Everyone who loves traveling wants more. They want to travel longer, further, more often. And so we do, as far, as long and as often as we can. But sometimes, we can’t. There can be any number of reasons why, each as valid (or invalid, depending on whom you ask) as the next. And that is why I think it is so important to travel when you can, make the most out of it, and be thankful that you were able to do even a tiny bit. Which is why we went to Istanbul (a city of over 16 million people) for three nights.
I was in New England for the end of December and came back to Germany on 30 December. On 31. December we flew to Istanbul, landing in Asia (a first for me!) and getting to Taksim Square at around 8pm. It took about a half-hour to walk to our AirBnB, off of Istiklal Street. İstiklâl Caddesi (as it is called in Turkish) is famous for being visited by 3 million people on an average weekend day. I think they all decided to come at once for New Year’s Eve which, combined with heavy rain, howling wind and 5°C temperatures made it a hectic start to our trip.
We decided to bypass the festivities and instead get up the next morning and head to the Fatih district, at the peninsula where the ancient city of Constantinople was located. One thing that I didn’t appreciate until I got there was just how OLD Istanbul is. The Republic of Turkey itself is a modern Republic, succeeding the Ottoman Empire in the early 1920’s. But the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, formerly Byzantium, is ANCIENT, far and away the oldest city I have been to. Byzantium was founded in 660 BC, it became Constantinople in 324, capitol of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire in 330, it was then captured by Ottoman Turks in 1453 and was the capitol of the Ottoman Empire up until the formation of the modern Republic of Turkey, becoming known as Istanbul along the way.
The city’s age really hit me at the first place we visited, the Hagia Sophia, which was built in the 400s, was a church for 1000 YEARS, before being turned into a mosque when the city was captured by the Ottomans as punishment for the city not surrendering peacefully, which it remained for another 500 YEARS, before being turned into a museum in the 1930’s. It is easily the oldest building I have ever been in, and you could feel it, with the ancient Christian paintings on the walls, the Arabic script on panels, the combination of church and mosque, an epic sense of history bombarding you from every angle, right down to the Viking guard who carved their name in Runes into a railing and the iron door from 300 BC (!) that everyone casually walks past on the way out.
Below: Hagia Sophia and aftermarket Minarets rising up on the shores of the Bosphorus
After a boatload of history and fellow tourists (tip, get in line early or get your tickets ahead of time), we went across the street to the Blue Mosque, another amazing piece of Istanbul architecture and history. Unfortunately,the line was absolutely insane, so we decided to bypass it, with the vow that we would visit another mosque.
Below: The Blue Mosque from the courtyard, with 4 of its 6 minarets visable
Lunchtime found us at Sultanahmet Köftecisi a small restaurant in the neighbourhood, known for its reasonable prices and tasty straightforward food. It delivered on both accounts (I was surprised to see so many locals at a joint so near so many tourist attractions), with great soup, tasty lamb and yummy deserts (clean bathrooms too!).
After lunch we headed towards the Grand Bazaar, stopping along the way to smoke shisha at a Nargile Café tucked in the courtyard of a mosque. The café was filled primarily with locals (mostly men, a few women), with some tourists as well. It was wonderfully relaxing to drink tea, people watch and smoke shisha (molasses sweetened tobacco). There was a whole operation to get wood burnt into charcoal and then to replace the coals on the hookah pipes in order to keep everything running smoothly.
Below: Replacing the coals
Our next stop was the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world. Construction started in the mid-15th Century, and today it houses hundreds of shops, selling almost everything. It reminded me a lot of the Souks in Marrakech, though it was a bit easier to navigate (the avenues pretty much form a grid) and there was a bit less pressure on negotiations (we were able to get some decorations for the apartment and a gift for my mom). It was sensory overload in the best sense of the word, I knew we weren’t going to see everything, so we jsut had to enjoy what we did see, like the guys running between stalls delivering tea, and the stalls who were on TripAdvisor and sipped via DHL internationally.
Below: Wares for Sale
We exited out a different exit than the one we came in, so we decided to head up the hill to another famous mosque in the city, the Süleymaniye Mosque. We had heard the lines were typically shorter than the Blue Mosque, and they were when we got there. Unfortunately, they also decided to close the mosque to visitors literally as we got in line, so our plan to visit was foiled once again.
We did have a chance to check out the amazing views as we left, walking back down towards the Bosphorus to our tram to go home. We ended the evening with a pleasant dinner at a restaurant near our apartment, about to fall asleep at the table, tired from walking all day.
Below: an evening view of Istanbul
To Be Continued!