Istanbul: Where East meets West

For my birthday, Julian told me he was going to take me somewhere special for the weekend but he wouldn’t tell me where. My mind was racing with possibilities! It wasn’t until the morning of our departure that he finally spilled the beans– we would be spending the weekend in Istanbul!

The City where East meets West

For years now I’ve been dying to go to Istanbul, the city where East meets West. Its cultural heritage spans from an ancient Greek civilization through Persian, Greek, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires to the modern nation-state. This convergence of civilizations has shaped Istanbul into one of the world’s most culturally rich cities and I was eager to experience it first-hand. I had also heard great things about Istanbul from Julian, his sister who studied abroad there, and our Turkish friends. Though many of our Turkish friends now live elsewhere (in part because of the current political climate), our friend Zeynep recently moved back home. Luckily for us, she was happy to show us around and give us an insider’s view of Istanbul.

hagia sophia istanbul flowers

Getting to Istanbul

Istanbul has two airports, the Ataturk Airport on the European side of the city and the Sabiha Gokcen Airport on the Asian side of the city. Though we were staying on the European side (where the main tourist attractions are), we flew into Sabiha Gokcen Airport because the tickets were much cheaper. The only downside was the long cab ride to our hotel which took over an hour in traffic. Before going, make sure to check whether or not your country requires a visa to visit Turkey. For Americans, a visa is required but it’s just a matter of paying $30 upon arrival.

istanbul airport map

Friday

Hotel Shangri-La Bosphorus

If you want to stay somewhere special while in Istanbul, choose a hotel along the beautiful Bosphorus Strait. With the major turndown in tourism last year, hotels are cheaper than ever and rooms that normally would’ve been out of our price range were surprisingly affordable. We stayed at the Shangri-La Bosphorus largely because of its great location and view of the Bosphorus. The Shangri-La is conveniently located in the financial and entertainment district of Besiktas. This was the perfect area for us because it’s very close to the trendy neighborhood of Bebek and only a tram ride away to the historic Old City.

Shangri-La Bosphorus hotel

Luxe lobby of the Shangri-La Bosphorus

Night Out in Bebek

After settling into our room at the Shangri-La, Julian and I raced to get ready for dinner. We were meeting Zeynep and her friends for dinner at Lucca, a local hotspot in the hip neighborhood of Bebek. When we arrived at around 11 pm, it was buzzing with activity. The cool thing about Lucca is it’s a cafe by day and one of the hippest bars in Istanbul by night. Fortunately, we got there in time to try several tasty Turkish dishes. Around midnight the last plates were cleared and the party started. The DJ was one of the best I’d heard in a while and every song had the room belting out the words and dancing. Interestingly enough, the vibe of Lucca reminded Julian and I of bars in Mexico City and we felt right at home. 🙂

lucca cafe and bar istanbul

Saturday

Saturday morning we woke up and rushed to the window to see the sparkling Bosphorus. Although it was a bit cloudy, the water was still the most magnificent shade of blue. We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us and I couldn’t wait to get outside and start exploring. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace in Old Istanbul were all on our agenda.

bosphorus istanbul

View from our room in the Shangri-La Bosphorus

Touring the Old City

The Blue Mosque

After a traditional Turkish lunch of lamb koftas and kebabs, we set off for our first stop, the Blue Mosque. The minute we got in sight of this famously beautiful mosque, I was snapping pictures. The only problem was it’s so large that it was nearly impossible to fit in one frame! 

istanbul blue mosque

A note on dress: When visiting mosques in Istanbul make sure to dress somewhat conservatively out of respect. The Blue Mosque asks that both men and women cover their legs and shoulders and that women cover their hair. However, a long robe and an attached headscarf are provided for those who, like me, did not bring their own. Also, all visitors must take off their shoes upon entrance in keeping with Islamic tradition. 

istanbul blue mosque interior

Admiring the mosque’s stained glass windows in the robe and head scarf provided for visitors

Today, the Blue Mosque still functions as a place of worship and Muslims from around the world come here to pray. I was struck by the serenity and beauty of this grand mosque. I especially loved the stained glass windows and immense, intricately tiled domes.

istanbul blue mosque dome

Within the mosque, there are Islamic information booths where visitors of any faiths are welcomed to ask questions about Islam. The poster outside the booth declares: “We respect different opinions. Our two principles from the Quran are ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ and ‘Over every possessor of knowledge is a Knower.’” In this day and age these statements are more important than ever, serving as a reminder of the true beliefs of Islam.

blue mosque islamic information

istanbul blue mosque

Photo of the Blue Mosque taken from a window in the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Directly across from the Blue Mosque is the great Hagia Sophia. The history of Hagia Sophia (whose name means “holy wisdom” in Greek) is extremely interesting and reflects the many drastic changes Istanbul has undergone over the last millennia. If you have some time, read up on it! If not, here’s the short version: Built in 537 by a Byzantine emperor, it served as the focal point of the Greek Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. In 1453, the city was conquered by the Ottomans and it was converted into a mosque. Then in 1935, Ataturk, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, transformed the it into a museum.

