When my good friend Laura suggested a weekend away to watch her take part in the Istanbul marathon I had the flights booked less than 48 hours later – its fair to say Turkey has been on my list for a very long time!
Booking so quickly was a no-brainer. Laura lives in Dubai and we don’t get to see each other very often, so a meet-in-the-middle in a new city was very appealing. We both love sport, so being there to cheer her on at points during her 26.2 miles of hell was a definite yes. Finally, the food.
Turkish food is a personal favourite and living in north London I’m fortunate to have some great Turkish cafes on my doorstep, so I couldn’t pass on the chance to taste the real thing.
Food played a big part in our Istanbul experience. Nick and I are big eaters so we decided to book onto a walking food tour with Culinary Backstreets. We opted for a five-hour walking tour of the Old City, advertised online as a walk that “goes beyond the major monuments and into the backstreets where all of the serious eating is done.”
A full breakfast, 11 courses and a full lunch later and we were set to burst. Our guide Gulden ensured we sampled local delicacies and mixed in with the locals as she chatted to friends and shop owners on the way. Our route went completely of the tourist path and we felt like residents very quickly, eating everything from slow-cooked lamb and eastern-Turkish kebabs to Ayran, a goat’s milk yoghurt drink mixed with salt.
Although not everything we tasted was was to our liking (Ayran was horrible!), a walking tour was a great way to start our trip as it introduced us to some great little backstreet cafes which we returned to with our friends later on.
Our accommodation choice was also an easy decision to make. Keen to make our Turkey experience as traditional as possible, we opted for Hotel Empress Zoe in Sultanahmet.
It’s a very affordable small hotel with charming decor that serves a tasty and generous breakfast. You’ve got to know about this place to book it as you can only reserve a room through the hotel directly, so there, I’ve told you.
The hotel’s location is fantastic with some brilliant bars nearby (we went to the same one every night of our stay!) and just a stone’s throw way from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Obviously these two iconic landmarks of the city are a must-see, and there’s a reason the Aya Sofya is in Lonely Planet’s Top 10 Sights in the World. We hopped up to one of Sultanahmet’s rooftop bars at sunset for a pretty special view of them both.
The city had a buzz about it on marathon day giving the streets plenty of energy as everyone was in the mood. I’ve only seen the London marathon as a spectator before, so being able to take to the streets and run with the participants was great fun as we chased round the streets trying to catch Laura on the route. The streets were empty at points, which was perfect for getting a little sprint on with her!
On our final day we braved the Grand Bazaar hoping to snap up some bargains before heading home. This place is mental. You’ll find yourself bumping into the same shop owners at the same stalls over and over again. There are over 400 stalls in this place so make sure you’ve got plenty of time to stroll around and contemplate your next purchase. We ended up buying an unnecessary amount of blankets, rugs and mugs, you know, just because.
So, my advice if you’re planning to visit Istanbul? Eat, and spend as much time wandering aimlessly around the Old City as possible – there’s so much to be discovered.