Sunrise over breakfast in Istanbul

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Visiting Istanbul in winter had a lot of advantages – one being the late sunrises. The sun came up at around 8am in January and this coincided perfectly with the hours breakfast was served at our hotel.

We stayed in Spectra hotel which was basic and cheap – I think we paid around £55 for 3 nights, but the location was absolutely perfect. Just a stones throw away from the Blue Mosque. It had a roof terrace room where the breakfast buffet was served each day. One morning we were 15 minutes early and sat in the terrace waiting for breakfast and admired the stunning view.

The sun was just starting to light up the sky, creating a beautiful silhouette of the Blue Mosque, with Hagia Sophia sitting proudly opposite. The sky was all shades of orange, peach & blue and looked absolutely magical! The mosque is undergoing some repairs, so scaffolding on two of the minarets kind of ruined the photos a little bit – otherwise they really would have been perfect!

 

I had to open the terrace windows to get a good shot, and it was absolutely freezing, so quickly shut them back up. Before we knew it, the sky had turned yellow and orange, and the night sky just disappeared – but the view was still equally as magical while we sat eating our breakfast. Boiled eggs, tomato, cucumber, peppers, cheese, simit, bread, honey, jam, chips… My favourite things were these puff pastries, with icing and sprinkles – not very authentically Turkish but very yummy!

 

Mısır Çarşısı – Spice Market

We stepped off the tram in Eminönü one afternoon when Berkay’s eyes lit up at the sight of Mısır Çarşısı.  This historical and famous spice market is right next to Galata Bridge and the impressive ‘Yeni Cami’ / New Mosque (which is actually over 350 years old). It is the second largest undercover market in Istanbul, with the Grand Bazaar obviously being number one. 

Built in 1664, this market is a real joy for the senses! Piles of colourful spices stacked high, beautiful chunks of lokum / Turkish delight in every flavour, chocolates, dried fruits, nuts, herbs, teas… the list is endless! 

Mısır means Egypt in Turkish, and the market got this name from the trade routes the spices took to reach Istanbul before being exported to Europe. It has an oriental feel to it and reminded me a bit of Aladdin, which was coincidentally the name of one of the vendors stalls.
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Foodstuff isn’t the only thing for sale here, with vendors catering more and more for tourists you can find souvenirs, ceramics, jewellery, lamps, soaps, oils and all sorts! One shop we went into had real sea sponges for sale, which doubled up as lovely ceiling decorations! You can also find holistic remedies for almost everything, including natural ‘Turkish Viagra’, proudly advertised and sold.

We bought some Turkish delight which I took back home to share with my colleagues, and some chocolate covered fruit and nuts, which were all neatly vacuum packed, making them last longer and handy to put in my luggage!

I believe the market has been renovated in the last few years, with the archways reinforced and painted – it does look shiny and fresh, but I don’t think that this has taken away anything from the atmosphere.

The place just feels magical, beautiful arched ceilings with the newly painted patterns, the sound of the call to prayer echoing around from nearby mosques, bustling with locals and tourists shopping, and the smells, oh the smells! Cinnamon, mint, thyme.. every herb and spice you can think of just fills the air. Wonderful! 



What a strange few months!

It’s been a long time since I posted on here – just as I was getting into the swing of blogging again and writing all about our trip to Istanbul at the beginning of the year, corona virus arrived, changed all our moods and took over our lives! It just didn’t feel right, writing on here about all the things we did in Istanbul and sharing my photos of the busy city streets from January because they made me sad, it felt like a million years ago, not two months!

Like everyone else in the country, we spent nearly 3 months in complete lockdown – instead of doing the commute for 2 hours a day, I began working from home and the longest commute I made was from the bedroom to my living room. Berkay was furloughed, and going a little more insane with each day that passed. Other than when he was in the army, this was the longest period he’d not been working since he was about 14 years old. I adapted easily to the ‘stay-at-home’ life, but Berkay really struggled. Knowing that Turkey had banned all flights from the UK really affected him, he felt trapped here and just wanted to get back there.

