A week after we flew out of Istanbul, we heard news of the terrorist attacks of 12 January where 10 people were killed and more injured. I posted on Facebook not long after: “Thinking of the people of Istanbul after the latest tragedy. We were there just a week ago, and it’s a beautiful city rich with history, culture and tradition. We also joined a week-long tour around Turkey and it gave us some wonderful experiences, including a balloon flight over otherworldly Cappadocia. Our guide told us that tourism in Turkey is dropping, and the local economy is struggling as a result. Don’t let terror scare you away from visiting Istanbul – they need the support of international travellers now more than ever.”
I still believe this to be true. We can’t let terrorism stop us from visiting beautiful cities like Istanbul, Brussels, or Paris, where there’s so much on offer for foreign tourists. Consider this blog post my appeal to you world travellers – consider making Istanbul your next holiday destination for the following five reasons.
1. Istanbul is a cheap holiday destination.
Even with our dollar doing as poorly as it is, Istanbul and Turkey as a whole is still an extremely cheap holiday destination for Australians. A luxurious meal out for two people will cost you on average $20 per couple, while a doner kebab from a street stall will only cost you about $3. Buy yourself a large cup of fresh orange or pomegranate juice for $2.50 (or a bottle of water for 75 cents), and taking public transport will only cost you about $5 per day, per couple. Our Airbnb accommodation was only $55 a night, and when K got sick, we got over-the-counter Nurofen cold medicine for $4. While it’s not as cheap as going to Bali, it’s still much cheaper than many other popular holiday destinations!
2. Istanbul is a city dating back more than a millennium.
The Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern (both in photos below, both sites open to foreign tourists) both date back to the time of the Roman Emperor Justinian (circa 500 AD), while the city of Istanbul / Constantinople itself dates back to 300AD. Under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, structures such as the impressively decorated Topkapi Palace and colourfully tiled Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) were built in the 14th and 15th centuries, and city institutions such as the Grand Bazaar and Spice Markets were first conceived and built. If you’re vaguely interested in history, no matter what era, Istanbul has something to offer.
3. Istanbul is a city with amazing food.
While cheap street stalls selling doners and kebaps rule supreme in terms of square footage in the city, there’s a lot more on offer in Istanbul. We visited sit-down kebap joints like Ortaklar Iskender Kebap, cafes like Marmara Cafe, gozleme restaurants like Hala Manti ve Ev Yemekleri Salonu, and even Russian restaurants like Cagri Restaurant. Pizza and Italian is a popular ‘foreign’ cuisine here, though you will find it harder to find a good Chinese restaurant or British pub.
Who needs ‘foreign’ food though, when you have a million and one different Turkish desserts to choose from? There’s specialists like Hakki Zade where we bought a great selection of baklava, Meshur Beyoglu Cikolatacisi where we bought some excellent chocolate with the largest hazelnuts I’ve ever seen, or you could visit one of the many places around the city that sell home-made Turkish Delight (in a million and one flavours, not just rosewater!) and dondurma, Turkish pulled ice-cream.
4. Istanbul is a city of pampering and luxury.
You can’t visit Istanbul without visiting a Turkish bath, or hamam. We went to Aga Hamami as it was located conveniently close to our accommodation and was also a unisex hamam. Many hamams are single-sex only or else segregate guests so if you’re visiting Istanbul as a mixed-sex couple, make sure you find one that allows both men and women! Paying only $115 for both of us, we spent a whole afternoon at Aga Hamami and enjoyed their marble bath room, sauna, a foam bath, oil massage and facial. We lounged around in Turkish bath towels sipping apple tea and relaxing in their comfortable lounge areas.
It really is an experience to be remembered – as long as you’re not shy about showing your body! As I said on Facebook: “Nothing quite like having a topless middle-aged Turkish woman whipping your towel off you, manoeuvring you onto a marble slab and into various exposing positions while she scrubs your naked body raw, her pendulous breasts resting on your back every so often.”
5. Istanbul is a city for animal lovers.
Paranoid people will try to convince you to stay away from the thousands of stray cats and dogs around the city as they’ll believe that they have fleas. Contrary to popular opinion though, they’re all very well looked after. It wasn’t uncommon to see a cat waiting patiently by a street doner stall for the seller to throw him some scraps (which they usually do!), or a dog waiting outside a restaurant for people to give him scraps off their plate. Many people also put out bowls of water for strays on their doorsteps, some even provide dry pet food in a bowl as well. In addition to that, the city keeps a close eye on them and have a Trap Tag and Release program, where dogs are tagged, vaccinated, and desexed before being released. I’m not sure if cats are managed in the same way, but dogs certainly are!
Many of the photos in the album below are of stray cats and dogs who will come up to you looking for a treat – they’re very friendly and I never once came across an aggressive stray. Carry some dry pet food in a little plastic bag with you when you go around Istanbul, and feed some strays – you’ll make some animal friends along the way!