As Mark wrapped up the SE Asian portion of our trip, the last checkbox was how to get from Bali to Europe. We initially wanted to visit Australia after Bali but given some budgetary and time restraints, we opted against it. Okay, so do we fly from Bali straight to … Berlin? Croatia? Paris? My dad suggested, or pressed rather, that we make a pit stop in Istanbul on the way to Europe. His reasoning?
- 1) it’s dope (not his exact wording)
- 2) many international flights go in and out of Ataturk airport so we’ll have our pick of destinations afterwards
- 3) it’s dope
I responded with the typical “yeah, yeah, yeah” of a naive daughter, but he continued to insist on Istanbul with every conversation we had about our itinerary. Also, the more Mark looked at the map the more Istanbul seemed like the best option. With that, after a brief layover in Doha, we landed in Turkey. We were both a little hesitant, partially because neither of us had been to Turkey before, and partly because we had no idea what we were getting into. As we settled into our cab and soaked in the views while driving to our hotel, we were already blown away. Turns out, spoiler alert: ISTANBUL IS AMAZING.
Our hotel was located in the “new” district, Karaköy, right near the Galata Bridge. After 14 hours of flying, I was wiped so I opted to nap, while Mark went exploring:
Hi everyone, Mark here: Once we got to the hotel, I was anything but tired; I couldn’t sit, I needed to get out and explore. As Isabel mentioned, the ride from the airport alone really piqued our interest. So much waterfront real estate, the water was a beautiful blue, and once we got closer to the heart of the city, the architectural views looked absolutely insane. I was also hungry and was on the lookout for a snack. I walked around our trendy neighborhood, and cut in along the harbor. I happened upon a snack cart that sold simit. Simit is a skinny ring of sesame-covered dough, that is then sliced in half and smeared with either a creamy cheese or nutella. So, basically, I ate a bagel. Then a couple pieces of baklava. Oh Good Lord do I enjoy me some baklava. I walked along the bridge and stared at the view (pictured above), absolutely dumbfounded by its beauty and magnificence.
Thanks to a rescheduled flight, we ended up being in Istanbul for six days and we spent every second exploring. Most days we woke up early (big thanks to the mosque next door with its precise 5:45 am call to prayer) and stayed out all day. Most mornings, we were the first people to breakfast and boy, was it a feast! It was a traditional Turkish breakfast and the large table in the dining area was packed with dishes. Different breads, cheeses, yogurts, cucumbers, tomatoes, unknown spreads and dips, olives, fruit, etc. It was overwhelming at first, but we got the hang of it by the end of our stay.
Mark had the genius idea to purchase an Istanbul museum pass, allowing us to see multiple sites without standing in line, and for a cheaper price, too. Our first stop was to an area known as Archaeological Park, and guess what?! It’s a (everyone now) U – NES – CO…
The Park, adjacent to Sultanahmet Square, is a great introduction to Istanbul because EVERYTHING is there: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and more! We took the tram from our hotel just a few stops to the Park and started our self-guided tours. Buckle your seatbelt because we’re about to go Ken Burns on this post!
Topkapi Palace served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th century. Yes, Ottoman as in the Ottoman Empire, as in the massive empire run by guys with names like Suleiman the Magnificent and Mehmed the Conqueror. It’s a large complex but our main highlights were some palace rooms and the Sultan’s Harem, once home to hundreds of concubines and their eunuch guards. The map to the complex was a little confusing and the internet told us the Harem is one of the most popular exhibits, so we found a long line and jumped in. It ended up not being the Harem, but a relic room, and it was immensely crowded. I only mention this detail to reveal the winner of the top prize of this evening’s show … and the winner for Worst Tourist Ever goes to:
The audacity of that woman! In other news, the inside of Topkapi Palace is beautiful. It’s full of incredible mosaics, gold inlays, and impressive Arabic calligraphy. We took a million photos because we were in constant awe of what we saw and we couldn’t soak it all in. As Mark mentioned earlier, our heads were constantly on a swivel so I took a lot of photospheres, you can view them here.
The Palace can take up to three hours to explore and time does fly when you are admiring its beauty, so before we knew it it was late afternoon. Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, we took the long way home and walked through the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar (after a wonderful sit-down lunch, of course).
The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. This isn’t a bazaar in the sense that a bunch of hippies got together to sell handmade jewelry while raising the vibrations of the Earth with their drum circle beats. This bazaar dates back to the 15th century and served as a bustling marketplace for the Ottoman Empire.
The Grand Bazaar has 22 entrances and 64 streets, so it’s easy to get lost. It was fun to freely explore, turning down random alleys and in and out of different gates. You can find almost anything here: jewelry, clothing, paintings, rugs, lanterns, food, knick knacks, drinks, etc. Mark picked up a puffy jacket, necessary in our new climate in the 40s. We also saw men briskly walking around the bazaar carrying silver trays of Turkish tea to the various vendors. Everyone in Istanbul drinks tea and smokes cigarettes.