We had a trip planned in April. We were going to fly out the day before and then check into Jiva on my birthday for nearly two weeks. My family were going to fly out as a surprise, they had organised it all with Berkay and I had no idea. I’ve spent years conniving my dad to give Jiva a go, despite him not liking the idea of all-inclusive at all, and when he had finally decided to go, nobody was allowed to leave the country! It was a big disappointment. We also had our 4th wedding anniversary in April too.

In the middle of June, Berkay heard there was a repatriation flight to Izmir and he decided to book his seat. At the time there were still no normal flights, so it was a big risk and we weren’t sure when he’d be able to get back home to England – though I’m not sure he particularly cared! Luckily, the day he flew, somewhat-normal flights resumed from London to Istanbul, and with internal flights back in service in Turkey, he was able to book one back home for the beginning of July.  Whilst he was in Turkey he spent time with his family in Beyagac (whilst following all the corona and mask-wearing rules!), saw Boncuk dog, visited Calis & Fethiye, and he even bought an apartment in Denizli. He plans for it to just be an investment for us, and hopes to rent it out until he can sell it. Here are some photos he took on his travels:

When Berkay came back to London, he had to do the two weeks of quarantine, this time he wasn’t even allowed out of the house for a walk, so that was a struggle too! As soon as his two weeks were up, he was back at work, so now he’s back to his usual commute and daily routine – keeping him busy.  A couple of days after Berkay came back, our Turkish sister-in-law gave birth to a baby girl – our first niece! I can’t believe Berkay missed her by just a few days. I still have posts to write about their big-fat-village wedding almost two years ago, too!

As things start go back to normal-ish, we hope we are able to holiday in Turkey as planned in September, 8 days in our favourite place – Jiva, and then a chance to meet our baby niece, fingers crossed. I’m excited to go and meet up with some friends there but I know that it won’t be like ‘normal’ so I’m a bit nervous.

In the meantime, I’ll start searching through my photos and dedicating some time to writing on here again – keep your eyes peeled.

 

Yerebatan Sarnıcı / Basilica Cistern

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There are hundreds of underground reservoirs that lie beneath Istanbul, and the largest one of all is The Basilica Cistern. The cistern is in the old city, Sultanahmet, near Hagia Sophia and was built in the year 532, by a Byzantine Emperor.

From the outside, you’d never know this place existed – apart from the long queue of people lining up to visit in summer ,apparently! However, when you buy your ticket (we paid 10tl each as Berkay showed his ID card, but I think for foreign tourists its around 30tl) enter and go down the steps, you see the hidden beauty that lies beneath.
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A forest of 336 columns support the arched ceiling, most of which were salvaged from the ruins of other temples and recycled. They are beautifully lit up from the ground, with the lights reflecting off the shallow water that still remains in the cistern. There are raised walkways over the pool of water, allowing visitors to walk around..
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Obviously this place once held a lot of water, 100,000 tonnes according to the signs inside, and supplied places such as the Great Palace & Topkapi Palace but it is now almost completely drained.

One of the columns is noticeably different to the others – it is known as the crying or tear column as it is wet and has eyes engraved on it which look as if they are crying. It’s thought that this was deliberate, to honor the 7000 slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the cistern.
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Towards the back corner of the cistern, there are two famous columns – the bases of which are carved with images of the snake-headed Medusa. One is placed upside down, the other on its side, and nobody really quite knows why – a mystery!
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It is said that the cistern was forgotten about for a long period of time, and only got rediscovered in the 1500’s when a foreign traveler researching ruins in the area became curious after learning that residents in the area gathered fresh water and fish by lowering buckets into holes in their basements, leading into the cistern – I love this story, what a discovery that must have been! It became neglected even more so after its discovery, and it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that it was cleaned, renovated, properly drained and opened to the public.

Ever since I first saw photos of this place, one thing came into my mind – Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Does anyone else see that?! I was so excited to visit as it really reminds me of that so much! My photo’s don’t really do it justice, in person it is a little eerie – dim lights, a mixture of atmospheric music and the sound of dripping water from above – quite off putting when drips land on your head!

Definitely a must visit place!

