The hammam provides peak relaxation (Picture: Getty Images)Imagine the fourth most populous city in the world, the only capital on the planet spread over two continents and a melting pot of different religions. It doesn’t sound like the kind of place you could relax, but Istanbul provides an eclectic range of delights you would not expect.
Over 15 million people live in Turkey’s capital on either shore of the Bosporus Strait, which separates the European and Asian side of the city.
With the huge amount of humans living their lives in Istanbul, there are certainly the trappings of modern city life – the traffic, especially, can be something to behold – but within the seemingly manic surroundings there is an inner calm to the place.
At first glance, Istanbul is a hustling, bustling 21st century business hub, with the added uncertainty of an unavoidable culture clash on the border between Europe and Asia.
But as soon as you get to know what the city is about, it is clear that the lifestyle is built on a warm, friendly and calming way of doing things.
Survive the traffic from the airport without getting too stressed, and you are about to experience a surprisingly relaxing time in Istanbul.
The Turkish eating and drinking experience
There are many things to enjoy about Istanbul, but the food might well be the highlight, both in terms of taste and the whole dining experience.
There really is something for all diets on a Turkish menu, with meat and seafood aplenty, but all sorts of veggie options as well, including every way you could imagine an aubergine to be served.
The beauty of the dining culture is, you can try every single bit of cuisine on offer as these little dishes are there to be shared with everyone at the table.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)It is not quite tapas, but from starter to dessert, the food is there to have a little taster of everything and go back for more of what you liked best.
It is a great social aspect to dining, and gives you the opportunity to taste such a wide range of delicacies (or hardy street food) that you may not have seen before.
A handful of restaurants that stood out in the memory were Neolokal, Firuze and Pandeli, which all provided this extremely amenable set-up.
And it can all be washed down with the absolute rocket fuel that is Turkish coffee.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)Hammams
Undoubtedly the most relaxing part of any visit to Istanbul will come in the Hammam, where you will reach unparalleled levels of both chill and cleanliness.
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam, with my research into Turkish baths lacking somewhat, but I was not disappointed.
Having not been bathed by another human since I was circa five years old, it was an odd experience to readjust to as an adult, but you soon relax and appreciate the soothing nature of the place.
For the uninitiated, you lie down on some wet stone for a while, then a bloke gives you a thorough soapy wash. The first bit is incredibly zen while the second is liberating and remarkably cleansing.
If nudity is an issue for you, stick some swimming shorts on, if not, then go free and easy.
After the Hammam experience, you wander back out into the Istanbul streets in a trance-like state, totally relaxed, and very thirsty for a lager.
Shopping might not be your go-to activity, and maybe not one you think of as relaxing, but whether you are a shopaholic or not, there are a couple of places not to be missed in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the highlights of the city and has been a centre of commerce in the region since 1453.
There are around 4,000 shops in the Grand Bazaar, which might sound a bit overwhelming and stressful, but people aren’t too pushy and it is a real experience to wander around looking at a mix of impressive local produce and cheap designer fakes.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)While you will notice that there are not 4,000 entirely original shops in the Grand Bazaar, there is still a huge range of diverse products and all the stuff you would expect if you are looking for a Turkish souvenir.
The lighting shops were a personal favourite, but carpets, pashminas, crockery and jewellery were proving pretty popular as well.
There is also the Spice Bazaar, which is a much smaller-scale shopping experience, but offers some great options to take home for your kitchen.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)A totally different, but equally interesting shopping experience is wandering around the antiques shops of the Beyoglu district.
An area full of culture, and where I stayed during my time in Istanbul, at The Stay Late Antiquity Hotel.
There is no telling what you will find in the shops around the back streets in Beyoglu, but you could easily unearth a bargain or something highly unusual.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)Not exactly typically Turkish, but these Union Jack and Stars and Stripes darts show just what a range of stuff you can find in these little treasure troves.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)Friendly animals
(Picture: Phil Haigh)A happy little bonus for any animal lovers visiting Istanbul is that there are friendly cats wandering around all over the place, and a few dogs thrown into the mix as well.
Cats have been a big part of Istanbul culture for centuries, with strays allowed to potter about and are well looked after, with people leaving food out for them and building little shelters for them.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)There are a couple of theories as to why cats are so prevalent in the Turkish capital, but most likely is they were simply encouraged as pest control.
While the Ottoman Empire was in its pomp, wooden houses were common, which meant there were problems with rodents and other pests. Cats became popular to deal with the situation and they have hung around ever since.
They knock about in shops, in churches, around cafes and they are honoured in murals around the city.
For the dog lovers there are less around and they might not be quite as amenable for stroking, but you’ll find one or two chirpy hounds hanging about.
It seems like a small point, but if you are an animal lover, it’s a really nice bonus to have friendly felines hanging around all over the place.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)Sightseeing is not necessarily the most relaxing of things to do when on holiday, but given that most of the major things to see in Istanbul are of a religious nature, even this has a peaceful, zen-like quality to it.
As with all major cities, there are a few things you just have to go and have a look at, even if it is not usually your vibe, and the churches and mosques of Istanbul certainly fit that category.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)The Blue Mosque, The Hagia Sophia Museum and the less religious settings of the Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern are all incredible places to visit.
Even with the huge number of tourists that come to Istanbul, a peaceful serenity is largely kept up, and it is not a stressful experience at all as you drink in the history.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)The clash of cultures and mix of religious history is always on display as you visit these famous Istanbul sites, and they give you plenty to think about as you learn how they have survived and adapted over centuries.
(Picture: Phil Haigh)Of course there is far more to Istanbul than just what has been mentioned here, with vibrant nightlife and a rich sporting tradition two more strings to its extensive bow.
There really is something for everyone and given how affordable flights are to the other side of the continent, it is a trip not to be missed.
How to get to Istanbul and where to stay
Pegasus airlines provide cheap, regular flights from the UK To Istanbul.
A typical return flight from London on a Friday to Monday will cost around £137 with each leg taking just under four hours.
Base yourself at The Stay Late Antiquity Hotel in Beyoglu, or in one of their other locations around the city, including the remarkable Bosphorus Hotel.
A Junior Suite in the Stay Late Antiquity Hotel will cost around £120-per-night.
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