Turkey – A birthday blast from Istanbul

My birthday got extra special last year in Turkey, as it was the first time did I ever plan a holiday on my birthday. In all the years before I have been celebrating birthday with friends and cutting cakes, this time decided to do something different and booked a solo trip to Turkey all by myself. It was the best decision I have ever made as planning solo gives you the full freedom to go to any place you wish, spend as much time you want, try out all the foods you want and enjoy to the core. Got to say birthday blast in Istanbul definitely holds a special place in my heart. I have been reading a lot about mosques, spice markets, Turkish dances, cuisines and palaces in Turkey, after seeing them in real it was a dream come true. Visa was online and came in a jiffy, booked accommodation in central Istanbul which made my commutation easier as using trains, funicular, trams and public transport was damn cheap. Airport to city central had public buses going every one hour. Got Turkish airlines to travel which made the journey as smooth as possible. Having done all my research I was all set for the trip. Now let me walk you through my dream trip to Turkey.

Handy tips before flying to Turkey

  • Getting e-visa is easy for people having UK, US or Schengen visa and its online process which can be got immediately. Others have to arrange set of documents to get visa.
  • Istanbul is warm and pleasant during summers and not very cold during winters, so can be planned out most of the year.
  • Turkish currency is Liras, make sure you carry required forex while going.
  • Commuting in Istanbul is very cheap through public transport, hence do the ground work looking out for trains, buses, funiculars to get around.
  • Make sure you plan for mosques during non prayer hours, and maintain discipline and decorum. Entry is free.
  • Can learn basic Turkish language before going. I didnt have much issues, however very few people speak english outside Istanbul.

Note from Sandhya: I went to Istanbul, Turkey for 1 day (less than 14 hours) on my transit to Europe from Singapore. Since I flew Turkish airlines and my stopover was more than 6 hours, they offered free Istanbul tours – so we went on that tour. You can find more information on the schedules and T&Cs here. It was good, except for the city traffic, so that  decreased our time to see more. We did Galata Bridge and Tower, spice markets and Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, we landed in Turkey on a Friday so Blue Mosque was closed for prayer until the afternoon and we could not miss out flight to Europe, so saw it only from the outside. I would definitely want to visit Turkey at leisure again in the near future 🙂 I have added some of the pics taken on the tour below.

Top Places to visit in Istanbul

Blue Mosque – What a lovely place to stand by sunset and admire the mosque. Blue Mosque’s two most striking features are its 6 minarets and blue domed exterior. There was so much prayers musing around when I glanced at the silhouette of Blue Mosque. I went inside the mosque earlier during non prayer hours and no words admiring the architectural beauty. It was my first experience inside and had to say it was a huge mosque. I had to remove my shoes and get inside and they had dress code especially for ladies going in. Tourists were allowed as well which was free entry. There were lots of hoardings and wall paintings explaining Islamic influence and its history, reading them made me understand a lot about the religion.

Hagia Sophia – After Blue mosque, it was Hagia Sophia which everyone visited. Another architectural marvel with a long history, its now a museum with heavenly domes and ancient mosaic and interiors. The exterior may not look that great, but once you get inside you will be amazed at its beauty. There is also little Hagia Sophia which is a former eastern orthodox church which is believed to be built by the same architects who constructed the main Hagia Sophia. I loved the video presentation which showed the history from construction to the present day where its been visited by millions of tourists. A must visit when you go to Istanbul and its paid entry to visit the museum which was totally worth it.

Topkapi palace – This is one of royal residence of Turkey where all the Ottoman sultans stayed and enjoyed a grandeur lifestyle during 15th century. Its a massive area covering a lot of ground with hundreds of rooms where Sultan’s family and children stayed for many years. There were various sections of the palace. It is now a museum having all the swords, gold and armoury of the Sultans. The complex is guarded by officials of the ministry as well as armed guards of the Turkish military and is now a UNESCO heritage site. You should also try the famous Turkish Ottoman costume which I tried and lived few moments as a Sultan. I loved the costume which looked so great on me and those photos are a treasure.

Dervish and Turkish dances – Turkey is home to the great Sufi whirling dervishes. The dervishes spin themselves into a trance-like state that brings them closer to God, and it’s a unique religious ceremony to witness. I initially went for the Dervish dances which I should say was out of the world, the dancers were in such a harmony and sync, were totally into trance and dedicated the dance to almighty which I could feel sitting nearby. I went for another dance session where you would be treated with dance performances from Eagean, Horon, Roman gypsy, ottoman, belly and fire dances. It was power packed performance for almost 3 hours which made my day. My birthday celebrations got a new level enjoying these wonderful performance.

Spice Market and Grand Bazaar – I loved Spice market of Istanbul, it was almost like Im in Asia somewhere in India amidst the crowded markets where people flock around shopping all day. Here you’ll be able to pick up spices, nuts, dried fruit, Turkish coffee, loose leaf tea, and even Turkish delight. I got most of them and it was nice souvenir to give my friends, relatives back home. It also had small food stalls where you can try out authentic Turkish food. I had some Turkish tea, baklava and kumir which was so yummy. After that I left to Grand bazaar which is the oldest and largest market for shoppers with thousands of shops selling carpets, lights, spices, jewellery, leather and more. There will be lots of glittery things to catch your eye, so you may want to come prepared to spend.

Bosphorus cruise – This is a beautiful cruise which covers both the European side as well as the Asian side of Turkey. I took the evening cruise so that I could admire the sunset and relax after a long day of roaming. It was little windy to start with, but as the ride began I enjoyed the evening. If you only have a few brief days in the city and you know you won’t be able to cover all of the main attractions, taking a cruise down the Bosphorus is a great way to get a glimpse of Istanbul’s main points of interest. You will ride past the mosques, bridges, palaces, Maidan tower and various places. I absolutely enjoyed the two hours ride which everyone needs to take when visiting Istanbul.

Galata Bridge 

Galata Bridge is the bridge that spans the Golden Horn in Istanbul, Turkey. The bridge was a symbolic link between the traditional city of Istanbul proper, site of the imperial palace and principal religious and secular institutions of the empire.

Basilica Cistern and Chora church, Maidan’s tower

Foods to try in Istanbul

Kumpir – loaded baked potato. The server will mix the potato with cheese and butter until it’s light and fluffy
Sesame Pretzel – Get a tasty pretzel in any bakery which adds to your cuisines to try out in Turkey
Turkish Chicken pudding – Can you imagine a dessert with chicken, topped with vanilla, sugar and cinnamon. Thats a treat
Turkish tea and coffee – If you come to Istanbul you have to drink tea out of a tulip-shaped glass.
Borek – A traditional Turkish pastry made of flaky dough. It can be stuffed with feta cheese or minced meat
Turkish delights/Lokumi – A gummy treat with various flavours and very tasty.
Baklava – Made with layers of pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweetened with syrup or honey.
Ayran – national drink in Turkey and it is a cold yogurt beverage mixed with salt. It’s especially popular during the summer months.
Doner – Turkish meaty dish served with vegetable toppings which is an adorable lunch to go with.

Istanbul is definitely a dream location where you can enjoy a bit of Europe and soak up a bit of Asia. Not just the architectural mosques, mouth watering food and vibrant culture, Istanbul has lots of story to tell. I was a bit hesitant initially to visit Turkey for all the news happening around and how would a muslim nation fit as good holiday, but should say it turned out to be one of best holidays and left me awestruck with its beauty and vibes. So its time to plan your next trip to Turkey and make it a memorable one !

Pics taken during Sandhya’s day trip (click on the pics to zoom and read captions):

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