Gritty metropolis, tempting Turkish delight, civil unrest
After three months of travel over two continents, we slowed things down. We spent four weeks in an awesome flat where we unpacked, worked out, explored Istanbul at a leisurely pace, ate too much Turkish delight, and experienced government protests.
Istanbul is a sprawling, crowded, gritty metropolis and the only city in the world that spans two continents. Since its early history, Turkey has been conquered by diverse empires like the Romans and Ottomans, and this is reflected in Istanbul’s architecture and culture.
Sightseeing in Istanbul
Basilica Cistern is an underground chamber that was built in the 6th century to store and provide water for the city. There were large holes in the ceiling for the people to retrieve water. It is an interesting place to take a quiet stroll and cool off from the Istanbul sun. There are 336 columns, many uplit with lights, which makes for some interesting photo opportunities. The cistern also has two Medusa heads – one on its side and the other, upside down. It is not known where they came from or why they are positioned that way.
Dolmabache Palace is a grand, European-style palace on the banks of Bosphorus. You can visit the entire palace or just the public areas or apartments. The ornate, elaborate spaces were cool to see, but the visit was not a pleasant experience. There was a long wait in the sun to enter the public area. This is because all visitors must go on a 45-minute guided group tour. The tour guide takes the group through designated areas and provides some interesting commentary. But it was hard to see some things because the group was large, and some people were pushy. Next, you walk outside to the apartment entrance and wait again. This tour lasted 20 minutes and allowed time to view the different areas on your own (but the rooms are blocked, so you can stand at the door and look in). The palace was nice to see, but overpriced and crowded.
Galata Tower was built in the sixth century and has been used as a lighthouse, dungeon, fire station, and sign tower. You can pay an entrance fee and take the elevator to the top and look out over the city and Bosphorus River. There is not much to see inside, but the view is nice.
When you go to the Blue Mosque beware of friendly young men who offer visitor advice. Our friendly guy introduced himself as a history student who wanted to practice his English. After giving us a few unsolicited tips, like women must cover their head to enter the mosque (which we knew), he invited us to visit his family’s carpet shop. History student, my @$%! There is a big sign at the entrance of the grounds with dress code guidelines and a warning not to follow instructions from anyone who does not have an official staff badge.
Bosphorus Boat Ride
A boat ride on the Bosphorus is a must when you visit Istanbul. There are lots of options ranging from commuter ferries to tour boats to private charters. We took the Dentur Avrasya Hop on Hop Off which departs from Kabatas. The boat goes to four stops: two on the European side (Besiktas and Emirgan) and two on the Asian side (Kucuksu and Beylerbeyi) before returning to Kabatas. You can get off, explore and then catch another boat later. We stayed on the boat the whole time for the 1.5 hour round trip. The boat passes by interesting sights like Dolmabache Palace and Rumeli Fortress and goes under the Bogazici bridge and Faith Sultan Mehmet bridge.
To get a bird’s eye view of the Bosphorus River, take a walk over the Galata Bridge. Or, stop and have a tea or snack at one of the many cafes on the bridge.
The Istanbul Modern Museum has a fabulous location on the bank of the Bosphorus. The permanent collection exhibition, past and future, shows the history of modern art in turkey in chronological order. There was an interesting mix of paintings, sculpture, and mixed media. There is also a photo gallery and temporary exhibits. The gift shop has a great selection of books and jewelry (Lori resisted temptation). The cafe is a nice place to have a drink and enjoy the view (although a bit pricey). No photos allowed inside the museum :(
Haiga Sophia was built in the sixth century as a church. When the Ottomans conquered Turkey 900 years later, they turned it into a mosque and modified the interior and exterior. After serving as a mosque for 482 years, it became a museum (that was in 1935). When we visited, the building was undergoing extensive renovations, so there was scaffolding and some areas were covered up. But, it was a very interesting building to explore. There are two levels with byzantine mosaics, iron work, and giant doors with cool carvings. To get upstairs, you walk through a narrow brick passageway with low ceilings that seems to wind around and around forever – it was fun.
Istiklal Street is a pedestrian only (mostly) street that starts at Taksim square and stretches three kilometers toward the Bosphorus. The street is lined with international shops like Zara, restaurants, bars, candy shops, and the famous ice cream vendors. There is also a multi-story mall with Sephora and a giant electronics store (tax free). The areas we liked the most were the adjacent side streets with markets, restaurants, and bars; and the narrow passages with vendors selling jewelry, leather works, and more. One evening, we walked up to the second floor of Hamam for a cold Efe and some people watching. There was a guy playing guitar and singing and he was pretty good.
Shopping in Istanbul
Shopaholics can have a lot of fun in Istanbul. There are many mega malls and entertainment centers throughout the metropolitan area like Istanbul Cevahir. We were trying to avoid shopping, so we stayed away for the most part. We did check out one mall, Forum Istanbul where Lori found a cute necklace at a Spanish store, Ubaks (our next destination). We also got a good deal on a big box of Turkish Delight at the grocery store (it was kind of like a Target). It was quite a trek to get there: metro, tunnel, tram, walk to second metro, metro (it took about 1.5 hours to get there).
