Istanbul – a controversial gem

Are you looking for a city that will definitely take your thoughts away from your normal life? Are you ready to experience something that will leave you content but confused in a way? Are you willing to jump in a roller coaster that will give you serenity and peace of mind, then grab it out of your reach, and then return it, spinning you around over and over again? If the answer is yes, you are ready for Istanbul, Turkey.

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The amount of people all around you is astonishing. Locals, tourists, people from all over the world. The hustle and bustle of the old bazaar deafens your ears, but not annoyingly. Even if you didn’t need any, the symphony of fragrances coming from spices that merchants offer makes you want to buy a little bit of everything. The visually dazzling architecture of the mosques and old churches makes you speechless. The warm weather caresses your senses while you gaze over the glistening blue strait below you, sun almost blinding your eyes. The almost-overbearing overload of stimuli welcomes you to Istanbul.

Istanbul is an amazing city that has a lot to offer but I still don’t know how to feel about it. There are parts that I absolutely love and parts that I can definitely do without – however, no point in focusing on the latter in this post, right? The city may not necessarily be the coolest place to visit due to the current political unrest, but when the opportunity presented itself, I had to take it and go see the city that stretches itself on two continents. The fact that a part of it is in Asia and a part in Europe was very fascinating to me as I had always wanted to visit a city that offers such an experience. Here is my take on the things that I love in the city.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)

This place is hard to miss. The cascading domes and six slender minarets of the Blue Mosque dominate the skyline of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is an absolute must for a tourist, but to get in, avoid the prayer times (unless you are a Muslim and go there to pray, of course). The architecture of this place is fantastic, and the way the small blue mosaic tiles have been used to decorate the mosque is so very skilled that it is almost a surreal experience to be there.

It is a quiet place, lots of light, beautiful arches high above you. If you have time to stop and take in the beauty of this place, you will notice the serenity that surrounds you. The calm atmosphere of the mosque creates a great contrast to the fuss of everyday life on the streets that will reach you immediately once you exit the mosque.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, The Church of the Holy Wisdom, is located near the Blue Mosque. The former Byzantine church and an Ottoman mosque is now a museum.

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It is a very interesting place, not peaceful in the same way as the Blue Mosque, but very impressive regarding the age and the history of the building. The size of it is astonishing, so getting a good grasp of it requires some time.

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However, currently some parts of it are under renovation, so it is not as breathtaking as it could be.

Topkapi Palace

The palace is practically in front of Hagia Sophia and near the Blue Mosque. The place gives a great insight into how Sultans of the Ottoman Empire viewed the world. The beautiful collection of the jewelry is a must see if you visit the palace.

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When I was there, the place was quite crowded, and as my search for peace of mind doesn’t mix that well with loud crowds, the thing I enjoyed the most about the Topkapi Palace was its garden. I sat there for quite a long time reading about the history of the place and enjoying the sunshine and warmth.

Anadolu Kavagi

As you can guess, now we are getting to the parts (in addition to the Blue Mosque) that I loved the most in Istanbul. The boat trip along the Bosphorus is in itself an experience. The beautiful mansions are surrounded by lush gardens, and just like anywhere else in Istanbul, history of East and West surrounds you.

I was lucky enough to take the boat ride on a sunny, warm day, so the trip was a very relaxing one. It was possible to buy some Turkish yogurt onboard, so I enjoyed a nice snack along the way as I listened a tour guide (of some other group) talk about the buildings that we passed.

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Anadoly Kavagi itself is a quiet, small village. The souvenir shops there are worth a visit if you want to bring something traditional to your loved ones (I did and everybody loved them!). If you plan to take a hike up to the Yoros Castle, like I did, make sure you are wearing shoes that are suitable for a hike and take a water bottle with you as the climb up is quite steep. No matter how long it takes for you to get on top of the hill, the views from there make up for the time and effort.

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The Bosphorus Strait is absolutely stunning. The castle itself isn’t much to see, but the views, oh yeah. You won’t regret the climb. I could have stayed up there for hours, just admiring the blue water below me, but I had reserved a table from a nearby restaurant, so my appetite had an appointment with local fish dishes. The meal itself would have been alright at its best but the views from the corner table in their terrace made it excellent. Loved the view. Found my Zen.

Restaurant Juno in Nisantasi

This little place is the place to go to if you want a delicious meal in a friendly place that is affordable and cozy. I can’t compliment it enough, even the music they played there matched the place so well that even if I wouldn’t listen to it elsewhere, I definitely loved it there. I didn’t go there for dinner just once but twice during my three night stay, because I loved it so much. Their appetizer platter is something to try. It has plenty of small appetizers and the white wine the waiter suggest matched it perfectly. The music was fun to listen to, and the way to waiters took time to talk about the area and their restaurant was adorable. They seemed to be genuinely interested in their customers, so whether it was true or not, it left a nice impression. My appetite found its Zen.

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Modern, mythical Liechtenstein

Imagine crossing the border from one country to another without any formalities. It’s barely noticeable that you enter a new country. Drive for a mile or so, and you notice one difference that definitely separates the country from the previous one (that wasn’t bad at all per se): The country is, without a doubt, the most well-maintained and cleanest that you have ever been to. Beautiful flowers are planted in pots along the roads, and people on the streets are fashionably dressed. Welcome to the miniature country of Liechtenstein!

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This German-speaking microstate, the sixth-smallest independent nation in the world by land area, is a constitutional monarchy, and it is one of the two countries in the world that are doubly landlocked. It has an astonishingly low unemployment rate of only 1.5% and the highest gross domestic product per person in the world when not adjusted by purchasing power parity. All in all, Liechtenstein is a very rich, very well-organized state that welcomes tourists to learn more about it.

Parking in the center of the capital Vaduz is easy, there are plenty of parking spots in both parking garages and on the streets. The best place to start getting to know the city and the country is the Liechtenstein Center. The personnel there has answers to pretty much every question you can have, and the place gives you a good overview of what Vaduz and Liechtenstein are about.

I got excellent hiking directions (it was a walk though, not a hike) from the Liechtenstein Center to the Vaduz Castle that offers amazing views across the country.

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It is worth the climb even though you can’t enter the castle as it is a private residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein. I heard some people complaining about it at the top that they couldn’t check out the castle from the inside. I felt kind of bad for them as it seemed like they didn’t enjoy the beauty of the walk up there and the almost mythical atmosphere that the slightly foggy weather gave to the area.

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The fog created an ambiance of the Middle Ages, and I could just imagine knights riding on horses down the cobble stone road. Really, even just the walk up there made it a mini-adventure. The winding path that leads up to the castle has information boards that are both educative and entertaining. They tell interesting bits and pieces about the life and history of the micronation, so taking your time and reading them is worth it!

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Back in the center of Vaduz, the Main Square is a good spot for resting after the walk and planning out the rest of the trip. It’s a beautiful area with lots of cafes, restaurants, stores, and statues. The picturesque architecture creates an interesting point of comparison to the modern parliament building.

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The square is pedestrianized, so if you are traveling with children, it’s a safe area for teens and even younger ones to explore by themselves.

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Near the Main Square there’s also the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, so if you are a lover of contemporary and modern art, a stop there may be a good choice. I found the sculptures outside of it as well as the exhibitions inside fascinating, but that wasn’t very surprising as I usually tend to visit museums that focus on art starting from the early 1900s.

After exploring the center of Vaduz for a couple of hours, I had a snack in a café and headed south toward Switzerland. As I was not after white slopes and powder snow this time, I passed the great winter holiday location of Malbun on my way out. I have heard that even though it is not the largest of the ski resorts in the area, it has a ski lift that takes you to the top even in the summer and the views that open from there are magnificent as you can see Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, all at the same time. Even if you don’t have a car, there is a daily bus connection from Vaduz to Malbun area, so it is easy to reach. I couldn’t but wonder if I missed out on something that I would regret, but the Alps in Switzerland were already calling my name, so it was time for me to say goodbye to Liechtenstein.

The epic city hopping tour of Europe begins!

Amsterdam. This city has it all. When you are on a city vacation in Central Europe, you are not after beaches, right? Because that’s pretty much the only thing you cannot find in the very city center. Well, no mountains either, as most of the Netherlands is below sea level, but that is it. Pretty much everything else is right here, on your fingertips.IMG_8462

I can’t praise the compact size of Amsterdam enough. First off, the airport is only a short train ride away, and the central railway station is in the city center. A lot of the attractions are in the walking distance, and the excellent public transportation system takes you wherever further you are about to go. It’s a good idea to keep the ticket somewhere safe even after you enter a tram and get it stamped, because that will keep you from a lot of trouble. Live and learn, that’s all there is to say about that… The transportation system is excellent, and it is complemented by private water taxis that are practical if you want to avoid tourists. However, canal cruises are an amazing way to get an overview of the city.

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I arrived to the city in the morning and after dropping my backpack to the hotel, I took a tour on one of the water buses. There was a couple commenting that it was the most romantic bus ride they had ever taken, and even though I don’t know about their previous experiences, I agree that the ride was a pretty one. The driver was also our guide, so he explained a lot about the history of the city as well as about the accommodation situation in Amsterdam while we navigated those narrow canals and passed houseboats that were anchored along the canals.

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Food is one of the reasons why I love Amsterdam so much. Many may not know it, but the city has a ton of Indonesian restaurants, and a lot of them are worth checking out. If you want to eat at the iconic MAX restaurant, making a reservation is a good idea unless you want to wait and see if you’ll get lucky within the next couple of hours. Even that is worth it though, because the restaurant is located on one of the nicest streets in Amsterdam and if you like people watching, the waiting time offers a great opportunity for that. When the food is in front of you, you know why you chose to wait instead of dining at some other restaurant. There are a lot of other good restaurants in the city as well. On my second day in Amsterdam, I decided to have dinner at the Indian restaurant Moti Mahal that is only a couple of blocks away from the central railway station. The food was tasty and the service was friendly, so it was a perfect place for a casual meal with friends. In regards to culinary experiences, I hope the couple I mentioned went on one of the dinner cruises that are also offered as those are a lot more romantic and the food is alright, of course not like in three star Michelin restaurants but it is set up really nicely and tastes good as well.

If you love museums, Amsterdam doesn’t let you down. The city offers an amazing selection of museums. The famous Anne Frank House, the Rijksmuseum (Dutch art and history), Stedelijk Museum (modern and contemporary art and design), Sex Museum, Jewish Museum, there’s something for everybody. My personal favorite turned out to be Van Gogh Museum. This museum has the largest Van Gogh collection in the world. It is quite pleasant otherwise as well as it has good cafeterias that manage the visitor flows excellently as they never are too crowded even though the museum is ranked among the top 25 museums in the world with 1.6 million visitors each year.

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In general, Amsterdam is a perfect destination for a long weekend vacation, but if you are like me, you’ll be longing for more time in there.

The top three picks in Amsterdam:

  1. Van Gogh Museum
  2. Canal cruises
  3. Long walks to explore the city