10 Days in Turkey: Istanbul (3/3)

Ah, the final leg of our holiday.

Istanbul was made our last stop in anticipation of the shopping that could be done there — we had a meagre 15kg baggage allowance on the earlier domestic flights, you see. But in the end we surprised ourselves by not buying much at all. This, in spite of the legendary Grand Bazaar that houses more than 4,000 shops!

Firstly, the cost of things weren’t that much different from Singapore, making for an expensive shopping spree. Secondly, there wasn’t actually much to buy, unless you’re talking carpets and souvenirs for everyone and their mom.

I only bought a few pieces of clothing, some jewelry, natural handmade soaps, fridge magnets, a pretty iznik tile notebook — and of course Turkish delights and baklava! The sweets were quite heavy but they unfortunately had to be painfully hand-carried to ensure the boxes didn’t get smashed. My 30kg international flight baggage allowance was sadly and grossly underutilised!

Hafiz Mustafa, Istanbul, Turkey

A Hafiz Mustafa outlet selling Turkish delights. How royal is the interior, with all that gold?! They’re one of the better shops, the other one being the Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir chain of shops. Haci Bekir is said to be the original creator of the Turkish delight back in the Ottoman days. We did pass by one outlet but by then we had bought a truckload of sweets from Hafiz Mustafa, so we gave it a miss.

Hafiz Mustafa, Istanbul, Turkey

I was THE kid in the candy shop!

Hafiz Mustafa, Istanbul, Turkey

I had wanted to secretly take a pic of this guy who was manning the baklava section, but I was found out and he invited us behind the counter for a photo with him. Can you imagine how happy I was to be taking a photo with all that yummy baklava?!

While Istanbul wasn’t quite the shopping haven for me, it was still a tremendous delight. Whilst popular attractions like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace and the Basilica Cistern were marvellous, surprisingly I found even greater enjoyment doing the simplest of things — walking. Strolling the streets of Istanbul, taking in its sights, sounds and smells.

It didn’t start out this way though. One of the first things Faz did upon reaching our hotel in Istanbul…..was to watch Scam City Istanbul! On one hand, it’s good to be aware of the different scams operating there (some examples: carpet scams, shoeshine scams, nightclub scams), but the downside was that it made us feel MEGA PARANOID.

We felt like mice stepping out of the comforts of our sewer for the first time to explore the big city, hoping not to get squashed. It didn’t help that we arrived back in Istanbul on a Sunday — it was so crowded! We got stopped every few metres by peddlers peddling Istanbul guide books, maps, toys and imitation perfumes. We were on real high alert.

It took me a trip to the Grand Bazaar the next day to snap out of it. I had been really looking forward to visiting one of the oldest covered markets in history, but when we reached it, I wasn’t strolling through it leisurely taking in the details of the market like I had imagined. Faz was pulling on my hand and we were walking fast, trying not to look interested so that shopkeepers wouldn’t approach us (therefore reducing our chances of getting scammed?). It was ridiculous because I was interested, and we didn’t stop to enter any shop for at least the first 10 minutes!

Of course you still have to be on guard — someone actually attempted to pick Faz’s pocket while we were in a crowded tram! But lucky for us he was one lousy ass pickpocket because Faz actually felt his hand! Without looking at the guy, Faz immediately turned his body away, putting the guy’s hand in a knot — and he had no choice but to wriggle it miserably out of the pocket. Fotunately there was nothing in there in the first place. Faz didn’t confront him, well, because 1) he didn’t actually get away with anything and 2) he wanted to avoid the possibility of an altercation.

Anyway my point is just do your best to be aware of your belongings and surroundings, avoid dodgy people, avoid following people to places and you’ll be fine, InsyaAllah. No need to be excessively paranoid like we were!

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

The Grand Bazaar on a Monday afternoon. Great time to go because it wasn’t too crowded. I had a go at bargaining here!

The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey

An array of tea and spices.We were lured into the shop by this warm and friendly guy whose English was quite good, offering us Turkish delights that turned out to be pretty damn delicious. He turned out to be a Syrian who had only been in Turkey for 6 months. He told us he left for Turkey to find a safer place to work to support his family back home, and asked us to pray for Syria.It was quite sad and I was immediately reminded of how I should count my blessings because there are other people in worse situations. I just wish Muslims all over the world could just unite and be a force to be reckoned with instead of killing each other — but that’s another story altogether.

Sahaflar Carsisi, Istanbul, Turkey

We spent more than an hour in this calligraphy shop in the nearby book bazaar to get supplies for my brother, who does calligraphy.

Sahaflar Carsisi, Beyazit, stanbul, Turkey

Facetiming my brother to show him what they had. He was practically fangirling behind that screen!

I enjoyed Istanbul SO, SO much after I got over Scam City Istanbul.

I loved people-watching. People from all walks of life seemed to converge there, and it was a challenge to tell the different nationalities apart. Some ladies would have fair skin and light hair, and just when I thought they were Caucasian, they’d start conversing in Turkish. Or just when I thought they were Turkish, they started speaking in some other language.

