…Istanbul, Turkey.

Local Currency: Lira. The Lira is also referred to as YTL.

Exchange Ratio: Lira to Indian Rupee: 31.01(Approx)

Local Language: Turkish is the official spoken language while Arabic is widely spoken too, among other languages.
English is neither spoken nor understood and it would be a smart decision to hire an interpreter to get around.

Travel Duration: I flew Turkish Airlines both ways, Mumbai-Istanbul-Mumbai, and the flight duration was 6 ½ hours on the way there and 5 ½ hours on the way back.

Time difference between Istanbul and Mumbai: 2 ½ hours (We are ahead) (When calculating Daylight Saving Time (DST) add +1. DST starts from the end of March and lasts to the end of October.)

What to buy: The very famous talisman ‘Evil Eye’, available in more forms than you can imagine! Carpets. Hazelnuts. Dried-fruit (especially the super-sized figs) Spices. Leather goods. Local Caviar. Apple tea and glasses. Local sweets. Raki, the local liquor.Turkish jewelry, which is uniquely exquisite and available in gold, silver and also inlaid with precious and semi precious stones.

Best Time to go: April to June, when it is Spring and September to late October, during Autumn.
The months from June to September are supposed to get awfully hot and rainy. A bitter Winter comes in from the end of October and lasts till Mid-March. The weather starts thawing only after that when springs starts setting in.
I traveled to Turkey in early May and it was perfect! The temperatures hovered between 12 – 16 Degrees Celsius with early mornings and late evenings being relatively cooler than the rest of the day. In the 4 days that I spent there, I enjoyed a diversity of climates that ranged from sharp winds to bright sunshine, sudden rain showers and cold bordering from chilly to bitter.

Note: Though Istanbul is one of the most liberated cities I have traveled to, do keep in mind to dress a tad conservatively when you visit the mosques or other religious places. Do carry a stole with you as some religious places require women to cover their head before they enter and while you are inside. Though most of them provide scarves if you aren’t carrying one, it is better to carry your own for reasons of hygiene 🙂

Tip: Do keep lots of small change handy as you will need it everywhere. From getting a trolley at the airport to using the public toilets in the city.

I saw…

It is difficult to encapsulate Istanbul in words, because even all the flattering adjectives the English Language has taught you pale in comparison when you get down describing the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. When Istanbul is not amazing you, it is awing you, around every corner you turn. That it also delights you is a given. Describing Istanbul as charmingly, serendipitous comes closest to doing full justice to this wondrous city.

The surprises begin from the moment I start driving into the city from Attaturk International Airport and glimpse happily dancing Tulips, lining the way on one side while the Marmara Sea lines the other side. Tulips? In Turkey? I rub my eyes in disbelief. Did I see right?

At my question, my smiling Guide enlightened me that Tulips first originated in Turkey. The bulbs were gifted to the King of Netherlands when he visited Turkey and he went back, got them planted, multiplied and now the whole world thinks of Holland as Tulip country. I take in this information, even as I can’t seem to take my eyes off the gorgeous flowers in all the colors you can imagine (even black!) sprouting out of every bit of fertile soil, thanks to Springtime. As we move closer into the city, the flowers multiply.

As does my joy!

Because right in front of me I spot the 4 minarets of the splendid Suleymaniye Mosque:

majestically rising into the sky and dominating the skyline of Istanbul. An awe-inspiring sight that had the same effect on me no matter how many times a day I saw it as I moved around Istanbul for the next few days.
Although fewer tourists make it here than to the more famous Blue Mosque, Sulemaniye is even grander and more peaceful, and one of the finest creations by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. The huge high dome and pencil-slim minarets from each corner of the courtyard are an exquisite example of symmetry and elegance. Built in the 1550s, the site also contains the tombs of Sinan, Sultans Suleyman II and Ahmet II all set around a tranquil courtyard.

The Blue Mosque:

was built during the reign of Sultan Ahmet (1603-1617), as Islam’s answer to Haghia Sophia and is distinguishable from the Sulemaniye by its 6 minarets. The Blue Iznik tiles dominating the interior along with the blue light shining through more than 250 stained glass windows give it its name. The interior is stunning and the vast central dome is designed to lift all eyes heavenward. The unique, circular disc of the Ottoman chandelier

that uses thousands of candles to be lit up fully, is eye level with you and softly lights up the cool interiors. The atmosphere inside fills you with an immense sense of peace and happiness and you bow down to thank God for the opportunity to be here.

I Shopped At…

Grand Bazaar:

Holds the distinction of being the oldest and the largest covered market in the world. The labyrinth of shops snaking through more than 58 streets and 5,000 shops sell everything from souvenirs to clothes to leather goods to hookahs to jewelry. It can be accessed through 2 gates and has between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. More than a day is needed to absorb the flavor and savor the shops of this delightfully alive market.
Please note: It is really easy to get lost here, so keep track of the route and time while here. And yes, beware of pickpockets.

Egyptian Spice Market:

The second largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. It is so named because various spices from the Orient were offered here in the past, and the alternative name, ‘Egyptian Bazaar’, because the spices came via Egypt.
As the name, very obviously, implies this is where you buy your spices, nuts and other culinary delights and edibles from, namely local Turkish sweets like the ‘Turkish Delight’ and ‘Baklava’ to name two.
The shops vacuum-pack all your edible purchases so you don’t have to worry about how you’ll carry them home. And although you’ll be tempted to start buying things the moment you walk in the door, note that the prices get lower and lower the farther you get into the building. And since you can find the same things for sale all over the place, you don’t have to worry about missing your chance if you don’t make a purchase at the first place you see.

