Now before I start I must first confess, I went to Istanbul with a family member. To be honest, I’m so glad I did as being in my late teens and having blondish hair and blue eyes meant I got a lot of unwanted attention from the local males; by this I mean lots of looks, winks and comments. I understood in part because blonde hair and blue eyes must be unusual in Turkey; however I did find it marginally sexist and in some cases it made me feel rather uncomfortable. So having someone else with me made me feel safer and more at ease.
I booked my entire trip with Expedia, which allowed flight, accommodation and extras like transfers to be booked together, making the whole process so much easier. I chose to stay in the old town as it was closer to main tourist attractions, like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. After looking at a number of different hotels, the nicest, most central and most affordable was the DoubleTree Hilton Old Town Istanbul, where rooms go for £60-70 per night. Altogether the trip cost around £400 for 1 person for 4 nights, which I thought was a good deal.
Arriving in Istanbul in the early evening really only left time to eat in a nearby restaurant and have an early night, in order to prepare for the busy day ahead. The hotel was beautiful and extremely good value for money by the way.
The following morning we set out to explore the city, starting with the Blue Mosque of course. Before you can enter, all visitors have to cover any bare flesh because this is an active place of worship. Women specifically have to wear a robe to cover the neck, shoulders, arms and legs; plus a piece of cloth to cover the head and ears. Entrance is free but you also have to remove your shoes and carry them while you are inside. The first thing you do once you are in is look up, as the ceiling is spectacularly detailed and ornate. Do remember there are actually people praying in there, which is also interesting to sit and watch.
After spending about 30 minutes in the Blue Mosque, I moved onto Hagia Sophia (picture shown below), one can only truly appreciate the grandure of it from a distance so take time to step back and enjoy. Hagia is only a short 2 to 3 minute walk from the Blue Mosque, so they should both be done together really. Outside the entrance there are a few tour guides, who I would usually walk straight past preferring to go around in my own time, however some where offering private tours for around £10 each, so we decided to just go for it. It was SO worth doing the tour as it lasted about an hour and was very in-depth and fascinating…we definitely got our moneys worth here! If I am totally honest, I preferred Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, it’s huge, full of history and just absolutely beautiful in every way, so if you’re tight for time I’d definitely recommend prioritising Hagia over the Mosque.
Another must to do in Istanbul is a Bosphorus river cruise, typically lasting around 2 hours and incredibly cheap. You can see the Asian side of Turkey opposite the European side; literally the coming together of two contrasting cultures.
Staying in Old Town Istanbul was also most convenient as I didn’t have any form of transport other than what I was born with. Another thing I noticed was how most of the food in the area was Italian, and bad Italian at that. I looked for authentic Turkish restaurants, but they seemed virtually non-existent in the area. I can only conclude this to be a result of being in a tourist hotspot, which was a shame. The culture did not dissapoint on the last full day when we visited the spice market; a large building containing narrow lanes and walkways similar to the Lanes in Brighton UK in layout. Before entering the market you must go through basic security checks like a bag search and body scans in some entrances, this was very necessary as only a couple of months previously there had been a terrorist attack in Turkey. The market is full of stalls selling spices, knock off Burberry scarfs (other designers were also available!), antiques, rugs and of course, mass-produced tourist “tat”. An important warning… sellers will approach you to look at their stalls and some can be very persistent. The best thing to do is either just say no and ignore them,or have a look and then walk away after a minute or so or you may never get away.
Of course you can’t really say you’ve been to Turkey if you come back without having a Turkish bath, although only slightly mortifying it is definitely an experience. We where fortunate because the Hotel we were staying at had a spa and this was one of the treatments. Quite simply it involves lying on a hot marble slab almost completely naked in a hot marble room and letting a complete stranger scrub your whole body with various soaps and to finish they throw freezing cold water at you. I know I don’t make it sound particularly appealing, but they scrub you with this mit that basically turns black because of all the pollution thats on your skin, and you come out feeling squeaky clean and incredibly soft.
Istanbul was a great starter destination for my Gap Year, the weather was lovely, the sights where fascinating, it was relatively cheap, and it was a massive culture shock. I liked it as it helped me experience a aspect of the world compared to my past travels on family holidays.
Take a look at some more pictures from my trip to Istanbul here, and don’t forget to follow my Instagram