Our idea for a short trip to Turkey was hatched a little over a month ago when Dan learned that he would likely be traveling to Istanbul for work for a site visit. I was very interested in tagging along for part of his trip, so we started looking at flights and things to do in the city for a weekend. It was shortly thereafter that tensions between the US and Turkish government began escalating, and wanting to be smart and safe travelers, we ended up holding off on booking airfare and making reservations. For a week straight, it seemed that tense US / Turkish relations were in the news on a nightly basis, then the lira dropped in value, which was not good news for the Turkish economy. We were hesitant to make travel plans and frankly not sure if this was the best time for a visit to Turkey, but we did not yet write the trip off. Instead, we decided to wait another week, re-assess, and then make a decision as to whether we would be making a weekend of it.
We were mindful of the news and travel warnings, but we also did our own research reading travel articles, blogs, and reviews from those who had recently visited the city, in order to make an informed decision (we are accountants after all). I say all this here to explain that when we did decide to book flights, it was with the understanding that, if necessary, we wouldn’t hesitate to cancel our plans, but if we did go, we were going to take it in all! I am so glad we didn’t miss out on this opportunity based on our own reservations or perceptions of the country, which often times are based on our exposure to only certain facets of the society. Visiting Istanbul, may at times put you out of your comfort zone, but it’s well worth a visit to explore this vast city with a very unique history and to experience an unfamiliar culture.
A comfortable three and a half hour flight (with a meal!) later and I had arrived at Ataturk airport on Friday night and with about 36 hours in Istanbul, knew we would be attempting to accomplish a lot in a very short time. Fortunately, Dan made the wise decision to book our hotel in the Sultanahmet District which is home to a handful of the very many “must-see” sites in this city. This area is located on the European side of Istanbul, but the city itself straddles both sides of the Bosphorus Strait and consequently sits on the European and Asian continents. With a population of 15 million in the city proper (NYC is ~9 million in the city proper for comparison), I don’t think I fully comprehended just what a city of that size would look like until I was on my way to the hotel from the airport. I was floored by the number of people commuting, shopping, eating, touring, and enjoying themselves in restaurants and stores, driving cars, walking, and using public transportation… and that traffic even rivaled Brussels!
Our late-night dinner on Friday was at a restaurant not far from the hotel and it was delicious and very reasonably priced- a theme for the weekend. The waiter’s recommendation for a local wine and an appetizer were spot on and my sea bass in paper wrap was phenomenal. But of course, what’s a meal without dessert- baklava to be specific, and it did not disappoint!
On Saturday morning, we were awakened by the call to prayer at about 5:30am. Dan had reminded me that this would most certainly wake us (as he had experienced the past few days), but it was still very startling for me because of its unfamiliarity, and even though I was craving more rest, I was so mesmerized by the sound that I couldn’t fall back asleep (it was also pretty loud). In Istanbul, the call to prayer is broadcast from the minarets (think towers) of the mosques around the city six times per day with the times correlating to the timing of sunrise and sunset on that day. It was a very memorable experience for someone who is unaccustomed to hearing the pronouncements but in general it had no impact on what we were presently doing at the time, aside from the mosques being closed to visitors during prayer times. I imagine this has to do with us being in fairly touristy areas throughout the trip.
Not needing an alarm clock that morning, we had an early start for our run, which was planned ahead of time to facilitate maximum site seeing, only this time we had an unplanned guest accompanying us, and it wasn’t a tour guide. Istanbul has A LOT of stray dogs and cats and Dan made the natural, but fateful, decision to make eye contact and smile at one of the strays as we were passing him on the street. This guy was cute and albeit seemed pretty friendly, but I know from experience that having stray dogs chase you on a run is not pleasant, so we did our best to deter him from following us by walking, stopping, and finally, splitting up. I guess he was confused, or got bored, when Dan and I parted ways for a block, so we were able to lose him but we learned a quick lesson that came in handy during the rest of the run- no eye contact, even if they are really cute. We had a route planned for the run, but as has happened before, we found ourselves lost and way off our intended path. We went from winding our way through the many people that had also started their day on one of the busier streets, to making a sharp left turn onto a narrow and deserted side street where the stores had not yet opened, all the while going up and down the many hills of the city. Eventually we spotted the nicely paved and spacious path along the water of the Bosphorus Strait at the eastern side of Sirkeci, so followed it north and then west towards a spectacular view of the Golden Horn of Istanbul. The Golden Horn is a horn-shaped estuary that connects the Strait with the Sea of Marmara, thus creating a peninsula, on which the historic center of Istanbul sits. The path along the Horn wasn’t crowded but we also weren’t the only ones up for a morning work-out- I saw at least 20 men swimming in the Strait just off the path that morning… the water did not look inviting enough for me to be tempted to jump in though.
Our first stop of the day following breakfast was the Blue Mosque, just a 10/15 minute walk from our hotel. Having read that this was a popular tourist attraction, we tried to get there early, but found ourselves at the end of a long line of other people who apparently had the same idea as us. Fortunately, we had a friendly face to welcome us, but we found out he had his own agenda- selling us a rug. Nonetheless, he was welcoming and not overly pushy, so we’ll chalk that up to a friendly salesman just doing his job (he wasn’t the last of those). Upon entering the line in the courtyard, I was instructed by signs that I would need to put my scarf on my head, covering my hair and shoulders. This rule applies to all women, as does the rule that both men and women be covered from their ankles knees up. We were prepared, but I’m fairly certain that had we not been, there were a plethora of vendors selling scarves and long skirts who would solicit our business.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque for its blue-tiled interior, is quite awe-inspiring from the outside with its six minarets and towering presence at the top of one of the many hills in the city. Unfortunately for us, a section of the exterior courtyard and a large portion of the interior were undergoing refurbishment and thus blocked off, so in all honestly our brief visit was a bit disappointing. What we could see of the interior was beautiful, but when you’re restricted to a more confined area with all the other tourists, you end up worrying more about accidentally making it into people’s selfies than appreciating the colorful tiling and architecture. It was actually later that night at our rooftop dinner that we would have the best and most impressive view of the exterior of the mosque.
The Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) Museum was next on our list and lucky for us, it was right across the street on the top of the same hill as the Blue Mosque. What is interesting about the Hagia Sophia museum is that it was originally built in the sixth century as a Greek Orthodox Church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and then was converted to a mosque under the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. As such, it’s an excellent example of the interesting history of a city that has been infused with multiple cultures and religions over thousands of years. Since the 1930’s, the Hagia Sophia has been a museum where visitors can stand under the massive dome, the biggest of its kind when it was built, and appreciate the beautiful mosaics depicting biblical scenes that have been restored. The Hagia Sophia was also undergoing restoration on the interior, but to a lesser extent than the Blue Mosque, and regardless of the scaffolding we were amazed by the enormity of the building and gorgeous design from the inside and outside.
We were able to walk around on the ground level and then made our way up to the balcony where you could get up closer views to several of the mosaics. In my opinion, this is an absolute must-see when visiting the city and my pictures certainly don’t do it justice. Even for those who tire of seeing cathedral after cathedral in Europe, the Hagia Sophia won’t disappoint you.
Our lunch was enjoyed with our recurring travel companions (co-worker and family who were also in Poland with us) not far from the Hagia Sophia where the service was impeccable and the food was excellent. From there we headed to the Topkapi Palace, which again was not a strenuous walk which is much appreciated in the 80 degree heat. The Topkapi Palace was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans and I have to say they did a pretty good job of selecting the location. More impressive than the weapons and clocks collections was the view of the Bosphorous and the city itself from this incredible vantage point. We spent most of our time enjoying the grounds and the spectacular view from the Palace- well worth the cheap admissions price of 40 TL, which would be about $6.50.
We went from the spacious grounds of the Palace to the crowded aisles at the Grand Bazar. This indoor market definitely lived up to my expectations: it was crowded with people and merchandise, you could buy almost anything you would want, I was heckled HARD to buy a rug, and the store owners were eagerly awaiting a good bartering session! Dan appeased me for a little while as we wove through aisles and aisles of small stores selling rugs, shoes, bags, jewelry, pottery, lamps, spices, candy, etc. and just when we were ready to call it quits and try to find our way out of the maze, we spotted a store selling some items that caught our eye. This was the place where we (mainly Dan) would partake in the notorious bartering of the Bazar. We identified the merchandise that caught our eye, without becoming too attached, and didn’t have to wait more than a minute before the attendant had spotted potential customers. It’s hard to say how long the process took, but before we had come to a final price, the following events had taken place: (1) multiple offers and counter-offers had been extended; (2) we had swapped out some of our original merchandise in an effort to lower the price; (3) the attendant had insisted I take a seat on a stool he pulled out of nowhere and (4) the attendant’s boss had been summoned to close the deal. I have to say that Dan did a phenomenal job of securing a deal! At first, it was hard to not interject in the pricing process, but I realized pretty quickly that bartering is a two-party practice and I should just sit back and witness Dan’s negotiating skills. We left the store as happy customers thanks to the firm, but kind attendant who told us that next time we return, he will teach us to play backgammon
In high spirits after our successful shopping, we stopped to enjoy a Turkish coffee and tea, accompanied by one of the most delicious desserts I have ever tried. Unfortunately, I cannot recall what it was called but it had pistachios and that’s all I need to know… give me all the pistachios! We proceeded to head back to our hotel and were able to enjoy the view as the sun was setting. Again, the pictures don’t do this city skyline justice.
We capped off the evening with dinner on another rooftop with an incredible view of both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Dan and I were feeling adventurous so we opted for a meal prepared in a traditional way- our seafood was cooked in a clay pot, which was lit on fire at our table and then broken apart so we could eat from it.
The last story I’ll share is from our walk home after dinner because I’m still laughing about it almost a week after the fact. On our walk home, Dan paused as we passed by a gift store and wanting to be a supportive travel companion, I asked him if there was something that caught his eye that he wanted to look at. We walked a few steps back to get a better view of the display case and were immediately spotted by the store owner, who in a friendly and inviting way struck up a conversation by asking us where we were from. When he found out we were from the US, the conversation immediately turned to Lebron James. Well, this seemingly innocent glance at the display case with no intention to buy anything, turned into a 30+ minute affair as the owner showed us around the entire store and explained everything that was available for sale. I am not exaggerating. We were shown bejeweled statues, trophies, jewelry, mugs and shot glasses, scarves, keychains, tourist trinkets… you name it, he sold it. The guy was an excellent salesman who was working very hard for our money, but in an unimposing way that convinced us that we would need to patronage his business with the remainder of our Lira. And so it was that the last purchase of the trip was the scarf that I said I would be looking for while visiting, but hadn’t yet found until the 11th hour of our trip.
As evidenced by yet another long blog post, there is a lot to talk about when it comes to this place. We left Istanbul incredibly grateful for the opportunity to not only explore this city, but also to be welcomed by friendly and lively locals. I’m so glad we didn’t let our initial reservations hold us back and absolutely hope that we have another opportunity to make it back in the next few years, after all we didn’t even come close to stepping on the Asian continent and that is a must-do!