5 Spiritual, Foodie & Shopping Things To Make Your Istanbul Trip From Just Okay To Just Wow!
If Covid will allow you to travel, get packing because Istanbul is calling. Here are 5 reasons why you should make it happen!
Istanbul is a city rich in history & spirituality, bubbling with life, energy, foodie (ism), dessert (yeah, not for the Keto at heart), but most of all, nurturing a spirit of magical tolerance and acceptance. You will hear an Insha Allah as much as you hear a hello! You will be welcomed with a cup of hot Turkish tea and then persuaded (coaxed) into buying a rug you really didn’t need.
You will love the religious freedom, the European-Asian marriage of not just convenience, but real, and lasting love. You will be seduced into a Turkish love affair that will beckon you to visit again.
The architecture speaks in quiet, imposing dome-like structures that are home to UN heritage sites. The practice of Faith in this city has brought me closer to a spiritual kind of love – a divine relationship that transcends rules, dogmas, and divisions – do offer prayers at one of the many mosques that line the avenues in Istanbul, if only to renew your relationship with yourself… After all, it is us who need our prayers more than HIM (OR HER)?
There was a chill in the air. Cool enough to wrap my shawl around me, yet, the chill was a welcoming breeze as the cab driver who greeted us at the airport promised to get us to our hotel in about an hour or so.
Wondering what to eat & drink if Istanbul is your 3-day stopover?
I give you all you need to know for the true love of street food and a bit of sightseeing thrown in! So let’s dive right in and red alert to anyone who’s planning to diet when traveling – this one’s so NOT for you!
1. Lose yourself in the monuments, architecture and history
The Aya Sophia mosque is perhaps the one tour you must, must, must take. Nestled into a corner of the city, this church turned museum turned mosque is home to a rich history as the reigns of power changed hands over the years. Presently, under the era of President Erdogan, it is being used as a mosque. The walls are, however, adorned with images of Jesus Christ (subtly covered by awnings, in the main prayer hall). The building was previously used as a museum and also played host to a James Bond film. (take a guess which one)?
Barring the dramatic history, that will intrigue you for sure, just listen to your guide as he tells all – Aya Sophia mosque is a treasure trove and marked as a cultural heritage site by the UN. The sense of spirituality is so overwhelming that you will be moved to offer your prayers in the grand prayer hall of the building. It was a spiritual experience not to be missed.
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the actual name as the Turks refer to it) boasts a stunning backdrop to a city steeped in history. Do walk the square in its vicinity. There are landmarks relating to the Ottoman Empire that will transport you to a different world altogether. It was interesting to walk the streets, randomly scattered with madressahs – buildings you might not even have noticed other than the soothing courtyards surrounding the area. At the onset, they seemed quiet, but if you listen in, standing by one of the outer walls, you will hear the recitation of the Holy Quran carried through the air in soft, calming tones.
2. Immerse Yourself In History At The Topkapi Palace Museum
If ever you have wanted to see how life was led in the land of the Sultans, you have to take a tour of the walls within the palace museum. The living quarters, sitting rooms, harem, and elaborate kitchens boast of a bygone era. The appliances used at the time, the war stories, swords, clothing, and furniture speak of a resplendent, carefully planned city where rules regarding living spaces, education, familial relationships, and decisions of power were made.
Do visit the area where precious historical memorabilia connected to many religious battles, weapons of war, foreign gifts and again, a soothing recitation of the Holy Qur’an will guide your visit along corridors steeped in history.
Do take the audio guide available at the entrance as it will add layers to your understanding of the life that prevailed in another time!
3. Shopping At The Grand Bazaar – The Tourist Trap You Might Love Falling Into
Yes, it is a tourist trap. Yes, you will be pursued by enthusiastic shopkeepers to savour and buy their fare. Yes, you will know you can be spotted a mile away – unsuspecting tourist and all! But there is a charm all its own, to roam the streets, get into the bargaining game, view the artifacts, handmade offerings, designer(?) scarves sold at drop-dead prices, and knick-knacks to take back to the family. When in Istanbul, do as the tourists do and step into the Grand Bazaar, soaking in the grandness – leave the cynic in you behind. After all, you are on holiday, vacationing, tourist-ing, and taking in Turkish hospitality!
Do make sure you keep yourself acquainted with the opening hours for the bazaar. Ask at your hotel desk, it is not open in the morning, from what I experienced and there may be some days it is not open for business. The evening is a charming time to visit as the area is lit up and gives an old-world feel – perfect to browse and pick up a few memorabilia before an evening meal!
4. Flavoured Tea & Turkish Hospitality
Prepare to be wooed by Turkish hospitality as shopkeepers move instantly to offer you an unending flavor of local teas the moment you step into a shop, any shop, be it Turkish delights, halva, or handicrafts. Pomegranate, apple, cinnamon, you name it and they have it. Served hot in paper cups, these teas are a way to initiate conversation, allow the visitor in your shop to browse, pick up small handcrafted, colorful bowls, teacups, or even a box of handpicked Turkish sweets!
The Turkish are proud of their hospitality. They will strike up a conversation with you instantly. So join in the banter and enjoy the mood!
5. Doner Kebabs, Baklava, Ice Cream & More!
If its doner you want, you have the right city! But that’s not all Istanbul will offer you by way of culinary delights. Adana, shish or any other kebab – grilled, roasted chicken, lamb, beef, and fish, vegetables, aubergines in yogurt sauce, spiced up skewers with flatbread and freshly cut greens to match – Istanbul is a love affair with kebabs. It is your go-to foodie heaven; fast food or gourmet – kebabs are your meal of choice ( you can go veg with falafels and roasted veggies too)!
If it’s a snack you want as you walk along, browsing your way through the local shops, the roadside kiosks offer warm, roasted corn, perfect to accompany you on your street stroll, early morning and late into the evening. The Cimit bun kiosks are a familiar sight all over town. These doughnut-style buns are served plain, or split in the middle with cream cheese or Nutella spread. They keep you satiated as you walk your way to lunch and dinner. This and baklava in hand can easily make for a comfort meal on the go!
For the sweet(est) amongst us, there is the Dodurma ice cream stall – the ice-cream seller who serves with a flair! You cannot miss this one as he proceeds to entertain with his jovial antics for the young and old – be prepared to be surprised before he hands you over the ice cream!
Don’t forget to stop over at the many baklava shops at every nook and corner and ask for a sweet delight to satisfy the dessert craving after a heady dose of kebab adventure!
And that’s it, folks! That’s your Turkish trip in Istanbul. There are many more historical sites to visit. Do take a look at the Galata Tower, Taksim Square, Bosphorus Strait (in warmer weather), and many other mosques and museums that can motivate you to prolong your visit and enjoy the wonders of a city rich in history, culture, and people known for their signature hospitality!