If you are mulling over an exotic location or a breathtaking adventure and then have to give up those dreams just as quickly because it wasn’t “the right time”, I am going to let you in on the world’s worst kept secret: there is no right time to travel. Sometimes, travel is just about picking a destination and going. As the old saying goes, “Once you are out the door, the hardest part of your journey is behind you”.
So, the exotic location I was mulling over recently was Istanbul. Istanbul is an iconic city that boasts of a peculiarity that few cities in the world can lay claim to. Apart from having a 1700-year old history, it straddles two continents, acting as a meeting point for the East and the West. It has been a bustling metropolis for centuries and is a remarkable blend of modernity and tradition complemented by a rich legacy of cultural affluence in terms of cuisine, architecture, hospitality and art. Here’s how you can maximise your exploration of the city
What’s the brouhaha all about?
A mash up of eastern and western influences, Istanbul is a historic city that stretches across the tips of Europe and Asia. Once the capital of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire, today it is today at cosmopolitan crossroads.
Grand, historic palaces are now complemented by modern towers and buildings, the languid pace of the day spent amidst nargile puffs now blends into an eclectic and teeming night life and the Sufi percussion and daily prayers resonating across the city are now accompanied by an ever increasing western influence thanks to its proximity to European culture.
What to look out for?
The Hagia Sophia is the city’s most iconic structure and a perfect representation of remarkable architectural prowess and the perpetual power struggle between Christian and Islamic worlds. For a culturally resplendent experience, visit the bustling Grand and Spice Bazaars brimming with the aroma of exotic spices, teas, dried fruits, oils and essences, sweets and aphrodisiacs.
To get a quintessential ‘Istanbul’ experience of scenic waterfront neighbourhoods and forested slopes complemented by fortresses, take a boat and ride up the Bosphorus strait. For the nocturnally inclined, there are multiple nightlife options on the Asian and European sides. On the Asian side, Kadıköy is your best bet, while on the European side, you can find the best thirst quenchers and parties in Ortaköy. Lastly, a trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without a visit to a ‘çay bahçesi’ or a tea garden.
What about food cravings?
Istanbul is the birthplace of kebapçıs or kebabs. That, in itself, is a good enough reason to make it your next destination. Kuyu kebabı, adana kebap and iskender kebap are the local favourites. The essence of the kebab experience is the sheer variety it can offer in terms of flavour. So make sure you travel around a bit for the best options. Baklava, a traditional dessert, is the finest example of the Turkish passion for culinary seduction.
The succulent kebabs or the delectable mezes are best washed down with rakı (grape spirit infused with aniseed) or a glass of locally produced wine. Try to savour Turkish cuisine’s penchant for complementing all its dishes with rich, dried fruits.
How do I get there?
Easyjet and Ryanair flights will get you there cheap. You can also opt for Wizz Air from Eastern European capitals. The city has two international airports, the Ataturk airport (Asian side) and the Sabiha Gokcen airport (European side). Istanbul is also well connected to most European cities by highways so travelling by bus is a cheaper but time-consuming option. For some extra adventure, you can also try passenger ferries from Greek islands or Italy.
And what about the budget?
Thanks to its metamorphosis into a sprawling, urban hotspot, Istanbul is no longer a low-budget alternative to Western Europe. But cheap connections on budget airlines make it an irresistible destination for a short trip. For backpackers, anywhere between €50 and €60 would suffice. This includes a kebab dinner and a beer at a neighbourhood bar. For the careless spenders, prices start with €200 as the base. If that’s your budget, get your cocktail at a rooftop bar along with an unforgettable hamamexperience!
Any travel tips?
Regardless of what you have heard about Turkish baths, you need to experience it at least once. Just make sure you select the right kind – there are multiple – and follow all instructions to avoid being in an awkward situation. In Istanbul, you can basically change continents in a day so keep plenty of time and energy for city travel. A tip for bazaar shopping: haggle like the locals, it’s legit!