istanbul, turkey

I'm finally (finally!) ready to share more from Turkey, this time from Istanbul.  If you need a little refresher, we spent two months last summer teaching English at a camp for kids located on a university campus on the outskirts of Istanbul.  We had weekends off from work, and packed most of them with sightseeing and eating out in the city (plus two trips further afield to Cappadocia and Ephesus).  In total, we saw and did about 20 different things in Istanbul, not counting our day trips to Büyükada (one of the nearby islands) and Kilyos (a beach and tiny village), both of which I really recommend.  Okay, into the streets of Istanbul we go!

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Grand Bazaar

We walked through the centuries-old Grand Bazaar our first weekend in Istanbul, and because it's fairly centrally located we found ourselves in the area a couple of times afterwards, including one time in particular near the end of the summer when we made an intentional trip to really explore deeper into the maze of the market's stalls and alleys.  Carpets, keychains, tea sets, magnets, scarves, lamps, knockoff shoes and sports jerseys - you name it, you can find it here.  

D - It's funny because looking back, I remember being very intimidated about traveling around Istanbul just the two of us.  It's weird because we are fairly experienced travelers but everything just seemed so loud and confusing and different at first.  I was thinking, "What if we get lost?  What if nobody speaks English?  I don't know a word of Turkish!"  Despite all my initial worries, by the end of our time in Istanbul, it felt like second nature navigating our way around the city.  


Blue Mosque / Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Before arriving for our first visit to one of Istanbul's most recognizable buildings (and our first time in a mosque), I'd tried to prepare accordingly by packing a scarf to wrap around my shoulders and head.   I thought this would be enough, but when we got to the booth that hands out additional coverings to people if they do not meet certain standards of dress, I was given a full body robe (I used the scarf I'd brought for my hair, although those are lent out by the mosque as well).  It's not just women who need to cover up either.  Men who arrive for a visit in shorts are given a skirt to wear over their clothes.  Lucky guys. 

While these sorts of requirements are not exactly my cup of tea, abiding by them allowed us to enter the 400-year old place of worship, whose interior includes more than 20,000 handmade tiles.  The building of the Blue Mosque was quite a feat in its day, and was especially noteworthy for its six minarets.  At the time, the only other mosque in the world with six minarets was the mosque of the Ka'aba in Mecca...needless to say, there are now seven minarets at the mosque in Mecca ;)



Although there's little left to see today, the Hippodrome was once a grand arena used for horse and chariot racing when Istanbul was Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire.  Few monuments remain from the glory days, and now the area is a square and one of the primary entrances to the Blue Mosque.

D - I might have been really confused about the Hippodrome, but fortunately we had watched "Ben-Hur" somewhat recently so I felt that I could at least somewhat imagine the ancient, more exciting version of NASCAR.  


Basilica Cistern

I'm still trying to figure out what exactly the Basilica Cistern is, but from what I understand, its really just that: a cistern.  A place to store water.  Apparently there are several hundred ancient cisterns under Istanbul, but the Basilica Cistern is the largest of them all, and is pretty old too - it was built in 532 AD.  It is also known for its Medusa head, the origin of which is just speculation, but somehow ended up underground supporting a column in a cistern...upside-down. 

I should probably add that this was one of my least favorite places we visited in Istanbul, especially since it charges admission (unlike many other sights like the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, the parks, and so on).  It took us no more than 10-15 minutes to walk through, especially since there was little to no signage or information to help us understand where we were and what we were seeing, but some of our co-workers thought it was really each their own, I suppose!

D - I can't recall if I really knew what a cistern was either, but I don't think I knew what to expect before we decended down into its depths.  To the Turks' credit, if they did have a lot of signs, what would they even say?  "This is where there was a lot of water."  "This is also where there was a lot of water."  Sure they could talk about ancient history or architectural excellence, but c'mon.  We all know that water was the real star of the show down there.


Gülhane Park

Another place we visited more than once as we used it as a way to get from one place to another and not just as a place to rest in the shade of the mature trees and hang out (although we did do that too), Gülhane Park was once on the grounds of Topkapı Palace and accessible to members of royal court only.  Thankfully, that's not the case anymore, as we found it beautiful during our visits in June, July, and August, but rumor has it that it's especially nice during the annual tulip festival in April.

D - What I remember most about our first visit to the park is how (practically) insufferably hot and humid it was.  I'm not just sitting on the bench (below) in an attempt to look casual.  I was fighting for my very survival.  This summer Shannon and I shared an oft reoccurring dialogue that went something like this:

Me: "It's so hot can we please buy some water?  I'M DYING!"
Shannon: "I know.  But you know how much we hate buying bottled water."
"Me: "I know, but I'm gonna die..."

