Istanbul is one of a few cities in the world that spans two continents (Europe and Asia). It is also a city where you can see the juxtaposition of the old historical side and the thriving new and modern side. Having both of these sides adds to the allure of visiting Istanbul. You can visit the historical sites in the morning, Hagia Sophia or Blue Mosque, and cross the Galata Bridge in the afternoon or evening to indulge in the modern cuisine and shopping on the modern side. Istanbul is not only a city to see sites it is a city where you can have experiences you wouldn’t get in other places like visiting a Hamman (Turkish Bath) or smoking shisha and playing backgammon with a Turk.
Even though Istanbul is more famously known for the Blue Mosque its older sister Hagia Sophia is really the must see in Istanbul. This church was built in the 500’s and is enormous, the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside. What is more impressive is that mankind was able to construct such a structure over 1500 years ago. Hagia Sophia was built as a Byzantine Catholic church but was converted to a mosque after Ottoman rule so you can see both Islamic and Catholic architecture and artwork throughout the building. I don’t think pictures will be able to do it justice.
Across the square from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque that was built in response to Hagia Sophia. After exiting Hagia Sophia we were able to hear the call to prayer from both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. You could definitely tell that there was some sort of rivalry between the prayer callers in each building and an epic “rap” prayer battle ensued. Since both men and women need to cover their knees and shoulders and women need to cover their heads we had to stop by the Grand Bazaar before our visit so I could pick up a scarf. The Grand Bazaar is huge with over 4,000 shops so it’s a little overwhelming but we were able to barter and get me a scarf that I liked for $4.
Once equipped with scarf for covering my head we headed to the Blue Mosque. It is named the Blue Mosque because of the blue tile work all over the inside. Before entering the tourist entry you are required to cover up and the covering will be provided if you are not currently dressed appropriately. You then remove your shoes and step inside. The inside is beautiful and you get a chance to see the tilework and designs up close.
Istanbul is located on the Bosphorus straight which is one of the busiest waterways in the world and connects the European and Asian sides of Istanbul with the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. From Istanbul you can take a local ferry for $10/person up the Bosphorus to a small fishing village on the Asian side of Turkey. The ride takes about 1.5 hours each way and you get to spend 2 hours in the fishing village. If you have at least 3 days in Turkey we would definitely recommend. It is a good way to see more of Istanbul from the water and set foot in Asia.
There are a ton of sights in Istanbul but our favorite parts of the trip were the experiences. One of the things you cannot miss if going to Istanbul is visiting a Hamam or traditional Turkish bath. There are a bunch in town but we chose to go to the Cemberlitas Hamam because it is said to be the most beautiful (Its also listed in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die). We had a great time. The baths are segregated so Dan and I went our separate ways once we checked in. You then go into the segregated sections, change for the bath, and get escorted to the bath where you get to sit in a sauna or bowl hot water over yourself and relax for about 30 minutes before your masseuse comes to get you for your scrub and massage. Then then proceed to lay you on a giant marble slab/table in the center of the room and give your body a thorough scrub down which is followed by a soapy massage. After this you can either hang out in the bath and relax for a little longer or head to the changing room and have a cup of apple tea. It was awesome, refreshing and relaxing. I’m ready to bring these to Denver!
One of the other great experiences that we had was hanging out at night at one of the Shisa (flavored mild tobacco) joints, smoking hookah, drinking tea or Turkish coffee, and playing backgammon. We ended up going to the same place two nights in a row because the first night Dan bet the owner that he could be beat him playing Backgammon (or Tavlac as the Turkish say) and if Dan lost we had to come back the next night. Dan put up a valiant effort but ended losing 3-1. The next night Dan faced off against a Syrian from Dubai who was up 3-0 when Dan came back to tie the game 3-3. The Syrian ended up winning 5-3 but you could tell he was definitely sweating it and was not going to be happy if he lost to Dan.
And you all are probably surprised because I haven’t even mentioned food yet! So in case you were wondering the food in Turkey was pretty delicious. We had a lot of grilled or rotisserie lamb, meses (small vegetable plates), kafta, turkish bagels, and baklava. We also got to eat some really good modern Turkish fare in the new town. There is not much to sight see in the new town besides how new world and modern it is but there are a ton of restaurants, shops, and people. It was especially fun to visit at night to see the street performers and the mobs of people streaming down Istiklal street.
We also ended up visiting the Tokapi Palace which was the palace for the Ottoman Empire since the 1600’s. This is a sight to visit if you have done everything else and are looking for something to do. There were a lot of lines but the tile work is outstanding, you get a great view of the Bosphorus, and you get to see a 74 Carat Diamond and other neat jewels owned by the throne. There is also an interesting “historic relics” room where you can see Moses’ staff and Muhammed’s footprint, pieces of his beard, etc. You can come up with your own conclusions but I’m not so sure that these historic relics are the real deal.
Overall Istanbul was a great city to visit. Not sure I will need to go back but definitely worth the trip and a must see city!
Top 5 Things to do in Istanbul-
- Visit Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque
- Get scrubbed at a Hamman
- Gorge yourself on spit roasted local lamb
- Smoke shisha and play backgammon with a local
- Eat Baklava while drinking Turkish coffee