Ancient Cities, New Destination - Visit Unique Uzbekistan

 
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Contributor:
Andy Marty 

Nationality:
Australian 

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics

Age Group:
30-40 years 

Gender:
Male 

Travel Style:
 Casual
Photography

 

Destination: Uzbekistan

When you’re scanning for some travel inspiration, you can get overwhelmed with content from the same destinations year after year. The “popular” cities are always incredibly crowded and have become frustratingly touristy - in many cases dissolving away their natural culture. Almost as importantly these days, everyone has already posted a photo from “that place” - its been done!

It is sometimes difficult to find a destination that is a little more unique, less crowded and somewhat undiscovered. Which is why its always exciting that somewhere, which is ironically incredibly old, becomes a “new” destination! Introducing Uzbekistan!

Discover Uzbekistan

Tourism in Uzbekistan is somewhat behind in comparison to many destinations, but in many ways, this is part of its charm. An unpretentious, unspoiled and largely unexplored country that might become your pleasant surprise of this summer! I say “unexplored” with a certain degree of irony – whilst modern travelers are yet to really discover Uzbekistan, it has a prominent place in the history of some of the world’s most famous wanderlusters – explorers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled along the silk road, long before their journeys could be documented on social media!

 

So here is everything you need to know about planning a trip to Uzbekistan!

 

Before You Go:

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia and much of the reason it has remained relatively undiscovered from a tourism perspective is likely due to the safety concerns of some of the neighboring countries, like Afghanistan. That being said, Uzbekistan itself appears a relatively safe destination for travellers – there are reports of relatively minor petty crimes, scams etc that are common for most countries. It is absolutely advised to avoid visiting areas close to the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan! During our visit we found the people to be extremely friendly and didn’t feel unsafe at any time.

Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country and religious/cultural sensitivities should be observed. It is however a relatively moderate country - you will find alcohol served at many restaurants and there is no need for female travelers to cover the hair or face. There is also quite a strong Russian influence from the former Soviet days. Whilst the local language is Uzbek, if you are able to speak Russian you will be able to quite easily communicate. English isn’t widely spoken outside of hotels, so expect some translation difficulties!

 For the most part, Uzbekistan isn’t overly touristy. Some of the architecture and history of the mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools) is as impressive as anywhere you will find in the world. These places do draw a crowd, but nothing compared to equivalent attractions in other major cities. More pleasing is that whilst there might be many visitors to the more popular attractions like the Registan in Samarkand, none of them are overly commercialized or full of hawkers selling cheap, unauthentic merchandise. Certainly there are stalls in places like The Registan and around Bukhara, but they tend to sell more local items.

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 Uzbekistan has a rich history through its religious significance and also as a place on the old silk road. Some of the cities like Khiva and Samarkand are extremely old and control over them was critical from a trade perspective and also as they built a base of religious significance. From the Islamic crusades, conquests by Ghengis Kahn through to occupation by Russia and eventual independence, many of the cities had been fought over many times.

 The local currency is the Uzbek Som. There are not many currency exchanges so it is best to change money when arriving at the airport – the exchange is just after passport control. The exchange will accept USD (after year 2001) or Euros only. If you need to withdraw money, there is a machine that will dispense USD which you can then exchange. Generally speaking, Uzbekistan is a very inexpensive place to visit and USD will go a long way!

 Local internet sim cards are extremely cheap and work quite well. Pick one up at the airport close to baggage collection. USD5 will get you 5GB of data! The hotel and “free wifi” in restaurants is not very good from my experience, so if you want to stay in touch, best get a data sim card or use global roaming.

 

 Getting In:

Many nationalities are exempt from requiring an entry visa for travel up to 30 days. Most other passports require an e-visa which is relatively simple to obtain and costs USD20. Check online for your individual requirements.

 Flydubai has just opened up daily flights direct from Dubai to Tashkent and flights are also available direct from USA and from several cities in Europe. The recent increase in direct international flights is resulting in a steady increase of tourist traffic to the country. One of the reasons I love flydubai as an airline, is they open routes to a lot of these “less travelled” destinations and ones that I hadn’t really had on my travel radar. Its such an opportunity to experience some of these hidden gems!

 Most tourists will enter the country through Tashkent airport (map). Previously there were reports of long delays and customs checks at arrivals, however these seem to have reduced significantly and we transited in around 30minutes total (although it was around 5am so may have been less busy).

 There are many registered taxis waiting at the arrivals to take visitors from the airport to their hotel. These are mostly metered taxis and will have a sign on top of the car. In all cities there are a huge number of unregistered “taxis” which are legal. Initially we were reluctant to use the unregistered cars, however they are much more convenient, cheaper and quite friendly. The smaller unregistered cars do tend to be less maintained and in some cases don’t have seat belts in the rear seats. 

 

Getting around:

Google maps works well in Uzbekistan, so its quite easy to find your way and plan trips within cities. The estimated travel times are pretty close to accurate.

Certainly within cities like Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara it is quite cheap and easy to use the unregistered taxis. They are usually easy to find and the price is negotiable, depending on how determined you are to bargain (speaking Russian will be a huge advantage in this!) – in general a 20minute ride will cost you around USD4. Apps like Uber do not work in Uzbkeistan.

In Bukhara you can visit a lot of the interesting places on foot if you stay centrally, however in Tashkent and Samarkand this isn’t as easy.

In Tashkent, the metro system is extremely cheap (each ride only costing around USD0.2) and easy to use. The stations themselves are worth visiting, so planning your trip around using the metro has the added bonus of exploring the amazing architecture of the different stops.

For travel between cities you have several options. If you are going as far as Khiva, you might consider taking a domestic flight from Tashkent to Urgench as this will save you a lot of time. After that, we found the trains to be the best domestic travel option. You will need to book your tickets for the trains in advance and they are busy, so make sure you book a couple of weeks ahead. Use the Uzbekistan Railways website, which can be a little tedious (they wouldn’t accept Australia as a nationality, so I was Austrian for the purpose of train travel). You will need to enter passport details and then be at the station an hour before departure to show your passport and collect your tickets. I would recommend booking 2nd class – you will get a private cabin which is quite comfortable and the price is relatively cheap! There are “fast” trains and “slow” trains, if the timetables suit, I would definitely recommend the faster trains as they are newer and you will save at least an hour on a 4 hour trip! For the most part, the domestic rail system is really good.

You can arrange to either hire your own car and drive between cities or hire a private driver to take you. The private drivers are significantly more expensive than train travel and I would only suggest this if you cant find suitable train tickets. We paid USD100 to travel between Samarkand and Bukhara, a trip that would cost around USD35 for 2 people.

 

Eating in Uzbekistan:

The local food in Uzbekistan is relatively simple, with lots of soups, meats and breads. The national dish is the Plov (or Pilaf) and you need to make a point of trying several, as there is quite a bit of variation. The traditional Plov is rice based with meat that is usually slow cooked lamb. Most will have some bell peppers, sultanas, carrots, chickpeas, quail egg and chili. The better Plovs are full of flavor, with moist, slow cooked lamb. Definitely mark down Osh Markazi on your list as the place to get a really good Plov (lunch for 2 people will cost around USD5).