Besides edibles this market also stocks some great unusual Evil Eye Talismans that I didn’t spot anywhere else in Istanbul.

Cevahir Mall:

If old bazaars are not what interest you, then drop in to the spanking new largest Mall in Europe and the second largest Mall in the world, the magnificent Cevahir Mall. This behemoth of a Mall has a total gross area of 620,000 m² and is spread over six floors and cost $250 million to build. There are 280 shops, some of which are the first in Turkey to sell certain international brands; 34 fast food restaurants and 14 exclusive restaurants in the shopping centre. Under its roof, there is a big stage for shows and other events, 12 cinemas including an IMAX 3D cinema. It has also a cinema for children, several other entertainment facilities, and a bowling hall. A roller coaster spans the interior of the shopping centre. The building’s 2,500-m-glass roof carries the biggest clock in the world. A must visit.

I Munched and Sipped…

Istanbul is foodie-heaven! You can’t go there and return without trying;

Raki is the very popular Turkish liquor made from raisins and fennel seeds *yes, our very own saunf* This transparent drink turns a milky white when water is added to it in the proportion of half:half. The strong whiff of fennel hits you first and then the powerful punch of the first sip knocks you back! Certainly not for the faint-hearted, or teetotalers like me. But regular drinkers assured me that it is an acquired taste that soon becomes addictive.

Apple Tea:

All over Istanbul, rushing waiters carrying trays with at least a dozen, if not more, petite glasses of Apple tea are a common sight. Apple tea tastes like hot apple juice and is served in adorable tulip shaped glasses with 2 blocks of sugar on the side. This addictive and refreshing drink is a must-try when in Istanbul. Some stores not only serve it to you the moment you enter, but also insist that you finish it, irrespective of whether you have made a purchase or not.


A rich, sweet, multi-layered, flaky pastry that just melts in the mouth and takes you straight to heaven. The pastry is made of almost 30 layers of dough and filled with chopped nuts, mostly pistachios or walnuts, and sweetened with sugar or honey syrup. Usually served with Turkish Coffee at the end of a meal.

Turkish Delight:

or ‘Lokum’ as the locals refer to it as is a soft, glutinous candy square in assorted flavors dusted with powdered sugar or desiccated coconut. The ones filled with pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts are not only the most popular but the yummiest too. Turkish Delight is extremely popular and a great gift to carry back home.

Koz Helva/ Kos Helva: A flaky sweet confection mostly made of sugar, glucose and honey. Egg white, or marshmallow root are added in some recipes, to create a distinctive texture. Other ingredients and flavorings such as pistachio nuts, hazel nuts, walnuts, cocoa powder, or chocolate are normally added to the basic sugar base.The result is a halva with a light consistency, similar to cotton candy.

Flower Honey:

Now, I am no fan of Honey. But when I spotted a fresh wedge of beehive, with rich golden honey oozing out of it on my breakfast table on my first morning in Istanbul, I had to try it! One tentative lick and I was a convert! Not only does the locally – produced flower-honey look different, but it tastes vastly different too. Can be eaten with anything, or just on its own. It leaves a gummy residue behind after you are done eating it, and you have to spit that out. Another must try.

Turkish Ice cream:

or Dondurma as it is referred to as locally: Two features distinguish Turkish ice cream: texture and resistance to melting. Dondurma has a texture of chewing gum, very different compared to any other commercially produced ice cream; the unusual texture is produced by the use of local thickening agents, together with other flavorings. And yes, it just refuses to melt!
Turkish Ice Cream is sold from carts or tiny shops where brightly dressed young men churn the mixture repeatedly with long-handled paddles to keep it workable, The ice cream is presented to you with a flourish after a ritual of much banter and fun.

And a very special mention to…


the craziest baked potato I have ever eaten! I tried it on a freezing cold visit to Ortakoy, which is a suburb just below the Bosphorus Bridge, on the European side, very similar to our Mumbai Chowpatty area.

A Kumpir Counter:
Giant potatoes are pulled from steaming trays, their insides filled with butter and cream and then whipped together. Then toppings, of choice, are piled on.Options include couscous, carrots, beets, hot dogs, olives, pickles, potato salad, mayonnaise, corn, assorted sauces and godknowswhatnot! You choose the topping and additions of your choice and within minutes you have a steaming Kumpir in your hands!
We chose mayonnaise, steamed corn and a red sauce recommended by the shop owner and within minutes we were feasting on a delectable steaming potato while a cold wind danced around us.

Besides these, street vendors are everywhere. Vendors hawked freshly-Roasted Chestnuts and Corn on the cob near the New Mosque.

A bread that looks like a cross between a pretzel and a bagel and dusted with sesame seeds is available on little carts on every street corner. A Simit with a glass of Apple Tea is the staple local diet.
I also had the biggest, juiciest strawberries and cherries off a fruit cart.
The Wraps, very similar to falafel, are also a must-try.

Bosphorus River Cruise:
Bosporus is the name of the strait which lies between Europe and Asia. We took the something-you-must-do-when-in-Istanbul, Bosporus Cruise on the “The mesmerizing aqua waters of the Bosphorus River in Istanbul.” Soak in the beautiful sights and the amazing Istanbul skyline, replete with spires of the 2000+ Mosques piercing the bright blue sky as you cross over from to Asian side of Istanbul to the European side.
There are municipal ferries which operate daily three times a day. The ferry is a traditional one, which has seats inside and outside. The one-way cruise last for an hour and a half while the two-way (full cruise) lasts for three hours. Aboard the ferry, you have noisy hawkers peddling tea/coffee/cold drinks/juice, assorted snacks, ice-cream and yogurts.

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