Annchen

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A Weekend Away in Denmark – Country and City

The trouble started the night before our flight, with me and Joel having had respective nights out, and neither one willing to clean the apartment without the other (and neither realising the amount of cleaning it needed). I’m not certain that Joel even slept, but I sneaked in about an hour on the couch (the bed had new linen for the weekend’s Airbnb guests). With a 6.30am flight from Gatwick Airport, which is over an hour’s drive from the centre of London (where we stay), it was an all-nighter, watching the sunrise from 30,000+ feet over the North Sea on our way to Copenhagen.

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We were visiting two Danish friends who we met in Mozambique a couple of years ago who just had a baby – ‘just’ as in a week before we arrived. They live in Vejle (“Vejle?? What are you doing in Vejle??” – everyone in Copenhagen), a beautiful and quaint countryside town, so we were going to spend our Friday in Copenhagen and head over in the evening. With a crazy week behind us, we forgot to plan for this trip, so it was a quick ‘Top-Five-Things-To-Do-In-Copenhagen’-according-to-TripAdvisor sort of itinerary.

Well, number two on the list hit us just as we exited the central station: ‘Tivoli Gardens’.

Tivoli Gardens

After coffee, pastries, fiddling with a sim card and a train station nap by Joel (“excuse me you can’t sleep here” – train station employee) we headed over to what we thought were some fancy gardens or something. It turns out it’s an elaborate carnival/family/theme park and it was expertly decorated for Halloween, which woke Joel up for a couple of hours. We didn’t buy tickets for rides, but it was just fun strolling around and discovering all the nooks and crannies of Tivoli.

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Number one on TripAdvisor’s list was our next target: Nyhavn.

Nyhavn

The typical Danish backdrop of the multi-coloured houses in the harbour. We strolled over from Tivoli, took some selfies on arrival, and walked through the harbour around to the other side. We carried on along the water, in a half-assed attempt of getting to the ‘Little Mermaid’, but fatigue stopped us from actually caring about it and we ended up sitting down and resting a bit in front of the national opera house or something. FORTY-FIVE MINUTES LATER, Joel wakes up from his wonderful nap while I had to stay awake, my head dipping forward every now and then as I struggle to do so, so that we don’t look like complete hobos.

The beautiful Nyhavn

The beautiful Nyhavn

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There was more coffee and sleeping in random places until we got on our train to Vejle (where Joel could sleep some more).

Vejle

After a wonderful evening of traditional, hearty, Danish food, meeting a new baby, wine by the fireside, and falling asleep mid-conversation (Joel…), it was the moment that Joel and I had been waiting for: Bedtime. All the sleeps await us!

Our friends' gorgeous countryside home where we got to stay and cuddle with their new baby girl

Our friends’ gorgeous countryside home where we got to stay and cuddle with their new baby girl

Aarhus

The next day we were taken around Aarhus by our friend, Jonas. The day started in high spirits as he parked the car in an automated underground parking bay. It was like we were face to face with all of my new millennium dreams as the car disappeared underneath the earth and we made excited exclamations and took a zillion photos and videos.

Step One

Step One

Step Two

Step Two

Just...the future is already here and it's in Denmark.

Just…the future is already here and it’s in Denmark.

We then made our way over to the Aarhus Cathedral, the tallest and longest church in the country, to look at its medieval frescoes and boats hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers, which is not something I’ve seen in a catholic cathedral before.

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Olafur Eliasson’s Rainbow Panorama on top of the Aarhus Art Museum made for a drastic scenery change as we viewed Aarhus from above in all the colours of the rainbow. If you are not into discovering historical, modern or contemporary Scandinavian art, then Eliasson’s panorama and the Australian artist Ron Mueck’s gigantic ‘Boy’, in many ways the permanent pride of the museum, are enough to justify the entrance fee. The Aarhus Art Museum comes highly recommended. It also had an exhibition of Monet and his contemporaries, which we did not go to because I was just too hungry.

Eliasson's panorama crowning the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum

Eliasson’s panorama crowning the ARoS Aarhus Art Museum

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'Boy' by Ron Mueck

The uncanny of Ron Mueck’s ‘Boy’

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Which is why we had the most Danish lunch instead of seeing impressionists – A hotdog with everything and chocolate milk! Jonas took us to a stand ran by one of his friends, who is basically the sweetest, kindest, Nepali cook you will ever meet. We were, admittedly, won over by this hotdog-chocolate milk combination.

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Find this place and go there.

Find this place and go there.

Dyrehaven

Jonas then took us to a place where all my Autumn dreams came true. It is called Dyrehaven (Animal Park), and it is a large piece of land, looks like something between a park and a forest, where wild(-ish) deer and wild pigs roam free. You are allowed to feed them, and so most of them are a slight bit tamer than I imagine wild deer are supposed to be. So we spent a couple of hours at sunset strolling through the reds, yellows and golds of Autumnal Denmark, immersed in the soft falling of leaves and the occasional bleat of a nearby deer, or the ruffling of a wild pig family.