Other popular dishes are shaslick (meat skewers), Shurpa (a clear soup with a large piece of lamb and some vegetables), a local variant of somosa, fresh salads and the local bread, “non” that is served with almost every meal. 

Desserts and sweet foods are not a big part of the Uzbek diet, so expect more dried fruits and nuts after meal.

Tea is a staple with meals and many restaurants will also serve alcohol including local wines.

A word of caution for vegetarians and vegans – interpretation and translation may be an issue at some places, so take care when ordering. We did order a “greenery soup” at one restaurant assuming it was vegetarian……….it came with meatballs and a boiled egg.

 

1.    Tashkent:

Most visitors to Uzbekistan will arrive in the capital city, Tashkent. Many will then transit straight away to other cities. However it is definitely worth allowing at least a day to explore Tashkent as there are some great places to see.

Being the largest city, there are also a lot of options for accommodation and more chain hotels than in Samarkand or Bukhara. Look at the Hyatt Regency (map) as a great option if you want 5 Star, otherwise the Ramada is also a more affordable 5 star option (USD100-120 per night). There are also a lot of very inexpensive small hotels and if you are staying for a single night and just looking for a bed, you can find somewhere comfortable for around USD50.

A must visit place in Tashkent is Chorsu Bazaar (map) – a huge local market that is full of fresh produce and hugely popular with locals who come everyday to do their shopping. You can reach here easily on the metro and get off at Chorsu Station (map). The huge round building is full of small stalls selling anything from cheese, honey and nuts to meat, pickled vegetables and sweets. It is a hive of activity and even just taking up a spot on the rails upstairs gives you a great vantage point for some “people watching”. Outside are more covered stalls full of fresh produce. There is only a small amount of the cheap merchandise or souvenir type things that you get at most markets in other cities and majority of this is outside the main bazaar. If you enjoy exploring local markets when you travel, you will enjoy wandering through Chorsu Bazaar.  On the southern entrance there are several stands cooking local food and the one next to the steps makes a pretty good Plov!

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

It is easy to buy anything you want in Tashkent, so it is a great opportunity to pick up some local honey, dried fruits or nuts to take home.

There is a huge area of freshly cut meat and dressed, hanging animals in the market. If this bothers you, definitely avoid this section.

 Close to the Chorsu Bazaar is Kokaldosh Madrasah (map). Compared to some of the other Madrasahs in Samarkand, Bukhara and even in Tashkent, this one isn’t as impressive, but still worth visiting if you have time.

 An important place to visit in Tashkent is the Hazrat Imam Mosque (map) – a newly built mosque with many of the features of traditional Uzbek architecture that you will find throughout the country – sand colored brickwork, tiled mosaics, tall brick minarets and iconic aqua domes. It is the largest place of worship in Uzbekistan. This mosque has special significance in that it houses an ancient copy of the Quran, said to be the oldest in the world and one of the original 5 copies. It is said to be stained with the blood of Caliph Uthman who was murdered while reading it. The museum also contains hair reportedly from the Prophet Mohammed. Opposite the Hazrat Imam Mosque is the Barak Khan Madrasah, built in the 16thcentury and on the south of the square is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque. The square between the 3 buildings is a nice place for photos, especially if there has been some rain creating some reflections.

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Barak Khan Madrasah

Barak Khan Madrasah

 In the evenings, it is worth visiting Brodvey (map) – an open street with lights, stalls and entertainment. There is also plenty to do here for children, especially on weekends. This is also where the more high-end shopping is in Tashkent, with several European stores and boutiques. 

Brodvey

Brodvey

 Around the corner from here is Amir Timur Museum (map), a large modern building containing a huge number of displays, many depicting the life of Amir Timur, a Mongul warlord who played a pivotal role in shaping Uzbekistan’s history and culture. From outside, the building is quite impressive and at night the central dome becomes illuminated and is prominent from some distance away. There is a large statue of Amir Timur in the adjacent Amir Timur Square – a large park with fountains and gardens.

Amir Timur Museum

Amir Timur Museum

An interesting piece of architecture in Tashkent is the iconic Hotel Uzbekistan (map). Opened in 1974 it remained the only high-end hotel in Uzbekistan for many years, with several 4 and 5 star hotels only recently opening in Tashkent. The façade of the hotel is a mix of European and Uzbek architecture, and at sunset takes on an intense golden glow. Until recently, as night took over, the room lights would give a creative pattern to the front of the hotel, however it is now used as a screen for laser advertising……..

 Near to Hotel Uzbekistan is the Dvorets Mezhdunarodnykh Forum (map) – a large function and events center. From the road it is an extremely impressive building with its dominating white columns.

 Something that you definitely shouldn’t miss in Tashkent is riding on the Metro. Not only are these trains a cheap and easy way to get around the city, each station has its own unique architecture – from futuristic to more classical designs. These are an awesome photo opportunity or just a curious thing to do when you’re in Tashkent.

Stations to definitely visit include:

-      Alisher Navoi (my favorite) (map)

-      Tinchlik (map)

-      Mustakillik (map)

-      Bodomzor (map)

We ate at Plov Samsa (map) next to Park Bolazhon in Tashkent. The food was “ok” without being great. Quite traditional Uzbek food with Plov and shaslick, fresh salads, non and Shurpa. It’s a really nice place to sit outside next to the park and have a meal. 

 

2.    Samarkand:

The train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand is around 4 hours. There are plenty of unregistered taxis at the station in Samarkand waiting to transfer you to wherever you need to go – remember, a 20minute ride should cost you under USD5.

Samarkand is an incredibly ancient city, having been founded around 550BC. It was later occupied by the Arabs and became an important city for Islamic studies. Over time, it also featured prominently on the silk road trading route between China and the Mediterranean.

 The highlight of Samarkand is without doubt the Registan (map) – the former ancient center of the city. The complex is a large square bordered on 3 sides by stunning madrasahs – Ulugbek, Shidor and Tilla Khari. These Madrasahs are where Islamic students would live to study the Quran, so the buildings would serve both as classroom, place of worship and accommodation.

The Registan

The Registan

It is the most popular tourist attraction in Samarkand and does draw a significant crowd. Certainly if you want clear photographs you will need to arrive early. Whilst it does say online that it is open 24hours, you need to purchase an entry ticket (USD4 per person) and the ticket office doesn’t open until 8am (April to Oct, then 9am others). 

The front of each Madrasah is incredible and the entire complex offers some of the most impressive architecture you are likely to see. The brickwork, tiled mosaics, glazed minarets and inscriptions are quite stunning and really must be seen to be fully appreciated. After you enter each madrasah it opens into a small courtyard garden. There you will find small stalls, which in some parts are a little touristy, but nowhere near what you find in other countries! Most are selling local products and souvenirs. Hopefully they will try to resist the temptation of being infiltrated with cheap knock offs.