The Spice Bazaar is exactly what you think, it’s a food market! It does have a lot of spices, but there are also vendors selling cheese, desserts, nuts, grains, etc. The streets are narrow and crowded, the stalls have food stacked up to the ceiling and out to the street, and vendors are yelling out to customers, yelling to each other, it’s incredible! Gruff men stand next to their stalls of fresh fish drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.
Our second day was also spent back at Sultanahmet Square because there was still so much to see! We started with the famous Hagia Sophia. This breathtaking building was a church for 916 years, then a mosque for 482 years, and is now a museum. This might change though, as the current president of Turkey has vowed to turn it back to a mosque. Regardless, it’s a museum at the moment and it is quite exquisite. I’ve seen Mark at a loss for words only a few times since we’ve known each other and he was rendered speechless upon entering Hagia Sophia.
Despite being under construction (because it’s ancient), it’s still compelling. Everyone’s eyes are cranked upward to view the magnificent dome and the beautiful Arabic calligraphy. Even though this is one of if not the major icon of modern Istanbul, it wasn’t super crowded. Traveler’s tip: go early when it opens, the line looked way longer later in the day.
The massive medallions adorning the pillars were extremely powerful. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, while not gaudy nor overly ornate, were beautiful. Everywhere you craned your neck provided another must-photograph view. Maybe it was the largess of the Hagia Sophia, but I was mightily impressed. We had a hard time getting over just how old this building was, yet it still retained much of its beauty. Digest this if you can: Hagia Sophia remained the world’s largest cathedral for just shy of a full millennium … until it was dethroned by the Seville Cathedral, in the year 1520!
After Hagia Sophia, we headed down the street (yes, down the street) to the Basilica Cistern. Unlike my dad, I didn’t read a bunch of history books or Rick Steve’s take on the Basilica Cistern, I went in blindly! I thought it was a church or a mausoleum, whatever it was I knew it would be really, really old (my dad’s blood pressure is through the roof right now). We followed the line inside, not to a church, but underground! It was dimly lit, rather spooky, and quite extensive. I was right about one thing, it’s really really old, built in the 6th century during the reign of Justinian I. The Turkish name is Yerebatan Sarnıcı, which translates to “cistern sinking into ground.”
The two main highlights in the Cistern is the crying column and the Medusas. The crying column is the only column that is consistently wet, making it look like it’s crying. It’s said to represent the tears of the thousands of slaves that build the Cistern. The Medusa columns are two columns that rest on the faces of Medusa. The origins of the stones are unknown, but they look cool.
I have to say, watching Isabel’s reaction as we walked inside the Cistern Basilica was hilarious, and her above description was spot on. I did all the research on Istanbul and planned out our day trips, so I knew what were about to walk in to. I keep it to myself so she could be surprised. After you pay the entrance fee at the front ticket window, you walk through a door and down a hallway. You look over the guardrail at the end, and as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you realize the massive room that splays out below you: 12 rows of 28 marble columns apiece, that amounts to 336 total columns. From next to me in the darkness I hear what’s quickly become one of Isabel’s trademark phrases on this trip, “Ssssstop it!” Fun fact: This famous reservoir was also featured in the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia With Love.
Our final stop at Sultanahmet Square was intentionally built facing Hagia Sofia to compete with it: The Blue Mosque. It’s really called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but the hand-painted blue tiles throughout the interior earned it the nickname of the Blue Mosque. A large portion was closed off during our visit due to prayer hour, but the portion we were able to see was absolutely stunning.
After we’ve had our fill of ancient sites, we took the subway to explore a more modern part of Istanbul: Taksim Square and Istiklal Cadessi (or Avenue). Istanbul can get quite steep and those hills are not fun to walk up or down on cobblestone streets (especially in shoes whose tread have seen the wear and tear of the first few months of our journey). So what do you do? Take the funicular of course! It’s a cable car that exists to carry people up and down steep slopes! It’s amazing.
These two areas are known for their extensive shopping, restaurants, coffeeshops, cafes, and more. Istiklal Cadessi is very wide so even when it’s packed with people, it still doesn’t feel super crowded. There is no street traffic but occasionally a tram runs down the street. We ate at a small kebab shop that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show, it was delicious!
In addition to having Turkish tea very often, we also tried Turkish coffee and raki. Turkish coffee is unfiltered and served in a small cup with a glass of water. One is supposed to wait a few minutes to allow the grounds to settle, sip the coffee slowly and occasionally cleanse your palette with some water. If you are drinking with a fortune teller, they can “read” your coffee grounds when you are done.
