Having visited Istanbul twice before, it’s a city that holds some wonderful memories for me…
The first time was July 2005, the weather was gorgeous, we drank cocktails in the rooftop bars, ate seafood by the Bosphorus and enjoyed the history and culture at our leisure. My memories there are also strongly connected to important times in London – on a positive note we heard that London had won the 2012 Olympic games while we were there and sadly days later we heard of the 7/7 bombings which shook central London.
The second time I visited was March 2006, for a big family wedding of my then boyfriend’s cousin. Of course, it was slightly chillier but I remember it being perfectly comfortable to walk around in jeans and a jumper with no need for coats…
This time it was somewhat different…
I’d been invited to visit Istanbul in mid-February and having been at around this time of year before, I assumed it would be around 12 degrees, not hot but weather that we could comfortably walk around in…maybe enjoy wine by the sea while keeping a coat on!
We arrived latish Friday night, it was cold with sharp winds and rain, and when I opened the curtains the following day we were met with blizzards!! And it was even worse the next day when we were scheduled for a day out with tour company, Luxury Istanbul. But still we were determined to press on! We were picked up directly from our hotel in a comfortable and well-appointed mini-bus with plenty of water, tissues and sweets to keep us going for the day.
And here’s Anna with our tour guide for the day, the wonderful Hakan. I can’t emphasise enough how great Hakan was, not only was he incredibly knowledgable and experienced, there was no way we would have been able to explore Istanbul without him. The whole day he was an arm for us to lean on, helping us through slippery areas and steep steps, finding radiators for us to warm our hands and generally just being amazing and such a perfect gentleman. 10 /10 for Hakan!!
Luxury Istanbul are a fantastic company that will completely tailor-make a city tour for you so that you see exactly what you want. The company is one of the most recommended tour and yacht operators based in Istanbul, so we knew we were going to receive great service!
Our tour started in Sultanahmet Square, in the old city of Istanbul, where many of the significant monuments are located. Our first port of call was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly know as the Blue Mosque. Built in the reign of Sultan Ahmet, 1603-1617, the Mosque is one of the centres of religion in the city. Hundreds of Muslims come here every day for daily prayer and worship.
Now I must apologise for some of the photos, unfortunately I couldn’t stand there taking hundreds of pictures trying to get the perfect one, I think I may well have got frost bite if I did. To be honest towards the end of the day I could barely grip anything with my hands.
The Blue Mosque is famous for being the only mosque in in Istanbul with six minarets, which are the tall spires that surround the mosque. It’s part of Muslim tradition that you must remove your shoes before entering the mosque and women must cover their heads. As I was wearing a skirt I also had to wrap a sarong around me, but these are all provided at the mosque.
The name of the mosque derives from the 20,000 blue tiles which feature more than fifty different tulip designs. Hakan told us that the tulip actually comes from Turkey, not the Netherlands as most people assume.
There are more than 200 stained glass windows inside with beautifully intricate designs…
The domed ceiling was one of the most spectacular features of the mosque for me and it was apparently designed so the visitors would cast their eyes towards heaven.
As we were limited in time we didn’t visit the Hagia Sophia, but it is located across the square from the mosque. It was built in AD 537 and used to serve as a Greek Orthodox church before being converted into a mosque. In more recent years it has been converted into a museum.
Instead, we headed to The Topkapi Palace, located near these other two grand monuments. Though Ankara is the capital of Turkey, Istanbul is the largest city and is at the country’s economic heart as well as being a city brimming with history and culture.
Just look at the gorgeous view from the top of the hill on which Topkapi is perched.
What would have been a pleasant walk along the drive into the palace was really rather treacherous, Anna and I clung on to Hakan as we slipped and slided our way to the entrance of the palace. Fortunately, there was no waiting in a queue as there was a dedicated desk for tour guides.
Topkapi Palace is one of the prime historic sites in Istanbul as it was the place of residence for the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. The palace is a series of beautifully decorated and tiled chambers that made up both the private living areas and the council chambers of the sultans. We also explored the vast treasury and armoury in the palace, and though we weren’t allowed to take pictures, I’ll always remember the incredible Topaki dagger which features three enormous emeralds. One of the other key jewels is an eighty-six carat gem known as the Spoonmaker’s (!) diamond which was worn by Sultan Mehmet IV
These gorgeous imperial rooms are connected by beautiful courtyards and garden’s which unfortunately we couldn’t enjoy owing to the heavy snow fall. We bravely made our way up the stairs as we simply couldn’t miss out on the view.