To this day I'm not really sure how I made it out. Just a combination of grit and mental toughness, I guess. In defense of my drama, I was very uncomfortable because of the aggressive strap sweat caused by my fine leather purse European carry-all.


Spice Bazaar

We visited the Spice Bazaar on the same day as our first trip to the Grand Bazaar, and felt rather underwhelmed by the former.  For one, it's quite a bit smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and its offerings are also much more limited.  The Spice Bazaar specializes in food and, well, spices, but since it draws herds of tourists, it also has plenty of souvenirs available, just like the Grand Bazaar.  My thought?  If you only have time for one, make it the Grand Bazaar, for sure, but if time is no concern, stop by the Spice Bazaar when in the area.


Galata Bridge

I'm not sure how many times we crossed the Galata Bridge while we were in Istanbul, sometimes multiple times in a day as we needed to get from one part of the city and the Golden Horn to another.  The Galata Bridge, at least in name, has been in existence for centuries, but the current and fifth version was built in 1992, and isn't exactly the most attractive bridge ever.  It's a bridge of various levels - the top is reserved for cars, pedestrians, trams, and fishermen, and the bottom is filled with restaurants overlooking the active waterway, and seemingly every time we crossed we couldn't resist a photo or two.

D - During one of our several crossings of the bridge, we crossed paths with a shoe shiner when he dropped one of his brushes without even noticing.  I quickly tapped him on the shoulder and let him know, and he was so grateful that he fell down at my feet and started cleaning my old sneakers before I could stop him.  I tried to tell him no but he just kept insisting and it was a really uncomfortable situation, so I just let him do it.  "Well he's just super grateful," I thought, "I mean, I did just save the man's livelihood, it's no wonder he wants to give me a little complimentary shining."  Only once he started talking to me about his kid in the hospital did I realize that I had fallen for the old get-the-foreigner-to-think-that-he-helped-you-and-then-start-washing-his-shoes-seemingly-for-free scam.  I stopped him after one shoe, gave him about a tenth of the exorbitant amount of money he was looking for and then walked away one with one shoe significantly more shiny than the other for the rest of the day.


İstiklal Caddesi

This pedestrianized shopping street was on my Istanbul to-do list all summer long until I finally realized with just a few weeks left that we'd not just been on this famous avenue briefly a time or two, but we'd walked it from start (Galata Tower area) to finish (Taksim Sqaure) multiple times, had eaten at restaurants along it, and had been shopping there a few times, too.  Come here for Starbucks, Nike, and Gap ( we did), and don't forget to look up once in a while at the late Ottoman-era buildings in a huge mix of styles - it's a lively, exciting place both day and night, full of locals and tourists alike.


Ortaköy Neighborhood and Mosque

We spent one Saturday afternoon in Ortaköy, an area of Istanbul along the Bosphorus that wasn't terribly far from where we were living and working.  Views of the Bosphorus Bridge are good here, as most all of the action is waterside - we spent much of our time eating baked potatoes, walking the streets to get a feel for the place, checking out nearby Yıldız Park (unfortunately, most of it was closed off for renovations, so we weren't able to get a great feel for it) and admiring the Ortaköy Mosque.  Ortaköy Mosque is a bit over 150 years old, and full of grand, low-hanging chandeliers, as well as lots of light, something that wasn't necessarily commonplace in the mosques we visited throughout the summer.


Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya Tombs

Most visitors to Istanbul take the time to go in the Hagia Sophia, but very few check out the adjacent buildings that house the graves of five 16th and 17-century sultans and their families.  Entrance is free, and while the tombs themselves aren't anything special to look at (in fact, they all look identical as far as I can tell), the buildings they're housed in are beautifully tiled and decorated, and worth a look if Ottoman artwork is of particular interest to you.

D - Interestingly (and sadly), the history of the passing of the crown from one sultan to the next is a history filled with bloodbaths and fratricide.  Brothers filled with lust for power mercilessly slayed each other for the right to sit on the throne.  Needless to say, lots of tombs to look at.  


Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya

Considered by many to be the most important monument in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia has a storied 1,500 year long history, spanning across empires, governments, and religions.  Built by Justinian I as a Christian cathedral in 537, the Hagia Sophia has also been Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and beginning in 1453, a mosque, although in 1935 it was converted to a museum - at least for now.  Within the past couple of years, Muslim prayers have begun to be held again at the Hagia Sophia, and several campaigns have been organized to re-convert the museum into a mosque.

