Originally when we went to Turkey we planned on seeing a little bit of Istanbul and then traveling onward to other locations. However, we were so enamored by the city that we ended up spending the entire week there.
While in Turkey we often got the question why Istanbul? Why Turkey? The best answer we usually had was “Why not?”. Sure we were intrigued by the enormous history of the city and the whole East meets West concept, but when posed the question we could never come up with a good, concrete reason for being there. That being said, we are sure glad we went. Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis that is made of intimate neighborhoods each possessing character that make them unique. Months could be spent exploring this vast city and to say we didn’t want to leave would be an understatement.
Our home base for the trip was the Dersaadet Oteli in Sultanahmet; an inn in a restored Ottoman wooden mansion. The Dersaadet is located practically next door to the Blue Mosque and has a soothing ambiance about it that makes it a welcome retreat after a long day of roaming around. The rooms are small, but in a cozy way, and the entire hotel itself is impeccable in decor and cleanliness. Our stay here exceeded all expectations and though we had only booked a room for two nights we ended up extending our stay here for almost the entire trip. Finally, the last night they had no room for us so they booked us at their sister hotel, Hotel Niles,which was not as kind on the eyes but was a little cheaper and had all the amenities a traveler could need. While in town we also visited friends of Katrina’s from Pennsylvania, the Duttons, who were coincidentally touring Turkey at the same time and staying at the Sari Konak–another beautifully restored inn in Sultanahmet.
The Sultanahmet neighborhood in Old Istanbul is home to many of the city’s historic sights, making it easy for the visitor. The beautiful Blue Mosque is a stone’s throw from Ayasofya–the prodigious structure that was the major cathedral when the city was Constantinople, and was turned into a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Thousand year old mosaics displaying Christian motifs have been uncovered here during excavations, and are displayed next to Muslim structures and large Arabic characters.
Across the street from Ayasofya is the Basilica Cistern that provided water to the area as far back as the 6th century, and down the street is Topkapi Palace.We spent hours exploring this royal residence of the sultans. The architecture and detailed tiling is amazing and the rooms go on and on.There are museum-like displays in certain sections, including imperialgold and jewels in the old treasury so opulent they make you blush. Wewere surprised by (and skeptical of) the exhibit of ancient religious relics including pieces of Mohammed’s beard, John the Baptist’s arm,Moses’s staff, and Abraham’s saucepan. The fee for Topkapi does not include entrance to the palace’s adjoining harem, but nonetheless it’s beautiful chambers were worth the extra lira. The halls of the Harem are eerily quiet, making it easier to daydream of the extravagant dayto day lives its inhabitants once led.
Right next door to Topkapi is an unsuspecting series of buildings that houses the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.We almost missed it but are so glad we didn’t! Once you enter through the main gates, you find three large buildings packed with truly ancient artifacts–sculptures and mosaics from several thousand years BC aplenty! Some of our favorite items were the notes and contractschiseled in stone when writing was just beginning, including a love poem from 2000 BC. We had planned this museum as a shortstop, but ended up spending several hours exploring the exhibits and could have spent several hours more.
Although you could spend an entire trip to Istanbul without leaving Sultanahmet, a short tram or ferry ride takes you to many rewarding sights. Chora Church in western Istanbul has an extensive display of tile mosaics. Galata Tower on the other side of the Golden Horn offers unrivaled views of the mosque-dotted city skyline. And one of our absolute favorite places was Rumeli Hisari to the north. For a few dollars entrance fee you are given free reign to scramble up and down the walls of this ancient fortress used during the Ottoman siege of Constantinople. A great way to get there is to take a picturesque ferry ride up the Bosphorus, and then a bus that leaves you at the entrance gate.
Another great neighborhood to explore is the young and hip Beyoglu–the perfect place for a night out. After eating a traditional meal of mezes (small plates) at Sofyali 9,we met a fun Turkish couple at a bar down the street with whom we drink away the night. Dawid and Seda directed us to explore Ortikoy for the next day, where we enjoyed cafes buzzing with activity and a most spectacular sunset over the Bosphorus. We also hopped a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul to take in a Champions league match between the local 11 Fenerbahce and Portugal side Porto. We thought the atmosphere at Fen way is intense–but Sox fans have nothing on the faithful of the Yellow Canaries.
We enjoyed a variety of Turkish cuisine while in Istanbul with the ubiquitous kebaps and pides high on our list. For a quick snack, you can always find a street vendor selling roasted chestnuts, corn on the cob, or simit–which is strikingly similar to a sesame bagel. The alcohol of choice is an anise-flavored liquor called raki served with water and ice. We had a tough time stomaching this, so we mostly stuck to the local pint, Efes. The real drink of choice, however, is cay:black tea served in a small tulip-shaped glass at any hour of the day or night. We were definitely hooked on this reliable caffeine fix. Ourfavorite restaurant in Old Istanbul for all these treats was without a doubt Hamdi.
Shoppingin Istanbul is an experience in itself. The Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s most famous markets, is a maze of stores hawking everything from jewelry and home goods to leather and preppy clothing (knockoff Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie and Lacoste are very popular). Shop owners hound you incessantly as you make your way through the Bazaar; if you want to make a purchase, get ready to bargain. After the sales person states the price, it’s a good idea to look doubtful and offer 50% of the requested amount. Bargaining goes back and forth until an agreeable price is reached. If you are like us, you might find this process very uncomfortable, but it’s really what is expected.
The Spice Bazaar is more what we expected from the Turkish bazaars–rustic stalls, displaying mountains of colorful spices, teas and candies. This was our favorite place to shop for lokum (Turkish delight) and hot chili peppers to bring home.
Another distinctly Turkish experience is visiting a hamam (Turkish bath). Katrina was nervous about not knowing proper bath etiquette, but we found a great place with lots of bossy staff:Cemberlitas. After paying at the entrance we were led to our separate men’s and women’s areas of the hamam. Once changed into a light cloth, we went to our respective sauna rooms where everyone lies down on the hot marble stone in the center of the room. After baking for a while and getting your skin nice and soft, the masseurs/euses begin to work their magic: a good scrub, wash and rinse takes about 15 minutes. We could definitely get used to bathing like this on a daily basis.
We were able to squeeze in four hours of Amsterdam on the way back from our action packed week in Istanbul. Four hours was enough to realize one thing…we missed Istanbul. Sure there will probably be a time for a thorough visit to Amsterdam, but not before a return visit to Istanbul.