Why I think Istanbul in Turkey is one of Europe’s greatest cities

Istanbul is incredible. There are loads of beautiful cultural places to visit, mint tea, cool districts to eat in and loads of cats! Everything I ever wish for in a trip…

10 million people visited in 2013 and as soon as I arrived I could see why. It is built on 7 hills with an imperial mosque perched on each and originally founded by the Greeks in the seventh century BC.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

While we were looking for the hostel, we bumped into lots of cats and they were so lovely that it distracted me from finding it. Incidentally our hostel had its own cats, as well as open window where all the strays and neighbours could bob in for tourist strokes. A hostel worker found the biggest, fluffiest cat behind his chair, what a life to have cats in every corner. The hostel was also covered in cat pictures and cat items so it was a paradise for me.

Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, which is decorated in muted colours that somehow look really bright. Its proper name is the Sultan Ahmed mosque and its stunning.

Hagia Sophia held the title of world’s largest church for 900 years, then it was a mosque and it’s now a museum visited by about 3 million tourists a year. Apparently, there is now a movement to have it converted back into a church.

Our third stop of the day was Topkapi Palace, we didn’t go in, we just wandered around the grounds.

That evening we walked down the shopping street looking for a shisha place that had been recommended to us. We didn’t find it but saw another inviting place so we decided to try there instead. It turned out to be a great decision because it had a great vibe, there was a hot person playing guitar, a dog and excellent mint tea. Everything you could need for a good night out, no alcohol required.

In the morning we went to the Basilica Cistern, as yes, even an underground 6th century water cistern in Istanbul is worth looking at, with everything here steeped in historical significance. This water tank for the Emperor’s palace was the set for the James Bond film From Russia with Love. What surprised me was that there were fish in the water, and loads of them. Apparently they were first installed as a security measure because if they died it would show that the water was contaminated in some way.


We couldn’t miss Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops, 64 streets and 25,000 people work there. It was established in 1455 so it could claim to be the world’s oldest shopping mall. We didn’t buy anything but it was fun to wander around.

After the bazaar we went for the obligatory hammam, there are over 200 hammams in Stanny, but only 60 of them are still operational. We had a recommendation from our hostel to go to Cağaloğlu Hamam, and it was a good recommendation. As it was the middle of the day we each had the hammam of our gender to ourselves. We each had to lie down on the central stone hexagon and get a good scrub down. After being in the sauna I sat waiting for the woman to come and it felt weird being in a stone room all alone. It was a bit like being in a stone cell as you have no concept of time.

It’s worth mentioning that all but one of our meals in Istanbul were great, especially in the district near downtown and there is so much more to Stanny than the bits that we saw. We tried to find the fishermen who catch fish, cook it and put it in a sandwich for you but we just got lost down by some rough docks.

I looked up the Stray Cat hostel to see if it still exists and discovered that it has closed down. I also found a review which said and I quote ‘I think this hostel should be avoided. Numerous malnourished-looking stray cats roam inside of the premises; sleep on the couches in the lobby; and jump on the table where breakfast is served in the morning. When I stayed at the Stray Cat, I was bitten extremely badly by insects (perhaps fleas) that I believe were carried by the stray cats themselves.’ I’m not sure if the two things are linked, I feel the clue was in the name of the hostel.

Our flight home for this trip was from Istanbul and I reflected on how this was one of the best trips to Europe that I’ve ever been on. I would return to Stanny in a heartbeat as it is such an eclectic city with so much to give.

If you love reading about Europe then check out my book, the European installment of my Backpacker Confessions series. Girl vs Europe: A Tale of 43 Countries is out now.

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