If you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, and the question is; “Name the city that stands on two separate continents” The answer is…”What is Istanbul”. The city is actually divided by the Bosphorus Sea with the European side to the west and the Asian side to the east. The city has a fascinating history dating back over 2,500 years that includes several empires, many wars and a few name changes along the way. Many ancient structures still stand in Istanbul, allowing you to travel back in time and stand where sultans once stood, shop in an ancient market and explore some of the oldest churches on earth. The city itself is alive with so many cultures. Istanbul also made headlines in the 1970s when a college student from Long Island decided it was a good idea to smuggle hash out of Turkey to sell back home. Until he got caught. Then he didn’t think it was a good idea anymore. The 1978 film, The Midnight Express tells the story of his trial and sentence served in a Turkish prison. I won’t tell you how the story ends, you’ll will have to watch the movie …..but I would advise against attempting such a bad plan. If you want to bring something home from Istanbul, get a coffee mug and call it a day. Besides, the prison cells can’t compare to the stunning accommodations that can be found throughout the city.
There are several non-stop daily flights to Istanbul from NYC on Turkish Airlines. A few other carriers also go non-stop. We flew Turkish Air and were really happy with their customer service and their food (and that is something you don’t hear often). The flight takes a little over 9 hours.
What to Do
Visit the Hagia Sophia– This is such an amazing structure with a fascinating history. It was originally built as a Christian Basilica almost 1,500 years ago. Built for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church, the columns were imported from an ancient temple in Ephesus and also from Egypt. Emperors were actually crowned here. When the Ottoman’s conquered the city in the 1400s, they turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and covered the religious icons and mosaics. In 1935 it was declared a museum by the government and some of the icons were uncovered until just recently, when it was converted back into a mosque under the order of the current president.It’s like the Hagia Sophia suffers from an identity crisis! Non-Muslims are permitted to visit for free after removing shoes and covering shoulders (and heads for ladies). There are still a very few original Christian frescoes that can be seen hidden behind curtains. This was such an interesting place to stand inside of.
Take a Boat Ride on the Bosphorus– We took a narrated boat ride with Bosphorus Tour that included hotel pick up for $25 pp. There were many other boat rides for a similar price that crowded people onto their boats like the E train during rush hour in midtown.. the boat we took was a yacht and limited the amount of guests. The trip included a stop on the Asian side of Istanbul where you could get fried rice and wonton soup. Just kidding. You can score a unique homemade yogurt only found in that area made with goat and sheep milk. Of course I tried it. I wish we could get it shipped home…. It was that good. The boat ride was really cool and included snacks and drinks. The ride was about 2.5 hours-3 hours.
Shop at the Grand Bazaar– I still have flashbacks of the souks in Fez, Morocco. It was like an episode of the Walking Dead as shopkeepers grabbed at us, attempting to physically drag us into their shops as half-dead donkeys plowed through the winding streets. But the Grand Bazaar was nothing like that! It was….well.. grand! Yes, there was an unlimited supply of aggressive shopkeepers… but it felt more organized, more sanitary and definitely less stressful than those in Morocco. The bazaar is enormous! It is one of the oldest covered markets in the world, dating back to the 1400s. You can buy anything from brand name knock offs to spices, jewelry, scarves or furniture.
Visit the Blue Mosque- Known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue mosaic tiles that adorn the interior of the mosque. The monochromatic mosaic patterns are mesmerizing! Try saying that 10 times fast! The mosque is free to enter, but for ladies, a scarf must be worn that covers the head and shoes must come off for all before entering. There is no fee to enter, but it does close to visitors during prayer times.
Spend a few hours wandering around Topkapi Palace-Wow!! This enormous palace is super impressive! It was the imperial residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. There are many buildings to explore, some with artifacts from the times when the sultans ruled, along with beautiful gardens and amazing views to enjoy. The entrance fee is appx. $16.
Explore the Hagia Irene– This is one of the only churches in Istanbul from the Byzantine Empire that was never converted into a mosque! The Hagia Irene dates back to the 4th century. It was used as an arsenal to store weapons until the 19th Century and is now a museum. I am not sure that I have ever been in a structure this old… As I entered and inhaled, I thought, “this is what 1,700 years smells like”. The Hagia Irene is located in the outer courtyard of the Topkapi Palace, so both can be visited on the same day and the admission to the Hagia Irene is included in the price to visit the Topkapi Palace.
Take time out to experience a traditional Hamam– What is a hamam? you ask ….It is an ancient Turkish ritual including an almost naked you and a fully clothed other who will scrub you down and exfoliate your skin with a loofah using special mud, then lather you up with a special soap before hosing you down…..In the distance I hear the freaky voice of Jame “Buffalo Bill” Gumb …”It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”. Only this is not Silence of the Lambs and I don’t have a dog named Precious. It’s quite the opposite of scary. It’s bliss. You feel so scrubby clean and relaxed after. You can get a hamam in Turkish baths throughout the city, but we opted to go to our hotel spa instead.
Stop by at the Hippodrome– This is basically a Roman chariot racetrack that has been transformed into a square with several monuments. It links the Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque.
Stroll through Taksim Square– This is the gateway to the pedestrianized Istiklal Street and heart of Istanbul’s New District. Istiklal street is loaded with shops, restaurants and so many people!
Where to Stay
The JW Marriott Marmara Sea- This hotel was dreamy. I am not sure I would have splurged on their full rate…but I scored an amazing deal by booking before they were even open. Although I loved being away from the chaos of the old city, across from a really nice mall and on the sea, I also think that staying within the old city would have a lot of benefits. We had to take cabs about 15 minutes into the city each day.
Where to Eat
Midpoint Atakoy Plus– This restaurant was inside the mall a 5 minute walk from the JW. I still think of the dessert I had here.
BigChefs A Plus– Fantastic food, great prices, also inside the same mall.
Fiore Pizzeria Italian– This place had some of the best food I had during our trip. Even better? Our entire meal was under $20. It was a good 10 minute walk uphill from the waterfront where our boat ride departed.
Tips and Suggestions
- Turkey is a Muslim country, dress conservatively and know the laws. It did feel more moderate than other Muslim countries that I have travelled to, however, their laws are very different than ours.
- I try to learn a few words wherever I go in the world… a little trick a guide taught me that helped to remember “thank you” in Turkish… “Tea sugar a dream ” which sort of kind of sounds like, “Tesekkur ederim” (thank you). People understood what I meant. That’s what matters. Even if most giggled at my pronunciation!!
- Taxi cabs- I could write a book about the Turkish cab drivers. It would be a true crime thriller. One of our taxi encounters was so bad that we finished in an all out screaming match in our hotel parking lot after he tried to rip us off. If you take a cab, hand them the written destination. Make sure the meter is on and map out the route on your smart phone to make sure they follow it. Have small bills. Oh…and hold on tight for a wild ride. They drive like absolute lunatics.
- Turkey is on the Turkish Lira, but seemed to accept Euros as well. Know the exchange rate.
- Do try the homemade yogurt!
- Don’t try the tap water.
Suggested movie; The Midnight Express
Istanbul was a really cool city to explore. It was like a live, hands on crash history course with exotic sites and fantastic food. I was pleasantly surprised at how absolutely clean the city is and how safe I felt. If you plan a visit, allow at least 3-4 days in Istanbul. It is close to so many other cities and the airport has many flights to all corners of the world. This would allow easily for a trip combined with another destination either within Turkey, or elsewhere in this great big world!