It is now permitted to climb the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah – previously tourists would offer money to the guards and risk getting caught. However since April 2019, tickets can be bought for USD2 to climb up the very narrow staircase and look out over Shidor Madrasah and beyond. Note: towards the top it is VERY narrow – don’t take backpacks etc and “larger” visitors may find it difficult to climb through the small opening at the top! You can also access a corner of the 2ndfloor of the courtyard of the Ulugbek Madrasah which is nice for photos.

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

You should allow at least half a day to be able to explore the Registan. It is possible to arrange a guide for USD2 at the ticket office or you can simply stroll through yourself. After dark there is a light show, which essentially involves the complex being lit up. The night we were in Samarkand it rained heavily which made visiting for photos almost impossible.

Another must visit place in Samarkand is Shah i Zinda (map) – a complex of mausoleums containing the tombs of many members of the ruling families of Samarkand. It is sometimes called “cemetery street” as it is designed as a single long passage way lined with mausoleums.

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The name Shah i Zinda means “The Living King”. It is said that Kusum bin Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, visited the site in the 7thcentury to spread the word of Islam. He was beheaded but did not die, rather as the story goes, he carried his head to the nearby great well, where he still lives.

Entry to the complex is USD2 with an extra charge of USD0.4 for using your camera. The ticket office opens at 9am. Early there are many local people coming to visit the mausoleums, however from 10:30am, it becomes quite busy with tourists. Unlike the Registan, Shah i Zinda is quite narrow so groups of tourists do appear to make it look busier than it probably is.

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 The Gur Amir Mausoleum (map) is another building well worth visiting for some classic architecture featuring ornate mosaics and inscriptions. There is a small ticket office on the left hand side of the stairs and entry is USD4 (extra for guided tour or for use of cameras).

 A short drive from the Registan area are the remains of the Ulugbek Observatory (map). The scientific work of Mirzo Ulugbek was quite revolutionary for its time and whilst only the foundations of this complex remain, it still has the extraordinary underground trench. Another reason to visit the Ulugbek Observatory is that is very close to a place to eat!

Domashni Restorant (map) was quite highly recommended to try the lamb dish – slow cooked meat served over chickpeas. To be completely honest, I found the lamb a little bit bland and not as soft as I would want for “slow cooked” – it was more like boiled meat, without too much in the way of seasoning. The shaslick was quite nice, as was the clear soup. Moreover, the family-run restaurant was extremely authentic and the staff were incredibly warm.

Now, when you’re in Samarkand, do not miss the opportunity to try what I consider the best Plov I had in Uzbekistan (I tried many). There are 2 Osh Markazi’s in Samarkand and I believe they are very similar, but we ate at Osh Markazi Filial 1 (map) – it is incredibly authentic and unassuming. You walk downstairs to plastic table cloths and simple furnishings, however the seats are filled with locals, which is always a great sign. If you don’t come early, you will likely miss out and Plov is only a lunchtime meal – so plan to be here before 12noon! Essentially you’re looking at a set menu – it is probably best not to try and complicate something that is simple and amazing! Starting with a pot of green tea, the table soon fills with salad, cheeses, yogurt, bread and the hero of the meal, Plov! This plov really hit the mark, the flavors were full and the meat perfectly cooked. The restaurant was extremely busy with trays of freshly cooked plov coming out almost on the minute. In the end, a meal for 2 people will set you back less than USD5………this is an absolute MUST visit in Uzbekistan. 

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 We ate lunch also at a restaurant called Oasis Garden (map). It was quite an “upmarket” restaurant compared to most places in Uzbekistan, although still very affordable. The menu was extensive and contains many western dishes, although some of the translations into English were a little hit and miss. They have a wonderful selection of soups and salads, as well as a huge choice of grilled meat. I would certainly recommend this place for visitors that aren’t very adventurous when it comes to eating local food. The men’s toilets are also worth a curious visit with some humorous artwork above the urinals.

 There isn’t a great deal of street food in Uzbekistan, however there are several stalls in Samarkand selling crab-apples. They are fresh and crisp and with a sprinkle of salt, very tasty as you walk around.

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 In Samarkand we stayed at L’Argamak Hotel (map). The location is quite convenient as it is possible to walk from here to the Registan in around 15 minutes. The rooms are relatively basic, but neat and tidy. There isn’t a huge choice of hotels in Samarkand and L’Argamak represents reasonably good value for money for very comfortable accommodation. The breakfast buffet is simple, yet nice and is an authentic spread of typical Uzbek dishes. The facilities aren’t extensive, so it is essentially a hotel to sleep and have breakfast if you are looking to get out and explore Samarkand.

 

3.    Bukhara:

Another 275km further West is the city of Bukhara. As the only suitable train times were sold out, we decided to travel by private car. I would suggest travelling between cities on train in Uzbkeistan – it is easier and safer! The roads are ok, but the driving can be a little “erratic”.  Travelling by private car is also much more costly.

 I would suggest staying around the Lyabi Hauz (map) area in Bukhara – it is centered around Lyabi Hauz, which translates to “Lyabi Pond” and there are many cafes, restaurants and hotels close by. In the afternoons, it is a popular place for locals to socialise, with old men playing dominoes, women enjoying cups of tea and children playing games in the park. The area is not far from all the major highlights of Bukhara and the city is relatively easy to navigate around on foot.

There are several options for accommodation, ranging from as little as USD20 per night for hostel style boarding. We stayed at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (map) – the rooms are basic but neat, clean and spacious. The central courtyard and terrace are a focal feature of the recently renovated property. Importantly the staff are extremely friendly and very knowledgeable on places to go and where to eat. Breakfast is served on the terrace each morning and is a perfect spot to sit and start your day while you enjoy a traditional Uzbek meal. I would happily recommend staying at Lyabi Hauz Hotel while you explore Bukhara.

 Surrounding the pond of Lyabi Hauz there are several Madrasahs including Kukeldash Madrasah (map), which at the time of construction was the largest in Central Asia. There is also a small bazar- Toqi Sarrofon, which sells many local souvenirs. On the edge of the pond is the quite iconic Lyabi House Restaurant (map). The view and atmosphere on a good day is lovely, but the reviews of the food are not so great and it did look quite touristy.

 The main focal point of Bukhara, and former city-center, is the area known as Poi Kalyan (map) – a large square bordered by Kalyan Mosque (map), Kalyan Minaret (map) and Mir-i-Arab Madrasah (map). There is also nearby Ulugbek Madrasah (map), Abdulaziz Kahn Madrasah (map) and Toqi Zargaron Bazaar (map). 

