The year was 2011 and we had just had an incredible week in Greece. Next on our itinerary was a week in Istanbul, Turkey. We really weren’t sure what to expect as we had never spent much time in a Moslem country other than a day in Tangiers, Morocco. Would we feel out of place? Would the people be friendly? Would anyone speak English? All these were big questions in our minds.
From the instant we arrived we were impressed by the friendliness of the people. It began with a warm greeting as we checked in to the Arena Hotel. Okay, perhaps a nice greeting was to be expected, but then they invited us to tea in the garden. Tea, sweet cakes, the works! All very nice and definitely not the norm in the US.
After tea we were still hungry so we walked through the Sultanahmet neighborhood towards the Blue Mosque. Here we found a little cafe on the corner with a donor (gyro) spit right on the sidewalk. The meat smelled so good so we went in and found a buffet-style restaurant. While making our selections we mentioned that this would be our first meal in Turkey. “First meal in Turkey?” said the owner. “Then you eat for free!” Then he helped pick out foods that he thought were the best…and he was right!
Like I said, this was only the beginning of our trip and we had already made friends. Throughout our entire visit we found the Turks to be very friendly, patient and very generous. They were always helpful when we asked for directions and we lost count of the number of times they gave us free drinks and/or food. Wonderful people!
Istanbul is an ancient city and has the remnants of three great cultures: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Within this very modern city you will find antiquities from all three cultures, from Roman aqueducts, to Byzantine churches and incredible Ottoman mosques. We had only a week so we tried to hit the highlights. Here’s a few of the places we visited:
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, or more properly the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, was completed in 1616 and it is commanding and beautiful both inside and out. We had a guide take us through the mosque and give us details on what we were seeing as well as giving us instructions on how to be respectful during our visit. Note: This mosque gets its name from all the blue tiles inside. It’s absolutely gorgeous!
This market was completed in 1665 and now holds 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, souvenirs and lots more! Walking through here is a sensory delight with all the bright colors, sounds of the shoppers and the wide variety of scents. Not to be missed!
This palace was the home of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years and is now a museum. Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople, ordered its construction around 1450 and it was completed around 1465. The palace and its grounds covers about 150 acres and at its peak 4000 people lived here. The museum contains many relics important to the Muslim world including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. It also houses the famous Topkapi Dagger which was the subject of the movie “Topkapi”!
You have to go underground to visit this site. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian 1. It took over 7000 slaves to build this huge cistern which is over 100,000 square feet and which can hold 2,800,000 cubic feet of water! The ceiling is held up by 336 30 foot columns which were moved here from all over the Byzantine empire! The cistern has been featured in several films including “From Russia With Love”. It’s amazing to come down here and find this treasure hidden beneath the city above!
The Grand Bazaar
This is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, with over 65 covered streets and over 3000 shops. There are streets for carpets, streets for leather goods and so on and so on! It seems as though you could buy anything here! Over 250,000 people shop here each day and they’ve been coming here since the 1400s!
Wandering the City Streets
We love the big sites in Istanbul but we also just loved wandering through the city streets. The colors and sounds are amazing and here again the people are friendly. Sometimes we knew where we were, and other times we were very lost, but it was all fun!
Did you know that Istanbul is the only city to sit astride two continents? The main part of the city is in Europe and the rest of it is across the Bosphorus in Asia. We caught a bus to the Asia part of the city for a little tour and to stand in Asia for the first time. Later in our vacation we revisited the Asian part of Turkey when we visited the ancient city of Ephesus.
We spent only a week in Istanbul, but it was a week of wonderment and pleasure…talking to people of the city every day and learning so much. They also have incredible food which we miss so much! Istanbul is one of our favorite cities in the world and we would love to go back! “Mona’s note: It is magical!”
As I said, our visit took place in 2011 before the troubles in Syria. A lot has changed including a bombing in the grand square in Sultanahmet. These incidents would not keep me from going back. After all, we’ve visited New York, Washington D.C., Madrid and a field in Pennsylania after terrorist attacks. We can’t let them win.
U.S. State Department Warning
With that said, at this time there is a U.S. State Department warning about visiting Turkey at this time. Before visiting Turkey (or any other country) you should visit the State Department’s web site and understand the risks associated with your travels. Here’s the State Department’s link about Turkey: US State Department: Turkey
Final Note: I have so much more to show you and tell you about Istanbul. I guess I’ll have to write another post!