Winter Escapes from Berlin: Istanbul

photos: Starecasers

Winter holidays in the snow are just not my cup of tea. You won’t find me skiing in Hovden or spending a week in Kitzbühel any time soon. That’s probably because every memory I have of being in the snow consists of having flights cancelled, wet feet, or falling on my butt. But that’s fine, luckily there’s plenty of opportunity to indulge in a short holiday for slothful people like me. For example, I’m perfectly content with taking a city break to look around museums. That’s what I actually did a bunch of weeks ago; I packed my bag, took a flight to the fascinating Turkish city Istanbul and had the time of my life. Read why and how after the jump!

The fact that Istanbul is the only city in the entire world which is built upon two continents, Europe and Asia, makes it definitely stand out, but the city’s main attraction actually lies in its culture and majestic architecture. With its powerful history and multicultural atmosphere, it just has all the ingredients of a diverse metropolis. During my short holiday I had the chance to sample all that this city has to offer, from its past to its food and people. There’s so much to do in this city, I’m certain you’ll find interesting ways to explore it yourself; however, to help you make the best out of your short holiday, I though I’d list my highlights to introduce all the first-time visitors to this fantastic city.

1. Grab some Turkish culture right away

The best way to start assimilating the culture was to take a flight with Turkish Airlines, which was a pleasant experience and a really good value. Once I have landed and freshened up a bit, it was time to go out and explore. Wandering the streets of Istanbul without any definite destination was the best way to dive into its rich past and eye-catching architecture right away. I soon realized that every building was beautiful and the local people were just about the friendliest ones around. From the Beyoglu district with its boutiques, junk stores, and countless hammams to the Cihangir hipster neighborhood, or the historical centre Sultanahmet, culture is at the heart of Istanbul. Just get on the vintage trams that run through the city, hop off to go shopping or have a walk along the Bosphorus and make yourself at home.

2. Explore Sultanahmet, the historical heart of the city

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Istanbul is its incredible history. No trip to this city would be complete without exploring the peninsula that housed the ancient city of Constantinople: Sultanahmet. Also commonly known as Old Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the epicenter of Istanbul’s culture and history where all the most famous historical sites are located. I spent most of my time in this area taking in sights like the breathtaking Byzantine church Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque with its slender pinnacles and six minarets, the Topkapi Palace, former home of the Ottoman sultans, and the underground Basilica cistern. They are all within easy walking distance of each other, and a full day is definitely enough to see all of them. Wandering into Sultanahmet is like stepping back in time, so make sure your camera is fully charged, as you will want to capture every aspect of it.

3. Enjoy a drink on the Galata Bridge

The nicest way to end my mosque-marathon was walking along the Galata Bridge, the bridge that spans the Golden Horn to connect the city’s two sides, and grab a drink at one of the restaurants underneath it. The bridge has a very strong symbolic and spiritual significance in the inhabitants’ lives and is definitely one of Istanbul’s most iconic landmarks. Every day an unbroken row of local men fish over the edge, spending hours hoping to catch some fresh seafood. The view from the bridge was a very memorable event, but to experience it at its most magical you should probably walk across it at sunset.

4. Stroll through modern Istanbul

It wasn’t until my last couple of days that I ventured into modern Istanbul which consists of the boroughs such as Galata, Taksim, Nisantasi, and many more. These are definitely the must-see spots if you are there for shopping or a great night out. Galata, located on the Northern shore of the Goldern Horne, is a very trendy and colorful neighborhood with charming cafés, and a few interesting shops and small galleries mostly concentrated at the bottom of the famous Galata Tower. Taksim Square and Istiklal avenue were mostly packed with shoppers until dawn, just before turning into a party area till the early morning. Nisantasi, on the contrary, is a much more residential area with luxurious galleries and boutiques, and together with Cihangir is definitely what I like to call the ‘home of hipsters’.

5. Check out the markets

Walking through Istanbul was like weaving my way through a maze where each corner had similar looking markets, waves of smells and spices engaging your mind. The oldest market in the world, the Grand Bazaar was a riot of colour with Turkish delights and a surprisingly fun experience. Easily accessible from the big sites in Sultanahmet it’s open every day and everything imaginable is on sale, from carpets to ceramics and souvenirs. The place is immense, so it’s important not to lose your way. A good alternative is the Spice Bazaar, still in a very scenic location with tiny streets and energetic crowds, but definitely more manageable and visitor-friendly.

6. Explore the local food

Authentic Turkish food is one of the best cuisines I have tried so far. From the tasty spinach and cheese börek to the iconic Baklava pastries with honey and nuts, to the most famous Turkish lokum, everything is a delicious must-try. I usually popped into a typical Turkish greasy spoon and enjoyed some pine nut rice with bread, or a traditional doner with yoghurt sauce. If you wanna keep it healthy you can always get a pomegranate juice hand-squeezed by a street vendor, or some exquisite sea food in a fancy restaurant on the Bosphorus.

7. Enjoy Istanbul’s spectacular skyline

During my time in Istanbul I stayed at the Marmara Pera Hotel, located in the outstanding shopping area of Beyoglu. The hotel was just superb with great sized rooms, comfy beds, innovative design and a delicious breakfast. However, the highlight of the hotel was its rooftop pool that runs right up against the edge of the building, separating you from the downtown by just a wall of glass. Visiting the rooftop wasn’t just about going for a swim, but it gave me the chance to enjoy the most stunning view of the iconic city skyline. That was definitely a memorable way to conclude my holiday in Istanbul!

Though it is easy enough to reach on a short city break, Istanbul really deserves much more than a few-day stay. Istanbul is a city which can’t be boring even if it tried to, and, regardless of how many museums and kebab you manage to fit in your first time visit, you will undoubtedly still be in awe for a very long time!

Additional photography by my travel-partner Julia Haghjoo.

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