Autumnal strolls through Dyrehaven

Autumnal strolls through Dyrehaven

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Our friend Jonas showing us the ropes

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After another relaxing evening filled with Tenna’s home-cooked meals, snuggles with the one-week-old Cornelia, more wine and banter, and after the next morning’s sleepy train ride through the beautiful Danish landscape, we were left to our own TripAdvisor-esque devices in Copenhagen again. 

Rosenborg Castle

First I forced Joel to go to the National Gallery of Denmark, so that I can see Matisse’s Green Stripe and subsequently discover other wonderful modern Scandinavian art, and then Joel navigated us towards the Rosenborg Castle. With little time (and motivation) to go inside, we snapped a few photos and headed over to the Church of Our Saviour – another TripAdvisor classic.

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The Rosenborg Castle

The Best View in Copenhagen

The Church of our Saviour is a beautiful church built in the Baroque style in the 17th century, with an appropriately ornate spire completed in the 18th century. The spire reaches a height of 90m and you can ascend to almost the very top of it by a network of narrow staircases. If you get claustrophobic, I would think twice about going up, since the staircases are very narrow and there’s only one way up and down. But the view from the top is really something, especially when you go around sunset, which is when we happened to be up there.

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On top of Denmark!

On top of Denmark!

The weekend was topped off by AMAZING and mouth-watering food and wine at Höst with friends. We boarded our plane with full hearts and stomachs – ready to return to our home in what then seemed like delightfully warm London after Denmark’s Autumn chill.

Also, in case you were looking, here is our

LIST OF PLACES IN COPENHAGEN TO NAP, TRIED AND TESTED BY JOEL BRONKOWSKI:

  1. Train station (but make sure they don’t see you)
  2. The deck of the Copenhagen Opera House
  3. Any table of any Baresso coffee shop
  4. The train
  5. Mid-conversation in someone’s house
  6. Any McDonalds
  7. In the National Gallery, on a chair in front of a video art piece, with headphones on whilst watching the piece. (…Yes, this is real – I caught Joel snoring seconds after he put the headphones on…)

HAPPY NAPPING!

Joel's sleepy adventure

Joel’s sleepy adventure

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One Does Not Simply ‘Visit’ Petra

“What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done?”

Is a question Joel and I often test each other with. And for over a year, for both of us, it has always been a toss-up between snorkelling with whale sharks and encountering Petra. I say ‘encountering’ because going to Petra is not like visiting a place. One doesn’t ‘visit’ Petra – it is something to be experienced, something immense and ancient to be immersed  in or overcome by. It is an unbelievable, unimaginable corner of the earth and when confronted with it, is an indescribable and overwhelming couple of hours of your life.

BOROMIRPETRA

Petra is an ancient city in the South of Jordan carved from the brilliant red rock-face of the Jebel al-Madhbah mountains, established as the capital of the Nabatean people, possible around 312 BC. The first Western guy who came across it called it

“a rose-red city half as old as time.”

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HOW WE GOT THERE

We were planning a trip to Israel for a wedding and we decided that it is ‘now or never’ – we must go and conquer/survive Petra.

But getting there was quite a trip itself.

There are many tourism companies that will offer you a two or three day trip to Petra from the border city of Eilat. I am not sure whether they are an okay deal or way too expensive. Either way, we decided screw them, we are doing it ourselves. We drove about 2h30min from Mesada to Eilat in Israel. Eilat is a relatively small port/resort town that lies on the tip of the red sea, sandwiched between Jordan and Egypt. When we arrived there it was time for the Game Face – no toilet breaks, no effing around – we need to get to Petra.

We just parked our car in some field by a hostel and pretended we belong there, we threw some clothes in a backpack, and we set out to find a taxi to the border. After we were dropped off at the border, got our passports stamped, shuffled through security, we were out on the other side (which is a Jordanian town called Aqaba)! So far so good!

Onwards!

Onwards!

Then came the time to get a taxi to Petra.

The taxi drivers on the Jordanian side of the border are called the taxi mafia. And for good reason, too. These guys are the most badass taxi drivers I have ever encountered. Play your cards well, and your 2+ hour drive to Petra will be a near-pleasant experience, but if you mess it up, you’re in for a real shitty trek (as we discovered on the drive back).

On the long and deserted walk from the border office to the taxis, it was only us and another couple, so we (aka Joel) decided to make some chitchat. Eventually it happened that these guys will split a taxi with us – which is the beginning of the most exhausting language sandwich I have ever been in:

It turns out they are a Polish-German couple with limited English. We are a South African-North American couple with limited Polish (like negative-Polish). So the overlap there is German, which two of the four of us can speak.

Boy.

Speaking and understanding German doesn’t come second nature to me. It requires a constant and fierce concentration – but once this guy found out I spoke German, he had all kinds of stories.

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The main thing is that these mafia taxi drivers are constantly trying to take you for a drink (tea) somewhere at his cousin’s place, or selling you some other tourist experience. So he would speak to us in English, and then I would translate in German, and then the German guy discusses it with his Polish wife, and then she gives the verdict in Polish, he speaks to me in German, I discuss it with Joel in Afrikaans, I give our verdict again in German, and finally we either confirm or deny it with the taxi driver in English. And this was my life for the next 6 hours. 

