Istanbul, Turkey: Where West Meets East

Istanbul, Turkey: Where West Meets East

As I mentioned in the Egypt post, Turkey (and especially Istanbul) was one of the countries I was a little worried about visiting. In January 2016 a terrorist detonated a bomb in Sultanamut Square, a main tourist spot of Istanbul. Additionally, the attempted coup of the government occurred July 15th. The State Department website warned against traveling to Turkey and especially Eastern Turkey next to the border of Syria. However, Istanbul was one of the most recommended cities we heard from friends when we were planning our honeymoon. We also booked the flight to Istanbul way in advance of any of the attacks and when we tried to cancel, the airline would not let us. We took the calculated risk and decided to visit Istanbul and Turkey but decided against going out at night and just made sure to keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior.

Istanbul is the only city in the world that connects two continents, Europe and Asia. Istanbul provides a unique experience as it offers a modern European city, as well as an ancient culture with Eastern-style bazaars and Ottoman architecture. Istanbul is the only city in the world, which has been the capital city of both Muslims and Christian Empires. It was the pearl of the Byzantine Empire, known as Constantinople. Istanbul owes its historical importance to its strategic location and access to the Bosphorus Strait. Although Ankara is the capital city of Turkey, Istanbul is the biggest and most crowded city of Turkey as it is home to the most important trade centers, busiest port and the largest Turkish companies. Some of the most popular places to visit are the historical centers, such as Sultanahmet Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, and Hagia Sophia. Most importantly, the city was immortalized by the band They Might Be Giants in their 1990 hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Fun fact, the song is actually a cover of the original 1953 swing-style song, with lyrics by Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon.

Outside Dolmabahce Palace

After the flight from Cappadocia, we got to our hotel in Istanbul around 1:30 PM. We stayed in Taskim Square area which is a nice central part of Istanbul. The hotel host was really nice and showed us some popular sites to see around town. Since it was somewhat sunny out we made our way to Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus which the host recommended. Dolmabahce Palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid (who decided there should be a more European palace than Topkapi) and designed by Armenian architect Karabet Balian and his son Nikoğos Balian. The entrance fee is 40 Turkish lira (~$11 USD) so we decided against going inside and just enjoyed the beautiful exterior and the nice Dolmabahce mosque next to the palace. We walked next to the Bosphorus straight then made our way back. We grabbed dinner at a random doner place close to the hotel.

Rumelihisarı Fortress

The next day we saw on the map the hotel gave us that Rumelihisarı fortress north of Taskim was pretty cool. We also read that there a nice walk around the Bosphorus to the town of Orkatoy Camii. We took the bus to the fortress and made our way along the Bosphorus river path to the Orkatoy Camii. Along the way we saw mountains and mountains of jellyfish along the riverbank. There were huge patches of white blobs that we first mistook for trash but saw that they were just large clusters of jellyfish. I’m not sure why there are so many but it’s a little concerning because it doesn’t look that nice. We misjudged how far away Orkatoy Camii was from the fortress and it took us about 1.5 hours to get there and we were starving. We ate at the self service Balkan Halk Lokantasi for lunch and then took to bus back to our hotel. We were pretty exhausted from the walk and started watching Man in the High Castle on Amazon which was really good. We got hooked and didn’t do much for the rest of the day. We had a sushi dinner at the Point Hotel which was decent.

Stray dog in front of the Blue Mosque

The next day we decided to do a free walking tour at 10:45 AM in Sultanamut Square. Before the tour we went to the Blue Mosque located in the Square and went inside. They are pretty strict on the dress code for both men and women but women more so. Diem had to cover her hair and even though she was wearing pants (tights) they gave her a long skirt to put on. The mosque was beautiful on the inside but it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be by looking at the dome from the outside. There were definitely striking bits of blue light throughout the interior and more subtle blue from the exterior. It didn’t take too long to visit and we went out to meet the rest of the tour group. We started the tour at 11 AM and the tour guide told us that tourism is down 90% this year because of the terrorist attacks and the attempted coup. It was still pretty cold out when we started the tour and the tour guide wasn’t very good. He took a long time to explain things and the cold wind wasn’t helping with our patience. He talked about some of the history of the Turkish baths and the markets in Istanbul. He then took us out to the gate of the Topkapi Palace. Unfortunately the palace was closed today so we couldn’t go inside the front gate. He then took us around the outer wall of the Hagia Sofia to an old market and craft shop for a break.

Hagia Sophia interior, under renovations

We decided to cut the tour short and left early to go inside the Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”). It is 40 TL to enter and the Hagia Sophia is sometimes called the 8th Wonder of the World. It was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi). Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have "changed the history of architecture". It remained the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. I was expecting a lot going inside but was disappointed. It is actually really beautiful but in comparison with the Blue Mosque, and especially compared to the interior of the Sagrada Familia, it wasn’t too impressive.

Upside down medusa of the Basilica

Next we went across the street to the Basilica Cistern. We just recently watched “Inferno” in which major parts of the movie were filmed in Istanbul and the Basilica Cistern. Inferno is not Dan Brown’s best work but the book is definitely better than the movie. The Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul and is famous for the two Medusa heads in the northwest corner. This cathedral-size cistern is an underground chamber and the ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 30 feet high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 16 feet apart. The capitals of the columns are mainly Ionic and Corinthian styles, with the exception of a few Doric style with no engravings. One of the columns is engraved with raised pictures of a Hen's Eye, slanted branches, and tears. This column resembles the columns of the Triumphal Arch of Theodosius I from the 4th century (AD 379–395), erected in the 'Forum Tauri' Square. Ancient texts suggest that the tears on the column pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. After walking around for a bit we went by the Grand Bazaar to see the shops. The bazaar is huge, crowded, and the shops tend not to have the best deals but it's one of those must-see things in Istanbul. After the bazaar, we walked back toward our hotel and stopped by the rooftop bar of Anemon Hotel with a view of Galeta Tower and Old Town Istanbul. It was a nice way to end the day and we headed back to the hotel.

Left: Grand Bazaar; Right: View from Anemon Hotel

On our last full day in Istanbul we took a ferry ride from Besikas port to the Kadikoy port (Asian side). The ferry ride is about 20 minutes and you get some nice views of the Dolmabahce Palace and the Old Town Istanbul (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topaki Palace). We had lunch at Balikci Lokantasi. We ordered a grilled black salmon filet (20TL) and a grilled whole blue fish (50TL) with fish soup (5TL) and a salad (10TL). Lunch came with free water, tea, and dessert of candied yams. It was actually getting pretty late and cold out so we went back to the room and went to bed early because we had to get up early to catch our 7:30 AM flight to Morocco.

I would love to say that all is well in Turkey and that everyone should definitely go there and feel safe. Istanbul is an amazing city and we never felt unsafe during our trip but Turkey and Istanbul still remains a hotbed for politics and attacks. Turkey’s recent war of words with Netherlands and continued terrorist attacks, such as the NYE nightclub attack, means it may be worth skipping for a while. The US State department as of January 25, 2017 has a Travel Warning for Turkey. Additionally, the Turkish government extended the state of emergency through April 18, 2017. It’s up to you and your level of risk tolerance, but Turkey is a wonderfully beautiful country and should be visited at some time in your life. Hopefully things stabilize soon and tourists can return in larger numbers.

See the full gallery of our time in Istanbul here: Istanbul, Turkey.

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Paul is a lawyer taking a mid-career break focused on capturing all his adventures during his yearlong honeymoon around the world.

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