hagia sophia

Today, Arabic calligraphic panes hang next to 6th century murals of Mary, Christ, and the Saints, resulting in a fascinating confluence of Christian and Islamic iconography. Although it’s currently undergoing extensive repairs, don’t let this deter you from visiting. Standing under Hagia Sophia’s 55 meter dome is a humbling experience unlike any other.

hagia sophia interior dome

Topkapi Palace

Our final site for the day was Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Perched on a hill overlooking the Golden Horn, Topkapi Palace was strategically built to have the best view of the Bosphorus and surrounding city. Allow some time here because there are four courtyards, a harem, mosques, a hospital, bakeries, a mint, and beautiful gardens to see. There are also several museums where you will find elaborate Ottoman weaponry, an extensive collection of Japanese, Chinese, and European porcelain, and many other imperial treasures.

topkapi palace entrance gate

Entrance to the palace

topkapi palace

For a blue and white lover like me, Topkapi Palace was a dream. The palace is covered in blue and white Iznik tiles with the most beautiful designs and I left with major design inspiration!

We visited Topkapi  in late afternoon and stayed until sunset. At golden hour, the palace was bathed in the most magnificent light, illuminating its tiled walls and the city below. Watching the sunset from the palace balcony, I couldn’t help but feel like an Ottoman princess. 😀

Dinner at Sunset

Saturday night we had dinner with friends at Sunset Grill & Bar in the posh neighborhood of Ulus. This classy restaurant sits on a hill with a fantastic view of the Bosphorus. In addition to a few Turkish dishes, Sunset serves international and Japanese cuisine and everything we tried was delicious.

sunset grill and bar restaurant istanbul

Sunday

Brunch along the Bosphorus 

Sunday morning we headed to brunch at Lokma, a local favorite along the Bosphorus. Luckily Zeynep persuaded the hostess to give us a window table so we could enjoy the view. I had been wanting to try a traditional Turkish breakfast and at Lokma I got everything I wanted and more. We feasted on countless varieties of cheese, eggs, savory Turkish pastries, fresh vegetables and juices. But my favorite was simit (the Turkish equivalent to a bagel) with honey, kaymak (Turkish clotted cream), and jam. I could eat that all day!

istanbul bosphorus

View of the Bosphorus from our table

Dolmabahce Palace

After a stroll along the Bosphorus, we set off for another palace. In 1856, the Ottomans abandoned Topkaki for Dolmabahce, a palace modeled after the great palaces of Europe. Dolmabahce is a clear example of the confluence of East and West in Istanbul. While the palace contains Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical elements, it also retains elements of traditional Ottoman palace life such as having separate living quarters for the men and women.

Dolmabahce Palace istanbul

Dolmabahce Palace istanbul gate

One of the palace’s ornate gates to the Bosphorus

Both Topkaki and Dolmabahce Palace are worth seeing because they are completely different stylistically and reflect very different eras. With 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets, Dolmabahce is extravagance personified. In fact, the exorbitant expense incurred by its construction contributed to the deteriorating financial situation of the Ottoman Empire and eventually its demise.

Dolmabahce Palace istanbul interior

You’re not allowed to take photos in the palace but I managed to snag a few 😉 But to get a real sense of the opulence of this palace you must see it for yourself!

Dolmabahce Palace istanbul ceremonial hall

The Ceremonial Hall with a 36 m (118 ft) high dome and a chandelier weighing 4.5 tons. You have to see it to believe it!

Spice Bazaar

From Dolmabahce, we hopped on the tram and headed to the famous Spice Bazaar in the Old City. The Spice Market was once the last stop for the camel caravans that travelled the Silk Road from China. Stepping into the covered market, I felt as though I’d walked into Ottoman-era Istanbul. There were hundreds of vendors selling fragrant, vividly colored spices alongside countless varieties of lokum, or Turkish Delight, and dried fruits. 

istanbul spice market

istanbul spice market

With the vendors competing for our attention, it was a bit overwhelming deciding where to take our business. Eventually, we walked into a stall that caught our eye and began sampling the spices. The vendors are happy to give you a pinch of their spices or a piece of lokum so don’t be shy to ask! After some deliberation, I decided on an assortment of spices and sweet treats to bring back to my family. We also picked up two bright-colored Turkish towels here which we absolutely love.

istanbul spice market dried fruit

istanbul spice market

istanbul turkish towel shop

Galata Tower

From the Spice Market, we walked along the Golden Horn, the primary inlet of the Bosphorus. At 6:30 pm, the docks were teeming with activity and we lingered to watch the fisherman and enjoy the warm, salty air. We then made our way across Galata Bridge to Galata Tower.

istanbul galata bridge fishing

Built by a Byzantine emperor in 528, Galata Tower is one of the oldest surviving towers in the world. Over the years, the tower has served many purposes and has witnessed even more changes. Originally built as a lighthouse, the tower later became a military stronghold, an astronomical observation point, and prison. An early aviator even used it as his launching pad to fly over the Bosphorus! Today, Galata Tower offers visitors a spectacular 360 degree view of the city. Though it’s definitely a tourist trap, I’m so glad we went. To grasp Istanbul’s immense size and beauty, you really must see it from the sky.