Wadi Rum

In the end he did manage to sell us on something: a desert truck drive around the minuscule town of Wadi Rum. So we veered off course for about 40mins, stopping, on the way to Wadi Rum, at the train which they used in the Lawrence of Arabia films, now just abandoned in the middle of nowhere in the desert of Jordan. When we arrived in Wadi Rum (very very very small – we were the only tourists around) everybody spoke quick arabic and we got out of the taxi and into our desert truck.

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This little detour proved to be a lot of fun and recommended by the twocats crew, if you have the time. We had a wonderfully warm and friendly driver, zipping around through the scarlet sands, climbing on and rolling down dunes, we stopped for some tea somewhere, a soft and cooling breeze gently sifting the sands, and complete and utter silence every time the truck stops and we watch some men on camel in the hazy distance. After about two hours of this side-adventure we headed back to the ‘gates‘ of Wadi Rum where our then-friendly taxi driver waited patiently.

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The red dunes of wadi rum #nofilter. fo real.

The red dunes of Wadi Rum #nofilter. fo real.

The Jordanian police going about there business.

The Jordanian police going about their business.

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This off-the-beaten track excursion comes highly recommended. Us and our bedouin driver and the sweet memory of my first selfie.

This off-the-beaten track excursion comes highly recommended. Us and our bedouin driver and the sweet memory of one of my first selfies.

It was a couple more hours (a beautiful drive, at least) until we arrived in Wadi Musa – the main gateway town to Petra.

Then it turned out our European friends had no plans for sleeping anywhere. So, after some more fun rounds of English/Afrikaans/German/Polish/Arabic telephone, they finally decided they’ll just stick to us and go where we are going.

WHERE WE STAYED

We were going to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, which was AMAZING. We arrived to the sight of a hundred lit candles tucked in the nooks and crannies of the looming boulders, the smell of aromatic bedouin-style cooked meals, and kittens! (It seems we cannot escape cats!..or cats cannot escape us?)

Someomne else's great photo of the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp

Someone else’s great photo of the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp

These other people take some great photos

These other people take some great photos.

BEING IN PETRA

The next morning Seven Wonder’s van took us to the commercial gates of Petra, which was swarming with tourists. We bought our tickets, picked up some maps, and headed off for the red city. It was a long walk before we finally reached the official ancient gateway – a wall of colossal steep rock rising up sharply before you, with a slender crevice as a passageway. It’s a couple of kilometres inside this crevice, which offers cool relief to the burning heat every else, before it abruptly ends and it feels like you have stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient civilisation:

The long walk through the ancient 'gates'

The long walk through the ancient ‘gates’

At first just a tiny glimpse...

At first just a tiny glimpse…

And then all of a sudden

And then all of a sudden

The gigantic treasury, carved from the mountain, materialises almost without warning in front of you. There’s frustration of not even having enough space to step back and it in – it’s like you are submerged in it; like you have been swallowed by the mountains.

And there’s more cats!

Cat! Finally someone to talk to!

“Cat! Finally someone to talk to!” –Annchen

Once you’ve entered this part of the city it’s a full day (or two full days) of hiking and gawking and not being able to believe your own eyes.

A couple of hours later we decided to make the 900-step ascent to the monastery and beyond. At this stage I was unfortunately feeling slightly ill, and I convinced Joel to go up on a donkey. If I was feeling fine, we probably would have walked it, but I am glad we got to go up with the donkeys – it was quite an experience!

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My ride

My ride

The immense Monastery

The immense Monastery

Even higher up is ‘High Place’, which, if you are able to manage more hiking, offers incredible breathtaking views to the Jordanian peaks and valleys over 1000m below. There you can find merchants making wonderfully refreshing lemonade and take a quiet rest in there tents, cooling down in the breeze.

Despite being a major tourist destination, Petra doesn’t feel crowded, due to its sheer immensity. And there’s a quiet pleasure in know that when you leave and night falls, and probably long after we will be gone, these manipulated mountains will still stand – silent, resolute, and strong – not needing our presence in order to be spectacular.

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An amphitheatre to seat thousands, carved from the mountain.

An amphitheatre to seat thousands, carved from the mountain.

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The beautiful, blended colours of the smooth, cold rock inside the mountain-chambers

The beautiful, blended colours of the smooth, cold rock inside the mountain-chambers

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You can take a ride on these guys around the city if you wanted to

You can take a ride on these guys around the city if you wanted to

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Chateau de Fontainebleau – A Parisian Countryside Getaway

When Joel and I realised that we will be able to visit Paris again this year, we immediately knew that we wanted to spend a night in the French countryside. After Google Maps crushed all my dreams of going to Giverny, where Monet painted his waterlilies, or Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh checked himself into an insane asylum, by showing me trips  of 4+ hours by car, we had to come up with some other great plan.

Joel fell in love with the Versailles gardens in January and said we should go back.

One of us used her good common sense and said we should try something different.

So…THIS IS A POST ABOUT WHAT YOU SHOULD DO IF YOU WANT A QUICK GETAWAY IN THE PARISIAN COUNTRYSIDE BUT HAVE ALREADY BEEN TO VERSAILLES!

After a short session of scrolling through a forum or two, the consensus was in:

It seemed like the good people of the Internet wanted us to go to Château de Fontainebleau.

If Google said it it must be right – To Château de Fontainebleau we go!

The Fontainebleau Chateau is about an hour’s journey South of France and is one of the largest and oldest royal châteaux (the plural of château…you’re welcome.) in France. To put it in perspective – the palace existed centuries before America was even ‘discovered’.

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It was home to all the most powerful people – from Louis VII to Napoleon III. It is also the site of the room in which Napoleon I officially abdicated the throne before his exile; the room apparently untouched since it happened – all of the chairs and tables still as they left it on the day that they signed the documents and shipped Napoleon off to Elba.

The throne room of Napoleon

The throne room of Napoleon

If none of the historical significance impresses you, it is just a magnificently sumptuous and monumental architectural wonder that is absolutely worth your time. Graced with room after room with polished parquet flooring, Herculean fireplaces, private chapels, walls in rich, dark wood and heavy golds, and ceilings nearly groaning under the weight of sparkling crystal chandeliers, it is a palace that impresses with ease.

At this stage, if you haven’t yet suffered from sensory overload, there is the heavy, smooth velvet of the private chambers, the antique furniture, the milky marble tops of chess board tables, a monumental globe from the office of Napoleon, and some of the best examples of Tromp l’oeil you can see in France (a style of painting that realistically gives the illusion of three-dimensionality) .

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Otherwise spend your afternoon wiling away the time by long strolls in the acres of perfectly manicured gardens in the French and English styles – multiple fountains, exotic trees, windy pathways, a reflection pool and a large carp pond are just some of the elements included in the landscaping.

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Joel doing his favourite thing in the world: taking slow motion videos of anything that moves

Joel doing his favourite thing in the world: taking slow motion videos of anything that moves

After we exhausted our time in the chateau and its grounds, we spent some time roaming around the cute-ass town of Fontainebleau. If chateaus aren’t your jam, but you want to spend a night or two in the countryside, then the town of Fontainebleau is just a great place to go to. It’s quaint and cute, home to aforementioned royal chateau and world-class business school INSEAD, and surrounded by the lushness of the Fontainebleau forest – the perfect place to go to get away from it all, without actually getting away from it ALL (like cell signal and wifi and people and all of that).

 

The cutest town around: this was probably the tallest building there.

The cutest town around: this was probably the tallest building there.

 

I mean....a carousel...

I mean….a carousel…

HOW TO GET TO FONTAINEBLEAU

To get to Fontainebleau you have to take the Transilien (T) train line from the Gare de Lyon station in Paris. The Paris Visite Pass for zones 1 to 5 works for this trip and is the easiest way to buy a ticket, and the best if you are spending time getting around in Paris before or after the weekend getaway.

When you get to the Gare de Lyon station, look for trains with the following termination stations:

  • Laroche-Migennes
  • Montargis
  • Montereau
  • Sens

Any of these trains will take you to Fontainebleau. Check which platform the train departs from and head there. Double check the screen at the platform, which shows all the stops the train will make – if Fontainebleau is not on there, you are probably at the wrong platform.

When you get there, you can head to the buses at the back of the Avon Fontainebleau station (where the train stops) and take the Number 1 bus to Chateau de Fontainebleau – but take note that this bus stops at the Number 2 bus stop, even though it’s a Number 1 bus. Go figure.

Otherwise, if you are not heading directly to the chateau, it’s really easy to figure out which bus to get on and where to hop off from looking at the maps at the bus stops.

WHERE TO STAY

All I can say is that we stayed at an Airbnb that was really nice, with a really gracious host and a REALLY CUTE KITTEN.

And you should probably stay in an Airbnb too.

We had a wonderful room in this gorgeous countryside cottage

We had a wonderful room in this gorgeous countryside cottage

 

Our host was even cool with me losing it over this kitten.

Our host was even cool with me losing it over this kitten.

 

CHATEAU DE FONTAINEBLEAU

The chateau is open Wednesday to Monday (Closed Tuesdays) from 9.30am to 5pm (October to March) and 9.30am to 6pm (April to September). Last entry is 45 minutes before closing and it takes about 1.5 – 2 hours to go through the chateau.

Tickets are 11 Euros or 9 Euros each – Reduced fare tickets for all the usual things: student, pensioners, children, etc. But also if you are under 26 and you can prove it (a photo of your passport, e.g.)

The audio guide comes highly recommended!

More info on their website here

 

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A vast carp pond stretches out to the back of the chateau

A vast carp pond stretches out to the back of the chateau

Don't forget to look out for decadent details

Don’t forget to look out for decadent details

And don't forget to look up!

And don’t forget to look up!

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The 6 Least Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul

Many people could visit Istanbul and never leave Sultanahmet – the tourist hotspot. And with good reason: there are so many incredible things to see and do that, during a shorter visit, it might not even be necessary to begin to explore the rest of the city (See The 6 Most Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul).

However, if you have exhausted the typical Istanbul check list, or if you are a traveller that like to venture off the beaten path and experience the locals’ Istanbul, consider this list of the 6 least touristy thing to do in Istanbul.

1. Get a Haircut

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YES.

You bet it’s on my list. Istanbul barbers and hairdressers are amazing. Both my and Joel’s best haircuts were in Istanbul. Barber shops are like corner stores in Beyoğlu, Istanbul – they are everywhere. And most hairdressers are older men – guys’ whose families have been dressing hair and shaving beards for generations. These guys are serious about hairdressing. They don’t F around.

So when one of my South African friends visited from Belgium, I decided to bite the bullet and chop my hair, as she needed a haircut too. I went to this guy that our landlord’s sister recommended to me, and I was so impressed. He’s name is Bulent Öner, and he’s the best, AND I found his Facebook page so you can go there too.

BONUS: His English is okay. But take a picture of the hair you want, in case everybody runs out of words.

Our before and afters. Not too bad?

Our before and afters. Not too bad?

There he is! We got our hair did by someone who looks like Ron Swanson from 'Parks & Rec' in more ways than one.

There he is! We got our hair did by someone who looks like Ron Swanson from ‘Parks & Rec’ in more ways than one.

2. Lose track of time in The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi)

The museum is located in the neighbourhood of Çukucuma, in the old house of one of its main characters.

The museum is located in the neighbourhood of Çukucuma, in the old house of one of its main characters.

So of the ‘least touristy things to do’ on this list, this is probably the most touristy thing to do. We lived right next to the museum and whenever I saw tourists in our street is 90% guaranteed they were looking for the museum.

The museum was created by the Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, at the same time that he was writing a novel of the same name. The museum is fitted out with display cabinets, each cabinet representing a chapter in the book, holding objects that epitomise the relevant chapter. It tells a love story between a wealthy young man and his poor cousin, twice-removed, and it is set in the latter half of the 20th century, and in the neighbourhoods surrounding the museum. Besides narrating this love story, it also provides a glimpse into life in Istanbul when in the transitioning period of changing from a Caliphate to a republic and mixing Western customs with its own ancient traditions. It talks not only about love, but also about class-issues, womens’ rights, traditional Turkish customs, and the peculiar position that Istanbul takes being both Western and Eastern. With its authentic 20th century objects, collected from the neighbourhood that the museum stands in, the museum occupies a wonderful space where reality and myth come together to convey a moment of the human condition specific to Istanbul.

Also, you do not need to have read the novel to appreciate this museum!

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Two of my favourite displays: The dogs of Istanbul, and the cigarette wall in the foyer, containing thousands of cigarettes smoked by one of the book's characters.

Two of my favourite displays: The dogs of Istanbul, and the cigarette wall in the foyer, containing thousands of cigarettes smoked by one of the book’s characters.

PRO MUSEUM TIP: This should be on your All-Time-Museums-To-Visit list

PRO MUSEUM TIP: You need to get the audio tour, regardless of whether you have read the book or not. The audio is really well done and it gives insights on the creation of the museum.

3. Thrift Shopping and Antiquing in Çukurcuma

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Çukurcuma is an area that is known for being riddled with junk shops, antique joints, thrift stores and, every now and then, the more expensive gentrified boutique (like the uber cool suit-tailors at Civan). Find old wedding photos, kitch vases, real antique chandeliers, fur coats, and a cat catching some sun under an antique glass table.

Mind the cat!

Mind the cat!

You could spend hours going through other people’s things and get a whole new understanding of İstanbullus (fyi: someone who is from Istanbul is called an Istanbullu. You’re welcome.) It’s a fascinating venture – stop for tea along the way at the tea shop on the corner of Çukurcuma Road and Yazıcı Street and top it off with some lunch at Cuma at the top of Çukurcuma Street. Alternatively start your day at Cuma with some Turkish breakfast – they serve some of the best Turkish breakfasts there – and work your way down!

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Pretty things at Civan

Pretty things at Civan

4. Feed your local four-legged friends

Istanbul is like the world’s stray-cats-Headquarters, and the greater area of Beyoğlu is where you would want to end up if you were a stray cat in Istanbul. Cihangir, specifically, is known for its well-looked after, fat, sometimes even glossy, stray street cats. (For the most part). If you were to explore the streets of Cihangir, you would find countless makeshift cat homes, water buckets, and random cat food pellets that survived a feeding frenzy. The locals don’t mind the cats unless it minds their customers, and most treat them kindly and feed them often. In fast, this is where I saw a real-life cat lady for the first time – and if you hang out in the area long enough you’ll see them too! These are old ladies (and men) walking around with their stroller-bags filled with cat food, just dumping some as they walk up and down the streets.

Serving breakfast to this lady.

Serving breakfast to this lady.

So if you like animals and you really want to feel like a local, pick up a small bag of cat food (kedi maması) at a market (they sell them nearly everywhere), take a stroll around Cihangir and feed some local pretties. If you look normal enough (aka you’re nor clad with large cameras, patagonia gear, hiking boots, or blonde hair) someone might even come up to you and start talking in Turkish.

I only ever saw this cat two or three times - but it was massive, weirdly strong, super heavy and very hungry, so to save my own life I fed it.

I only ever saw this cat two or three times – but it was massive, weirdly strong, super heavy and very hungry, so to save my own life I fed it.

Alternatively, adopt a cat for an afternoon (if your landlord doesn’t mind/know!) and give it some solace away from the streets. We found a friendly, needy cat who became our sometimes-pet.

To answer your question: Yes, it does feel like you’re cheating on your own cats a little bit.

This guy kept me company on rainy days when my husband was out of town on business trips

This guy kept me company on rainy days when my husband was out of town on business trips

Here he is snuggling with my friend who visited from South Africa.

Here he is snuggling with my friend who visited from South Africa.

5. Try and complete the Maze Up challenge!

I came across this Escape Room company called Maze Up while we were living in Istanbul this year. I nearly lost it, because I used to LOVE playing the point-and-click escape room games on my computer, so to imagine actually being in a real-life one was just too much. I convinced Joel to do it with me, so one rainy day we made our way to maze up to be locked in an Ottoman-era styled room, fitted with secret locks, magnetic tricks, and riddle-like clues, so that we can find the diamond before the authorities catch us.

I can not adequately express how fun this was.

We had so. much. fun.

It was so exciting – the room was styled to a tee, there was this exciting, movie-like, Ottoman-ish music playing in the background to rev you up as you go through drawers and rummage through ancient-looking chests in order to find clues as to where the diamond is hidden.

We didn’t actually make it – we ran out of time before we found the diamond, but it the whole thing was so great! The only thing that sucks about it is that you can’t do it all over again, because when we were done all I wanted to do was to do it again.

It’s only 60 minutes, and you can do it in groups of 2 and up, so if you are tired of going to mosques and palaces and bazaars, GO DO THIS.

I CANNOT recommend this enough.

GO GO GO!

We look like idiots here, but we don't even care. That's how much fun we had.

We look like idiots here, but we don’t even care. That’s how much fun we had.

P.S. It’s a great way to spend some time on a rainy afternoon.

6. Play some pool at your local billiard place

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Grab some tea, place some bets, and then chalk it up before you take a shot at the pool table. This was one of our favourite low-key, non-touristy things to do in the evenings before or after getting dinner. It’s just something different to the normal activities that are geared towards getting the most out of you and your friends’ pockets. We came upon this billiard place about 5 minutes walk from our home, and you could play pool, checkers, cards, and table tennis while waiters took your (non-alcoholic) drink orders. Sometimes we would just go for a quick 20 minutes of pool and a sweet apple tea after dinner before heading home.

Joel trying to look cool while I kick his ass at pool.

Joel trying to keep his cool while I kick his ass at pool.

BONUS – Go to Heybeliada to get away from the buzz

Heybeliada is an island part of the Princes’ Islands group just off the coast of Turkey. You can easily and cheaply get there with a ferry, and unlike ‘Big Island’ (another of the Princes’ Islands) it’s not swarming with tourists. In fact, this is an island rather frequented by locals. You can spend a day, or spend the night even – it’s great way to experience a very different, MUCH quieter Istanbul (no cars allowed on the Island. Only bikes and horse-and-carriages).

Wanna know more? Read about how we escaped the city by going to Heybeliada that one time.

The Heybeliada harbour

The Heybeliada harbour

We only lived in Istanbul for a few months before we had to leave with heavy hearts, and these are just some of things that you could do without feeling too much of a kodak-moment, patagonia-wearing tourist. However, there are SO many things to do, places to explore, and amazing sites to see that aren’t necessarily on Lonely Planet’s top 10 list. But whatever you end up doing, do it fully, and just enjoy yourself and the ‘Turkish hospitality’ that the Turks are so proud of.

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The 6 Most Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul

We lived in Istanbul for a couple of months in the beginning of this year and it was some of the funnest and most interesting months in our lives. We got to make friends, learn some Turkish, and as each day passed we felt less like tourists and more like locals. But every now and then we would look at each other and say ‘what is the most touristy thing we could do today?’

Istanbul can be a total tourist trap – but for good reason. Most of the most touristy things are incredibly amazing or just lots of fun. So if you are one of those travelers that squirms at the thought of being ‘touristy’, try and suck it up just long enough to do and visit these following six, not-to-be-missed, total tourist attractions. Istanbul is a destination city after all. [However if you absolutely refuse head on over to The 6 Least Touristy Things to do in Istanbul ]

1. Hit up Sultanahmet – Istanbul tourist hotspot.

This is where everyone understands English (don’t be surprised when restauranteurs greet you in your own language either); where the salesmen are uniquely aggressive; where you can see that ‘East meets West’ phenomena that many people associate so closely with Istanbul, since it is not only the most touristy area, but also the religious hotspot for Islamic travellers (and Saudi bachelorette parties). You could visit Istanbul for three days and never venture out of this area. It includes:

The Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Camii), est. 1616

This is the one COMPULSORY THING you must do when you go to Istanbul. Because it is free, and you can spend anything between 10 minutes and an hour (depending on how much of a photographer you are). Also because this is the mosque of mosques. It is absolutely stunning inside, with individually crafted tiles adorning all of its 73x65x43m interior (240x213x141ft). It’s a massive structure that fits 10,000 people – fitted with red carpet, glittering lights, one crazy dome with a diameter of 23.5 meters, and two security guards yelling at lady-tourists who try and step into the men’s prayer area.

DRESS CODE: It is a practicing mosque so you have to wear a long skirt or pants (NO JEGGINGS, LADIES!), a head covering, and no shoulder action. Also, as mentioned above, it is a site meant for the practicing of a very fundamental religion so do not go into the men’s prayer section (even if you are a man, unless, of course, you are Muslim, then pray away) – but be sure not to miss the women’s prayer corner, squeezed into one back corner of the mosque.

…Ugh. Religion.

#NoFilter

#NoFilter

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Basilica Cistern (akaYerebatan Sarayı, which means ‘Sunken Palace’)

Istanbul is one of the oldest modern cities in the world – it was first inducted as the capital of the Roman empire in the year 330. That does not even compute with me. Anyways, it’s really friggin’ old and as such, it has a network of cisterns underneath the city. They are essentially ancient underground reservoirs and the Basilica Cistern is the largest of these. It is nearly 10,000 sqm, and capable of holding a gazillion cubic meters of water. It is filled with row upon row of ancient pillars varying in style and lit up in a magical, almost eerie fashion. It is just beautiful in a fantastical, unbelievable way. Which is why you’ll have to brave the guaranteed line outside to get in.

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DON’T MISS: The two ‘mysterious’ medusa-head pillars right at very back, and the large koi fish swimming circles in the dark water.

TIP: It’s really cold underneath the earth surrounded by all that water, so be prepared if you are visiting in winter.

DON’T use your flash. It’s really really very annoying for everybody else, and it’s going to be terrible photos.

No one knows how or why these heads have been placed here

No one knows how or why these heads have been placed here

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Hagia Sophia (aka Aya Sofya)

Man. This place. My feeble words will not be able to describe the majesty of its structure. It is decidedly not free, but it is absolutely worth it, in my opinion. The Hagia Sophia was one of the first major church structures of the Greco-Roman empire, built by Constantine the Great and his successors and written about by Socrates. It was a Greek Orthodox church from the year 537 – 1204, then it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261, after which it became a Greek Basilica again until 1453. After the Ottoman army seized Istanbul in 1453 it became a mosque until 1931. It has since been converted to the neutral space of a museum, taking on the mammoth task of conserving the structure.

It has been the central point of the Greek, Roman (Latin), and Ottoman Empires. It has served as a point of conflict and contention, as well as power and religion over millennia, and houses the finest material of the ancient Roman empire – from tits thousands of tiles to its gold mosaics. I can not recommend going here enough.

TIP: If you don’t want to pay for a guide, just shuffle closer to a guided group to hear some fascinating facts and stories. But be cool about it.

2. Smoke some Sheesha and watch a Whirling Dervish

This is the ultimate touristy night out, but it’s also really fun. We took all our friends who visited us to do this to get the ultimate Istanbul feel. We went to this restaurant by the Arasta bazaar in Sultanahmet (very close to the blue mosque) which is super, ultra touristy. But just go with it. You get a Sheesha, you order tea (and they bring you the really crazy sweet apple tea), you listen to some live Turkish music, and you wait for this one guy to come up and work his Whirling Dervish magic. Seriously, it’s the same guy every night.

TIP: keep an eye on the band. Sometimes the drummer drums and texts at the same time. What skill.

The 'let's do something crazy touristy tonight' activity

The ‘let’s do something crazy touristy tonight’ activity

This guy is looking straight at me, and if you play your cards right, he could be looking straight at you too.

This guy is looking straight at me, and if you play your cards right, he could be looking straight at you too.

3. Go on a Bosphorus Tour

The Bosphorus is a channel that runs between Europe and Asia, connecting the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea. It’s just really nice to be able to get a look at the city from the outside, and a bizarre feeling to not only see, but also be in between two continents at once. You get to see some harbours, fancy wooden Yalıs (riverside vacation homes), and many palaces. There are usually little kiosks on the boat where you can buy orange juice, tea, and snacks.

TIP: You can also entertain yourself by buying a simit and tossing bits of it up to the sea gulls accompanying your boat.

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Sipping tea between Europe and Asia

Sipping tea between Europe and Asia

4. Go see at least one palace

There are many, and all of them are spectacular. These are the two you mustn’t miss.

Topkapı Palace

Fine, if you had to go to only one, it should be the Topkapı Palace. It’s claim to fame is that it was the Sultans’ residence for 400 years of the Ottoman Empire’s 600+ year reign. It was a royal residence and administrative site, so it gives really interesting insights into the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire. It is decked out in marble, gold, precious stones, intricate metal work, Persian rugs, and it is all layed out on beautifully landscaped grounds, hugging the banks of the Bosphorus. It is really a half-day event, or potentially even full day. There are multiple sites spanning many courtyards, and you can buy extra tickets to go into the Harem (where the family, the concubines, and the eunuchs lived).

The meeting hall for all the ambassadors. The Sultan appears behind the golden griddle upstairs and doesn't say a word. When he taps his finger on the bars, meeting's over. Some guy.

The meeting hall for all the ambassadors. The Sultan appears behind the golden griddle upstairs and doesn’t say a word. When he taps his finger on the bars, meeting’s over. Some guy, that Sultan.

The Palace Grounds

The Palace Grounds

DON’T MISS: Some of my favourite rooms (I’ve been there multiple times) are the wonderfully curated armoury exhibition and the room housing the clocks, many of which were especially made for the sultan or gifted by other leaders (don’t miss the mother-of-pearl, floor-to-ceiling grandfather clock gifted by Queen Victoria!)

Faberge clocks all over the place

Faberge clocks all over the place

TIP: Try and go on a day with nice hot weather. lots of walking through gardens and the rooms are also chilly.

PRO MUSEUM TIP: Don’t tire yourself out. When you get a little over it go grab a tea and a snack at the museum café, situated on the riverbank with beautiful views of the Bosphorus, before you carry on with the exploring

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Dolmahbaçe Palace

If you have time for one more palace – go here! It is another lavishly built palace, but with an interesting and obvious West vs. East tension. The Empire’s 31st Sultan ordered its construction as he felt that Topkapı Palace was starting to lack the fashion and grandeur of other newer European palaces. Its construction nearly ran Istanbul to a bankrupt end, costing the equivalent of $1.5 billion dollars (you can bet people were pissed). It was home to the last six Sultans until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s successful coup abolished the Caliphate in 1924. As the first president, he used it as his summer home and moved the country’s administrative centre and official capital to Ankara. Its 285 rooms and 46 halls have strange mixture of a Versailles-like palace-feel, and Oriental tradition.

Prepare to wait a while

Prepare to wait a while

TAKE NOTE: You can’t wonder around in the palace by yourself. Tours are conducted regularly in Turkish and English and you don’t have to book in advance.

DON’T MISS: The gardens are beautiful and I highly recommend not saving this for a rainy day. Take a leisurely stroll and don’t miss the aviary tucked away in a back corner, still stocked with exotic birds. It is not really advertised or marked out so it’s very quiet back there. I even saw some guinea fowls – African birds that, where I’m from, still run around freely in the suburbs trying to evade neighbourhood cats.

The aviary, and some lazy afternoon-napping guinea fowls

The aviary, and some lazy afternoon-napping guinea fowls

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I got lucky with the weather that day, and I welcomed some winter sun and a garden stroll

I got lucky with the weather that day, and I welcomed some winter sun and a garden stroll

5. Enjoy 360-degrees panoramic views of Istanbul atop the Galata Tower

The first time we approached the Galata tower we scoffed at the 25Lira entrance fee and the queue of tourists outside, and said ‘forget about it’. However, after our friend who assured us that it’s SPECTACULAR, we showed up, paid up, went up, and it was SO WORTH IT.

TIP: Go at sunset or sunrise to get them beautiful hues. Those are the most busiest times but, trust me, this is when Istanbul is at its prettiest.

Timing is everything - try and make it for that golden hour

Timing is everything – try and make it for that golden hour

Istanbul at sunset

Istanbul at sunset

Our home was somewhere in that denseness!

Our home was somewhere in that denseness!

6. Get faded on Istiklal Avenue, Taksim

Kidding!

Or not. You decide.

Istiklal avenue is like the Times Square of Istanbul. Sort of.

It’s a long, broad avenue that’s unbelievably busy at lunch and at night. Part fun, part crazy (I’ve witnessed many a fist fight in some of the streets off of Istiklal, but also many a communal dance circle). On many Sundays it is also the general protesting-site (Turkish people loooove their protests), as well as acoustic guitar nights. Alternatively this is where you might find alcohol and restaurants that sell something other than Turkish food.

We trudged through the rain to find this Mexican restaurant and have some tequila - it was our 'escape Turkish food' date night

We trudged through the rain to find this Mexican restaurant and have some tequila – it was our ‘escape Turkish food’ date night

TIP: Lookout for the Balıkpazarı Alley (Fish Market Alley) – besides the fresh fish market, there are amazing seafood restaurants there. 

TIP: Massive markups on Turkish merch for tourists (buy your scarves elsewhere), but good sales on European name brand shops

TIP: Keep your eye on your pockets. It’s really busy and their are lots of little hands looking for extra cash at night.

Istiklal Avenue

Istiklal Avenue

BONUS – Got some hours to spare?

Go to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums

I’ve sufficiently expressed how ancient Istanbul is. One can only imagine the kind of artefacts held and exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums (a group of three museums on the same site) – it rightly has one of the biggest and most important collections of Middle Eastern archaeological treasures. Take a stroll back in time through the displays, or just take regular stroll on the amazing grounds.

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Well that should keep you busy.

However, Istanbul is cray cray. So if you get a little bit tired/frustrated of all the tourists and tourist traps, or if you are more of the off-the-beaten track kind of traveller, or if you’ve already checked all the above mentioned places off your Istanbul-list, take a look at the 6 least touristy things you can do in Istanbul! 

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