P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glistening glory!

Istiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul is one of the most popular, well known and busiest streets in Turkey. Around 3 million people a day walk along the pedestrianised street – in comparison, Oxford Street in London has less than a million visitors a day!

Renamed ‘Istiklal’ (independence) avenue after victory in the war of Independence in October 1923, the road is 1.4km long and stretches from Galata to Taksim Square. It’s bustling with people and is lined with hundreds of buildings, shops and even entire multi storey shopping centres. There are clothes shops, sports shops, book stores, cinemas, galleries, hotels, cafes, clubs, bars, restaurants, patisseries, coffee shops, Turkish delight shops, the list is endless! There are familiar names like Sketchers, Marks & Spencer, Krispy Kreme Donuts, Starbucks, Caffé Nero, Decathlon and Sephora.
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Apparently, it used to be known as the ‘Paris of the East’ – I’ve not been to Paris but it reminded me a little of New York. Modern shops and hotels are mixed in with historical gems – like St Antione’s Church which I wrote about previously, or Çiçek Pasajı which opened in 1876 and is so named because in the 1940’s it had a lot of flower shops and stalls -now it’s a galleria of restaurants and cafes.
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Towards one end of the street I came across the most beautifully located Starbucks, sat behind a water fountain. To the left of that, an ice-cream shop called Hans & Gretel which looked like a lot of fun with fun decorations inside and out – if it wasn’t a cold morning I definitely would have gone in there!
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We strolled along the street twice – once at 10am on a sunny Saturday January morning from Galata towards Taksim, and once on the Sunday night, around 8pm in the opposite direction, Taksim all the way to Galata. Early in the morning the street wasn’t busy at all, but Sunday night it came alive and there were thousands and thousands of people.
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I preferred it at night, the atmosphere was just brilliant. My favourite part was sitting inside a little patisserie by the window on the 2nd floor, looking down on people walking along, families and friends, young and old – a real mix of people. We had a little sweet treat – Berkay had Künefe and I had a delicious cake, beautifully presented! Opposite us on the other side of the street there was a coffee shop inside the Demiroren shopping centre, with tables outside on a tiny balcony which was covered in fairy lights – I thought it was the cutest thing ever and next time I’m definitely finding that place again and stopping by for a coffee up there!
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I also loved the fact that the buildings lining the street still had Christmas (or New Year) decorations up.  A hotel had a beautiful display of flowers and teddy bears above its sign, and other buildings had garlands, baubles and twinkly lights everywhere. Lights were hung along the street, above people’s heads, wishing them ‘yeni yılınız kutlu olsun’ – a happy new year.
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Aside from the shops and the historical buildings, the other ‘must see’ is the nostalgic 19th century tram, running along the road from Tünel to Taksim. They started running around 100 years ago, but in the 1960’s were taken out of service. After the pedestrianisation and regeneration of Istiklal Street in the 1990’s, the tram was reinstalled and is now the only vehicle other than official state cars, police etc, that is allowed to drive along the road. The red trams are a major symbol of Istanbul and are popular with tourists and locals – it’s rare to see one that doesn’t have someone hanging onto the pole on the back, posing for a photo (whether its stationery or not!) They apparently still take around 6000 people a day along for a ride, though the inside is tiny with only a few single seats and not much room at all – people must get very crammed in! I like hearing the bell, warning you to get out of the way, as they drive down busy street – I expect it’s frustrating for the driver, and it’s probably quicker to walk!
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P.S As always, please click the images to enlarge them.

A final note – When I was writing this post, the Coronavirus Pandemic was just starting here in Europe – in the 2 weeks it took me to finish writing and editing this, the world looks a lot different. It’s sad that we won’t see the streets of Turkey, or UK, busy and bustling like my photos here anytime soon – but one day it will all be over, and we can get back to visiting and experiencing everything these places have to offer – it’ll be waiting for us, as soon as it is safe to do so. (:

Dolmabahçe Palace / Sarayi

Dolmabahçe palace wasn’t on my list of must see places in Istanbul, I had researched and decided that Topkapi palace would be better, but on our first day we were way ahead of schedule and found ourselves with a few hours to spare after lunch, so we got a taxi from Taksim Square and went exploring.

