I arrived in Istanbul extremely tired of air travel. There’s really nothing that will make two twelve hour flights in a row comfortable, even flying business class (seriously, collect airline miles). But I arrived in one piece, along with all my things, and proceeded to my hotel in the city. I was staying in Sultanahmet, which is the historical area – in fact, the area formerly known as Constantinople. It was convenient for walking to some things, but if you’re in town for more than a couple of days, it’s probably better to stay in a different part of town for better food and nightlife, and fewer tourist scams. I’m proud to say that I only got drawn into one carpet shop! And I got out without spending any money. Go me.
Day 1, I jumped right in and headed to the famous Blue Mosque, which is open for visitors during daylight except for prayer times. It’s quite a popular attraction, with tons of people always hanging about. As I was standing near the entrance attempting to understand the layout, a friendly Turkish man asked if I was traveling by myself. Pro-tip: if you’re ever asked this in Turkey, answer no and explain that your companion is meeting you soon. Otherwise – carpet shop! I ended up eventually standing in the line for a tour of the mosque, and struck up a conversation with the local tour guide behind me. Small world – his tour group was from New Zealand, and he has a daughter who practices medicine in Brookline which he visits every summer. So we all had a nice chat, and I got to tag along with their tour group and hear some interesting info. The mosque is impressive, able to hold 10,000 people.
Grabbed some lunch (my first local meal!) at a nearby shop, which despite TripAdvisor recommendations was completely empty when I walked in. This happened to me a few times – not sure if my meal schedule is different than everyone, or what. Anyway, very tasty food. Next stop was Topkapi Palace. Also impressive, but…eh. A little too over ornate for me, I guess. Some of this stuff is better in small doses. Wandered around a bit, found some dinner, and took some night photos of the Blue Mosque.
The next day, which was Monday, I wandered past the Hagia Sophia. Despite every tour book saying it was closed on Mondays, and a big sign on the entrance stating “Closed Mondays”, the door was open and you could walk right in. Strange, but since it meant fewer crowds, fine with me. This was definitely impressive, although unfortunately there’s a lot of scaffolding right now as they do some restoration work. Still very nice.
I grabbed some lunch (mmm, urfa kebab) and wandered through the Grand Bazaar. This is impressive. Slightly wasted on me, since I wasn’t really shopping for anything, but it just goes on and on. A little difficult to window shop, since the store owners will be on you in a second, but fun just to wander. And get lost. You will get lost. Just enjoy it. After some time there, I wandered back towards my hotel, stopping at the Basilica Cistern to take an underground tour. It’s actually quite impressive – a vast underground cavern, built to store water in case of a siege.
The next day, I headed over to Beyoglu, which is a more modern district. I headed to a restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain (when it comes to food, I do my research) and got lunch. It was grilled meat, wrapped in a flatbread, with tomatoes and sumac dusted onions. Oh yes. More please. Wandered around Beyoglu, saw Taksim Square (eh), and just enjoyed the street life for a while. The Galata bridge, is actually pretty cool – it’s got two levels, with shops and restaurants on the lower one, roads and sidewalks on the upper. Also lots of fishermen. A relaxing, but interesting day. The next day, I wandered around some more, saw more mosques and the local university (I like checking those out, it’s a fun way to see something you know isn’t cooked up for tourists) and headed back to the Galata Bridge for some sunset photographs. I was not disappointed. I imagine the brilliant orange color is due to the pollution, but it does make for pretty photographs.
My last day in Istanbul, I headed back to my favorite lunch spot near the Grand Bazaar. It might be cliche, but meat in bread is popular for a reason. This place, Donerci Sahin Usta, gets it right. The meat (I think a combination of lamb and beef, but I don’t know for sure) is grilled on one of those upright rotating skewer things. When you order, they toss a fresh piece of thick pide bread near the heat to warm up, shave some meat off, and pile it in the bread with more tomatoes and onions. Simple…and delicious. Seriously, give me this for lunch every day. A bit more wandering, and then I headed off to the airport for my next destination. All in all, Istanbul grew on me. The first day wasn’t fabulous – jet lag, culture shock, and the unpleasant parts of tourism were all a downer. But once I got settled in, I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to hopefully going back sometime soon!