I think you can see the pain on our faces from the cold, but you don’t need me to tell you we were just unlucky with the weather.
Next we bundled back into the car, bound for the Spice Market…
I loved the bazaar, and not just because it was undercover and warm…but there were so many colourful and wonderful things to look at. On my previous trip to Istanbul I’d visited the famous Grand Bazaar, a huge market, encompassing nearly 4,000 stalls in over 80 streets. The Spice Market was similar but on a much smaller scale and sells caviar, dried fruit, Turkish delight, nuts and spices as well trinkets and souvenirs for tourists.
Hakan led us to stall No18 and a company called Cikita, where they pressed hot pomegranate tea into our numb hands and we soon started to thaw out as they began plying us with the most delicious Turkish delight I’d ever tasted.
Made with no refined sugar and only honey, the Turkish sweet was totally different to the type we’re used to at home.
Anna and I was soon trying all the various flavours of these jewel-like morsels as if the honeyed voice of the snow queen from Narnia was whispering in our ear.
The stall also sold many other traditional Turkish sweet treats…
As well as nuts, teas and seasonings…all of which they were very generous in allowing us to sample.
I bought a box of assorted Turkish Delight for Mr S, and Anna picked some up for her mum, before Hakan led us through to the end of the market.
It may be a bit of a tourist trap but I was totally entranced by the sights, smells and colours of the place and I much preferred it to the Grand Bazaar, which is rather overwhelming and claustrophobic.
By now we were really ready for our lunch, although we were having a wonderful day and everything was so well organised, it felt like a bit of an endurance test facing the cold and the treacherous paths.
Ahhh…yes, that’s exactly what we needed 🙂
The very wonderful concierge at Luxury Istanbul had made some suggestions for us lunch, and given my penchant for nosing around luxury hotels, I was keen to check out the Ciragan Palace, Kempinski
. From the Laledan restaurant we had the most beautiful view of the Bosphorus, though I did yearn for a bit of warmth so that we could enjoy our champagne on that beautiful garden terrace.
The hotel is actually set in a stunning 19th Century palace built for the rather tragic Sultan Abdulaziz, who killed himself with a pair of scissors.
The service was at the highest levels of luxury, as they took away our wet shoes and gave us slippers to warm our feet as we ate lunch.
With marble walls, plush furnishings and elaborate rugs, the hotel certainly was luxurious, and the perfect choice if you’re looking for something very traditional.
A warming seafood soup seemed like the ideal starter for me in this icy weather. I loved it, especially as it was actually fairly light and not too creamy.
Anna chose a dish of fat juicy prawns served with a red pepper stuffed with chickpeas and drizzled with arugula vinaigrette. I think Turkish food is often associated with meat dishes, but Hakan told us that Istanbul is full of incredible seafood restaurants serving delicious fresh fish.
Anna went meaty for main, with a good old-fashioned lamb kebab.
I chose a fish that was pretty much unknown to me before this trip, Bluefish is a well-known catch of the area and can be found in the Bosphorus or Black Sea. It’s a delicious, slightly oily fish, much like sea bass.
The plan had been to have a light lunch and then check out some of the street food at Istiklal and the Galata district but we shelved that plan as it would be too much walking out in the snow. Instead, we had a longer lunch, before picking up our private luxury yacht for a cruise on the Bosphorus.
Fortunately, we didn’t have far to go as the yacht picked us up from the hotel; that’s it just behind the gorgeous infinity pool.
The inside of the boat was huge with very comfortable seating and lots of space and best of all it was warm!!
I knew that Turkey straddled the continents of Europe and Asia, but interestingly Hakan told us that only around 3% of the country is actually in Europe. But the majority of Istanbul, including the commerical and historical hub, lies in the European side with about the third of the population on the Asian side.
The Bosphorus is a strait that makes up part of the boundary between Europe and Asia so as we sailed down we were looking at two different continents.
On the right side was the largely residential Asian side.
Whilst on the European side we witnessed historical waterside mansions and palaces.
Anna and I sat back in the warm comfort of the yacht with another hot glass of apple tea and enjoyed listening to Hakan’s great knowledge of this historical and rather magical city.
Despite the biting weather it was a really fantastic day and I cannot emphasise enough what a wonderful guide Hakan was and how well organised our tour was by Luxury Istanbul.
A massive, massive thank you to Luxury Istanbul who I worked in collaboration with on this trip.
Luxury Istanbul offer the following exclusive services:
Our tour was complimentary and the yacht was provided at a press rate