Istanbul is a city like no other. For one, it’s located on two continents: East and West, Asia and Europe. The result of having such a location? An unmatched robustness of history, art and cuisine. Second, it’s a city steeped in history, from its past as the Byzantine capital Constantinople to the takeover of the Ottoman Turks, with a modern and very hip side filled with foodies and fashionistas. It is such a unique mix of cultural influence (and meant five days with José) so needless to say, I was especially excited as I boarded the plane!
Flying from opposite sides of the world sometimes means taking flights that aren’t quite synced in terms of arrival time, so when I landed at 6AM, I had the day, until 10PM, to myself. I had been sandwiched between a very sick woman and a Turkish man with the stature of Thor on the heavily-oversold flight, so I was still quite fatigued when I landed, but hey, nothing caffeine can’t fix, right? I was more than ready to start exploring, so after checking into the lovely W Istanbul, I was ready to roll. I signed up for a 3.5-hour walking tour of the city, complete with stops at all the highlights in the Old City, including the Hagia Sofia and Basilica Cistern (will get into these in more detail later), a quick stop at Istanbul University (Turkey’s oldest University and now the home of several ateliers where I bought Mom a beautiful ceramic bowl), and the stunning Blue Mosque and Hagia Irene Church. Unfortunately we weren’t able to go inside any of these places because of the long queues, but we were able to cover quite a bit of ground in the 3.5 hours. Our tour guide was incredibly informative and gave me many tips for the trip, so I was very thankful to her and would recommend Istanbul Free Tours to anyone looking for a good, high-level tour of the historic area. (After the bombings in 2014 and 2015, when tourism dropped from 10 to 3 million annually in just under a year, a group of paid tour guides banded together to start this wonderful initiative, pushing out photos and video content online to assure people Istanbul was indeed safe and thriving)
Next up on my solo-day adventure was a Turkish bath at Kılıç Ali Pa a Hamamı, a super serene bath house built in the 16th century as part of the mosque and school complex (and also a recommendation from R&R queen Roisin Pelley, so I knew it would be a nice and relaxing experience). The Turkish baths, or hammams, are like saunas or steam baths, and play a big role in the country’s society. Traditionally, local hammams were spots for social gatherings, where marriage proposals would be made to young maidens by elderly ladies on behalf of their sons, where men talked shop and cut business deals, etc. They’re also testing grounds for young architects to strut their stuff before moving on to bigger projects, like mosques. Some of Istanbul’s most well-preserved sites are these hammams.
A brief description of my experience that provides the right level of detail, knowing my parents and other family members read this blog:
There are three interconnected rooms called the sıcaklık (caldarium), or the hot room; the warm room (tepidarium), which is the intermediate room; and the soğukluk, which is the cool room (frigidarium). In the hot room, you soak up steam and get scrub massages from the hands of an “experienced therapist” (a super jacked Turkish lady possessing the strength of 1,000 suns). The warm room is used for washing with soap and water, and the cool room is for relaxing, getting dressed, having a refreshing drink such as pomegranate juice or sometimes tea, and, in my case, a nap. Hamam clothing consists of thin swimming bottoms and sandals to prevent slipping on the marble floors. Afterwards, the ladies wrap you up into a peştamal, or a traditional Turkish towel made from a super-thin and very absorbent cloth made either from silk or cotton. It was truly a unique experience, and left my skin feeling softer a baby. A very luxe way to spend the afternoon! Women and men’s services are separate, so before the men’s services started at 4PM, all the women had to be out of the hammam. I went back to the hotel and regrouped: a shower, some unpacking and a bit of relaxing.
Close to 6:30, I started getting hungry as I hadn’t eaten during the day (jetlag does weird things to your body), so I had a chat with the concierge with the brief “walkable with cosy atmosphere and tasty Turkish food,” and he could not have nailed it more! He sent me just down the road from the W to a super cute and intimate little restaurant with the yummiest food. I got a few small mezze plates and some Turkish tea (I was really quite tired by this point). Middle Eastern/Mediterranean is absolutely my favourite cuisine, so my heart was really happy. Plus, the owner was a cool guy around my age, and he walked me through the all-Turkish menu and we ended up having such a nice chat, I brought José back there on our last night!
