Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: September 2018
Overall Experience: An urban blend of east and west, Istanbul is a perfect combination of ancient and modern life. It seems like every corner has historical significance to some faction of civilization. It’s insane to comprehend the centuries of life that happened here! Zapping back to the present, I found Istanbul offers pleasant conversation with its friendly citizens, modern amenities with public transportation, traditional relaxation techniques with the Turkish Bath, and culinary delights ranging from strong, thick coffee to spicy stews.
I didn’t know what to expect from this city but now I know it’s somewhere I will always return to and there will still be surprises in store.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport
Just under 10 hours from DC, the overnight Turkish Airlines flight delivered us into Istanbul in the late afternoon. Anxious to tour the city, we purchased our visa in advance at e-Visa for $20 a pop. It took less than 15 minutes and we avoided waiting in an extra line to get through customs.
Finding a taxi at the airport can be a little chaotic. I pulled up Uber and found a car for 100TL (about $16). While I was waiting for the car, a man with a badge approached me and told me Uber was illegal in Istanbul and a cab would be 170TL to get to our hotel. Since I already had a much cheaper price, I thought this guy was trying to rip me off so I walked away and proceeded to get the Uber I ordered and had no issues. It took about 25 minutes to get to the old city.
However, I later googled if Uber was in fact illegal and found this surprising article. I used the ride share app throughout my stay and didn’t have any problems. Every ride was a van with seats facing each other and little mini fridges filled with water. Use at your own risk but it seems the only problem is grabbing rides from the airport.
Istanbul is ginormous! It’s home to 15 million people and 594 square miles (For comparison, NYC has 8.5 million residents and is 302 sq miles). There is a ton to see and do here! We focused most of our time in the Sultanahmet district and aimed to visit the most renowned sites. It’s a highly walkable city so we plotted our route and were able to get to mostly everything on foot. Istanbul is hilly and narrow so watch for cars, trams and the adorable street kitties.
The location of the Sultan Palace Hotel is perfect. It overlooks a striking mosque, has water views from its rooftop terrace and is a 10 minute walk to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The rooms can leave a lot to be desired. We stayed in the “Economic Room” and had I paid more attention to the reservation, I would’ve upgraded from the tiny sweat box. The good news is we didn’t go to Turkey to stay in the room so I didn’t really mind the no frills hotel. It was clean, cheap, safe and close to the action.
Things to Do:
Its massive dome was an architectural marvel when it was constructed in the beginning of the middle ages. The centuries and volume of history contained in one building is staggering. It started in Constantinople as a church, was burned down by rioters, rebuilt, converted into a mosque. Today, it serves as a museum in Istanbul and a testament to passing time and the controlling kingdoms.
Entering the cavernous Hagia Sophia museum, you immediately turn your head up to see the opulent dome. Make sure to head to the second floor gallery to check out the Loggia of the Empress, where the Empress and her ladies watched the activities down below; the solid marble door, where important meetings were held; and the mosaics, picturing different religious and important figures. It’s open 7 days a week and costs 40TL to enter. It’s a must see when in the city!
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque was constructed in the early 1600s and sits directly across the Hagia Sophia, amplifying the skyline with its six skinny minarets. As you enter the complex, you walk into the expansive courtyard with marble archways giving you an idea of the massive size of the place. It’s nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the hand painted blue tiles on the interior. When we visited, much of the interior was under construction but the intricate designs are exquisite. You will find yourself staring at the walls and ceilings taken in by the shimmery artistic works while your feet are massaged by the soft carpet.
