Walk Through History - Krakow, Poland

Krakow_MAVIC-.jpg
 

Contributor:
 Andy

Nationality:
 Australian

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics

Age Group:
 30-40 years

Gender:
 Male

Travel Style:
 Casual, photography

 

Destination: Krakow, Poland - July 2018.

Inspiration:

I had a few days available to travel and flicked through possible destination routes on the flydubai website to find one that looked interesting and had a good deal. Flights to Krakow were a great price and it was somewhere I hadn’t really thought too much about before but looked like a place to explore for a few days - booked a ticket and flew to Krakow! 

Getting There:

I flew with flydubai from Dubai to John Paul II International Airport. It is only a short distance outside from the main tourist area for Krakow – Old Town. The flight is around 6 hours and has you landing just before midnight. 
The airport is only relatively small with very few shops. After midnight, there is a Relax store that is open. Here you can purchase Orange sim cards with data (which is incredibly cheap – 6Gb for less than USD2). Have them activate your sim card. 
Currency in Poland is the Polish Zloty. It is easy to exchange money at any of the currency exchanges in Old Town or draw direct from an ATM.
I found in general that Uber worked extremely well in Krakow  - clean, efficient and not too expensive.  I was easily able to get an Uber from the airport to my hotel, which took around 25 minutes. 

Local Knowledge:

Krakow is a very old city, having been civilized for thousands of years. It has an incredible history – some colourful, some very sad and others full of tales that have been somewhat embellished over time. It is definitely worth doing some guided tours to learn more about some of these historical facts, myths and everything in between. Probably the most famous tale is that of the Wawel Dragon who, as legend has it, lived in a lair on the banks of the Vistula River. They would feed the dragon sheep to stop it from eating the city’s children. The dragon was eventually “slain” by a local cobbler who stuffed a lamb’s skin with poison. As reward, King Krakus offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. 

Where To Stay:

I stayed at Puro Krakow (map), which I found through booking.com. I chose this hotel mostly for the proximity to Old Town where I wanted to spend a lot of my time and the value for money.

Puro certainly represented great value for money and is perfectly suited for travellers. The design of the rooms is minimalist, yet has everything you need. It is very modern including tablets to control all the in room features.  It isn’t the sort of hotel I would recommend if you are looking to lounge around – but Krakow isn’t really the city for this anyway, its for getting out and exploring! I walked each day from the hotel to the North entrance of the Old Town, where a lot of the highlights an atmosphere of Krakow can be found. It is only around a 5-10 minute walk. 

Puro also have a new property in the district of Kazimierz (Puro Kazimierz), which is also a tourist highlight in its own right. This property is still only around 5-10 minutes walk from Old Town, but from the South end. The Kazimierz Puro has more features including fitness centre, spa and restaurants. It still represents excellent value for money and the rooms are really well set out. I did a tour of this hotel and would certainly recommend comparing each and deciding which suits your needs.

There are a huge number of hostels within Old Town and if this is your travel style, you will be well catered for. Hostels in the North East of the Old ~Town would be a great starting point. They are close to good places to eat and nightlife.

Some of the other chain hotels are further away from Old Town, however as a traveller looking to get the most out of a few days, I would suggest staying within walking distance of Old Town. 

What To Do:

 Krakow is a wonderful city to visit for people looking to really explore – there is a lot of fascinating history, both ancient and modern. Probably the best way to get to see and learn as much of the cities history in a short space of time is to go on one of the walking tours. I am not normally someone who goes on guided tours (I like to explore at my own pace), but I actually went on 2 of these walking tours with City Walks Krakow. They do a tour of Old Town and one for Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter). The tours are “free” with a tipping system at the end. They are well worth it, you cover a LOT of the city in a relatively short space of time and they have loads of information about places to eat, other places to visit and helped getting my tours to Auschwitz and Salt Mines arranged. You can meet the guides everyday outside St Mary’s Bascilica (map).

1.    Old Town (Stare Miasto): (map)

This is a must visit area for anyone coming to Krakow - you almost can’t avoid it. It is the historical city centre and the history is incredible – some of the buildings have windows half below street level, because the ground of the city has been built up on top of itself so many times over the years, it has actually increased around 4 feet in some places. Much of the Old Town I covered with the City Walks Krakow guided tour..

The Travel Hub Krakow14.jpg

The highlights that you absolutely need to make sure you see include:

-      The Planty (map) is the park that surrounds the Old Town and is worth taking a walk around, especially on a summer weekend – there will be small concerts, entertainers and local people enjoying the park. It is a great place to ride around on a bike. Do make sure you stop at Chimney Cake Bakery (map) at the North of the Planty and get yourself a cake……..trust me!

-      At the North of the Planty is The Barbican (map) – a fortress that was used to defend the city from invaders. There is a famous story of the fort almost being sacked by an invading Russian army. The last remaining soldier, who had run out of bullets, used his coat button to shoot the Russian General and cause their retreat……….fact or fiction, the story is now infamous.

-      The walls that surrounded the Old Town were almost all torn down by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in an effort to open the city up for trading. Only 3 towers and part of the wall at the North still stand, as locals were able to convince them that this would protect the city from the cold North winds in Winter. St Florians Gate (map) at the north is a great place to enter Old Town. On the right as you walk through is a colourful display of paintings for sale.

The Travel Hub Krakow-9.jpg

-      St Mary’s Basciica (map): With its 2 tall towers built by 2 brothers, it is an architectural focal point of Old Town. Inside the cathedral has some amazing stained glass windows and murals. Climb up the stairs of the tallest tower for a great view over the city. On the hour a trumpet player plays a song from each window at the top of the tower, stopping abruptly at the point in the song where according to locals, a trumpeter was shot in the neck by an arrow as he attempted to warn the city of an impending attack. Tickets to enter the Bascilica and climb the tower can be purchased from a small information office opposite the South of the building (near to Hard Rock Café - map) – it is 10 PZL to enter the Bascilica (only after 11:30) and 15PZL to climb the tower (you will need to book a time for this so go early and reserve the time you want).

