Istanbul was Constantinople,
Now its Istanbul, not Constantinople,
Been a long time gone, Constantinople,
Now its Turkish delight on a moonlit night.
Jimmy took a long weekend, and we went on an adventure!
We left snowy Helsinki (after a long weather delay) and found ourselves in the ancient and exotic city of Istanbul; Jimmy and myself, along with 6 other travel companions.
Apparently, November is a good time to visit, as the throngs of tourists have dissipated and the weather is not nearly as harsh. Unfortunately, we happened to go on a chilly, rainy weekend, but it is hard to complain when you are in one of the most culture-rich cities in the world.
So what do you do with two and a half days in Istanbul? See the sights, certainly. Bargain for wares? Sit on low couches and puff on hoses of flavored hookah while sipping tea? Uncontrollably devour Turkish delight like its going out of style? Take in the local night life?
The answer, of course, is “All of the above.”
Lets start with the sights, shall we?
The major historical and cultural sights in Istanbul revolve around both the Christian and Islamic faiths. The city skyline is dominated by the pencil tips of minarets and low mosque domes. However, let us not forget that the historical name of the city comes from Emperor Constantine, who was the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity.
Hagia Sophia is the physical manifestation of the complex culture and history of the city. Originally built by Emperor Justinian in 537 (upon the same site of an earlier church built by Constantine, himself) as an icon of Byzantium, it has since been influenced by the days of the Ottoman Empire, when it was the mosque of sultans. In 1935, it was transferred to Turkish Republic to be converted to a museum, where both Christian iconography and Islamic decor could be viewed side by side.
Sadly, half of the main space is currently covered in scaffolding, which I would imagine is a pretty consistent sight, considering the age and condition of the building (it has suffered cave-ins from earthquakes as well as alterations in structural integrity through centuries of expansions). However, even the restoration work could not detract from the sheer massive expanse of space that the dome creates. The walls glitter with gold mosaics and low yellow lighting. You can visibly notice the settling in the foundations, from the marble floors, all the way to the base of the dome, which looks more like a retired hoola hoop. I have been excited to see the Hagia Sophia for years and years, and I was not disappointed, especially when you consider just how old it is.
Next on the list of must-sees is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, called the “Blue Mosque” for its ornate blue tiles that cover the walls and arches. Before we left, I had read that the Blue Mosque achieves on the outside what Hagia Sophia achieves on the inside: the Blue Mosque’s rhythmic domes are best seen from the outside, in the same way that the Hagia is most impressive on the inside.
That is not at all to say that the Blue Mosque isn’t impressive on the inside. It is very very gorgeous. It was much easier to photograph than the Hagia, but in person, it was not nearly as awe inspiring.
The most beautiful aspect of the mosques, to me, was the lighting. Large cast iron fixtures are hung just overhead, anchoring all the way up into the high domes. It creates a really stunning effect that helps you to grasp the super-human scale of the structure.
As we were walking around, I found it very curious that there was such a mixture of different columns. Generally, the order and ornament on a column is very specific and important to a building; I guessed that, perhaps, many of them were recycled from other building projects. It turns out I was right. However, there are 3 distinct columns in the cistern that I could not make heads (pun intended) or tales of. Two are erected on the base of a large Medusa head. One is upside-down, the other sideways. A lot of folklore has risen up around them and their protective purpose, but it turns out that the one on its side was placed to best fit the column. There is also a single ornate column (also recycled) that depicts a Hens Eye and tears. It is said that this column commemorates all of the slaves who died in the construction of the cistern.
The last main sight that we visited on our first day was the Topkapi Palace. The well groomed grounds, imposing gates and elaborate buildings were once the home of Ottoman sultans and from 1465-1856. Today, it houses museums of Ottoman treasures and jewels, porcelain, armor, and Islamic reliquaries, including the sword of David, the Staff of Moses, and many relics from the prophet Muhammad. It also offers incredible views of the city.
This is a place I would love to come back and see when the weather is hot and the gardens are in full bloom. However, it felt packed with tourists even in the off season, so I am not certain I could handle the throngs of bodies during the peak season. Even so, it was a beautiful palace with so many architectural styles and stunning ritual rooms (like the turban room, which had little wall cubbies for their turbans) and some of the biggest jewels I have ever seen (my standards have been raised. Jimmy, you’ve been warned).
So we hit a lot of major sites in our short time there! What else did we do?
Well, we ate a ton of fantastic food. Every time we tried to eat something quick, it turned into a long meal. At first, I thought it was the large group of American/Canadian tourists being taken advantage of. Then I realized, it was just the culture. The people are exceedingly hospitable, and take so much pride in their city, culture, and the food they serve you. They come back many times to ask you if you are enjoying it and they really do care. There was nothing that I did not enjoy, and each time we expressed how wonderful the food was, they would respond in a gracious bow, a proud smile, and a “Thank you very much. Thank you.”
|Turkish Coffee-a staple for the long touring weekend|
One day for lunch, we just asked him for something that we could all share. We received dips with pita bread followed by a heaping plate of different kebab meats, chicken, breads, rice, and veggies. When we asked for the bill, they brought us tea and baklava.
For dinner, we stumbled into a tiny restaurant among a row of fancier “pick-your-own-fish-outside, we-cook-it-inside” places. The owner was, of course, very hospitable. The 8 of us took up most of his place, and I am sure we more than doubled his usual business. After we ordered, we noticed he had sent his son out a few times for groceries. Talk about fresh eats. I had a sizzling lamb casserole (think Turkish fajita) that was amazing. The meal ended with Turkish tea, his taking our pictures for his wall, and also teaching us which Turkish soccer team to root for.