Sitting along the Bosporus in Beşiktaş, Dolmabahçe is the largest palace in Turkey, with 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and 6 Turkish baths. It was built in the Ottoman era, between 1843 and 1856, ordered by Sultan Abdülmecid I. Prior to this, the sultan and his family had lived at Topkapi palace, but this lacked the ‘modern’ luxuries he desired. Dolmabahçe is very grand, with a lot of influence from European palaces – the Queen wouldn’t look out of place here! It has the largest number of Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world, a crystal staircase, bearskin rugs and beautiful ceilings which they used 14 tons of gold for!
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Before I start, I should say that taking photos inside the palace is not allowed, there are signs everywhere and we definitely broke the rules, but the photos are just too impressive not to share. There are security guards with eyes on you, so you have to be really sneaky and prepared to be told off if you get caught (Berkay did!).

When approaching the palace, you are firstly greeted with a huge clock tower, before you arrive at the ticket booths. There are different ticket types, one that one allows entry into the main section of the palace, and a combined ticket that allows entry into the harem section too. We got the combined ticket but as a Turkish citizen, Berkay got it for half the price and we paid 130tl altogether – mine was 90tl of that.
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You enter the grounds through an impressive gate – like something out of a fairy tale. Once through the gate, you can see the palace sitting perfectly centred behind a large pond, surrounded by trees and statues. There is also a gate straight into the Bosporus on the right hand side of the palace – handy for boats!

At the palace entrance you are asked to cover your shoes, and there are huge rolls of rather unattractive plastic blue shoe covers for this purpose – I dread to think of how much plastic they get through in a day!
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The palace is split into two wings, one is the men’s quarters, with reception rooms for visitors and for official business. This is the part of the palace which was really made for showing off and impressing other countries officials with the luxuriousness of the chandeliers, staircase, furniture and paintings hung on the walls.

I wish I could explain how beautiful the crystal staircase is. You are able to walk up the red carpeted stairs, lined with crystal banisters while the chandelier glistens above. We weren’t able to get a good photo but I felt like I was in Disney movie, a princess walking up the staircase of dreams! If you google ‘crystal staircase at Dolmabahçe’ you can see photos of it.
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In the ceremonial hall, the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier hangs above you. It has 750 lights and weighs 4.5 tonnes – ouch! Although impressive, with the stunning intricately detailed ceiling above it, it wasn’t my favourite. My favourite was a chandelier in a different room with red crystals – I’m glad Berkay managed to sneak a few good photos of that one.
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The other wing is the Harem at the back of the palace– which has 8 interconnecting apartments where the Sultan and his family lived – including his wives, concubines (mistresses), mother, and slaves. It’s really interesting thinking what life must have been like for them as you’re walking through. Although not quite as grand as the other wing of the palace, it still has impressive rooms and chandeliers and is definitely worth paying for the extra ticket for.
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After the fall of the Ottoman empire, Dolmabahçe Palace became founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s presidential palace, where he spent time during his Istanbul visits. In the harem section, you can find the room that Atatürk died in – there is a sign outside the room informing you of this. The wallpaper is gold, green and peach, with matching curtains and ceiling. The bed has a Turkish flag covering it and the clock in the room is set to the time he died, 9:05am on November 10th 1938. I think the palace has a special place in Turkish people’s hearts for this reason.

In 1984, the palace became a museum, and opened to the public. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the palace every year and if you’re in Istanbul you should stop by. You’ll feel like you’re walking through a real life fairy tale palace – and it is totally different to Topkapi (I’ll write about that soon!) so I’m glad we had a chance to visit both.

P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glistening glory!

Taksim Square & the Islak burger/wet burger..

When we booked to go to Istanbul we were both really excited about trying it’s famous street food – top of the list thanks to friend recommendations, was the Islak Burger – I had seen people post about it online and it had never really looked appealing to me but I’m open to new things so I stuck it on the list!