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The Kalyan Minaret is the most iconic landmark in Bukhara and one of Uzbekistan’s most well known structures. Whilst built as a place from which to call for prayer, this minaret also served a less peaceful purpose through the ages – for centuries criminals were executed by being thrown from the tower, giving its nickname, The Tower of Death. The brick structure is over 45m high and has a distinctive “crown” rotunda with 16 arches. You will need special permission in order to climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower for a view across the city. Significantly in the history of Bukhara, the Kalyan Minaret is the only structure that survived fires following invasions by Genghis Khan – the original mosques were completely destroyed. 

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Kalyan Mosque is a large courtyard surrounded by archways. On the roof of the arches are 288 domes – again, access to this rooftop requires special permission. The mosque is open sunrise to sunset and costs USD2 including photography. It is a wonderful place for sunset photos, especially if there has been rain as the courtyard fills with water. There is also a tree and octagonal cathedral within the courtyard.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrasah was built in 1536 by a Yemeni Sheikh of the same name, Mir-i-Arab, who was the religious mentor of Ubaidullah Khan, a highly successful leader and leader of the army. The Madrasah is only open for visitors during special prayer times – it was explained to me that if someone of religious significance wishes to use the Madrasah for prayer, they will open the building and guests may quietly walk around. At all other times, it is not possible to enter. Unfortunately it is simply a matter of “good timing” if you happen to be there when someone wishes to use the Madrasah. In addition to being a religious school, it is also a mausoleum and contains the tombs of Ubaidullah Khan, Mir-i-Arab and other religious teachers. The large archway of the entrance to Mir-i-Arab Madrasah is a beautiful tiled Mosaic and in the afternoons it catches the light of the setting sun very nicely.

There is a great view of the Poi Kalyan square from a café called Chasmai Mirob (map). The food is only ok, but it is worth it for the view. You will need to enter via a staircase on the right hand side and go up to the rooftop terrace. It gets very busy with tourists and the prices reflect this! Expect to pay around USD15 for a Plov, which is very expensive for Uzbekistan. 

Poi Kalyan

Poi Kalyan

Around Poi Kalyan there are several small stores selling ceramics, textiles, hats etc. The main area is benath the domed roof of Toqi Zargaron – it is slightly touristy, but for the most part the goods are genuine and quite authentic. There are metal workers making pairs of scissors, craftsmen playing handmade instruments, spices, textiles and various antiques like badges and war medals. One thing I did notice walking around, even in the small Bazaar is that there isn’t a great deal of street food.

Only a short distance from Poi Kalyan is Ulugbek Madrasah, constructed in 1417 making it one of the oldest buildings in Bukhara. It is free to enter and in April 2019 was undergoing some minor restorations. Inside there is a relatively plain courtyard and some nice archways and doors that can be nice for photography.

Almost opposite Ulugbek Madrasah is the archway of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah, constructed in 1652. It has a large, beautiful archway entrance that catches the setting sun perfectly in the late afternoons. There is a small bazaar and museum in the courtyard of Abdulaiz Khan Madrasah and it costs USD2 to enter. To be honest, you won’t really be missing much if you don’t go inside. The area in front of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is a great place to watch the sun set over Toqi Zargaron.

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An even better place for sunset is the terrace of Coffee & Shop (map), next to Ulugbek Madrasah. You will need to purchase something like a juice or tea to be able to use the terrace, but it is worth it. Despite having an incredible view, it was never busy when we visited. Looking west you have a great view of the side of Ulugbek Madrasah, Toqi Zargaron and its domed roof, Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, the back of Mir-i-Arab and the front of Abdulaziz Madrasah. As the sun sets behind Kalyan Mosque, the light catches the front of the main arch of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah. This was probably my favorite view in Bukhara.

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 About a 25 minute walk from Lyabi Hauz (or 15 minutes from Poi Kalyan) is Bolo Hauz Mosque (map) and The Ark (map) at Registan Square – not to be confused with The Registan of Samarkand. The Ark of Bukhara has a long and fascinating history both as a fortress and itself as a city center and place of trade. The origins are somewhat lost to history, with the structure having been destroyed and rebuilt several times. There is folklore that the original Ark was built by Siyavusha, who fell in love with the ruler’s daughter. He was told they could only marry if he built a palace on the back of a bull’s hide. Siyavusha took the bull’s hide and cut it into very thin strips which he joined end to end and stretched out to form the boundary of the huge palace! This has become known as the tale of Dido. 

The Ark has been sacked several times, including by Ghengis Khan and then again in 1920 by invading Russian forces. Now, the Ark is a tourist attraction, entry is USD8 (including guide and use of a camera) and reviews we read described it as not being worth the money or time. Better is to view the structure from the outside with its impressive and unique walls.

Nearby to the Ark is Bolo Hauz Mosque, also known as the “40 Pillar Mosque”. This was the Emirs Mosque during the time of Russian occupation. He would come from his residence and hold Friday prayers here. The mosque is quite distinctive with its high wooden pillars and pond (“Hauz”) in front. Many mosques in Bukhara previously had ponds in front but most have been filled in and only a few remain or are well maintained.

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Only a few minutes walk from Bolo Hauz is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum (map), the burial vault of many of the rulers from the Saminid Dysnasty. Whilst relatively small in size, the mausoleum is the oldest Muslim structure in Bukhara, being completed in 905.

A 10 minute walk the opposite way from Lyabi Hauz is the structure known as Chor Minor (map). It is the only remaining madrasah of what was once a complex of several buildings. Even much of the internal structure of Chor Minor has collapsed in areas. It is likely that Chor Minor was actually part of the accommodation for Islamic students rather than a building used for teaching. Some suggest it was the gatehouse for the rest of the madrasahs behind it, but this is disputed. For a small fee (USD2), you can enter and walk through the building and climb to the roof for a tourist photo if you wish.

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 Getting around the attractions of Bukhara can be done mostly on foot and cars cannot access certain areas around Poi Kalyan. Even within Lyabi Hauz, taxis will only be able to drop you on the road in front of Kukeldash Madrasah and you will need to carry your luggage. If you want to go outside the main areas (for food or to get to the train station) there are almost always taxis waiting at this same place. There are a small number of motorized rickshaws that operate between Poi Kalyan and Registan Square.

There are a number of food options in the Lyabi Hauz area. We ate breakfast each day at Lyabi Hauz Hotel which was really nice and the terrace is a perfect place to sit outside and have pastries and a cup of tea.

There are several restaurants for dinner including Minzifa (map) and Doston House (map - hard to find), which were both fully booked out when we went – both have great reviews. We were able to just get a table at Old Bukhara which also had reasonable reviews but some negative comments about the staff………we couldn’t have had a better experience with the staff – they were very accommodating and extremely friendly. The food was reasonable, really nice shalicks, samosas, salads and soups. Quite reasonably priced and a good atmosphere. 

In general, people seem to eat relatively early, so plan on going for dinner around 7pm.

