When people my age and a little older hear the word, “Istanbul” they most likely think of the 1990 cover by They Might Be Giants. The song refers to the renaming of the city from Constantinople that occurred in 1930. Istanbul is the 5th largest city in the world – housing 14.1 million people within its city limits. For exactly 16 centuries as Constantinople, it served as the capital of four empires: Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman. With the rise of the Ottomans in 1453, the city was transformed from a Christian to an Islamic center. Additionally, the geography of the city is interesting as it sits along the Bosphorus strait between the Sea of Marmara and the Black sea where the west side of the city is in Europe and across the straight to the east contains the Asian side of the city. Funny enough, despite all of that, it’s not the capital of today’s Republic of Turkey – that’s in Ankara. Here’s the scene.
Lauren booked a great location for our stay. We were only several blocks from many great sites and restaurants, most notably the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque on account of all of the beautiful blue tiles inside. It was easily visible from our rooftop terrace.
Our first attempt to visit the mosque was denied on account of its closure for prayer service. Our second attempt found an extremely long line and we resolved to get there first thing in the morning the following day. Third time’s a charm, right? Wrong. Getting up early did not save us from an extremely long line. However, a Turkish man with very good English approached us. It’s free to enter the temple, but hiring him as a guide would allow us to skip the line. The math is easy. Would you pay 15 euros to skip a 2-3 hour line in 90 degree heat and have that time back to continue to explore other parts of the city? Yes. Thanks, microeconomics class. We’ve seen this before at the Vatican Museum in Rome. Entry is X in line, but if you hire a guide for 2X, you go right in. Was this legit? No way to know, but it didn’t matter. One lady completely exploded in Italian as we passed on our way in and another gentleman got very angry with me in a language I couldn’t identify. I viewed their anger as misplaced as I wasn’t cutting the line, I was with a local guide with different rules.
The interior was beautiful.
While here, it’s a must to visit the Grand Bazaar. There are many shops selling carpets, hookahs, and really pretty lamps that Lauren wants. She wanted all of the lamps. I must admit that as “things” go, they had really nice things to buy and they are very aggressive salesmen.
We also visited the Spice Market. Under one roof, it’s sugar and spice and everyone’s nice. We tried some baklava and I think I’ve converted Lauren. She never seemed to take much interest back in the states, but the real deal has her thinking differently now.
One thing that you MUST do in Istanbul is go to a Turkish bath house (hamam.) We chose the Suleymaniye Hamam constructed in 1557. After changing into a towel, you sit in a 115 degree room for 30-40 minutes. This gets all of your dead skin nice and soft and detoxifies you quite a bit. Only go into this venture well hydrated and feeling good! Then, a man will scrub your body with a rough mit to take off all of the skin, followed by a bath massage with loads of soapy suds. You’re periodically rinsed with cooler and cooler water. Finally, cleaner than you’ve ever been, you’re wrapped up in towels and sent out to relax and cool down.
I enjoyed a Turkish tea after my bath. I would do this every two weeks if it were available and I could afford it.
We continued to explore more of the city on foot visiting another mosque. This time it was the smaller, but still beautiful Rustem Pasha mosque. Women must cover their hair, shoulders, and knees to enter. It’s more liberal for men, but shorts are frowned upon. As it was very hot, I noticed that most male visitors with shorts were not adhering to the guidelines. I don’t think they’ll stop you from entering, but it’s disrespectful. That’s not my style, so I asked for a wrap to enter the mosque. I look dashing in a floral print.
As we continued our walk, I had to stop by one of the boats docked along the strait for a fried mackerel fish sandwich. Sea-legged cooks man the grill aboard the rocky boats and you order from a guy on land to take the hand-off from the boat.
We continued along the Galata Bridge to the Asian side of the city. We can joke that we walked from Europe to Asia and back. Other silly promotions, such as Tiger Woods hitting a golf ball along the Bosphorus Bridge, have been completed for the same reason.
On the other side, we made our way to Taksim Square. Not as much happening on this side as it is more residential. This is the monument erected in 1928 in the square commemorating the 5th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey.
As we made our way back over to the west side, we stopped at a vendor to purchase a pickled mix of cabbage, carrots, peppers, and pickles. We don’t have a photo, but it was so good. I’m definitely inspired to pickle when we return home – particularly spicy blends. Lauren stopped for a photo op near the Hagia Sophia. It’s another big attraction, but we didn’t have time to tour the inside. Our research revealed that it was once a Greek Orthodox basilica, converted to a mosque, and now stands as a museum. Most Christian murals inside were covered over, but the most prominent mural of Christ remains. Many years of history and transition are spelled out on the walls inside.
To cool down from the hot Turkish sun, we visited the Basilica Cistern. The cistern provided parts of the city with water and served as a filtration system for many centuries. The head of Medusa is carved into the base of two of the columns. It’s a bit of a mystery, but it’s believed that they were brought there from an ancient Roman building and not turned upright to (1) negate the stoning effect of Medusa’s gaze and/or (2) to be the proper height to support the column. Although, the upside-down head would be the same height rightside-up, so…
Lauren and I had worked up quite an appetite and we took in our final dinner at one of the rooftop terraces several blocks from the water. I had my favorite meal in Turkey here – beef medallions in a creamy mushroom sauce with spinach and walnuts served over rice and then the throw a few french fries on top. Lauren opted for her favorite, the chicken shish.
And what’s a Turkish dinner without a shisha (hookah) at the table? We opted for the apple flavor.
Upon returning to our hotel, we made our way to the rooftop to get a shot of the Blue Mosque at night. We could always hear the calls to prayer – even in the middle of the night. As a bonus to our cultural experience, we were here during Ramadan. As 90% of the population is Muslim, practically everyone was fasting from sunrise to sunset. The moment the sun went down and you could hear the official call from the mosques, people started chowing down. Unrelated to Ramadan, the daily practice of prayer was exercised at the appropriated times. As we were strolling around, you could hear the call and everything would stop as the people began to pray. I never took a picture of them out of respect, but it was definitely something to see.
The following morning before catching our flight, we returned to a vendor we visited several days previous to purchase more turkish delights and baklava. I really don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but these people KNOW what’s up with candies and desserts.
Istanbul has a great vibe and culture, beautiful mosques, and a rich history. The food was fantastic and the Turkish bath is worth the visit. Unequivocally, without a doubt, I was treated with more kindness and respect in this city than any other I’ve ever visited – including my hometown – and for that alone, they’ve earned a return trip from me.
Love to you all!