We found the Turks to be so strikingly beautiful that Faz and I felt like ugly ducklings there. We’d be so sillily over the moon when shopkeepers ask, “Are you Turkish? You look Turkish” although we knew it was probably a ploy to get us to buy from them — we read about this tactic of theirs online. The women, whether in hijab or not, were so fashionable and elegant!

One of our simple indulgences in Istanbul was having balik ekmek on the pier next to the Galata Bridge at Eminonu. Balik ekmek means fish sandwich, and really that was all it was: a simple grilled fish sandwich. But believe me, as simple as it was, it tasted SO good! I think it’s worthy to note that I’m not even a big fish-eater, but we came to eat here twice while we were in Istanbul.

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, Turkey

The Galata Bridge. Scores of men line the bridge to fish, and they’re there from morning till night!

Galata Bridge, Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the boats parked by the pier and customers waiting eagerly in line to receive their balik ekmeks.

Balik ekmek, Galata Bridge, Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey

This, my dear friends, is how the balik ekmek looks like. Deceivingly simple, right? Typically at every table there is a bottle of salt and lemon juice, which you drizzle over the sandwich as you wish. I suppose most of all it’s the freshness of the fish that makes it so delish!

Galata Bridge, Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey

Just look at the crowd! I like the setup of small tables and stools. Easier for the stalls to pack up and go, I suppose.

The sandwiches were only available in the evenings — I assume they spend their mornings fishing. Eating here felt somewhat like an authentic Turkish experience because even the locals and their families patronised these stalls. I loved the ambience. It was quite laidback despite the hustle and bustle of the harbour because you get to just sit there, enjoy your sandwich and watch the world go by — with the sound of the water and the sight of flying seagulls against the monumental old city as the backdrop to boot.

Galata Bridge, Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey

One of my favourite pics of my favourite places in Istanbul — the Eminonu pier.

I also loved taking a walk down Istiklal Avenue, a pedestrian street in Taksim — the heart of modern Istanbul. It was there that we finally saw some familiar brands like Starbucks, H&M, Topshop and Adidas — we didn’t see any of these in the old city. There were bookstores, cafes, restaurants and pubs with live music there as well.

Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

Taking the underground metro to Taksim.

Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

At Taksim station.

Taksim Square, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

The famed Taksim Square — the place where protests usually happen. Lucky there weren’t any while we were there though it would’ve been an experience. Nobody ever protests in Singapore!

Taksim Square, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

There’s your Starbucks on the left.

Istiklal Avenue, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

At the start of Istiklal Avenue with my delish coconut mocha frap from Starbucks. Have we ever had this here in Singapore? It was sooooooo sedap, I swear!

As evening came, Istiklal became more alive, with some pretty talented buskers performing their music. I’d describe Istiklal as sort of a cool place where people would gather to wind down after work. The buildings were old and weathered European-style buildings, but the shops were trendy and the place was bustling. It was a rather nice contrast.


Istiklal Avenue, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

Istiklal by night. I had wanted to video those buskers on the left but when we came back down the street they were gone! So far the best buskers we encountered the whole night! :(

Funicular, Istiklal Avenue, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey

Istiklal Avenue is mostly a pedestrian street, except for these ultra cute vintage funiculars going up and down every now and then.

It was quite easy to get around in Istanbul, as long as you don’t take a cab — you could either get ripped off or the traffic could kill you. We had printed the rail network map beforehand, and all we did when we got there was to purchase an Istanbulkart (our EZlink equivalent) from a newsstand, usually nearby the station. An Istanbulkart can be used by multiple people as long as you have enough value in it. It’s all pretty straightforward. If not, there’s always the station officer, or the tourism police you can approach for help.

Trams in Istanbul, Turkey

One of the frequent modes of transport for us was these electric trams.

We also found out that the Turks (or maybe just this one Turk) have a mean sense of humour.

Faz and I we were in a park having a lovely time people-watching and munching on our stall-bought corn when a homeless-looking man with a dirty brown bucket and a sinister smile approached us — obviously up to no good. Faz had seen him first. He nudged me urgently and got up to flee — but I, unfortunately, didn’t react fast enough and was by then in direct line of fire.

I could only helplessly imagine what was in that dirty bucket. Pee? Faeces? Filthy drain water? Man, the smell was surely going to be excruciating! The scene that unfolded next seemed to begin playing in slow-mo. The man stopped a few steps away from me and raised the bucket. As he tipped it and gave it a strong jerk to send its contents flying towards me, I shielded my head with my arms — it was the only defence I had left.

A couple of seconds passed, and then in the distance — laughter. I opened my eyes only to see the man looking at me wide-eyed, slightly curling his lips to form a rather psychotic smile, and passers-by laughing at us — HARD. Apparently there was nothing in the bucket and it was all a prank! Without time to waste the man then proceeded to terrorise other people in the park, and looking at their reactions, they couldn’t have been worse than mine!

