Blog: 10 things I learned…from Istanbul

As mentioned in a previous blog post, I went to Istanbul recently for a bit of a break.  What a great city it is.  I stayed in an area called Sultanahmet where the main Istanbul sights are – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Grand Bazaar – as well as the Cemberlitas Hamami (Turkish Bath).  I wrote a review of the excellent Sultans Royal Hotel I stayed at on TripAdvisor.

I could tell you about all the wonderful things I did, saw and ate during my 4-day, 5-night stay in Istanbul but I thought I’d do something a little different.  Here are 10 things I learned from my time in Istanbul – read and make use of it as you please!

Stray cats are much more pleasant than stray dogs

Everywhere I walked, I saw cats.  Regardless of whether they were rummaging through a bin or sitting on the altar at Hagia Sofia (there was one!) they were pristine and spotless.  Even if you walked up to them, they wouldn’t flinch.  As far as stray anythings go, cats are definitely my favourite.

Fresh fish sandwiches are the future of food

Eminonu is the main port area where the Bosphorus Cruise sets off and is just opposite the Egyptian Spice Market.  Just before setting off on the cruise, I noticed crowds of people in front of 2 boats.  I decided to have a look and realised the crowd were munching away on fresh fish sandwiches at 5TL (about £1.70) a piece.  When I say fresh, I mean fresh.  The fish are caught, simply grilled, very quickly de-boned and stuffed into turkish bread with some salad.  You can buy pickles separately and there are people walking around with drink cans in their hand for you to buy.  I stuck with the sandwich and it was, simply, excellent.  The Eminonu Fish Sandwich boat was definitely a culinary highlight of my stay.

British kebabs are tastier than Turkish ones

Foodies amongst you are probably crying in your soup at this one but it’s true.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste of Anglo-Turkish food, but the kebabs in Turkey just…aren’t that great.  Best Kebab House on Chadwell Heath Lane is still the best (or for a Bangladeshi take on it, go to Spice Hut opposite Stepney Green station..amazing!) for a doner.  In Turkey, you won’t even get garlic sauce!

Don’t buy anything from the Grand Bazaar

Now, this might be a controversial one.  The Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 shops in it but here’s the thing – there are 1,000 ceramic shops, 1,000 jewellery shops, 1,000 fake handbag shops and another 1,000 general souvenir shops (with turkish delights, tea sets etc.).  Those aren’t specific numbers of course, but that’s pretty much what it felt like.  Despite going in at 11am, I was invariably “the first customer of the day, so good price to bring good luck” according to the shopkeepers.  As it is a major tourist attraction, there’s a 20-25% premium on the prices and the quality isn’t always that great as each shopkeeper is clamouring over the other for business.  Of course, there’s no substitute for being in the hustle ‘n’ bustle and history of the place but, given that I found most of the gifts I bought at a fraction of the price on Isteklal Caddesi (see next point), the Grand Bazaar was a lot of style with little substance…!

Isteklal Caddesi is the best shopping street…ever

Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street can be found after a hell of a steep walk past the Galata tower.  There’s a single train that runs through the street from one end of it to the other.  It had all the designer shops you’d expect as well as normal tourist shops and a selection of lovely restaurants.  I went there on an early evening with some light rain and the buzz of the place was just fantastic.  Definitely worth a visit – and in the rain – for a taste of metropolitan Istanbul.

Turkish Baths are NOT for the faint-hearted

Don’t do it if you’re body-conscious/don’t want someone to knead your torso like it’s dough/don’t fancy being dragged all over hot marble stone/prefer drinking alcohol to feel tipsy instead of having bones and muscles you didn’t know existed giving you pins ‘n’ needles.

Never tell a shopkeeper you’ll be back later…

As my hotel was right next to the main “Old Istanbul” sights, I had the pleasure of walking through the Arasta Bazaar every day.  It really is the cutest little bazaar and at the end of it, when the evening sets in, you’ll hear the sounds of live Turkish music and smells from exotic shisha pipes at the main cafe there.  There are also loads of shops (not just here, but everywhere in Istanbul).  So, naturally, as a shopper you want to look around and, as shopkeepers, they want you to buy from their shop.  So when I told one particular shopkeeper “I’ll be back” knowing I’d pass the shop on my way back to the hotel, he wagged his finger at me, vein popping out of his neck and said through clenched teeth, “I KNOW WHAT YOU ARRRREEEE”.  Not doing that again.

London definitely needs a tram service

I could pretty much walk everywhere I needed to, but I made the odd journey by tram.  It was such a pleasant experience.  They were air conditioned, regular and simple to navigate.  Best of all, it was very very cheap.  With an Istanbulkart (their Oyster card equivalent), each single journey was 1.95 TL (around 70p).  Despite Istanbul being a very busy city, traffic easily negotiated the trams (and vice versa), whilst it made the city feel a lot more cosmopolitan.  I really think London should have something similar.

Just because someone is old, doesn’t mean they’re not useful

At home, the rise in the retirement age has been the source of great angst for most of the population.  There seems to be this feeling that above a certain number, human beings cease to become useful or able to do anything.  Not so in Turkey.  From the old man sweeping away rainwater at Topkapi Palace to keep it as fresh possible, to other members of the elderly fraternity selling bits ‘n’ bobs on their stalls, everyone was busy.  I don’t doubt that a lot of these people had to do this to make ends meet and, whilst that is sad (let’s be honest, pensions pots now or in the future ain’t gonna keep any of us comfortable…!) it highlighted that this generation is able – and on the whole willing – to work.  Let people retire when they wish to.

Trust is a novel thing in a big city

As a Londoner who uses the Tube pretty much every day of the week, I’m used to everyone being miserable.  I’m also used to the idea that nobody really trusts anybody else around them – myself included.  It’s not a city where people look out for one another.  But in Istanbul, the level of trust I saw and felt was remarkable.  When buying my Istanbulkart from a small stall owner, whose other products were cigarette lighters, keyrings and nail clippers, he told me to wait for 5 minutes as he went off and topped up the card for me.  I waited and in that time, 2 more people arrived wanting to buy a cigarette lighter.  Now, they could easily have walked off with one but no, they waited for what ended up being about 7-8 minutes until the small stall owner returned and handed over my card.  That would never happen in London.  And it should.