Our hotel provided several recommendations for dinner including Chinar (map). There is a Chinar close to Lyabi Hauz (the one reviewed on other platforms) and a more authentic one outside the main area. Our hotel insisted we go to the more authentic one which is about a 10minute taxi ride. It is really traditional with mostly locals filling the restaurant. The food is relatively simple and no frills, but very nice, especially if you like grilled meats. The hotel also recommended Karaoke Karavan – a fun place to eat and has good reviews. We didn’t have time to go there and it is also a 10minute taxi ride from Lyabi Hauz.

For lunch you will likely be close to Poi Kalyan. As mentioned earlier, both Coffee & Shop and Chasmai Mirob have incredible views of Poi Kalyan and the nearby madrasahs. Whilst we didn’t eat at Coffee & Shop, the tea is very good and they do serve lunch. Chasmai Mirob has a great view, but the food is not that great and overpriced……….the view is worth the visit though!

 

4.    Khiva:

Unfortunately our itinerary didn’t allow time to visit Khiva – a city on the ancient silk road that also has a history as a former slave trading post. The inner city area is essentially a museum with mosques and madrasahs. From talking to other travellers we met, they suggested it was absolutely worth making time to visit Khiva if you travel to Uzbekistan.

To reach Khiva you need to travel to Urgench – a city 400km further west of Bukhara, and then take a taxi from Urgench to Khiva.  Most people will fly one way between Tashkent and Khiva and then the other way by train via Bukhara and Samarkand.   

 

Suggested 7 Day Itinerary:

Day 1: Land in Tashkent. Spend day exploring Tashkent and stay 1 night at Regency Hyatt.

-      Explore Tashkent via the Metro.

-      Wander through Chorsu Bazaar and have your first Plov.

-      Visit Hazrat Imam Mosque.

Day 2: Travel by train to Samarkand in the morning. Spend 1-2 nights in Samarkand (you can just do Samarkand in 1 night).

-      Spend a half day visiting The Registan complex.

-      Visit Shah-i-zinda

-      Have lunch at Osh Markazi

Day 4: Travel by train to Bukhara. Spend 2 nights in Bukhara at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (Bukhara probably needs 2 nights).

-      Visit Poi Kalyan: Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, Mir-i-Arab Madrasah

-      Visit Registan Square: Bolo Hauz Mosque, The Ark & Ismail Samani Mausoleum.

-      Lunch at Chasmai Mirob terrace

-      Sunset at Coffee & Shop.

-      Dinner at Chinar.

Day 6: Travel by train to Khiva in the morning. Spend 1 night in Khiva

Day 7: Travel by plane back to Tashkent and depart from Tashkent

 

Photography in Uzbekistan: read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE

There are not many restrictions for photography in Uzbekistan – you are free to use a tripod almost anywhere including in the Metro stations and mosques, as long as you are taking photo and not video. 

Flying drones are not permitted in Uzbekistan and I would avoid bringing one into the country if you can. 

Local people are not adverse to having photos taken, most are very friendly and actually quite keen to be in photos. There isn’t a distinctive national dress, although in the winter many locals will wear the large wooly head-dress, the Chugirma. As always, I ask permission before taking any photos of people when I travel and did not have any objections in Uzbekistan. A few people asked for money and USD1 was considered plenty for a photograph and a poorly translated conversation over a cup of tea.

Some of the tourist places will charge a small extra fee if you are going to use a DSLR camera – around USD0.50.

My 5 top Photography Spots in Uzbekistan:

1. The Registan Complex – especially the tiled mosaic archways of Tilla Khari Madrasah using a long lens to square off the archway

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2. Sunset view of Bukhara Mosques and Madrasahs from Coffee & Shop in Bukhara

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3. Inside Kalyan Mosque – the arches, rain reflections and frame from the western arch.

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4. Shah-i-zinda – the narrow street lined by blue tiled mausoleums.

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5. Tashkent Metro Stations – especially Alisher Navoi

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read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE

 

Discover India in Jaipur

 

Contributor:
Andy Marty

Nationality:
Australian

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics
Facebook: @andympics

Age Group:
 30-40

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
 Photography
Casual

 

Destination: Jaipur - Rajasthan, India. December 2018

There are few cities in India regarded for their beauty as much as Jaipur. It was founded and named after Maharaja Jai Singh II and was where the family ruled over Rajasthan. 

Jaipur is affectionately known as the “Pink City”, owing to the original color the walls of many of the buildings were painted. These days, the city buildings are mostly painted in earthy red colors, which was done in preparation for a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1876

The ancient step well of Panna Meena Ka Kund

The ancient step well of Panna Meena Ka Kund

 Getting In:

The international airport (map) is only just outside the main city area and a relatively short drive to most hotels. International flights arrive from several destinations including Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Sharjah – we flew Air Arabia from Sharjah to Jaipur. There are also domestic flights from several cities within India.

International visitors arriving into Jaipur will require a Visa. Check online to see what category of visa you require and most can be applied for and processed online in less than 1 week. You will need scans of passport photos and your travel history.

Many visitors will arrive to Jaipur via train, with lines linking the popular destinations of Delhi, Agra, Jodpur and Jaipur. There are many options and classes of travel on trains in India. Be sure to book a carriage with air-conditioning if travelling in warmer months! 

Travel by car/taxi is possible for long distances in India and surprisingly cheap. However, be warned that certain cars (including Uber drivers) are often not permitted to cross state boundaries – they will accept Uber requests and then only inform you of this once they arrive to collect you. If they are able to cross, they will often need to get paperwork completed, which can take a long time, especially if there is traffic – definitely check this information before you agree to travel with them.

There is also a bus service from Delhi to Jaipur. Again, be sure to book a ticket on the air-conditioned bus in the warmer months (it is around USD15 one way). Only book through Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation as some other companies are unreliable in terms of service and vehicles.

The busy and colourful streetlife of Jaipur

The busy and colourful streetlife of Jaipur

Getting around Jaipur:

Once in Jaipur, it is relatively easy to book Uber drivers where needed and this is a very convenient way to get around, especially if you have some distance to travel. 

There are private “chauffeur” cars, which can be booked per trip or per day. If you are looking to spend a day visiting the highlights of Jaipur this is probably your best option. It will cost you around USD50.00 for a day. Many of these drivers will be in front of the hotels or can be arranged by your hotel. Most can speak English quite well and communicate via Whatsapp. It is a very convenient way to visit places around Jaipur, as many of the highlights are some distance away from each other.

In the city centre there are large numbers of rickshaws waiting to take people around. Trips in rickshaws are certainly far cheaper and in most cases the price can be bargained. 

The chauffeur probably offers a safer and more comfortable mode of transport, but if you’re looking to save a few dollars or enjoy the authentic experience, certainly give the rickshaws a go!

Friendly people in the streets of Bapu Bazar

Friendly people in the streets of Bapu Bazar

 Fairmont Jaipur: (map)

We stayed at Fairmont Jaipur, a luxury hotel on the North of the city. It is a stunning property that is immaculately presented with traditional architecture and furnishings. The layout and service is designed around providing guests with an authentic experience, with many small touches capturing elements of the region’s fascinating history. 

