Istanbul is the largest city I have ever visited, with 16 million people and so much happening; from the citizens to the tourists to all the shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, mosques; all the ways around town, from taxis to the tram, buses, trains, boats and even two funiculars. It is consistently buzzing and some of it is great, and other times it can be maddening. But it has made the top five of my cities that I have visited in this world, and I will attempt my best to explain why over the next few posts.
Before I get ahead of myself though, lets just say, that while it is in the same country as our last Turkish city, Antalya (which has two million people, so not small) the vibe is much different. It was laid back when we took our tax to the hotel in Antalya; in Istanbul, it was intense and we had to wait a while with all the other tourists waiting for their ride; we had heard the taxis in Istanbul would try to rip us off (or worse), so we had the hotel arrange to pick us up. After we were on the road, in an hour (the new Istanbul airport is far from the city) we were at our hotel. We have a view of the Bosphorus Strait from our room, and the roof terrace one floor up, here is the rooftop view.
We stayed in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, which is most popular for tourists, as it is a short walk to the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and many other sites nearby.
First off, there is so much culture, history and museums that it is a bit overwhelming. We did a lot in our two weeks in Istanbul: visited a lot of museums, mosques, former palaces, fortresses, bazaars; saw many different neighborhoods, one music concert, went on two boat tours, and made a visit to the Princess islands. We ate a lot of Turkish food, from fancy fish dinners to street kebab sandwiches to simits (Turkish pretzels) to full Turkish breakfasts and more, usually with efes or bomonti beer or su (water), and we even bought a rug (that you can see at the end of this post)!
Our first night in Istanbul we took a stroll around Sultanahmet Square, which has two obelisks; one is the Obelisk of Theodosius (below right), dating back to the 18th century BC, and brought to Byzantium (now Istanbul) in the 4th century AD, by the Roman emperor Theodosius I. The other is the Walled Obelisk (below left), which was repaired in the 10th century, but is much older than that (though it is not determined how old it is).
At the other end of the square is the German Fountain, which was built, in Germany, to commemorate the second anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898. It was then reassembled in Istanbul. The mosaics on the ceiling shine quite brightly at night.
The square is much more relaxed and there are much fewer people on a weekday evening, and I highly advise taking a walk through it if given the opportunity late in the evening. The picture at the top of the post is of the Hagia Sofia, and below is one of the minarets.
We later walked around the other side of the Hagia Sofia, down Sogukcesme (Cold Fountain in Turkish) Street, which is opposite the tall, stone, garden wall of the Hagia Sofia. The homes are more modern, with panel siding in mint green with white outlines. It is a very posh cobblestone street, and much quieter than the hustle and bustle in front of the Hagia Sofia. At the end of the street is the entrance to the Topkapi Palace and the back of the Hagia Sofia. There is also the fountain of Ahmet III, which is designed in the Turkish rococo style and was built in 1729. It was stunning every time we passed it.
The next day we went to visit the Blue Mosque which is across from the Hagia Sofia, and looks quite nice from the outside.
Before we entered we met a man with kind eyes who said he would wait for us while we visited the mosque because he wanted to show us his rug shop, but said we were not obliged to buy anything. So we went into the Blue Mosque…but only for a few minutes. It is under heavy construction, and we could not see anything as there was scaffolding and tarps over 95% of it, so we quickly left. He was waiting for us, and I gave him a little trouble for not telling us it was not worth visiting; but he said “I would, but people would still go anyway,” and he was right.
Anyway, he took us back to the rug shop, where his “brother” was there to sell us a rug. When in Turkey, it is an experience buying a rug; you don’t just choose one with a price tag, you pay, they ship it, and that’s it. There is Turkish tea (and I mean, a lot of tea) to drink. Our rug salesman (like a car salesman) showed the rugs that a couple of kids (about 10-years-old) brought out; first we talked about the size we wanted, then the kids unroll rug after rug; the rug salesman twirled the rugs, told us all a bout the rugs, had us walk on the rugs, and, over a few teas, we narrowed down which rugs we liked. It came down to two…then it was time for the negotiation.
Now, granted, we did not plan to buy a rug that day, nor at all, during our trip to Turkey. So we had done zero research on how much a rug (or two) like this could cost. The rug salesman took out a calculator and typed in a number, he handed it to us and we audibly gasped. No way would we pay that much. So we made our counter offer; and over the course of another hour, we drank more tea, ate some of the best baklava we had every eaten, and negotiated our price for one of the rugs. I like to negotiate, so that was fun, and, all in all, it was quite an experience.
We met a couple and spent some days with them with in Turkey; we told them, even if you don’t want to buy a rug, you will end up buying a rug…and when we saw them later they had purchased one too! Even if it is just an entryway rug, I highly advise doing the the full rug-buying experience.
That wraps up our first two days, and as we had 15 days in Istanbul, we did a lot more over the next two weeks. Here are all the posts from our adventures from Istanbul!
All Istanbul Posts: