Promise. We won’t start the song again…yet. When we landed in Istanbul we really did not know where to start despite repeated recommendations from family and friends. We had to find our travel mojo again, but there isn’t really a better place to find it than Constantinople. I mean Istanbul.
Searching for our mojo, we headed straight to the touristy neighborhood of Sultanhmet. While the swarms of cruise ship passengers aren’t exactly our modus operandi, incredible mosques, enormous bazaars and a palace with a rather long history are.
The Blue Mosque which (supposedly) is rivaled only by Mecca for its beauty in the Islamic world was as expected- incredible. I was shocked that I was allowed to enter as I was wearing shorts, while the women were all given drapes to cover their shoulders or legs. Photos were allowed inside but no shoes. The building was beautiful, but honestly it was a little weird being inside “touring” while there were men busy with prayer in front of us.
Just across the way from the Blue Mosque, passing by an Egyptian obelisk and lots of food vendors is the Hagia Sofia which dates from the time Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. We’ve seen this byzantine religious artwork before and given the high admission price decided to skip, hey don’t judge. Instead we went just slightly further afield to Topkapi Palace. Used by nearly all of Istanbul/Constantinople’s rulers until the 19th Century, the palace is full of history and beautiful design. Despite all that, it was far from the best palace we would end up visiting.
The other palace, the one most people skip because it isn’t in that touristy neighborhood, is the one you must go and see. Topkapi Palace is great, filled brim to brim with Ottoman treasure and Islamic history, but if you want to see a palace fit for a Sultan, you need to go to Dolmabhace Palace just a 15 minute tram ride away. This palace has gifts from every corner of the earth: English lamps, Siberian Polar Bear rugs, American paintings, Chinese…china? simply everything. The staircase is made of crystal and one of the chandeliers is rumored to be the heaviest in the world. The palace was last used as a residence by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey (post WWI) and all the clocks inside are turned to the time of his death. Trust me, the place was a PALACE.
With the main sites out of the way, and our travel mojo slowly returning, we turned our attention to wandering. The Great Bazaar’s labyrinth did not frighten us, in fact we found it rather easy to navigate compared to some of the other market’s we’ve been in and thankfully we escaped out of there without losing so much as a nickel. We continued through a maze of streets, what seems to be today’s actual grand bazaar, to the spice market where we purchased a much needed pumice stone and….some ice cream.
Unfortunately it was ridiculously hot in Istanbul and with 100% humidity, we found ourselves sweating more than in the Sahara. After we headed up the coast to get our Uzbekistan visas (not exactly a typical tourist activity) we managed to take the boat—public transportation, mind you—back downtown. This counted as our very luxurious and relaxing Bosporus Cruise.
So what else did we do in Istanbul? We actually had a great time meeting up with couchsurfers, first at the weekly Istanbul meetup on the Asian side and then again further afield at a picnic on Prince’s Island. Istanbul has a ton to offer, spreads 100km wide, and is probably the most cosmopolitan city we’ve visited on this entire tour. We took our time and stopped for repeated doses of tea and fresh juice and even ate at an Ottoman restaurant (again with Couchsurfers) where we sat on the floor and enjoyed an elaborate mixed grill. We spent a full 5 days in Istanbul loved every second of it.
IF YOU GO:
Transportation: Ataturk airport is connected to the city by the fairly easy to use metro system. All services on the system (train, tram, and boat) use tokens but there are no transfers (say from train to tram). Most everything though is about 1.5TL ($1) so it is not too expensive.
Food: There is Donner Kebab on every corner and plenty of other treats. No need to eat in fancy restaurants.
Lodging: We stayed in the Sydney Hostel in Sultanahnet which was fine but nothing special. There are tons of options in the Sultanahnet neighborhood so feel free to shop around.