I stanbul is romantic, contradicting and exciting - perfect for an overnight date as I recently discovered. Where to stay in Istanbul, what to eat and how to make the most of a stopover in Turkey.
I have a thing for stopovers. I think stopovers are a brilliant way to basically get a 2 in 1 trip, to combine a quick city getaway with a beach holiday or to simply make a long journey a bit more bearable and do a bit more than stretch your legs in between gates.
On my last trip, a stopover wasn't part of the plan. I wanted to get to Kyrgyzstan where I was attending the World Nomad Games 2018 the fastest and most direct way. However, that was impossible as few airlines fly there and all of them required a layover. I decided to make the best out of the situation and that it had been far too long since I was in Istanbul last. I needed to see a bit more of the city than just its airport and make it at least an overnight date.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions because man, I forgot how lovely Istanbul is! To be honest, first I was a bit hesitant to visit Turkey for more than an airport layover at this point in time. Thanks to politicians and soccer German Turkish relations are not the best at the moment and so I was worried that I would receive a less than warm welcome. Usually, I am not one for travel warnings, for travel boycotts or to adhere to certain restrictions a traveler or even more important in my case, journalists may face. I go where I can and want to go. I am not reckless, keep my thoughts on politics and my job description to myself but I believe that there is more to a country than its facade and its politics.
Funny contradiction: while I believe that travel is always political, I try to keep the politics out of my travels. If there is nice food or an ocean to dive in I will go and I will judge a country by that. Shallow and reckless? Maybe but if not the question remains - what do we travel for and if we chose to forego countries based on their governments or politics - where do we draw the line?
But this time I too was secretly wrapped up in my prejudice, judging an entire country by its politics and its president instead of going with an open mind. So much so that I almost chose the fastest connection instead of an extended layover. Luckily Istanbul didn't mind (or forgave me quickly) and I was promptly rewarded. It started with my taxi driver at the airport who told me what a great democracy Turkey was as opposed to Germany while laughing wholeheartedly, giving me a wink in the mirror to show me just how serious he was with this statement. It only got better from there. Wherever I went people were friendly and even friendlier once I confirmed that yes, indeed I was German. Istanbul seemed to welcome me with open arms, sunny skies and blue water which seemed to not only entice me but also groups of middleaged men in Speedos I could admire from the highway.
I had one assignment but everything else became a mini holiday and thus it felt utterly enchanting. I had been craving a holiday and so I ate all day and watched the sunset and wanted to go and marvel at the sights just to marvel at the beauty of their architecture, their history, and their cultural relevance - not to write a "What to see in Istanbul" guide. I was tired but I didn’t stay in - not because I had to go out for a story but because I wanted to go out and explore the city. It was a feeling I haven’t felt in a while. The urge to explore even if this exploration just leads to the realization that Raki is only an okay drink but Turkish rosé is hugely underrated. And that the Turkish are masters of the breakfast spread and that not only their grand chef and showman Nusr-Et knows how to cook meat.
So yeah, to be honest, I mainly ate which in hindsight was great because I came to realize that the food in Kyrgyzstan was nothing to write home about*
*Before you want to object and feel offended (as this frequently happens when I say I don't like a country's food): yes, I had some nice dishes but overall I was not impressed but then again, I ate at our hotel most days. Still, I was glad I overate a bit while in Istanbul and bought a huge bag of Haribo at the airport as a snack.
Still, even without much socializing or sightseeing, there was something about Istanbul that inspired me, that reminded me why I used to love to travel. Not that I don’t love it anymore but it has become a job. A wonderful job, don’t get me wrong, but it has taken some of the excitement, the spontaneity, the unadulterated joy I used to get from foreign sights and sounds and smells away. Instead, I have a timing and an itinerary and obligations. I usually don’t mind any of those, no really if I have to have a job this is it in terms of awesomeness but still, the excitement of first love has given way to a somewhat sad feeling of everyday routine.
Istanbul brought it all back. The slight nervousness that comes with arriving at a new place, the open-eyed stares that mark you as a tourist more than any map ever could, the excitement of getting lost, of marveling at an average fruit stand simply because it is a fruit stand in a foreign country and the beauty of realizing that the sunset over the Bosphorus matches the rosé in your glass.
They say you shouldn't talk about sex, religion or politics on a first date and for a change, I stuck to this rule. And with that, I sat there on what felt like a first date with Istanbul. And I smiled, felt butterflies and re-learned to just enjoy the moment. As one does when on holiday or when really smitten.
Where to stay in Istanbul?
Three nights are barely enough to scratch the surface of any city especially when you are a lazy holiday person like myself. But I do want to share where I stayed and where I ate because Istanbul cuisine is something not to be missed. When researching where to stay in Istanbul I was a bit disappointed. The options of boutique hotels in Istanbul or cute Airbnb seemed extremely limited. I finally settled on the Elephant Galata which was an okay option but too pricey in hindsight. I think they are in the midst of renovation and still have a few issues to sort out. But they are in Istanbul Karaköy, a hip and happening area with a great bar and restaurant scene and lots of cats (always a plus in my eyes). From here you can catch the tram to Sultanahmet for some of the main sights or the ferry to Kadiköy, the Asian side of the city.
On my way back I splurged a little and looked at The House Hotel Istanbul website who offers two amazing design hotels in town. I settled on the Vault Karaköy The House Hotel because I knew the area already and because it has an amazing rooftop restaurant that comes with said Bosphorus views and rosé. In hindsight, I didn't have much from it because I literally went to bed at 7 pm only to wake up at 4.30 am to catch my flight home, but if someone is looking for a chic and cool city hotel, I can highly recommend it. Best of it? Check on booking.com for some really affordable prices!
Best places to eat in Istanbul
My friend who had recently done a photo production had sent me her tips for the best places to eat in Istanbul and so I ignored my nephew's pleading to go to Nusr-Et (he really wanted an autograph) and went to the well known Karaköy restaurant Karaköy Lokantasi. It is a beautiful bistro style restaurant where you can stuff your face with mezze like fava bean paste, swordfish carpaccio and of course, meatballs.
Karaköy Lokantasi - Kemankeş Cd. 37a
As the Elephant Galata didn't offer breakfast I made my way down to Arada a lively Turkish-Lebanese joint. For €5 you get a breakfast spread that is too big to fit in a picture. Various breads, dips, cheeses, eggs, olives and so much more... I don't know if the Turkish or the Lebanese are to blame, but someone here knows how to do breakfast right.
Arada - Hacımimi Mahallesi, Lüleci Hendek Cd. 23a
Admittedly hotel restaurants can be a bit of a hit or a miss but this one ticks all the right boxes. Compared to other places the prices are slightly higher but still quite affordable for a hotel restaurant and once you see the views you won't mind either way.
Try the sea bass carpaccio and the zucchini fritters and yes, the Turkish rosé is excellent (and no, this post was not sponsored by the association of Turkish winemakers however if they came knocking I wouldn't say no).
Vault Karaköy The House Hotel - Bankalar Caddesi No. 5
Karaköy has a myriad of restaurants and bars and honestly, I think it might be hard to have a bad meal here - have a browse and go in where your nose leads you and just remember: when a waiter tells you that you have ordered too much, he means well but still - ignore him, you will want to eat it all!
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