We turned around to check for cameras in case it was some kind of a gag show, but there were none to be seen. Only an insane homeless man with a bucket and a mean sense of humour — which to be fair, made Faz and I laugh like crazies too. We got punk’d in Istanbul!

Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Stopping to refuel in a park.

More pics:

The Blue Mosque

Spectra Hotel, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Hotels in the Sultanahmet area were pretty pricey compared to other areas. I wanted a hotel that had a great rooftop view of the Blue Mosque that didn’t burn a hole in our pockets, and Spectra Hotel was an excellent choice. It’s a pretty basic hotel but it had what I wanted, and that was all that mattered.

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The famed Blue Mosque and the crazy horde of tourists on a Sunday!

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The courtyards of the Blue Mosque.

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The musollah.

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The amount of detail these Ottomans put into their work is crazy!

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

View from our hotel rooftop of the Blue Mosque at dawn.

Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque by night. This was taken on a night a sermon was being delivered, and those illuminated dots you see in the sky were birds flying above the mosque. The interesting thing was that they were only flying over the mosque, and not other buildings. MasyaAllah, a grand display of God’s greatness!

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia, a church of the Byzantine era that the Ottomans converted into a mosque, which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk later converted into a museum. There is a movement in Turkey to have Hagia Sophia converted back into a mosque, and as result of this there have also been people petitioning for it to remain as a museum so visitors can still access this historical building. How complicated.

Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The corridors of Hagia Sophia. The interior and structure of the former church mostly remained, except for a couple of changes: the Ottomans built a mihrab and minbar, and plastered over the mosaics that depicted faces, just to name a few.

Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The prayer hall.

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were uncovered in the apse during the renovation of the Hagia Sophia mosque.

A mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were uncovered in the apse during a renovation of the Hagia Sophia mosque.

Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

Silhouette of Hagia Sophia at dusk.

Topkapi Palace

Dolmabahce Palace, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The entrance to Topkapi Palace, the first Ottoman palace that was built in the newly conquered Constantinople — known to us now as Istanbul.


Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

One of my best buys in Turkey was this iznik tile-inspired pants. Love it!

Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

The Ottomans were synonymous with opulence and grandeur. The palace was so lavish to the point I actually felt shame! It was all beautiful but it was simply too much.

Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

A dreamy spot in the courtyard.

Dolmabahce Palace

Dolmabahce Palace, Kabatas, Istanbul, Turkey

The gates of Dolmabahce Palace, the Ottomans’ second palace after Topkapi. They had decided they wanted a different “lifestyle”, so they built another palace to move into — this time European in style and WAY grander than Topkapi!

Dolmabahce Palace, Kabatas, Istanbul, Turkey

There was this pretty pond in the courtyard….

Dolmabahce Palace, Kabatas, Istanbul, Turkey

….complete with ducks!

Dolmabahce Palace, Kabatas, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the few statues of lions in their courtyard. This particular one was crushing an alligator beneath it. Intimidated yet?

Dolmabahce Palace, Kabatas, Istanbul, Turkey

The palace building. It was a pity we couldn’t take photos inside. You should’ve seen it — it had the largest crystal chandelier in the world, a single handwoven carpet that’s bigger than my 4-room BTO flat, and 14 tonnes of gold leaf adorning the ceilings. The Ottomans really outdid themselves with this one.

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

I wouldn’t say the Basilica Cistern is a must go, but entry was cheap and we had time, so why not?

Basilica Cistern, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey

One of the largest cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. Also one of the locations where the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love, was shot.

All in all an awesome 4 days in Istanbul and 10 days in Turkey! Planning the trip definitely wasn’t easy because of the logistics of travelling on our own in a big and unfamiliar country. Also there were so many things to see and do, which made it all the more difficult to choose! We wanted to maximise our time there so we decided the best option was to take domestic flights to the different areas in Turkey. We didn’t want to waste time getting lost, so we had our hotels arrange our airport transfers. With the exception of Istanbul which was easy to navigate, we had booked day tours in Cappadocia and Oludeniz, so we were still going to places and doing things we wanted without worrying about how to get there.

Best of all, Faz enjoyed the itinerary I had planned! Granted, he is an easygoing person by nature, but the worrywart that I am couldn’t help but be a little worried that he would find things like museums and stuff boring. But he didn’t, so it was a relief!

I think planning trips on our own is definitely the way to go for us because I like to be in total control of the choice of hotel, food, pace, places to go and things to do. But I think I do want to experience a tour at least once….just to see what it’s like. Hmm, what would be a good country to follow a tour?

It’s only been 3 months since my Turkey trip, but believe me when I say it feels like 6 months — at least. I’ve been so exhausted planning a work event, and now that it’s finally over I say I deserve a quick getaway.

Maybe I’ll try a do-nothing getaway this time. 4D3N in Krabi, perhaps?