I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I laid eyes on the city in May 2016. It’s simply hard not to. Istanbul is literally a city sitting on the crossroads. Straddling the Bosphorus Strait, it’s the proverbial melting pot where Europe meets Asia. Having existed for three thousand years, it’s an ancient city constantly embracing change. The air in Istanbul is thick with romantic melancholy, delightfully offset by the liveliness of its people.
I wondered if I’d still be in love the next time I visit the city. The answer is yes, and much harder. Istanbul is simply lovelier the second time around.
A weekend springtime sojourn
Springtime is the perfect time to visit Istanbul. The city is just waking up from its winter slumber, and things are starting to pick up. Many of the most exciting events in Istanbul’s social calendar happen in spring. There’s the International Istanbul Film Festival, as well as the International Istanbul Theater Festival. If you’re into history, you’ll love the reenactment of Mehmet’s conquest of the city in 1453, when it was still known as Constantinople. Best of all, Istanbul’s famous tulips are all in bloom.
I went for my second visit to Istanbul in March 2017, right at the start of spring. I flew economy on Turkish Airlines from Oslo Airport Gardermoen on a Friday, with plans to return on Sunday. Queues are always long, so I suggest checking in to your flight online to save time.
Flying coach on Turkish Airlines was a pleasant experience. My seat was comfy and roomy enough. There’s a nice selection of movies and music on the entertainment console. You can also plug in your laptop and gadgets to your seat. Light meals were served during the flight.
How does flying coach on Turkish Airlines compare to flying business class, which I did on my return home? The food selection is much better in business class, of course. Some of the meals are prepared by a flying chef on board. The flight attendants also serve soup and hors d’oeuvres before the main course. The seats are also only slightly roomier. The privacy screen you can activate on your armrest is a nice touch, though.
I arrived late that night at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. The place essentially didn’t change from the last time I visited. But I did notice that there were more personnel in military gear this time around. The 2016 suicide bombings at the airport and the failed coup d’etat following that put the country on high alert. Seeing the soldiers made me feel apprehensive at first. But as the weekend went on, I found Istanbul to be the safe for tourists. Perhaps the soldiers’ heightened visibility made a huge difference.
Suitel Bosphorus: my home for the weekend
For that weekend, I made my home at the Suitel Bosphorus, located at the heart of Taksim Square. When it comes to location, Suitel Bosphorus is gold. It’s only a short distance from almost all the popular tourist attractions on the European side of Istanbul.
As for the accommodations, the room the hotel gave me is comfy enough for a good night’s sleep. The view of the Bosphorus from my room is breathtaking. The room also comes with free Wi-Fi and European satellite channels on the TV. It’s great if you have some downtime on your holiday and you just want to chill in your room.
As it happens, I didn’t want to just chill. Right after checking in and dropping my luggage at my room, I went out in search for food. Since it was nearly midnight on a Friday, the only places where you can grab some food are the street kiosks. I had some kebab. It was excellent.
Taksim Square: the heart of modern Istanbul
Istanbul is the kind of city you’ll want to explore off the beaten track on an extended holiday. But if you only have a weekend or so, then it’s best that you make Taksim Square your home base.
Taksim Square is often called the heart of modern Istanbul. The name “Taksim” means “distribution” and heralds back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. In those days, Taksim Square is important for its old stone reservoir. From this reservoir, the main water lines from the north are collected and distributed throughout the city.
The old reservoir still stands. But Taksim Square today is more known for its collection of hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs, and other tourist attractions. Chief among these attractions is the Independence Monument. Inaugurated in 1928, this landmark commemorates the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. It was built by renowned Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica.
Another cultural landmark you’ll find at Taksim Square is the Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM). The AKM was once the premiere cultural events venue of Istanbul and home of the Turkish State Opera and Ballet. According to reports, however, it will be demolished to give way to a new opera house and mosque.
Getting around Istanbul
When I first visited Istanbul, I bought an Istanbul Tourist Pass. It gave me free access to Istanbul’s major attractions and a ride on the hop-on-hop-off bus taking you there. The pass comes with free Wi-Fi too. This time around, I felt confident enough to use taxis and public transport because I now know where to go.