Football Mayhem

Heading back to our hotel, we heard a lot of commotion. People were whooping and singing, setting off firecrackers, and blaring their car horns. After a few minutes of confusion we realized Besiktas, one of Turkey’s favorite football teams, had just won the national league. Named after the Besiktas district of the city, the team’s stadium was located right next to our hotel and thousands of fans were flocking there to celebrate their team’s win. In Turkey, they clearly take their football very seriously!

Back at our hotel room in, we could see the ferries bringing in hundreds of more people to join in on the celebration. Though we had planned to go to Bebek for dinner, we soon realized taking a cab would be impossible. Instead, we decided to walk to a nearby seafood restaurant along the water. As we dined, the cacophony continued around us but we didn’t mind. It was fun to see people so elated over their team’s victory and their energy was contagious. Needless to say our last night in Istanbul was one we won’t soon forget!

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Have you been to Istanbul? If so, what was your favorite thing about the city? If not, would you like to go someday? Share your thoughts below!

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24 Comments

  1. August 27, 2017 / 6:21 am

    You are so stylish!! I love your outfits and your photos as well! Looks like you had an amazing trip and this post was really thorough.

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      November 3, 2017 / 11:17 pm

      Thanks Francesca!! I’m so happy to hear that 🙂

  2. joanna
    August 19, 2017 / 6:46 pm

    You were so lucky to get an insider’s tour of Istanbul because of your friend. The city looks so beautiful and it makes me regret that time when I had to cancel my trip to Istanbul because the friend I was going with had a family emergency and decided not to go anymore. I would love to visit one day.

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 20, 2017 / 2:15 pm

      Oh no, that’s such a bummer! You must reschedule your trip, the sooner the better!!

  3. August 17, 2017 / 6:25 pm

    Sounds and looks like you had a really fantastic trip! I’ve wanted to visit Istanbul for ages. Like you mentioned, its rich and diverse history spanning millennia is beyond fascinating!.

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 20, 2017 / 2:14 pm

      It really is! I knew a little about Istanbul’s history before going but I learned so much more while there and it was all incredibly fascinating!

  4. August 17, 2017 / 5:06 pm

    Wow! Just WOW! Istanbul looks incredible! I literally can’t choose one place I’d rather see more than another. Great photos. I’m happy you had a blast for your birthday. Thanks for sharing!

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 20, 2017 / 2:12 pm

      Thanks Annette! I felt the same way when I was there, there was so much to see and do it was hard to pick just a few things each day. Although we made the most of the time we had, I’d love to come back one day because there’s so much I didn’t get to!

  5. August 16, 2017 / 10:33 pm

    It looks absolutely amazing!!!!! You make me want to visit so many places!

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:31 am

      Aw thanks Court!! 🙂

  6. August 16, 2017 / 8:46 pm

    I heard a lot about Istanbul this year but never really read anything about it until now !
    Overall the city from what I can see in your pictures looks gorgeous and also so rich in experiences !

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:30 am

      It really is and pictures don’t even do it justice!

  7. August 16, 2017 / 8:34 pm

    These pictures are absolutely phenomenal! Istanbul seems like such an incredible place to visit. Not only is it so beautiful, but the historical aspect of it is so enticing!! Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:30 am

      Thanks Megan! I found the history of the city absolutely fascinating, as you can probably tell from my post haha. So glad you liked it!

  8. August 16, 2017 / 8:18 pm

    Gorgeous photos. Love hearing about new places like this. I have heard so many people saying that they loved visiting Istanbul. I know in my heart that there’s nothing to fear about Istanbul… but I’m one of those travelers who’s sitting on the fence about visiting Turkey. However, your post helps sway me in the right direction 😉

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:29 am

      I’m so happy to hear that! Honestly, I never felt at all unsafe in Istanbul 🙂

  9. August 16, 2017 / 8:09 pm

    Loved your blog, loved every picture and enjoyed reading your experience.. many more travels to you!!

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:27 am

      Thanks Kanika!! Many more travels to you as well!

  10. August 16, 2017 / 8:08 pm

    Istanbul is certainly making its way into the list of places I want to see! Loved your blog, especially the pictures!!

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:27 am

      So happy to hear that Kanika, thanks for reading!

  11. August 16, 2017 / 7:42 pm

    I’ve been hearing more and more wonderful things about Istanbul–it’s such a colorful city!! I really loved the look of Hotel Shangri-La Bosphorus–super chic and trendy!

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:27 am

      It really is! And the Shangri-La was everything we could’ve asked for, great service, a comfortable and spacious room, and beautiful views. Go now while it’s still cheap!

  12. August 16, 2017 / 7:07 pm

    Excellent post! Your photography is beautiful. The airport tip is helpful & I love how you mentioned changing your plans.

    • Sarah Daisey
      Author
      August 17, 2017 / 2:25 am

      Thanks so much Renada! Glad you found it helpful 🙂

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