I think that’s a good word to describe the city. It’s crazy, bustling and just a little bit too much like I’ve only ever experienced Asian cities be (Istanbul is also half Asian, so that makes sense), and I absolutely love it.
Instead of writing about my three days and every experience I had A-Z I’m gonna write in four categories; the classic must sees, the must sees according to Annika, the downside and the best memories.
The classic must sees
These are the things that the guidebooks will tell you that you absolutely have to see. And I may or may not agree, depending on which sight we’re talking about.
The Blue Mosque was the first thing I went to see in Istanbul. When I arrived late at night (I lived in the Sulthanamet district where all of the big sights are (big mistake — I wish I had lived in the über cool and less touristy Karaköy) I saw both the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya in the dark and was absolutely mesmerized by their greatness. At this point in time, I didn’t know which one was which though.
Anyways, I arrived at the Blue Mosque in the morning, and after covering up with a scarf I went in without waiting in much of a line. It was beautiful, yes, but to be honest I was a bit disappointed. This definitely could have been because of the major construction going on inside (and outside) of the church, since most of the ceiling was covered and that’s where the true wow factor is. To me it’s debatable if it’s worth a visit.
The Aya Sofya was next up and god damn it, once again construction was happening. But even with the construction going on, Aya Sofya had me. What an incredibly beautiful building. It’s scale is unreal and the detailed mosaic painting displayed on the first floor are nothing short of amazing. Definitely worth a visit.
The Grand Bazar was the third stop on the first day. I had met a German guy at the hostel the night before who had told me not go, and I almost wish I had listened. The Grand Bazar completely drained me for all of my energy, so much that I returned to my hostel for a nap after I had visited. I was disappointed with the stores that were inside the bazar, as they were really all of the same. The same bowls, the same leather jackets, the same shitty toys and the same fabrics. I was expecting something more unique and raw, which it probably used to be before tourism came along and ruined it. You also have to deal with every single shop owner trying to get your attention, which is a lot to handle. Now I know I would never not go myself, because it seems like something you just have to visit. But I wouldn’t say it’s worth it. I preferred the Spice Market and the surrounding streets instead. It seemed like it was more for the locals and less for the tourist, but still with a significant amount of tourist. The streets around the Grand Bazar are cool to walk around in though. Here you see the locals shopping. It’s still intense in these streets, but you’re outside and the shopkeepers aren’t trying to pull you into their stores.
The Bosporus is the waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara which then connects Turkey to the Aegean Sea following the Mediterranean Sea. Due to this, it is a significant international waterway, but it is also a waterway that divides Istanbul into two pieces. One being European and the other being Asian. Due to the incredibly cool fact that Istanbul is the only city in the world that is located on two different continents, the guidebooks will tell you that you MUST sail from one side to the other. In reality, you don’t really notice that you cross continents, but you can say that you did it. I’d say that catching the ferry from one side to the other is definitely worth it though. Mainly because you get to go on the water (which I LOVE) and have a beautiful view of the city, but also because the waterfront of the Asian side seems a lot more local and residential than the waterfront of the European side, which is always cool to experience.
The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul (thank you Wikipedia). Once again I had chosen a poor time to visit, as the water in Basicilia Cistern was emptied out due to construction.. The cistern is completed with 336 marble columns, each 9 meters high, and it’s definitely a very impressive piece of architectural work. But as a tourist you walk through the cistern on a wooden bridge with a whole lot of other tourists, which is never the best way to explore. Unless it’s too hot for you and you need time to cool down, I would say that the place isn’t worth a visit. But then again, now when I’m writing this I’m wondering why I didn’t like it? Maybe I was just tired.
Another classic must see is The Topkapi Palace, but I didn’t make it there. Maybe next time. Oh and also going to a hammam. I didn’t do that either, but I definitely will during some part of my Turkey trip (edit: I never went to one 😦 dumb).
The must sees according to Annika
Now this is where it gets fun. These are the things that I would repeat if I went back to Istanbul.
I went up in the Galata Tower, which is definitely a very touristy thing to do. But sometimes those things aren’t bad. I have a thing for seeing all cities I visit from a birds eye perspective, so I always go looking for buildings or monuments that can help me get that good overview. In Istanbul I chose this tower, and the view was nothing short of spectacular. You could see both Europe and Asia, the Golden Horn as well as (probably) thousands of mosques. I wonder if anyone ever counted them.
Another must see/do is sitting under the Galata bridge at sunset. The Galata bridge connects the old part of town to the newer part of town crossing over the Golden Horn, and that leaves you with an incredible view of the city and its waterfront. Under the bridge is a bunch of restaurants, but there’s also a platform that’s perfect for just sitting and staring. And so I did for about an hour and a half.
