5 must-do experiences in Istanbul

I’m not going to lie – I was a little bit nervous about my latest trip – a visit to Istanbul. It was only about six weeks after the recent military coup after all. There were very few tourists around during my visit, but there was no trouble at all while I was there.

Turkey is the ultimate East-meets-West experience. The architecture is a mishmash of European and Arab-influenced styles, the majority of the people are Muslim but very few of the women were burkas or even abayas, alcohol is freely available and the city has a vibrant nightlife.

The Turkish people I met (with the exception of one taxi driver who ripped us off) were friendly and had a great sense of humour. They laughed along with our jokes and made plenty of their own.

Cruise along the Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul between East and West. Uniquely, the Eastern side of the city is considered Asia while the West side of the city is European. By the port, dozens of tourist agents will try to entice you to take their private cruises. Make sure to take one of the larger ferries which hold large groups and are significantly cheaper for a broadly similar experience.

The cruise offers incomparable views of Istanbul’s skyline, as well as glimpses of the city’s history. You can choose between two hour and six hour cruises; while the views on either side of the river are truly beautiful, we took the two hour cruise and I would say that was exactly the right amount of time to relax and take in the autumn sun without getting bored.

At 13 Turkish Lira (€3.68) per person, this was undoubtedly the best money I spent during my trip.

Stroll down Istiklal Cadessi

Istiklal Cadessi, which means Independence Avenue, is a lively pedestrian street close to Taksim Square.  Although the area has been the scene of a lot of controversy, during my visit the area was packed with shoppers and people going about their daily lives with little sign of any controversy.

The street is home to high street shops, local brands, a beautiful church, an ambassador’s residence, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s one of the areas that really highlights Istanbul’s East-meets-West culture; the architecture along the street is mostly European, but Arab influence is also apparent.

Indulge in a luxurious Turkish bath

Lying on a white marble slab being bathed and massaged by a stranger was a bizarre but beautiful experience. It’s an unusual situation to find yourself in as an adult, being washed by another adult (outside the context of a relationship), but it was an oddly comforting feeling.

I decided so splash out on this and booked an appointment at the Cow Shed in Soho House Istanbul. This was a truly five-star experience – Soho House is an elegant, classically-styled private members club, fitted out with rich mahogany furnishings. The spa was decadent and serene, with friendly staff and beautiful interiors.

Wearing just a pair of bikini bottoms, I was told to lie down on a the marble slab, which dipped slightly in the middle. Warm water was poured all over me, bubbles were lathered all over my body and I was scrubbed using a traditional kese or mitt to exfoliate my skin. Then, the lady washed my hair.

I spent 300 Turkish Lira (€85) on my massage, and while you can have similar experiences at less opulent prices, I don’t regret it for a second. After  my bath was finished, I was offered a cup of lemon ginger tea and given time to relax in the spas luxurious environs before moving on to get my nails done.

Play dress up at the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s largest market. It’s a labyrinth of alleys with more than 20 entrances, so if you see something you really want buy it, because the chances that you’ll find your way back to that stall again are slim. I recommend learning to say “no” in a way that’s both friendly and firm before you visit. You can find almost anything imaginable at the bazaar – Pick up a Turkish tea set, a rug, or a vast array of clothes, toys, souvenirs, Turkish Delight, teas or other food and herbs.

I imagine it’s normally a lot busier than it was during our September visit, but after the military coup that took place in Turkey during the summer, there were very few tourists around.

If you’re feeling a little silly, there’s a stall where you can dress up as a Sultan or Sultana and have your photo taken. We came across this almost immediately on arrival, and we burst into fits of laughter as we tried on the outfits and had a series of photos taken with musical instruments, weapons and other props. This was so much fun and makes for a great cheesy tourist shot – I recommend it.

For 80 Turkish Lira (€22.66), we got three printed photos and a CD with all of the photos saved on it.

Explore the majestic Blue Mosque

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a trip to the Blue Mosque, which are beautiful inside and out. Ladies dressed in Western clothing will need to borrow an abaya to wear if you’re going inside. There are booths where these are available free of charge. The mosque has beautiful stained glass and low hanging chandeliers. To get the best view of the outside of the mosque, visit the rooftop seafood restaurant at Seven Hills Hotel for panoramic views of the Blue Mosque, Hajja Sophia and the Bosphorus.

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