I am a very planned traveller. I always do my homework before any trip: what to visit, what to eat, hidden gems, local courtesies, etc. This did not happen this time around when I visited Istanbul. I flew totally unprepared to a new destination without any agenda, after a short trip to Copenhagen, Probably that’s why I got to love so much this city and to be so pleasantly surprised about it. I guess when you don’t have any expectations you can’t be disappointed.
It was my first time in Istanbul and in Turkey and marked a nice and round milestone in my world conquest: country number 40!! This being said here is what I liked the most about this lively and multicultural city.
As you might have guessed from the title, there are lots of cats in Istanbul. For a cat lover like me, it was pure heaven. Everywhere you were looking there was a lazy cat. And of course, I made it my mission to say hello to every single one I met. And I didn’t stop here. I also went and nose booped almost all, to pay my respects.
I found out during a free walking tour, that the municipality is very involved in the cat matter. They are paying for them to be fed, vaccinated and treated for diseases. Even though they are strays, they are super healthy, clean and happy to carry on with their daily business. That means sleeping wherever they can. What really impressed me is that the locals seem to love them a lot. Not only once, but few times I noticed a random person stopping and petting a cat on his way. I’m not talking only about old people as you might expect.
I think cats are an important part of the culture of the city and are treated like the tiny spoilt gods that they think they are.
Tip: do not trust a shop or a restaurant if there is no cat affiliated to it!
Holy Mother of Kebaps!! If there is one thing in Istanbul that is more spread than the cats, that’s the kebap shops. I believe you can find one every 2-3 meters. It is hard to miss the huge chunks of sizzling chicken or beef, slowly roasting to perfection. Of course, it was the first thing I wanted to taste, due to international popularity.
“The real thing” was indeed tasty and so much simple than we can find it in Europe. They add so many ingredients probably to satisfy the local taste. The problem here is to decide which type of kebap to chose. I think I tried 3 different ones, just to make sure: shish (skewered, on a plate), doner (in a wrap) and my favorite one, Testi kebap, that came in a big clay pot in flames. We tried it at this Ottoman-style restaurant called Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant, where they made sure to come with a small show. It was a nice experience to better enjoy the dish, full of flavours and colours.
Besides the savory dishes (I tried a few different ones, not just the kebaps), I wanted to mention the Turkish sweets. Despite my sugar intolerance I had to try the famous Turkish delight (I used to love it as a kid) and some local dessert that I don’t know the name of. I did not dare to touch the Baklava and the Kadaif due to the amount of sugar, but man, they looked so appealing #dyingontheinside.
Tip: this advice was given to me by a Turkish friend when I asked her what should I try in Istanbul. She told me to go to any restaurant and order anything on the menu and will be great. And I want to pass this advice further to you. Did I mention how cheap is the food?!
There were too many for 4 days. Even though I didn’t manage to cover them all, I left with the promise that I will definitely return. We stayed on the European side and started with the Taksim square that was close to our hotel and easy to reach. There is not much to do here to be fair. The shopping street that leads to it is super buzzy, full of shops and street musicians. This allows you to blend in with the crowd and get lost.
I really loved the Hagia Sofia Museum –an old church that became a mosque. Today it serves as a museum and is full of contrasts). Basilica Cisterne is where they used to store water for the city and where Inferno by Dan Brown was filmed. The Galata Tower gives an amazing 360 degrees over the city. Try also the Cruise on Bosphorus to see both sides of the city and the bridges linking them.
Opposite the Hagia Sophia, you can find the Blue Mosque. It is second largest in the city and the most popular among the tourists. Istanbul has about 3000 mosques!! so you have where to chose from. To be honest, I liked it, but I wouldn’t describe it as a wow!! I think it is prettier on the outside than on the inside – at least it is free of charge to visit. Another site you might wanna check is the Grand Bazar. It is bit too crowded and twisted for my taste, but a cool place to buy local souvenirs, jewelry and not only. Prepare to get lost.
Tip: start your visit with a free walking tour to gain some general knowledge about the history and city itself. In this way you won’t just stare at the buildings clueless. Also, do the cruise on Bosphorus at sunset. The colors are beyond amazing and blend in so nice with the city panorama. Plus, you get to see the bridges lit.
I was happy to see lots of friendly and welcoming faces. I had that good vibe feeling everywhere I went, given both by people and by places. There are lots of cozy cafes and bars, amazing rooftop restaurants open till late every day. I usually get this cosmopolitan feeling in Barcelona. Istanbul just feels homey. The city still manages to add coziness and open-mindedness despite its size. This just makes you come back for more.
Tip: just go with the flow. It doesn’t matter where. Go grab a kebap, or smoke shisha with a view on top of the city. It’s really not that hard to be part of the buzz and the nice atmosphere here.
To sum up, my trip to Istanbul exceeded all my expectations. I had in my mind this image with a chaotic and overcrowded city. It turned out I was wrong. I found this modern and vibrating place, multicultural and open-minded with tones of things to do, great food, and…lots of cats. I left with the promise to come back at a point and continue to discover and fall in love with this Eastern gem. And I will keep my promise!!
Until the next time.