I somehow never got around to writing about my trip to Istanbul despite the fact that it was AMAZING and wholly deserving of detailed praise! I’m saddened by the string of terrorist attacks in Turkey, so I want to capture my good memories to keep the positivity alive.
Istanbul was the fourth and final city on the trip my friend Mary and I took in August 2015. We flew to Istanbul from Casablanca after spending more than a week in Morocco, which as related in that post was a really mixed experience that by the end made us very ready to leave. Istanbul was the total opposite: we loved everything about it, and for the first 24 hours we kept saying “upgrade!!!” to ourselves as we walked around.
Istanbul has three parts, all separated by water. We stayed in the newer part of the city near Galata tower, in an Airbnb apartment with access to a rooftop with this view:
We never tired of this view, which was also gorgeous at night with the moon rising over the Bosphorus. I also loved listening to the call to prayer from up here.
Here’s Galata tower, just a block or two further up the hill:
Aside from our gorgeous view over the Bosphorus, we found plenty to praise and further points of cultural curiosity in Istanbul. The food, as you’ll see, never disappointed us. (And indeed, even before this trip, I had a proclivity for Turkish food, so I was thrilled to have the chance to eat some that was extra authentic.) I always love cities with rich histories, and Istanbul certainly qualifies. For me it had always seemed like this mysterious, exotic destination – the seat of the mighty Ottoman Empire, home to the sultans and their famous harems, and before them to Alexander the Great! I think the Turks, like the French, take great pride in their history of having power over huge portions of the globe, and I think that explains things like the effort and expense they have put into maintaining the city. Its most famous tourist sites are truly stunning, and I’ve never been in a large city so clean. I was quite impressed.
We also felt instantly more safe and comfortable than we had in Morocco. I’m not sure what exactly accounts for that. As much as I’d love to declare us such seasoned travelers that our increased comfort had nothing to do with the fact that Istanbul felt distinctly more European, I think that certainly contributed to it. We felt like out of place foreigners the entire time we were in Morocco, but in Istanbul, we felt like tourists in any other European city. It was easier to navigate through Istanbul, to be sure – there’s one tram line that takes you pretty much everywhere you’d want to go, which was a huge improvement from the maze of the medinas and the chaos of trying to find a taxi in Rabat and Casablanca. And we were better able to blend in – although we saw plenty of women wearing hajabs, plenty more weren’t wearing them, and in general we didn’t feel nearly as much pressure to dress conservatively. (Whereas in Morocco we’d worn only maxi dresses and kept our arms fully covered, in Istanbul we switched to knee-length dresses in the evenings for dinner.) I suppose you could say that Istanbul just required less effort, which was a relief (especially after feeling that our effort in Morocco often didn’t make things any better for us).
Anyway, our first full day in Istanbul was the day of hitting most of the big tourist sites: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the cistern, all across the bay from us and easily reached via the tram. It was a beautiful day, and we took lots of pictures while standing between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, which face each other and are separated by a plaza/park.
We started in the Hagia Sophia as we figured that would have the longest line. I’ll let you research the fascinating history of this religious space and instead let you marvel at its interior.
The Hagia Sophia, like Notre Dame in Paris, is one of those places where you never stop being aware of the fact that you’re in an awe-inspiring, very old space for spiritual activity. Despite the many people moving around inside, there was still a pervasive sense of calm and quiet. We spent probably about an hour inside, relying on Rick Steve’s tour to work our way around and take in all of the detail.
From the Hagia Sophia we moved on to Topkapi Palace, the former home of the sultans. I was pretty excited to see this too, particularly its famous harem. It’s a sprawling complex – we invested in some audioguides to help us navigate our way around. We started in the harem, which didn’t quite conjure the visions I was expecting but was nonetheless full of impressive architecture and interior decoration:
After the palace, we needed to beat the mid-afternoon heat, so we backtracked and went to the underground cistern, which turned out to be my favorite place of the day. The underground cistern is essentially a massive pool of water hidden under the street, quite close to the Hagia Sophia. It dates back about 1400 years, and you can tell; the place is even more of a time capsule than the Hagia Sophia.
Visitors make their way around on a series of platforms above the water, which is only a few feet deep but hosts plenty of large fish, who must have a very peaceful life down there. This would be the ideal place to come in the middle of a stressful day – you feel completely removed from the outside world! I would also love to go to one of the concerts that regularly take place down there; the sound must be incredible.
The underground cistern is also famous for its two giant Medusa heads, whose presence (and orientation) is unexplained. One is upside-down, and the other is sideways. It’s thought that they are leftovers from some previous structure and just happened to be the right size to hold the columns that rest on them…
Our last stop on the tourist trail that day was the Blue Mosque, which as you can tell from the picture above is massive. We learned that they take the dress code very seriously; to my chagrin, I was handed a supplemental covering to wrap around my waist because my maxi dress had slits up to the knees that allowed some leg to be visible when I walked. (At least I was better than many of the other tourists who showed up in shorts!) Here’s the inside of the Blue Mosque:
I feel a little disoriented even now looking at the picture of that chandelier (if that’s even the right word for something so wide) – it’s only a foot or two higher than standing height!