Once unique to Taksim square, islak burgers have started to spread across to other areas, and when Berkay went back to Fethiye after our trip he even managed to find somewhere there selling them! They aren’t really as popular elsewhere though, and to get the authentic experience, you have to go to the home of the islak burger – the top of Istiklal street, on the corner of Taksim Square.
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Taksim square itself is well known for being the central point of demonstrations, riots and protests but when we went, on a sunny, cold Saturday lunchtime it was peaceful and relatively empty. There is a monument in the middle of the square, made in 1928, commemorating the founders of the Republic of Turkey – showing Ataturk in his military uniform on one side, representing the war of independence, and in his ‘normal’ clothes on the other side, representing the modern Turkish Republic.

By night, the area is bustling with thousands of people frequenting its many restaurants, bars and nightclubs – at the end of a good night, they all need something to soak up the alcohol and that’s where the islak burger comes in!
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‘Islak’ is the Turkish word for ‘wet’, so as the name suggests, it is essentially a soggy burger.  A thin, small beef patty, bun and a special garlicky tomato sauce is all they consist of. Once the burgers are cooked and made up, they are put in a glass box on a metal plate – underneath the plate boiling water creates steam which rises up and creates condensation – basically the burgers are treated to their own little sweaty Turkish Hammam experience! It may not sound the most appealing in the cold light of day, but after a heavy night out, you can imagine the appeal!
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As we were in the area at lunchtime, I had my burger earlier in the day than most people! At 5tl each, I can see why people are tempted to have more than one! Berkay didn’t fancy it so he had a doner instead from the same little cafe.

If you get the chance, you should definitely try an Islak burger, don’t be put off by the fact it looks soggy – it’s delicious, especially the way the sauce is soaked into the bread!
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Sent Antuan Kilisesi / St. Antoine Church

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Saint Antoine of Padua Church is the largest Catholic church in Istanbul. Construction began in 1906 and it was opened for worship in 1912. Istanbul had approximately 40,000 Italian members of the community at the time, and the church was built with them in mind.

Located along the bustling Istiklal street, it is still a popular church today, run by Italian priests, holding mass in Italian, Polish, English and Turkish. I think when people think of Istanbul they don’t necessarily think of beautiful churches, so if they stumble across it whilst walking down Istiklal street, it can be a bit of an unexpected hidden gem!
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The church has red brickwork on the outside and is beautifully designed. At the entrance there is a statue of Pope John XXIII who served there for 10 years, he was known to have a fondness of the city of Istanbul.  The ceiling inside is a shade of blue, making it feel particularly bright, and the sun shining through the many stained glass windows adds to the beauty. For a small charge (I think it was 1tl) you can buy a candle to light – we bought two and placed them together.
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We visited in the second week of January and they still had Christmas decorations up – inside we were greeted with huge wreaths, trees and tinsel and outside, a massive tree decorated with red and white poinsettias and a nativity scene. I love Christmas so I was so pleased I got to see it all beautifully decorated – it really was stunning!
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P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glory!

Galata Kulesi / Galata Tower

Galata Tower was top of my list of things to visit in Istanbul, and I wasn’t disappointed!
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Built in 1348, it was the tallest building in Istanbul at the time – 220ft. It was designed with a military purpose, so it’s stone walls are 12ft thick. During peaceful periods, the tower’s main purpose changed, and it became a watch tower to spot city fires – so it’s ironic that it was damaged severely by a few fires itself. The tower was also damaged, repaired and altered several times over hundreds of years thanks to earthquakes and storms. In the mid 1960’s it was restored to it’s previous glory and opened to the public, with an observation deck boasting 360o views over the city.

We walked to the tower from Galata Bridge and oh my god, the stairs up towards it were a killer – even the pretty colours they were painted wasn’t much of a distraction, I had to stop half way up to recover – there must have been an easier way!
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At the top of the steps there were some cute cafes and shops, and the street was narrow and cobbled. The shops were selling homemade goods, souvenirs, coffee, and a lot of the walls were painted with interesting street art, I couldn’t fully appreciate it as I was trying to get my breath back!