Without the Istanbul Tourist Pass, you can get to anywhere in the city using the bus, tram, or subway. There are also ferries crossing the Bosphorus Strait. Taking the subway is the fastest way to travel from one place to another on the European side of the city. If the subway can’t take you to your desired destination, the bus is the next most convenient. The thing with buses, though, is you can get stuck in traffic with them. The tram, on the other hand, is a slower but more leisurely way to get around. You can do some sightseeing while you’re on the tram.
You can pay for your fare in two ways: the jeton and the Istanbulkart. The jeton are single-fare tokens you can buy at Jetonmatik machines located in major transport stops. The Istanbulkart, on the other hand, are reloadable RFID cards. You can get these at kiosks at major transport stops, convenience stores, and at the airport. Fares using the Istanbulkart are much cheaper. And if you’re traveling as a group, you can pay for all your fare using one Istanbulkart.
Saturday morning at the Sultanahmet Square
After a good night’s sleep and an early breakfast at the hotel, I set off early to see the sights. My goal that Saturday morning was to pay homage to Sultanahmet Square, the ancient cultural heart of Istanbul.
Sultanahmet Square is only a few minutes from my hotel in Taksim via tram. If you only have a day to explore Istanbul, then you should never miss this place. All you need to see in Istanbul, you’ll see at Sultanahmet Square.
On my first visit to Istanbul, I made a point to visit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. These two are the most famous landmarks of Istanbul. It absolutely made no sense for a first-time visitor to skip these places.
The Hagia Sophia – Divine Wisdom or Ayasofya – was destined to be the greatest church in Christendom, a symbol of power of the Byzantine emperors. A marvel of Byzantine architecture, the church is home to dazzling mosaics and other priceless artwork. Rather than destroy it, Mehmet chose to keep it intact when he conquered Constantinople.
The Blue Mosque – officially the Imperial Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I – just a short walk from the Hagia Sophia. Sultanahmet Square is named after this mosque, by the way. This mosque is famous for its blue, green, and white tiles, designed to offer a glimpse of heaven. The Blue Mosque is a working mosque. If you’re not Muslim, you’re not allowed to enter during prayer times.
Since it’s my second visit, I decided to skip Ayasofya and the Blue Mosque. Instead, I spent time at the Rosehouse Park and the Basilica Cistern.
The Rosehouse Park was one of the gardens of Topkapi Palace, the main residence of the Ottoman emperors. Even before the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, the site of the Rosehouse Park was considered sacred to its Greek founders. Today, the park is home to a vast collection of roses, tulips, and other flowers. It’s a glorious sight in springtime.
The Basilica Cistern once supplied the Great Palace of Constantinople with fresh, purified water. It is famous for its Medusa heads. These gigantic heads are inverted and adorn the base of one of the cistern’s many columns. The allure of the Medusa heads is so strong that it’s often featured in thriller films. Among the recent films to feature them is Inferno, the Tom Hanks movie based on the Dan Brown novel.
Inside a restored Turkish bath
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to have an authentic Turkish bath? I did. So on my second visit to Istanbul, I spent time at the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami. When you are inside, you have to leave all your clothing and valuables in a safe inside your own room. I am therefore not able to take pictures inside.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami is more than just an authentic Turkish bath and spa. It is a historic one, built in the 1500s for the Sultana Roxelana, wife of Suleiman the Magnificent. Even before that, it was the site of Greek public bathhouses, as well as a temple of Zeus.
I had the 110-minute Ab-I Hayat, a bath package consisting of a traditional body scrub, aromatherapy massage, facial, and foot massage. At the time it costs EUR140. At first it felt strange, having to lie naked on a warmed stone bed, with a lady bathing and massaging me. But lying on that stone bed felt so relaxing, and the therapy itself was soothing. I felt like a new person after the treatment.
A quick stop at Bosphorus Bridge
After spending the morning at Sultanahmet Square, I got on a bus and headed to Bosphorus Bridge. This bridge holds a lot of world records. For one, it’s the first bridge built literally connecting Europe and Asia. More than a mile long, this bridge was at one point the longest suspension bridge in Europe.
The view of the Bosphorus Bridge with the strait as the backdrop is so beautiful, it’s perfect for postcard pictures. At night, the bridge lights up in all sorts of cheerful colors. On a clear day, it’s nice to hang out at one of the many cafes nearby and observe life unfold.