Until the cathedral in Seville, Spain was finished in 1520, the Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world, but it was hard for us to really get a good feel for its size due to the ongoing restoration works, which were begun in 2012 and continue to this day (apparently, work will just stop for months at a time due to a lack of funding).  What we could see, though, is undoubtedly grand and impressive, especially from the upper galleries, which (at least at the time of our visit in the summer of 2017), were partially open.  The use of gold throughout is truly striking, not to mention the somewhat controversial medallions that seem a bit...out of place?  Its quite the place, that's for sure.

D - You might not be able to tell from the photos, but the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are actually right across from each other.  They're separated by an expansive courtyard-type thing filled with trees and benches and a grand fountain that somehow maintains a distinct Disneyland-esque vibe.  


Emirgan Park

We visited Emirgan Park on one of those humid, sticky, semi-miserable Istanbul summer days, but aside from the weather, the park was such a pleasant surprise.  My guidebook dedicated only a sentence to it, but it was definitely my favorite park we checked out in the city.  The park is 117 acres and sits on a hillside, so we saw only a fraction of it as the weather didn't really lend itself to lounging in the grass or excessive exploring - but we weren't alone.  We lost track counting the number of brides and grooms taking photos in the gazebos, on bridges, next to flower beds, and basically any spot with any photographic value whatsoever, and got a real kick out of it.

When we'd finished at the park, we made our way down the banks of the Bosphorus towards the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, sometimes called the Second Bosphorus Bridge.  It was a common sight all summer long to see men and boys jumping into and swimming in the Bosphorus, and I think Danny wanted to join in on more than one occasion - the water might've looked inviting to me as well if it weren't for all the freighters and tankers passing by on a regular basis...not really my preferred swimming companions though. ;)


Fener and Balat Neighborhoods

We spent one Friday afternoon after a particularly challenging three-week session of camp walking around this quiet, colorful part of Istanbul.  Tourists don't often make their way here, but high on the feeling of freedom from the kids I'd just said goodbye to forever that morning, we enjoyed sweets at not one, but two places that caught our eye (see our indulgences here!).  If you've more self-control than us, there's more than just dessert here - the area is eclectic and home to a few churches (we stopped into one - St. George's Cathedral - and tried to visit another  - Chora Church - but unfortunately weren't able to visit because I mixed up the opening times in my head), a museum (the impressive brick building below is Fethiye Museum, we didn't go in), and of course, an imposing neighborhood mosque as well.


St George's Cathedral

After over a month of living in Turkey (my first time living in a Muslim country), there was something that felt like home, that felt peaceful, about St. George's Cathedral.  St. George's is a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to the Christian martyr, St. George - ironically, the same as the church that Danny and I have been attending since returning to Madrid.  The interior is small but ornate, and our visit coincided with a ceremony that caused us to stay a bit longer than we normally might have.


Istanbul Archaeology Museums

There's three museums in one here, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, the Museum of Islamic Art (also known as the Tiled Pavilion), and the Archaeology Museum.  It's all pretty seamless - you can't pay for them individually and I would say most visitors go to all three because they don't know they're three separate museums - we sure didn't!  Much of the museum is being renovated (as well as the website, which I thought was funny) for at least the next five years, but what we did see was okay.  The Archaeology Museum was dry - the first six photos below were taken there and after a little bit we started cruising through it as the signs were old and uninteresting, and the displays just didn't capture our attention.  Perhaps our favorite parts were outdoors - the exterior of the Tiled Pavilion and a pretty garden full of columns, sculptures, and huge heads.


Süleymaniye Mosque

I remember having quite the time actually getting to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is ironic since its such a landmark on the Istanbul skyline.  Older than the Blue Mosque, but definitely not the Hagia Sophia, the Süleymaniye Mosque took 27 years to construct and was finished in 1557.  The inside of the mosque is so clean, bright, and pretty (it just finished undergoing extensive restorations in 2010), but this mosque visit was particularly difficult for me.  It was a sweltering day outside, and throughout our visit I had to wear an ill-fitting robe and a scarf over my head.  I had sweat dripping down my back and my face, making it hard for me to appreciate what we were seeing and doing because I was truly just really uncomfortable.  


Bosphorus Cruise

Late one Saturday afternoon we took a Sehir Hatları sunset cruise which started near the Galata Bridge and took us all the way down the Bosphorus, past the three bridges that stretch across it up, and up to Sarıyer, where the boat unloaded everyone...and we had to figure out what to do next!  We were living near Sarıyer, but on the other side of the Bosphorus, so while we waited for a ferry to take us to more familiar territory, we found something to eat (check it out everything we ate here!).