The Travel Hub Krakow27.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow St Marys.jpg

-      In front of St Mary’s Bascillica are numerous horse drawn carriages, known locally as Dorozka. They are, as expected, a little touristy, but offer a unique way of seeing the Old Town.

The Travel Hub Krakow28.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-71.jpg

-      Rynek Glowny (map) is the Main Market Square in the Old Town and remains one of the largest Medi-evil market squares in the world. It is surrounded by some impressive architecture including St Mary’s Bacillica, Cloth Hall (map) and the shadows of Town Hall Tower. Whilst the square is relatively quiet in the mornings, it gets progressively busier during the day, especially on the weekends. By late afternoon and into the evenings there are stalls and entertainers. On the other side of Cloth Hall is an area where seemingly each week a new form of entertainment is arranged and numerous stall selling locally made crafts, sweets and food. In the middle of Cloth Hall is the old market, which now is largely filled with shops selling souvenirs. There is also an underground museum beneath Cloth Hall, which is a great representation of what the city was like centuries ago.

The Travel Hub Krakow-41.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-3.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-29.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-1.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-2.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-25.jpg

-      The Town Hall Tower (map) provides an alternative view across the city and looks at the Bascilica Towers across the square.

-      The Jagiellonian University (map) is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world, founded in 1364 by Casimir The Great. Past students include Nicholas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. It is a wonderful old building and academics will get nostalgic about walking in the footsteps of one of humanity’s great mathematicians.

-      Wawel Castle (map) is at the Southern end of Old Town and stands as one of the most impressive and significant buildings. On the guided tour there is only time to briefly pass through the grounds, however you can come back and do a full tour for only 14PZL – it is worth noting there are 2 ticket offices and everyone tends to use the first one, so use the 2ndone inside, its much quicker! The castle also has some fascinating history. Like many important buildings, it was commissioned by Casimir The Great during the 13thCentury, however the land on Wawel Hill had been a significant settlement for some 50,000 years, with it becoming an important trading site on the banks of the Vistula River. After its completion, the castle became the residence of Polish Royal Families until the capital was moved to Warsaw. The best place for photos of Wawel Castle is in front of the cafes on the South-West of the castle (Trattoria Wawel) – it looks across the lawn and is ideal at sunset. The castle closes at 5pm and the security might try and hurry you up, but I just pretended that I was packing up each time. Another nice spot to photograph Wawel Castle is from Grunwaldski Bridge (map), especially after sunset for some long exposures.

The Travel Hub Krakow23.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow25.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-76.jpg

-      Otherwise, Old Town is just a great place to walk around, with so many fascinating little streets, shops and stalls. I mention a few of the different places to try for food, but to be honest, there are countless and you might stumble across a gem!  

1.    Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter) (map):

Kazimierz is known as the “Jewish Quarter” as for many years it is where a large Jewish community lived – prior to the Nazi invasion during World War II. In reality, the original Jewish area of Krakow was part of the Old Town, however, the Jewish people moved to in 1495 Kazimierz after a fire in Krakow and the subsequent rebuilding of that area of the city. Kazimierz became a district rich in Jewish culture. During WWII however, Jews from Kazimierz and all of Krakow were forced to live in a small area that became known as the Jewish ghetto. A tour of Kazimierz will include some of the history that relates to this awful time in the city’s history.

The Travel Hub Krakow-14.jpg

There is some fascinating architecture and incredible street art through the winding alleyways of Kazimierz. There are also a number of museums that contain details of events that occurred during the time of the Jewish ghetto. As the history is quite involved, it is definitely worth taking one of the guided tours if you are interested in learning about the details.

The Travel Hub Krakow-67.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-52.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-42.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-51.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-43.jpg
The Travel Hub Krakow-44.jpg

Plac Nowy (map) is a market square in Kazimierz that has a flea market in the mornings. There are some antiques and clothes and it is the same area that the Zapikanka’s are sold – these are a must try!

 

2.    Zalew Zakrzowek (Zakrzowek Lake) (map):

This was one of the most surprising places in Krakow – I had never heard of this place until I started looking up some good places to take photos. It is an old mine quarry with stunning blue water, sheer white limestone faces and surrounded by dense forest. It is close enough to the south end of Old Town that you could ride there (or even take a long walk), otherwise, its about a 10 minute car ride.  

The Travel Hub Krakow-23.jpg

It is absolutely somewhere to visit in the Summer, in fact on a warm Summer weekend, this is a must! The weather is warm enough that you can go swimming and there are areas that are patrolled and very safe. Other places have edges that are “safe” for cliff jumping and many locals will take the leap. 

You need to pay a small entrance fee (20 PZL) to access most areas.

It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset and for photos, or flying a drone!

 

3.    Wieliczka Salt Mines (map)

This is one of the major tourist attractions in Krakow and huge numbers of visitors go down beneath the surface to explore the ancient salt mines that have produced the once expensive commodity for centuries.

It is best to book a guided tour and similar to Auschwitz, there are companies that will arrange collection from your hotel, a reserved spot in a tour of your language and return afterwards.

It is interesting to see how they used to mine salt and how the process has evolved. The carvings, especially the underground cathedral (established in the hope of warding off mine collapses by providing a place for miners to pray) are incredible – almost everything underground is made from salt and you are encouraged to taste it to confirm. Just don’t taste the ground, it is made of concrete!

I wouldn’t describe it as an absolute highlight and personally if I had to choose between a tour of Auschwitz or the salt mines, I would definitely choose Auschwitz.

 

4.    Auschwitz:

See below in “Must See” or visit a “Review of visiting Auschwitz

Where To Eat:

Especially around Rynek Glowny, almost every shop seems to be a restaurant or café. There is certainly no shortage of places to try and have listed as many as I went to. There is a heavy emphasis on pork, which I don’t eat, but if that is your preference, you will find no shortage of places serving pork knuckle.

There are lots of cafés around Rynek Glowny (The Main Square) and the close you get to the square, the more expensive they become. Within a short walking distance are many less expensive options.

-      Goscinna Chata: (map) Close to Rynek Glowny. The food is fantastic, with a long menu of pretty traditional cuisine. It is one of the best options to try authentic Polish food. It is not too expensive with a main and dessert costing around 50-60PZL. Definitely get the potato pancakes with apple & honey – this was my best dessert in Krakow! On the down side, the service is average at best, but the food makes up for the slow staff.

-  Kuchnia Starapolska U Babci Maliny: (map) Very unique place to go for dinner! Half the fun is finding it – you need to walk down a hallway, into a small courtyard and then down the stairs on the right side. You go underground through a quirky entrance. The restaurant is very fun, with traditional décor and photos on the walls. It is bar service only and the food is very traditional! The food itself is only fair, but its a fun experience, especially if you’re going with a group.

Potato Pancakes at Goscinna Chata.

Potato Pancakes at Goscinna Chata.

-      Milkbar Tomazsu: (map) Great café for breakfast or lunch, serving pretty traditional polish food, including the local delicacy, pierogi. I had pierogi at several places and this was the best I had. They also do pretty good pancakes.  The café is only small and you may end up needing to share a table.

-      Przpiecek 24hr: (map) This is a 24 hour pierogi café – very handy to note if you plan on having a few late nights at some of the local pubs! The pierogi aren’t the best I had in Krakow, but at 3am, the availability may be a greater factor than the quality. I found them a bit bland and soggy – like wet ravioli with no sauce.

-      Gospoda Koko: (map) This is a very traditional polish restaurant. There are actually several rooms within the restaurant, with the downstairs being much more like a tavern. The food is very basic, so don’t expect fine dining. If you’re on a budget and want some Polish fare, its worth a try!

-      Café Camelot: (map) This is by far the best café close to Main Market Square and it came highly recommended from locals. It is a beautifully decorated café with setaing inside and out. Be warned, it opens at 9am and if you want a table outside, be there before 9! The menu itself is really nicely done and has a huge breakfast selection, including healthy options. Both the food and the coffee are really good. This is definitely another great place to come for breakfast.

The Travel Hub Krakow-55.jpg

-      Chimney Cake Bakery: (map) I’m told there are these places in a few other Eastern European cities, but I hadn’t found them – it is a game changer. Chimney cakes are like large cylindrical cinnamon coated doughnuts that have a coating of a spread inside (I went for nutella) and then a sprinkling of almonds. When they are fresh and hot, they are incredible! It makes me happy and sad just writing about the,. Chimney Cake Bakery are the place I would highly recommend and there is one at the North East of the Platzy outside the wall of Old Town. Go there!

-      The Spaghetti: (map) One of the restaurants that borders the Main Market Square. It is typically Italian cuisine, so if you want a change from the Polish and Eastern European fare, this is a place to come for pizza and pasta.

-      Slodki Wentzl: (map) Café right on the Main Square. The coffee is good without being great. The dessert selection is also pretty good, however I would choose Good Lood over here for ice cream! The big appeal of this place is you can sit drinking your coffe and enjoying your cake while you watch the action of the Main Square! It is a good choice if you want that atmosphere.

-      Goralskie Praliny Coctail Bar: Another place that came highly recommended but to be honest, I would suggest others. The service wasn’t great and the doughnuts cost more than a Chimney Cake and cant be compared to them!

-      Piecarnia Buczek: (map) Just outside the Old Town. Decent bakery if you need somewhere to grab some lunch on the go. They have a reasonable selection of wraps, rolls and sandwhiches as well as pastries.

-      Siesta Café: (map) Doesn’t have a large menu, but a nice place to come for coffee and cake. Not far from the Main Market Square and is perfect for an afternoon tea stop………just like a siesta!

-     Ambasada Sledzia: (map) Very laid back tapas bar, also close to the Main Market Square. It is a great place to come for an afternmoon drink and small meal. You probably want to like herring, as this place specializes in different varieties of herring dishes. I had the mustards and bread coated herrings and loved both……..but I love herrings! Really like this place!

-     Morskie Oko: (map) Really traditional Polish restaurant that has wonderful decor and the staff are dressed traditionally also - makes for a pretty unique experience. The menu is Polish with options like potato pancakes (which were admittedly a little bland). Definitely worth trying is the Oscypek, a Tatra Mountain cheese that is a local specialy.

-      Obwarzanek: These are the local bagels sold from street carts all around the city. They are almost identical to “simit” in Istanbul. A very traditional food to eat in Krakow and always available.

-      There are loads of ice-cream, shops in Krakow and if youre visitiong in Summer, you will want to know where they are! Good Lood (map) came very highly recommended and on a hot day, you will see why – the queues will be out onto the streets. They have a huge range of really unique flavours that are constantly changing. There was a green apple & cherry sorbet when I was there that was amazing! There are 2 famous shops in Kazimierz, one is in Plac Nowy. Another good option for ice cream is Krakowski Lodi and these can be found in lots of locations!

-      Zapikanka in Plac Nowy, Kazimierz: (map) Zapikanka are another local favourite in Krakow and there is really only one place to go and try them. The circle in the middle of Plac Nowy has around 20 window fronts that make these open baguettes with pizza topping. You can walk around and choose which one you think has the toppings you like the best. I actually went 3 times and tended to just go to the windows that looked busy! They take around 20 minutes to make, so place your order then have a look around at the flea market.

Good Lood ice cream!

Good Lood ice cream!

-      Wesola Café: (map) This café would not be out of place in Melbourne! Whilst it isn’t overly Polish, it is outstanding! This is a must visit for lovers of good a breakfast, coffee and that genuine café atmosphere. It is not far from Galeria Krakowska Mall and Puro Hotel. The food really is excellent including healthy options or a selection of cakes. The coffee was the best I had in Krakow. 


Must See: Auschwitz (map)

I can only describe Auschwitz as “ a place nobody will enjoy, but everyone must visit”. I have written a comprehensive review of Auschwitz, that includes all the information about booking guided tours, what you can take and some of what to expect. (LINK TO AUSCHWITZ REVIEW)

Essentiually, “Auschwitz” is a complex of concentration camps that were used by the Garman Nazi regimn during World War II. The main camps were Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The tours take you around tehse two faciliuties and give some insight into trhe autrcities that occurred there. It is quite a sad, depressing and humbling experience to learn to depths humnanity can  reach. However, it also serves as a critical reminder, in the hope we don’t make the same mistakes again.

Gallery of Auschwitz:

Must Do: Walking Tour with City Walks Krakow (map)

Krakow, and especially Old Town, is a wonderful city to explore by foot. There is such a fascinating history with many folk tales and stories that blur facts and fiction. The best way to appreciate this is by taking one of the many guided tours. Many companies offer a “free “ service with the option to tip accordingly at the end. I did walking tours of Old Town and Kazimierz. I would suggest doing at least the Old Town tour in your first day and then the Kazimierz if you have enough time. On the Old Town tour, you will get pkenty of information about some good places to eat, what other things are wiorth seeing and you can book tours for places like the salt mines and Auschwitz.

Excess Baggage:

I visited Krakow solo and found it a really safe and easy city to explore. It probably isn’t an ideal family destination for young children as there isn’t a whole lot for them to see or do. The major attractions aren’t really suitable for children and to explore the city there is a lot of walking! Krakow is perfect for couples, groups of friends (the nightlife scene is great) backpackers and solo travellers. 


3 Top Places to Visit:

1.    Auschwitz Concentration Camps (map): I cannot say this will be a pleasant experience, but it is an absolute must! It’s a humbling and emotional look at a very sad reminder of what humanity is capable of. (Link to Auschwitz Review)

2.    Zalew Zakrzowek: (map) The old quarry that is now a “hidden lake” is an absolute must in the summer, especially on a warm weekend, when locals come in larhe numbers to swim, sunbathe and jump from the steep limestone cliffs.

3.    Rynek Glowny: (map) The focal point of Old Town Krakow. You can sopend hours simply wandering in and around this historical market square. There are so many places to eat and things to see and do – you will be drawn here.

Very sad history at Auschwitz

Very sad history at Auschwitz

Hidden gem of Zalew Zakrzowek

Hidden gem of Zalew Zakrzowek

Rynek Glowny - the centre of Old Town

Rynek Glowny - the centre of Old Town

3 Instagram Photos in Krakow:

1.    Wawel Castel from in front of Trattoria Wawel. (map)

Wawel Castle sunset

Wawel Castle sunset

2.    Arches of Cloth Hall looking at St Mary’s Bascilica (map)

Arches of Cloth Hall

Arches of Cloth Hall

3.    Zalew Zakrzowek: (map) Such a unique place close to centre of Krakow. It’s a perfect spot for drones, action shots of cliff diving in summer and sunset of the white cliffs.

Evenings at Zalew Zakrzowek

Evenings at Zalew Zakrzowek

3 Top Places to Eat:

1.    Plac Nowy for Zapikanka: (map) These are like an open baguette with pizza toppings. You can choose from a large variety of toppings including cheese, mushrooms, vegetables, meats, spices and sauces. In the centre of Plac Nowy is a circle of windows that serve traditional Zapikanka and this is the place to come to try it! There are around 20 window fronts, try either Endzior or Zapiekanki.

2.    Wesola Café (map) & Café Camelot (map): Tough to split these 2 cafes. They are quite different, but both excellent. Wesola being a much more cosmopolitan style that reminded me so much of going to a great café in Melbourne. Café Camelot is a little more unique and traditional, but avoids being bland (at all), the décor is beautiful and its easily the best café close to the main market square. If youy are in Krakow for 2 mornings – spend 1 at each of these! 

3.    Chimney Cake Bakery (map): I have had similar versions of this before, but none come close to the cakes from these stores. Try the one at the north of Old Town – nutella with crushed almonds…………you’re welcome.





























Istanbul, Turkey - One City, Two Continents, A World of Culture

thetravelhub_istanbul_blue mosque-.jpg
 

Contributor:
Andy Marty

Nationality:
Australian

Social Links:
Instagram: @andrewmarty_

Age Group:
30-40 years

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
Casual
Family

 

Destination: Istanbul, Turkey. April 2018

Inspiration:

I had visited Istanbul around 5 years ago and loved the unique culture, architecture and atmosphere of the city. This time I had the opportunity to take a group of Dubai based social media personalities to experience Istanbul as part of The Travel Hub's curated travel.

Getting There:

We were very fortunate to be looked after by flydubai and flew Business Class from Dubai to Sabiha Gocken (SAW) airport.  Often, the business class option with flydubai is comparable to the economy class fare on other airlines, meaning you can enjoy all the perks and comforts of business class without blowing your travel budget just getting there! The list of destinations offered by flydubai seems to grow every month, to learn more, check out the review on our website (click here).

There are 2 international airports in Istanbul, Attaturk and Sabiha Gocken. It is important to know which one you're flying in and out of, because quite literally Attaturk is in Europe and Sabiha Gocken is in Asia! Both are a little way out of the main area of Istanbul. Hotels will often provide an airport transfer or this can be arranged through your booking. Both our hotels provided transfers which saved any need for searching for options close to flying. Otherwise, we found Uber to work really well in Istanbul - cheap, efficient and clean. I would definitely use Uber in preference over the local taxis, which were for the most part rude and lazy. The Ubers are often actually quite luxurious - large vans with leather interior!

Local Knowledge:

Often when you travel, it helps to have certain things on the ground looked after for you. We used a service run by Istanbul Tourist Pass to assist in a lot of the logistical details during our visit. The website and app based platform provides a number of services that will make your visit to Istanbul easier and save you money. 

Staying connected online was an important feature for our group and we were provided with a portable "dongle" that provided unlimited wireless internet for multiple devices. Whether you're using this for social media, keeping in contact or simply searching for somewhere to eat nearby, having internet access is becoming essential for modern travel.

The pass also allowed priority access to things such as boarding the hop-on-hop-off Bosphorus cruise, which can be a huge advantage during busy months when these can get crowded. Similarly, we booked our guided tours of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern through Istanbul Tourist Pass and our private guide provided priority access, avoiding the lengthy queues and saving us hours of waiting in lines.

Istanbul Tourist Pass is an easy way to plan your your activities in Istanbul as well as a great way to save money if you're looking at experiencing a number of the attractions! 

Where To Stay:

Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet: (map)
We spent the first 2 nights in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, staying at Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet. This property was opened in 2017 and is stunningly appointed in traditional Ottoman design, which really sets the atmosphere for where you are staying. The interior has been expertly handcrafted and the detail of the workmanship is an impressive feature.

The rooms are beautifully furnished and the bathrooms in particular are themselves an "instagrammable" highlight, with each having a unique Ottoman mosaic. If you are really looking to indulge, there is a glamorous Sultan suite that takes luxury to the next level. Your booking will even include private use of a Bentley chauffeur during your stay.

Ajwa has just opened the first of its neighbourhood apartments which provide a wonderful alternative to staying in a traditional hotel. The 4 bedroom apartments can be shared amongst a group or a family and have features including a small "winter garden", private Hammam and your own kitchen facilities which can come with staff.

The breakfast at Ajwa Hotel is a wonderful selection of traditional regional cuisine and in the evening you can dine at the Azerbaijan inspired Zefaran Restaurant. The food is richly traditional and the view back over the Sultanahmet area creates the perfect atmosphere.

The Afiya Spa is the ideal opportunity to enjoy a traditional Turkish Hammam, so after a day wandering through the Grand Bazaar you can return and be fully refreshed ready for your next day of exploring the cultural sights. 

Perhaps one of the best features of this stunning property is its location within Istanbul's most popular tourist area - Sultanahmet. It is one of few hotels providing 5 star luxury in this more traditional neighbourhood. The convenience of being able to walk straight from the hotel doorsteps, through the colourful streets and a short distance to the iconic Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia is a wonderful convenience.

Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas: (map)
We then stayed 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which is located in the heart of modern Istanbul, close to the trendy shopping and dining areas The hotel is everything you come to expect from a Park Hyatt property, with beautifully appointed rooms that are much larger than what you will find in most hotels. 

There is a rooftop pool and bar that is an oasis in the city, especially during the warmer months. The perfect place to relax and enjoy a poolside drink. The fitness centre is excellent if you are a traveller who likes to maintain their healthy lifestyle.

To upscale your stay at the Park Hyatt, you can consider the Presidential suite, which is more like an apartment than a hotel room. In addition to the stunning bedrooms, there is an upstairs sunroom perfect for unwinding with a good book and a large balcony with stunning views back over the iconic Bosphorus.

The breakfast at the Park Hyatt is something to absolutely ensure that you have included in your booking! You have the availability of a buffet breakfast along with selections from the menu including a variety of egg options, pancakes and local favourites such as Kuvurma & Menemen. 

A feature we found in both the Ajwa and Park Hyatt hotels was the staff were incredibly warm, friendly and accomodating. If you are visiting Istanbul for a 4 or more days, I would definitely recommend staying a couple of nights in Sultanahmet and then a couple of nights closer to Taksim. This allows the perfect opportunity to explore the best areas of Istanbul. I couldn't recommend these 2 hotels more highly based not just on the quality of the rooms, but also on the service they provide!

What To Do:

You can essentially separate Istanbul into different neighbourhoods and devote time to visiting each of these separately when travelling to the city.

Sultanahmet: (map)

My favourite area to explore in Istanbul is without doubt the "old" area known as Sultanahmet. It is here that much of the historically and culturally significant buildings can be found, but also where you will find a lot of the authentic places to eat, shop and just generally explore! A huge benefit of staying at the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet was the ease of walking from the hotel to any often highlights around this neighbourhood. Even the streets themselves are entertaining to wander through with camera in hand.

The Grand Bazaar (map) is an enormous traditional market with over 3,000 shops. You can buy almost anything here for a price that you will agree upon with the storekeeper. They are far more experienced with bargaining than you, but its entertaining to test your skills. You can definitely find great quality and good deals if you know what you want and have the time to wander through. Be aware the Bazaar is closed on Sundays and public holidays! Its opening hours are 8:30am to 7:00pm. We bought small souvenir bracelets, plates and scarves at a relatively cheap price. You can wander through most of the Bazaar in under 2-3 hours.

There is another small Bazaar close to the Blue Mosque - Arasta Bazaar (map), which is nice to walk through. It has several of the similar style of shops as the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar but on a far smaller scale. If you dont like crowds, this might be more appealing.

Not far from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar (map) and this is the place to do some gift shopping! You can buy all variety of Turkish sweets (Turkish delight, baklava, nuts, dried fruits), a huge range of spices and every sort of tea you can imagine. Again, the price you pay will come down to your bargaining skills, so you dont have to settle on the first offer! It will take you less than an hour to wander through the straight Spice Bazaar.

We used a guide arranged through Istanbul Tourist Pass to take us through the main historical buildings of Sultanahmet. Even if you normally like to explore places yourself, I found having a tour guide around Sultanahmet really helpful. Firstly the history is quite complex and involves several different phases. Secondly, it saves a large amount of time being able to fastback the queues and know what areas of these very large buildings to visit. 

First we went to Topkapi Palace (map) - now a museum, it was once the residence and headquarters for the Ottoman Empire. The details of how the Sultan of the time lived during the Ottoman time is fascinating, as is the evolution of this role through history. The Palace is divided into distinct areas that at one time, separated different the classes. It is interesting to learn about the history and relationships of the Sultan, his family, associates and workers who all lived in the Palace. Much of the Palace is now a museum, containing a huge number of mostly Ottoman and Islamic artefacts. Entry is L40 and opening hours are 9am to 6:45 (April-Oct) 4:45 (Nov-March).

The Basilica Cistern (map) is an impressive underground chamber built in 532 during the Byzantine Empire. It was used to store water that was delivered via aqueducts, supplying the Great Palace. When the Byzantine vacated the Great Palace, the cistern was closed and forgotten about for centuries to the point nobody in Istanbul knew it existed. In 1545, it was rediscovered when rumours of people collecting water and even catching fish from their basement lead researchers to locate the huge chamber. The symmetrical marble columns are impressive, as is the feeling of walking through the dripping chamber on a hot day in Istanbul. There are currently restoration works being done and the water has been drained from the majority of the cistern, leaving a uniquely exposed floor. Normally the floor is covered in water and you may recognise it from the scenes in the movie Inferno. Entry is L20 and opening hours are 9am to 6pm. The lighting inside the cistern is very dull, so look to use long exposure settings on your camera to create striking images (especially if the ground is full of water),

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) (map) is one of the most fascinating buildings in the world, let alone in Istanbul. Not only due to the architectural brilliance, but also because of the story it tells in relation to Istanbul as a city. Commissioned as a Church in 537 by the Byzantines, it became a mosque in 1453 during the Ottoman rule and since 1935, has been a museum. It is one of the only places in the world where you will see elements of Christian and Islamic design, artwork and traditions co-exist in the same building. Many of the original Christian mosaics have been painstakingly restored and this work continues, at considerable expense. Opening hours are 9am to 6pm (April to Oct) & 4pm (Nov to March), entry is L40 for adults.

thetravelhub_istanbul_hagia sophia-2860.jpg

Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) (map) was closed inside for restorations when we visited Istanbul, so we could only see it from the outside. At most times, you are allowed to enter and do a tour inside the Blue Mosque (outside of prayer times unless you are there to pray). It is one of those buildings, that you can get so many different perspectives from different places and it can look quite different depending on the time of day. We even found a small carpet shop that allowed us to take photos from their rooftop terrace which offered a really unique view of the Blue Mosque. See below for my favourite places to view/photograph the Blue Mosque.

thetravelhub_istanbul_blue mosque-3229.jpg

Probably my favourite place in all of Istanbul is the area between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia - Sultanahmet Park (map). Especially on a warm spring day, there is a wonderful atmosphere with so many people coming to spend time there. Street food vendors selling Simit and roast corn on the cob, the fountains going and the gardens full of colour........all that between 2 of the most impressive buildings. On the East side are some restaurants and a traditional Turkish Hammam, Ayasofya Sultan Hammam (map). If you're looking for somewhere to have lunch, try Mihri Restaurant (map) at the North of the Hammam an get the Pide!

Taksim & Istiklal Caddesi:

In contrast to the "Old Town" of Sultanahmet, the area around Taksim Square is much more modern - everything from the architecture to the atmosphere. Taksim Square (map) is a large area that itself is relatively unflattering. It can be the site where people congregate for political rallies, football games etc. However the streets that run off Taksim Square are of more interest to the visiting tourist. In particular, Istiklal Caddesi (or Istiklal Avenue) (map). It runs from the Northern end at Taksim Square right down to the Galata District. The street is lined by boutiques, department stores, cafes and restaurants. Istiklal seems busy no matter what time of day or night you visit. The atmosphere the night we visited was wonderful - the 2 larger football clubs in Istanbul were playing a big game, so lots of people were out watching the game and afterwards, celebrating/commiserating the result. You will find a number of known retail brand stores as well as lots of local boutiques and traditional shops. The food scene along Istiklal street is fantastic if you want to sample authentic cuisine. There are lots of narrow streets and alleyways that run off Istiklal and have there own little vibe - you can take a wander up Sahne Sk (map) for example with its market-style stalls, traditional food and boutiques - see Sampyion Kokorec below in "where to eat". There is a red tram which runs the length of Istiklal and provides more of a fun photo opportunity than a genuine mode of transport. 

I would definitely suggest visiting Istiklal in the early evening and walking the length, stopping from time to time to sample different eateries or dining in one of the terrace restaurants.

thetravelhub_istanbul_istiklal-4060.jpg

Bosphorus:

The Bosphorus is more than just a stretch of water for the city of Istanbul - it has shaped the city's history and defines who the city is. The narrow Bosphorus Straight runs from The Black Sea in the North, to the Sea of Mamara in the South. On the east bank is the continent of Asia and on the west, Europe. This geographically made the Bosphorus Straight and Istanbul, hugely important and is one of the reasons it has been a critical city in the development of civilisations through history. 

Now, the Bosphorus is a busy waterway, with people commuting under it, over it and across it as part of their daily life in Istanbul. You can just sit on the banks and watch all manner of vessels travel up and down - from huge shipping containers to small fishing boats. For so many locals in Istanbul, spending time on the banks of the Bosphorus is part of life.

thetravelhub_istanbul_bosphorus-.jpg

The best way to experience the Bosphorus is by getting out on it! There are a huge variety of options and itineraries. For simplicity and convenience, we decided to take the hop-on-hop-off cruise through Istanbul Tourist Pass. By booking through the website, the confirmation is sent to your mobile phone app and this serves as your pre-booked ticket. We quite literally skipped past the huge queues and collected our ticket from the side office at the dock at Kabatas (map). Many waiting in line had to wait for the next boat as the queues on bright sunny weekends can get quite busy! The boats leave the dock at Kabatas Dentur every hour from 11:45 through to 16:45 (you can also start your cruise from Besiktas). The whole loop takes around 1 hour 40 minutes, but you can hop off at any of the stops along the way and visit attractions such as the summer palaces of the Ottoman Sultans in Beylerbeyi. We chose to hop off in Emirgan (map) for a traditional Turkish Breakfast as Emirgan Suitis (see "Eating" below). Emirgan has a long stretch along the Bosphorus where hundreds of people come sit, walk and enjoy the views. There are people fishing from the banks, street food vendors, cafes and parks. A short walk in from the cafes is the huge Emirgan Park (map). On a nice day it is full of people playing, having a picnic or just enjoying the sunshine and green. In April the park is home to the International Tulip Festival. All the neighbourhoods along the European side of the Bosphorus have their unique charm and if you have the time are definitely worth visiting. 

Galata Tower:

The area to the South of Istiklal is Galata and is dominated by the tall cylindrical Galata Tower (map). Built in 1348 you can climb the tower to get a view across the city - however, be warned, the queues acan be very long in the tourist season!

Galata Bridge:

Word of note! When you put "Galata Bridge" in Uber, be sure you dont select the Galata Bridge in Bulgaria, as it becomes difficult to explain the situation with the driver if they dont speak English! For some reason, a lot of the Uber drivers didn't know where Galata Bridge is and you may be better referring to it as Galata Koprusu (MAP). The bridge spans the Golden Horn and as a visitor to Istanbul, I think its a hugely important landmark for several reasons.

Firstly, it links the traditional old area of Sultanahmet with the more modern area of Istanbul. If you are feeling adventurous, you could potentially walk all the way from Taksim Square, down Istiklal, through the Galata District, over the Galata Bridge and into the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. It would take you around an hour..........if you didn't stop along the way, which would be nearly impossible.

Secondly, the area around Galata Bridge is in its own right a great place to visit. On a weekend, huge numbers of fishermen will line Galata Bridge, casting their lines over the side. On a level below them on the bridge are cafes and restaurants that will literally look out through the fishing lines. Looking up the Golden Horn from the bridge you will have a view of the beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque to your left and then over to the Galata Tower to your right, making it a wonderful spot to compare 2 sides of Istanbul.

If you walk down onto the old side of Galata Bridge, there are a number of floating "restaurants" cooking fresh sardine sandwiches which are a must try!

thetravelhub_istanbul_galata bridge-4177.jpg

There is a tunnel under the road that leads you to a walk-through Bazaar selling lots of spices and arabic sweets. If you keep walking South from here you will find your way back to the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar and then eventually back to the Blue Mosque! You can also walk easily from here to the Suleymaniye Mosque (map) which overlooks the Golden Horn - there is a terrace behind the mosque with great views. It isn't the largest of the Ottoman mosques, but is definitely one of the more beautiful. The area around the Suleymaniye Mosque is also interesting with its very traditional wooden houses.

Eating:

If you love a place where you can walk around eating from small street stalls, calling in at cafes and sampling traditional cuisines...........you will love Istanbul!

There is absolutely no shortage of street vendors selling roast cobs of corn, roasted chestnuts, Turkish ice cream, fresh squeezed juices and of course, the Turkish equivalent of the bagel, Simit. You will be hard pressed to walk around most of the busier areas of the city and not find one of these mobile options.

In every Bazaar, from a small strip of stores through to the Grand Bazaar, there are countless stores selling Turkish sweets - baklava, Turkish delight, nougats, etc. Some are almost sickly sweet and you just have to censor the thought of calories and convince yourself that all the walking is burning it off. If you walk through the Spice Bazaar, there is no shortage of options and if you have the time/patience, you can sample whatever you fancy in the different stores and then bargain for a better price. There are a chain of stores called Hafiz Mustafa that are excellent for traditional sweets. Make a point of calling in to the store at Taksim square (map) and sitting down for a tea and some baklava...........you wont be the only person, its hugely popular. If you have a sweet tooth for chocolate, stop in at Tarihi Meshur (map) on Istiklal Caddesi and pick up some chocolate coated nuts. Another place for traditional deserts is the restaurant Saray Muhallebiisi (map) and the syrup dripping from the in the windows is sickly sweet!

The length of Istiklal Caddesi is a wonderful place for food. There are many terrace restaurants and bars which have seats overlooking the street, making them a perfect spot for dinner and watching everything go by below. Many are small and authentic with a cosy atmosphere. 

If you want something a little more upmarket and with a view to match, try 360 Istanbul (map) - more of a fine dining restaurant and the views are spectacular.

There are also a number of very authentic restaurants to try in the Taksim/Istiklal area. Tarihi Kalkanoglu Pilavcisi (map) serves hot dishes like Kavurma and beans - try the Karisik. Further down is Sampiyon Kokorec (map) - a well known local restaurant that specialises in traditional delicacies of Midye (stuffed mussels) and kokorec (sheeps intestine sandwich). The mussels are very nice, but I can honestly say the kokorec, despite the description, is actually really good! Its beautifully spiced, has a hint of chilli and the taste of "intestine" is not over-powering at all. A must try! Another local delicacy in Istanbul that tastes much better than it sounds are "wet hamburgers". At the top of Istiklal is a shop called Kizilkayalar Hamburger (map) - they sell doner kebabs and burgers. The hamburgers may not look much in the window, but they are surprisingly nice and its more than tempting to get another!

Near Galata Tower is Anemon Galata (map) - a hotel with a wonderful terrace overlooking the Golden Horn. Lovely spot for a drink, tea or coffee in the late afternoon or evening. 

As mentioned, close to Galata Bridge there are a number of floating restaurants that sell fresh fish sandwiches (map). The fish is cooked in front of you and placed in a fresh bun with lettuce and onion. Add a god squirt of lemon juice and a shake of salt and you have a very tasty snack to keep you going as you continue exploring.

thetravelhub_istanbul_galata bridge-4177.jpg

There are a huge number of options around the Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia. For a nice traditional Pide, stop in at Mihri (map) at the Hagia Sophia end of the Ayasofya Hammam. Its a nice place to stop for lunch in the middle of your day in Sultanahmet. Pide is like a flat open pizza/calzone and with a  choice of toppings. The service perhaps leaves a little to be desired, but I think its a great place for lunch if you're doing the tours of the museums.

On the other side of Hagia Sofia (opposite the Basilica Cistern) (map) is a restaurant called Green Corner Cafe. The tea and coffee is quite good, although the food quite basic - kebab, chicken tawook, salads, etc. The staff were very entertaining and its a really nice spot for lunch our afternoon tea.

When you are exploring the Grand Bazaar for the day and need somewhere for lunch, the best place to try is Havuzlu Restaurant (map). This place in the heart of the bazaar is no-frills and serves home-style Turkish meals. You order from the warmer and the waiter will bring everything to your table. I recommend the roasted chicken and spiced meat-balls. There is also a good selection of vegetarian options.

If you want somewhere in Sultanahmet with an incredible view, look no further than Seven Hills Restaurant (at the top of Seven Hills Hotel) (map). Its a nice spot to come of an evening and you have wonderful views of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia - one of the best views in the city actually. The staff weren't great and the seafood in the ice box" could've done with having some ice in there. They do make a nice traditional tea and the view itself is worth going up for a drink! Go here for the view alone, its worth it!

thetravelhub_istanbul_food-2168.jpg

The restaurant at the top of Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, Zeferan, serves traditional Azerbaijan cuisine (map). The food is wonderful with a strong emphasis on grilled meats and fresh ingredients. Certainly try the Pilaf - an Azerbaijan specialty of rice in a crispy outer layer. The view from the Zeferan restaurant is equally as impressive and gives a great look back over the Sultanahmet neighbourhood and across the Sea of Mamara.

Part of our Bosphorus cruise was to take us to Emirgan to enjoy one of the best Turkish Breakfasts in Istanbul at Emirgan Sutis (map). An absolute must for anyone visiting Istanbul is to enjoy a traditional Turkish breakfast! It comprises of a huge spread of dishes ranging from a selection of breads, cheeses, honey and olives, to hot meals like egg dishes (Sucuk), Kavurma with meat and a delicious mince filled pasty known as Borek. Of course all this is accompanied with the customary Turkish tea! Emirgan Sutis came very highly recommended and it didn't disappoint, however if you're planning to visit here on a weekend, be prepared for a wait! They don't take bookings, so I would advise getting there a little earlier and putting your name down, then enjoying a stroll along the banks of the Bosphorus if you need to wait.

thetravelhub_istanbul_food-3715.jpg

If you are staying at the Park Hyatt Istanbul Macka Palas, you will be able to construct your own Turkish breakfast each morning. The breakfast here is excellent and includes your choice of a hot dish such as Kavurma. Just around the corner from the Park Hyatt, and walking distance from Taksim Square, is the Grand Hyatt Istanbul (map). Their restaurant 34 offers an all day menu of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine. There is a lovely outdoor dining area that is perfectly suited to relaxing on warmer days and even when it cools down, in front of the open fire. The food is fantastic and I can definitely recommend the grilled octopus. They also have a great selection of Turkish desserts.

Must Do:

See Istanbul from the water! The Bosphorus has such importance to the city of Istanbul, through history and even now as it divides the uniquely different Asian and European sides. If you visit Istanbul, it is almost essential to view the city from the Bosphorus. The easiest way to do this is on one of the many cruise ships that go up and down the straight. We used our Istanbul Tourist Pass to catch the hop-on-hop-off boat from Kabatas, close to the Park Hyatt. The round trip takes you along both shorelines and you can see the different architecture on the Asian and European continents. We jumped off for a Turkish Breakfast at Emirgan. If you have time you can include a cruise of the Golden Horn and even out to places like Princes Island.

thetravelhub_istanbul_bosphorus-3403.jpg

Must See:

You won't visit Istanbul without seeing the Blue Mosque, so listing it as a must see almost goes without saying. However, it is truly one of those buildings you can find yourself looking at many times in the day and appreciating it in different ways. My top places to view the Blue Mosque include:

1. Sultanahmet Park (between the Mosque and the Hagia Sophia). Especially in the mornings when its quiet and again in the afternoon with the atmosphere of the crowd. (map)

2. A rooftop cafe such as Seven Hills in the evening around sunset. (map)

thetravelhub_istanbul_blue mosque-.jpg

3. From a residential terrace/rooftop, close to the Arasta Bazaar. (map)

thetravelhub_istanbul_blue mosque-3224.jpg

4. From the water.

5. For dinner from Zeferan Restaurant at Ajwa Hotel (map), giving you a stunning view back over the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. Especially just after sunset when the streetlights are taking over from the natural light.

thetravelhub_istanbul_ajwa hotel-2226.jpg

Number 1 Travel Tip:

Plan your itinerary of things to see & do by areas. Each neighbourhood has its various things to experience and its best to really focus on that area for an entire day or at least a morning/afternoon. Even if you use the hop-on-hop-off bus (which I have done previously and really enjoyed), you will find you need an entire day as a minimum for Sultanahmet and at least an afternoon for Taksim/Istiklal and then a morning at least for the Bosphorous and so on.

5 Word Travel:

One of my favourite cities

Excess Baggage:

Whilst Istanbul has some wonderful areas for walking around to explore, in particular, Sultanahmet, there are also some neighbourhoods that are a little harder to reach. The hop-on-hop-off boat and bus services in Istanbul are a great way to see some of these area! It is probably the best way to visit the less touristy Asian side of the Bosphorus if you want to tick the box of being in 2 continents in a day. You could easily spend weeks visiting Istanbul and its many unique neighbourhoods and then doing day trips to some of the places not far from the city. I think as an absolute minimum you need 4 days in Istanbul to experience parts of the old and new areas, less than that and you will feel you have missed things..........which might be a great excuse to come back!