Life is colorful near the bridge. The tourist ferries sailing across the strait, the locals fishing at the banks and on the bridge, the ships passing through – they’re all signs of Bosphorus’ importance. Bosphorus is more than just a body of water separating Europe and Asia. As the only passage between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, it’s one of the busiest waterways in the world. Some 48,000 ships pass through the Bosphorus every year. The strategic significance of Bosphorus is the reason why Constantinople was a center of wealth and power in its day. It’s the reason why Istanbul remains an economic powerhouse today. Bosphorus is the lifeblood of Istanbul.
A serendipitous Saturday afternoon shopping discovery
By the time I left Bosphorus, it was getting late and I wanted lunch. So I decided to hop on a bus back to Taksim. Remember what I said about taking the bus in Istanbul? You can get stuck in traffic. That’s exactly what happened to me. So, around halfway to Taksim, I got off the bus and got on the tram. The tram may be slow, but it doesn’t get any traffic.
Unfortunately, I got off on the wrong stop. I thought I was in Taksim already. As it turned out, I hopped off near the central station instead. It was a mistake, for sure, but it was one of the best mistakes I ever made while traveling. That’s because I discovered a shopping mecca close by. Shops and shops full of brand-name export overruns. If you love combining traveling with hunting for bargain fashion, you’ll hit gold here. I scored a couple of tops for a lot less the price I would have paid for them back home in Oslo. After some time wandering and haggling, I took the tram back to Taksim.
At Taksim, I made my way down the long, 2.5-kilometer shopping street known as Istiklal Caddesi. This stretch is even more dazzling than the one I found earlier near Central. And it’s not just clothes and knick-knacks you will find there in Istiklal. You can find almost anything there – from books to antiques, jewelry, vintage items, and other collectibles.
The street is also lined with tea shops. Did you know that the people in Turkey drink tea like other people do water? They have literally hundreds of kinds of teas available, and they drink it any time of the day. And they love their teas with sweet snacks called – you’ve guessed it – Turkish delights. These sweet and spongy treats come in wide varieties. The traditional ones are filled with nuts and dates. They can be flavored with rosewater, Bergamot orange, lemon, mint, or cinnamon. Sometimes they’re dusted with confectionary sugar or powdered cream of tartar. And yes, they taste awesome with tea.
Lunch was long overdue. To silence my rumbling tummy, I ate ice cream. Ice cream in Istanbul is nothing like any ice cream I’ve ever tasted. Turkish-style ice cream, known locally as dondurma, is thick and almost chewy. It also doesn’t melt easily. It’s perfect for snacking while on a stroll.
Lunch, finally, plus more shopping and sightseeing
At around 2PM that afternoon, I finally found a lovely place to have lunch – No:19 Dining at Faik Pasa Caddesi. It’s not a fancy restaurant, but it certainly creates a strong first impression when you step through its threshold. The place gives off the feeling that you’re just coming home, and there’s warm food ready for you. No:19 is cozy and very much inviting.
What about the food? No:19 serves a variety of flavorful Turkish main courses, along with other dishes inspired by foreign cuisine. Just like its ambiance, No:19’s food is simple and comforting, so like a home-cooked meal. The lack of fancy plating lets the flavors speak for themselves. And wow, these flavors are eloquent.
After lunch, I decided to burn off the calories from all that good food by exploring the neighborhood of Beyoglu. Beyoglu is yet another cultural hub in Istanbul. When Istanbul was still the capital of Turkey, Beyoglu was where most of the foreign embassies were located. Many countries still maintain consulates there.
What makes Beyoglu so lovely is its collection of museums and Art Nouveau buildings from the 19th century. Places you need to see while you’re here are:
- Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. The first private museum of modern art in Turkey. Istanbul Modern is home to works of Turkish artists from the 19th to the 21st century.
- Pera Museum. Pera Museum is where you go to admire Ottoman Oriental art produced by European and Turkish artists. The museum’s collection consists of paintings, photographs, Kutahya tiles and ceramics, and Anatolian weights and measures.
- The Museum of Innocence. The Museum of Innocence is both a novel and a museum conceptualized by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. It is an imaginative undertaking in which you get to view the life of the characters in the novel by visiting the museum.
