There are so many beautiful things to see in Istanbul, but once again we had to prioritise. Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace are all close to each other in Sultanahmet so we spent our day in that area.
A Day in Sultanahmet
We took a metro from where we’re staying to Istanbul University area, walked through the University and Grand Bazaar and ate lunch right next to the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
The logical route would have been to go to the Blue Mosque first but it had just closed for prayer by the time we finished lunch and walked to it, so we saw Hagia Sofia first.
All of these decorated walls are made of single slabs of marble brought from all over the empire (back in the 6th century!)
Then we went back to the Blue Mosque – they provide all the coverings you may need for free. I brought sweatpants and a scarf to put on under/on top of my dress, so I didn’t get anything from them. My younger sister and mother had already covered their knees and shoulders, so they just got headscarfs. My youngest sister was wearing a dress so she got a full cloak and a headscarf. There were other people who just got skirts. Quite a good arrangement, and very matter-of-fact. When my mum had been there with me last time, 19 years ago, she says that there was no barricade in the middle to separate visitors from mosque-goers.
Walking towards Topkapi Palace we discovered a beautiful restaurant which was a former hotel with a beautiful orangery. We didn’t have a chance to try it out but next time 🙂
It was 40 TL for each of the entrances to Topkapi and Hagia Sofia Museum, the museum pass is great value though because for 85 TL you get access to those two and a lot of other museums and sites for 5 days! We were only sightseeing for one day, so it didn’t make sense. Also, though there are no student or children discounts, press and UNESCO staff get in for free (mum used her Press card and got in for free, we didn’t have our UN-kid cards so we couldn’t try that out).
Topkapi Palace grounds seems like a beautiful day to spend a few hours exploring all of the rooms and exhibitions. And there are a few cafés and restaurants in there too.
We got some ice cream from Konyali restaurant which has beautiful views of the Bosphorus. Things can get a bit pricey, in the 15-50 TL range, but one scoop of ice cream is the most reasonable thing to get at 5 TL.
On our walk back to the metro stop, we walked by a tram stop which is 3 stops away from our metro stop, so we wanted to find out if there was such a thing as a transfer like what we got in New York, or do we pay for each ride separately. While this was happening, the person answering our questions turned out to be the manager of the information centre of the area, so he suggested that we try to go for a dinner cruise. Then he ended up taking us to a nearby travel agency and helping us book it!
So next stop, via hotel, was the dinner cruise with private transfer to and from the hotel. Once on the cruise we saw the beautiful views of Europe and Asia on either side of the Bosphorus. During dinner we got to see a Dervish, dancers going through the history of entertainment of Istanbul, a bellydancer.
The next day, we had lunch in Taksim. My parents ordered a Testi, which is meat and veggies put into a clay pot, opening covered in foil, and then roasted in fire. Then the opposite side of the opening is broken off and the roasted meat stew is poured into a bowl.
The first night (night before sightseeing) we had dinner at a local kebab place, where we had fresh Ayran (we’ve only ever had it from a bottle before in NY and on Turkish Airways).
There are a lot of things that I’ll have to come back to Istanbul to do including Basilica Cistern, Istiklal Caddesi, Baths of Roxelana (Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hammam), Beylerbeyi Sarayi, Dolmabahce, Galata Tower, A Bosphorus ferry where I want to have the yoghurt with the sugar, Prince’s Islands in the Marmara Sea:Büyükada, Heybeliada, Kınalıada (take the ‘adalar vapuru’, islands ferry from Eminönü)
There are so many foods to try – we already knew we were huge fans of çay (black tea), turkish coffee, turkish delight, baklava, and my family of the different kebabs, but this time we discovered some new favourites: Pide, Turkish Pizza, Lahmacun, Künefe. I had a few suggestions from my friends which I didn’t get a chance to try but I’ll just put here; for main meals: iskender kebap, yaprak sarma (stuffed vine leaves), beyti, hünkar ç, lahmacun, pilav (rice); for desserts: baklava, künefe, turkish delight, ayva tatlısı, aşure, Kahramanmaraş dondurması (a really thick, creamy ice cream).
Safety & Love
We were leaving for the airport at 10pm when the attacks took place, if we had left a little bit earlier, we would’ve been where everything happened. Our driver found out that “something” happened and no one was being allowed into the airport, 15 minutes before the first social media update, 20 minutes before news agencies started reporting it. He was so scared, and our hotel concierge who was helping translate was so sad.
Istanbul is a beautiful city and still one of the safest in the world in terms of crime and tolerance and acceptance. I’ve been awestruck at their beautiful ability to blend their different religious backgrounds and the cultures of Europe and Asia so well to build such a tolerant and respectful society that we experienced during the days we were here. Their tourism industry has been hit hard by the unrest over the past year and the people are feeling the pressure of it – we could see it in the restaurants, bazaars, and in the dinner cruise last night.
It’s a terrible thing what happened here yesterday and what is happening all around the world. Unfortunately the reality we’re living in now, these things can happen anywhere, we can’t let fear dictate our lives, nor let terrorists win by coiling into our shells because that’s what they expect and want.