As I stated, the jetlag was hitting me quite hard by this point, and while I had wanted to power through until José’s flight arrived, I was in desperate need of a nap. I was very strict with myself, timing it out for just one hour, so I wouldn’t be late to the airport. I woke up promptly at 9PM, changed very quickly, and started on my adventure using public transit to the airport. I got a bit lost but was mostly successful, and was hugging my dear José by 11PM. Yay! Now the trip could really begin.
Usually when we are together we like to do lots of relaxing and catching up with each other, but because there is just so much to see and we were both equally excited to be in Istanbul, we got it together quite early on Thursday morning. And I’m so glad we did! After a nice, tasty breakfast to fuel us for a few hours, we hit the town, starting with the Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars to do a little shopping like sultans. The Grand Bazaar is more than 550 years old, and one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with over three thousand shops! You can buy all sorts of things there, like leather goods, jewelry, carpets, clothing, furniture, ceramics, and small souvenirs. Neither of us purchased anything, but it was fun walking around seeing the beautiful handwoven rugs and hand-crafted pipes and pottery. Next, it was on to the Spice Bazaar: home to around a hundred shops selling dried fruits, nuts, spices, tea, Turkish Delight, and other goodies. Both were true visual and olfactory delights!
After indulging our senses at the bazaars, we decided to take a 20-minute walk across the Galata Bridge to Karaköy, a cute upcoming neighbourhood filled with old-times hardware shops and newer galleries, restaurants and boutiques—a nice blend of urban grit and glitter. We were headed to get some coffee, but stumbled upon a charming restaurant on a backstreet during our walk, and decided to stop by lunch. I think we must’ve ordered 20% of the large menu, because soon our table was filled with falafel, stuffed peppers, hummus, babaghanoush, yogurts and tzatziki. It was a nice, tasty lunch in front of a fireplace, and we warmed up from the chill outside while we ate. After lunch, we continued our trek to a trendy coffee shop recommended by Pinar, one of José’s friends from MBA (and master of Istanbul recommendations). The coffee was super good and, more importantly, super strong. Just what we needed to power us jetlagged travelers through the rest of the afternoon. We sat in the cafe for about 90 minutes chatting and sipping on our brews.
We decided we needed a bit of chill-time before dinner, because we wanted to go somewhere with atmosphere in the evening. So we took about two hours back at the hotel to rest before getting fancied up and heading out to Duble Meze, a rooftop restaurant perched atop a hotel about 20 minutes from our hotel (another Pinar recommendation). We immediately fell in love with the place—fun music playing, every table singing and dancing, and fantastic food. Retrospectively, our sea bass dish was the freshest and most delicious I have ever had! We extended our dinner over a bottle of wine and a cocktail because we were having so much fun, soaking up the place. Bonus: attached terrace with a spectacular view of the Bosphorous!
The next day was another day of sightseeing, and we hit in the hard right from the morning. Our friendly concierge had told us visit this palace we kept walking by closely our hotel, so that’s what we did first. “This palace” turned out to be Dolmabahce Palace, a sumptuous sultan’s palace that dates back to the 19th century, built by the same architect that constructed the Paris Opera. The palace is split into two halves, the public (the Selamlık) and the private (Harem). It’s stunning because of its ornateness and sheer magnitude—the kind of place you have to strain your neck in so you can take it all in. Taking photographs is strictly prohibited inside the palace, but as I would do anything for you, dear reader, I was able to snap a few quick shots (see below). The Selâmlık, or public area, is where the Sultan would meet with top government officers, diplomats, and other important visitors, so it was filled with long ambassador halls and studies. Meanwhile, he private section contained mostly residential quarters. We were most amazed by the crystal staircase that hits you when you enter the palace, as well as the massive amounts of gold used in the decoration in both sections of the palace. We walked around the courtyard, took some nice photos, and had some epically bad photos taken of us by another visiting couple (seriously bad, the one of us in front of the fountain below was truly the best of the bunch. What is up with people thinking sideways angles in photos are cool??)
After a wildly successful visit at our first stop, we knew the day of tourist-ing could only get better. Next we headed to Topkapi Palace, which I had seen from the outside during my free walking tour. This palace is entered through an imperial gate, then through four “courts,” including a massive harem and the Imperial Treasury, where the Sultan would discuss important government-related topics with his constituents. The palace is beautifully decorated with intricate mosaics and spectacular architecture, and it was lovely to walk around in, especially since the weather had really cleared up that day and left us with warmth and sunshine. Visiting Topkapi Palace gave us a true taste of what life for Ottoman royalty was like.