Aside from these museums, you should also visit the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah. This historic hotel used to house guests traveling on the Orient Express. Author Agatha Christie is said to have written her novel Murder on the Orient Express here. Her room has been memorialized as a museum that guests can use. Ernest Hemingway is another author who stayed here. His room was also memorialized.
And if you’re into old churches, you shouldn’t miss a stop at the Church of St. Anthony de Padua. It is the largest Catholic church in Turkey and home to the late Pope John XXIII. Turkey’s largest synagogue, the Neve Shalom, is also located in Beyoglu.
Dinner and a stroll to Galata Tower
Dinnertime found me near the fish market on Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi in Beyoglu. When you’re in that part of the neighborhood, there’s only one place to grab your grub. And that’s none other than Durumzade.
Durumzade is a tiny restaurant that sells kebabs and durum. Durum is a Turkish wrap where flatbread is stuffed with grilled meats or sweetbreads, as well as vegetables and spices. This particular restaurant is famous throughout Istanbul for its delicious kebabs. Your order is prepared and cooked right in front of you. So you get to experience the magic of smelling your food and watching it cook before actually tasting it. Durumzade’s kebabs are seriously the best I’ve ever tasted. This place was featured by none other than Chef Anthony Bourdain in an episode of his No Reservations show.
After dinner, I went on a stroll through the Karakoy neighborhood. Known in the old days as Galata, Karakoy is a thriving commercial hub right in the middle of Istiklal Caddesi. It’s famous for Galatasaray Square and the medieval Galata Tower.
Galatasaray Square was named after the Galata Palace, the medieval Genoese castle that once stood in the district. This place was once Istanbul’s financial center. Today, it’s known for Galatasaray Lisesi, the oldest high school in Turkey as well as its first European-influenced educational institution. Galatasaray Lisesi is also the birthplace of Turkey’s Galatasaray SK professional football club.
From Galatasaray Square, Galata Tower is just a short walk away. It is one of the most distinct landmarks on the Beyoglu skyline. The Tower was the high point of the Genoese colony that once existed in the area. Today, the Tower is home to restaurants, souvenir shops, and even a nightclub. There are two observation decks at the Tower where you can enjoy marvelous views of the city below.
After enjoying the nighttime skyline from the deck of the Galata Tower, I went back to my hotel for a much-needed rest.
Sunday morning breakfast and back to Oslo
I took it easy the following Sunday morning. I was to go home that afternoon, after all. So all I did that morning was to enjoy my Turkish breakfast – kahvalti, as the Turks call it.
Kahvalti literally means “under coffee,” food you eat before drinking coffee. Ironically, Turks don’t drink coffee for breakfast. Instead, they have tea. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the Turks drink tea like most people do water.
Anyhow, kahvalti is one of the most sumptuous meals I’ve ever seen. It gives meaning to the adage that breakfast is the most important part of the day. At its most basic, a Turkish breakfast consists of bread, butter, cheese, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, honey, and jam. There are also eggs. The eggs are either boiled or cooked as menemen. Menemen is like a Turkish omelet. It’s a dish of green peppers, tomatoes, and onions fried in olive oil and then whisked with eggs.
That’s just the basic Turkish breakfast. It can also include a dish of bal kaymak – clotted cream and honey – smeared lavishly on bread. If you want to start your day with something spicy, then have some sucuk. Sucuk is Turkish sausage made with beef, garlic, sumac, red pepper, cumin, and other spices. It will burn your tongue, but you will long for it despite the pain.
The Turks also like to eat savory pastries like simit and borek for breakfast. Simit is bread shaped like a ring and dusted with sesame seeds. It’s sweet and tastes great with black coffee. Borek, on the other hand, is a layered pastry made up of stuffed phyllo sheets. The stuffing could be cheese, potatoes, eggplant, and other vegetables.
Kahvalti is mind-blowing. You should never miss it when you’re in Turkey.
After stuffing my stomach with this fabulous morning meal, I headed back to Taksim Square. I just wandered around, watching people and taking pictures. And then, it’s packing time and a ride to the airport.
I can’t wait to visit Istanbul again. Would it be lovelier the third time around?
Read about my first trip to Istanbul here: