We loved our time in Istanbul. It's a really diverse and vibrant city, borne of its situation on the old silk route and its unique position between East and West. Its duality is reflected in the North and South reaches of the city; Galata, north of the Golden Horn, is very Western in appearance (think Paris) - it has a Gap, a Starbucks, and a little old tram 19th-century tram that runs the the length of the Istikal boulevard. The old town on the south bank of the Golden Horn, also known as Oldstamboul, is much more reminiscent of how one might imagine Constantinople - plenty of mosques, narrow winding streets, old covered bazaars and lots of stray cats and dogs. It's an intriguing mix of modern and ancient, with churches converted to mosques (like the Aya Sofya) and a palace that makes British castles seem positively boring.
We found the differences between the European and Asian sides less pronounced; Galata and Sultanahmet are on the European side, but were very different from one another. Uskudar and Kadikoy are over on the East bank. To be quite honest, there wasn't a lot to see in Kadikoy. It may be because we didn't venture far from the coast. Uskudar is the main port the ferry takes you to, and has mainly the same old ferry ports and simit sellers you see everywhere, but even when we got a (very cheap) taxi to Kadikoy there wasn't a lot to see with the exception of a few restaurants, a Hilton hotel and a small fabric museum. If you're only there for a short time, it doesn't seem worth crossing over to.
Above is the Basilica Cistern. It was in a James Bond film (From Russia with Love) and is an old Roman reservoir underneath the city. If you visit, look out for the Medusa' s head at the bottom of one of the columns, and the fish in the water.
This is the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque for all of the blue patterned Iznik tiles that adorn its walls and ceilings. Although it's right in the middle of town, it was the last one we went into (I kept not having the requisite head scarf with me when we were nearby). I was glad we had saved it until last, since it was by far my favourite. We didn't go to Aya Sofya/Hagia Sofya, mainly because the queues were always miles long and we wanted to explore lots.
Above is the Grand Bazaar during one of its less busy periods. There is, as with all bazaars, a lot of repetition - kilims (rugs) are everywhere, as are scarves, tea sets, iznik pattern coasters (I bought a few, and I love them). My favourite purchases were some ikat print vintage bowls, ikat fabric and lots of gorgeous woven hammam towels. We have ordered some to sell in our online shop from the man we bought them from - they're great value, gorgeous colours and they dry quickly because they're thin. Keep your eyes peeled, I am hoping they'll be here soon!
The Spice Bazaar is a great continuation and has a slightly more bustling feel because it's smaller and narrower.
Here you can just see the Galata Bridge with its many fish restaurants under the arches. We were warned not to bother eating here, though I'm sure at least one of the restaurants would be alright. Men fish all across the bridge all day long, which is reflected in the ghastly smell as you walk across it.
The public toilets underneath are surprisingly clean, although they look shabby. There are great views from the North bank, especially at night and from the top of the Galata tower (though entry to this was fairly expensive, in comparison to other activities - I'd recommend going for dinner in Salt Galata instead, where the view is just as good).
Karakoy has a few little hidden gems, like Karakoy Gulluoglu (the best baklava in town) and a lovely deli right next to it. On the way up to Istikal boulevard (via streets so steep that some have stairs) there are lots of little antiques shops, some of which are like Aladdin's caves right down to the battered golden lamps they sell.
Topkapi Palace is well worth a visit, but go early before all the tour buses get there. Unlike a British monarch, the Sultan was allowed to have four wives and as many concubines as he could support. Consequently, there is an entire dormitory wing just for the concubines in the Harem. The Queen Mother, who would have considerable influence, would also live here, as would the eunuchs.
A bit like human trafficking today, it wasn't uncommon for Sultans to bring in slave girls from Eastern Europe who were renowned for their beauty as their concubines. They would be schooled in Islamic doctrines and would have their place within the pecking order, usually beneath the wives. If they bore sons, when the sons came of age the mothers would be sent off with them to govern remote reaches of the empire. One concubine who bucked this trend was Roxelana - a peasant girl, thought to have come from Lithuania, exerted such influence over Sultan Suleyman that he banished his wife, set Roxelana free and let her remain at the palace all her life. He also built her the most beautiful Turkish Bath you've ever seen, which stands today in the main square by the Aya Sofya.
