Istanbul, Turkey: Where East Meets West

Topdeck’s Kara takes on Istanbul - and survives!


“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul,” Alphonse de Lamartine, 19th-century French writer and politician.

Views from Topkapi Palace

Views from Topkapi Palace

In hindsight it might have been a good idea to bring directions to the hotel.

Stepping off the tram in Sultanahmet, backpacks in hand, we soon realised we had no idea how to get from the station to our accommodation.

It was around 9pm and the information centre was closed so after a brief moment of panic we asked a man in a snack stand for directions. We’d barely shown him the name of the hotel when he was on the phone and calling the manager to get someone to meet us. What service!

And that was the first and last time we got lost in Istanbul.

The next morning we were woken at dawn by the Muslim call to prayer. Thankfully we were able to fall back to sleep for a few more hours.

When we finally emerged we were greeted by a stunner of a day!

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Istanbul is a beautiful city rich with history, culture and all the trappings of a first class European capital, but the exotic mix of Far East makes this a European city like no other.

The only city in the world situated on two continents, Istanbul lies on the Bosphorus Strait that divides Europe and Asia.

This meeting of East and West is cultural as well as physical and the two come together in a perfect balance.

Beautiful European buildings and Mosques stand side by side and the day’s calls to prayer are heard across the city.

While the majority of the population dress in a secular fashion, observant Muslim women mix traditional head coverings with stylish modern clothing that wouldn’t look out of place on the streets of Paris or Milan.

Beautiful chandeliers inside Hagia Sophia

Beautiful chandeliers inside Hagia Sophia

The entire district of Sultanahmet is a Unesco World Heritage Site packed full of historic buildings, museums, bars and restaurants.

It’s fairly easy to make your way around the entire district on foot, but if you’re short for time or your legs are a little tired you can always jump aboard one of the efficient (and cheap) trams.

Our first stop of the day was Topkapi Palace – home to the Ottoman Sultans from 1465-1856.

Today Topkapi Palace is a museum with a massive collection of artefacts including royal robes, weapons, armour, manuscripts, murals, treasures and jewellery. It’s also a great spot for panoramic views of the city below.

My favourite sights were the collection of Sultans’ robes, jewelled and golden ornaments (very bling) and the Harem (definitely worth the extra entrance charge!).

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque)

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque)

Back down in the main town square with visited the impressive Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia).

Hagia Sophia began life as an Orthodox Christian Church between 532 and 537, before becoming a mosque and finally a museum.

Entering the grand building the first thing you notice are the dozens of low hanging glittering chandeliers that look as though they are floating just over your head.  There are also several well preserved Christian mosaics on the upper floor that are well worth a look.

Ornate tiles in the Blue Mosque

Ornate tiles in the Blue Mosque

Just across from Hagia Sophia is another iconic building – the Blue Mosque.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Emperor Ahmed I. Its nickname comes from the ornate blue tiles that cover its ceiling.

Remember to dress respectfully when you stop by as it’s still a working mosque.

A must see for your visit is the Grand Bazaar; one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with a maze of 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops.

Stalls are organised by the types of goods they sell such as jewellery, furniture, leather, clothing and trinkets.

Our expedition was rather successful as I picked up a leather foot stool, pashmina scarf, some pretty sweet harem pants and several pairs of earrings.

Remember to haggle for a price you’re happy with and don’t be afraid to keep walking or say no if you’re not interested in what someone is selling.

Not too far away lays another shopping hub, the Spice Bazaar.

Exotic sights and smells at the Spice Bazaar

Exotic sights and smells at the Spice Bazaar

Also known as the Egyptian Markets, the Bazaar is the centre of the spice trade in Istanbul so go along for the sights and smells.

It’s a great place to pick up some tasty produce or, if you’re me, copious amounts of Turkish Delight.

Speaking of tasty treats, I could have written this entire blog post about all the heavenly food on offer in Turkey!

A melting pot of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines you’ll be planning your meals throughout the day!

Pastries, corn on the cob, baklava, halva, pide (Turkish Pizza), Turkish delight, köfte (meatballs), apple tea, Turkish coffee & of course, the kebabs! Ah the kebabs!

The best kebab I had was köfte, tomato and eggplant. Our waiter took it upon himself to demonstrate the correct procedure to eat it - mush everything together with your fork and wrap it up in a piece of Turkish bread – divine!

On that note, get yourself to Istanbul for exotic sights, sounds, smells and tastes and an amazing time.


Experience Istanbul on Topdeck Travel’s ANZAC trips to Gallipoli, Turkey Explored, Eastern Explore and Bosphorus Adventure.

NOTE: All travellers arriving in Turkey (except those on New Zealand passports) will need to buy a visa on entry (approximate 15 euro).

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