Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oh, lovely, magical Istanbul

After our all-too-quick three nights in Göreme, we hopped on another Turkish Air flight back to Istanbul. I was super excited for the in-flight meal! This time we got spicy kebab, rice pilaf, smoked salmon salad, and a brownie!

[L] Mt. Erciyas, whose eruption 2000 years ago formed the fairy chimneys of Gorëme [R] Istanbul

Our hotel was located right in the heart of the Sultanahmet district, which is mostly touristic but a great location for our short stay because we were within walking distance to all the heavy-hitter sights. We arrived around 4pm and met up with Bethany and Kevin for rooftop beers and sunset. The view from the roof was pretty darn breathtaking. The Agean Sea to the west, Blue Mosque to the north, the Hagia Sophia to the south, and various other mosques' minarets sprouting from other areas as well. Wow. 

Blue Mosque

As the sun set behind the Blue Mosque, we heard the beginnings of the call to prayer from one of the mosques. After a moment, another started; soon we had no idea where the calls came from because each echoed off different buildings from all seven hills of the city. It was surreal. Calming, yet also haunting. 

the buzzing Istikal Caddesi

For dinner, we decided to take a taxi to Taksim Square, just across the Galata bridge, north of Sultanahmet. We walked along Istikal Caddesi, one of Istanbul's most famous, buzzing streets. I was impressed by the gorgeous 19th century buildings and the wide, 2-mile long, pedestrian-only boulevard divided by a single pair of streetcar tracks. Though the main street housed your typical cosmopolitan Western retail (Gap! Starbucks! and others I don't often see, even in Holland), the side streets and alleyways were the real gems. We wandered off the main drag and found a small hole in the wall of a restaurant. We ate a mix of mezzes, fish dishes and of course, beer. After dinner, we walked more to find this super hip bar called 360, and once we found it, we were introduced to the rooftop bar scene of Istanbul. Only on the 7th floor, we had an incredible view of the city and noticed many other rooftop bars--it's the thing to do here. Why don't other cities do this?! Or maybe I'm just totally oblivious. What an amazing use of space in a super-dense, fairly low-rise city. 

Basilica Cistern

We got an early and healthy start to our first full day with yet another filling Turkish breakfast, and views of the morning sun from the rooftop. The Basilica Cistern (also called the Sunken Palace) was our first stop of the day. This is the largest of many underground water wells in the city and dates back to 6th century Byzantine times. It can hold 21 million gallons of water! The most unique characteristic of this cistern is the placement of two Medusa heads in the back part of the cistern. No one knows where they came from or why one of the heads was (purposefully) placed upside-down. 

Grand Bazaar

Our next stop was the incredible Grand Bazaar. For some reason I was expecting an open-air market-like situation, but instead I found a maze of alleyways in an enclosed structure with individual shops--and men standing in the doorways trying to lure you in with statements like "Hey lady! You found me!" and "Lady, everything free in my shop today!" One man even sang to us as we passed by.

The sight of all the goods was just too much; I wanted to buy everything. Hand-carved brass plates, stove-top coffee pots, lanterns, leather purses, antique coffee and spice grinders, pewter Hammam water bowls, and the fabric--oh, the fabric. Gorgeous Ikat silk, hand-embroidered cotton, velvet--my, oh, my. It was heaven. I ended up with only a few purchases: one(!) lovely silk scarf and four Turkish cotton/bamboo bath towels (yes, I needed 4). 

After several hours of wandering around--at one point we were so turned around, one vender said, "You know you walked by here three times now!"--we exited the bazaar and scouted out some döner kebab. All that shopping made us hungry! 

Fake Ray-Bans!! Gotta have them.

Once our bellies were full of döner, we walked to Suleymaniye Mosque. Granted this was the first mosque I'd been inside and at this point I'd only seen the outside of the Blue Mosque, but this one blew my mind. The scale of the main interior dome was outstanding and all the lights, mosaics, and paintings were so intricately done.  Sultan Suleyman ('the Magnificent') ordered the construction of this mosque in 1550 and it was finished in a mere 8 years. 

