Istanbul and farewell, Turkey!

Steep cobblestone street with laundry hanging in the Sultahnamet neighborhood

Although Turkey was not a country on our “to-visit” list, we ended up staying almost a month there. We left feeling like there was still so much to see.

Our itenarary ended up being Antalya–Kas–Istanbul–Cappodocia–Istanbul.

Our favorites were Kas and Cappadocia. Still, gotta say that Istanbul is a pretty cool city.

Few cities in the world are more historically significant than Istanbul.

Despite Turkey’s political vicissitudes over the last decade, Istanbul is still a top tourist destination with 2020 expected to have more visitors see the city than it’s population size–and it’s population is 15 million.

Istanbul is a diverse city–a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups. It’s a city that never sleeps. It’s clean and modern and old and run down all at once. It’s huge and takes forever to get around–which was our least favorite thing about Istanbul. Our first stay in Istanbul was in the historic Sultahnamet district farily close to everything in the historic center. It was a unique experience. Our second stay was just a few metro stops away (or so it seemed when we booked it), but it took us nearly 2 hours to get to the sites in the historic district.

Walking the streets of Istanbul

For our 8 days in Istanbul, we were able to accomplish and see relatively little (at least it seems to me that way).

Here’s what we did see:

The Hagia Sofia. This ancient Christian Church was the architectural treasure of Christianity in the east (Istanbul sits on the very Eastern edge of Europe, on the border between Europe and Asia).

Man selling grilled and steamed corn with the slightly pinkish Hagia Sofia in the background

It’s a huge building composed of a series of domes. The Hagia Sofia is made of cut stone that has been plastered on the outside of the building–it almost looks like cement. To me the overall appearance of the building from the outside is squat and industrial.

Hagia Sofia. The minarets were added after the Ottoman conquest.

But that squat, domed building is very different from the inside. The architectural design allows for a huge open space without any central supports inside the building. The central dome is one hundred and eighty feet from floor to ceiling. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in architecture for a building built entirely of stone almost fifteen hundred years ago.

After the ottoman empire’s conquest of the city in the 1500’s, it was converted into a mosque and its frescoes were plastered over. Now, only a few frescoes can be seen.

One of the frescoes still visible
Mosaic that wasn’t plastered over (or was restored, I guess I don’t know which for sure)

The Blue Mosque. After the ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the sultan wanted to build a mosque that would surpass the Hagia Sofia in beauty. He built the Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque. The thousands of tiles painted with blue designs that line the interior give it is name. Because it is still an active mosque, it is closed off and on throughout the day for prayer.

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque–I thought I ahd a better shot of it than this. This doesn’t really show the domes.

The construction served very similar to me to that on the Hagia Sofia. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take get a true feel for how it looks because the interior was under renovation and we couldn’t see the large central dome from the inside.

One of the many small domes in the Blue Mosque

Topakapi Palace. From the 15th through the 17th cetruries, the Topakapi palace was royal headquarters of the Sultans in the Ottoman Empire. It is the second of three palaces constructed during the Ottoman dynasty. Amended and remodeled over the centuries, it contains several courtyards, a huge kitchen, an armory, and the Harem (which our guide claimed is not what you think it is). It also houses one of the world’s largest cut diamonds and a Topakapi dagger, a dagger made famous in a heist film from the 60’s. This was our last cultural heritage stop in Turkey. It was a cool place, but hard to appreciate after two and a half months of museums and cultural heritage sites.

Despite the beautiful blue tiles of the Topakapi Harem, we were all pretty museumed out at that point.
Inlay wood, abalone, and mother of pearl doors

The Bosphorous. Part of Turkey’s historic (and current) strategic location is its position across the bosphorous—one of two narrow passages of water that ultimately connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea. As such, it is inherently important for both military and commerce.

Bosphorous cruise

We rode one of the many ships that ply the Bosphorous. No free hot chocolate aboard the boat was a real let down for Jane and Nolan, but we did see dophins.

View from the Bosphorous at night

After the boat tour, we stopped for a famous Istanbul staple–belik ekmek or fish sandwich. It was a mackerel fillet fresh caught and grilled on a boat tied to the wharf. I liked it but no one else would try it except Nolan who still talks about how good it was (I don’t think he actually got any fish in his bite, but the idea of eating fresh caught fish is appealing to him).

Belik ekmek

Turkish Hamam. I could write an entire post about my experience in the Turkish Bath. We had planned that I would go first while Ashley was with the kids and then she would go later. After my experience, she decided not to go. It was’t a bad experience though. I’ll briefly describe it.

I had heard that the baths were quite beautiful so I selected a historic bath designed by some illustrious architect. It was lined with white marble and had a domed roof with small round windows to let in natural light.

Inside the Cumberlitas hammam. Photo courtesy

A Turkish bath starts in a steam room where your sit and warm yourself and bath with warm water from a basin. Next, an attendant calls you from the steam room to the bathing till and bathes you while you sit on a marble slab. Then he uses a loofah mitt to exfoliate you, again while you site on a marble slab. It’s a serious business. During the exfoliation process, you can see the skin peeling off like a sunburn. It was somewhere between mildly and moderately painful. I am pretty sure he forgot to exfoliate my back, but when I asked him about it he assured me he had. He offered to scrub it again, but I worried about the possible consequences of a double scrub in the event that he really had already done it .

After the exfoliation follows a frothy bubble soap down and massage while you lie on a warm marble slab. This was the only relaxing part of the experience.

At the end of it all, I asked the front desk how this differs from a traditional Turkish bath experience. “Since at this bath, 90% of our clients are foreigners, the exfoliation is much gentler.”

I don’t know if I could handle the native experience.

The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest indoor bazaars in the world, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a maze of small shops selling Turkish delight, jewelry, rugs, ceramics, “genuine fake” watches, and everything else imaginable. I think we made it out of there without anything besides a few toys and trinkets and a little bit of honey.

Nolan getting a personalized crossbow

I plan on writing one more post about Turkey, including one of our neatest experiences with a Turkish family we met. Here are some more photos from around Istanbul.

Trick ice cream