2016 was a tough year for Turkey. I had long wanted to visit Istanbul, I just waited until I was comfortable doing so. 2016 was not the right year. I eventually gained the courage to go in 2017. I decided I wasn't going to stay home, afraid of something that might or, far more likely, might not happen. I wasn't going to live a life out of fear because it leads to regrets. Besides, I feel for the people in Istanbul. Tourist numbers have lowered through and after 2016 and having long worked in the tourism sector, I know the hurt if you don't receive guests. Especially if you want to welcome them with open arms. My solidarity goes out to them. And so I went, I took a bus on Friday night and arrived on Saturday morning. I took Metro Bus. Excellent journey, some cups of coffee or tea and snacks are served on board and the drivers were fine. I slept nearly the whole journey.
I left Sofia at 20:30 and arrived in Istanbul at 6:30. It was one hour later in Istanbul at the time. I had changed money in Sofia and could directly order some tea to wake up at the bus station. At the entrance to the metro, there's several stores and restaurants that will gladly serve you around the clock. I directly got the feeling that I was in a real metropolis. I bought an Istanbulkart, available in machines all around town, at metro stations and tram stops. Then it's easy to add money on the card, just have some small banknotes with you.
I switched lines at Aksaray metro station and then got off at Yenikapi. A huge station and I had no idea where I was. I decided to walk into the streets, it was still completely dark. I seemed to cross a lot of small stores, people were waking up and opening their doors. Plenty of people in the streets. I felt completely safe, mostly because there were already so many people around. The mosques called for morning prayer. I followed the people on the streets, as they were likely to lead me to some central part of town. Indeed, I got to Sultanahment and was stunned by the sight of the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia Mosque. Seagulls were the only ones admiring the big structures with me. The city breathes history. I felt honoured to be in such a historic place and have it all for my own, at least until the tourists would wake up and arrive.
My hotel was literally metres from the Blue Mosque - I stayed at Hotel Coliseum. I got there at 8:30 and was greeted by the owner. He said my room was already available and that I could freshen up and sit down for breakfast. Quite a sign of hospitality - as it was not included in the price and a check-in this early is not typical. Besides, I asked for a toothbrush as I had forgotten mine. It would be in my room in a matter of seconds. And so, after relaxing a bit, I got to the center. I now visited the mosques - they were open for visitors by now. I noticed how few tourists there were, mostly just Turkish people, then the typical group from Asia and a couple of Russians. I didn't hear any foreign languages in the crowd, such as Italian, Spanish or even Dutch. And I wouldn't through the whole weekend. For such a metropolis, that's quite surprising. The events of 2016 must have had an influence. I truly hope tourist numbers will increase again - I found the Turkish people so hospitable and truly seeing each tourist as a blessing. I will never forget the wide smile I got at the cash desk of the Ayasofia Mosque, when I asked for a ticket in broken Turkish. I knew just a few words but she smiled from her heart. The mosques are incredible from the inside, too large to even put into perspective. These are sights that must be seen once in a lifetime.
I took a boat to Kadıköy, apparently an upcoming district including the hipster coffee places and a stunning boulevard along the shores of the Sea of Marmara. The Moda district is especially nice to walk through, it has a little red tramway that drives in a circle of just a few blocks. Kadıköy felt like a city on its own, it felt as if each part of Istanbul was completely different and had its own character. I took a boat to Karaköy, which is the part north of Sultanahmet. The area of the Galata Tower and Istiklal Cadessi, the main shopping street which ends up at Taksim Square.
In the evening, I walked through the Eminönü area and had a beer with a view at the Hamdi Restaurant. The next day, I explored the spice bazar in the same area and then I continued to Fatih. I got to the Fatih Mosque, which had the best view I could imagine. Many skyscrapers on the other side of the Golden Horn. Then below, another cool area with cafes in old, renovated houses. Check out the little streets around Vodina Cadessi. It was raining and I took a bus to Ortaköy, where I photographed the famous mosque with the bridge to Asia on the background. Some more delicious Turkish tea and I took a bus back, this time to Taksim Square. From there a metro back to Sultanahmet. I finished the weekend with a massage in a Turkish hammam. I genuinely recommend the city and getting to know the lovely people. Let's not make politics and the media divide us. Life is too short for hate or suspicion of one another. I can gladly say I had one of the best weekends of my life so far. Enjoy the pictures!
Update from 2019:
Yet another visit, my first time in Istanbul in mid-summer. It was awesome. First time I visited the Grand Bazaar, it just never got to the point the first times I visited the city. Definitely recommend seeing it, if even just for the atmosphere. Products are perhaps better priced elsewhere. You can also just have some tea there while seeing the tradesmen start up the day.
I traveled with the company KARAT-S this time, by bus from Sofia. They in some way seem to collaborate with the company HUNTUR, they ran the bus service. I booked the ticket online and the whole experience was fine. The buses were a tad more comfortable than Metro's. Next time I'll travel with KARAT-S / HUNTUR again.
Update from 2020:
Last November I flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. From Sofia it cost about 120EUR two ways. A quick and comfortable flight of about an hour and twenty minutes. Perfect for the shopping because you can check in a suitcase.
But: an hour and a half before the flight I was at the airport. Then the flight itself was an hour and a half. Then half an hour to get to the bus terminal, twenty minutes of waiting, and a bus trip of an hour and a half. It still makes it a long trip from Sofia.
I find the bus just as comfortable. Because at least you can sit and that's it, only getting off at the border. And then it's just the metro to Sultanahment from the Esenler bus station. I stayed in the Glamour Hotel, which had a great location. They just pushed a lot to leave a good review and really push the Bosphorus tour as well. Didn't do either because pushing has the opposite effect. Rooms were decent, so was the breakfast, but above all a great
location and price-quality ratio.
During this trip it was also my first time visiting the Dolmabahçe palace. Truly spectacular. There's many people saying that only Topkapi palace is enough and Dolmabahçe can be skipped. I'd say visit only Topkapi if you don't have time to visit both. In all other circumstances, do not miss out on Dolmabahçe. As always, if it's really busy, it might be worth to skip and enjoy the city vibes. Otherwise you'd be too much stuck with the crowds, which will take away from your experience. There's a lot to explore, choose wisely.