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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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