Another evening at dinner, after more amazing food and 4 bottles of Turkish wine between us, the owner brought out plates of hot baklava with the single best crunchy-sweet pears I have ever eaten. It was heaven on a plate.
Of course, we also sampled some late night street food. One minced meat kebab on a small loaf of white bread-cant go wrong- and a steamed mussel. The last one sounds sketchy, right? I thought so too. When I first saw them, my thought was “That looks like a great way to get sick.” But when the street kebab vendor refused to take the extra coin we gave him and instead gave it to the mussel guy, I was forced to eat one. It was the most amazing thing I have ever eaten at 4 o’clock in the morning. I then made the guys go back and get one. Somehow, there was rice inside, plus they squeeze nearly a whole lemon on each one before handing it over. You can literally sit there and keep shelling out coins and feast on amazing mussels.
We also took in the local hookah culture on both nights. The first night was in a cozy little side street next to the palace, where we all huddled into a booth, passed the pipe, and drank rounds of tea from little glass cups. Neither Jimmy of I particularly enjoy hookah, but it was a fun experience. The second time we went to a sort of bazar of hookas and passed up the pipe, but highly enjoyed the ambiance.
This leads me to the Istanbul night life.
First of all, we spent 90% of our time in the old (aka tourist) part of the city. The only time we crossed over to the modern (aka local) part of the city was on a guided tour, of sorts.
Rated #20 of over 1000 on TripAdvisor’s “Things To Do in Istanbul” is a pub crawl. I was a little skeptical as to why this would reach #20, but it was 20 bucks, came with free drinks and entry into 5 bar/clubs.
Here is also the part where I have to reveal the stereotypes that I came into this trip with. Going out late at night to party sounded both sketchy and potentially lame. I figured in a predominately Islamic city, the bar scene would be pretty low key. Plus, in a country that has some tense relations with my own, perhaps it wasn’t the safest idea. Which is why I thought the pub crawl was a good way to see the scene while on a tour.
I was wrong in literally every way.
The crawl was lead by a tall and quiet Turkish man, as well as an American ex-pat and a British ex-pat. We met at a bar in the old town, chatted with everyone for a good while, then were put into vans to head over to the party. While getting onto the bus, we were handed a bottle of liquor for the 14 of us in the van and told to finish it before we got there. Turns out, the clubs were so packed, that was our ration of free drinks. Which was totally fine by me.
I was fully unprepared for the scene that we walked off of the van and directly into: Streets packed with young people. Endless meandering side streets, completely packed with people. Restaurants still pulling people in. Bars on bars on bars. We bobbed and weaved like little ducklings following our fearless leader to each bar/club. When we go to the entrance of each destination, we were told to go to the top floor. basically, find the stairs, and keep going up.
We literally never would have found these places without this guy. We would have had to have waited, and then I never would have ventured up 6 flights of stairs to the roof-top bars. They were packed, bumping with great dancing music, bars of great drinks, and each with amazing views. Furthermore, I cannot tell you how many different languages were being spoken in these clubs. It was a completely international scene. Also, I was surprised and happy to see that it was much like clubs in the states; at the beginning of the night, the dancing was tame and social. By the time we hit the last club (which I am 90% certain was predominately a gay club. And had awesome bar tenders with wacky hair and big smiles) the dancing was in full swing, with couples pairing off, and a good time had by all.
At this point in time, my eyes were burning from all the smoke (see above picture) and it was about 4 o’clock in the morning. A few of us decided to call it a night, and grabbed our street food, and a cab in the still crowded streets.
The last major thing you have to do while in Istanbul? Go to the bazars!
On Sunday night, we went to the spice bazar, smelled dozens of teas (“Chamomile tea for sleep, Jasimine tea for health, Spicy tea for weight loss, Viagra tea for fun”) nibbled some dried fruits, and sampled too many gooey Turkish Delights. It was packed and loud, with pushy vendors and sparkling wares. After a while, Jimmy and I decided to buy some Turkish delight to take home, so we entered one of the booths, sampled a few (who knew there were so many?!) and left with a few slices of traditional and a few of nutella flavor. Overall, a total success. But we definitely did not eat enough baklava.
We thought about a small rug, but where would it go? Plus, its not really our style. Then we considered a table cloth, but they are so elaborate, I felt that it would live primarily in a drawer. Plus, what would we do with it for the next few years? So, by default, we just ended up with some knock-off scarves. But we had a great time doing it!
Neither of us love haggling. If its a good price, I’ll take it. But really, all we had to do was play the needy-wife and reluctant-husband roles, and we were able to hit some bargain prices without even asking for lower. The gentleman who we bought the nicer stuff from was, of course, our friend at the end (“My friend, please, come inside”). He showed us pictures of his baby girl, and asked me to add him on instagram and to contact him if we need anything else. Most vendors will invite you inside and offer you apple tea, as well. Again, partially taking hold of the tourists, but also such a part of their hospitable culture. We also were taught several words in Turkish by nearly every one we interacted with; another strong sign of the pride they feel in their culture. I was also a little busy to take photos. But it was largely empty, as we were there Monday morning.
That pretty much hits all of the major happenings from this weekend!
Other than that, we had a few beer breaks in our hotel,
And met dozens of stray pooches napping all over the city.
I give Istanbul a major thumbs up, and a hope to return, should the political situation allow.
More adventures to come!