I have fewer pictures from our other activities around Istanbul. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, for instance, are both busy enough that walking around with a camera isn’t the most practical. Both are quite an experience. The Grand Bazaar is huge; there are probably at least 15 very, very long rows of stalls inside the building, and saying “I’ll come back here after I’ve looked around more” didn’t end up being the easiest strategy! We were a bit disappointed to see that many of the clothing stalls were selling designer knock-offs – not because we were so opposed to knock-offs but more because they detracted from the authentic, historical feel of the place! I was, however, quite satisfied with my purchase of knee boots featuring a cool blue/green/gold tapestry-like stitching on the outside. I bargained HARD; the transaction took about 15 minutes. (As I think I’ve mentioned before, I am horrible at bargaining. It makes me really uncomfortable, particularly in situations where I’m fully capable of paying the first price given. In this case, the boots were still not a steal even after I got the price cut in half, so I was a lot more motivated to negotiate.) The vendor, in gratitude for my business, a) asked me to get a beer with him later and b) led us halfway across the bazaar to the stall of a friend of his, who proceeded to offer us tea and join in the pleas to get us to go out with them. (I don’t even remember what wares we were supposedly viewing at the second place!) We did not end up taking them up on the offer of the beer, but it was a very amusing exchange nonetheless.
Another activity (which strangely I appear to have no pictures from) was taking a cruise on the Bosphorus. I learned two important lessons from that experience: 1) everyone should aspire to have a mansion on the Bosphorus, and 2) giant wafer cookies (about eight inches across) are THE snack to eat on a boat in Istanbul. The cruise took about two hours; we traveled beyond the limits of Istanbul up the Bosphorus and passed countless charming mansions right on the coast (some looked more like houses in Venice, where you could essentially open a door and step into the water).
We saw plenty of the Asian side of the greater Istanbul area from the boat, but we didn’t actually set foot on Asia until our last day, when we went to Asia for lunch. (That statement makes me smile just as much now as it did then! Just a cheeky trip to Asia for lunch…) The Asian side has a slightly different feel, though I’m not sure how to describe it – perhaps that’s it actually; the Asian side is just a bit more nondescript, as opposed to the European side which is so steeped in the visible history. We heard that more and more Istanbul residents are moving to the Asian side, so it will be interesting to follow how that part of the city evolves in the coming years. It couldn’t be easier to get there despite the fact that it looks kind of far away across the water: there’s an underwater train that runs from a station on the European side near the palace to a point on the Asian side across the Bosphorus, and it takes less than 10 minutes.
Finally, before I get to all of the food we ate, I have to talk about the whirling dervishes. I’m sure that you, like me, have certainly heard of “whirling dervishes” but would be hard pressed to explain what they are or even link them to Turkey. The dervishes fascinated me every bit as much as all of the other aspects of Islam that we encountered in Morocco and in Istanbul. I will again refer you to Google to learn more, but essentially, dervishes are sort of like monks, and they practice whirling (twirling) as a means of getting closer to God. There is one place in Istanbul where, once a week, you can watch the whirling dervishes perform a full ceremony. It is truly one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. There are different stages; they aren’t whirling the entire time, but they do it for waaaaay the point at which I would have fallen down from dizziness.
What I most wanted to understand, and unfortunately still haven’t been able to find out, is the significance of the positioning of their various parts of the body. Their heads, for example, are kept tilted at an angle; you’ll notice if you look hard at the picture above that they all have their left and right hands oriented in a different way as well. They plant one foot and rotate around that foot (using the other foot to spin themselves around). The whirling is just slow enough (I imagine) to moderate the dizziness but is still pretty fast.
Finally, the food. We ate so well in Istanbul, both casually and formally. For snacks, we had simits (essentially a Turkish take on the pretzel), strange ice cream with a consistency closer to taffy (such that the vendors liked to play tricks on the buyers, with lots of upside-down flips of the cone), freshly fried fish sandwiches cooked on a boat, kebab wraps from a place visited by Anthony Bourdain, and even a special Turkish hamburger whose bun is covered in a tomato sauce. Here are a few of those:
By far our most memorable meal in Istanbul (which is saying something) was our brunch. Anyone going to Istanbul should prioritize having a proper Turkish brunch. It was a thing of beauty. Observe our table:
Brunch included: spinach pita sandwiches, a delicious and spicy egg, tomato, and sausage dish, sliced veggies, olives, several types of Turkish cheese, homemade spreads and jams (including a homemade hazelnut spread), bread, juice, and, of course, Turkish coffee. We at this at a table set up literally on the street in a residential area not too far from our own neighborhood, and it was clearly the place to be on a late Sunday morning; taxis regularly dropped people off next to us.
You might be wondering what authentic Turkish Delight is like. I can’t claim to have eaten a lot of Turkish Delight in my life, but I can say that nothing I’ve had before or since this trip has been anything close to what we ate. Here is the Turkish Delight shop near our apartment where I filled a big box to bring to my colleagues.
Turkish Delight comes in a huge array of flavors, and all of them are delicious!
Mary and I decided to end our trip by staying in a five star hotel on our last night; we crossed the river and stayed closer to the main tourist sites. We ended up having our last dinner in the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, and while the meal itself was wonderful, the view was the best part.
In summary: Istanbul was a beautiful city, one in which I could easily imagine living. It’s right up there with Paris and Rio in terms of cities where I have felt a real connection, as if it’s possible I lived there in a past life. I’ve been watching a Turkish television show on Netflix recently, and it has only increased my desire to learn more about Turkish culture and see more of the rest of the country, as I recognize that Istanbul is but one city in a very large country. I hope that the security situation settles down so that everyone can soon feel comfortable going there again, and I look forward to visiting Istanbul again sometime in the future.