Now, this must see isn’t actually something I did myself, because no one told me about this place.. But doing a picnic with the locals, watching the hundreds of boats resting on the Sea of Marmara is VERY high on my to-do list for the next time I visit Istanbul. I discovered this place when I was on the shuttle bus heading for my over night bus to Cappadocia, so by then it was too late. But on the waterfront of the Bosphorus there is a huuuge park, and the park was filled with locals grilling and having picnics, and it looked like an incredible time. Next time!
On the first day, after having knocked off the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazar within a few hours, I was exhausted. I went back to my hostel for a nap, but woke up just as tired. So then I decided to take the tram until I got bored. I got on at the Sulthanamet stop and basically sat on the tram until I couldn’t get any further. With a good podcast series in my ears, this was the perfect way to see what the outskirts of Istanbul looked like. And so I sat there with my eyes glued to the window for about three hours.
After my tram adventure, I discovered my favourite part of town, and so walking around Karaköy became a favourite activity of mine; something I did on all three of my days in Istanbul. Karaköy is to Istanbul what Nørrebro is to Copenhagen, and those who know me know that the love I feel for Nørrebro is serious business, and thus I instantly felt at home among all of the street art, the grungy feel, the many cool restaurants and small shops.
Istanbul Modern is Istanbul’s museum of modern art (I bet you hadn’t already figured that out from the name), and I really liked their exhibitions. It’s not the biggest museum ever, so it’s very doable to see it all in an hour or so, depending on how long you look at each piece. I left the building feeling very inspired to go home and do weird projects in my apartment, and that is all I can ever ask of a museum.
Eat lots of food. Well this is really a given anywhere in the world, but the Turkish cuisine is really nice. I’m especially a huge fan of meze. It’s the turkish version of tapas, and everyone that knows me know that I loooooove tapas. I also loved the turkish ice cream (although I didn’t try it in Istanbul) as it’s consistency is more gewy than any other ice cream I’ve had. And the corn being sold all over. And the fish sandwich (balik ekmek) served on the waterfront.
My love of roof top action goes hand in hand with wanting to see any city from a birds eye view, but the roof top action is more about eating and drinking while doing so. I was lucky that the hostel I had booked had an awesome roof top, so every morning my breakfast was spent gazing out over the Bosporus and on to the Asian side of the city.
I hate to say it but…. the Istanbul men. No let me correct myself; SOME of the Istanbul men. That’s the downside to the city. That and cats. I am really not a cat person, in fact I’m a little bit scared of cats (it’s dumb, I know..) and there were sooo many cats in Istanbul.
Back to the men though. I wanna start of saying that I never felt unsafe or threatened, but there were two instances where I was ready to fight the man bothering me because it was WAY too much and probably one hundred instances of just catcalling/men trying to get my attention in different annoying or funny ways. I wrote down my favourite “conversations” I had with men that were a little more creative than just “Hello Beautiful” or “Hello where you from”:
Him: Remember me from last night
I had to hide my laughter as I walked away.
Him: Hi Lady I’m tourist too
Him: Where you from
Said a very Turkish looking man in broken English.
Him: Are you from italy
Him: You look like from italy
This one is funny because I just really don’t look Italian. And I got it twice. It must be a compliment in their mind.
Him: Kizz kizz
Just NO 😂
On the first day I had a hard time ignoring them. I usually always make a point of smiling at everyone I make eye contact with, and I would never ignore someone that talks to me, but in Istanbul my entire trip would’ve been filled with conversations with local men if I had gone about these situations how I usually would. On the last day I had it all figured out and I could finally do it without feeling guilty; big dark sunglasses, don’t make eye contact, don’t even turn your head at them, slightly lift your hand to decline them instead of saying no and most importantly just keep walking.
The two instances that were too much happened within a few hours. The first one happened when I had stumbled upon a lovely park by accident. The second I walked in there I sensed a man turn around to follow me, but I didn’t think much of it. I sat down by a fountain for what must have been 15 minutes before I continued walking. I noticed he was walking behind me. I stopped after a little, and he walked ahead of me slowly. I saw the opportunity to cut him off and make a turn. Shortly after I had done so the two cutest turkish teenage girls stopped me to talk and practice their English. After ten minutes of talking to them I continued down my turn, away from the stalker. But to my surprise he had continued walking and taken the turn from the other side, so we met once again. The only point of the turn was an ice cream place, and he had gotten in line. I wanted to get ice cream, but continued to walk instead. He of course got out of the line and continued following me. After walking for a few minutes I sat down on a bench to read, and he sat down next to me. FINALLY he spoke a word instead of just following me, but I declined him with a NO and kindly asked him to stop following me. He sat and looked at me for a few minutes until I got up and left. And this time around he luckily didn’t follow me. Was following someone for 30+ minutes ever a good way to start up a conversation!?
The other situation happened when I was sitting at the Galata bridge to watch the sunset. Long story short, this incredibly annoying man kept talking to me for 10-15 minutes while I ignored him/tried to tell him that I’d like him to leave me alone so I could enjoy the sunset. After trying to persuade me by letting me know that he was a captain and attempting to show me pictures of him in his uniform, he eventually gave up. At least for a few minutes, then he returned to give me the last one of his mentos and kept talking. Let’s just say that that didn’t work either.
