (again) and the servers attentive.
Karakoy Gullugoi: David’s friend recommended this place as the place to go for baklava. With no signs in English (except for “order and pay at cash”) we were about to leave as it felt overwhelming to try to order in Turkish. We decided to look at all the different pieces of baklava, write down their name and then go to the cash to make the order by showing him our piece of paper. In the end it was well worth it and worked for the most part except for our order of a portion of “diabetic baklava” and the funny look that came with it.