I meant to write about my trip to Istanbul a long time ago. Life has been busy and full, and I kept putting if off. Also, I’m still having a hard time figuring out how to describe Istanbul. In a word: crammed. And another: bold. And another: delicious.
I flew into the Ataturk airport on a Friday afternoon, then spent over 2 hours on the bus to Taksim Square in traffic. Though the airport is only 24 kilometers from the city center, there’s a big construction project going on right now – and, apparently, lots of weekend traffic in general. I sat next to a Turkish man who struck up a conversation with me and was beyond shocked that I’d flown into Istanbul alone. He told me the city’s emergency phone number over and over (“1, 1, 2! 1, 1, 2! That’s two 1s and one 2. Repeat it back to me!”) and asked if he should stay on the bus past his stop to help me find mine. (I politely declined.)
Later that night, I met up with Shelby and Tracy and Michael, and we spent the next 2 days trying to see and do as much as possible.
Reunited with Tracy after several months – and coping with the cold nights in Istanbul.
This post is going to quickly turn into a novel if I don’t change tack now, so let me present … Istanbul in lists! And pictures!
A whirlwind tour of Sultanahmet and Taksim
We packed our first day with mosques and bazaars and sites in Istanbul’s old city, Sultanahmet. Since we stayed on Istanbul’s modern side (in a neighborhood one metro stop away from Taksim Square), we had a good walk from Taksim Square, down Istiklal Street and across Galata Bridge to the Old City.
What we saw: Taksim Square, Galata Tower and Galata Bridge, Spice Market, Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace
Walking down Istiklal Street toward Galata Bridge. (See that box on the left? It’s being carried on a man’s back.)
Fishermen along Galata Bridge with the Old Town in the background
We wandered along the edge of the Grand Bazaar and quickly got overwhelmed by the masses of people. (The Bazaar takes up more than 61 streets and includes more than 3,000 shops. Damn.)
Pictures don’t do justice to the Blue Mosque. It’s enormous and majestic – and completely exceeded my expectations.
Side facade of the mosque
The inside of the Blue Mosque is also incredible, though I must admit it felt a little strange to be in a hoard of tourists wandering around the middle of the mosque – taking pictures – while locals prayed on their hands and knees at the front and back.
Hagia Sophia, a former basilica and then a mosque (and now a museum), sits across from the Blue Mosque.
Getting lost in Kadikoy
On day two, we took a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul. (How cool is it that Istanbul straddles two continents?*) We didn’t have much of plan and got thoroughly lost in Kadikoy.
The ferry ride itself is worth it, even if you don’t get off on the other side. With full views of both the European and Asian sides, you get a good sense of architectural differences.
We had a couple *crazy Americans* photo-taking sessions …
… including making Tracy & Michael pose for this anniversary-esque photo.
The tower in the water is called Leander’s Tower and was built in 408 B.C. (B.C.!) to control ships moving through Borphorous Strait.
Kadikoy felt a little less busy than the European side, with far fewer tourists.
With just 3 nights in the city, we definitely didn’t have enough time to thoroughly explore Istanbul’s neighborhoods, but we did our best to get out and enjoy the nightlife. On the first and second nights, we found bars in the Beyoglu neighborhood – so many of them have live music – and on our last night, Shelby and I drank raki (Turkey’s version of ouzo) in a smoky piano bar in the Sisli neighborhood.
I quite dislike the flavor of anise, but I couldn’t leave IST without trying the raki!
After drinks, we scoped out Sisli and had a memorable experience in nearby bakery, when the Turkish guy closing down shop gave us free chocolates and cookies in exchange for an impromptu English lesson.
I’m a sucker for all things sweet, so of course I loved trying different versions of baklava every day. And, holy hell, does Istanbul know what to do with spices! After three months in a region that doesn’t seem to give a damn about spicy food (sorry, Catalonia), I was thoroughly bowled over to be met with flavor and spice at every meal in Istanbul.
8 different types of baklava? Yes, please.
Street food – especially chestnuts – on nearly every corner
One of our favorite meals was at LaTerne cafe. When we pointed at a dish they’d just delivered to a man at the table next to us, they literally took it away from him and gave it to us! We tried to protest, but apparently the man was a friend of theirs, and they wanted us – the guests – to eat first.
Spice attack! Be still, my spice-lovin’ heart.
Now I’m simply plotting when I can return to Istanbul for a second trip – and also make my way to other parts of Turkey. First on the list? Cappadocia. I mean, look at this insanity:
* Did you know there are actually 4 transcontinental cities? Istanbul is the largest and most well-known, of course, but the others are: Atyrau, Kazakhstan (Europe/Asia), Orenburg, Russia (Europe/Asia) and Suez, Egypt (Africa/Asia).