On our way to India to see family over the winter break we made a decision to spend a layover in Istanbul, Turkey.
My wife and I have had this as a destination for a while so it was exciting to finally make it happen. For me, Istanbul always represented a mysterious and exotic destination. The city literally straddles Europe and Asia.
What I didn’t realize is how quaint the old town area is with the main tourist sites. Within shouting distance of each other are the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace. Even the Grand Bazaar is only about a 12-minute walk away. This area represents the heart of old Constantinople.
Seeing pictures of the Istanbul skyline, you can’t help but notice the number of minarets that flank impressive mosques dotted all over the city. This is what I wanted to see and experience.
Click the video for just the highlights.
In a reversal from what we see in Spain where old mosques have been turned into (or replaced by) cathedrals, here we see just the opposite. The most famous being the Hagia Sophia which started as an Orthodox church and converted into a mosque (until 1935 when it was made into a museum).
Built in the 6th century (532-537), it was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years until the completion of the even more massive Seville Cathedral (Spain) in 1528.
The Blue Mosque
If you ask a Turk where the “Blue Mosque” is, the majority won’t have any clue what you are talking about. This is because its real name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
The building gets its nickname due to the impressive tilework on the interior in different shades of azure. It’s still a popular and active place of worship today.
Another fun stop was the descent into the largest cistern that provided water for ancient Constantinople. This gigantic underground chamber was supposedly dug out by 7,000 slaves. It is now a tranquil scene with soothing music and enormous goldfish inhabiting the shallow waters.
One of the treasures hidden in the cistern are Medusa heads that are at the base of two columns. One face is upside down, the other rests at 90 degrees. Their actual positioning remains a mystery but some believe they ward off evil spirits.
The residence of Ottoman sultans for 400 years starting in the 15th century is located on prime real estate that overlooks the Bosphorus Strait onto Asia.
The tour culminates in the private residences of the sultans in the haram. We had fun explaining the goings-on there with our boys including discussion of concubines and eunuchs.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to one of the oldest and largest markets in the world. With over 60 covered streets, 3,000 vendors, and 26,000 employees there is something for everyone. And it didn’t appear to be filled with cheap crap from China. There was some decent quality and unique items. On our way to India, we didn’t buy anything and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit overwhelming.
If you do buy, be prepared to haggle. The primarily male vendors have perfected their sales pitch over generations and 500 years. Phrases like “Can I help you buy something you don’t need?” can be heard in perfect English.
If you stick around a shop long enough, you eventually get offered something to drink. There were tea runners making deliveries on every street.
People and Surrounds
I found the people of Istanbul to be upfront and curious in a friendly, welcoming way. And if they were selling something, you knew about it immediately. I got good at smiling and declining most advances which then opened the door to just normal small talk.
Many liked to know where we were from and what my name was. Without hesitation, they would often offer some tea with “no obligation”. I got to know a couple of shopkeepers by name near our hotel. One gave my son with glasses a nickname and would say hello to him every time we passed. “Hey, there goes Harry Potter!” “Have a good day, Harry!”
Obviously Turkey is overwhelmingly a Muslim country so the ringing of church bells that we’ve become so accustomed to hearing in our current Spanish neighborhood was replaced with the daily call to prayer.
You can tell that Istanbul is located at a crossroads between East and West. The different influences are seen in their faces. I’d highly recommend a visit to this clean, diverse, modern city (and I haven’t even touched on the street food). Check the video for a glimpse.
Aside from being the treat that seduced Edmund to The White Witch in Narnia, I really had no idea what it was. Ends up it’s just a overly sweet, gummy cube available in a range of flavors covered in powdered sugar that always ends up on your shirt.
Ironically, the best version I had was on our Turkish Airlines flight while the plane was still on the tarmac in Spain!
Have you been to Istanbul?
If so, what was your impression? If not, would you like to visit?