Following our visit to Topkapi Palace, we stopped off at a (very touristy) restaurant for some light snacks and waters. The food itself was not good (they served us white bread instead of pita, what?), but the view was unprecedented. Panoramic view of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the sea. Worth it, in my book!
After lunch (more of an pre-dinner snack), we were feeling a little tired and wanted to chill a bit before going out to dinner, so we rested a bit in the hotel, and then, just like the night before, got all fancy before our night out. I was extra excited about dinner on Friday night, because we had booked a place called Neolokal, listed on Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants list. The food was very good, but we were a bit disappointed by the lack of service and narrative and details provided throughout the meal, so there’s really not much to write about here. Just a good meal, but not great. It was afterwards that was the fun part! We met Pinar and some of her friends at Soho House, which was especially nostalgic for me since I hadn’t been since I lived in New York! It was the same vibe in Istanbul: hip and fun, fun, fun. They played all my favourite American hip hop songs, which I haven’t heard played in bars/clubs since I’ve lived in Asia. Bonus. And I got to meet Pinar! Double bonus.
The next morning was not the easiest one to wake up to, for obvious reasons. We lugged ourselves out of the room for breakfast and, after trying to recover over some eggs and coffee, we went back to sleep for a bit. But ultimately we decided that we were in Istanbul and hadn’t seen a few sites that we wanted to visit, we should bite the bullet and head out. Plus, it was our last day together, as both of us had early Sunday morning flights back to our respective homes. *Tears*
Our first stop? A quick ferry ride, something we thought was intended for tourists but was really just a ride on the normal public transit ferry for residents (and tourists) of Istanbul. We got to see a nice view of the river, both the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, and the fresh air was quite good for the both of us. Next, the big one: Hagia Sophia. A bit of history: The Hagia Sophia was constructed in the sixth century as a Greek church, then turned into an Ottoman mosque, and now turned into is an amazing museum. Imagine?! There were simply no blank spaces in here—every corner of the Hagia Sofia is filled with intricate and detailed decoration, with a blend of Byzantine and Islamic styling. Because it is a former church and a former mosque, there is so much rich history associated with this museum. Here a few of the most interesting details:
- The circular pattern in the floor (see photo below) marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned
- The wood doors at the entrance were reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and are rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark (!)
- All across the walls and ceiling, you will see magnificent Christian frescoes, parked right next to amazing Islamic calligraphy
While it is one of Istanbul’s (and Turkey’s) most visited attractions, it had a very calm atmosphere and felt quite peaceful. José and I spent a few minutes at the top, talking about our religion, all while soaking in the beautiful museum surrounding us. From my view, it was one of the most special moments of the trip.
Nearby the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, an absolute marvel of Byzantine engineering under the streets of Istanbul. This amazingly-preserved cistern was built in 532 AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings. Apparently in the past, visitors could rent a rowboat to float past the columns in the dripping gloom, but restorations in the late 1980s added lighting, elevated walkways, and a cafe for visitors. It was a nice place to visit, but really we only stayed for about 30 minutes in total.
So what came next for these two? A visit to Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower back in the Karaköy quarter. Well, not the tower exactly, but a nice outdoor cafe where we could sit and have tea just next to it. This is where José spent his short layover time when we were flying to New Zealand in January, so he knew the place and knew it also had an epic view of the city. After sipping down some more Turkish tea (a staple of our trip), we chilled on the rooftop watching the sun go down. Not bad for our last evening.
We were both quite exhausted from the previous evening, and the day of walking around and sightseeing, but had to stay awake, as my flight left at 2AM. I wanted to sleep deeply on the flight so didn’t want to introduce any caffeine to my system, making it extra tough. We forced ourselves to stay awake by visiting the cute little cafe down the street from our hotel. We had our final meal of delicious mezze (and kabob for the meat eater), and it was delicious! We noticed a running theme of blaring music and signing patrons in every restaurant we visited in Istanbul, and loved it! Party people.
Saying goodbye is always the least fun part of the trip, but luckily we will be reunited again in just a few weeks for a wedding in New York. There are so many attractions in Istanbul and across Turkey that I want to see, so many art museums I want to visit, and of course, so many restaurants I want to eat in, so I know we’ll go back to Istanbul.
Thank you to the wonderful city of Istanbul for hosting us for a wonderful, albeit all too short, trip. And thank you to Zé for, as always, being the best (travel) partner a girl could ask for!
Some photos from Istanbul: