While Sultanahmet has all the iconic buildings, like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, Beyoğlu is the home of the Turkish hipsters with all the cool bars and fashionable clothing stores lining the busy Istiklal Street. Getting there was a fun trip on the packed local tram skimming it’s way along the humming city streets through the old town and over the Galata Bridge to Kabataş, followed by a near vertical ride on the underground Tünel funicular taking us to the top of the hill and the official city centre at Taksim Square. Meandering our way down Istiklal Street we enjoyed the atmosphere of this energetic pedestrian mall where the old city meets the new modern Istanbul, stopping along the way to sip on traditional Turkish tea on tiny stools in hidden alleyways with the lively locals. As the modern mall fizzles out into the narrow steep cobblestone streets of old Beyoğlu you are again reminded of the cities history, and welcomed into cosy squares like that of Galata Tower where, if you are patient enough to wait in a very long line, you can climb to the top to enjoy a spectacular view over the city. We weren’t patient; instead we found refuge, and a much more romantic view, over the Blue Mosque in a quiet bar in Sultanahmet.
Built in 1461 the Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest markets in the world, the centre being an immense stone structure with wide internal passageways closed in by dramatic vaulted ceilings and decorated with crumbling mosaics. Tightly arranged shops sell everything from souvenirs, precious antiques, gold, fabrics, belly-dancing costumes, clothes and cookware. The palette of colours in the bazaar is incredible; store after store of beautiful glowing Turkish pendant lights, and the most intricately painted porcelain jugs, plates, cups, and other knickknacks.
A tip for any body venturing into the depths of this money draining curios wonderland: always wait for shopkeepers to show you the fragile, extremely breakable, porcelain. Treeny learnt the hard way picking up a small, very expensive, jar at the back of the shelf knocking over in domino effect everything around it. Luckily there were no casualties, and the shopkeeper handled it with friendly amusement “you break, you pay…my friend”. Thankfully Iain put his foot down, scarred by Pablo’s home in Havana, Cuba, with his overloaded house of ornaments he cried, “I don’t want my house to look like that”! After spending far too much time browsing we made the unanimous decision we just simply can’t carry around all of these precious items. We settled with an interesting miniature wine dispenser shaped like a donut, which was traditionally much bigger and was used by servants, throwing over their shoulder to make pouring the wine easier.
Hagia Sofia is not your typical museum, rather than many displays of information telling the in’s and out’s of the structure and the people who built it, patrons are given the opportunity to roam at their own pace the incredible spaces within; the tremendous Prayer room, the Side Aisles and the Upper Gallery positioned high above the main floor right underneath the dome where the woman used to pray. This fantastic museum is all about the architecture and the brilliant mosaic’s adorning the walls and ceiling. Unfortunately our visit coincided with renovations; a complex web of scaffolding occupying half of the central cupola, as workers painstakingly repair the countless mosaic tiles which were plastered over when the building was turned into a mosque. Nonetheless we were still able to comprehend the enormity of this ancient edifice to religion, and we were awed by the sheer size, and audacity of the ancient builders who were able to erect these walls without modern machinery.
There are so many mosques in this city, from expansive giants like the Blue Mosque, to small hidden stone edifices tucked between buildings; every city block has at least one. Each day men from around Istanbul come to align themselves in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holy city in Saudi Arabia, remove their shoes, and bow down in prayer. It is a wonderful sight to see, and come Friday’s the men are pouring out of the mosques onto the streets. As the most important religious day in the Islamic week the Salaat-ul-Jumma, Friday Prayer, is the day all faithful men dress in their finest attire and make the obligatory pilgrimage to their local mosque to pray and be rewarded by Allah, their God Almighty.
Visiting any mosque on a Friday is near impossible with most closing to allow privacy for prayer time. The Blue Mosque however is impossible almost everyday with a tremendously long line wrapping it’s way around the building at all hours. As the most iconic building in Istanbul, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as is most famously referred to, is the most visited attraction in the city, standing as a monument to Islam, the city, and classical Turkish architecture. After attempting to visit three times we finally returned early on our last day, a Sunday, to a much smaller line. Inside we were welcomed into the immense space of the Prayer Room, with its atmospheric pendant chandeliers, soft carpet under our bare feet, and striking mosaics adorning every surface. The mood was solemn and reflective as we gazed at the soaring dome above, and the colossal structure that engulfed us.
Once the royal residence of the many great Sultans that reigned during the Ottoman Empire, Topkapı Palace was also the administrative, educational, financial, and societal heart for over 600 years. Undergoing new extensions and embellishments with every sultan, the palace displays the evolution of Turkish art and architecture, with fine mosaics adorning the walls, elaborate furniture filling luxurious chambers, and opulent architectural details to every window, door, column and eave. The Harem was our favourite area within the palace, for was it not only less crowded it also gave us a glimpse into the life of the Ottoman elite that once traipsed these passageways. Once the private quarters of the Sultan, his family, concubines and the eunuchs who served them, the Harem is a vast array of elaborately decorated rooms feeding off many intimate courtyards. We found the stories of the concubines particularly fascinating, with the prettiest girls in the empire being selected or gifted to the Sultan to satisfy his manly needs. If they were good at this they were moved up the ranks, awarded their own living quarters, and the right to bare children to him, the end goal of becoming his “favourite” or “head wife”.
With our budget dwindling very quickly with all of this extravagant travelling, we really tried to be careful where we ate in Istanbul. One of the most exciting aspects of our travel here when we were organizing it was the food; exotic and delicious, we were ready to try some different flavours. There are plenty of cute little laneways throughout the city lined with restaurant after restaurant of mouth-watering food. Problem is they don’t really cater to budget travellers. Eating out in Istanbul is expensive. We found some really casual eateries on Hocapaşa Street where we could sample shish kepap skewers, kofte meatballs, Turkish pizza called pide, and of course Turkish doner, and while this food was good and the ambience lively, we found the choices to be a tad ordinary. This was heightened after three weeks of eating the same kind of food, everyday. As we walked past the fancier restaurants we noticed the obvious difference, with money comes more cuisine selection and variety, so we left feeling slightly disappointed in the budget options and envious of those who can afford to eat at more adventurous venues.
Turkish people are really friendly, and they have an odd humour to enlighten situations and to communicate in English. We did notice their willingness to try anything to hook you in for a sell. If it is not at a restaurant or a bazaar it is in a shop or a bus station trying to sell you a ticket. Don’t be fooled by “it’s free” or “direct service”, there is almost always a hidden connection, like the “free transfer” between Istanbul Otogar, bus station, where we had to get off and catch a tram.
Next stop we land on another planet, within the peculiar rock formations of Cappadocia…
Click here to see our colourful photos of Istanbul.