After our whirlwind trip in Egypt consisting of long days of travel, history and amazement we were ready to slow down our pace and Peter was ready to post-up somewhere to focus on work for the primary portion of the days. We had 6 days in Istanbul to do just that.
Istanbul was a surprise favorite city for me. In fact, Turkey was an all around fantastic country that we both loved. Istanbul is a bustling city with the perfect blend of East meets West and ancient meets modern with the food, culture, and melting pot of vibes. It feels both European and Asian making the city an entirely unique experience. The Bosphorus river not only cuts through Istanbul, but it also is the dividing mark between Asia and Europe. You can stand on one side of the Bosphorus and be in Europe while gazing at Asia and vice versa. It’s the only place in the world that you can do this.
Here is Peter and I standing in Europe with Asia behind us.
It seems like Istanbul is loved by many dating all the way back to Napoleon who once said, “If the whole world were one country, Istanbul would be its capital.” Fast forward to the Internet age and Istanbul is voted one of the top destinations on TripAdvisor.
The city is full of interesting contradictions. For example many resources consider Istanbul to be “cool,” “hipster” and a “party scene” yet it’s a Muslim country. In the wee hours of the morning you can hear the mosque’s early morning call-to-prayer and know devotees are starting their morning worship; simultaneously party goers are stumbling home from the world renown clubs the city boasts. That’s all part of the uniqueness and the feel of being there.
The following Top 10, in no particular order, are the highlights for our time in Istanbul.
1. Our stay at The Four Seasons at Sultanahmet
The Four Seasons always does it right. This one in particular was no exception. Once a Turkish prison, the location of this hotel is a two minute walk from the major tourist attractions of Istanbul. The service was impeccable. We came back early one evening and the concierge asked us if we had any plans. We explained that we just wanted to watch a movie and get a good night’s sleep. He sent us popcorn and cokes to our room for our movie night. The Turkish designs, rugs, and antiques of the hotel were incredible and the view from the rooftop gazed right over the world-famous Blue Mosque. Because we had being burning the candle at both ends it was nice to be able to relax in such a comfortable setting. Room service anyone?
2. The progressive Muslim Culture
Turkey must be the most progressive Muslim culture in the world. The Ottoman Empire, or Turkish Empire was once the the biggest powerhouse, with the height of domination being in the 16th and 17th centuries, controlling parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. This came to an end in the early 1900′s but not before millions of Muslims were tragically killed in an ethic cleansing campaign. They say that after great tragedy transformation and reinvention can occur. This is what happened starting in the 1920′s. A new Turkish identity began that brought about drinking, music, and the arts. A progressive, liberal and modern Muslim World. It’s a city where affection is ok. Free expression can be celebrated. Drinking is common with world class clubs (Reina) and bars. A place where non muslims are permitted to enter and explore mosques. Peter and I aren’t big public display of affection people in the first place, but especially not in a Muslim country. While we were on a tour of the mosques our Muslim guide kept insisting we kiss for pictures. I think he made a point of having us do this to prove the acceptance of affection in Istanbul despite being predominately a Muslim culture.
3. Landmarks (5-parter)
The Blue Mosque
It was built from 1609-1616 under the rule of Sultan Ahmed. It is known as the Blue Mosque due to the handmade blue tiles on the inside walls. It represents the last mosque of classical period. Like all mosques there is the mihrab which is a semicircular niche in the wall where Muslims face to pray. The mihrab is always facing Mecca, the holiest city of Islam. This was the first mosque I have ever been inside and it was a truly beautiful site from the majestic outside architecture to the beautiful tiles and stain glass on the inside. Females must cover their heads to be able to enter a mosque.
This landmark was originally a church from 537-1453 and then converted into a mosque from 1453-1931. Now the doors are open the public as a museum. Inside you can see evidence of both religions.
This is an underground water system filled with impressive marble columns that James Bond had to row through in the movie From Russia with Love. Built in 532 for the water needs of the Grand Palace this cistern is another example of the peak of the Byzantine Empire shown in the architecture and engineering. This cistern was mostly used for water storage and we learned that they kept fish in the water to ensure that the water wasn’t poisoned by an enemy (or else the fish would die). They have fish swimming in the water now for effect.
The largest mosque in Istanbul was completed in 1558. This is off the main tourist grid and it was really pleasant to visit a mosque with less crowds where we could really explore and take in all the intricacies and traditions. I particularly liked the pink dome. The lights in the chandelier are electric bulbs but in the past they used to be lanterns with candles that lit up the mosque. What a beautiful site that must have been.
This was the residence for Sultans from 1465-1856. The Palace includes a harem wing that contained hundreds of rooms for the Sultan’s mother, children, and concubines. There were beautiful rooms of art, jewels and ancient tile work. Although some of the exhibitions were a bit of a bust (unless things like ancient silverware and bowels that a Sultan may have used is your thing).
4. Turkish bath or Hammam
The Turkish hammam was truly like no other spa experience. If you visit an authentic hammam you’ll enter the hamman based on your gender and be scrubbed/cleaned by the attendant completely naked. Peter and I wanted to go together and didn’t necessarily want to get naked in front of a group of strangers so we went the more touristic route and got a couple’s hamman at a place called Suleymaniye which caters to these types of things. This is what I was given to wear.
