Recently I went on an amazing European vacation and made my way from Turkey to Croatia and on to Montenegro and Germany! Although I had to take 5 flights to and from these beautiful destinations in just 10 days they were all unique and captivating in their own way. This post will be a 3 part series beginning in exotic Istanbul and ending in the grand palaces of Munich!
By now I am somewhat of a travel veteran. I know how to pack light for a long vacation in just a few hours and how to make the annoying journey through the airport as quick and painless as possible. What I can’t seem to get use to is the terrifying turbulence and being trapped in a metal bullet at 36,000 ft in the air. To help ease my journey we booked first class tickets which meant that I was able to wrap myself in a fluffy duvet, recline flat into a sleeping position and try to forget about the nine hour flight. I am happy to report that it totally worked and I arrived in Istanbul stress-free, makeup intact and somewhat rested.
The first thing that awed me when I got my first glimpse of Istanbul was how busy it was! There are more cars on the roads than there are people in Toronto and everything is tightly packed onto colorful rolling hills.
It seemed like rush hour in Istanbul was never ending and we often found ourselves stuck in traffic on steep, narrow roads. Public transportation didn’t seem to be much better and if you manage to get a seat on a bus instead of being trapped standing under someone’s sweaty armpit you could consider yourself lucky! I don’t like public transportation on slow days so we opted to avoid being packed in like sardines and take cabs everywhere. If I had to describe the city in one word it would be...overwhelming, but in a good way if you like the bustling city life.
Although staying close to the old city is popular with tourists we decided to stay on the outskirts at the five star Hilton Bomonti located in Sili. I definitely recommend this hotel to travelers as the security was top notch, the expansive lobby with large outdoor patio overlooking the city and comfy lounge areas was beautiful and the modern room with waterfall shower was clean and comfortable.
I made the most of the spa since Turkish Hammam spas are quite popular and I thoroughly enjoyed releasing tension in the eucalyptus sauna and large indoor pool. Another nice touch was the live music in the lobby; guests could sit back and enjoy a cocktail while listening to the piano player fill the room with romantic Italian melodies and popular ballads.
Spa: indoor pool
We decided to start off at full speed and get a lot done on our first day. We headed to the beautiful Blue Mosque aka the Sultan Ahmed Mosque which is probably the most visited attraction in Istanbul. Entry is fee and visitors can make a donation upon exit.
The Blue Mosque
The mosque was similar to those I visited in Abu Dhabi with large beautiful domes and decorative towers. The plush, carpeted prayer room is grand and the inner dome is intricately painted with blue accents which give the mosque its popular nickname. I also recommend bringing your own pashmina or scarf to cover your hair and make sure to pack pants or a long loose fitting skirt and full sleeve top as per Islamic dress code. You also have to be a bit weary of the vendors hanging around this area, they tactfully try to latch onto tourists in hopes of badgering them into their nearby shops at the bazzar. If you talk to them they will follow you around relentlessly!
Right across the street from the Blue Mosque is a former basilica, turned mosque which is now a museum of sorts called Hagia Sophia. Although the building looks impressive on the outside the inside was a bit underwhelming (in my opinion) but I may be a bit bias after visiting the grandiose cathedrals in Rome and the impressive mosques in Dubai & Abu Dhabi.
Hagia Sophia's interior design and paintings were quite weather beaten, faded and stripped which suggests that it has not been well maintained. Some of the building also had rafters up due to construction which restricted the visiting area and in terms of actual museum artifacts there weren’t many. There was however a nice gift shop with gorgeous Turkish pottery in brilliant blue hues!
We also visited the Topkapi Palace and again the expansive building didn't seem very well kept. The few artifacts and jewels on display were kept in hot dimly lit rooms where the lineup to catch a glimpse barely moved.
The best idea we had was taking the Big Bus hop on hop off tour which took us through the heart of the city stopping at popular attractions. The tour cost 50 euros per person but the ticket was valid for 24 hours and it gave us the chance to sit back, relax and enjoy the sights and sounds of the streets. We drove over the famous Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Bridge which connects Europe and Asia. The height of the double decker bus gave us a fantastic bird’s eye view of the city and waterways and the tour was guided so we learned about the history of Istanbul while basking in the cool harbor breeze.
We decided to hop off at Taksim Square, one of the most popular destinations for dinning and shopping. Although there was a collection of armed guards on the main street which made us tourists more vigilant I was able to stop by one of Istanbul’s oldest and most famous sweet shops for some traditional Baklava which was delicious and unlike the variety available here in Toronto.
I also picked up a beautiful poncho style wrap (which seems to be popular for fall in Europe) and I tried Turkish coffee which has a strong, unique flavor and a collection of crushed coffee bean paste at the bottom of the small cup.
For dinner I wanted to get a taste of traditional Turkish food so we stopped at a beautiful little street lit up with colorful mosaic lamps in the Sultanahmet neighborhood just down the street from the mosques.
We ordered a traditional meat dish cooked in a clay pot that was brought to the table on fire and tapped on until the pot broke and the meat was cooked. I had the dish with chicken but it is commonly made with a combination of beef, lamb and chicken. It is cooked in a tomato based sauce with spices, peppers, mushroom and onion and served with rice, salad and fresh bread. The food was okay but to be honest with the famous spice market in Istanbul I expected the cuisine to a bit more flavorful. Many of the dishes I tried were a little bland for my preference.
The next day as I munched on a large pretzel covered in toasted sesame seeds purchased from a local street vendor we boarded a boat for a cruise along the Bosphorus channel which was a lovely way to spend the morning. The cruise took us along the coast where we enjoyed amazing views of the landscape, monuments, neighborhoods and mosques.
In the evening we decided to check out Ortaköy which is a popular waterfront area where locals hang out and dine. There are many sidewalk shops selling handmade trinkets, jewelry, pottery, souvenirs and more. I tried the sweet waffle topped with pistachio chocolate cream, strawberries, banana and crushed nuts.
The locals seemed to love Kumpir which is sold at many food stalls on the streets and in restaurants. Kumpir is basically a large loaded baked potato with your choice of toppings including: butter, olives, pepper, sour cream, cheese, corn, salad and more. This dish isn't unfamiliar but some of the toppings were unique to the culture.
Istanbul is a fast paced, exciting city which reminded me of an ancient, exotic version of New York. Although there have been some recent political dangers in the region I didn’t feel as unsafe as I had anticipated. I did however notice the vigilance of hotel security as they scanned each arriving car and taxi with metal detectors and double checked trucks. Everyone entering the hotel also had to be scanned and baggage x-rayed. If you plan on visiting this area I recommend being aware of your surroundings, and keep up to date on local news but try to have fun and enjoy. Istanbul is a land of many wonderful treasures and I had a fabulous time discovering the culture and history.
Stay tuned for part two as I travel from Turkey to Croatia!