Guests are welcomed on arrival with a traditional greeting complete with drums and rose petals – you will be transported back to the time of the ruling Maharaja as you enter the large wooden doors. Inside the music will continue and you will become immersed in the atmosphere of Rajasthan. 

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A warm traditional greeting awaits at Fairmont Jaipur

A warm traditional greeting awaits at Fairmont Jaipur

 In the evening belly dancers will perform in the lobby and guests are encouraged to join in. The hotel frequently hosts local weddings and if you are in the hotel it is almost impossible not to be drawn to the arrival of the wedding party – complete with painted elephants and horses.

Join the belly dancing

Join the belly dancing

 The rooms are elegantly furnished and all have enormous  bath tubs suitable for relaxing the weariest of travellers. The beds maintain the high standard set by Fairmont properties around the world.

 

The hotel serves breakfast from 2 restaurants, both providing buffet style service. There is a selection of traditional dishes and global cuisine, but when in India, I would definitely recommend sampling some of the local delicacies! If the weather is nice, a perfect spot for breakfast is outside the Zoya Restaurant overlooking the pond.

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 There are also several dinner options including a wonderful in room dining menu (I have had many, and the butter chicken on this menu stacks up very well). However, to truly appreciate the local cuisine, I don’t think you can go past the Thali – literally a meal fit for a King. Served in Zarin Restaurant, the Thali arrives as many small dishes on a large silver tray. You are able to sample a variety of flavors and textures. The meal is enormous and an experience in itself.

 There is also an elegant high tea served in Anjum – a beautifully decorated room that takes a golden glow in the afternoon as the sun sets out the window.

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 Exploring Jaipur:

1.    Panna Meena Ka Kund: (map)

These ancient stepwells or “baoris” were common in the North of India for centuries. They would collect water and fill up in the rainy monsoon season. As the dry season progressed and the level dropped, people could walk down the cascading steps cut into the sides to access water. Now, they mostly serve as tourist attractions, creating unique photo opportunities.

The Panna Meena Ka Kund stepwell is located close to the Amber Fort. I would suggest going early in the morning if you want a photo without people in it. There is a security guard stopping people from entering the stepwell as the water has become a source of infection and people are not allowed to go into the water. If you are extremely nice and assure the security that you only wish to go onto the steps, they may allow you to take a quick photograph.

There is another larger stepwell around an hours drive out of Jaipur – Chand Baori (map) that is meant to be incredible. If you have time when you visit, it might be worth taking a drive to see this.

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 2.    Amber Fort (Amer Fort): (map)

One of the highlights of Jaipur, Amber Fort is a large fort palace built on the side of a hill in 1592 from red sandstone and marble. Although it is roughly amber in color, the name does not come from this, rather it is named after the town of Amber. The main section of the fort consists of 4 courtyards.

The popular photo opportunity is of the steps leading up to the large colored facade of Ganesh Pol (Ganesh Gate) in the first courtyard. If you want the iconic picture at the top of the steps, without hundreds of tourists, you will need to come as early as the fort opens (8am) and then hope it isn’t crowded.

The steps of Ganesh Pol, Amber Fort

The steps of Ganesh Pol, Amber Fort

Entering through Ganesh Pol, you will reach the equally impressive Sheesh Mahal – a large room covered in thousands of mirrors and colored glass which would reflect candlelight to create a mesmerizing glittering effect.

Entry to Amber Fort is R500 for foreign tourists (around USD7) and gives you access to the entire complex. You can pay extra for guided tours (R100).

The fort is also the site of a light show after dark, that is best viewed from the lower sections of the fort.

Many tourists travel up to and from Amber Fort on the elephant rides that are offered. However there is significant concerns over the standard of treatment many of these animals receive and tourists are encouraged not to support the practice.

When you visit Amber Fort early in the morning, it is a different experience than when the crowds of tourists arrive!

When you visit Amber Fort early in the morning, it is a different experience than when the crowds of tourists arrive!

 3.    Jaigarh Fort: (map)

Only a short walk up from Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort is the “strongest” of Jaipur’s 3 main forts. It is also the home of the world’s largest cannon! Entry is R85

 4.    Nahargarh Fort: (map)

You will definitely need to get a car up to Nahargarh Fort and the road up is quite windy and narrow. There is an area to stop close to the fort that has a pretty good view of Jal Mahal (The Water Palace in the middle of the Mansarovar Lake). 

A view of the Taj Mahal on the road to Nahargarh Fort

A view of the Taj Mahal on the road to Nahargarh Fort

The first section of the fort walls is free to visit and explore with some nice, albeit restricted, views across parts of Jaipur. 

The main section of the fort requires payment to enter (R200) and this includes a drink from the restaurant at the top of the fort. The gates and just inside is quite touristy with several small stands. Lots of people hang around the first few hundred meters, but the best views across the city are seen from the top of the fort which is around a 15 minute walk (there are also rickshaws that can take people if they prefer). Scenes from several Bollywood movies were shot on the walls of the fort and it is a very popular place to view sunsets – if you are lucky enough to be there on a day without intense haze!

Sunset through the Jaipur haze from the top of Nahargarh Fort

Sunset through the Jaipur haze from the top of Nahargarh Fort

The view over a sprawling Jaipur suburb

The view over a sprawling Jaipur suburb

 5.    Jawahar Circle: (map)

A huge roundabout on the south of Jaipur, with a park area in the middle. Probably the cleanest and nicest place in the city to go for a walk. There is a small street-food bazar (great for refreshing ice cream), a rose garden and a children’s play area. But the most popular and iconic is the entry at the northern end of the park – Patrika Gate (map). The huge archways are impressive and on the inside are colorful murals depicting the local history of Jaipur. It is a hugely popular photo spot, so again, if you want to avoid crowded photos, you will need to visit early in the morning. The Patrika Gates are open 24 hours, so get there as early as you can and you will have it almost to yourself! We visited around 7am and it was pretty much empty.

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 6.    City Palace: (map)

Much of the City Palace is now a museum and there is still a section which remains the residence of the Royal Family – Chandra Mahal. Entry to the palace is R500, however if you want to access Chandra Mahal you will need to pay R3000 per person which includes a tour guide. There are some sections of the residence which are certainly worth seeing and it’s a fascinating insight into the life of the ruling family. If you can spare the money, walking through the residence is really interesting, especially with the informed guides. 

One of the highlights of the City Palace is a courtyard with 4 elaborately decorated doorways depicting the 4 seasons of the year – each one draws on elements of the season that are significant in Rajasthan culture.

The Lotus doorway

The Lotus doorway

The Peacock doorway

The Peacock doorway

 

The Diwan-i-aam or the Hall of Public Audience is where the King used to sit and listen to the issues of his subjects. 

Diwan-i-aam where the King would hear the problems of his people.

Diwan-i-aam where the King would hear the problems of his people.

 Chand Mahal has a total of 7 floors, with each floor serving a different purpose or giving respect to a different season or special holiday in the year.

