After the wedding we had to wait for seven months (until spring came in the Northern Hemisphere) to go on our honeymoon. We made our registry with a travel company, which turned out to be a great choice for us. Finally, by mid May we were en route to Turkey and Greece for three weeks.
We landed in Istanbul after a 17 hour flight exhausted but happy. We stayed at this hotel in the middle of Sultanahmet, the historic neighborhood. It turned out to be a great choice: it’s small but cute, comfortable and two blocks away from the Gülhane tram station, which takes you everywhere.
Istanbul is magical and misterious at the same time. It’s a constant dichotomy: it’s European and Asian, it’s cheerful but nostalgic. The city is overwhelming and must be lived with all your senses: the music, the fragrances, the textures, the colors, its flavours, everything is there waiting to be enjoyed. Without any of them, Istanbul wouldn’t be itself, and the experience wouldn’t be as rich.
The cultural and historic background of the city is huge. It’s amazing to think that it was able to go through so many battles and invasions, religious and cultural struggles, and capitalize all that in a unique way. May be the best example is Hagia Sophia, which used to be a catholic church as well as a mosque and despite all this time it’s still standing, showing everyone why it was so coveted.
Being there may give you goosebumps. You can listen to a silence plagued with voices, each one telling you their side of the story, and this kind of cold that tells you that Hagia Sophia is still there, admired by many but alone.
Opposite Hagia Sophia is Sultanahmet Cami, also known as the Blue Mosque thanks to more than 20.000 blue tiles that cover its interior. It’s magnificent, and one of two mosques in Turkey to have six minarets (but they’re not easy to photograph though).
The atmosphere is filled with devotion, and you might feel a little out of place taking pictures and being there as a tourist, but it’s definitely a must see.
In the same area of Sultanahmet, very close to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, is Topkapi Palace, which was the Sultans’ residence for over four centuries. The place is almost like a small city, with a room for each thing (the Imperial Treasury, which keeps all the items gifted to the sultans is amazing), everything is covered in gold and hand painted tiles.
The Harem is the area where the wives, concubines and mothers of the sultans used to live and is almost a whole different palace. These women had their own courtyard with swimming pool and were taken care by eunuchs.
Going through Topkapi can take a whole morning. A great option is to rent an audioguide so you don’t miss any details because you may not know if you are in the Imperial Kitchen or the Audience Chamber if you try to go on your own.
Another not to be missed icon of Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait, which separates the Asian and European sides of the city and runs from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. The best way to enjoy the views is to take a little cruise with a guide who will explain everything you see along the coast.
From the water your can see the Rumelihisari Fortress, which is a great example of how Constantinople and Istanbul go along and are intertwined all the time. This Ottoman construction, surrounded by current buildings, is still looking at the Bosphorus since 1452.
On the banks of the strait is Dolmabahçe Palace, the last one used by the sultans from 1856 until 1924 and later was the Presidential Residence of the republic until 1938.
It is not allowed to take pictures inside the Palace because everything is original: the hardwood floors, the 4 tons crystal chandeliers and the 1000 sq feet carpets. The luxury in the decor is unbelievable, it is a more up-to-date version of Topkapi Palace.
No matter what the point of view, Istanbul is a fascinating city. We didn’t have time to go everywhere and four days aren’t enough. But we wish we could go back to see what we missed and rediscover the places where we’ve already been.
A few tips:
- Shopping at the Grand Bazaar can be a bit overwhelming. There are more than 4.000 shops and if you don’t have enough time you may end up walking in circles while the salesmen try to drag you in yelling their offers. Bargaining is a must, bear in mind that prices are usually 40% above average. We bought most of our gifts at Arasta Bazaar, which is smaller and pleasant.
- Food is delicious. You should try: testi Kebab -a kind of stew cooked in a clay pot-, döner kebab -a huge sandwich full of goodness-, at least a sip of raki and turkish coffee paired with pistachio baklava.
- To move around the city, the tram and metro work like a charm and take you to all the sightseeing spots. Taking a cab is not advised for safety reasons and because the traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare.
- Before traveling, Nico and I read ‘My name is Red‘ and ‘The Museum of Innocence‘ by Ohran Pamuk. Both books take place in Istanbul in different eras. It was really nice to see the places described in the books and remember the stories associated to them. At the airport in our way back home we bought ‘Istanbul: Memories and the City‘, also by Pamuk, which we would have loved to read before the trip.