Raki is my new favorite liquor. It’s a sweetened anise-flavored spirit known for being the cause of many rowdy nights. The drink arrives as a clear liquid, but once ice is added, it turns cloudy. We witnessed a scuffle outside of the above kebab store where the cashier was scratched by a rambling elderly woman. We asked what happened and his answer was, “Ah, I don’t know! Too much raki I guess!”
After perusing and eating our way up and down Istiklal Cadessi, there was yet another palace to see, this time staying on our side of the bridge, the North side. Dolmabahçe Palace is the largest palace in all of Turkey. And when I tell you we needed to wear plastic bags over our shoes so as not to scuff up the massive rug-lines hallways, this place was fan-cy. Built 400 hundred years after Topkapi Palace, the 285 rooms and 46 halls did not disappoint. Tastefully yet elaborately decorated, each room and its accompanying furniture had a different design aesthetic from the next. The Ceremonial Hall could have been a palace in itself, its pièce de résistance the 4 – 1/2 ton chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria. Sadly we were not allowed to take any photos inside, but did manage a few shots of the outside gates, gardens, and private views along the Bosphorus.
A majority of the biggest tourist spots are on the “western” side of Istanbul, but since we had so much time here, we also wanted to explore the “eastern” or “Asian” side of Istanbul. (The Bosphorus is a narrow, natural straight that serves as the continental divide between Europe and Asia!) We took a ferry over to an area called Kadiköy to check out some hipster cafes, artsy stores, and maybe find some art murals strolling the streets of Yeldeğirmeni.
We did just a teeny bit of research before we headed over so we remained pretty open minded in regards to an itinerary. Once we got off the ferry, we just started walking. No plans, no appointments, just pure exploration. As we walked along one lively street full of bakeries and coffeeshops, we passed an empty barbershop. I encouraged Mark to check it out, at least ask the price, because no customers means no wait. The proprietor of the shop was standing in the doorway, drinking tea and smoking a cigarette. As soon as I saw his beautiful beard I knew he was the guy for the job and luckily the price he quoted (typed out on a calculator) was good enough for Mark. He didn’t speak a word of English, and Mark didn’t speak a word of Turkish, but through hand motions while touching his head and face, Mark gave his haircut and beard trim order. The man silently served me some Turkish tea (no cigarette, though) while Mark settled into the chair. Mr. Barber worked like a pro, never hesitating while working on Mark. He took the shaver to Mark’s beard and I was terrified he would shave it off due to an unfortunate language barrier, but he was actually implementing a sick fade.
At one point, Mr. Barber pointed to Mark’s ears, swirled his finger around inquisitively, and Mark said “yes.” Huh? I learned it’s common at men’s barbershops to get your ear hair trimmed! Mr. Barber pulled something off a shelf, dipped it in some kind of liquid, but couldn’t find something else. He looked around, went to his register counter and found a lighter. What are you going to do with that sir???
The rest of our time in Istanbul was filled with art murals, antique shops, delicious food, more mosques, waterfront dog parks, more delicious food, fish and trinket markets, and a lunch at a restaurant featured on Chef’s Table, Çiya Sofrasi (Season 5 features Musa Dağdeviren, head chef). We never even got around to telling you about the panoramic city views scaling Galata Tower, the countless times locals mistook Mark for a Turk, the failed meal attempt under Galata Bridge, the absolutely stunning church letting out its congregation of immaculately-dressed Ethiopian patrons, or the time when a bird dropped the carcass remnant of its lunch from the sky, and it landed with a loud thud just inches away from Mark.
Our time in Istanbul was an absolute highlight of the trip. Whether it was the stark contrast in aesthetic from all that we’d seen and lived in the previous three months, or simply of its own volition, Istanbul was absolutely stunning and held a certain power over us. We both secretly held faulty and low expectations coming in, setting the bar way too low. It was like asking Usain Bolt if he likes to run, then being blown away by his World-dominating speed and power.
If you’ve never been and Istanbul is not currently on your short list of places to travel, we suggest changing that ASAP. We were blown away and would return here in a heartbeat. Personally I’d like to come deeper in the Spring months when it’s nice and warm out here — but still during football season; would love to see a match at the home of one of Turkey’s Big Three soccer clubs, Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe or Galatasaray.
Istanbul was very, very good to us, and if we could return the favor by inspiring even just one person to visit someday, then we can feel as though we’ve given back.
You also know Istanbul is super cool because my brother commented on our photos on Instagram and Mikey is NEVER on Instagram.
Absolutely all credit goes to Dr. George W. Bo-Linn, MD.Without whom, we for sure would have bypassed what has quickly become my favorite new city of the trip, for something a little more mainstream European.