The Chhawi Niwas is a beautifully decorated blue and white room, and was used to celebrate the monsoon rains.

Chhavi Niwas - The “blue room” that celebrates the monsoon season

Chhavi Niwas - The “blue room” that celebrates the monsoon season

On the 5th floor is a room decorated all over with concave mirrors (similar to the Sheesh Mahal at Amber Fort). When you visit they will close the doors and light a cangle causing each of the small mirrors to reflect the candle light and the entire roof illuminates.

The Shobha Niwas is a sitting area for the Maharaja and is elaborately decorated.

On the ground floor is the dining room used to accept and entertain guest and dignitaries. This is still the room used to host many of the world’s important political figures. It is one of the rooms inside the Chand Mahal where photography is not permitted.

The view over City Palace from the top of Chand Mahal

The view over City Palace from the top of Chand Mahal

 7.    Hawa Mahal: (map)

Probably the most iconic building in Jaipur with its unmistakable terracotta façade – which is actually the rear of the building! The façade of the Mahal is close to the street, which makes it very difficult to photograph! The best views of the building are actually from across the street in 2 small cafes. Whilst most people pull up in a car and take a quick photo from the street, I would recommend visiting either the Windview Café (map) or The Tattoo Café (map). Both have much better views directly at the façade. Even better, you can sit and enjoy some local staples while enjoying the view. We visited with Indian locals and they told us that the dishes at Windview Café in particular were the typical dishes they would eat as snacks – Masala Maggi Noodles, Aloo Tiki burgers, etc.

Hawa Mahal was built as part of the City palace to give the women a place to watch life going by outside. There are 950 windows looking out on to the street and the breeze circulating through the windows kept it cool and provided the building with its name - Hawa meaning breeze in Hindi.

If you wish, you can enter the Mahal for R50.

 The street in front of the Hawa Mahal façade is worth taking a walk along, with many small bazars, local shops and street sellers. If you are interested in streetscapes and local culture it is certainly worth half an hour or so.

The facade of Hawa Mahal seen from the street

The facade of Hawa Mahal seen from the street

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 8.    Bapu Bazar: (map)

I love visiting local markets in any city I visit, so I always try to seek out the authentic places where locals shop. Bapu Bazar in Jaipur is a typical Indian street market with loads of shops selling anything from textiles to samosas. Naturally they will quickly identify a tourist and look to bargain at far higher than normal prices! It’s a great place for a photo walk or to sample local street food. Quick word of warning – steer clear of the Panni Puri unless you have a far stronger stomach than I do!

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 9.    Jal Mahal: (map)

The iconic “Water Palace” of Jaipur sits by itself in Mansarovar Lake. In the winter the lake can dry out, but summer monsoons quickly fill it again. The Palace is not accessible to visitors, but there are several places to get a nice view. Because the water is usually very calm and flat, the Palace often creates a nice reflection in the right light. It is also illuminated at night, which makes it look great against the water.

The illuminated Jawa Mahal reflecting in the lake.

The illuminated Jawa Mahal reflecting in the lake.

 Places To East:

We ate the majority of our meals at Fairmont Jaipur and certainly even if you are not staying at this hotel, I would thoroughly recommend visiting for dinner to try the Thali.

 Plan to have a bite to eat at Windview Café when you want to take photos of Hawa Mahal – the Aloo Tiki burger is really good and the food is really cheap!

 One other place we went for dinner was Palladio Café and Bar (map). The food and service are “ok” without being outstanding and the prices are pretty steep for India. But the décor and atmosphere is really impressive! The bar area is decorated similar to the Chhawi Niwas in the City Palace, with elaborate blue and white walls. Outside, tables are seated around small fires and fairy lights. The food is Italian cuisine.

Palladio Cafe and Bar at night.

Palladio Cafe and Bar at night.

 Traveling In India:

India is one of my favorite destinations for travel, but there are some things to take into consideration.

Be sure to check your visa requirements, as all foreign visitors require a visa. Check your requirements online and you can often get your visa processed online.

Speak to your doctor before traveling to India as there are some important diseases to be aware of. In particular some visitors may require proof of yellow fever vaccination as part of their entry requirements. It would be worth making sure your vaccinations for Hepatitis, Diptheria, Tetanus and Typhoid are up to date.

“Traveller’s Diarrhea” is common for visitors to India. Whilst most people think it is the fault of eating something, it is far more common to be caused by water – drinking water, even ice in drinks, poorly washed salad and foods that contain water (like Panni Puri). Be cautious of what you drink or check that what you’re eating doesn’t have water in it. I always travel with a small medical kit that includes anti-diarrhea medication and rehydration tablets.

Malaria and Dengue Fever can be significant problems in India, especially around the monsoon season. There are prophylactic medications for malaria, most of which have side effects. However there isn’t for Dengue Fever and the prevention of avoiding mosquito bites is probably the best way of avoiding both. I always use insect repellent and mosquito nets. It’s a good idea to spray your room when you leave to prevent mosquitos waiting for you when you get back!

Staying connected in India can be a bit of a challenge as it isn’t as easy as most countries to pick up a SIM card at the airport. In order to get a local mobile sim, you need paperwork from your hotel (a police letter). You will then need to present this, copies of your passport and entry visa when you purchase a sim card. It will take at least 1 business day for the sim to be activated. If you are visiting only for a couple of days, you are better off using roaming.

There is an undeniable level of poverty in India and some people find it confronting. But there is also an incredible beauty in the country. Travel to India is an “experience”. There are few places so deep in culture and where you can truly immerse yourself. It is a place to explore and certainly Jaipur is one of those cities that has an amazing amount to offer to visitors looking to experience authentic culture.



























 

Walk Through History - Krakow, Poland

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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..

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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.

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-      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).

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-      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.

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-      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.

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-      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.

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-      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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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-      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.





























Incredible India Part 1 - Pune

 
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Contributor:
Andy

Nationality:
Australian 

Social Links:
Instagram: @andrewmarty_

Age Group:
30-40

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
Casual, photography

 

Destination: Pune, India, May 2018

Inspiration:

India had always been a destination that I had planned to travel to, so when the opportunity to combine a trip with my love for sport, it seemed like the perfect timing! The Indian Premier League cricket tournament held each year has rapidly become the highlight of the indian sporting calendar. Through an association with Australian clothing company, Big Dogg Clothing, I had the opportunity to meet with many of the players and go to games.

I also took the opportunity to ensure I had time to dedicate to seeing the sights and experiencing the culture of one of the most fascinating travel destinations in the world. My first stop on a 18 day tour around India would be Pune.

Getting There:

I fly into Mumbai with flydubai. Where I can, I prefer to fly with flydubai as their rates are always the best and I dont tend to need add ons like inflight meals or entertainment, so I prefer to pocket the savings.

I had originally planned to fly into Chennai, however the team playing in Chennai had been forced to move their games due to ongoing protests that had begun to affect the cricket games. So, instead I moved my flight to land in Mumbai and transfer from there to Pune, where Chennai would now play their home game.

