Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, with a population of 13.5 million, and the cultural centre of the country. Sitting at the junction between two continents and on the sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Istanbul has played a key role in religious and political struggles over the past 2000 years. The very name conjures up images of exotic bazaars, crusaders and the Orient Express. But is it a good place for a short break?
I visited Istanbul in early December flying mid-week by Easyjet from Luton for about £70 return; a good example of how cheaply you can travel when you have freedom to choose exactly when (see Fly on a Tuesday!).
I think I was rather lucky for that time of year in having three days of sunshine and temperatures in the mid teens.
There are lots of first-class hotels in the central areas of Istanbul, many of which offer Senior Discounts (see Hotel Deals). I stayed at the Intercontinental Ceylan Hotel near Taksim Square (considered the heart of modern Istanbul), in a room with panoramic views over the Bosphorus. Not the cheapest of hotels, but I stayed there totally free of charge care of Priority Club Points. (Watch out soon for my post about collecting and using Priority Club points.)
Getting around Istanbul can sometimes be confusing with a wide range of different options, but I managed quite happily with the Metro, two funiculars and the Old Tram from Taksim Square, plus walking in the historical part of Istanbul south of the Golden Horn. Nothing too strenuous for an active Senior!
There is much to see and do in Istanbul, as covered in detail in any travel guide, but the following were the five highlights of my visit:
1. Visiting some of the magnificent buildings in the historical part of Istanbul. Within a short distance are three of the world’s great buildings: the Blue Mosque, named after the blue tiles inside, the Topkapi Palace, from where the Ottoman Empire was once ruled, and the Hagia Sophia, the church turned mosque turned museum, with its immense dome.
2. Wandering through the Grand Bazaar. Colourful and sometimes aromatic stalls displaying almost anything one can imagine. Yes, you will need to barter if purchasing, but I found the atmosphere to be pleasant and unfriendly, unlike my experience in the Marrakech Souk.
3. Cruising on the Bosphorus. Take the inexpensive local ferries (not an organised tour) which criss-cross from the European to the Asian side of the Bosphorus as far as Anadolu Kavağı, where you can climb up the to the castle and see the Black Sea, followed by a pleasant meal before the return trip.
4. Dolmabahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. See both the quarters reserved for men and the harem part of the palace. The extravagant decoration of the palace is illuminated by one of the largest collections in the world of crystal chandeliers.
5. Galata Tower Show Night. An evening meal, local alcoholic drinks, and a belly dancing show all for about 50 Euros, plus spectacular views across the Golden Horn from the top of the tower. I have often been disappointed with such ‘shows’ in other parts of the world (just a way of parting tourists from their money), but this was a great evening.
Overall a very enjoyable few days in a fascinating city with friendly, helpful people.