When we got to the top and turned the corner, I was so glad to finally see Galata Tower, and the walk up the steep steps had definitely been worth it. Built of stone, it’s quite a beast, and when you stand next to it looking up at it towering over you, it’s very impressive. It dominates the Karaköy skyline, looking beautiful both at day and at night.
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Everything I had read online and from friends, said that you can queue up for hours to enter as it’s so popular, even in winter, so we headed there in the morning at around 9:30am, and there was no queue whatsoever. We paid our fee to enter (I think its around 20tl for tourists, but for those with Turkish ID cards, it’s 10tl – I managed to sneak in for the lower price when Berkay flashed his ID and told them I was his wife!)

Thankfully, there’s a small but beautifully tiled lift inside that takes you close to the top of the tower, but you still have to walk up two twisty, narrow flights of stairs to reach the observation area – there’s also a restaurant inside up there too.
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The outside observation area is very narrow, in some places only one person could fit through, and you had to really lean onto the railings to let someone squeeze past – not the safest, especially when people aren’t patient or can’t follow the staff that tell you to only go around in a clockwise direction!

It’s fascinating to think about all the things the Tower must have been witness to in it’s 600 years of existence. The views are absolutely stunning. Our morning was a bit hazy, but we could point out things like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Süleymaniye Mosque easily.

You can really see the mix of old and new from up there, modern sky scrapers in the distance and old, colourful houses and buildings all around the city.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the early morning sun shining down on me, coupled with the fact I was still sweating from the walk to the tower, meant I took my coat off – but don’t be fooled, it was cold, especially when we got to the parts in the shade!
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After spending some time at the top taking photos and being in awe of the view, we headed back down the stairs to where the lifts are on the 7th floor – I spotted the toilets and decided I really needed a wee. As odd as it sounds, the toilets were so cute, they even had a little window peering through the stone wall of the tower. The whole thing really reminded me of Rapunzel, so the Disney geek inside me loved it!

There’s a little shop at the bottom of the tower inside the entrance/exit and I got a cute, mini tower ornament which is sat on display in my living room.

If we go back again I’d love to go to the tower again in the evening, around sunset, because the views would be even more stunning!
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P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glory! 🙂

Early morning at Galata Bridge..

The first morning we were in Istanbul we woke up early and headed out straight after breakfast – the sun was just coming up and it was freezing cold. We got the tram to Eminönü, just two stops from where we were staying in Sultanahmet. As soon as we got there we saw Galata Tower, dominating the skyline on the opposite side of the water, so we knew we were in the right place for what we we looking for – Galata Bridge/Galata Köprüsü.

The bridge crosses the ‘Golden horn’ stretch of water, from Eminönü to Karaköy, connecting the old town to the more modern, ‘hip’ area. You can cross it by foot, car or by tram, and there are 6 lanes so it’s quite wide!

The views from the bridge are amazing, especially early morning when we were there. The sun was still low in the sky and the cold, glowing, morning haze just made the view even more beautiful. Galata Tower can be seen on one side, while several mosques and minarets can be seen on the other, including the impressive Süleymaniye mosque.


The bridge is very popular with locals who love to fish- we were there around 9am and there must have already been hundreds of men wrapped up in coats, hats and scarves, lining both sides of the bridge, from one end to the other, fishing. My photos don’t really capture just how many fishing rods were hanging over the sides –  we also crossed the bridge early afternoon one day and there were triple the number of people there and triple the number of rods! Berkay was amazed by it all, and loved watching to see what they were catching – although they only seemed to be small fish! He loves fishing and would no doubt happily spend hours there joining in. Some people were selling their ‘catch of the day’ too.


The lower level of the bridge has dozens of cafes and restaurants selling all sorts of fish dishes – and probably most famously, Balik Ekmek / Fish sandwich (we tried this but I’ll save that for another post!)

If you’re visiting Istanbul I definitely recommend taking a little while to walk across the bridge and soak up the views and the buzz of the cars, trams, boats, seagulls and fishermen – I bet it would be lovely at sunset too!

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P.S click on any of the photos above to enlarge them and see them in all their glory! 🙂