When Jon and I made our arrangements to go back to the United States, we had to get ourselves to Springfield, Illinois for a 3 day visit and then on to Seattle where Olympia would be our final destination (until we find a place to live in Portland). In an odd yet perfect ending to this journey, our flight path back included an overnight layover in Istanbul. Knowing that we would be incredibly frustrated by landing in such an exciting place and having to turn around the next day, we were able to add a night to our layover, giving us 2 nights and 2 days in the Queen of Cities. Even though we’re pretty much out of money, we’re kinda tired of packing and unpacking the suitcase, I have no warm clothes for winter, and we got to a point where we’re actually a bit jaded by touristy stuff (“Oh, it’s a 9th century church, meh” or “Roman ruins? Seen ‘em”); we’re a little weirded out by the end of our trip.
This 2 day layover was a great buffer between our life for the last 10 months and our return to whatever life we’ll have in America. Plus, Istanbul is so incredible that it reignited that love of travel just so we know we’ll want to keep doing it. Here’s what we saw.
Ataturk Airport is an easy connection to the city on public transportation, if you have time. We took the M1 to the Tl and got off at Sultanahmet, the very center of historical Istanbul. When you get off the tram and walk about 100 meters, you find yourself right in the middle of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. It’s breathtaking and overwhelming; humbling and inspiring. You realize quickly where you are – this incredible ancient city with monumental historical importance. The gravity of it all has yet to leave me. Our hotel was situated in the historical quarter. We knew that with a half day and one full day we’d want to be close to the sights. Hotel Senatus was great by the way – good value and excellent service!
We didn’t mean to, but we ended up arriving in Istanbul on the nation’s version of the 4th of July: Republic Day. After a bit of reading on the great site, Istanbul Eats, we decided that we should head across the water to Taksim Square, see that side of town and search for street food. Being in Istanbul on Republic Day made you feel like there could be no other country in the world with as much pride. Flags flying everywhere, people carrying flags, and the bridge crossing the Bosphorus lit up red. An impressive fireworks show and joyful crowd gave us the impression that this is a very happy and contented country.
After the fireworks we walked up the hill to Taksim Square. It was a great party atmosphere and we enjoyed our sampling of the famous ‘wet burger’ and a doner kebab (which was yummy). We ended up strolling down the main street of _____ with thousands of other people enjoying the cool night, open shops, hundreds of bars (apparently there are over 1000 bars in this neighborhood!), and the realization of just how hip, young and vibrant this city really is.
Our wanderings took us to have lacmahun (pronounced lakmajoon) a seasoned flatbread that you roll up with lettuce, tomato and lemon. Delicious! We decided that we should also have a solid hooka experience and while we were almost sold on the outdoor touristy looking hooka bar, we opted to continue further down a small alley where we found a funky place serving hooka for half the price. Once upstairs and installed on a comfy sofa we enjoyed our honey flavored hooka with a roudy group of Turks who took the opportunity when the night club music came on to start clapping and dancing.
Sightseeing day – The Blue Mosque
You can’t go to Istanbul and not see the Blue Mosque (ok I realize we went a lot of places and didn’t see really important things, but most of that was a budget issue – the Mosque is free – GO). Bring a scarf if you’re a lady and be prepared to take off your shoes. It’s as every bit as incredible on the inside as on the outside.
There’s something about Islamic art and architecture that is rich and astounding in such a different way from other religious art. The detail, the symbolism and the color instantly transport you to a holy place. In Islam there is no portrayal of people as it would be seen as idolatry, so you are presented with patters, design and stunning Arabic script. The low-hanging lamps and plush rugs for prayer provide understanding into this beautiful religion. And yes, Islam is a beautiful religion – it just has some really crazy followers.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that cleanliness is a tenant of Islam and the mosque itself and its grounds are impeccably clean, the throngs of tourists with no shoes makes for a pretty stinky visit. Didn’t expect that one!
Because we arrived just before the mosque closed for prayer time, our visit was short. We were going to cross the square and visit the Hagia Sophia, but the lines were stupidly long so we decided to check out the 3rd site we had on our plan: the Basilica Cistern.
Built in 542 AD, the cistern held a large supply of the city’s water. This is no basin of water, it’s an underground palace, with over 350 columns and archways to match. Cool, shallow water still gathers, and koi effortlessly meander in the water. The dim, but striking lighting and quiet Turkish music make this place truly a wonder, and one where I found myself just wanting to sit peacefully, soak up the coolness and history and enjoy the quiet. Definitely worth a visit.
There are some things about the Hagia Sophia that make this site almost too much to believe:
It was originally built in 360 AD. It burned down and was rebuilt twice. The final time, and the main structure that stands today, only took 5 years and 10 months to build and was finished in 537 AD. 10,000 unskilled workers and 1000 craftsman pulled it off. It was a church for 900 years – yes 900 - before Sultan Ahmed II came and conquered the Byzantine capital and transformed it into a mosque in 1453 AD. What’s even more amazing about it (and the Ottoman conquest in general) is that although it was converted to a mosque, it’s Christian origins, artwork and symbols were kept and retained. I have never been in one building where in same view frame of your eyes you can see a Virgin Mary holding Jesus, and the symbol for Allah. Again, the gravity of the place starts to sink in.
The Grand Bazaar
The world's largest indoor market is indeed big and there are lots of ways you could spend money. Given its size, this market actually felt calm, completely organized and plain easy compared to the markets in Marrakech, Senegal and Mali. Turks are also incredibly fair when it comes to a sale, and although bargaining is a must, they're very unlikely to take advantage of you. Makes the whole experience a lot easier.
Seafood on the Bosphorus
We had a chance to meet up with a friend of mine from my study abroad days in Strasbourg. Since Jon and I had no idea what there was to do, we let Bilge be our guide for the evening and were treated to a locals tour of the best Istanbul has to offer (so it seemed). We had fresh Mackerel and a spread of local dishes for dinner. Followed by a visit to the best Baklava shop in Turkey (that’s what she and everyone else says!). This was followed by a walk up the hill back to Taksim where we wandered the back streets only a local would know in order to get a hill top view of the Bosphorus Strait.
It was at this point where I embarrassingly realized that when everyone was talking about the “Asian side” of the Bosphorus, they weren’t talking about a super large Chinatown per say, it’s actually ASIA. Yeah I know, you think that’s silly, but when you’re standing on the actual line between continents and they are only separated by a small body of water but these two continents are still part of the same country, then what would you say?!
Our visit with a local also drove home the juxtaposition between the seemingly calm and peaceful Turkey we had as tourists, and the underlying tension and anger that actually exists among Turkish people. We hadn't really followed the news of the riots earlier this year in Taksim Square, but were fascinated by how different a place can feel than what is really going on.
We had a great, short visit to Istanbul, one that whetted our appetites for travel, even though we're now back in the US and taking one final flight back to the Northwest tomorrow. But homecoming is a different topic!
What's been your favorite layover?