Istanbul’s bus station is a behemoth of a monster which encompasses several blocks and three floors. Our first experience of this city was terrifying. Happily, our tickets included a free transfer to the Sultanahmet section so we grabbed our packs and followed the man who seemed to be herding people that way.
Sultanahmet is where Istanbul’s major sites are located such as the Hagia Sofiaand the Blue Mosque.He dropped us on the plaza next to the German Fountain and left. We were the only ones without a reservation so we followed some fellow passengers to the street where their hostel was located. We didn’t like that it wasn’t air-conditioned but using their wifi we searched for others. We were terribly lucky and found a one bedroom apartment two blocks away from the Blue Mosque with such amazing insulation that although there were loudspeakers located right outside our windows, we weren’t bothered one bit by the calls to prayer that so many other tourists complained of. This is the view of our street, isn’t it pretty?We made the mistake of visiting the Blue Mosque first and everything else has seemed lacking afterward. The Blue Mosque is gorgeous. It’s called blue due to the mosaics and stained glass windows which adorn it. Everything about it exudes peace.
Floor:I loved it, even when I had to wear an awful overcoat in order to be allowed inside.Opposite the mosque is the Hagia Sofia, the most famous of Istanbul’s sights. It was first a Christian church, later a mosque and now a museum.
The biblical mosaics were covered up with plaster and paint when it was converted into a mosque and restorations are still being undertaken.Cats roam freely in here just as they do thru the rest of Istanbul.Across the street is the Basilica Cistern, a lesser known attraction but a must-see in our opinion. The cistern was built during the 6th century in order to store water for the city; its capacity is for 100,000 tons of water!
Fish now swim among the pillars. Two of the pillars are supported by huge blocks carved to depict Medusa’s head which came from Roman ruins. No one knows why they were placed here nor the reason why one is on its sidewhile the other is upside down.The guess is that they were used simply as material and the builders didn’t care how they looked, they would have been underwater anyway.
A bit farther off is Topkapi Palacewhich was used by the Sultan and his family, including his harem. We’ve seen so many castles, palaces and churches this summer that we found Topkapi Palace to be a let down. The Harem
inside does warrant a visit
but unfortunately requires a separate ticket and you must pay for the entrance to the palace as well. If you’re wondering why the ticket line is so long and doesn’t seem to advance, it’s because the guards who should be keeping order let every Turkish person cut in line at the front. You can buy tickets from the machines outside and avoid the hassle. Buying an Istanbul Card will allow you to skip the lines and offers admittance to several museums around the city but make sure it makes sense for you. We did the math and it didn’t for us, specially when Alejandro was given free entry at many places due to his age.
Across the river, crossing the Galgata Bridge lies Taksim. You’ve probably heard of the protests in Taksim Squarethis summer. Although there were policemen around, the area didn’t feel unsafe, families with young children, older couples and tourists walked all over Istiklal Street
visiting its many shops and restaurants.I can’t believe we were afraid to come here.
To get there we took the “Tünel”, the second oldest subway ever constructed.On the way back we walked past the Galgata Towerand across the Galgata Bridge with its many fishermenlate at night and again we didn’t feel unsafe at all. (Apologies for the crappy nighttime Iphone pics)
A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without touring the Grand Bazaar.You can find everything from souvenirs to carpets being sold here.How did we end up in another carpet shop? Fernando asks too many questions would be my answer. The salespeople aren’t pushy but it’s still very hard to say no to them, specially when they offered to give us a discount of 4/5s the first price they quoted plus free shipping. It was only by visualizing how the carpet would fill up with Camila’s hair and all the extra vacumming I would have to do that I managed to walk away.
The Süleymaniye Mosque lies a bit farther up.This mosque is famous because it was constructed by order of Sultan Süleyman in 1550 and it’s the largest in Istanbul. It’s nice but after the Blue Mosque nothing comes close.Almost next to the mosque lies the Spice Bazaar where nuts, olives, and spices fill the stalls.We had lunch here and liked the spices used in our food so much we took a sample and went looking for them. Two different sellers tried our sample and mixed some for us. Each used different ingredients and we couldn’t decide which one was the correct one so we’re bringing both back home with us. We think they’ll go great with grilled fish.Boat tours on the Bosphorus (the strait of water conecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara) are heavily promoted here but spending a full day on the water and a bus caught in Istanbul’s crazy traffic didn’t appeal to us. We had run out of Dramamine in Greece and bought whatever the pharmacist recommended instead. When both Alejandro and I took it on our overnight bus ride from Selçuk to Instanbul it knocked us out so deeply that we didn’t even notice when during a night rest stop, the bus left without the Fernandos. They had to run to catch up and the bus had to turn around to come back and pick them up. We have no recolection of any of it; so we didn’t want to take any more if we could avoid it.