James and I went for a Turkish bath there (it's called the Hurrem Sultan Hamami) and it was such a weird but enriching experience that I'd definitely go back. We went after visiting Topkapi, on a bit of a whim because we were toooo hot. This meant we hadn't brought anything with us - no towels, no swimwear, no make-up remover wipes - nothing.
The receptionist assured us that they had everthing we needed, so we decided just to go for it, despite it being about £60 each (it was by miles the most expensive thing we did there, but it was worth it - the rest of the time, you can hardly spend your money).
You are given a pestemal (hammam towel) and told to take everything off. Wrapped in your towel, you are taken to a white marble room with a high ceiling, given a golden bowl and asked to remove your towel. You sit by a large marble urn on a step, and adjust the temperature of the taps running into it to suit. The attendant took the the bowl from me and tipped a bowlful over my head (goodbye mascara) and told me to continue myself.
The hammam was totally empty apart from me, so I got to look about at all the gorgeous clean white marble, original 16th Century design and domed, skylit ceiling. The aura of calm was amazing. When the attendant came back, she took me out to another area for a kese (scrub) where they exfoliate with a coarse cloth mitten. I felt so smooth afterwards! James (who was in the men's half, separate from me) said the man who did his showed him all the dead skin on the mitten afterwards - kind of glad they didn't do that in the ladies'. After the kese, you rinse off again, then you lie on the big marble plate in the middle (I had sort of been wondering what it was for). They put some soap in what looks like a pillowcase, swing it until the billows up with suds then they squeeze them all over you, so that you are inside a cloud of bubbles. You get a lovely soapy massage, then they wash your hair by another urn and rinse all the soap off you, then you get wrapped in no less than five towels. You sit in in the relaxing area (I was nearly asleep by this point, I was so relaxed) and they bring you a drink called sherbet (it's a bit like J2O) and some Turkish delight. Although it was expensive, the service was impeccable and you get to keep your kese mitten, washbags/soaps and flip flops. I read on Refinery29 recently that someone spent $48 dollars on an exfoliating glove - like, seriously? They need to visit Istanbul, where they literally give them away.
We went on the requisite Bosphorus tour, and let me tell you, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. There are a few nice palaces on the banks, but otherwise there's not a lot to see. The guidebook suggested not going to the village where you stop for a few hours before heading back, since all that's there is touristy tat, and that wasn't really what we wanted to see. We got off just past the Rumeli fortress (we thought), though it took us a couple of hours and a lot of puzzling over buses to make our way there.
The fortress stands on the European side of the narrowest part of that strait, and it's fairly huge. You can also climb all over it with no regard for safety, which obviously makes it quite a lot of fun. There's not a lot else there, so having exhausted the Bosphorus' main sight we caught a bus down through the richer regions of the European side back to town. I would have quite liked to stop there and look around (lots of nice little boutiques to explore) but it was getting late by the time we headed back and we were very hungry - it's probably worth taking a picnic when you go on the Bosphorus tour.
James wanted to visit the aquarium, and since he really, really loves fish, I couldn't say no. It's the second biggest in the world apparently, and it was much more interesting than I expected, given that I'm not a huge pescaphile.
There's a section dedicated to each of the world's major bodies of water (it really is huge) and there's even a rainforest room, a humid warehouse with hot lamps and low-hanging trees. This crocodile was in it and I was convinced he was fake (he didn't move a muscle the WHOLE TIME we watched him except for blinking) but I have just googled and it seems crocs are just very, very good at staying still.
We both wanted to go hot air ballooning while we were there, thinking that Cappadocia was fairly near Istanbul. The truth is, it's not at all - it's a 12 hour bus journey or a short (and fairly cheap) flight away. We only had a week so fitting in an extra trip didn't work for us, but maybe next time.
Finally, a word on cats. There are SO MANY stray cats in Istanbul, and people leave food out for them in the street. They are mainly in quite nice condition, and we asked a local shopkeeper why. As it turns out, cats are revered in Islam, and he told us a story in which Prophet Muhammed was praying, prostrated, when a snake disturbed him by crawling underneath him. One is not supposed to change one's position during prayer, and luckily a cat jumped on the snake and killed it. This, according to the man, is why everyone looks after the cats of Istanbul. It's amazing to learn about why things are how they are in other countries, isn't it? There was us just thinking there was an out-of-control cat epidemic. At least they won't ever need cat cafes like London.