Vibrant, friendly, eclectic, and beautiful are adjectives that all come to mind when I look back at my trip to Istanbul. The city has it all. You can tour a 1,500 year old cathedral converted to a mosque then a museum, the famed Hagia Sophia, and within minutes be in the hustling modern pedestrian zone lined with nightclubs and high end shops of Taksim. Yes, if you can’t find something to love in Istanbul then you didn’t open your eyes. This city makes it impossible to get bored.
The turks are a mixed people and exceedingly friendly. They came from everywhere. Over the course of centuries, trade or conquering empires brought these people here to establish what was, many times throughout history, regarded as the capital of the world (I’ll save you the history lesson). Each new group brought their own style thus creating a melting pot of people at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Is it perfect? No, but no destination ever is. The key is to see through the bullshit and appreciate a place for what’s at it’s core. Sure a trip to Istanbul with a schedule and itinerary will leave you with a content. It’s the time one spends getting to know the city that turns content into love. If you are going to love a place, then you have to accept it for the good and bad. It’s a package deal just like marriage.
With that said, I’ll list list some of my highlights and a short commentary on each, both good and bad. I’m not going to post a “must do” list, to be honest, I hate them. All they do is present an unattainable itinerary of rushing from place to place just to get it all done. “Well the book said this must be seen (or done).” I don’t care what any travel author or book tells you is a “must see”, that doesn’t make it right for you or your vacation. Travel must have balance.
View of Hagia Sophia Museum from the square’s fountain.
This post will focus on the old city of Sultanahmet, and like the rest of Istanbul, it’s a place of contrasts. Sultanahmet Square includes the tourist staples of Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. They are definitely places to behold, words like ancient and wondrous come to mind. The square between them provides a beautiful view of each monument centered by a large fountain. Touring and photographing these buildings was amazing. However, I found myself really enjoying the views from the square almost more than the interiors. Nearly every day I took a small lunch to a bench in the square. I’d eat, listen, and just sit back taking in the view. Tulips were blooming, children were playing, and venders were selling. It all created a beautiful vibrant and memorable scene.
Life in the shadow of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square.
However, that brings me to my one and only complaint or annoyance I have of the area. The carpet/rug salesmen drove me nuts. It works like this: I walk through the square (obviously a tourist since I can’t hide my camera) and get approached by a man who immediately compliments me on something. Well they’ve apparently learned the flattery will get you everywhere. He proceeds to strike up friendly conversation, offers a cigarette/gum, or proceeds to give you an impromptu tour of the place you’re walking to. These guys ask lots of questions. You know, “where are you from?”, “oh I have a (insert any relative here) that lives there.”, the conversation continues now that they have manufactured something you have in common. Over the next few minutes you get the inevitable proposal, “My brother has a shop nearby and I’d love to give you my card. No obligation, just look and have some tea, my friend.” This scenario played out 3-4 times before I figured out it was something I could not escape in the Sultanahmet area. I realize they need to make a living and need to point out their shop among the hundreds of shops, they are friendly/harmless men, but I told them repeatedly I wasn’t interested and not in Istanbul to buy. Regardless, most will persist despite all my polite attempts to encourage them not to waste their time on me. I’d say to little avail, “While you’re talking to me, you are missing a customer who will buy.” Eventually they do give up and walk away. I’ll even admit a few of them actually got me into a shop or two, but nothing was ever bought and I politely declined the tea that would have only kept me there longer. Accepting the fact that they were something I’d just have to deal with, I eventually just turned it into a game of cat and mouse. I set a goal of walking from end to end of the square without being approached. I only won my little game twice.
The imposing symmetry of the Blue Mosque.
All of that was during the daytime, Sultanahmet is entirely different at night. It’s well lit and very peaceful. I never once felt unsafe during the many late night strolls I took to admire the glowing monuments and watch the locals take their families out for a walk. Since my hotel was only a block away, when I caught a taxi back at night, I’d tell the driver to just drop me at the square. I never got tired of the peaceful night scene. One night at around 1am I was literally the only person there, it was magical!
Other places of note near Sultanahmet include the Grand Bazaar. It’s the world’s oldest longest running marketplace. It’s also the best place to get ripped off by high mark-ups and badgering salesmen. I went, but I left my money and credit card at the hotel just in case something tempted me or I fell under the spell of a convincing vendor. There are many other places where you can buy what you seek at the bazaar without the headache or mark-ups. This is not just my opinion, Google it or read this write-up on The Other Tour’s site. The article might be a bit blunt and vulgar, but it shows the distaste even locals have for the Grand Bazaar and the business practices used there.
A visit to a hamam is the one thing I will tell you that should be done. Don’t squeeze it in amongst your crowded itinerary. Make it a priority! Between Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar is the Cemberlitas Hamami. It’s a beautiful and old place that dates back to the 1500’s. Turkish baths are a one of a kind experience of relaxation and massage; you will leave feeling clean and refreshed. The key to this hamam is the hours it’s open. It can be quite crowded thanks to it being in Sultanahmet, but since they open (when I was there) at 6am and close at 11pm making it easy to avoid other tourists. I went at 9:30pm and had the entire place to myself. It was surreal. I felt like a sultan enjoying the spoils of my kingdom without interruption. I relaxed in the hot steam, received a hand washing from the attendant, and listened to the running water echo off the marble walls and dome. Yes, I was the sultan for an hour.
Last, if you are a museum junkie, Sultanahmet is home to the Istanbul Archeological Museum and Topkapi Palace. I only went to one of them, the Archeological Museum. I’ll spare you a detailed description, but it housed some very old and interesting artifacts from the Babylonian period. I never made it to Topkapi Palace. I walked the grounds, but never went inside. Did I miss something most would consider a “must see”? Perhaps, but I am at peace with it. I have another reason to go back, and I wasn’t pressed for time while touring. What I saw was absorbed fully. I prefer to avoid seeing everything but not actually getting to know anything. I know Sultanahmet, I didn’t just see it.
In my next post I’ll discuss my take on the opposite side of Istanbul, Taksim and Beyoglu.
The Blue Mosque interior provides an eruption of color for the eyes.
One of many ornate column capitals supporting the Hagia Sophia.
Lighting inside Hagia Sophia.