August 31, 2017

10 reasons to stopover in Istanbul


The Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya) is another of Istanbul’s top architectural wonders. More than 10 000 artisans and labourers worked non-stop to build this domed behemoth, and they did it in record time: five years, 10 months and four days. Built in 537 AD, it was the Roman Empire’s first Christian Cathedral and is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Marble pillars hold up the curved domes, while walls were richly decorated with intricate mosaics depicting the Virgin Mother, Jesus, saints and emperors and empresses.

That is until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and converted the church into a mosque in 1453 and the mosaics and other artwork depicting Christianity were plastered and painted over with beautiful Islamic artwork. And so it remained until Turkey became an independent republic in 1923, and a few years later the mosque was converted into a secular heritage site. Restoration work has been underway ever since and the Byzantine mosaics have been slowly uncovered.


Turkish Airlines is offering passengers with a transit time of 20 hours or more free accommodation in Istanbul, so you can stopover for free, gratis, mahala. The offer is valid for all passengers departing from South Africa en route to desintaions in Asia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Economy class passengers receive a free one-night stay at a four-star hotel, while business class passengers are eligible for a two-night stay at a five-star hotel. Ask your nearest Sure Travel consultant for details, or call 0861 47 48 49. And you can get a free visa for Turkey in just five minutes online. Test it out for yourself here.


Built between 1466 and 1478 by the sultan Mehmet II, Topkapi Palace is the biggest and one of the most popular sites to visit in Istanbul, but perhaps not for the reasons you would think. Yes, it’s an incredible piece of architectural work, but it’s the stories and legends that are the real attraction.

Lonely Planet summed it up best: “Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world's museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace's opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives.”


Walk down any street in Istanbul and you’ll see street art peeping out from behind doors, hiding around corners or boldly splashed over triple story buildings. There are sun-dappled courtyard cafés that double as street art galleries and whole districts where graffiti artists of all genres have used walls, buildings and street posts as their canvasses.

For the best street art head to: Istiklal Street, the Tünel area, Karaköy and Kadıköy. If you’re an iPhone user, download the StreetArt-Istanbul app which provides a map along with info on the artist. Also check out the Instagram account @istanbulstreetart.


A river cruise on the Bosphorus – the narrow strait that famously splits Istanbul between two continents, Asia and Europe – is an essential to any serious traveller’s list. Don’t forget to look out for Maiden’s Tower, a tiny tower perched atop an islet in the middle of the Bosphorus that dates back to the Byzantine period.

One of the tower’s many legends is that an emperor built it and exiled his beloved daughter there, to protect her from a prophesy that she would be bitten by a snake and die before she turned 18. Thinking he’d outsmarted the oracle, the emperor took his daughter a basket of fruit on her 18th birthday to celebrate. Of course a snake hiding in the basket bit the daughter, who died in her father’s arms.


You can’t go to Istanbul without visiting the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – or the Blue Mosque as it is commonly known, owing to the 20 000 hand-painted ceramic tiles in blue-hued tulip designs that line the interior of the mosque.

The mosque took seven years to build back in 1609 and is famed for its five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. Quite how they managed this architectural feat 400 years ago is astounding.


An indoor market of 85 shops stacked wall-to-wall with plump rolls of multi-coloured Turkish delight, sticky baklava, barrels of spices, nuts, dried fruit, tea, Turkish coffee, jewellery and souvenirs.


Locals will tell you the Spice Bazaar is a better bet than the Grand Bazaar, which has become something of a tourist trap.


The Turks like to eat, and eat, and eat. On every street corner of Istanbul you’ll find vendors selling simitci (like a bagel), freshy roasted chestnuts, roasted sweet corn. And that’s just for snacks inbetween mouthwatering main meals such as mezze platters, Kuzu güveç (a type of casserole) and Döner kebap.

For dessert (because there is always dessert), there seem to be more Turkish delight and baklava shops than people in this city of 14.5 million. And waffles; hundreds of waffle shops luring you in with their sweet scent. You need to enjoy these sweet treats with freshly-brewed, thick Turkish coffee, of course.


Lamps, silver jewellery, leather jackets, Turkish rugs and bags, spices, teas, coffee, sweet treats…This is the bounty Istanbul is known for by mainstream shoppers and it can be found at the markets (head to Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar) and plenty of streetside shops.

But for serious shopaholics and fashionistas, there are secret treasures to be found in this city. Walk down side streets and discover local designers’ originals, vintage shops aplenty and high street shops selling haute couture. Go with an empty suitcase.


Ah, the famed Hamam (traditional Turkish bath). These are found all over the city, but if you want the real McCoy, it’s best to avoid the very popular ones and find a hamam (or hamami) off the beaten tourist track.

Like the Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami down a narrow side street off the main shopping road of Istiklat Street. Here every inch of you will be steamed, scrubbed, foamed and rubbed down with some serious vigour. Leave your inhibitions at the door and enjoy.

GO HERE WITH SURE: Ask your nearest Sure Travel consultant about great fares from Turkish Airlines, or search here / call 0861 47 48 49. And remember, if you book a ticket with Turkish Airlines before 30 September with a Sure Travel agency, you could win R10 000 cash. Click here for details. 


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