Now to be fair, the city is also filled with wonderful men. Like the man that chased me down the street to give me my bus pass after I had dropped it, or the man that got my attention to make sure I didn’t get run over by a truck as well as every single man that worked in all of the restaurants I ate at. They were all so kind and offered the best service. One even gave me a gift as I left the restaurant.
Anyways, the men didn’t effect me in such a way that I don’t want to come back, but you definitely have to be quite a ballsy girl to deal with them (if traveling solo, otherwise I don’t think it’s a problem at all). The good outweighed the bad on this trip by millions of miles, so let’s finish off with that part.
The best memories
These are the moments that were too good to be true. The moments where I couldn’t stop smiling simply because life is just so amazing. And traveling. Traveling is so amazing.
Sunset and dolphins: So I’ve already mentioned my Galata bridge sunset session twice in this post, but there’s still more to tell. After the incredibly annoying turkish man had finally left and I was fuming with anger, I decided to let it go. I focused on the sunset, on the weird rainbow square, on the glistening ocean and on the warm air making my hair blow in the wind. It was an incredible moment. And then there they were. The dolphins. Now, I didn’t know that there were dolphins in the Golden Horn, and dolphins have all days been my favourite animal. Their gentle movements through the ocean took the moment from incredible to unforgettable, and I sat there for an hour and half, with my favourite tunes in my ears and just enjoyed the fact that I was right there in Istanbul experiencing that perfect sunset.
Just pure joy: Okay so this one is a bit odd, because it can’t be linked to one specific thing that happened. BUT. When I was walking home from the above mentioned sunset, some kind of drug must have entered my body through the air I was breathing, because my happiness level was through the roof. I had Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t stop the feeling” in my ears, and I literally couldn’t stop the feeling as I was basically dancing through Sulthanamet heading back to my hostel. I live for the moments where I manage to be so much in the moment that the most intense feelings of pure joy rushes through my body, and this was one of those moments. Because life. Because traveling. Because being happy all by myself. Because feeling like nothing can stop me. Just because.
Chatting to local girls in the park: When I was at the park I randomly stumbled upon (actually I was in the middle of being followed) these three lovely girls came up to me and started talking. At first I wondered why, but then I realised that they were seizing the opportunity to practice their english. They probably only understood about 50% of what I was saying, but they got to ask me every question that they knew. They asked if they could get a picture with me, and after taking it I need to get one too. We talked for about 10 minutes, and I can’t quite describe why, but it just made me so happy.
Meze orgasm: I had read about meze, so I knew I would like it. “A selection of small dishes.” We all know that means that I can taste multiple different things in one meal. So I am IN. I had mixed experiences with Lonely Planets food recommendations, but I decided to give them another chance. And boy am I glad I did. I arrived at Antiochia and had the classic awkward solo-traveler-asking-for-a-table-conversation:
Me: A table for one please
Water: Only for one!?
I’ve never heard a waiter ask “only for two people!?” .. Anyways, the waiter was incredibly nice. I chose the mixed meze plate and when he brought it out I could’ve cried from happiness. My picture definitely doesn’t do it justice (I’m not into photographing food.. nature is my thing. Food I like to just eat), but on the plate was some of my favourite things to eat. So I sat there, by myself, in a restaurant filled wit couples and families. I had a glass of wine and was what basically bread and dip for dinner, and I was just so happy. It was my first night in Istanbul (that didn’t include just walking straight to my hostel at least), and it had just been a really good day. And I was thinking to myself “How can something taste THIS good!?” while planning out how I was gonna copy the meal when I got home. After eating so much that I could barely get out of my seat, the waiter came to me with a gift; a handmade soap from the restaurants shop. Now, it might be something that all guests get, but nonetheless it made me very happy. Food joy at its finest.
That’s all for now! Goodbye to Istanbul. Next up was four days in Cappadocia after surviving 11 hours on a night bus, but much more on this later.
Oh wait. Just a little bit about the people I met. My days in Istanbul weren’t that social. It always differs when I travel solo. Sometimes I am all in on meeting people, making friends and hanging out with everyone, and other times I really just want to enjoy my own company. In Istanbul I met a german guy the first night that I chatted to for quite some time, he was incredibly nice and gave me lots of tips for the city, but when I woke up the next morning he was leaving #hostellife.
I made friends with two australians (not traveling together) also staying at the hostel, but we didn’t hang out outside of the hostel. The aussie girl was incredible cool; she was living in Greece with her new boyfriend and working with refugees, but at the moment her visa-run to Turkey had failed and she wasn’t able to return to Greece. I didn’t get her info, but I really hope that she’s been able to get back to Greece to reunite with her boyfriend. I love all of the crazy stories I hear and the cool people I meet when traveling solo. It’s always so refreshing to meet people who have chosen to live life differently.