The experience starts by laying down on a marble slab in the middle of a steamed room for about 30 minutes. You sweat more than you ever knew you could sweat. Just when it started to get unbearable, with impeccable timing, the attendant called us to one of the four corners of the room to lay on another (cooler) slab for our treatment. As you are laying down the attendant starts dumping buckets of cool water down your body, jolting all your senses awake. This is followed by a loofah scrub where you can literally see the dirt coming off your pores like a cheese grader. Bubbly soap is than used to clean into your exposed pores before they proceed to a hair wash and a final rinse off. Peter and I were then brought to a quiet and cool room to dry off and enjoy a drink. The end result was a feeling of deep relaxation and utterly smooth, clean skin. I highly recommend it.
The history behind hammam’s is due to the customary act of cleansing and purifying oneself before prayer. Typically you won’t find a mosque to far from a Turkish bath.
I still dream about the food in Istanbul. On our first day our tour guide took us to a restaurant by our hotel, Iskender Kebab and it was so delicious we went back a few times. The name of the restaurant is the house speciality and consists of lamb meat doused with butter, yogurt, and tangy tomato sauce. Delicious, right?
The kebab preparations were all so good. Full of flavor with spices, onion and very lean meat. I also really feel in love with Tahini which is a paste like a hummus made from ground sesame seeds. I look for it everywhere now.
One of the best things to eat while we were in Istanbul was the Turkish delights Some ingredients include sugar, figs, pistachios, and hazelnuts.
It was a common daily practice for me to walk up to one of these shops, grab a bag, fill it, walk around, and eat everything in the bag. Seriously delicious.
Another favorite discovery for me was apple tea. It’s serviced everywhere tastes like a hot apple cider, only better.
You know in that Christmas song where it goes, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?” Well it was chestnut season while we were in Istanbul so I got to really experience the merriment. This was another snack I constantly indulged in.
Ok, now I’m hungry as I think and write about this.
6. Whirling Dervishes
I love a live performance of just about any kind, but this is another level. A group of men literally twirling in a circle in what looks like a trance state of mind. It’s a religious ceremony where the men turn in circles in order to reach a spiritual state. There is something about watching the performance that is altogether peaceful, mesmerizing, and impressive. The men whirl for nearly half an hour with one arm in the air which speaks to the stamina required and the spiritual state these men reach. Peter later tried it at the hotel. He lasted about 30 seconds until he fell over in utter dizziness. No cameras or clapping is aloud as it a religious ceremony rather than a performance so we don’t have any pictures, but here’s a video of the performers in a different location. Check it out!
7. Turkish Rugs
No trip to Turkey is complete without visiting a shop specializing in Turkish rugs. You can sit with a cup of apple tea while the manager explains the history of the rugs while his staff rolls out beautifully hand woven rugs after another.
We learned that the Turkish act of carpet weaving is quickly becoming a lost art. Women use to make rugs as a hobby and form of expression because they weren’t allowed to work. It was an artist’s outlet and told a story with no rug the same. Now women can work in other lines of occupation so girls these days aren’t learning the art-form from their mothers, or if they do, its under more controlled and strict business-like parameters. The dominance of machine made rugs too has made the traditional Turkish rug a dying art-form. Maybe we just walked into the guy’s sales pitch at the world-renowned Hereke store we were at but the rugs were beautiful and it was certainly tempting to buy. Good thing all our stuff is in storage and we’d have nowhere to put a rug or we just might have been one of the countless tourists that walk in “just to look” and leave with a rolled up rug on their shoulder.
8. Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi
Formerly a madrasa, or school for Islam, this complex has been converted into a nargile (hookah) cafe where old men and young sip tea, puff on flavored tobacco and discuss news, politics, religion and everything in between. Adding to the environment was the decor of colorful lanterns and turkish rugs on the walls. It was really fun to have found this place as it felt like we were crashing in on a locals-only hidden gem of Istanbul.
Peter and I enjoyed going here so much that we went back two nights in a row to night cap the day, sip tea, enjoy nargile and debrief on the sites and experiences of the day while also meeting some friendly locals.
9. The People
From the wonderful and accommodating staff at our hotel to walking the streets where we mingled with locals, people in Istanbul were friendly, welcoming, and interested in knowing where we were from and what we were doing in Istanbul. Peter with our tour guide.
10. Grand Bizarre
Peter sat this one out due to his strong aversion to shopping and this is shopping on steroids. The bizarre consists of some 4,000 shops with over 20,000 people working. Throw in the shoppers and its mayhem. Last year it was voted #1 for worlds most visited attraction. It’s an experience to say the least. The people watching is outstanding. Haggling with the men in the shops is an art form. A good rule of thumb is to offer half of what they start at. A hilarious technique that they would use while bargaining was flattery. “Are you a model” or “you must be here with a bodyguard” were some of the lines they attempted. They were quite the charmers, but I was on to them. I ended up buying scarves mainly for friends although you can see a couple I bought for myself in the pictures. I also purchased Turkish delights (of course) and some apple tea. I also really enjoyed just walking around the area and getting a bit lost in the shops.
For all these reasons Istanbul made for one of our favorite cities of our trip thus far. Its a perfect mix of fun, culture, food, and people. All with a bit of edge; all with sincerity. We certainly experienced why Istanbul is a top destination.
Up next we head to the Eastern part of Turkey to Cappadocia.
Thanks as always for joining us for the fun. Love to you all.