November 5, 2014 – November 13, 2014
Istanbul, Turkey, The Gateway to the East, a huge city sprawling for miles, spanning the gap between two continents and thousands of years of history. Istanbul is covered in huge mosques, churches and palaces and enough museums and history to keep you occupied for months, and it is our next destination on our trip around the world.
After spending over a month in Africa we were headed to Asia, and decided what better way to enter Asia than through the Gateway to the East – Istanbul, Turkey. It would also be a great opportunity take in an amazing city with thousands of years of history, and a bit of modern conveniences the large city has to offer before our trip to Nepal for weeks of trekking in the Himalayas.
On November 3rd we woke to a beautiful sunrise on the crater rim of the Nyiragongo volcano in eastern Congo, climbed down the mountain to the base and caught a ride to the Rwanda border. From there we caught a bus to the capital, Kigali. The next day we caught a flight to Doha, Qatar and spent the night in a great hotel provided by the airline to layovers over 8 hours (ours was 8:05), then we caught another flight to Istanbul.
Turkish immigration/customs was simple, we applied online ahead of time and printed our forms making the process take just a few minutes. Then we boarded the metro for a ride into the city and to our airbnb apartment in Aksaray. We were going to spend a week in Istanbul and wanted a cheap and convenient location, preferably one with a kitchen so we could cook some of our own meals. Once again airbnb turned out to be a great resource, we found a place by the old city (the best place to be) within about 10/15 minute walk from the tram/metro, for around US $40 a night.
Downtown Istanbul is more or less divided into two main parts by the Halic, a short wide river of water which is also known as ‘The Golden Horn’, the old city, which as its name implies is the original ancient walled city, covered in ancient buildings and ruins from the city’s past. The newer city, across The Golden Horn (Halic River), is the newer city covered in more modern structures. We spent our first couple days exploring the streets of the old city, where you will find most of the tourist sites. The biggest attractions in the old city are the Topkapi Palace(the Sultans Palace), the Aya Sofya Mosque (pronounced Eye-ah Sophia), the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), the ruins of the ancient city wall fortifications (which run for miles through the middle of the densely packed city, and of course the Grand Bazaar.
Topkapi Palace – Outside
Topkapi’s sprawling mass of walls, parks, palaces and ruins covers almost a third of the old city, and can easily take a whole day to explore if one wanted to see it all.
Outside the palace is a large public park, Istanbul’s central park. We walked through the park and took in the palace walls and views of the city across the water.
The History and Archeology Museums outside Topkapi Palace.
Next to the palace you can find many museums dedicated to the city’s rich history, it pays to buy a three or five day museum pass which gives you access to them all, including some in other parts of the city, not just around the palace.
Topkapi Palace – Inside the Sultans Palace.
The palace grounds are huge, covered in parks and walkways, but the true heart of Topkapi Palace is the walled fortress in the center. It took us half of a day to explore the Sultan’s palace.
There are different sections in the palace, each a museum in their own right. There’s the treasury, filled with jewels and gold, the Sultans bath, a complex of rooms just for bathing (Krista’s favorite, no pictures allowed) , and the Armory, filled with hundreds of weapons from the collections of various Sultans throughout the centuries. Check out the six foot sword given as a gift to a Sultan by the Scandinavians – its not just for show it looks well built and useable, if you’re a giant.
The Chora Church
This mosque, like many in the city, was originally a Catholic Church, and the Chora Church is famous for having some of the nicest and most well preserved Christian mosaics still intact. When it was converted to a mosque the minarets were added but the building was left largely untouched inside. Although not located in Sultanahmet, it was included in our Museum Pass and worth the trip.
Aya Sofya (Eye-ah Sophia)
This massive mosque was first built as a church 1500 years ago, taking just five years to build between the years 532 and 537AD. After the Ottoman conquest it was converted into a mosque and the minarets were added. Of the city’s collection of ancient structures, this is easily the largest and most impressive single structure in the city. It also has antiquities largest free hanging dome, still intact after 1500 years and scores of earthquakes (they built things to last back then).
You can see a mix of the original Christian paintings and mosaics and the newer Islamic influences inside.
Küçük Ayasofya Camii – or just Little Aya Sofya
Just a few blocks away from the Aya Sofya is the even older, and much smaller church that was used as inspiration, it is now known as the Little Aya Sofya.
Sultanahmet Mosque – The Blue Mosque
This mosque sits right next to the Aya Sofya, the building it was built to copy. It has a distinct blue/gray color and is more colorful inside than the Aya Sofya, though the building is a bit smaller than the Aya Sofya, and its dome is a bit less impressive as it is not a free floating dome as it was built with large support pillars directly supporting its dome. The mosque is a lot newer than the Aya Sofya and the inside is much cleaner and brighter.
If you see a picture of Istanbul, or a movie and they are showing a large mosque, chances are you are looking at the Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque.
The Suleymaniye Mosque
If you are looking for huge mosques, Istanbul has dozens and dozens of them, their large domes and pointed minarets dominate the view in every direction. Another impressive mosque we toured was the Suleymaniye Mosque.
Ferry ride up the Golden Horn (Halic River)
We took a ferry up the Golden Horn to the west end of the old city on our way to explore the old city walls and the Chora Church.
The City Walls
All along the western (landward) end of the city runs a line of walls and fortifications from the Halic waterway in the north, to the Sea of Marmara in the south, effectively blocking all ancient land approaches to the city. Much of it is still intact as it has been for centuries. You can stroll through the neighborhoods that have been built right up against it, much of the walls and towers are still accessible and you can climb up and stroll along the walls, where the neighborhood kids are playing, climbing and jumping through the stone ruins.
The Basilica Cistern
This huge cistern, an underground structure built to collect water to serve the surrounding palaces of the ancient city was easily one of the most impressive structures in the city, and easily my favorite. It is a huge underground rectangular room (roughly 450 feet by 200 feet) built by the Romans in the 3rd century, with pillars recycled from even more ancient palaces, its walls are still waterproof and the underground channels built to supply it with water from the hills 20km away still work. Eventually the people and rulers of Istanbul forgot it even existed, never questioning where their water for their palaces came from. It was lost to history for hundreds of years until it was rediscovered in the 15th century by an explorer investigating accounts of citizens who claimed they could get fresh water by lowering buckets through holes in their basement floors, some people even pulled up fish in their buckets.
The Grand Bazaar
This huge ancient shopping center is easily as big and sprawling as any large modern day mall if not more so. Cashmere, pashmina, Turkish coffee, spices, sweets and every kind of overpriced tourist souvenir you can think of can be found here. Even if you don’t want to buy anything its worth a visit to wander through the ancient corridors and see what surprising things you will find for sale here. Bargaining is the way to go here, almost everything is overpriced (even if it sounds cheap), shopkeepers will drop fast in price to secure a sale.
The Spice Bazaar
As its name implies, this bazaar is dedicated completely and solely to spices – and all the many other things you can find here, such as tons of shops selling Baklava, Turkish Delight and other confectioneries, and all the same touristy souvenirs that are for sale at the Grand Bazaar. We enjoyed free samples of Turkish Delight and Baklava as we wandered around taking in the spices, and everything else.
The Galata Bridge
This low bridge spanning the Halic and connecting the Old City with the New is an attraction in itself. This two story bridge has dozens of restaurants and Nargile Bars (Hookah) along the ground/water level and above hundreds of fisherman hang out for hours in the hopes of catching a few very small fish. The restaurants here have a very touristy feel, but the prices are actually not that bad and the views can’t be beat. We relaxed for a couple hours and smoked some Hookah (called Nargile locally) and watched the tiny fish rise up occasionally out of the water on a fisherman’s line.
Floating boat/restaurants just a few yards from the bridge sell nothing but grilled fish sandwiches, cheap and by the thousands everyday.
Beyoglu – The New(er) City across the Galata Bridge
Across the Galata bride you can find the New City or Beyoglu. While its not covered in modern skyscrapers (that area is further away to the north) it is newer than the old city and so has the label of the New City. It is mostly covered in various shops and restaurants and is lighter on ruins and history. But it is the place to go for higher end shopping, and nightlife.
Bosphorus Boat Cruise
We took a cruise up the Bosphorus – the waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean and separates Europe from Asia. No need to board an expensive tourist cruise liner, we took the public ferry, which departs daily and run the length of the Bosphorus making a few stops along the way. We got off the boat at Sariyer at the north end of the Bosphorus on the European side, and bussed back, stopping for lunch, coffee and to explore the Rumeli Fortress near Bebek.
This huge fortress, completed in just six months by the Sultan by putting his advisers heads on the line, was used only once in the capture of Istanbul.
After exploring the fortress we walked to the small upscale neighborhood of Bebek, which sits along the Bosphorus. This quiet town with great views, was fun to briefly explore on our way back to Istanbul. We both thought that of the many places in the world we would like to visit again, Istanbul and the neighborhood of Bebek are high on that list.
Our Airbnb Apt in Aksaray Istanbul
Arriving at our apartment was a memorable experience. After calling our host, he picked us up in his car and in an attempt to avoid traffic made his way the wrong direction down a few one way streets, backing his little car into tight spaces when needed to avoid an oncoming vehicle. We were quite impressed with his parallel parking skills.
We immediately noticed that Istanbul is full of cats, about a half dozen per block by my estimation. In most other countries and cities wild dogs roam the streets, here it’s cats. These cats were lounging just outside our apartment.
Thoughts on Istanbul
While not originally on our list of places to visit, we had heard so much about it from other travelers that we had to visit. Since we do not make too many reservations/flight arrangements etc, in advance it was easy to add a week in Istanbul and we are both glad we did. The city is massive and offers a lot to do and see and while from what we heard the prices have gone up for tourists, we still felt it was easy to stay in the city on a low budget. There are of course many restaurants and shops catering (or perhaps preying) on tourists, but if you look around there are lots of cheap options to be found.
While English is widely spoken and we did not have any major or even notable issues, one can still find those who do not speak English. Mostly the older generation and people living and working away from the touristy areas. We actually ran into more language difficulties in Istanbul than anywhere else on our trip. One recommendation – look up the word for milk before going to the store. I wondered why the dish I cooked tasted a little odd, it turns out we accidentally bought a popular salty yogurt drink instead.
The public transportation is crowded but efficient and easy. All the buses, trams, metros, funiculars and many of the ferries around the city all use the same metro card and it is cheap and easy to refill. While the crowds of people, haggling merchants and crazy traffic may be intimidating for some, after visiting South America and Africa we thought Istanbul was modern and efficient in comparison. Of the many large cities we have visited on this trip Istanbul is definitely one of our favorites and on our list of places we would return to.