This is a popular site to visit in Istanbul so while it was crowded the line moved swiftly. As this is an active place of worship, try to time your visit to avoid prayer times and Fridays, make sure to be respectful while taking pictures and exploring. There are also strict rules on what to wear; no bare legs or arms and women must wear a head scarf. Additionally, you’ll take off your shoes and carry them in a provided plastic bag. Don’t worry if you forget, they have complimentary cover ups to borrow. Finally, the Blue Mosque is free to visit but you can make a donation on the way out.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
The Hippodrome is probably one of the most overlooked but historically signficant landmarks in the city! Even if you don’t want to, you’ll most likely walk through on the way to the more popular tourist haunts mentioned above. When Emperor Constantine moved his administration to Constantinople, he expanded the city and focused his attention on improving the Hippodrome. This is a site where 100,000 people from all walks of life joined together, with their emperor, to watch the lively chariot races. While not much remains from its glory day, you can still see a few of the magnificent center track artifacts. The Serpent Column’s base, which was moved here from Delphi, is still in place and one of the serpent heads can be seen at the Archeology Museum. The Obelisk of Thutmose III, which is over 3,500 years old, still stands where it was placed by Theodosius the Great in 390 AD. You can almost hear the pounding of horse hooves as you weave through the tourists!
Across the street from the Hippodrome sits the Basilica Cistern which was Istanbul’s old water storage facility. It retained the name Basilica because in the 3rd century a great Basilica with lavish gardens sat on the site, which sadly was later destroyed by a fire. It costs 20 TL to visit the dark, cool underbelly of the city. The cistern reaches 30 feet high in a well-organized grid of 336 marble columns. It feels a little eerie but makes for an interesting tour. Make sure to head all the way to the back where you will see the famed Medusa columns.
There are a number of interesting things to see in Istanbul but not all of them will have the priceless treasures and provide the appropriate context quite like the Archeological Museum. Consisting of three distinct buildings of archeology and sarcophaguses, ceramics and tile and the ancient orient as well as peaceful gardens. While closed on Mondays, it’s a 10 minute walk from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. It costs 20TL to visit and is worth every penny because you will learn so much about the items from not only Istanbul but all of the peoples who lived in this part of the world.
The archeological building has an actual marble lion from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the original 7 ancient wonders of the world! Additionally it houses the world’s oldest love poem from 2031 BC, the snake’s head from the serpentine column in the Hippodrome and the massive Alexander Sarcophagus (which does not contain the remains of Alexander the Great but does depict him in epic battles). The Ancient Orient building features several lion friezes from the Ishtar Gate in Babylon. Yes, that Babylon. Finally, the Museum of Islamic Art is filled with some of the most beautiful, vivid tile I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It absolutely radiates as you walk from room to room.
The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
Kapali Carsi, or the Grand Bazaar as it’s more famously known, is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. It was built in 1456 just after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople and grew to become the hub of Mediterranean trade. It has over 4,000 shops and serves over 91 million visitors a year. I was SO excited to visit this massive market that I got here right as it opened at 9:00am and strolled into the strangely quiet complex.
I stopped at Sark Kahvesi for a traditional Turkish Coffee and waited for the Bazar to come to life. This locale sits on the corner of three “roads” so it’s phenomenal for people watching or taking a break from shopping. Just 30 savory minutes later it was like a pin ball machine in the market! All of the shops opened their doors, tons of people flowed through the passageways window shopping and buying unique Turkish goods, as well as some cheap junk.
There are tons of little cafe and stalls selling lanterns, spices, decorative art work, rugs, etc. Anything you can imagine you will find it here! Many of the shopkeepers will try to get you into their shops to browse and buy, but if you just say no thank you, they tend to leave you alone pretty quickly. Additionally, if you are looking to buy some merchandise you might want to try haggling for a better bargain. If haggling isn’t your thing don’t worry, some items are clearly marked as “set price” and they accept credit cards!
Just a few streets over, lies the Spice Bazar, which was referred to as the Egyptian Bazaar in the old days since most of the spices and goods solder here came from Egypt! The structure is striking in its decor, smells and architecture. While smaller in size and less crowded than the Grand Bazaar, it’s lined with stalls selling tea, dried fruit and other foodstuffs. Spend a day traversing the markets, meeting new friends and find some one of a kind treasures.
Golden Horn Bridge – Halic Metro Bridge
Stroll across the Bosphorus River along the new Golden Horn Bridge! It spans 1,510 feet over the water and offers sweeping views of the city, river and boat traffic. The bridge had to be resigned due to the discovery of a Byzantine era vault on the river banks. It ultimately opened to the public in 2014 as the fourth bridge to connect the city and the only one with a metro station in the middle of it.
Orient Express Train Station
Just a stone’s throw from the Golden Horn rests the famous Orient Express Train Station or as it’s known today the Sirkeci Railway. The first voyage left from Paris in 1883 and arrived 80 hours later in Istanbul. The terminal building and restaurant still appears as it did decades ago, even though the same journeys aren’t taken anymore. It’s a one of a kind place to visit and relish the past, especially if you are an Agatha Christine fan!
Built in the 1550s on the third hill of Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque is a mix of Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements. It combines the large domes of the Hagia Sophia and the skinny minarets of the Blue Mosque with amazing motifs on the interior ceiling. The courtyard is another wonder in design, with a long colonnade comprised of marble. The Mosque is surrounded by incredible gardens and views of the city. The atmosphere feels like a public park. There are lots of people enjoying the sunshine and grounds with picnic blankets and baskets.
Places to Eat and Drink:
Roof Mezze 360
The quintessential atmosphere for an Istanbul city restaurant, Roof Mezze 360 sits on the top floor of the Eurostars Seres Hotel. The views of the peninsula are breathtaking and should be enjoyed with an outside table. The food and service here are top-notch, we tried the spinach and yogurt dip, sea bass casserole and a traditional Turkish stew.
The Populist is the reincarnation of the Bomonti Brewery of 1890. It’s located in an open outdoor area with a few other bars and restaurants. This is the modern side of Istanbul and it features lots of night life, live music, and 12 rotating beers on tap!
If you are looking for a sweet treat in the city, then the windows of Osmanlizadeler will surely capture you with their siren call. The shop has traditional turkish tea, coffee and all sorts of different flavors of baklava. They also have beautiful gift boxes to bring some home!
Located near the hotel in the old city, I stumbled upon this quaint family owned cafe for breakfast. I had the traditional Turkish Breakfast which is a massive mezze plate great for picking at when you can’t settle on just one thing. The Arch Bistro is a friendly and authentic locale for an informal but delicious meal.
The Reggae Bar
I googled “bars and restaurants” near the hotel and stumbled up this Reggae Bar which had amazing reviews. I did not expect to have a drink in a reggae bar in Istanbul but am so glad I did! This bar had comfortable outdoor space and lots of music memorabilia decorating the walls. The beers are cold and the service is fantastic. If you are staying in the old city, check this place out!
Ciragan Palace – Tugra Restaurant
Tugra Restaurant is located in the first floor of Sultan Abdulaziz’s historical palace. He was the 32nd ruler of the Ottoman Empire and the first to visit Western Europe. The palace was built during the 1860s and is one of the last examples of Sultan’s building their own palaces instead of living in their familial homes. It later served as an administrative building, and then a football stadium after a fire destroyed the interior. In the early 90s, it was renovated and turned into a luxury hotel.
Dining here is truly an experience, so be sure to treat yourself. The views of the Bosphorus river as the sun goes down while you enjoy Turkish wine on the terrace are ludicrous in their perfection. The masterful wait staff and chefs serve traditional turkish dishes as well as modern takes. The menu is also a story telling device, providing the history and origins of each dish. I tried the vine leaves wrapped in lamb, beef and artichoke and it was to die for. All of this luxury is surprisingly very affordable! You can be treated like a king for around $30 per entrée (depending on the exchange rate).
- Almost every museum and some bars will have a metal detectors/security. It’s nothing to be alarmed about.
- Purchase the e-visa mentioned above before you fly into Istanbul!
- Learn a few key Turkish phrases with the Turkish 101 podcast! I found it very helpful.
- While Istanbul is modern and laid back with its dress standards for women, it’s helpful to keep a scarf handy in case you pop into a mosque so you can quickly cover your head/arms.
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