Aside from the touristic boat ride, there are also public boat rides which take just an hour and a half. They don’t go as far as the Black Sea but they go to the Bosphorus Bridge
on the way. They are narrated in both Turkish and English. At 10TL instead of €70 per person, it is definitely worth it, specially when I started to get seasick just an hour into it. On board, different street vendors offer everything from tea, coffee and snacks to pictures, souvenirs and jewelry.
Let me break it to you easy: this is not Alexander’s mausoleum; rather it is called so because of the depictions of him on the sides. Very sneaky. However the museum has a good collection of artifacts. These tablets made up for our dissapointment.
The boys were feeling overwhelmed from the heat by now (did I neglect to tell you that not even the museums are air-conditioned over here?) and when they found out Istanbul has the “largest thematic aquarium” they demanded a visit. The aquarium provides a free shuttle service, from Sultanahmet the blue van stops at the very end of the block of the park, almost at the Blue Mosque, every hour and a half. The van is supposed to hold 16 people but we counted 25, so make sure you climb on board as soon as it arrives or you will ride standing up. The ride is long and pretty nice as it travels along the old city walls.
The aquarium seems to have few species but it is very well organized and sets up the different seas along with a bit on the history of the civilizations which settled near them. We learned about the story of the battle of Troy, the construction of the Panama Canal, how the legend of Noah’s Ark was based on the flooding of the Mediterranean, and who has controlled the trade routes thru the Suez Canal. There is a cool exhibit on global warming with a humongous chunk of melting ice in the center. Only in the USA, does this fact seem to be in dispute.
We liked the aquarium quite a bit. Don’t make a trek out here but if you’ve got young kids or time to spare, it’s a good choice. The aquarium is housed inside a luxurious shopping mall with a food court of course, notice the inspiration for McD’s burgers.
We spent five nights in Istanbul but three would have been enough to see the major sites. On our last day we got it into our heads to visit the Asian side of the city, easier said than done since information is hard to come by. Istanbul is the only city in the world which is in two continents, but you already knew that. While there are expensive tours that will take you there, you can also take the public ferry (1.95TL 7min) from Kabatas. The docks are located past the Dolmabahçe Palace.
On the Asian side you will find tons of street vendors and almost no tourists. Walk past the mosque and then turn towards the water, many small seaside restaurants are set here. We enjoyed watching the fishermen for a few hours and then took the ferry back to Eminou which was closer to our apartment.
We had a great time in Istanbul, we loved the city with all its chaos and even the prayer calls were music to us. We couldn’t have chosen a better spot to base ourselves than Sultanahmet: this is our street
Turkey, and specially Istanbul, is expensive: even street food and a sit down dinner more so. We found the Turkish people to be very amicable and polite, not at all what we had imagined. Maybe we should say the Turkish men because we had almost no contact with Turkish women. In Selçuk we didn’t even see women except for tourists. Even the small children playing in the street were all boys. While in Istanbul there were women everywhere, we didn’t interact with any; every shop and restaurant was manned by…well, a man. There were many tourists from Asia and Africa and most of them looked like this.
I wonder if they truly never question the need for such covers. We saw couples walking together where the woman was covered in black from head to toe, even wearing gloves and sunglasses on her eyes while the guy was wearing shorts and flip-flops. Does she really never have the desire to say: “It’s not fair. I’m baking under these dark sheets of fabric while you expose your pot belly to the world!”? This unassuming sign makes my blood boil.
Alejandro was very popular in Turkey, men would come over and squeeze his cheeks, toussle his hair or put an arm around his shoulder while talking to us, they would strike conversations with him and then just as suddenly they would be on their way. It didn’t feel creepy like in Greece, rather it seemed that Turkish people find little boys adorable. How do we know it was different? It felt different; you’ve heard it before: I know it when I see it.
We didn’t expect to like Turkey this much and even considered skipping it. We’re very glad we didn’t and wholeheartedly recommend everyone visit this amazing country and its very warm people.