Abdi İpekçi Street in the Nisantasi neighborhood is like the Rodeo Drive of Istanbul with upscale shops like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci, along with cute cafes. A few blocks away, City’s Shopping Mall has more affordable options like Banana Republic and Lush. City’s also has some cool dining options. On top floor, there’s a restaurant / bar called Limonata with an outdoor patio. The entire floor below is a giant food bazaar with food shops, restaurants, a coffee bar, and wine bar.
Another must see in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar. Set aside a few hours and wander, but bring your patience because it is crowded and some vendors are pushy.
The Egyptian Bazaar is a much smaller version of the Grand Bazaar that sells food, jewelry, and souvenirs. Like the Grand Bazaar, bring your patience because it can get very, very crowded.
Michael had lots of fun buying spices at Home Made. The website only shows their restaurant, but there really is a shop on the ground floor.
Food and Drink
Michael took advantage of having a kitchen and we ate in a lot. He cooked local dishes like
kofte with yogurt and favorites from previous destinations like, khao pad gai from Thailand. But we did try a few restaurants and bars.
Try Limonata in City’s Shopping Mall for cocktails or a meal – there’s quirky decor, an outdoor patio with view, and yummy strawberry ginger martinis.
Hang out at Hamam on Istiklal Street for drinks, snacks, and people watching. There was live music the evening we stopped by.
Go to The Han for a lunch break while sightseeing in Sultanahmet. Try the flatbread filled with spinach or feta and homemade lemonade.
Stop by Istanbul Modern cafe for a drink or snack and great view of the Bosphorus (a bit overpriced).
Current Events: Anti government protest in Taksim Square
During the long journey home from the mall, we ran into some excitement. On the tram to the tunnel, the driver made a few announcements – in Turkish of course. We understood the words funicular and Kabatas, our destination, but that’s it. At one point, a lady next to Lori asked if she spoke English. Then she told us that the driver was announcing that the tunnel to Taksim was closed due to an anti-government protest (#OccupyGezi). She said that there are some people, including her, who are not happy with the government and advised us to stay away from Taksim.
We decided to work our way toward home on public transportation as far as we could get and then figure things out from there. So we got off the tram and got back on going the way we came because there was another tunnel we could take. Next, we headed to the metro (that connects through Taksim), but as we figured, it was closed. We started walking up Istiklal Street toward home (which was also toward Taksim). As we got closer, Lori kept repeating, let’s cut down a side street away from the square and grab a bus or taxi. But Michael wanted to keep going (he wanted to go to Taksim to take video). After we passed the police staging area, we saw a small crowd running toward us from the direction of the square, so we ran down a side street. After walking for about ten minutes, seeing another small group of people running, and hearing a flash bang go off in front of us, we grabbed a taxi. When we got home, we checked out the news. The demonstration started a few days ago to protest the city’s plans to demolish Gezi Park and build a shopping center. It grew in momentum, and others came out to protest things they did not like about the Turkish government. Here are some news stories: BBC and Reuters. This is an awesome blog post that gives a lot of detail about the events, Occupy Gezi.
The police left Taksim early Saturday morning. The following afternoon, people returned. The bridge from the Asian side was closed, but people walked across. The next two nights in our neighborhood, people hung Turkish flags out their window, flashed their apartment lights, and made a lot of noise (honking horns, pounding spoons on pots, etc…
Our planned departure day… On the way to the airport early in morning we saw some of the aftermath of the weekend protests. At one point, we passed by an area that still had pepper spray in the air – we started to sneeze.
Wanna see some photos?
Where we Stayed
Istanbul Travel Resources
Istanbul Travel Tips
Visa: Check the visa requirements for your country. At the time we visited, Americans were required to purchase a visa upon arrival.
Flights: There are two airports, one on the European side and one on the Asian side. Flights to the Asian side can be significantly lower (we flew Pegasus, it is like Southwest Airlines) but then you will have a one-hour drive to reach the city center and the taxi costs a lot. Also, the line at immigration was really long and moved really slow – it took one hour to get through. Knowing what we do now, we would have paid more to fly to the European side (Ataturk Airport).
Getting around: We read that taxi drivers sometimes try to cheat tourists, and after seeing how terrible the traffic is, we opted to take public transportation. The metro, tunnels, and above ground trams are safe and easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. We did take a taxi once – on the day of the anti-government protest – and had no problems.
Museum pass: Some of the Istanbul attractions are pretty pricey. If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing and museum hopping, check out the museum pass. Keep in mind that it is not accepted at every attraction and is only good for 72 hours, so you have to so some speedy sightseeing.
Scammers: Beware of potential scammers when you are in the Sultanahmet area, particularly near the Blue Mosque and Haiga Sophia.