Is Istanbul safe for visitors?

My parents freaked out when I said I was going to Istanbul. Hell, even I freaked out when I said I was going to Istanbul. I had paid far too much attention to news of the city’s recent terrorist attacks that, in the weeks before my trip, I was questioning my sanity even more than I was questioning “is Istanbul safe?”

Well, my friends, I’m still alive aren’t I?

Is Istanbul safe now?

It’s true that Turkey has had more than its fair share of atrocities in recent years – from an attack in a nightclub, to bombs at Ataturk Airport, and now political uncertainty in the form of President Erdogan.

To compensate for the presumed heightened risk of attack, hundreds of armed police officers are positioned all over the city. You also need to walk through metal detectors and have your bag searched at the main attractions. I’ll be honest, the extra security is a little off-putting, but it’s there for a reason: to make it as safe as possible. I would feel much more on edge without it.

It’s important to remember that there are some 15 million people in the city. The chances of being anywhere near an attack at the exact time and day it happens are incredibly slim. Just to put things in perspective, the deadliest attack in Europe was in Paris – yet no one bats an eyelid when travelling there.

Now, I’m not trying to scare you off visiting the French capital, but make you realise that Istanbul is just as safe as any big city.

How to stay safe in Istanbul

Of course, I’ll give you the same advice as I would give if you were visiting anywhere else. Be aware of your surroundings and always listen to your country’s advice. For me, that’s the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who also say to remain alert. But guess what? They say that for France and Germany too!

Why not consider an organised tour? We did one with Daily Istanbul Tours and found it a great way to explore the city in a safe environment. Instead of looking over our shoulders the whole time, we learnt about Istanbul’s main attractions from an expert guide who would know if anything was out of the ordinary.

Is Istanbul safe for visitors?

Why you should visit Istanbul now

Not only is Istanbul safe, now is actually a really good time to visit. Long gone are the crowds, the queues and the skyrocket prices. In fact, you can get a pretty swish room in a luxury hotel for very little money.

Turkey is longing for some good fortune. Its biggest source of income, tourism, shows no sign of returning to prosperity. It’s been said that tourist numbers in Istanbul are down as much as 30%, leaving the city and its hard working locals struggling to cope with the downturn. I was truly taken aback by the warmth and resilience of the local people. You can tell they remain proud of their stunning city, even now. We were made to feel so incredibly welcome and that’s testament to the Turks’ hospitality and heritage in tourism.

One thing’s for sure – it’s a beautiful city and one worth visiting at least once in your life. Why not now? If, after reading this post, you’re convinced, read my last article on how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul.

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How do you feel about visiting Istanbul? Have recent events put you off visiting somewhere you’ve always wanted to go?

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat, sleep and go

Turkey’s biggest city has got a lot going for it. Stunning architecture, friendly faces and more than enough to keep you going for a long weekend. Let me share my advice on how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul.

After a quick three and a half hour hop over Europe from London, I arrived in Istanbul on a fabulously sunny Friday morning. I was excited (if a little trepidatious) as to what I might see and the people I might meet (the Turkish referendum was happening the very weekend we were there!) but as usual, I had nothing to worry about.

People seem to absolutely adore this place, so I knew that I’d have my work cut out to do it all in 48 hours. This post gives you my recommendations on how to make the most of your short trip to Istanbul.

48 hours in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Where to go with just 48 hours in Istanbul

Istanbul is famed for being the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Because of that, there’s a hell of a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover. 

Historical walking tour 

For that reason, we chose to do a full day walking tour with  Daily Istanbul Tours. It allowed us to take on all the main sights in the old town including the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. 

They’re all fascinating places with incredible histories that we just wouldn’t have known without a guide. As part of the tour, you have free time at each place to explore and take photos. The tour also includes a hearty lunch and entrance to each place. Even though it might seem expensive, it’s really worth it. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Hippodrome

Our guide, Oz, was fantastic. She clearly loves her city and that comes across in the anecdotes she would tell us over lunch and while walking between sights. Her knowledge of the history was unquestionable and she was honest enough to say she didn’t quite believe that is really Moses’ 3000 year old staff behind glass in the Topkapi Palace exhibition. Well, you wouldn’t really, would you? 

48 hours in Istanbul: Blue mosque

Basilica Cistern

While you’re merrily wandering the streets at ground level, you may be completely unaware of the cavernous tunnels that lay beneath you. The best way to see them? Go underground to the Basilica Cistern – a labyrinth of archways and columns, built in the 6th century to store and provide water to the surrounding buildings. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

It’s a fun place to explore and try to take non-blurry pictures (good luck with that without a tripod!) The biggest attraction has to be the two columns with Medusa heads sculpted into the base. No one really knows why they’re there or even why neither is upright, but it’s fun to come up with conspiracy theories of your own. Maybe we all used to live upside down?!

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

Bosphorus trip

One must do that we didn’t do (isn’t that ironic?) was a trip up the Bosphorus. It’s a body of water that effectively splits Istanbul in half across the two continents. There are loads of tour companies that will take you on a leisurely cruise along the coast of Asia and then back via Europe. Just beware,  the whole journey could take you all day if you take the wrong one – not a great way to spend your precious 48 hours in Istanbul! 

Day trips

There’s more than enough to keep you occupied in the city itself. However, if you had more than just two days here, you could consider a day trip to another part of Turkey. We met a guy that was headed to Gallipoli, but you could also explore Ephesus, Pamukkale and even Capadoccia if you really wanted (and don’t mind spending half of it on a plane!) 

Where to sleep in Istanbul

Most visitors tend to choose between the modern town and the old town when looking for somewhere to rest their heads. While the modern town is home to Taksim Square – the lively hub of the city – having just 48 hours in Istanbul meant we wanted to be as close to the main sights as possible. We opted for the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, which was definitely the right decision. Not only could we flop out of bed and into a tourist attraction in the morning, we could also stumble back to bed after one too many rakis at night.

We slept in the Sura Design Hotel – a fabulously decorated modern hotel in the heart of the old town. Normally a place like this would be way out of our budget, but visiting in the turbulent times of 2017 meant we could take advantage of Turkey’s drop in tourism and a drop in prices along with it.

48 hours in Istanbul: Sura Design Hotel

The turquoise and gold rooms are comfortable, spotlessly clean, and smell AMAZING. It even had a little balcony overlooking the landscaped garden and (if you leaned really far over to the right) the blue mosque.

Breakfast was the usual selection of English style hot options, and continental cereals, yoghurts, pastries and fruit. If you wanted to be really Turkish, you could try salad, cheese and sickly sweet puddings. We passed.

Where to eat in Istanbul

Street food

There’s a little red cart on every corner selling roasted chestnuts (but it’s not even Christmas?!) and simit – a Turkish bread a bit like a bagel that you can either eat plain or spread with Nutella. It’s delicious and a great option for a lunch on the run (quite normal if you’re spending just 48 hours in Istanbul!)

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Sura Restaurant  

We ended up eating at the Sura Restaurant for dinner one day and lunch the next, completely by accident!

The first time, we were wandering along the street looking for somewhere to eat, when a friendly guy standing next to the menu struck up a conversation (they’re good at that). Before we knew it, we were sat inside the restaurant ordering kebabs and vegetable casseroles! It was great food, though, and the big windows looking out onto the street made it ideal for people watching. Also, the 10% discount offered to hotel guests didn’t hurt.

The second time, our tour group stopped off for lunch at the same restaurant. Our guide even said it was one of the best places to eat in the old town. Result! Our group had a set menu, so I ended up eating the same thing both times too. I didn’t mind though – I was relieved to find somewhere that meant I wouldn’t be forced to eat a kebab without the meat!

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Gulhane Sark Sofrasi

I’m usually wary of places where the ‘host’ chases you down the street to look at his menu. But Gulhane Sark Sofrasi surpassed all expectations. We were the only diners for an hour, the stark reality of Turkey’s 85% drop in tourism beginning to hit home. The restaurant host’s keenness makes sense now, doesn’t it?

The restaurant is a lovely little family run thing with delicious food and BIG portions. We were treated to an appetiser of ‘balloon bread’ (the most sought after prize in Turkey seems to be how big your bread gets rather than anything else) that we scoffed down with yoghurt and tomato dips, halloumi and hummus.

For our main, there was the usual selection of kebabs (not your greasy, hangover style kebabs – the real ones). The waiter seemed very keen for us to peruse the fish menu too. I took the hint and ordered the fish, but was very glad I did. It was a piece of salmon cooked in a very tasty but spicy vegetable sauce, served on a sizzling plate. It was fantastic and so so yummy.

They’re clearly feeders at this place. They wouldn’t let us leave without trying their baklava and offering up a glass of raki and water. Raki is a Turkish spirit with a distinct aniseed and liquorice taste. They mix it with water to dilute it, and it turns the whole thing a cloudy white colour. You’ve got to try it – just once – and let me know what you think.

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If you’ve got 48 hours to spare, you won’t go wrong with a trip to Istanbul. Just three and a half hour flight from London, it’s perfect for a long weekend away. As a melting pot of identities and cultures, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled to more than just one city. 

Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid to write this post, so you can be sure that everything is my own humble opinion. Everywhere on this list was chosen through my own research. 

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48 hours in Istanbul

10 things Denmark does better than other countries (and 1 thing it doesn’t)

This time last year, I returned from Copenhagen in complete awe of the locals and the way they do things. Throughout my trip, I kept a list of all the things the Danes seemed to do better than anyone else. Here’s what I found:

  1. Carbon neutral cities. Copenhagen has a desire to become completely carbon neutral by 2025, and I bet it’s going to make it. Unusual for a country that relies on heating, it has managed to keep its impact on the environment right down and should be applauded for doing so
  2. Sandwiches. Only Denmark could come up with such a simple speciality. But they do them so well! Smorrebrod is typically a slice of bread topped with fish or meat with some kind of sauce. My favourite was a smoked herring with sour cream and dill. If I’m honest,I wouldn’t have even tried it if I was in any other country. But in Denmark, it was delicious, and the tastes have inspired us to try new combinations back home
  3. Transport. The trains were luxurious with comfortable seats and headphone sockets to listen to music (and that was just in standard class!) Even the metro wasn’t bad, with wide trains that felt spacious even as the carriage filled up. Give me that over the tube any day!
  4. Carlsberg. This might seem obvious as Carlsberg is a Danish beer, and no-one else can do Danish beer, right? But drinking Carlsberg in England is not a very pleasant experience. There’s something weird about it, the taste, the texture, the colour, even the name Carlsberg Export suggests something is wrong. However, as soon as we tried it in Denmark, we were hooked. No wonder the Danes hate to see it leave
  5. Languages. Everyone under the age of 70 speaks English, perfectly. It’s compulsory to learn in school from the age of 6. You’ll meet Danish kids that can speak better English than you can! I even met one lady who said her grandson was typing in English before he could even speak Danish!
  6. Space. I may have lucky with the timing of our trip, but in some places it felt like we had the city to ourselves. Copenhagen’s squares are big, sprawling places with enough space to walk, dance, handstand, whatever you want to do without fear of bumping in to anyone
  7. Architecture. Danish architecture is underrated, but you can’t move for beautiful buildings in Copenhagen. There’s a definite Danish style with large red brick façades decorated with green copper trim and topped with tall spires and towers. In fact, every time I put my camera away I got it straight back out again as there was something else beautiful to look at
  8. Cycle lanes. There are as many cycle lanes in Copenhagen as there are pavements. At least that’s how it feels. Cycle lanes even have their own traffic lights, meaning it’s an incredibly safe, energy efficient and healthy way to travel
  9. Tourism. The Copenhagen Card is an absolute bargain, and well worth the money in a country that is renowned for being expensive. It can get you entry into all of the city’s museums as well as certain tours, metro journeys and regional trains in the Greater Copenhagen area. It even gets you discount in a number of cafes and shops, and on other tours as well. It’s definitely worth getting one
  10. Pastry. How could I ignore the humble Danish pastry? It is, without doubt, one of my favourite foods (especially at breakfast time). The Danish are modest enough to call them Viennese pastries as they’re a Danish adaption of an Austrian version of a Danish recipe! Come on, Denmark, take the credit because they’re delicious

It’s not all praise, I’m afraid Denmark. There’s one thing that deserves Denmark’s “must try harder” sticker.

  1. Airport seating. After being delayed in Copenhagen airport for 3.5 hours, we were desperate for somewhere to sit down but we couldn’t find any seats! Businessmen taunted us from their cosy lounges as we wandered aimlessly, only finding a group of 20 or so seats to accommodate 200 or so people that wanted to sit down. Luckily, we were some of the very first people to spot the seats so made ourselves at home to while away the time

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Do you agree with these 10 things? Where do you think these things are done even better than in Denmark?

Things to do in Athens in Winter

Imagine Greece and you’ll probably think of a stunning Greek island and beach. Or if you’re a city lover like me, you’ll picture Athens and its glorious ancient sights. In either case, I bet your imagination has conjured up bright blue cloudless skies and searing temperatures. Oh, and don’t forget the crowds of tourists all gently baking in the sunshine. Now, imagine those same Greek scenes in winter. Make you shiver? It shouldn’t do… there are loads of things to do in Athens in Winter, and they shouldn’t just be reserved for summer.

What is Athens like in Winter? Should I go?

I think my answer to that by now is clear… yes! The benefits of visiting Athens in the winter months are certainly worth the slightly cooler temperatures. Let’s sum up the reasons to visit Athens in winter:

  • All major sights and attractions stay open, despite it being the low season. Saying that, if there are sights you are desperate to see, do check before you travel just in case opening times have changed since I wrote this.
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • Flights are remarkably cheap, even in between Christmas and New Year, which is when we went in 2016. Now this made me worry and wonder whether there are actually things to do in Athens in December. Well, guess what, there are loads of things to do in Athens in winter. Keep reading to find out my favourites.
  • There are far fewer tourists in Greece in winter, making queuing a lot easier. Everything is a lot calmer and you don’t need to fight your way through crowds to get that perfect shot of the acropolis or wake up at the crack of dawn to be first in line for tickets. Win win in my book.
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • Athens in winter is still one of the warmest European cities, yet it’s much cooler than the height of summer. This means that there is no wearing yourself out by walking to the acropolis in the baking heat. But do watch out…
  • It can get really really cold. It was a balmy 5 degrees when we were there and it even snowed! I’m told this is highly unusual though, so you might even think yourself lucky to see the white stuff.

Things to do in Athens in Winter

  • Acropolis – A trip up the Acropolis hill has to be at the top of every visitor’s things to do in Athens list. It certainly is on mine! And for good reason. Though not as well maintained as the roman equivalents, the Ancient Greek temples and buildings at the top of the Acropolis are still pretty spectacular – just ignore the crane mending the hole in the centre of the Parthenon! As well as the buildings, you’ll be treated to magnificent views of the city from the top of the hill.
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • Other Ancient sights – If you buy the combined ticket to the Acropolis, you’ll also get access to many other buildings and ruins in central Athens including the Roman Agora, Temple of Dionysus and Temple of Zeus. I enjoyed wandering around all of them, imagining the people that used to live there in ancient times.
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • The New Acropolis Museum is another must-visit if you ask me. It’s home to artefacts that were once on the Acropolis, including the last remaining marble statues from the Parthenon. There are also videos and exhibits showing you what life would have been like back then, so I found myself learning a lot on our two hour visit. A word of warning: do pay attention to the tiny no photo sign at the entrance to some areas. Those guards are mean.
  • Changing the Guard – Every hour on the hour, the area in front of the Presidential Mansion fill with tourists all desperate to get a peek of the guards in their little coats, short skirts and bobble shoes. But what they’re really here to see is the way the guards march. Their slow motion goose-stepping march is pretty funny to watch.
  • Eat and drink – one of my absolute favourite things to do in Athens (in winter especially) is visit restaurants and bars! We found some great little places that are highly worth a visit – Klimataria, a local’s tavern with live music and an incredible menu; and Falafellas, a brilliant street food stall serving the best falafel in town. For drinks, we loved the Central Hotel‘s rooftop bar, which has stunning views of the sun setting behind the Parthenon in winter; and 360 Cocktail Bar in Monastiraki Square with yet more views (and yummy wine!)
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • Get lost in the backstreets in the foothills of the Acropolis – This area of Athens is relatively untouched by tourists, but it was one of my favourite parts of the city. With the houses’ white walls and blue roofs, you’ll feel like you’re on a Greek island, even if the slightly cooler air tries to convince you otherwise.
    Things to do in Athens in winter
  • New Year’s Eve Fireworks – New Year’s Eve in Athens is fantastic. It can be as crazy (think organised club nights where even the 16 year olds don’t get home til gone 6am), as subdued (most of the restaurants have set menus in New Year’s Eve so shop around and book early! We ended up eating at a friends house), or as cheap as you like (at midnight we all congregated to the Herodion Hotel’s rooftop bar where we watched fireworks behind the acropolis. Fantastic). Forget London or New York, Athens is the place to be on December 31st.
    Things to do in Athens in winter

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Have you ever been to Athens in Winter? Or any other part of Greece? If not, why not? Would you consider going?

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian

Vienna is a meat lover’s paradise. After all, the city is known for the bratwurst (a giant sausage) and the Wiener schnitzel (a fried piece of hammered out veal). Now to me, they just don’t seem all that appetising. I honestly thought I would struggle uncovering where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian, but there are a surprising number of places that do cater; you just have to know where to look.

With Tim being an out-and-out carnivore, we couldn’t go to a vegetarian restaurant in Vienna. We needed to compromise.

Here’s our pick of places in Vienna to eat vegetarian food, whilst also keeping your meat eating travel buddy happy.

Naschmarkt

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Naschmarkt

The Naschmarkt is one of my favourite places to eat in Vienna, as it had something for everyone. While Tim tucked into his bratwurst, I had my pick of food stalls serving some of the best vegetarian food in Vienna. I chose a spicy falafel wrap from one of the vendors on the main street, and we were both happy.

If Viennese street food doesn’t take your fancy, most of the restaurants are quite highly rated for a sit-down meal. You could try some of the best seafood in Vienna, Turkish or Asian cuisine, and some good old Viennese cuisine too.

Pürstner

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Purstner

I loved Pürstner! This primarily carnivorous tavern was an absolute gem. While there are limited vegetarian options (choose between a pasta, a salad or a cheese and vegetable gratin), the atmosphere of this place is so special. As soon as you walk in, you feel as though you’ve entered your Austrian grandma’s front room, even if you don’t have an Austrian grandma.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Purstner

The walls are covered with plates and little Austrian momentos, there are loads of different rooms, each with their own quirky style, it’s warm, its friendly, and it’s incredibly popular. The waiters even wear chequered shirts and lederhosen – yes you may call it gimmicky, but I loved it. On our first night in Austria, it was exactly the welcome we needed. I would definitely go back here every time we are looking for good vegetarian food in Vienna.

7 Stern Brau

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: 7 Stern Brau

7 Stern Brau is better known for its home-brewed beer than its vegetarian food. I still recommend you try it. It’s a little out of the centre, but still only a ten minute walk from our hotel. The tavern is incredibly popular so you might need to take seats at the bar, like we did.

I ordered a spinach strudel, which was incredibly spinachy. I’d recommend you only order it if you really like spinach. There are lots of other vegetarian options on the menu, so you will find something you enjoy. If not, you will definitely like the beer. It’s very good.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: 7 Stern Brau

Many little cafes

Cafe culture is absolutely everywhere in Vienna. The Viennese love their hot drinks and cake, which is great because I do too.

Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte could have a fist fight for the city’s best known dessert. And guess what, they’re both delicious, and veggie friendly! Most cafes in Vienna serve both, but our favourites included Cafe Residenz on the Schonnbrun complex, and Cafe Museum just a few steps from our hotel.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Cafe Museum

Trzesniewski

Despite being a meat eater himself, celebrity chef Rick Stein shared his own opinion on where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian in his latest TV show. He chose Trzesniewski – a fancy open sandwich shop that is full of locals and tourists throughout the day. I wish I had known about it before I went because I know I would have loved it.

You can try meat-free sandwiches with cheese and vegetables, sandwiches with fish and others with Vienna’s famous meat. Someone please go and tell me what it’s like!

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Despite what you may think, it’s actually quite easy to find some where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian. You have your pick of restaurants, street food and little cafes to feast at – you just need to know where to look.

Where do you like to eat in Vienna? Share your favourite places in the comments below!