Turkey - Let's go east! First stop: Istanbul
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Our bigger trip this winter was coming closer. We were really exhausted from a crazy year. It was a blessed year, but also a difficult one for us. I think, never before we were in such a desperate need of a break. We had chosen to travel far east this winter. On the search of some cheap flights we came across a complete bargain to Istanbul - and from Istanbul flights to South-East Asia were again a lot cheaper than flying directly from Switzerland. It was a bit complicated to figure out the flight route for this trip. But in the end we had a brilliant plan.
And this plan started with a really early morning walk in freezing temperatures to the bus station in our village on Lake Thun followed by a 2 hour train ride to Zurich Airport. From there it was a short 3 hours flight to Istanbul.
This city had been on our bucket list among some other cities since quite a while. It was not exactly the perfect moment (politicalwise) to visit Turkey, but no travel warnings were published - so we went. We flew to the Sabiha Gökcen Airport which is on the asian side of the city. There are regular cheap buses that bring you to the Taksim Square in the city center. It was easy and straight forward. Istanbul is a very touristy city - a fact that makes moving around pretty easy.
We lucked out with our accomodation. We stayed in a quite new house offering studios and appartments with fully equipped kitchens. Being vegan a kitchen was a must have for us in Istanbul - and it turned out that this was really necessary. We stayed at the Element Garden, just a short walk away from Taksim Square in the Cihangir district. This is a very pleasant neighbourhood where till some months ago a lot of expats lived. They mainly all have left
Istanbul in the meantime for political reasons. We had a small room with a little kitchen and a small table. All very cozy but super clean. We loved our little home for 4 nights - even more considering the prize. We only payed 22 US$ per night for both of us. That was a jackpot. Everything was brand new and well kept, room service every day, even toiletries included. The kitchen had everything you need. And the next supermarket was a 2 minutes walk away. Highly recommended!
On the first evening we mainly checked out the surroundings and the supermarkets. On our first full day we first walked down to the Bosporus. Ah, yes, Istanbul is very hilly. We were surprised that it was a constant walk of up and down :-). It was a clouded day, but not raining. We figured out how the "Istanbul Kard" works (for travelling on the ferries, buses and trains) and walked around Karaköy. This is the area for going out at night: nice bars, clubs and shops. On the Golden Horn we stopped for a first real turkish coffee before we
exlored the area around the Galata Tower. This is really a nice area with many little shops, creative people, cafes. And finally we found one of very few vegan restaurants: the Community Kitchen. This is a small family eatery which has nice vegan turkish food. Istanbul cuisine is full of fish and meat - really hard to find vegan options. So this little restaurant was our heaven. Afterwards we walked along Iskilal Cadesi, the main shopping road in Istanbul. Great place for people watching - the heart beat of the city somehow. We ended our first day on the rooftop of the 5. Kat Restaurant in Cihangir with beautiful views of the Bosporus and nice hot turkish tea.
Our first impressions of Istanbul: we had mixed feelings. We felt safe that is for sure. But people were very closed, sometimes even rude. Just in protected areas, like a small restaurant or cafe or in the guesthouse, they opened up and were really friendly. But we hardly could see any smiles on the streets. Istanbul as a city looks decaying - a lot of empty houses ready to collapse. It has its charm somehow, but we did not really get the beauty of it.
The following day we took a ferry along the Golden Horn to Eyüp. From there we walked up the hill to the Pierre Loti viewpoint where we enjoyed the views over the city now with sunshine. Again, it was really nice, there were friendly people around. But you could feel a certain aggressiveness in the city. In Eyüp there are many memorials of former sultans - so it was packed with hordes of really conservative muslims. After a while we really felt strange - people were observing us nonstop, police was observing us (and other tourists). I (Nina) was probably one of very few ladies not being covered from head to toe. I had winter clothes, so no shorts anyway. So we took an early ferry to Balat. This is the new upcoming area of Istanbul. Here are many orthodox churches and it is home to many artists. Together with the galleries there is a very vibrant cafe scene. We instantly liked this area a lot. This is a relaxed area where people laugh in the streets. We ended the day with a visit to a church and were just in time for the evening communion. So we joined not knowing that on that day the archbishop of Constantinopel Bartholomäus I was there. We realised it just in the end when he blessed all the people present. Wow, very nice experience! Beside us maybe 10 visitors and around 20 priests for present. Not more. Everything was highly protected with security checks (even to enter the church) and it was not promoted anywhere. The bishop was protected by bodyguards when he left. I do not want to make any conclusions, but we made up our mind about this......
The next day it was raining - so it was time to visit the famous Hagia Sophia, a church for more than 800 years that was used as a mosque for about 400 years and now is a museum. It was nice to visit, very impressive with some beautiful icons inside. We also went to the Blue Mosque. Entry there is for free but at the moment there is nothing to see. It is called Blue Mosque because of the insied ceilings and walls being blue marble. But everything is covered up for renovation. Anyway, one can guess that it must look stunning. We were hungry and needed something hot to drink. For vegans in Istanbul a challenge. We found a rooftop restaurant in Sultanahment that had a vegetable soup. So we could eat a bite and warm up. The views from there were amazing: over the Bosporus with the Hagia Sophia on one side and the Blue Mosque on the other. Nice.
We ended the day with a walk around the Gülhane Park and over the Galata Bridge (for sunset) to Karaköy and back home to cook a nice dinner. It was already our last day in Istanbul. The next day we visited the Grand Bazaar which we really enjoyed. It was monday late morning and the bazar was not packed. We loved it and spend quite a while wandering around before the went to the vegan restaurant in Karaköy again.Then it was already time to grab our packs, take the Havabus and go back to the airport to catch our flight to Dubai. But Dubai was not the final destination, our trip has just begun...... More in our next blog.
We enjoyed our time in Istanbul and are happy that we went there. It is an interesting city. But to be honest, we did not really get the vibe so many people are talking.