Landing on a plane at 5:50 after an 11-hour flight and having not slept for 36 hours is no way to start a day of sightseeing. Agreed? My problem was I only had one day to experience the ancient wonders and cuisine that Istanbul has to offer and THIS is how it started.
Luckily I had a plan that I’d formulated during those 11 painful hours at 35,000ft in the air between Cape Town and Istanbul when everyone else on the plane was asleep. Me – wide awake. Always! I have no idea how anyone can fall asleep on an aeroplane.
On this particular flight three things kept me awake: my overactive imagination (standard), a new found addiction to a stupid mobile phone game called Two Dots which I now highly resent and the epic destination guides that Turkish Airlines feature on their in-flight entertainment system. This further fuelled my top ranking bucket list dream adventure of spending a month driving around the whole of Turkey seeing all the amazing sights of this country that is still my absolute favourite.
Anyway, back to my post-baggage collection plan of action. I needed to re-energise if this day was going to be a success. I had 24 hours on the clock before my flight back to London and a serious list of sights to cram including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace & Gülhane Park, The Grand Bazaar and… my personal achievement goal of standing on three different continents on the same day. To do this I needed to cross the Galata Bridge! On top of that my food missions included Turkish tea, a Turkish breakfast, a decent kebab and at least one new traditional Turkish dish that I hadn’t tried before. Ambitious? I thought so!
The plan went like this… I got off the plane, grabbed my bags, legged it to my hotel, blagged myself a seriously early check-in (thank goodness), had a shower, slept for 90 minutes and got myself back out on the street by 9:30. Fully refreshed and ready to refuel with a Turkish breakfast and several cups of Turkish tea. Phew! With two boxes ticked by 10:30 things were looking up!
In order of Instagram priorities the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia were top of my list and I couldn’t decide which I wanted to see most. Not that it mattered, I saw both. Just for the record, the Blue Mosque made it to Instagram first – this is one mighty grand and very photogenic mosque. Directly opposite is the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul’s actual most popular site with over 10k visitors per day). Both buildings are magnificent and pretty overwhelming in size and the rivalry between the two does not go unnoticed.
With the two most awesome Istanbul sights ticked off my list, I took a walk through the grounds of Topkapi Palace and all the way through Gülhane Park which was by far the most incredible park I’ve seen outside of the UK. In Spring, it was immaculate with absolutely stunning tulip displays and beautifully landscaped flower beds, water fountains and sculptures. It genuinely made me feel so happy despite the tiredness and new feelings of hunger creeping up on me. I was smiling my way down to the Galata bridge on foot and soaking up all the happiness this park brought to everyone around. It was wonderful – the sun was shining and Istanbul was buzzing.
On a side note, I was aware that Istanbul is the 8th most visited tourist destination in the World with over 10 million tourists visiting each year but I hadn’t quite anticipated SO many people. This City is busy. Like, I’ve been to Beijing and I thought that was pretty wedged but less obviously with tourists. Istanbul was another level of wedged, with tourists from all over the World. I think this is what ‘bustling’ means. Istanbul is one bustling City full of activity and really quite noisy. The streets were gridlocked. There was no chance of getting a taxi anywhere so my advice is if you want to experience Istanbul, do it on foot – it’s quicker!
So, after my 30-minute stroll through the biggest flower jammed happy park on the planet, I made my way to the River Bosphorus ready to complete my mission of voyaging between three continents inside 24 hours. It was 12:30 and I was in Cape Town 17.5 hours ago. Now I was in Europe and across the bridge was Asia… I went there! How crazy is that? I actually stood in 3 different continents in one day. Amazing.
Let me tell you about this bridge – it was mega. This is the 5th version of the Galata bridge since it was first built and it spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul (the only City in the world to spread across two continents). Fishermen were lined up along the entire stretch with their rods hanging over the edge collecting tiny fish. It was a pretty cool sight although slightly annoying if you’re trying to take a photo or just watch the ferry’s crossing in both directions from the docks at Eminönü and Karaköy.
I’ve got two more things to say about this bridge. Firstly, It’s a multi-story bridge! Underneath is lined with bars and restaurants – very cool. Secondly, the view from the middle in both directions is awesome. You can see it all – the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Galata Tower in the other direction. I didn’t have time for a mini river cruise but if I did I would have – it would have been a fantastic way to see everything. Apparently the sunset views from the bridge are incredible too but sadly I didn’t have time to hang around for those either. Maybe next time!
Next up… I made my way to the Grand Bazaar. This is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the whole wide world. Built in the 15th Century over 54.5k square meters this place consists of 2 bedestens, 21 gates, 17 inns, 66 streets and nearly 4000 shops. It employs nearly 30,000 people and is a gigantic haggle fest. A tourist infested cacophony of middle eastern goods from Turkish rugs and fabrics to tea, spices and sweet treats. I felt very confident that this would be the place I’d tick off my lunch requirement – a great big chicken shish kebab wrap with all the trimmings (including chips). It happened.
I had no idea how I’d managed to fulfil my entire list of sightseeing spots by mid-afternoon. I had time on my hands to take a leisurely walk back to my hotel and freshen up whilst researching where I was going to satisfy my last prerequisite in this City; A traditional Turkish meal that I’d never tried before.
You may or may not know that Turkish food is my all-time favourite cuisine and whilst I’ve successfully munched my way through a serious amount of national dishes to date (my top 5 are listed here), there’s so much more for me to taste and enjoy. I was genuinely really excited about eating one last time in Istanbul before heading back to Blighty.
Before that let me tell you about my hotel which was 10/10. The Hotel Sultania was one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in, absolutely amazing hospitality (as always in Turkey!). The decor was wonderful. Real harem style with rooms named after Ottoman Empires and lovely special touches all around the rooms, from stories in scrolls to sweet treats left on the bed and amazing hand soap. On the rooftop is the Olive Anatolian Restaurant with the most stunning panoramic view of the Istanbul Peninsula lit up at night – THIS is where I wanted to have dinner.
After carefully studying the menu at the Olive Anatolian Restaurant, I decided on the Feraye (Turkish Ravioli). Wow – crispy fried ravioli with pepper and yoghurt sauce. I was not disappointed, it was absolutely delicious and a great new addition to my ever-growing list of favourite Turkish foods.
As I indulged in one final cup of Turkish tea I felt really satisfied that I’d truly conquered Istanbul inside the short 24 hours I had to play with. With 8 hours left on the clock before I had to head back to the airport, I treated myself to a well-earned nap!