I'm still on the fence on whether I'd recommend a Bosphorus cruise for visitors to Istanbul or not.  It was good for us because we'd been around for nearly six weeks already and had a decent grasp of most everything we were passing (there was no narration or commentary - the boat acts as more of ferry than a 'cruise'), but for someone who is just around for a few days, I think it might be better to find something a bit more informative, at least, if that's your style, or skip it altogether, especially since getting back to the center of Istanbul makes the round trip ride around four hours.

D - If geography isn't really your strong suit and you wouldn't be able to place Turkey on a map  (like me before we moved there for the summer), you might not know how important the Bosphorus is as an international waterway.  Amateur boat watchers have witnessed ships of all sorts cruising through Istanbul on its waters, from Chinese tankers, to Russian cargo ships carrying weapons to Syria.  Additionally, there are also dolphins in the Bosphorus, which isn't as likely to cause an international incident as the Russian cargo ships, but was still enough to get us really pumped when we saw them on our cruise.


Topkapı Palace

Paris has Versailles, Beijing has the Forbidden City, and Istanbul has Topkapı Palace, home to sultans, courtiers, concubines, and eunuchs from the 15th to 19th centuries when the Ottomans were based in the city.  Topkapı was definitely an Istanbul highlight for me, with its grand, castle-like entrance (Gate of Salutation, if you really want to know), beautiful decorations around every corner, and the impressive Imperial Hall.  There's loads to see, and we came prepared with our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook (although maybe not as trusty as I might have once thought - while using it to prepare this post, I realized that one of the photos in the book is mislabeled - the Gate of Salutation is labeled the Gate of Felicity, setting me up for some potential embarrassment if I didn't accidentally double-check it ;)), using it as we walked from room to room and around the grounds.  All in all, the visit took us around three hours - maybe one of the things we took the most time on in Istanbul.


Galata Tower

We walked by and around the nearly 700-year-old Galata Tower many times before we decided to wait in the winding line that forms every evening to ascend to the top and watch the sunset over the city.  We apparently didn't arrive early enough, though, because we spent over an hour waiting in line, and by the time we reached the top, the sun had set and so had my mood (I'm not proud of it, I'm just saying), which is why there's only a photo of the back of my head (that Danny sneakily snapped without my knowing) and none of either of us from the front.  Some say the price is too steep for the view you get from the top, but we found almost everything in Turkey to be cheap, almost obscenely cheap (at the time of writing, admission to the Galata Tower is the equivalent of four euros, which I don't find unreasonable at all), so I'd say a trip to the top is worth it, whether by day or by night.

D - Like most couples, we never fight.  If we did ever get in a fight though, it would probably look similar to what happened between us at the top of Galata tower, one of the most romantic and peaceful places in the city.  Shannon was mad that the sun had already set, and I was mad that she was mad about the sun setting, and that I couldn't cheer her up.  "JUST BE HAPPY!!"  Classic.  


Dolmabahçe Palace

This was another place that I felt like really 'wowed' us.  Photos are forbidden inside the buildings at Dolmabahçe, so you're just going to have to take my word for it: this palace was so different from everything else we'd seen thus far in Istanbul.  Many elements felt European, and sure enough, after doing a bit more reading on it, I found out why.  I saw that up until the 1850s, though Ottoman sultans lived in Topkapı Palace, the sultan at the time was looking for something with a bit more style, luxury, and comfort, something a bit more contemporary, and something that might compare to those of European monarchs.  Dolmabahçe was his answer, costing the equivalent of $1.5 billion today...and was only lived in for 44 years.  


Scenes from Istanbul

Buildings that caught our eye, people doing their thing, sunsets, street art - if it didn't fit somewhere else, it's all right here.


Istanbul.  Most cities I leave either really loving or feeling kind of in the middle about ("It's nice, but I don't know if I need to go back."), but Istanbul was kind of a first for me.  I don't remember the last time I went somewhere and was eager to, well, leave.  I think it was a combination of a few things, one of which being that this wasn't just a trip - we didn't fly in and out for a long weekend or even five or six days.  We stayed and lived and worked for two months.  That's long enough to have a different experience than a tourist coming for a weekend or a week, I think.  Culture, people, weather, and food is different when you experience it daily for weeks, and maybe I'm just not as mature of a traveler as I might like to think. 

Living, working, and traveling in Turkey stretched me in a way that doing similar things in America or Europe usually doesn't, and I'd like to hope that I'm the better for it, at least a tiny bit.  We had some real highlights while in Istanbul, saw some historic and beautiful places, and met some pretty interesting people.  And of course, the not so great bits, which I've mentioned over and over, but one more time won't hurt - getting sick (often), work issues, hot, humid weather, and trying to square my worldviews with some really different ones.  Not sure I'll end this by saying "Till next time, Istanbul!" as I do with some perhaps, "Thanks for all the memories" is a bit more fitting :)