Landing at Mumbai airport was far less dramatic than I imagined. Perhaps it was because it was 6:00am, but there was almost no crowd and getting through immigration was really quick. As Australian passport holder, I require only an online visa to enter India - be aware you need to complete this process at least 4 days prior to travel and the online form is quite long. You dont really receive any offical visa or even a pdf - only an email which you can print and take with you.

I spoke to a lot of people about internal transport in India. I had initially intended to use trains as my main way of getting from city to city, however was warned against this for several reasons - there can be long delays, lots of cancellations, they are extremely crowded during holiday times (when I was there) and that using private cars can be far easier. In some situations, even the process of booking train tickets can be a frustrating process - see the review on Agra! So, with that in mind, I actually found using Uber to be a really reliable way to get around India! It was safe, relatively clean and not too expensive. I caught an Uber from from Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (Sahar International) (map) to Pune for Rs3,600 ($50) and it took just over 3 hours. It was an easy drive and we stopped on the way for food. 

Local Knowledge:

I always like to stay connected when I travel - partly to keep up on social media and sports results (no seriously.....), but mostly to remain contactable for family. So I try and get a sim card in the country I land in and load it with internet data. India was one of the more difficult places I have found to get a sim card - so be prepared to use your home sim and pay for some roaming! The shop at the airport weren't open until 10am which was the first problem. Next even at teh shops in Pune, I required a letter from the hotel (police clearance form), my passport, the print out of my visa and a passport photo - so have all these things with you. Even when purchased, the sim card took 2 days to activate. The coverage from my Vodafone sim was average at best. The only positive was that the internet was very cheap!

Where To Stay:

I stayed at Hotel Saga Plaza (map) and found it to be overall very disappointing. The hotel is quite dated, with old furniture and fittings. The rooms are adequate and if you are just looking for a place to sleep it may be sufficient. The disappointing aspect for me was that the staff appeared to show very little interest in their guests, to the point of ignoring you at the front desk - which is not something i had encountered to that extent in many hotels before!

Depending on your budget and expectations, I would likely look elsewhere in Pune. For the same price you are likely able to find somewhere better.

What To Do:

Pune is largely an academic city, with many top Universities. As a consequence the city is home to a lot of younger people either studying or working.

I found the easiest way to get around in most cities in India was via rickshaw - they are cheap, easy to find and for themes part faster than anything else. 

I caught a rickshaw to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum (map) - which is a quirky collection of everyday items used in Indian life  - everything from spoons, typewriters, doors, artwork and statues. Its an interesting look back at how cultures in Indian have lived over time. Cost is Rs200 for foreigners and extra to use a camera (Rs500). The museum is open from 10am to 5pm.

From there I went to Shaniwar Wada Fort (map)- a palace once occupied by the Peshwar rulers. It was built in 1732 and largely damaged by fire in 1828. The huge fort walls and remained as did the enormous gateway, which was built so large because at the time, the rulers would arrive to the palace on the back of elephants. It is an easy walk around the walls of teh fort and lots of local families come of an afternoon to enjoy the gardens. Entry is Rs200 for foreigners and the gates are open 9am to 5pm

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Somewhere unique to visit close to Pune, which I dignity have time for is the Osho Meditation Resort. There are a long list of conditions, costs and procedures associated with entering the resort as a day guest. It is a luxurious property based around the practices Oshu (Bhagwan Three Rajneesh) a flamboyant "guru" who advocated sex as a pathway to enlightenment!

There is a fun nightlife scene in Pune and somewhere nice to visit on a weekend evening is Classic Rock Coffee Company (map)- a really laid back venue that hosts a lot of live music, including from local performers. It has a very chilled atmosphere and is a great place o go for a drink with friends or to meet people.

Eating:

Pune is a great place to try some traditional Maharashtran cuisine. Definitely find a restaurant serving traditional Thali style meals - you are presented with a large metal plate and the server will come and offer a range of foods which are placed around teh plate and eaten by hand. The dishes are vegetarian and range from very mild to moderately spiced. You will generally have rice, a range of dal, vegetables, pickles, chutneys and breads. It is an experience in itself to not just try the food, but the serving and eating. I ate at Shabree (map) and the food was full of flavour - definitely worth a try when visiting Pune.

There are a number of street food options everywhere in Pune. For the most part during my stay in India, I resisted the temptation of trying the genuine street food from the small stands. I normally love sampling all sorts of street food when I travel, but since i had a tight schedule and cricket games to get to, I didn't take the risk!

Pune has quite a strong food culture with cuisines from all over the world.  It is home to India's only dedicated food magazine - Trofii, so this will be a good start if you are visiting Pune and looking for some culinary inspiration!. I was lucky enough to have dinner with the magazine's director & editor, Vidhya (Instagram: @vidhyatiwari) who shared a lot of insight into the food scene in Pune and India.

Must Do:

My favourite thing to do in almost any city I travel to is to get out and walk around. I will usually try to find out where the local markets are, as thats usually the best place to find as many local people and get a great insight into a city's culture.

Shree Shiva Chhatrapati Market (Pune Yard Market) (map), the local market in Pune is relatively small and is not somewhere to visit for vegetarians or those who get a little queasy. Compared to some other markets I would visit in places like Bangalore, this market isn't really a on the same level. But for me its more about getting out, walking the streets, meeting local people and chatting with them about their lives.

Must See:

My main inspiration to visit India this time was the cricket! So my first IPL really was a highlight! Due to circumstances, this match had been shifted from Chennai to Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium. The stadium isn't actually in Pune and the traffic getting from Pune to the ground meant I probably could've stayed in Mumbai and driven from there! That said, the experience of being in the crowd for a game featuring MS Dhoni's Chennai (who would go on to win the tournament) and Virat Kholi's Bangalore was unforgettable. The atmosphere in the stadiums is intense and the passion the fans have not just for teams, but for individual players is incredible. If you love sport and even more, if you love cricket, make a point of visiting India during the IPL!

Number 1 Travel Tip:

A huge concern for travellers visiting India is staying healthy! For the most part I avoided getting really sick by only drinking bottled water/juices/soft drinks (make sure the seals are genuine and haven't been refilled), not drinking ice cubes, avoiding salad and not eating at the small food stands. I still ate at a lot of local restaurants and cafes and had few issues.

I did take with me all the precautions in terms of electrolytes and immodium in case there was an issue, I got me vaccinations up to do date before I flew and was cautious about hygiene. Standards in India will range from genuine 5 star luxury to literally seeing people defecate in the street next to a restaurant! If you are careful and do a few basic things, you should be fine. I will write a blog on "staying healthy in India soon".

Excess Baggage:

Whilst I never felt unsafe in Pune, or in India for that matter, taking care when crossing roads and in traffic is a priority! The roads are busy, nobody indicates and a short toot o the horn is the only warning you will get as a rickshaw or taxi flies past you!

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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)

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

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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.

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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!