Next up, the Hagia Sophia. First, in AD 360, it was built as an Orthodox church and was such until 1453 when Constantinople (now known as Istanbul) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. They turned it into a mosque by removing the bells, altar, and plastering over the mosaics. Prominent Islamic features (like the minarets) were added as well. In 1935, the first President of Turkey, Atatürk, converted it into a museum. Like many other pieces of history in this country, the reasons for this are uncertain. 

Hagia Sophia

Leila and I made it back to our hotel for happy hour on the roof and then the four of us went out in search for a spot to get some mezzes and a sunset view of the city. We found a roof terrace, snapped a few, and then found another place (with better-looking, cheaper food) down the street.  

Blue Mosque

After dinner we meandered though the Sultanahmet towards the hotel and decided to stop in a bar for a glass of wine. Turned out this bar was located above Byzantium palace ruins, discovered only 10 years ago. We sat in large beanbag chairs atop a glass floor that looked down into the ruins--cool. Before leaving we checked out the palace, pretty incredible. I felt like Indiana Jones.

Recently discovered Byzantium palace
On our last full day, I woke up early to say goodbye to Bethany. [Aw, sad--but such happy times!] Leila and I loved our tour in Cappadocia so much we signed up for another tour with the same company, but in Istanbul. We thought it was a pretty good deal so we went for the half day walking tour of the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, and the Topkapi Palace. Good tour, but now it's all a blur. Every sight was packed with tourists. 

[above] cats and dogs ALL over the city [below] Topkapi Palace

Good thing we did the tour because it got us out of the hotel early! It was only 11:30am when we finished all three sights. We immediately headed to the Spice Bazaar--another sensory overload! Dried fruit, spices (of course!), coffee, teas, you name it they got it! I ended up buying some dried fruit, and something they gimmick-ly call "Turkish Viagra," which is just dried fruit with some nuts stuffed into each piece. Yum.

Spice Bazaar

Since we hadn't tried any yet, we stopped for Turkish coffee. It was good--definitely gave me a little pep and definitely a little sludge-y. We then checked out the New Mosque, built in 1597 (not so 'new'). Beautiful. And empty compared to the earlier visit to the Blue Mosque! It was lovely just sitting and relaxing on the carpet floor, gazing up at the marble columns and the many domes in the ceiling. So peaceful.

[top] the New Mosque and Islamic prayer beads [bottom] a common sight in the city: men, cigarettes, tea

While we were at the waterfront, we walked about halfway accross the Galata Bridge, a famous fishing spot for the locals. Nice views of the city all around us. We noticed some tour boats docked and thought to check out the departure times and signed up for the next one leaving--90 minutes along the Bosphorus River for 12€ seemed like a steal! 

[L] view of Galata Tower [R] view of mosques

The weather was perfect for a tour on the water. The boat took us all the way past the Bosphorus Bridge--which connects the continents of Europe and Asia--to the Fatih Bridge, and then back. Man, this city is huge! It just kept on going and going. 

The Bosphorus Bridge: where east meets west

After our boat tour, we walked across the Galata Bridge again to tour the fish market and then up to the Galata Tower area in search of another rooftop gem, stumbling through a random tool market on our way. This neighborhood is so cute! We finally found the LP-recommended bar on the top of an old Ottoman-era hotel. Drinks were really expensive, but we were paying for the view. We watched the sun set while we drew up a game plan for the evening. Once the call for prayer ended we headed downstairs for the Galata streets. We found a cozy restaurant with adorable gramma's-curtains-meets-hipster decor. We had some mezzes of zucchini fritters, aubergine salad, tabouleh, and main dishes of tuna and mini lamb ravioli in a yogurt cream sauce. 

Our last stop of the evening was our favorite bar on top of the palace ruins.

Oh, lovely, magical Istanbul. I will return, I promise. 


  1. Oh Turkey - one of my favorite places. Your pictures have an amazing way of bringing it all back. Beautiful shots!

  2. Bring me back some Turkish Viagra!

  3. I knew you'd love Istanbul! I hope it was everything and more than you expected...


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